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Featured Review: Umi eMax

July 1, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

As a company Umi has been around for the better half of a decade, but may not necessarily be a name you’re familiar with when it comes to smartphones.  Umi has a handful of phones on the market right now and a few coming out as well, each one having their own strengths and selling points.  Today we’re going to be looking at the Umi eMax, a phone with mid-range specs and a large battery that’s designed to last more than a day and even charge your friend’s phones too.  For a limited time Umi sold the phone for an incredible $99, with the regular retail price being closer to the regular $170 price range for the specs you find here.  Either way the Umi eMax seems to be a steal, so let’s take a look at what’s packed inside the box.

Specs

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Mid-range Chinese phones at around $150 have become increasingly common and is now a price point where you can buy plenty of phones with great specs and performance.  Umi packs a great value for the price here and is right in line with what we expect from the price tag nowadays.

  • 5.5-inch 1080p IPS Display
  • MediaTek MT6752 64-bit 1.7GHz Octa-Core Processor
  • Mali T760-MP2 GPU
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 16GB internal storage, microSD card support
  • 3,780mAh battery
  • Android 4.4.4 (5.0 Update Available Soon)
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, LED flash
  • 5MP front-facing camera
  • 152.3mm tall x 76.5mm wide x 7.9mm thick
  • 148g

In the Box

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Inside the box is little more than just the phone an the requisite cables and such but does include one little surprise.  A USB OTG cable is included allowing users of the eMax (and other Android phones of course) to plug in a full sized USB cable or USB drivefor storage, something that’s incredibly convenient and usually costs $10 or so to buy separately.  A flat USB cable is included as well which helps keep it from getting knotted up and crimped and also just looks a lot nicer than your standard round USB sheathing.  The box itself is a little nicer than usual too featuring solid construction and a great box-within-a-box design that we’ve seen on phones like the OnePlus One.

Display

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One of the first things that struck me about the Umi eMax was the sheer quality of the display.  This thing looks like it belongs on much higher end devices, coupling a great resolution with overall fantastic visual aesthetics.  The default background brings out the colors and detail right away as it’s a laced fabric design that’s wet and resembles outdoor furniture, albeit being more colors than you’d likely have on furniture of course.  Black levels are fantastic for an LCD and viewing angles are just as good, giving great viewability from any angle without significant color shifting or black level reduction.  Brightness is simply excellent and provides great outdoor and indoor viewability that’s not too dim or reflective.

The digitizer on the panel is fantastic as well and responded to even fast typing with Fleksy, the standard keyboard I use for testing fast and accurate touch screen typing.  Not all phones at this price range pass this test either, and even phones at a higher price range can struggle to deliver consistent and fast multi-touch performance.

Hardware and Build

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If you’ve ever used a Moto X you’re likely to find some resemblance with the Umi eMax.  While it certainly doesn’t look exactly like Motorola’s phones it definitely feels like one, with the wide rounded edges and the way it feels in the hand.  The back in flat though unlike the recent Moto X phones, but overall it feels super sturdy and well built despite being made entirely out of plastic.  The device just feels nice in the hand in general, really, as the weight is perfect for its size and it’s not too thick or thin to be uncomfortable either way.  The back is non-removable so Umi had to devise a way to fit two SIM card trays and a microSD card tray on the sides of the device while still keeping it thin.  The result is a series of flaps that are easy to pop open with a finger nail but not so easy that they pop open themselves.

The left side of the phone holds the microSD and SIM1 flaps, while the right side has SIM2 with the volume rocker below and the power button nestled square in the middle.  On the bottom you’ll find a microUSB slot with a microphone next to it and the 3.5mm headset jack up top.  On the back is of course the large rounded-square camera lens with a single-LED flash below it, and a sound bar located near the bottom of the back of the device.  The face of the device features pretty average bezels for a modern smartphone and the screen takes up in the region of 70% or so of the face.  Underneath the screen are three standard capacitive keys, from left to right a menu, home and back button.

Performance and Memory

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Killer performance is the name of the game here, and you’ll find nary a phone that feels snappier or more responsive than this one.  That includes even higher-end flagship models that can tend to have animations or features that make the phone feel slower.  Running on KitKat means there’s few transition animations and even the ones that are around are quick, so when you click an app to open it the app feels like it loads instantaneously.  MediaTek’s latest octa-core processors are no slouch in the performance department and deliver quick loading times and speedy scrolling in any situation.  Fast memory helps a lot too, as things don’t have to wait to load as they would on some other mid-range and entry-level phones.  Even with a 1080p display this phone spits out everything I gave it to chew with ease and doesn’t hitch for anything.  Benchmarks reflected this as I figured it would, however this was another one of those weird phones where GLBench 3.0/3.1 wouldn’t load at all, so those tests are unfortunately absent for comparison.

