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Featured Review: Lenovo K3 Note (K50-t5) – Budget With A Purpose

June 7, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Budget phones are all over the market these days and that’s because we’ve finally hit a period of diminishing returns for most customers.  The days of how many cores a phone has, what GHz the processor is running at and other similar specs aren’t at the forefront of most people’s minds anymore, and that’s simply because hardware and software has finally met a pace that’s acceptable in most situations.  Every now and then a special budget device comes to market though, one that tends to exceed most expectations about daily usability when comparing other phones of a similar price.  Lenovo’s latest budget-minded phone, the K3 Note (K50-t5), seems to fit right in that mark.  Let’s find out exactly what Lenovo has done and how your experience might carry out.

Specs

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It should come as no surprise that a budget-minded phone from China is packing the latest 64-bit MediaTek processor, but what’s not immediately obvious is just how incredibly blazing fast it is until you use it.  The rest of the specs are equally impressive, blowing most phones in this price range right out of the water.

  • 5.5 inch 1080p IPS display
  • MediaTek MT6752 1.7GHz Octa-core 64-bit Cortex-A53 Processor
  • Mali-T760 GPU
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 16GB internal storage, microSD card support
  • 3,000 mAh Li-Ion battery (removable)
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, Dual-LED flash, f/2.0 Lens
  • 5MP front-facing camera
  • 76.2mm wide x 152.6mm tall x 8.0mm thick
  • 146g

Display

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At this price range 1080p displays aren’t too common to see, although they are becoming less rare as costs of the displays go down.  It’s sort of hit or miss as to which phone you’re going to find with a higher resolution screen here, and while the Lenovo K3 Note does feature a 1080p Panel it doesn’t really feel like it’s actually 1080p.  It appears that the screen has a pentile pattern or some other alternate pattern, which normally would lower the effective resolution by about 30%.  This explains why it’s not as sharp as other 1080p displays, for example the display on the OnePlus One shown above next to the K3 Note’s.  This doesn’t mean the display is bad per say, just not as sharp as it could be if it were an RGB stripe display.

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Moving onto further visual qualities of the display colors are vibrant but not overly saturated, creating nice punchy colors but not unrealistic ones.  Black levels aren’t bad for a cheaper IPS panel but they won’t hold a candle to more expensive IPS displays in this regard.  Viewing angles are about the same too, as colors don’t fade even at extreme angles but black levels diminish significantly especially when viewing from the bottom.  There’s no visible light bleed at all from the edges of the display and the outdoor brightness levels are utterly phenomenal, with perfect viewing even in bright direct Florida sunlight.  The digitizer is equally phenomenal too and took even super fast typing like a pro.

Hardware and Build

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Here’s where Lenovo obviously had to cut some costs with this device, and it’s likely the best place to do so at this price range.  The device feels cheap without a doubt, as the light and hollow plastic gives way to squeezing without much of a fight.  The phone does have a nice weight to it overall and keeps it from feeling too cheap, but there’s no hiding the obvious price from the likes of the build.  Those who are worried about it should get a case which will both alleviate the give of the plastic and the lighter weight.  The phone is pretty thin at 8mm and doesn’t have any protruding lens or other element that can get scratched, and the back is made of a slightly rougher plastic for added grip.

The color on the white model is rather interesting as it’s more of an iridescent pearl color, giving it a slightly more luxurious look.  On the back you’ll find the square camera lens on the upper left with the dual-LED flash below it, while the speaker and a noise-cancelling microphone can be found more on the right side of the back.  All the ports are on the top of the device, with the 3.5mm headset jack situated to the left and the microUSB port in the middle.  Both the volume rocker and the power buttons are situated on the right side of the device, with the power button being located closer to the center of the side.  Both buttons also feature a brushed metal-esque circular pattern on them, but they aren’t a different pattern from each other as we’ve seen from OEM’s like Motorola.  The front face feature three capacitive buttons: menu, home and back from left to right in that order.

