Kodak Lives! Ektra Is Surprisingly a Good Camera Phone for the Price

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The Ektra doesn't have the latest version of Android, its 5-inch screen is pretty small by modern standards, and it certainly isn't what I'd call compact. So what is it good for? If that big rounded grip and massive 21-megapixel rear camera are any indication, the Ekta looks to provide a endearing smartphone photography experience that harks back to the days of film. And it had better deliver on the photo front, because while the phone is made by Bullit, the same company responsible for the super-rugged Cat S60, the Ektra is covered in branding from Kodak — from the logo stamped onto the phone’s body to the shutter button in its Camera app.

That puts the Ektra in the tough position of needing to live up one of the most legendary names in photography, while also delivering the kind of smartphone features that people expect in 2017. It turns out to be too much to ask from this $400 device.

What’s Good About the Kodak Ektra

In an age where devices often try to do too much, it's nice to see a phone with a clear focus. Sure, the Ektra's deca-core MediaTek CPU and 3GB of RAM give it ample performance to browse the web or crush some candy, but that big 21-MP camera module in back makes it obvious what this phone is designed to do.

That's a philosophy that carriers over to the UI, where the only preinstalled apps (aside from AVG AntiVirus) are photo-related. There's the Super 8 app, which evokes nostalgia for Kodak's famous handheld camera by adding filters and film grain to your videos; the Prints app, so you can order physical copies of your favorite pics and have them sent straight to your door; and of course, the Kodak camera app, which features myriad shooting modes in addition to the requisite manual mode.

In an age where devices often try to do too much, it's nice to see a phone with a clear focus.

On the phone's right side side, the Ektra's dedicated shutter button is a nice nod to experienced photographers. It even has true two-step action, which lets you press halfway to focus, and push down all the way to snap a pic. I wouldn't mind a little more feedback from the button itself, though, as feeling where that first step kicks in can be a bit difficult.

The Ektra even includes little details, like a counter that tells you how many shots you have left based on your storage while disabling the phone's capacitive touch button when you're using the camera app. The latter feature might seem inconvenient at first, but it's actually a thoughtful change that might prevent you from accidentally closing the camera app and missing a perfect shot.

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I'm also a big fan of having Google's Snapseed app preinstalled on the phone. Snapseed is already the best photo-editing app around; by having it installed on the Ektra, Bullit was able to add a shortcut to Snapseed inside the camera app, so you can seamlessly go from shooting to editing with just a couple taps.

How Good Are the Photos

Up front, the Ekta sports a totally serviceable 13-MP selfie cam, but the rear 21-MP camera is the real star of the show. The rear sensor is built into a big camera module with optical image stabilization, an f/2 26.5mm equivalent lens and phase-detect autofocus.

Going by size alone, I was also expecting the Ektra to feature an optical zoom of some sort, as the Ektra (6.23 x 3.1 x 0.47 inches and 6.5 ounces) is actually bigger than the old Asus ZenFone Zoom (5.81 x 2.88 x 0.38 and 5.8 ounces) and its 3x optical zoom. But Bullitt representatives told me there simply wasn't room and that the 21-MP of resolution should give users enough leeway to crop in when needed.

To see how the Ektra's cameras compare with some of the top smartphones on the market, I took it out for an extended shooting session versus the Galaxy S8, currently our top pick for best camera phone. Both phones were set to auto (or Smart Auto in the Ektra's case), and every other option was left on default.

First up is a bright light comparison shot of some flowers at a nearby farmer's market. Neither phone nailed white balance, as the Ekta's pic came out a little too blue, while the S8's pic came out a little too yellow. But there's no denying that the S8's photo is richer, sharper and more pleasing to look at.

Nearby, under the shade of a tent, things were a lot closer. Both the Ektra's and the S8's pics are wonderfully vibrant, particularly when it comes to the deep pinkish red on the berries in front. However, the S8 still has a tiny advantage in sharpness, especially if you zoom in and look at the texture on the green cartons in the midground.

In another round of indoor shooting at a restaurant, the Ektra once again fell short of the S8. The Ektra's white balance is slightly off, resulting in a strange pinkish tone for the fried onions on top in addition to an overly yellow tint across the whole photo. The S8's picture is also much sharper, which makes it easier to see more details throughout the entire picture.

Finally, in low light, the Ektra definitely struggled, as its photo came out darker, blurrier and with less vibrant colors than the S8's pic. On top of that, I was hoping that with the Ektra's extra resolution, I would be able to crop in to get a tighter and more detailed shot. Unfortunately, because the Ektra's focus was softer than the S8, details start to fall away as you zoom in, even when compared with the S8's 12-MP resolution photo.

