Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions

THE days for compact cameras are clearly numbered, with many smartphone models incorporating  the same type of imaging sensors found in point-and-shoot cameras, producing similar levels of image quality.
 
More importantly the photos and selfies we capture on our smartphones can be easily manipulated with a ton of fun effects, shared with our friends almost immediately, stored and backed up in the cloud.

Camera look, smartphone feel

Chinese technology giant Lenovo is taking that a step further, not just in terms of delivering a smartphone that has the trappings of a compact camera – such as a physical shutter button and a hardware switch between auto and manual options – but also in terms of design.
 
Case in point, below is a picture of a Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T90 compact camera, circa 2010:

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
And here’s what the back of the Lenovo Vibe Shot looks like, in 2015:
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
The inspiration is obvious and it’s clear Lenovo’s designers had a throwback moment when planning the Vibe Shot. For camera lovers, the retro vibe may be just thing to win them over; but for others, the horizontal orientation may seem awkward.

From a build quality perspective, the Vibe Shot is a solid piece of kit, with an aluminium frame and glass on both sides.  The glass back is placed flushed against the frame but you would still feel  the hard edges of the frame ever so slightly, making it less comfortable in the palm.

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
The other point about glass is that it may be slippery at times, and will pick up fingerprints quite easily, so our recommendation is to invest in a phone cover.

Yes, that would break the illusion of the compact camera look, but with almost the entire device covered in glass, the risk of damage if dropped is pretty high.

That being said, our review unit did hit the hard, gravelly surface of a road once, but thankfully the tiny dents on the metal corner could hardly be noticed, and the glass, by some sheer luck (or maybe thanks to Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3), there were no cracks on either side.

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
On the left side, Lenovo has placed the dual SIM card tray and micro SD tray at opposite ends, without any indications on which tray is for what, merely a pinhole to eject the trays out from the side.  The top tray (which is slightly longer) houses the SIM cards.
 Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
The left side (or top side when you’re holding it horizontally with both hands like a compact camera) is where you’ll find the volume rocker (which can also function as a digital zoom lever), the power button, the camera toggle (between auto mode and pro mode) and the shutter button.  The camera lens is positioned near the corner (pic above) but it's a little too close to the edge, resulting in our fingers getting into the shot at times.  We wished Lenovo had moved the lens down a little further.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
A 3.5 mm audio jack is placed that the top, while you’ll find a pair of speaker grills flanking the micro USB port below, but the sound only comes through the right grill.  In another retro-inspired flourish, there is also a hook found at the bottom left corner, for you to hang your favourite collection of phone straps and charms.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
In terms of size, this 5-inch smartphone is ideal for one-handed usage, unlike the growing number of 5.5-inch and larger devices that seem to be gaining popularity.  It’s nice to know that manufacturers are still addressing the market for smaller, rather than larger screen phones – although a 5-inch device can hardly be called small – but this is what the market has come to.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Confusing camera software
 
Since the Vibe Shot is squarely targeted as a replacement for compact cameras, this part of the review will focus on its imaging chops.

An important requirement of a smartphone camera is to be able to turn it on quickly so you don’t miss those quick, random moments which can happen anytime.

Lenovo has used the shutter button to good effect here, allowing you to activate the camera by pressing and holding the button for about 2 seconds while the phone is on standby.  Even better, press the shutter button twice in quick succession and the camera snaps a picture as it switches on from the standby screen, saving you at least a second of waiting time.

For landscape orientation photos, the  physical shutter button is useful, but for portrait orientation shots, we would stick to using touch or the quick self-timer to activate the shutter while you hold the phone steady.  You can also use the smile activated or gesture (peace sign) activated shutter modes, but those may not work all the time.
 
The rear camera is fitted with a Samsung-made 16 megapixel widescreen (16:9) back-side illuminated (BSI) sensor, which lets you take photos in full resolution for this screen ratio.  This would be useful for group shots and landscape photos, but not so much for individual portraits.
 
The lens however, is slightly disappointing with an f/2.2 aperture, which isn’t the largest in order to capture light, resulting in higher chances of blurred pictures especially in low light conditions.
 
This is where Lenovo has balanced this out with optical image stabilisation (OIS), which helps to reduce blurriness due to our shaky hands.  Not many mid-range phones offer OIS, so this is definitely a plus.

 
It also comes with a infrared sensor (just below the flash), so we didn’t have any trouble at all with autofocus.  It also handled macro shots (tight close-ups) quite well.
 
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
 
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
 
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
 
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Colour reproduction under natural lighting is rich and accurate and the camera delivers well on contrast, exposure and white balance.  In low-light, it gets a little grainier and you’ll need to hold steady when taking a photo but the results are more than acceptable.
 
The triple tone flash is strong but under control, so it doesn’t blow out the subject like in most flash photos, and flesh tones are natural. But Lenovo may have been a bit too conservative as the pictures do end up a little underexposed. Compare the flash photos from the Vibe Shot to the iPhone 6 (pics below).
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
As such, the Vibe Shot’s camera hardware and imaging algorithms are excellent.  However the camera interface has much room for improvement.
 
