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#7 The cheapest Android phone with relevant pro video specs? — 10. July 2017

#7 The cheapest Android phone with relevant pro video specs?

The Nextbit Robin

I’ve been spending quite some time in the last months doing research on what device could qualify as the cheapest budget Android phone that still has certain relevant pro specs for doing mobile video. While it might be up to discussion what specs are the most important (depending on who you ask), I have defined the following for my purposes: 1) decent camera that can record at least in FHD/1080p resolution, 2) proper Camera2 API support to run pro camera apps with manual controls like Filmic Pro (check out my last post about what Camera2 API is), 3) powerful enough chipset that allows the use of video layers in pro video editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector, 4) support for external microphones (preferably featuring a headphone jack as long as there are no good all-wireless solutions available).

The greatest obstacle in this turned out to be No. 2 on the list, proper Camera2 API support. Apart from Google’s (abandoned?) Nexus line which also includes a budget option with the Nexus 5X (currently retailing for around 250€), phone makers (so far) have only equipped their flagship phones with adequate Camera2 API support (meaning the hardware support level is either ‘Full’ or ‘Level 3’) while mid-range and entry-level devices are left behind.

Recently, I happened to come across a rather exotic Android phone, the Nextbit Robin. The Nextbit Robin is a crowdfunded phone that came out last year. Its most notable special feature was the included 100GB of cloud storage on top of the 32GB internal storage. While the crowdfunding campaign itself was successful and the phone was actually released, regular sales apparently have been somewhat underwhelming as the phone’s price has dropped significantly. Originally selling for a mid-range price of 399$, it can now be snagged for around 150€ online (Amazon US even has it for 129$). As far as I know, it is now the cheapest Android device that checks all the aforementioned boxes regarding pro video features, INCLUDING full Camera2 API support! Sure, it has some shortcomings like mediocre battery life (the battery is also non-replaceable – but that’s unfortunately all too common these days) and the lack of a microSD storage option (would have been more useful than the cloud thing). It also gets warm relatively quick and it’s not the most rugged phone out there. But it does have a lot going for it otherwise: The camera appears to be reasonably good (of course not in the same league as the ones from Samsung’s or LG’s latest flagships), it even records video in UHD/4K – though it’s no low light champion. The Robin’s chipset is the Snapdragon 808 which has aged a bit but in combination with 3GB of RAM, it’s still a quite capable representative of Qualcomm’s 800-series and powerful enough to handle FHD video layers in editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector which is essential if you want to do any kind of a/b-roll editing on your video project. It also features a 3.5mm headphone jack which makes it easy to use external microphones when recording video with apps that support external mics. The most surprising thing however is that Nextbit implemented full Camera2 API support in its version of Android which means it can run Filmic Pro (quite well, too, from what I can tell so far!) and other advanced video recording apps like Lumio Cam and Cinema 4K with full manual controls like focus, shutter speed & ISO. One more thing: The Robin’s Android version is pretty much as up-to-date as it gets: While it has Android 6 Marshmallow out of the box, you can upgrade to 7.1.1 Nougat (the latest version is 7.1.2).

So should you buy it? If you don’t mind shelling out big bucks for one of the latest Android flagship phones and you really want the best camera and fastest chipset currently available, then maybe no. But if you are looking for an incredible deal that gives you a phone with a solid camera and a whole bunch of pro video specs at a super-low price, then look no further – you won’t find that kind of package for less at the moment.

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#6 What the hell is Camera2 API and why should I know about it? — 17. June 2017

#6 What the hell is Camera2 API and why should I know about it?

 

Manual controls for exposure and focus in Filmic Pro V6 (current Android beta version).

This blog post is trying to shed some light into one of Android’s fragmentation corners – one that’s mainly relevant for people interested in more advanced photography and videography apps to take manual control over their image composition.

First off, I have to say that I’m not a coder / software expert at all so this comes from a layman’s point of view and I will – for obvious reasons – not dig too deep into the more technical aspects underneath the surface.

Now, what is an API? API stands for „application programming interface“. An operating system uses APIs to give (third party) developers tools and access to certain parts of the system to use them for their application. In reverse, this means that the maker of the operating system can also restrict access to certain parts of the system. To quote from Wikipedia: „In general terms, it is a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components. A good API makes it easier to develop a computer program by providing all the building blocks, which are then put together by the programmer.“ Now you know it.