Performance and Memory

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Easily one of the most surprising factors of the phone, the Lenovo K3 Note is absolutely blazing fast.  It’s basically just as fast as the OnePlus One, a phone that’s double the cost, and as such almost as fast as phones like the Galaxy Note 4, Nexus 6 and others that are four times the cost.  There’s no way to say this is anything short of a miracle, and really shows both the quality engineering that Lenovo put into the device as a whole and MediaTek’s astounding achievements over the past year.  It also helps that Lenovo used top-class storage memory in the phone which absolutely blazes beyond anything even remotely close to this price range.  We’re looking at storage memory that’s anywhere from 3-4 times the speed of other devices we’ve reviewed at this price point, a choking point for performance of an OS that’s often completely overlooked.  This is impressive because it can be a costly component in phones like this, which is why it’s not often used.

Multi-tasking was incredibly fast too, which should be expected given the overall performance of the phone.  The biggest hurdle is the obvious lack of an Overview button which in turn forces users to hold down the home button to access the multi-tasking menu.  It’s also a straight copy from Apple’s iOS multi-tasking screen, which may or may not be your cup of tea.  I prefer a vertical scrolling list of apps instead of a horizontal one, but this is all down to preference.  Either way I never saw an app have to reload when switching between apps, even when running games and other traditionally RAM-heavy apps.  I also never saw the speed of the phone deteriorate even though there’s a built in RAM management tool that alerts users when the device is running hot or low on free RAM.  For some odd reason GLBench and A2 Benchmark wouldn’t run at all on the phone, but please check out the suite of benchmark tests above to compare to other phones.

Battery Life

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Battery life seemed pretty average in my usage of the phone, nothing really out of the ordinary at all from other 1080p phones.  On average I got around 3 hours of on-screen time, which is normal in my usage almost no matter what phone I use.  Your particular usage may differ but I find that I can only get this much out of most devices because I’m constantly streaming music, watching YouTube videos and chatting with friends on Hangouts.  That’s a lot of background data and tasks which will drain the battery no matter if the screen is on or not, but I never had to charge the phone before the end of the evening.  Standby was equally as average as the battery life, really pulling nothing special out of doing essentially nothing but not draining an excessive amount of battery during down time either.

There are battery saver modes that can come in handy when extra long battery life is needed, giving users the option to disallow background data for specific apps and even turn off all radios when the screen is off.  For those worst case scenarios when you absolutely just need a phone and basic messaging functions the Ultimate Power Saver state turns everything off including apps and services outside of calls and messaging.

Phone Calls and Network

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Here’s where I had a huge problem on T-Mobile, and this tends to happen with some Chinese phones in the US.  As Chinese phones are inherently built for different bands than may be found in some other countries, your mileage may vary with how well this works with your GSM carrier of choice.  For me I’ve found that T-Mobile’s available bands as well as their use of the AWS spectrum tend to work a little oddly with some phones, and the Lenovo K3 Note fit in this description.  I wasn’t able to make phone calls most of the time as the phone just wouldn’t dial, and while I was able to send SMS messages with no problem MMS messages would never go through no matter what I did with the APN settings or other common fixes for these problems.  I didn’t experience this issue on AT&T’s network which features more common international bands.  It’s a bit odd because it fully supports T-Mobile’s 3G frequencies but in the end I’d only recommend this on AT&T, Cricket or another related GSM carrier in the US.

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The Lenovo K3 Note supports the following bands:

2G: 900/1800/1900MHz

3G: HSPA 850/900/1900/2100, TD-SCDMA 1880/2010MHz

4G LTE (non-US): Bands 1, 3, 7, 38, 39, 40

Software

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UI

Android 5.0 Lollipop is finally making its rounds to the latest Chinese devices and it feels great.  More than ever before even the heavier Android skins still feel like Android, as many features have converged into AOSP and are now part of stock Android.  The new lockscreen notifications as well as the redesigned notification pulldown shade are all here and working as they should.  In fact Lenovo has added a bit to the notification behavior, as swiping away now presents an extra tag at the end telling you it’s going to clear, and if you drag slide a little further a second tag appears to let users turn off notifications for the app in question.  There’s also the added ability to pick which places notifications are allowed to be shown and are broken into three categories: floating, statusbar and keyguard (lockscreen).  By default almost nothing is allowed to be shown on the lockscreen, which is irritating, but it protects the privacy of users by default so I can’t fault Lenovo too much here.

