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.

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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:

Have a great week!


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