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The beauty of having a good camera in every pocket

While the rest of the team has been playing with phones that border (or safely fall into) the designation of 'expensive,' I've been erring on the side of budget, switching between four devices that are, to me, just as interesting, as much for what they lack as what they offer.

One of those phones is the ZTE Blade V8 Pro, a phone that barely got any attention when it was announced for the U.S. unlocked market back in January. I don't even think we wrote about it. But ZTE offered me a review unit, and after spending some time with it I'm glad I accepted. This $230 phone has pretty much everything you need from a handset these days: a great screen, excellent performance, awesome battery life, and software that doesn't make me want to poke my eyes out (though it ships with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, which is decidedly 😕).

Increasingly, we carry cameras that make phone calls, not the other way around.

But more than anything else on its spec sheet, it's the impressive camera that really surprises me. The phone lacks all the buzzwords you'd expect from a device three times its price — stabilization, phase-detection autofocus, laser autofocus — but it does have two 13MP sensors that act in unison to improve photo quality in daylight, impart some intelligence in low light (though less than I would like), and provide some impressive features that feel less gimmicky the more time I spend using them.

More than anything, though, its excellent camera credentials reinforce the thing I find myself repeating every year: we no longer carry smart phones that take photos but smart cameras that occasionally make calls (and connect to the internet, but don't kill my symmetry).

As impressive as it is to see the $649 Google Pixel and LG G6 increasingly offer "real camera" performance from tiny sensors, I love that I can recommend a $230 ZTE Blade V8 Pro to someone and ensure him or her a reliable experience that takes good photos in most situations. When I started reviewing phones, that's really all I wanted: to be able to trust the camera in my pocket the way I could the Auto mode on my Canon or Sony point-and-shoot, the diminutive single-purpose gadgets that I, along with millions of other people, began stuffing in drawers and forgetting about around the turn of the decade.

It's been six years since I brought a camera camera with me on vacation, and though the quality dipped for a time, I've reached the point of comfort (though maybe that's just what comes with age and acceptance of the things one can't control) with the relationship between convenience and quality.

When I started reviewing phones, all I wanted was a camera that took photos reliably. It took until now to make that happen.

Using the Blade V8 Pro (what a name) also reinforces, to me at least, that cameras are really the last true area of competition in the smartphone space. You can get a $100 phone that performs well, has decent battery life, and ships with a version of Android that doesn't make you want to saw off your fingers with a blunt object, but it's still pretty easy to tell the difference between a photo (or video) taken from an LG Stylo 2 and an LG G6. But you just said the $230 Blade V8 Pro takes awesome photos! Yes, but it's still a clear area of research, development, and cultural fascination for those who create, market and buy phones. That Blade V8 Pro, or any $200 phone, takes photos as good as the ones it outputs, is incredible; that the LG G6 takes photos as consistently beautiful as it does — perhaps not three times as good, but close — is also incredible.

That we get to benefit from the fierce competition around which company can outfit its pocket computer with the best camera — that's pretty incredible, too.

Elsewhere in the news:

  • We're getting really close to the Galaxy S8, and it's looking increasingly like this will be the phone to buy in 2017. I am legitimately excited for it.
  • This OnePlus collaboration with colette is interesting, but it can't be the only thing, right?
  • This time last year we got the first Android N developer preview. I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar in the next few weeks.
  • At least we're already getting rumors about what's going to be new and different. Honestly, though: I'm pretty happy with Nougat.
  • This feels like such a 2016 object in 2017. Amazing how quickly we adapt to the new realities.
  • I went over my data limit for the first time in three years this month (10GB per month, because Canada doesn't do unlimited plans yet) largely because my home Wi-Fi is crapping out. I really, really need something like this. Or just Google Wifi. Come on, Google.
  • I am so sad this game isn't available for Android yet. But at least you can play it in your browser, which is pretty cool.

Have a great week!

