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I went to a Blue concert to test out a top secret smartphone camera

OK, let me begin by clarifying that it’s probably not very “top secret” anymore. If you’re thorough enough with your Googling, or diligent enough with following the news, you’d probably already know what smartphone took the photos I’m about to share with you. That being said, although you may know, and I may know that you may know, the fact remains that I’ve signed an NDA so it’s out of my control

But, what I can offer you is what I hope is a more thorough look at some of these photos, as well as my personal experience and what I think of this smartphone camera’s capabilities. Also, I know I’m probably a little late to the party, but let me make up for that with a little more depth.

Ready? Let’s get started then.

But first, a little backstory

It was sometime during the crazy week of MWC19 when I received a message from a smartphone company’s rep, asking if I would be interested in testing out a prototype smartphone at an upcoming Blue concert in Malaysia (yes, the boyband). The catch was that I would be bound to a strict NDA which limits what I can and cannot say. Naturally, I agreed because that particular smartphone company has done a lot with the development of smartphone photography, and I was very interested to see what they had in store.

So, there I was, the day after I landed in Kuala Lumpur, heading to a Blue concert to test out a prototype smartphone. When I arrived, I was informed that we only had one smartphone and that we’re strongly encouraged to focus our tests on the smartphone’s zoom capabilities. This was a little perplexing to me because concerts tend to be very dark — especially indoor ones — so I initially expected it to be a low-light test.

Smartphones have generally not done very well in extreme low-light, and that problem is only exacerbated when you start zooming in. It’s already hard enough to keep it steady when it’s dark, so the fact that you also had to fight the micro shakes that happen at a long zoom made it seem like an unfair test.

In fact, after the concert, I reviewed the images we took and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a particularly fair test for the smartphone. I even reached out to said smartphone company to ask if I could do another test in daylight so that I could more fairly demonstrate the handset’s zooming capabilities. My suggestion was turned down.

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With that out of the way, let’s get into the sample images. Although I wasn’t asked to, I’ve scrubbed the EXIF data from these images to maintain the device’s anonymity — after all, it doesn’t affect image quality.

Now, let’s look at the photos

Since I was asked to test the zoom, let’s start with that. The prototype handset I tested had a very wide zoom range. And, although I can’t tell you the specific stops in this post, I can say that the handset has probably the largest focal length range of any smartphone I’ve had the chance to test. It’s very similar to the prototype Oppo 10X Lossless zoom device I tested during MWC19, so it starts at an ultra-wide angle and zooms to a max range that feels even longer than the Oppo’s 20X.

That said, by default, the camera app starts at a pretty regular wide-angled focal length, so you will have to zoom out to get to the ultra-wide.

Wide (default)
Ultra-wide

But, these are fairly standard these days as many handsets come with ultra-wide lenses. What we’re here to see is the zoom so let’s punch in to the first stop.

Zoom, first stop

As you can probably tell, this zoom is already way further than your regular telephoto zoom on something like an iPhone XS or a Samsung Galaxy S10+. Yet, I’d say that the image quality is very comparable — one might even say it’s lossless. However, it’s hard to judge with an image this dark, so let’s look at one that’s slightly brighter.

Zoom, first stop

Honestly, it’s not bad at all. My big issue with this photo is with the aggressive noise reduction, but that’s not really a testament to the quality of the zoom. What is impressive is how even though I’m given so much reach, the photo still looks solid. In fact, to illustrate my point, here’s a side-by-side comparison between this top secret smartphone and the Samsung Galaxy S10+. To match the frame, I had to zoom the S10+ all the way to 10X which is its max zoom.

Exposure aside (stage lighting is so inconsistent), the difference in image quality is astounding. The top secret smartphone is far crisper, clearer and more detailed than the S10+, and the S10+ is currently tied for the highest-rated smartphone camera on DxOMark. It’s also a lot easier to hold the top secret smartphone steady at this focal length, than the Galaxy S10+, because of whatever image stabilisation the handset probably has. Maybe it’s some AI stabilisation, who knows?

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However, as impressive as this is, the top secret smartphone has one more trick up its sleeve: Its max zoom range. Remember how the closest I could get to the person on stage with the Samsung Galaxy S10+ was? Well, this is how close you can get with the top secret smartphone:

Top secret phone, max zoom
Top secret phone, max zoom

You could practically take a portrait from halfway across the hall.

Now, is the image quality super impressive at max zoom in a dark concert hall with stage lighting? No, not really. It’s not what I’d call a “usable” image because I would never post something like this on Instagram in a million years. Facebook, maybe, but that’s mostly for memes anyway. The loss in quality here is very apparent, and the noise reduction and sharpening is also very obvious.

This is partly why I asked to be able to test this top secret smartphone in daylight because I think it would give it a much better shot — or at least be a fair zoom test. Now, I can’t really comment on image quality because there are too many other variables in play too, so the best I can say is that it’s not completely rubbish.

However, let’s not ignore the fact that I was able to get this close to Lee Ryan and Simon Webbe — who were on stage so far away from me that I was barely able to tell one apart from the other with my naked eye — with just a smartphone.

From this
To this

That’s pretty darn impressive for a handset. I don’t believe any other smartphone out right now can do that.

Of course, this experience wasn’t perfect. While it was easy to hold the smartphone steady at the first zoom stop, keeping the handset steady at max zoom was incredibly difficult. Keeping the handset steady while trying to track a moving subject on stage with a whole bunch of other things going on in the back and foreground? Virtually impossible. But, I was genuinely surprised that the phone was able to recognise faces and help me focus in on them even at that crazy zoom. I was also able to engage the smartphone maker’s famous low-light mode zoomed in, though at max zoom, it was really hard to hold still for the five or so seconds it takes to capture an image.

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So, what have we learned here?

Well, smartphone zooming is about to get a whole lot more interesting, and a whole lot more capable. I’m personally not very impressed with the device’s max zoom — party because I don’t think this is a fair test — but I was definitely very surprised by the quality of image I was able to produce at the first stop.

It gave me the equivalent reach as a Samsung Galaxy S10+ at max 10X zoom, but without the significant loss in quality. Considering the fact that most handsets max out their zooms at 10X, I can say with confidence that this will outperform a large majority of the phones you can buy in the market right now. And, I also found that you could zoom in a little bit more from the first stop and still have a pretty usable image:

However, this is just about everything I can share with you regarding this “top secret smartphone”. If you want to know what phone took this photo, you’ll have to do your own digging (and I’m not encouraging this, just stating a fact) but I think you should be able to guess that by now.

Regardless, I was definitely surprised at how good this smartphone’s zoom was even in low light. Almost as surprised as I was at the number of Blue songs I knew the lyrics to.

And yes, the rap section in All Rise does sound really cringe-y in 2019. All objections to that statement will be overruled.