Additional quick toggles have been added to the notification bar and show just as much information as they do in stock Lollipop.  For instance when the phone is connected to WiFi the name of the access point will be placed under the WiFi icon in the drawer.  This extends to some other quick toggles as well and keeps users from having to constantly switch screens just to see the status of something common.  Outside of this most of the changes made to the UI are minor cosmetic changes that don’t affect the function of stock Android, which again is a relief from plenty of other Chinese companies that always like to change something drastically.  In general the Lenovo UI is fast, light and good looking, adds features and doesn’t take away from the ones that Google has already built into Android.

Often times OEMs won’t include theming support on devices that are cheaper, usually reserving such privileges for the higher priced devices.  Lenovo features a full themeing engine that is delivered via a theme market app supporting both free and paid themes.  Themes contain full elements of the UI but only lets users customize the lockscreen or the font outside of that, so essentially you’re going to need to like the full theme or nothing at all as there doesn’t seem to be granular control of what can be mixed and matched within a theme.  Even with those restrictions there are thousands of combinations that can be applied, completely changing the look and feel of the phone to the user’s choosing.

Security

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Security is a big concern among OEMs in China, and it makes sense too given the state of the app market in the country.  With somewhere in the vicinity of 200 different app stores and no sign of Google Play in any official capacity, protecting users from thieves trying to steal information is a big deal.  That’s why many Chinese OEMs including Lenovo include a security center that includes a suite of services at your fingertips to aid in this process.  Opening SafeCenter gives users a big scan button to run a suite of tests on the phone to assess its security state and overall device health.  Sections of the SafeCenter app include Traffic Monitor for managing data via mobile networks and WiFi on a per-app basis and spam blocker which is an easy place to block unwanted calls and numbers from texting you.

There’s a full permissions manager to manage which apps have control over sections of the OS, so if you don’t want an app accessing your contacts list this is the place to turn that off.  Whenever an app asks for a new permission, for instance upon first startup of the app, a pop-up will appear asking users if they want the app to access the requested permission too, so this section of SafeCenter is more for management than anything.  Lastly there’s the app manager which is just a shortcut to the same screen from settings, allowing users to disable or uninstall apps among other settings.

Apps and Settings

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There’s some pre-installed apps included here such as the Du Speed Booster, Clean Master, Baidu Browser and a handful of other apps, as usual if these are unwanted they can just be disabled, and some can even be uninstalled if that’s preferred.  Google Play Services is loaded by default on the international version of the phone, as mine was, and doesn’t require any finagling to get it working on the phone.  There are plenty of features to be found here though, with the sheer number and quality of them trouncing even far more expensive phones.  Lenovo has built in full support for waking up the device by double tapping the screen, and has also thankfully built in a method of checking the proximity sensor before allowing the device to be woken up.  This helps prevent accidental pocket unlocks; a relief for anyone that’s done this in the past.

There are also options to launch apps via shortcuts by drawing an O or a V, and any app on the phone can be chosen for this task too.  There’s a floating toolbox that can be activated and customized to an extent with commonly used settings and toggles, as well as a few choice apps.  Double clicking the volume up or down button takes a quick picture within 3 seconds of pressing the buttons, handy for those moments when it’s too hard to unlock the phone, aim and click.  The quality of these shots aren’t as high as the regular ones, so that needs to be noted if it’s a feature that’s going to be used.

There are a number of scheduling modes that can be chosen, from Google’s own interruptions that keep calls and messages from going through during a period of down time to Lenovo’s own scheduled powering on and off.  There’s even full profile support for different times of the day, allowing users to schedule a period of time that the phone goes into airplane mode, turns Bluetooth, WiFi or GPS on or off, changes the brightness or even launches an app.

Sound

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It’s rare when an inexpensive phone can impress with its sound quality, but the Lenovo K3 Note does.  In fact the K3 Note trounces the competition in every regard here, providing fuller, deeper and crisper audio than I think I’ve ever heard out of a phone anywhere near this price range.  The only other phone that sounds this good is double the price, the OnePlus One, and even then plenty of phones in that price range don’t hold a candle to what Lenovo has done here.  Without even turning on the built-in equalizer the audio blew me away, and those who want to tweak the sound a bit can use the built-in presets and slight adjustments that Lenovo provides.  The only actual issue here is the volume, which is quiet even at the loudest setting.  I had to turn my car stereo up a good 30% louder just to achieve the same decibel rating, but the audio wasn’t distorted at that point thankfully.  Those with headphones could find themselves having difficulty with the volume depending on how loud the headphones are normally.

