Pick up the Kodak Ektra smartphone, and you'll know right away that this is a phone designed for snapping photos. The back of Kodak's handset is dominated by a giant lens, with its textured design meant to evoke memories of Kodak cameras of yesteryear. Kodak positions the device as a phone for people who take a lot of pictures and it mostly delivers on this promise.
So taking a lot of pictures is exactly what I did when I was handed an Ektra last week in Las Vegas. Kodak invited several journalists for a ride on the High Roller, giving us Ektra phones to document our trip around the 550-foot tall ferris wheel. The setting and timing of the trip was very deliberate on Kodak's part. Not only would the ride up the High Roller gives us sweeping vistas to shoot, but scheduling the trip for sundown would test the Ektra's 21-megapixel fast-focusing camera in a challenging low-light setting.
My initial impression? I thought the Ektra handled the vanishing light well, particularly when shooting landscapes, and several of its shooting modes like panorama will give mobile photographers plenty to play with. However, the device could have done a better job low-light portraits, and its front-facing 13-MP shooter suffers from the lack of a flash. But Kodak has made a promising handset that should compare favorably to our favorite camera phones once we have the chance to do more extensive testing.
Pricing and Availability
The Ektra arrived in Europe last year, but now Kodak is bringing it to the U.S., starting in April. It will cost $549, making it less expensive than flagships like Samsung's Galaxy S7, Google's Pixel and Apple's iPhone 7. But that's still a premium price compared to phones like the $439 OnePlus 3T and $399 Honor 8, which both offer fairly impressive cameras for a more budget-friendly price.
Using the Camera
Besides its 21-MP sensor, the rear camera on the Kodak Ektra features a f/2.0 aperture. That's not as wide as what you'll find on the Galaxy S7 (f/1.7) or iPhone 7 (f/1.8) but it is in line with the Pixel's lens. Other features for the Ektra's rear phone include optical image stabilization, phase detection auto focus and dual LED flashes.
You can take photos with the Ektra by tapping an on-screen shutter button, but the phone also includes a dedicated physical button for snapping images. The button's on the side of the phone so that when you tilt it horizontally to take landscape photos, it will be right where you'd find such a button on a point-and-shoot camera. I imagine photo enthusiasts will adore the physical button, though I found myself pressing the button by mistake when I wanted to power down the phone, resulting in a lot of shots of the inside of my pocket. That's likely something I'd stopping doing once I had more time with the Ektra, though.
For shots I wanted to take, the Ektra did a solid job handling the challenging conditions of the High Roller. Not only were we shooting in rapidly diminishing sunlight, but also the inside of the High Roller pods was bathed in unforgiving lighting. Plus, any shots of the Vegas Strip unfolding before us were taken through thick glass, increasing the chance of glare. That the photos look as good as they do suggests that the Ektra can handle some pretty unfavorable settings for photos with ease.
(One other disclosure about the photos featured here: Kodak reps collected our Ektras at the end of our ride and posted a selection of images on a photo-sharing site. So the photos below were not necessarily ones that I took though they were shot at the same time and under the same conditions that I used to test out the Ektra.)
The Ektra does a solid job capturing colors, as seen in this shot taken when there was still some daylight left in the sky. The camera picked up the pink and purple streaks in the scattered clouds above Las Vegas, and even the parts of the shot that are out of focus — the headlights of moving cars on the busy Vegas streets — give off a nice streak of light effect.
The sharp colors continue in this photo, which picks up the Flamingo's pink glow, and the purplish-blue look of The Linq. Lights from other hotels in the background also pop, though the buildings themselves aren't particularly sharp. Caesar's Palace in the rear left struck me as noticeably fuzzy.
By the time the sun had set, the Ektra was still tackling neon lights and colors with gusto, but I was disappointed with the way it handled faces in low light. This photo of one of my companions on the High Roller trip has her face looking a little grainy, even with the buildings behind her standing out, thanks to the abundant lighting.
So how does the Ektra compare to other top camera phones? I whipped out a Galaxy S7 — the top-rated camera phone at Tom's Guide — and took some snaps that I could compare with the Ektra. Both of these cityscapes have their issues with focus, thanks to the low light and the glare off the High Roller's windows. I find the colors on the Ektra (left) to be a little bit more true-to-life. They're certainly bright as the S7's Flamingo (right) looks slightly washed out. The faux Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel does stand out a little more in the S7's shot, though.
The 13-MP front camera also features phase detection auto focus. I wasn't as impressed with how it handled the low-light setting we shot in. One selfie, taken outside the High Roller while there was still daylight out, looks OK, though my mouth's a little out-of-focus. Another selfie inside the High Roller pod, though, is overpowered by backlighting.
You've got a lot of shooting modes at your disposal with the Kodak Ektra. In addition to Smart Auto mode, a manual mode lets skilled photographers adjust ISO, exposure, shutter speed, focus and white balance. Other modes include HDR, Sport, Macro, Night, Landscape, Panorama, Portrait and Bokeh.
The panorama mode worked particularly seamlessly when I tested it, and it's a remarkably forgiving feature. To demonstrate, a Kodak rep helpfully jostled my arm while I tried taking a panoramic shot, and from what I could see on the phone's screen, the software stitching together the photo did a pretty good job of compensating for the unexpected movement.
The Ektra includes a fun Super 8 app for capturing quick video clips and then applying filters effects inspired by Kodak Super 8 film stocks. I only got the chance to see the clips play out on the Ektra screen, but it was a fun app to fool around with, and I imagine photo buffs will get a kick out of the old-school look of these videos.
The Rest of the Phone
We focused on the camera during our time with the Ektra, but we shouldn't forget that Kodak is selling a smartphone here. The phone, designed by UK-based Bullitt, runs on a 2.3GHz decacore Helio X20 processor with 3GB of RAM. You'll get 32GB of on-phone storage that you can augment with a microSD card. A 3,000 mAh battery provides the power, and the phone supports quick charging through its USB Type-C port. Disappointingly, Kodak says the phone will ship with Android Marshmallow instead of the newer Nougat.
The Ektra is going to rise and fall on the strength of its camera. The early results, shot in less-than-ideal conditions, are promising, though we'd want more time with the phone to test it. Still, the Ektra packs a powerful camera that we look forward to spending more time with once the phone ships later this spring.