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Featured Review: Mlais M4 Note

June 10, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Mlais isn’t a household name quite yet, but they are feverishly working towards that goal with every device release.  As a relatively new smartphone manufacturer from China they have plenty of competition, both from established brands and from new and expanding ones from their homeland of Shenzhen.  Mlais makes a number of different kind of phones, from look-alikes of popular phones to more original models, but most share a common philosophy in their price point.  The Mlais M4 Note is a Galaxy Note 4 look-alike without a doubt, but it cuts the price of that product significantly to around $160 instead of $500 or more as Samsung’s product is priced at.  With that comes a nearly identical build outside, but with cheaper internal components.  Can it at least reproduce the Samsung experience regardless of the cheaper internals, or will it fall flat?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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The Mlais M4 Note falls right in line with many phones at this price range, eschewing the higher internal specs of something like the Lenovo K3 Note for a higher quality build.  There’s also the added bonus of dual-SIM card support where some may not.

  • 5.5 inch 720p IPS display
  • MediaTek MT6732 1.5GHz Quad-core 64-bit Cortex-A53 Processor
  • Mali-T760 GPU
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 8GB internal storage, microSD card support
  • 2,400 mAh Li-Ion battery (removable)
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, Dual-LED flash, f/2.0 Lens
  • 8MP front-facing camera
  • 80mm wide x 156mm tall x 8.4mm thick
  • 160g
  • Dual-Sim Card Support

Display

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Many times displays at this price range have to sacrifice something to become this affordable, so it’s always a matter of what sort of trade-offs you might be willing to accept.  The Mlais M4 Note’s screen does an admirable job of producing a sharp picture at 720p, even at a pretty large 5.5-inches, and is sharper than many 720p panels at this size.  What it trades off are the viewing angles, which at best are sub-par depending on the angle held at.  Some angles are fine with just a bit of dimming, whereas others kill the black levels and distort the colors a bit.  This is common on cheaper LCD panels and is really only exhibited most when looking up at the screen from the bottom left corner. The contrast on the screen is calibrated way too high and crushes a good deal of the black levels that are present, nullifying any positives I have to say about the overall black levels of the panel itself.

Colors are represented well but there’s a very cool overall color to the panel.  Whites are simply not white but rather a very light blue, and as such the rest of the color gamut runs a bit cool because of this.  There’s also a fair amount of ghosting here but it’s not too horrible, and is only really noticeable when elements are on a white background.  Outdoor visibility is good and the display in general has a very good range of brightness, from very bright and easily viewable outside to quite dim and easily readable in the dark.  Moving onto the digitizer itself we’re looking at a typical cheap digitizer.  This means that single touches will register just fine, but multiple touches at once can easily confuse it.  We’ve seen this on plenty of phones before so it’s not unique to the M4 Note, but it doesn’t make it any less of an annoyance or even a problem depending on how you use the phone.  Fleksy was very difficult to use for me while a keyboard like Google Keyboard with swipe typing worked just fine.

Hardware and Build

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If there’s one thing Mlais does particularly well here it’s build a solid feeling phone.  The M4 Note feels nearly identical to the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in many respects, down to the metal frame and the faux-leather back.  The back of the phone is soft and feels much like a faux-leather notebook would, complete with the pocks and design pattern used to make it.  This keeps the phone from slipping out of the hand even when the weather is cooler and the humidity is down, something metal or plastic could only dream of doing.  To make things even better the metal frame, which would be slippery on plenty of other phones out there, features a matte finish that makes it feel higher quality and grips better too.  The edges of the metal are chamferred which help take away the sharper edges that would otherwise be present from the metal.  Overall the quality of the build is superb, as there’s no creaking or give of any kind even when bent on purpose.  Behind the removable back sits the dual-SIM card tray, microSD card slot and removable battery.

The face of the phone features a familiar Samsung look, with thin bezels, a physical wide rounded-rectangle home button, and two capacitive keys on either side of the home button.  The back button is on the right while what appears to be a multi-tasking Overview button is on the left, however upon actually using the phone you’ll find that’s a menu button instead.  Chinese phones have a tendency to “confuse” this button as we’ve seen on countless Xiaomi phones which use the menu button as an overview one for instance.  The bottom of the device has a single microphone, while the top houses the microUSB charging port and the 3.5mm headset jack, a great location for both when you need to charge the device and listen to music at the same time.  The left side features the same faux-split volume rocker that’s on the Note 4, and the right has a single power button located halfway between the top and midway point of the phone.  On the back there’s a single speaker, a large rounded-square camera lens, and below it the flash and heartrate monitor.