-Daniel

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

129 Comments
  • The phones contain great cameras, but people still record videos in portrait mode. =/
  • I liked when the Google camera app gave a little reminder to rotate your phone if you were holding it in portrait mode when you switched to video mode.
  • I think there needs to be a change, I know when filming its easier to hold the phone portrait and not interfere or press buttons on accident versus landscape, and not to mention a lot of sites now do portrait in fullscreen mode so it looks fine when you watch it on your phone lol idk its a crossroads , very rarely do I consume video on my cellphone in landscape, if I need landscape I go to a TV or laptop so if im gonna have black bars why not make it full screen portrait....people aren't recording this way on purpose to agitate or be difficult.....
  • Sad but true.
  • The major issue I have with smartphone cameras is the wide angle nature of the lens. I don't go anywhere I am planning to take a photograph rather than a snapshot without a camera. At present, my preference is the Panasonic DMC TZ60 (ZS40 in the USA). It fits in a pocket (though it does need a big pocket) but it has a 30x OPTICAL zoom, GPS tagging, RAW and many more features.
    Yes, my Huawei Mate 9 takes great photos, and has a 2x zoom without losing definition, but it cannot match the flexibility of having a real zoom lens.
  • Sadly, the smartphone camera has killed the cheap compact camera market, despite most phones lacking optical zoom. So the camera in your pocket is often used to shoot or video things that are distant and small, which is usually pointless. It's also affecting sales of serious cameras, as jumping from a phone to that is too much for many. This isn't helped by camera UIs still being far too complex and intimidating, unlike most phone UIs that are fairly intuitive.
  • True about smartphones killing off dedicated cameras sales.
    I was a film shooter for quite a few years and did become tired of the prep and effort.
    At first the smartphone camera proved to be a wonder even if unfamiliar for an old-timer like me. I recently jumped back into cameras with a used mirrorless model it's been fun relearning how to compose and adjust again. For me a smartphone camera needs to be easy and quick with acceptable quality.
    As always the old adage applies:
    It's the camera you have with you that will ultimately give the best results.
  • Mate 9 is the best phablet now, it's off topic but i'm amazed with this phone... While camera is great, and it's true that smartphone camera killing the dedicated cam market, nothing can be compared to a true DSLR, had S7E saw Pixel XL iPhone photos, nothing can touch mine D5500, sadly i don't have it on me all the time like the phone...
  • While we're at it let's also talk about music. My Fiio X7 is also much better than my phone as well. It plays music much better than your mate 9 as well. Your camera also sucks at playing music. Maybe you should carry that around as well. The sony mdr z7 is also an excellent set of headphones. You should also squeeze those in your pockets too.
  • If listening to music in high fidelity whilst out and about, and hence those things, were important to me, then I probably would carry them as well. I certainly see enough of the students in my city walking around wearing enormous headphones to think that your suggestion is followed. But this article is about cameras, so that was all I mentioned.
    What I'd say about the Mate 9 is that it does have an excellent battery life that allows me to take many photos during the day. Unlike my previous top-end smartphone, which died from the taking of more than a few pictures and never had enough charge left to transfer them to Dropbox when I got home without plugging it in.
  • I want a phone with awesome camera. I really don't like big DSLR cameras. Having a phone that also produces excellent images is something I really love. Day-light photos are great of all the devices of 2017. The biggest battle lies in low-light. The achilles heel of smartphones. This is the main reason Pixel has a lead over other phones in terms of camera. It's also the reason this phone is so praised by reviewers. All phones offer decent user experience but very few produce acceptable low-light performance. IMO, LG G6 dropped the ball by opting for smaller sensor and smaller pixels instead of going Pixel's route. It's a shame, really. I guess it now comes to S8 to remedy the situation.
  • I agree 100% with you. Low light performance is always what makes or breaks a phone for me. I have either sold or sent back so many phones because the performance is poor in those conditions. Looking forward to testing it out with the Pixel.
  • That was the reason i replace Note 5 with S7E, S7E low light performance with manual mode are soo much better than Note 5.
  • True, the low light performance is why I got an S7 while already having a Note 5, it does better than the point and shoot camera I have from Samsung. Than I got my hands on a Nikon D3200 and there isn't even a comparison, S7 photos look horrible to me now.
  • And then we still have people asking why some shots are blurry when shot at night..... Though it's amazing how far we've come with smartphone cameras.
  • love the V20 manual mode and those widescreen lenses front& back I get very nice shots and this manual video mode is completely out of this world, too.