The Vibe Shot comes with a physical switch to change the camera mode from ‘auto mode’ to ‘pro mode’, but from a user experience standpoint, both options aren’t well defined.  Tap the ‘settings’ (gear) icon, and you would see similar options available in both modes.
 
The only difference with ‘pro mode’ is a separate slider interface (pic below) not found in ‘auto mode’, where you’ll get to choose the same manual settings differently. Examples where this lack of coherent software design is evident include the ISO (sensor sensitivity) and the white balance settings.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitionsLenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Lenovo should just have limited the auto mode to just a few familiar ‘scenes’ to make it really simple to use.  Right now, the settings menu presents too many options which would befuddle the casual photographer.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitionsLenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
What’s equally puzzling is that other camera modes are found within the ‘pro mode’ (pic above, left), including ‘panorama’, ‘artistic HDR’, ‘art nightscape’ and ‘golden years’.  We can’t figure out what ‘golden years’ means, but it probably has something to do with very long exposures, so you can create ‘light art’ images.
 
One mode we sorely missed, which was available in Lenovo’s previous Vibe smartphones, is the ability to capture multiple or burst shots, by simply pressing and holding on to the shutter button.
 
Thankfully you don’t have to use Lenovo’s camera software, since there are a ton of other third-party apps you can rely on to provide a more sensible interface for the camera.
 
But stick to ‘auto mode’ without bothering about the rest of the software, and the Vibe Shot remains very reliable.
 
As for selfies, the Vibe Shot’s 8 megapixel front camera offers a simple ‘beautification’ slider which lets you select the level of selfie enhancement you prefer.  What’s nice is the inclusion of a pink or yellow screen light to brighten up the selfie as the photo is being taken, though it’s far weaker than a real front-facing LED flash.
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitionsLenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
When it comes to video recording, it's barebones, allowing you to basically select the resolution (up to Full HD), and that's it.  You'll need to download more advanced apps if you wish to add filters and effects to your videos. Compared to rivals like HTC and Sony which provide not just video recording but video editing functions as well, the Vibe Shot is a little underwhelming in this area.
 
High-end display, mid-range processor
 
Lenovo is known for packing decent performance in its smartphones for not a whole lot of money, and the Vibe Shot continues the trend.

Unlike many of its other models which employ MediaTek’s recent chipsets, the Vibe Shot utilises the Snapdragon 615 processor, a 64-bit octa-core mid-range entry from Qualcomm. 

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
This isn’t our favourite chipset judging by its average performance and the fact that it can run quite hot. But at least Lenovo did the right thing by pairing it with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage, giving it a boost at least in the multi-tasking department.
 
As such, the animations on the Vibe UI, Lenovo’s skinned version of Android 5.1 (Lollipop), are smooth, and ran all our apps without any lag or stutters.  There were a number of updates in the time we had with the device, which shows Lenovo is improving its software over time. The only issue you may have to contend with is loading times, as it can take a while with certain games such as Ridge Racer Slipstream.  
Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
Still, your games (and everything else) will look great on the display, and we can’t stress how nice this screen is in terms of colour saturation and contrast. It really comes close to the colour pop found on an AMOLED display.
The 5-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution) IPS LCD delivers 441 pixels per inch (PPI) and great viewing angles, but the maximum brightness is one of the best we’ve seen on any smartphone. You can also adjust the colour temperature within the settings if you so wish.
 
The only quirky behaviour we experienced was the auto brightness setting, which seems to go out of whack every now and then and unnecessarily dimming the screen too much and forcing us to disable that function.

Audio quality is fairly decent but not standout, and we would recommend either using a good pair of headphones or a Bluetooth speaker if you want better, louder sounds.

In terms of battery life, we were surprised Lenovo managed to pack in a 3000mAh battery into the relatively thin body, but we’re glad it did, because our screen usage time is obviously a lot higher than the usual consumer, the Vibe Shot still managed to last beyond a day.

What’s missing?
 
A number of features found on mid-range smartphones today is missing from the Vibe Shot, such as NFC (near-field communication) for contactless connectivity, a biometric sensor (fingerprint reader) and fast charging. 

Lenovo Vibe Shot Review: Compact camera ambitions
The absence of such functions makes the device less future-proof, but they aren’t crucial requirements for now and can be skipped.  However do expect to see, in the next 6 months, these features becoming standard in upcoming devices.
 
What is not missing is a relatively affordable price tag from Lenovo.  Costing S$460 / RM1399 locally, the Vibe Shot may be at least two notches above that crucial US$199 mass market price point for mid-range smartphones, but it’s still cheaper than mid-range products from Oppo, HTC or Sony.
 
As such, we can easily recommend the Vibe Shot if you can disregard the camera software, or even the garish colours of Vibe UI, and focus on the image quality of the pictures, the nice looking display and the overall build quality of Lenovo’s camera-centric smartphone.
 
 
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