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How good is the camera on a smartphone under $500? Eight phones tested

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford a $1,000 phone, let alone one double that price. So the question is – how good is the camera on a cheap smartphone?

It’s the most commonly used “feature” of a phone, and it’s also one of the key bragging points for any phone too – the lenses, the angles, the modes – the camera can do this and that.

So, without anything fancy in mind, I grabbed the eight cheapest smartphones in the EFTM office and set out to see if any of them batted a long way above their average, or if it’s a case of you get what you pay for.

Here’s what I’ve got.

  • TCL Plex – Brand new, available for $499
  • Realme XT – Very new, Available for $499
  • Mintt Y3 – 2019 Release, Available for $399
  • Realme C2 – Very new, Available for $299
  • Alcatel 3 – 2019 Release, Available for $237
  • Mintt S2 – 2019 release, Available for $235
  • Mintt A3 – 2019 release, Available for $199
  • Alcatel 1X – 2019 Release, Available for $188

Bear with me, this is going to require a bit of scrolling. There’s a lot to get through and a lot of photo samples. I’m going to try and link to the original images so you can look at them in full size also.

Let me be clear, these are not matched on specs, or size or anything – this is all about price. $500 is the limit on this set of phones.

I’ve taken most of the shots on an iPhone 11 Pro max also, so for the purposes of ranking, I’m going to call the iPhone a 10/10 in every photo – so that the rankings of each phone for each photo are measurable.

In the Park

Here’s how I see these results.

The Alcetel 1X has struggled with a longer focus on this shot. When I do these tests I try not to touch the screen, and let the camera do its thing on “Auto”. Why it chose to focus on the immediate foreground I don’t know. (3/10)

Alcatel’s 3 did a far better job, though again there’s not an infinite focus it appears the left side is best in focus. (4/10)

Mintt’s A3 struggles greatly with colour – the whole thing is washed out, like wearing rose coloured glasses – but dull. (2/10)

The Mint S2 has a brighter palette, but is very grainy, and moving items in the shot are ghosted. It’s also a wider aspect ratio. (3/10)

At the top end of the Mintt range, the Y3 is miles better, richer colours, great focus and a good result. (5/10)

Realme C2 has vibrant colours, strong focus (6/10), while the Realme XT is in fact somewhat over-saturated – almost as if I ran it through snapseed. (6/10)

TCL’s PLEX is a strong representation of the actual scene, great colours, strong focus and nothing oversaturated. (7/10)

For reference, here’s the shot on the iPhone 11 Pro Max

Bright Sun through the trees

This is a more challenging shot for any camera. A shaded area, with brightly lit parkland in the background, lots of shades of green in the trees, woodchips on the ground and most specifically – bright sun shining through the treetops.

I think the Alcatel 1X handled this really really well for the price. While there could be more detail on the ground under the trees, the sun hasn’t washed out the trees entirely. It’s really a great result – perhaps the parkland in the right of picture being blown and overexposed is my only criticism. (4/10)

Its sibling the Alcatel 3 did better again, with more colour, more detail and light on the ground and even a touch of lens flare. (5/10)

The A3 from Mintt is again washed out and dull. Nothing utterly wrong with the shot, just a really poor reflection of the actual colours at the location. (3/10)

Mintt’s S2 did very well. The Park is not overexposed, there’s a whole lot more light on the ground, and the lens flare I like too. Some may prefer not to see that. (4/10)

I’d argue the S2 did a better job than the Mintt Y3 – while it’s a better overall shot, the park is slightly washed out, it’s a lot darker overall – better consistency perhaps, but I think many would judge the S2 a better photo. (5/10)

Realme’s C2 excels, nice grass in the park, good colour in the leaves, detail on the ground while it’s still a touch dark. (7/10)

The XT from Realme takes that and smashes it. Great mix of colours, light and exposure. Perhaps though over saturated a touch – a note I made in the last photos too. (7/10)

TCL PLEX is again the standout performer, there’s even detail in the grass in the park, there’s a good mix of brightness up and down, and a bit of detail in the building next to the sun. (10/10)

In fact, I’d go one step further and say the TCL PLEX shot is on-par with the iPhone 11 Pro Max:

Dark Foreground, Bright Sky

This one will challenge a cheap camera sensor. With almost 50% of the shot in full light and the other half-shadow, it’s a test of how well a camera can compensate for both conditions.

Alcatel’s 1X does the best it can. But it’s night and day, whereas in the other cameras you can and will see the grass in the foreground. (2/10), while the Alcatel 3 starts to show some of that foreground and does a better job of the building too. (4/10)

Mintt’s all struggled – the S2 again has a solid over exposure which in this case helps to show what’s what – however you don’t want that because you lose the shadow effect. (4/10). The A3 was poor (2/10) and the Y3 disappointing for the price (3/10).