  • Of course Canada doesn't offer unlimited data. The big 3 are making huge bank from their current data plans, and they pretty much have everyone locked in with no need to compete, aside from the odd deal here and there.
  • Wondered why AC ignored the ZTE V8 Blade Pro.
    Wanted to buy it vs. the honor 6X because I thought it's hardware was much better.
    Ended up not getting either however.
  • Love my Google Wifi! 
  • I've​ had a G5 since launch and a Honor 8 since January. Both cameras are really good and one came at better than half the price. Granted the Honor 8 was picked up on a holiday sale.
  • I would love a Budget Phone Camera comparison piece. Maybe when the Moto G5+ arrives.
    I also think that I don't need to spend alot on a phone for what I need. Cheap phones mean I can play with a new machine every 6 months.
  • I wish we could see phones with flagship level camera at lower price points. The camera is the only thing that kept me away from the OnePlus 3t
  • I don't trust china phones.
  • As for the camera on all phones, the low light capability without noise, is the last frontier. The detail you get is fine, zooming in and out is getting good, even for mid phones. DSLR quality your not getting now, but future phones may catch up to at least to what was good quality 2 years ago. It may take budget, to midrange phones a time to catch up to what flagship s do today, but it will happen.
  • My how times have changed... For business or pleasure, we're more often than not to just whip out our phones and snap a quick picture and think how simple things are now compared to when we had to root around for the camera, the film and then get it all developed... I work for a hotel, occasionally we have to take pictures of damage to a room, a vehicle or the property. I can remember having a disposable camera on hand in a drawer and having to get it developed (even if you only used a few frames out of however many were on the camera). Then we transitioned to a digital camera, which no one ever seemed to remember to plug in to charge or where the sync cord was... Now whomever happens to be on duty when the damage occurs simply whips out their phone, takes a few pics and then emails them to the central hotel email and in no time we have our pics! My how times have changed.
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  • I love the ZTE V8 been using it on my free line, this Snap 625 performs very well! I will have second doubts about paying for devices now given what this offers at this price point. I have no experience with 'bokeh" I notice the dual cam setup offers a range of "FX.X-X.X" If someone has a reference material that illustrates what that stuff means
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  • Fair Question - what would be a better buy if you are SPECIFICALLY looking for good camera performance? An Older Flagship, or a New Midrange? Because in the process of buying a pre-loved Xperia Z5 Premium, I saw a Moto Z Play Grey Import which was around the same price as the Z5P ($280 equivalent in my country) I was really close to getting the Z Play because its camera was good and comparable-to-better-in-cases against the Z5P, but I ultimately chose the Z5P because it ran EXCELLENTLY on Smart's LTE, the Z Play didn't. I'm sure I'm not the only one with this dilemma...
  • IMO its better to get a new midrange phones rather than older flagship phones. Getting older flagships feels like you're getting an "outdated" phone. And technology always improves time by time. So a new midranger is a better buy in my opinion.
  • All the time you people write an article all you focus on is the camera. Damn, I don't care about the camera at all. Please, talk about another feature. A phone can suck at audio, like the S7, and you'll crown it king. It can lack external storage you'll call it an excellent value for the "enthusiast". How is 64GB enough for someone who calls himself an enthusiast? I'm sick of hearing about camera and pretty looks alone.
  • That's a fair opinion, but it seems you're in the minority. Most people (AC has surveyed it's readers about this) rate camera performance as being very important when deciding on a smartphone. Naturally, review sites will give coverage to the camera in step with the desires of their majority readership... especially as (you may disagree with me here) hardware differentiation in other areas is diminishing.
  • Give me the option on a pixel, S8, G6 etc. without a camera at a dcent discount and I would snatch your hand off. They could replace all that wasted space a camera takes up with extra battery.
  • Fair point! A shame for all those who want a flagship but don't need the camera that they're still stuck paying for it! Still surprised how little stock they put in maxing out battery capacity.
  • Cell phone cameras have gotten much better, and most of them are more than enough for social media, but actual cameras are improving rapidly as well. Personally if I travel I bring a camera, I even bring one with me when I walk the trails near the river in town, I like photographing wild life, good luck photographing squirrels and birds with your cellphone. My sister has a GS7, just bought a new Nikon DSLR for taking photos of her son because the phone struggles to take a bright enough image without motion blur indoors.