Multi-tasking is super quick but of course would be considerably quicker if there was a dedicated Overview button instead of a menu button.  Here’s to hoping this gets changed in the upcoming Lollipop update, although I wouldn’t hold my breath for that given other Lollipop-powered phones we’ve reviewed recently from China.  Using the standard KitKat multi-tasking UI means that app thumbnails are displayed in a vertically scrolling list and swiping these thumbnails to the left or right kills the app.  Reloading of apps was never a problem and every app I switched between loaded instantaneously, meaning Umi’s particular version of Android does a great job handling memory usage like it should.  There’s no silly built-in task manager here or other unnecessary garbage that’s not needed on Android, which is a breath of fresh air from other OEMs that like to fool users with these sort of “security blanket” type of apps.

Battery Life

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As is advertised the battery life for the Umi eMax is nothing short of gnarly.  Standby time is absolutely insane, with full syncing on via my Google account and light usage I got almost 4 days out of it.  On-screen time during a day of heavy use was over my average for most phones, totaling nearly 5 hours before it was done for the day.  Futuremark’s PCMark battery test backed this up too and showed well over 5 hours of on-screen time during its intensive multi-hour test suite.  Since the phone comes with a USB OTG cable this allows users to plug another regular sized USB cable in to charge other devices with the big battery inside of the phone.  It’s likely you’ll not want to do this if you’re planning a big day out or something similar, but it’s a great option to have when you’ve got another device that’s low on battery or need to charge a friend’s device.

Phone Calls and Network

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Chinese phones are hit or miss with US networks, but the Umi eMax worked very well with both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks in my testing.  I had trouble getting them to work with Cricket, and the only conclusion I could come to was that there’s no way to type in the APN type, only select 4 different options from a list.  This left off a few required settings and likely was the reason I was unable to get it working on Cricket’s network (which is AT&T’s network anyway).  Phone calls were perfect and the volume and clarity were easily the best I’ve heard from any phone in quite some time.  There was no straining to figure out what the person on the other end said, either because of the quality being muffled or the volume being low.  Loudspeaker was the same way too, delivering plenty of volume even on a highway in my truck.

Network data was about as good as 3G gets with HSPA+ connectivity on T-Mobile and AT&T’s networks.  This means plenty of bandwidth to stream music and video without issues, and while it’s not as fast or responsive as LTE it still gets the job done just fine.  Full dual-SIM card support is here with the ability to choose between networks for things like messaging, data and calls for customers who live in countries that need this feature.

Software

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We’ll start things off to talk about a unique method of giving users more customization that Umi offers.  Rootjoy is the name of a piece of desktop software that interfaces with Umi phones and gives users the ability to change out the ROM of the phone with ease.  While the Umi eMax ships with a very stock version of Android that we’ll talk about in a bit, users can easily download and install new ROMS such as Xiaomi’s popular MIUI, Huawei’s EmotionUI, Windows Phone 8 and a whole lot more depending on which model you’re looking at.  From here it’s a few simple clicks to get the phone up and running with a brand new look and feel, and even additional features depending on the ROM chosen.  It’s a fantastic way to keep devices supported and users happy without making things difficult.

UI/Apps

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Now that we’ve gone over some options for the phone let’s cover what it actually ships with.  At the time of writing the Umi eMax ships with Android 4.4.4 KitKat, an OS that’s well over a year and a half old, but an Android 5.0 Lollipop update is promised sometime soon.  Given the highly supported nature of all of Umi’s phones there’s no reason to doubt this update is coming, but for now the phone ships with a very stock looking version of Android 4.4.4 KitKat.  This means the older looking Holo UI as well as the old style quick toggles panel in the pull-down notification shade.  On the bright side having KitKat means things are super snappy since there’s almost no transition animations between tasks and windows, but it’s definitely not the prettiest OS out there anymore.

Moving into settings reveals additions like HotKnot, which is sort of a replacement for NFC and gives users the ability to share files by touching screens together with another HotKnot enabled phone.  Off-screen gestures are supported as well however they’re difficult to recommend using simply because the phone doesn’t have any way of knowing whether or not these features are being activated by accident.  This results in lots of accidental unlocks and app launches in pockets since the phone will rub up against your leg, inevitably setting off one of the gestures.  Outside of this there is a scheduled power on or off feature.