Up front, the Ektra's selfie cam puts up good fight when compared with the S8's shooter. In fact, because of the S8's aggressive beauty mode that can't really be fully disabled, I prefer the Ektra's selfie as it retains more hair and facial details.

While this might all sound like a landslide victory for the Galaxy S8, it's important to mention that a lot of these deficiencies can be corrected by using some of the Ektra's many shooting modes (landscape, portrait, macro, night, etc.), switching over to manual or capturing full RAW photos using the JPEG + RAW setting. Photo enthusiasts are likely to jump at fiddling with those settings, but it’s a bit much to ask of casual photographers.

Out of all of the Ektra's included shooting modes, panorama mode is one of my favorites. With a quick sweep of the phone and a little retouching, you can end up with a grand shot like the one above.

To really get the best out of the Ektra’s camera, you're going to have to work for it. Phones like the Galaxy S8, Google Pixel and iPhone 7 Plus are definitely better shooters. But the Ektra isn't that far off, and if you want dive into the photo process of adjusting your shutter and ISO, checking the white balance and then editing your picture in post, you can get some pretty stunning shots.

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While you can do all those things on those other phones, it feels more fitting on the Ektra with its nostalgic design that recalls a time when photography was a bit more complicated, but also a bit more rewarding.

What’s Bad About the Kodak Ektra

The most divisive thing about the Kodak Ektra is its design, which you’ll either love or hate. Some people might be enchanted by a retro design that evokes the DSLRs of old, while others are going to see a bulky handset with massive bezels around a relatively tiny screen and a exaggerated grip that makes the phone feel pretty awkward in your pocket.

When you're holding the phone in portrait mode doing typical smartphone tasks, there's no denying that the design feels cumbersome.

When you pull the Ekta out to snap a photo or two, its design makes sense. The exaggerated grip positions your hands so that your index finger naturally falls on shutter button, making one-handed use a cinch. But all those other times when you're holding the phone in portrait mode doing typical smartphone tasks like a checking emails or browsing the web, there's no denying that the design feels cumbersome.

Inside, the Ekta's UI feels a bit ungainly, too, as it comes running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is now 20 months old. Thankfully, the Ektra's implementation of Android is essentially stock, so you won’t find a lot of unnecessary additions or bloat getting in your way. However, you will miss out on important recent Android features, such as multiwindow mode, the Google Assistant and many of Android 7.0 power-saving enhancements.

Not having the latest version of Android comes back to bite the Ekta a second time, because with a time of 8 hours and 6 minutes on the Tom's Guide Battery Test, the Ektra's longevity is pretty disappointing. The current smartphone battery-life average is more than 1.5 hours longer at 9:40. The OnePlus 5, which costs just $80 more than Ektra and offers a solid camera of its own, fares even better at 13:06.

MORE: 5 Ways to Improve Your Android Phone's Battery Life

When taking pictures, I noticed a bit of lag between when I hit the shutter button and when the Ektra actually snapped a picture. The lag’s not terrible, but it's definitely not the nearly instantaneous shooting experience you get on more expensive phones. When combined with a somewhat lethargic autofocus system (which is exaggerated in low light conditions), shooting photos with the Ektra just doesn't feel as snappy as it should.

Bottom Line

As a phone, the Ektra is pretty mediocre. Even though it has respectable performance, the Ektra falls short on battery, its display feels pretty small in 2017 and it's far from the sleekest or most portable phone on the market. As a camera, the Ektra can't top flagship handsets from Apple, Google or Samsung, either, most notably as it pertains AF speed and shutter lag. It just doesn't have the same level of tech backing it up.

What the Ektra really offers is an experience — a callback to simpler times when you could spend an extra moment composing a shot and making sure it came out just right. You're either going to be in from the start, or you're going to run away screaming for something more convenient and potentially better looking. Then again, during a couple weeks of testing, I've never gotten more compliments on a phone than I did while using the Ektra. That big camera module lets you and everyone else know what this thing is for, and how you intend to use it. The Ektra certainly isn't a phone for everyone, but it's got something else that not a lot of other handsets can claim — charm.


Carrier: Unlocked
Phone Display Size: 5
Display Resolution: 1920 x 1080
Form Factor: Candybar Touch Screen
OS Family: Android
Operating System: Android 6.0
Networks: GSM
CPU: MediaTek MT6797 Helio X20 Deca-core
Processor Family: MediaTek MT6797
Memory Expansion Type: microSD Card
Display (main): 5-inch full HD
Bluetooth Type: Bluetooth 4.1
Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Front Camera Resolution: 13MP
Camera Resolution: 21 MP
Ports: USB Type-C, USB 3.0
Size: 5.81 x 2.88 x 0.38
Weight: 5.8 ounces

Credit: Shaun Lucas, Sam Rutherford/Tom's Guide

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).