Performance and Memory

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Overall the performance of the device is pretty solid, as MediaTek’s MT6732 chipset has proven itself on many other occasions.  Every day tasks perform admirably on the M4 Note, and apps load nearly instantly no matter what is being opened.  2GB of RAM helps the situation quite a bit, and Android 5.0 Lollipop’s generally great memory management furthers that as well.  Every game I ran on the phone performed perfectly, as a 720p resolution with this sort of processor would have you assume.  The internal storage memory used here is pretty typical of this price range, producing decent results but nothing spectacular.  Anything requiring lots of i/o performance is going to be bottlenecked by the memory speed without a doubt.  For the sake of comparison we’ve got a suite of benchmarks here for you so that you can compare raw numbers to other phones at whatever price range you’re looking for.

Moving on to multi-tasking the phone did a great job of running and switching between multiple apps at once without a struggle.  The interface for multi-tasking is the stock Android 5.0 Lollipop vertical carousel of app cards, each with a different colored title bar for easy identification.  This design not only makes it simple to switch between apps and quickly identify them, it makes it possible to do this with one hand without a struggle.  The biggest downside with this phone’s implementation of the feature is getting there in the first place.  What appears to be an Overview button to the left of the home button is actually setup as a menu button in the system, meaning you have to press and hold the physical home button to get to Overview and switch apps.  This produces an unnecessary wait time to get to the screen, likely causing some users to never use the feature in the first place, which is the real crime here.

Battery Life

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With a 5.5-inch screen, a quad-core processor and only a 2,400mAh battery you might think the battery life is average at best, and thankfully I can say that’s not the case.  In my time with the Mlais M4 Note I found the battery life to be pretty exceptional to be honest, with narry a time where I even had to think what level the battery was at.  It lasted me til the end of the day every day when used as my daily driver, which includes plenty of time on Hangouts chatting with friends, browsing the web and usually streaming music the majority of the day.  Even running the Futuremark PCMark Mobile battery test confirmed what I had been experiencing; this phone has abnormally long battery life for one with such a small battery.  Mlais has definitely done something with the battery management and it’s a positive change without a doubt.  Check out the PCMark score below.

Phone Calls and Network

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Paying attention to a dual-SIM card phone’s SIM card slots is important, as they are usually designed for different sizes of SIM cards.  The Mlais M4 Note has both a regular and a micro-SIM tray, separated from eachother and located behind the removable back plate.  The phone performed admirably on T-Mobile’s 3G HSPA network, providing great quality calls and reliable data where HSPA was available.  I did feel like I was on 2G more often than normal when in buildings though, and this could be a side effect of the metal housing on the phone versus a more signal friendly material like plastic or wood.  Dual-SIM management includes the ability to choose which SIM receives and sends phone calls, messages and data.  Here are all the bands the Mlais M4 Note supports:

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G: HSPA 850/900/1900/2100

4G LTE (non-US): 800/1800/2100/2600MHz

Software

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Android 5.0 Lollipop is here for keeps it seems, as all the Chinese handsets are finally either shipping with it on-board or have an update available.  That being said Mlais has followed the path they’ve carved with previous devices running on KitKat and haven’t changed a whole lot about stock Android, which in Lollipop’s case is an incredibly good thing.  All the beauty of Material Design is here in its glory, unchanged from what Google intended it to look like.  What you’ll find instead of a heavy and obtrusive OEM skin are a set of features added to Google’s vision and ultimately a software experience that feels like an enhanced true version of Android.

What’s really interesting is just how minimalistic Mlais is going with the M4 Note, so much so that only a single page of apps are included with the phone out of the box.  This is incredibly refreshing and really only has the barebones apps that you’ll need for basic use out of the box; apps like Phone, Messaging, Browser, Calculator, etc.  All these apps are based on their AOSP counterparts and have all been updated to reflect most of Material Design’s attributes including a colored status bar and sometimes a floating action button on the bottom right.  These apps are all snappy and work well, and many of them include quite a few features and options over their more basic AOSP counterparts.