Sound from the speaker on the phone itself was better than most rear-facing speakers and produced nice, loud sound.  The speaker is still a single speaker, and it’s still on the back which means it can only get so good, but it’s really not a bad experience either.  Loudspeaker on phone calls was sufficient for highway driving and kept my hands free from having to hold the phone.

Camera

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In addition to all the other great qualities and components inside the Lenovo K3 Note the camera is quite possibly one of the best parts.  This is hard to believe given the sky-high performance of the phone, but it’s the truth.  The 13-megapixel camera on the Lenovo K3 Note outperforms every camera I’ve tested in this price range and even many in double the price range or more.  Shots are clear and clean with accurate colors, white balance and an overall wonderful aesthetic.  Even low light shots are beyond the scope of anything at this price range or anything even in the ballpark.  The biggest strength of the K3 Note’s camera might just be white balance and color accuracy, which are better than almost any phone I’ve ever tested, much less one this affordable.  The weakest link may be the focusing, which often took quite a long time even when compared to phones in this price range.

In auto mode the ISO seems to top out at 851, and the shutter speed doesn’t seem to go slower than 1/10th a second.  This results in pictures that are consistently free of hand jitter and excessive noise.  While this results in more detail than may be found on other smartphone cameras it also means that you’re likely to lose shadow detail, and the overall picture will be darker than other phones’ shots too.  Keep this in mind if you’re a night owl, as many of your shots may be unrealistically dark.  Manual settings will allow users to set the ISO up to 1600, aiding in the illumination of darker areas.

The software is pretty basic by any means, both concerning the interface and the features present.  Shooting modes are mostly for different lighting and motion conditions the way many point-and-shoot cameras are, so no crazy eraser modes or timelapse shots here.  Manual settings are mainly restricted to ISO and white balance, so manual photographers definitely aren’t going to get their fill of settings here.  HDR is really the only addional mode present and as activated by pressing the always-present HDR button on the main camera interface.  There’s always a shutter button for fast picture taking and a recording button for instant video recording, which are important things in a modern camera.

HDR quality is generally good but only usable in certain circumstances.  The shutter speed is surprisingly fast and it works even without having to rest the device on a steady surface; a surprising quality many phones still can’t achieve.  There’s no haloing or other artificial software HDR artifacts here, but I found that the HDR did a little too good of a job brightening up darker spots when the lighting conditions were harsh, at dusk for example.  In some of the sample shots you’ll notice the HDR shots look plain unrealistic, with almost no shadows in areas where they should be.  Still in other situations HDR worked admirably and produced a better image than auto mode would.

Color balance and white balance are two things I’d really like to commend Lenovo on with this phone.  Many phones tend to overexpose shots in order to keep the shot from being too jittery from hand movement, but Lenovo has seemingly found the perfect balance of exposure levels here.  Color accuracy is also a problem for many cameras on phones still, often easily getting fooled by the type of light present and setting the wrong color balance to compensate.  I almost never ran into this with the K3 Note, which never happens even with far more expensive phones.  Video recording is excellent and the K3 Note records up to 1080p video with software video stabilization.  Check out the sample gallery below for the full resolution shots.

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Conclusion

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$200 isn’t likely to buy you a phone that performs well, outputs great sound, has an above average screen and even takes great pictures, right?  Think again as Lenovo has absolutely blown my mind with the K3 Note.  Packing almost the latest version of Android (it’s still Lollipop at least) and bundling it with features that most phones can only dream of, the software is a dream to use and is quick as lightning too.  Performance wise this blows most phones out of the water, nevermind the fact that it’s a fraction of the price of so many of the higher-end phones it trounces.  More astoundingly for this price range it packs a good 1080p screen, which is both fantastic in color representation, resolution and again overall performance of the device.  Like many aspects of the phone the sound output and camera far exceed anything in this price range and often meet or beet that of more expensive devices, even if extra features like a fancy equalizer or extra camera modes aren’t present.

At the end of the day I simply cannot recommend the Lenovo K3 Note enough regardless of what price you’re looking to pay for a phone.  It’s not only a phenomenal budget phone, it’s a great phone in general.  If you’re looking to pick up one for yourself we’ve got a deal for you on GearBest that’ll bring the price down to $157.98 using coupon code LK3NOTE.