There are some basic apps included with the package that you would expect such as phone, browser, messaging, etc., and all of them are based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) versions of these apps with some customizations here and there.  Other Google apps such as the Play Store and Play Movies are included but nothing that’s going to take up a lot of space or clutter your app drawer off the bat.

Security

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Umi does something pretty unique with the eMax that most manufacturers wouldn’t even dream of doing.  The Umi eMax comes rooted out of the box without having to make any modifications or use a custom ROM.  This means access to apps that might otherwise not have been available, and access to parts of the system that could become problematic to some users.  It’s an interesting gamble to take since it likely results in more customer service calls, but it’s refreshing to see such support out of the box either way.

App permissions are all here and in full force, with the ability to restrict or allow apps to auto-start with the phone and grant or deny individual permissions to apps as well.  The interface used here is standard for any Chinese phone nowadays and provides granular control over individual permissions of a specific app or to see which apps are using a certain permission.  This makes it easy when users have a specific permission they don’t like giving access to and can easily sort by them.  There’s also an anti-theft tool that registers your phone number and can be used to send a text message to wipe the phone or help track it down in the event of getting lost or stolen.  Android Device Manager from Google already does this but it’s nice to see additional apps doing it too, especially ones already pre-installed with the phone.

Sound

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First impressions certainly work wonders with anything, and my first impressions of the Umi eMax’s audio output was high.  I can definitely say these impressions stayed with me throughout the review period and I was pleasantly surprised with just how good the audio from the eMax was.  Without even changing anything or having to equalize the sound, audio from the eMax was full, clear and provided deep bass without the mids being too high.  Further adjustment with the built-in equalizer proved successful and the volume didn’t even lower significantly when adjusting these parameters as most inexpensive phones would.  This audio quality is persistent through both the 3.5mm headphone jack and via Bluetooth audio.  Audio from the external speaker on the back of the phone was loud but not all that great.  Playing music through it was pretty poor and had little range as well as sounding a bit blown out in general.  Watching videos with dialog turned out better but it’s still not the best speaker I’ve ever heard from any phone.

Camera

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The camera on the Umi eMax is easily its weakest point, but it doesn’t seem to be a hardware problem rather a software one.  One thing that is consistent is how bad the HDR mode is.  Even in direct sunlight it’s completely unusable because it simply takes too long to process between exposure brackets, leaving objects completely out of focus, blurry and resulting in lots of double imaging.  Colors are just wrong too and whites are often overblown leaving the picture a mess.

It’s certainly best to stick with auto mode but don’t rely on the auto focus to work right most of the time.  As you’ll see in many shots even in auto mode the auto focus just doesn’t work right, often not focusing on seemingly anything at all.  It wasn’t until I started actually touching points on the screen to focus on specific objects and points that the camera started taking good shots, but this sort of thing isn’t always the best way to take a shot.  One-handing it probably won’t work not just because of the size of the device but also because of the focusing problems.  These are all software problems that can be fixed in an update and may even work better in one of the many ROMs Umi has made available for the phone.

When it does take good shots they are generally excellent, especially for this price range.  While the colors are a bit muted and overall the shots can be slightly overexposed, the quality of the photos is nothing short of top notch.  Even is lower lit environments the denoise filter takes a back seat, allowing some RGB noise to get in but not enough to ruin the shot.  Video quality is good but again focus problems cause video recording to be nothing short of annoying.  Even on auto focus mode the software just wouldn’t work right and I found myself constantly having to press the screen to focus on objects when moving.  If Umi can get the issues fixed in a firmware update for the stock ROM things will certainly look up, but for now it’s just not great.

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Conclusion

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Umi has put together a fantastic piece of technology that costs considerably less than those flagships you’ll find in a carrier store but still manages to feel as fast and snappy as them.  The display is nothing short of excellent, call quality and audio quality are easily better than most out there.  The build of the phone is completely plastic but manages not to feel cheap, just not quite as nice as some others we’ve seen in this price range.  Regardless of the build material this phone is a joy to hold in the hand and even more of a joy to use.  There’s something to be said about a phone that’s this responsive and it helps to overlook any shortcomings the device may have.  The camera needs some serious work but thankfully all the issues seem to be software related, meaning other ROMs provided by Umi or a future software update to the stock ROM could easily fix it.  With a major Android 5.0 Lollipop update on the way this is more than likely going to happen, but even baring that this is one of the most enjoyable Chinese phones I’ve used in a while.