Up to version 4.4 (KitKat) of Android, the standard API to access the camera functionality embedded in the OS was very limited. With version 5 (Lollipop), Google introduced the so-called Camera2 API to give camera app developers better access to more advanced controls of the camera, like manual exposure (ISO, shutter speed), focus, RAW capture etc. While the phone makers themselves are not necessarily fully dependent on Google’s new API, because they can customize their own version of the Android OS, third party app developers are to a large extend – they can only work with the tools they are given.

So does every Android device running Lollipop have the new Camera 2 API? Yes and no. While Camera2 API is the new standard Camera API since Android Lollipop, there are different levels of implementation of this API which vary between different phone makers and devices. There are four different levels of Camera2 implementation: Legacy, Limited, Full and Level 3. ‚Legacy‘ means that only the features from the old Camera1 API are available, ‚Limited‘ means that some features of the new API are available, ‚Full‘ means that all basic new features of Camera2 are available and ‚Level 3‘ adds some bonus features like RAW capture on top of that.

From the official Android documentation for developers.

Depending on the level of implementation, you can use those features in advanced image capturing apps – or not. An app like Filmic Pro can only be installed if the Camera2 support level is at least ‚Full‘ – otherwise you can only install the less feature-packed Filmic Plus. Lumio Cam on the other hand can be installed on most devices but you can only activate the pro mode with manual exposure and focus if the support level is at least ‚Full‘ again. So if you’re interested in using advanced third party apps for capturing photos or recording video with manual exposure controls etc. you want to have a device that at least has ‚Full‘ Camera2 API support.

But what devices have ‚Full‘ Camera2 support? Currently there are two main categories: Google hardware (phones) and (many/most) flagship phones that were released after Android Lollipop came out. Actually, it seems that the latter really only got going with Android 6 Marshmallow (I guess phone makers needed some time to figure out what this was all about ;)) It doesn’t come as a surprise that Google gives their own devices full support (Nexus & Pixel lines). That means even an almost ancient, pre-Lollipop device like the original Nexus 5 has received full support in the meantime (via OS update). Of course all Nexus phones after that (Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P) are included and it goes without saying Google’s Pixel phones as well.

Now let’s head over to other smartphone manufacturers (so-called OEMs, Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Samsung, LG, HTC, Huawei, Sony, Lenovo/Motorola, OnePlus etc. Many of them offer at least the crucial ‚Full‘ support level on their flagships that came out with Android 6 Marshmallow installed, some already on the ones that came out with Android 5 Lollipop: Samsung with it’s S-series (S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus via update, S7, S7 Edge etc.), LG with its G-series (starting with the G4) and V-series (starting with the V10), HTC (starting with the HTC 10), Lenovo/Motorola (starting with the Moto Z), OnePlus (starting with the OnePlus 3/3T), and Sony (starting with the Xperia Z5 via update as far as I know). Sony however is a special case: Their Xperia series has been blacklisted by the developers of FilmicPro/Plus because of major issues that occurred with their devices – you can’t install their apps on a Sony phone at the moment. On the other hand, there are also a few major smartphone OEMs that yet have to offer full Camera2 support for their flagships, the most prominent black sheep being Huawei with its P & Mate series, even the brand new Huawei P10 with all its camera prowess has only limited support. The same goes – unsurprisingly – for Huawei’s budget brand Honor. Other OEMs that don’t offer full Camera2 support in their flagships include Asus (Zenfone 3) and Blackberry (KeyOne). Let’s hope that they will soon add this support and let’s also hope that proper support trickles down to the mid-range and maybe even entry-level phones of the Android universe.

Are you curious what Camera2 support level your phone has? You can use two different apps (both free) on the Google Play Store to test the level of Camera2 implementation on your device. Camera2 probe & Camera2 Probe.

You can also find a (naturally incomplete) list of Android devices and their level of Camera2 API support here, created and maintained by the developer of the app „Camera2 probe“:

https://github.com/TobiasWeis/android-camera2probe/wiki

If you have a device that is not listed, you can help expanding the list by sending your device’s results (no personal data though) to the developer (there’s a special button at the bottom of the app).

For more in-depth information about Camera2 API, check out these sources:

https://spectrastudy.com/camera2-api-on-mwc-2015-devices/

https://developer.android.com/reference/android/hardware/camera2/package-summary.html

If you have questions or comments, feel free to get in touch!