Unfortunately the realme C2 shot didn’t happen (8 phones, I missed this one), however the realme XT and TCL PLEX were neck and neck on this one with a great result that truely reflected the scene (7/10)

iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn’t stand out from those two until you get into the detail of the building and the colours of the sky.

Focus and Portrait with Trees

This is a bit different. Looking through one tree at another – what could I do with the phone’s features. Portrait mode or focal point adjustment.

I quite like the shot on the Alcatel 1X – it’s really nice, though nothing special in terms of effect and overexposed in the background. (4/10)

The Alcatel 3 on the other hand – wow. Really cool to be able to pick the focus on the tree and shoot through it – loved this one! (7/10)

Again the Mintt A3 struggled with light and didn’t offer anything for effect (2/10), the S2 was way way too bright and again no effect (2/10) and while the Y3 tried to offer an effect, and did so – it wasn’t quite perfect if you look at the distant tree – still a nice shot though. (5/10)

Realme’s C2 excelled here, a really nice focus, just overexposed in the back (8/10) while the XT from realme didn’t allow a focal choice – still produced a great shot (8/10)

TCL do it again here, with a nice focus in the background and artificial blur of the tree in the foreground, a really great shot (10/10) – which, I must say, is a better job than the iPhone was able to do – which is why it had to get the top mark – iPhone struggled to allow the use of portrait mode in this way.

The dreaded selfie.

Ok, sorry, You’ve gotta look at a bunch of photos of me now.

Solid 4/10 for the Alcatel 1X, could do with a better wash of colour, but a good shot in simplicity.

Alcatel’s 3 tried a bit hard to be portrait and struggled with the edges, still deserves a 4/10 though because the detail and colour is spot on.

I can’t begin to explain the Mintt A3. Either this lens is off, or the shutter is so slow I thought it had finished and it wasn’t. Either way, this is a 1/10 result. I’d be sending that back to be replaced if that was your outcome.

UPDATE: I’ve tested this phone a few more times. The shutter timing is not always aligned with the sound of the shutter or the chime that comes after it, so you need to strike a pose, hold it and hope. Not great.

Decent, yet consistent result from the Mintt S2 – way too much exposure washing the colours a bit – and a very grainy sky. (3/10)

Sadly the Mintt Y3 is unable to properly bokeh the background and that’s not winning any favours I’m sorry to say (3/10)

Realme C2 is simple, done, but mirrored (5/10), the realme XT does a good job on colour, a half job on Bokeh but it’s a decent shot overall (5/10)

TCL’s PLEX has some artifacts around the Bokeh limits, but aren’t instantly noticeable – a good result for a 6/10 selfie, perhaps a bit too much exposure also.

A standard iPhone Selfie shows the true colours, crisp detail and is a simple benchmark I think:

Night Mode?

A more recent addition to the challenge list. How does a camera perform in the lowest of light?

In this instance, I went for the corner of the office, in complete darkness then added a small nightlight style glow in the opposite corner of the room.

If the iPhone is a 10/10 then here’s how they rank:

Alcatel 1X, Alcatel 3, Mintt S2, Mintt Y3 and Realme C2 all 1/10 – the Mintt A3 is a 0/10 – nothing to be seen.

Realme XT does best with a 4/10 offering, TCL just behind on 3/10 because it’s heavily distorted when viewed in full.

Apple really have nailed this feature. Remarkable

The interface

I had to take some screenshots of the interfaces used in each camera, because frankly, it lets some of the phones down.

Alcatel has an interface almost direct from stock Android. I mean, why over complicate things.

TCL has more options, and an easy switch between lenses given the complexity of the camera, while RealMe is more aimed at an iPhone convert, easy to use.

Mintt is out of this world complex. There is not tap to zoom despite their multi-camera setups, and just finding how to get into aperture edit mode was difficult. If I was Mintt, I’d be switching to vanilla stock Android.

HOW THEY RANK

Ok, I’ve tallied up the scores. Here’s how these eight phones rank – purely on their camera performance.

  1. TCL PLEX – $499
  2. Realme XT – $499
  3. Realme C2 – $299
  4. Alcatel 3 – $237
  5. Mintt Y3 – $399
  6. Alcatel 1 – $188
  7. Mintt S2 – $235
  8. Mintt A3 – $199

There’s a definite gap between those $499 phones and the rest. Frankly, if photography is important or common for you on your smartphone – those are without doubt your bottom line. Spending less will only leave you disappointed.

The TCL plex really outperformed this market segment and shows why this first smartphone from TCL is so important, and such great value.

Below that the Realme C2 is a standout at $299 – really great stuff for the dollar.

And finally, the Alcatel 1 – batting way above its average here – and showing why “specs” aren’t everything. While Mintt has the features, it appears the hardware is being let down by the sensors or the software because the value just isn’t there.

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How good is the camera on a smartphone under $500? Eight phones tested
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