Notifications are all present as they should be, including lockscreen notifications and one-finger expandable and actionable ones as well.  One major addition to Android by Mlais is app permission management, something that isn’t officially part of Android until Android M gets released.  Until then Mlais and many other Chinese OEMs have been working to better secure your information and make app permissions more transparent and controllable.  The M4 Note will alert you when app permission is on or off via a notification that can be easily swiped away.  If you need to access the permissions panel at any time it’s located in the Security section of the settings menu.  From here you can allow or deny any permission that any app asks for, as well as see how many apps have permission to access things like GPS, contacts, etc.

Four pre-made audio profiles are included and accessible via the quick toggles in the notification bar up top.  These are labeled General, Silent, Meeting and Outdoor, and do exactly what you think they might.  This is an addition to the audio controls in Lollipop instead of a replacement.  On top of that Mlais has included the popular screen-off gesture support, which allows users to double tap on the screen to wake it or even draw a numer of pre-determined letters on the screen while off to launch specified apps.  There are 10 different gestures that can be used to launch apps, 7 of these are completely customizable to any installed app on the phone.  Last but not least is a scheduled power on and off which can conveniently perform those tasks at any time of day, any day of the week.

Sound

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At this price range sound quality can often be the first thing to bite the dust, with many OEMs assuming you’re going to be listening through cheap earbuds that don’t produce good sound anyway.  Listening with these phones over a higher quality sound system or better earphones will result in disappointment, but that’s not the case with the M4 Note.  By default the sound output of the M4 Note through Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headset jack is excellent, producing well balanced sound that’s not tinny, hollow or cheap sounding.  There’s a built-in equalizer although the more the settings are adjusted the lower the volume gets, a sign of a DAC that’s not designed for performance.  There are also extra included audio options like a generic audio enhancement for headphones, lossless Bluetooth audio, virtual surround sound and even a loudness mode for the external speaker on the phone itself.

Camera

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Mlais put a pretty decent camera on the M4 Note, and some equally decent software to back it up.  Pictures, especially in good lighting, have pretty good amounts of detail and are generally very accurate to the original color.  As a while I felt like a lot of the pictures were a bit washed out, making me want to bring the black levels up or contrast to help make the shots pop a little bit better.  While this can easily and quickly be done in many different photo editing software packages and apps out there I’d love to see it do better out of the gate without needing editing.  There’s a pretty heavy denoise filter going on here, and coupled with the lens there’s plenty of fuzz and softness to the shot overall.  It’s more obvious toward the edges of the picture, but if you don’t look at photos on more than just phones or social networks you’ll probably not notice it.

HDR is a mixed bag, as the shot time between exposures is a little slow but it worked well in many different scenarios I tried it in.  Plenty of detail was pulled out of the shadows and there’s no weird haloing or other fake looking HDR artifacts found.  What was present was a mostly overexposed shot that again needed a bit of editing to prove it self worthy.  Either way this thing takes quick pictures and launches the camera app in under two seconds from the lock screen, an important thing to note for when that quickly timed shot really counts.

Video was equally as good, with 1080p video that’s clear and clean with plenty of detail.  It’s not going to blow away any video taken from the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 but then again you shouldn’t expect that from a phone that’s nearly 1/4 of the price either.  Check out the full sample shots from the Flickr album of the review below.

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Conclusion

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Outside of a crummy digitizer and a sub-par blue-hued screen, the Mlais M4 Note is really a great phone.  People who aren’t as particular about displays as I am may not mind the inconsistencies or calibration problems, and quite honestly those are likely all software fixes that can be made anyway.  You may also not care if you’re not a fast typer, as using one hand to hunt-and-peck or swipe worked perfectly.  On a more positive note the M4 Note has one of the best builds for the price that you’re going to find, mixing the metal body and faux-leather back of the Note 4 with a price that’s just right.  Performance was excellent and proved itself worthy time and time again in my tests, sound output was above average for this price range and slightly beyond, and the camera was pretty decent as well.  Software is a mostly stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop with some very useful added features.  All in all this is a solid package for $160, but with competition like the Lenovo K3 Note in the same price range only those who are looking for a phone with a super high quality build should pick this phone over that one.