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Johnny Wilson
  • Johnny Wilson

The 79p Smartphone camera experience

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Whilst walking to work one morning in June, 2017, maybe because I'm a little bit odd, I was thinking to myself: "I wonder what the absolute cheapest smartphone is that you can buy?" A quick browse on Carphone Warehouse's website and a short journey to the nearest branch on my lunch break that same day and I became the proud owner of the Alcatel OneTouch Pixi 3(3.5) for the humble price of 79 PENCE. That's 79 pennies. Here are a few things that cost more than 79p:

  • a tin of Heinz Spaghetti & Sausages from ASDA (£1)

  • a Mars Bar from a Motorway Service Station (£1.10)

  • a freshly brewed coffee to take out from Starbucks (£1.85, apparently)

  • the value of a nominal rental consideration in order to enshrine a lease contract in law (£1 per annum)

  • literally anything from a newsagent in Birmingham (>79p)...

The point I'm making is, you can buy a Smartphone; a device to make phone calls, send and receive texts and emails and browse the internet for less than it costs you to buy a drink from the local corner shop...

I bought my Pixi3 on the 16th June 2017, and I know that because I posted an halfway bemused post about it on my Instagram... If you were curious, to snag this deal I bought the phone on 'pay as you go' locked to Vodafone (disclaimer: Vodafone are NOT my recommended network of choice, not even a little bit), subject to a minimum credit top up of £10 at the time of purchase so the actual value of the transaction was £10.79, but discounting that £10 credit and the value of the phone was still only 79p. By then it was already 2 years old; released in February 2015, which is ancient in smartphone years! It's safe to say the Pixi3 is not going to win any awards (except maybe for cheapest smartphone). It's screen measures a humbling 3.5 inches in diameter, on par with the 2010 version of the iPhone; the iPhone 4, with a 320 x 480 pixel resolution so it's not the most crisp, pin sharp display you will ever look at. It's running a 1ghz CPU with 512mb of RAM so any labour intensive tasks are going to cause the phone to lag and freeze. But the part we are most interested in is the camera: the Pixi3 is rocking a 2 megapixel rear mounted camera that shoots 1680 x 1120 sized photos at the highest resolution and records 480p resolution video (640 x 480) at 15 frames per second on the highest setting. Apparently some versions of this phone have a front mounted camera? Mine doesn't? And a rear mounted flash? Mine didn't have that either. There are 3 picture sizes you can choose from, small will record photos at 600 x 400 size, medium at 1200 x 800 and large at the full 1680 x 1120 size. I shot everything at large setting. So let's look at some photos!

I'm going to be straight up honest with you right now, the quality of these photos SUCKS. My first camera was a Fuji Finepix A120, which ok, has an extra 1 megapixel on this camera but the difference in image quality is worlds apart. This phone might shoot photos at 2 mpx resolution but that quality makes them virtually unviewable on anything other than the Pixi3's low res screen. Just for a laugh let's have a look at some more:

Wow. I guess, they aren't terrible? They're better quality, just, than the Micropix... actually, I don't know. Are they? I think my old feature phone, the w200i actually takes a better picture! So what's going on here? Well the tiny camera in the Pixi3 isn't equipped with any optical image stabilization, so photos taken on the move will turn out blurry:

And for some reason the white balance is all over the place. There is a function to adjust the exposure, which admittedly I didn't fully test out, but I'll be honest, I can't see it making much difference. Just for fun there are also 8 different "groovy" filters to choose from, ranging from mildly artistic to downright useless:

Fantastic. There is also a 'Night Mode' setting that I think just increases the shutter speed slightly? I don't actually know what the individual shutter speed settings are though. It's mostly useless and I only really got results in well lit up areas:

And then there's the panorama function which I actually found really useful. It only took me a few attempts to figure out how to use it correctly, and I genuinely actually like some of the panoramic shots I've got! I literally never use the panoramic function on my phone, so maybe I ought to... It's worth mentioning that when selecting the panorama function the resolution of the photos is dramatically decreased to a height of between 320 to 240, your results may vary depending on the width of your panorama I think, here's a few of mine, click to open the enlarged image in a new tab:

So maybe I was being overcritical earlier? Mounting a camera on the back of the Pixi3 is more of a token gesture than an attempt to compete with more expensive Smartphones. In modern times, it's almost expected that a phone will also come with a camera. When HMD Global remade the Nokia 3310 they stuck a camera on the back even though the original didn't have one, so I guess to not include one would have been a death sentence for the Pixi3, but it's obvious from these examples that it was never intended to be used for anything other than creating pics to keep on the phone or maybe send to friends in an emergency. There are some "fun" filters if that tickles your pickle and an actually genuinely, reasonably, impressive panorama function (well I was impressed?). But if you're hoping to win Smartphone Photographer of the Year award, you are going to need to upgrade your gear.

Unfortunately things don't get much better with the video camera function. Most of the clips I recorded suffered from extreme camera shake. The phone's tiny size and light weight do it no favours when you're trying to shoot a video, and don't even entertain the idea of trying to shoot at night. It just doesn't work. At it's highest setting the phone shoots 640 x 480 video at 14 fps, but you can adjust the video resolution down with 3 different settings: normal, which is 176 x 144, fine which is 480 x 320 and then superfine which is 640 x 480. I shot all the clips in the below example at superfine setting:

So the Pixi3 is not going to replace your Galaxy S, or your iPhone, and it was never designed to. But for an extremely basic, entry level smartphone, it's certainly capable. And is so small and light that it's totally unobtrusive, and actually quite cheerful to use as long as you're a patient person. It's tiny size means it's easy to operate one handed. But it sticks and lags if you go too fast for it and because it's only running Android 4.4.2 you will find a lot of popular apps will no longer be supported on it. It ground to a halt when I tried to play Sonic Dash (but Magikarp Jump played ok!) and as demonstrated the camera is useless outside of the phone. The screen is also very basic and in bright sunlight, even at maximum brightness I had a hard time figuring out if I had composed my photo right. That being said, for it's paltry price of 79p, anyone's expectations should be low and it was almost certainly the cheapest smartphone that a person could buy both back then and maybe even now. At time of writing you can still buy them SIM free from Amazon or eBay but at a more sensible price of circa £30, but I uh... wouldn't... to be fair.

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