Photography lesson

This $280 phone is a lesson in affordability – hope Apple and Samsung pay attention

You will probably never use a Tecno phone. Until this week, I had never heard of the Chinese brand or its line of Camon handsets. Now it is unlikely that I will forget them.

The company recently held a swanky New York launch for its new Tecno Camon Series 19 Pro Android 12 phones, though the products won’t be on sale in the US (or the UK, for that matter). Honestly, I wondered what they were doing there and more importantly why I was there.

Tecno insisted on describing the handsets as “designed for fashionistas”. I couldn’t tell you what that means, but I admit to being intrigued by the design, specs, and most importantly, the price.

Key specs include:

  • 6.8-inch FHD+ near edge-to-edge display at 120Hz
  • 32MP front-facing camera
  • 64 MP and 50 MP rear cameras
  • 2X optical zoom
  • Optical image stabilization
  • 5000mAh battery
  • fingerprint reader
  • Face Unlock
  • Some nifty AI-infused photo tricks
  • a 3.5 mm headphone jack (!)
  • A power supply, cable and headphones (!!)

It’s also a surprisingly attractive phone. There’s a diamond-covered back that rejects fingerprints that looks and feels great. The dual-circle camera array (which houses three cameras – there’s a 2MP bokeh assist lens), is large but sleek, its premium look aided by its crystal glass coating. The chassis is only slightly thicker than an iPhone 13 Pro Max, but the phone feels considerably lighter.

The Camon 19 Pro comes with all that (and more) for $280. It’s a phone you could pay for in the space of five or six months (if you’re paying around $50 a month). The Camon Series 19 Pro 5G starts at just $320. That is, on both phones, with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.

To put that into perspective, the cheapest iPhone you can buy is the $429 Apple iPhone SE, which only has 64GB of storage.

Tecno Camon 19 Pro

(Image credit: Future/Lance Ulanoff)

There is a catch

There are, of course, huge caveats, the biggest being global availability. These Tecno phones are available in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, but not, as I mentioned earlier, in the United States or Europe. Prices may also vary and the $280 and $320 offered by Tecno are still just an “estimate” for my market.

There are many limitations often associated with budget phones, such as the lack of an under-screen fingerprint reader. Instead, the power/wake button doubles as an efficient fingerprint reader. The screen is still LCD and not OLED. There is no IP rating reported (maybe keep it away from deep puddles). It does not offer wireless charging.

Then there’s the mobile processor, a MediaTek Helio G96, which is likely equivalent to a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G. Its benchmark numbers aren’t even in the same neighborhood as, say, an Apple A15 Bionic or a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1.

So when I walked out of the event unexpectedly with a review unit in hand and decided to spend a day or two with it, I tried to set my expectations.

For the most part, however, this budget device has passed them.

Tecno Camon 19 Pro

(Image credit: Future/Lance Ulanoff)

Not bad at all

As I mentioned, this is an attractive big-screen phone with a vibrant display that naturally looks great inside. Outside it is another matter. It struggled in bright light, but I could still see well enough to use its camera and rather rich settings to take a variety of photos. Everything from standard telephoto to 2x telephoto, and slow-motion portraiture, looked pretty good. Even low-light and night shots were decent (nothing would be considered remarkable). There’s no wide-angle lens, let alone ultra-wide, but the included lenses capture crisp, colorful and sharp images.

Tecno Camon 19 Pro

(Image credit: Future/Lance Ulanoff)

The rear camera’s portrait mode is good (the front camera had more artifacts), although you can’t adjust the bokeh level before or after the shot (how many people do on their iPhone 13 or Samsung Galaxy, anyway?). There’s an editing tool that lets you add and adjust a bokeh effect on any image, but it’s not directly related to portrait mode photography, which is kind of silly.

The AI-powered camera and its efforts to identify objects in a scene was entertaining. At one point, I pointed the phone at my hand, and it came up with “Animal.”

There are so many image manipulation options that you may never find or use them all. The set for body manipulation is, at best, problematic. He offers to refine the waist, head, shoulders, slim and elongated legs, “plump buttocks”, as well as other cosmetic changes. Maybe that’s what Techno meant by a phone for “fashionistas”.

It was, to be fair, hard to find these features and the phone certainly doesn’t push them. It’s still weird that they’re there.

Punch above his weight

For a phone under $300, the Tecno Camon 19 Pro is quite capable. It played grueling games like Asphalt 9: Legends without missing a beat. I think it may have dropped a frame or two, and the audio could be richer, but it was still an enjoyable experience.

It’s an efficient productivity platform for browsing and managing files, and I love the alphabetized list of apps (Apple, Samsung, please).

This 5,000 mAh battery is, by the way, an all-day champion.

Basically, this is an above average phone at a ridiculously good price.

Will it ever come to the US and UK? I don’t know and Tecno offered no guidance. I’m not sure that matters. What the Tecno Camon 19 Pro demonstrates to me is that all phone makers can do better when it comes to affordability. We pay up to $999 for powerful, big-screen phones that probably do way more than we’ll ever need (at least for most of us).

The Camon 19 Pro sets a fine example for budget possibilities. I think it’s time for Apple, Samsung and others to respond in kind.