“Isn’t this what Nokia did with the 1020?’
A colleague of mine murmured as he watched the launch of the Redmi Note 7 Pro last week. On the large display at the venue was a picture of the Taj Mahal. He was right. Nokia had also used a picture of the Taj Mahal when it was launching the Lumia 1020 in 2013. The biggest attraction of that phone had been a 41-megapixel sensor, something that has been unheard of at that time, even in cameras.
“It won’t work,” my colleague continued. “People do not get swayed that much by megapixels anymore. Apple and Google have shown that you do not need megapixels for a great camera.”
Of course, he did have a point. Great megapixels do not alone a great phone camera make, as the megapixel deluge of 2012-14 showed before most of the phone camera world fell back on options that ranged between 12-16 megapixels, focusing more on features like aperture, pixel size and so on.
What he, however, missed was that Nokia’s pitch with the Lumia 1020 (and the PureView 808), and indeed that of other devices that have fought the megapixel wars in phones, was to the premium segment of the audience. “With megapixels, you wanna play? Well, you gotta pay” was the maxim in those days, and honestly, it is largely the same even today. The phones that command the big megapixel counts inevitably come with a stiff-stiff-ish price tag – the Vivo V15 Pro with a 48 megapixel rear shooter (which it chose to underplay, focusing instead on a pop up 32-megapixel selfie snapper) is perhaps the most affordable of the big pixel count phone cameras, and it comes for Rs 28,990. The others such as the Huawei P20 Pro, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the Honor View 20, all come at prices that are well north of Rs 30,000, and in the case of the Mate 20 Pro, in excess of Rs 60,000. Even the recently launched five camera-toting Nokia 9 Pureview is expected to come with a premium price tag.
And this is not some “only millionaires will get megapixels” conspiracy. The economics of using devices with big cameras and huge megapixel counts make it difficult to cut prices. “You have to budget not only for a move expensive camera sensor, but also for a more powerful processor that can handle all those heavy images and their editing, plenty of memory for processing heavy image editing, lots of storage space to enable you to store higher resolution images and videos, and yeah, even a bigger battery because using a camera does gobble up a lot of battery life… it’s a lot of money, really…” I remember a friend in Motorola telling me when I asked him why Moto did not get into the megapixel wars like other brands did.
With megapixels you wanna play? Well, you gotta pay. See?
Well, not in the case of the Redmi Note 7 Pro. For by some economic miracle (or so it seems), Xiaomi has managed to churn out a device with a 48-megapixel sensor from Sony at a price of Rs 13,999. That is about a third of what the likes of the Lumia 1020 and Pureview 808 cost more than half a decade ago, and almost a fifth of the price of a Huawei Mate 20 Pro. And the brand has managed to do so without seeming to have cut too many hardware corners – the phone comes with a Snapdragon 675 processor (the same which is seen in the 48-megapixel toting Vivo v15 Pro), and has 4 GB/ 64 GB and 6 GB/ 128 GB variants, as well as a big 4000 mAh battery. And it even manages to look good in the bargain.
Of course, murmurings have already begun as to how in spite of the massive megapixel count, the Redmi Note 7 Pro is unlike to stand tall against some of the better camera phones out there, never mind what was shown on stage at the launch (where it was compared with the likes of the iPhone and OnePlus). In fact, some are even saying that in spite of having a Sony sensor that is supposed to be superior to the Samsung one, the Note 7 Pro trails the Vivo V15 Pro in terms of camera results. “This cannot match the Pixel 3 or the Galaxy S10,” was a snort I heard rather often following the launch.
The point is: it does not have to.
“Sure, it might not work as well as something that costs twice or thrice as much, but hey, it is priced so low that it punches well above what people expect. There is going to be greater tolerance for what is perceived to be less than great performance at lower price points than there is at premium ones. Complaints about a camera on a sub-Rs 15,000 phone tend to be far less shrill and attract lesser attention than on one that costs Rs 30,000. And even if the camera is not as good as the hype, many will buy it for the processor and battery!” an executive from one of Xiaomi’s rivals (one which is also readying a 48-megapixel camera phone of its own) told us.
And that is the real ace that Xiaomi has up its sleeve: not the megapixels, but the price at which it is providing them. For if in the past, the big megapixels were aimed mainly at millionaires, with the Redmi Note 7 Pro, they have been aimed squarely at the masses. With the Lumia 1020, Nokia was looking at a phone that could actually get into the point and shoot category and deliver fantastic photographs – photographs that were good enough to make someone spend as much as they would on a DSLR. Xiaomi, for all the hype at the launch and talk of “biggest sensor on a smartphone,” is simply bringing a spec that many associated with super expensive devices into a very affordable zone. It can afford to misfire occasionally, simply because its users will not be as demanding. It is, in short, not aimed at a DSLR or high-end point and shoot cameras but simply at anyone who wants to take pictures. Unlike Nokia and its successors in the mega-megapixel zone, it is dealing with lower expectations. Expectations that mean that even if some are not too pleased with the camera, the rest of the phone has enough to compensate (a luxury that neither the Pureview 808 or Lumia 1020 had).
Nokia and the others have tried to sell a great camera which is also a phone. Xiaomi is selling a phone that has a good camera.
Incidentally, how Xiaomi and Nokia handled that picture of the Taj Mahal in their respective launches, tells the story of how each company positioned megapixels:
The Nokia presenter zoomed in to show details of a particular part of the architecture.
The Redmi spokesperson zoomed in to some people taking pictures standing near the monument.