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Featured Review: Umi Fair

December 16, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Fingerprint scanners are nothing new to the smartphone market, and have been around for quite some time since Motorola and co put them on some early smartphones.  These devices have evolved considerably since then though, and no longer require a swipe, but instead register in a fraction of a second with a mere press.  This year has been a significant breakthrough in fingerprint scanner quality and availability, and as such we’ve seen them placed on more phones than ever, and Google has even added official support in Android 6.0 Marshmallow for them as well.  While they’ve only been on more expensive phones up until now, Umi is now offering the Fair, a $99 smartphone with a fingerprint scanner designed to be comparable to those more expensive devices.  Let’s see how the Fair plays out and if it’s good enough to compete at this price range.

Specs

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Here you’ll find a 5-inch 720p IPS LCD screen, a 13-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX164 sensor on the back and a 2-megapixel camera on the front.  You’ll find a dual-LED flash configuration for the camera, a fingerprint sensor, removable 2,000mAh battery and dual-SIM card slots.  8GB of internal storage is here as well as expandable memory via microSD card, while 1GB of RAM runs the show.  A MediaTek MT6735 1.0GHz quad-core 64-bit CPU can be found inside, as well as a Mali-T720 MP2 450MHz GPU for gaming performance.  WiFi support up to 802.11n is here as well as Bluetooth 4.0, and Android 5.1 runs the software side of the house.  The phone itself measures 143.5mm high by 72mm wide by 8.4mm thin, and weighs an incredibly light 120 grams.

In the Box

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There’s not much to the contents of the box, and you’ll only find the phone, wall charger and microUSB cable in there.  Umi has included a screen protector on the phone by default though so no need to buy one unless you need to replace the factory installed one.

Hardware and Display

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The small plastic build of the Umi Fair sports a 5-inch 720p resolution screen on the front, with no buttons to be found below the screen.  The bezels on either side of the screen are incredibly thin for any phone, much less one in this price range, and look great with the Android software buttons instead of dedicated ones.  The back houses the camera lens while the dual-LED flash sits to the right of that, and the fingerprint scanner below the camera lens.  You’ll find a single speaker on the back near the bottom.  The whole back is removable and features dual micro-SIM card slots, a microSD card slot and a removable 2,000mAh battery.  The right side is the home for the power button, which is just above the mid-point of the phone, while the volume rocker resides above it.  Up top you’ll find a 3.5mm headset jack and on the bottom a microUSB port.

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A metal frame wraps around the whole phone and gives a sturdier, quality feel to the device.  The soft-touch plastic complements the thin build of the phone and provides an easy way to grip it, even though this is a smaller device that’s easily one-handable.  Display quality is more than adequate for this price, and the 720p resolution is certainly not expected at or under the $100 mark.   White balance is nearly perfect and hovers just about in the middle of warm and cool.  Viewing angles show quite a bit of dimming at some angles, while at other angles the screen be seen clearly almost completely from the side.  Other qualities of the display were mostly great, from the refresh rate to the response time of the digitizer, and I found no issues at all when typing quickly or using multi-touch in apps and games.  Black levels are the only real complaint here, but that’s par for the course with LCD displays, and they aren’t any different than other IPS LCD displays at this price range.

Performance and Memory

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Performance of a $99 phone probably isn’t at the high of your expectations list, and while this one seems blazing fast at first it quickly falls apart as you open more than a few apps at a time.  1GB of RAM with a 720p screen simply isn’t enough and the phone ends up having to clear out RAM consistently in order to keep apps working.  This forces background apps out of memory, which in turn require them to reload when you switch back to them.  There were also a handful of times where the phone would become completely unresponsive while it sorted things out for a few seconds, something that was certainly annoying but wasn’t incredibly common place.

3D gaming was an alright experience, but the framerate in general kept things from being great.  The 720p resolution again stresses the system beyond its limits and causes some unnecessary slowdown versus having a slightly lower resolution screen.  While it’s great to see a relatively higher resolution panel on a less expensive phone it ends up causing this one some significant performance problems in the long run.  While multi-tasking isn’t the fastest thing in the world Umi has at least gone with standard Android software buttons, making multi-tasking one button press away via that square Overview button.  This is certainly a significant advantage the Fair has over other phones in this price range, as many still opt for old-school capacitive keys and menu buttons instead.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks were lower than I initially expected, but the 720p resolution combined with the lower power processor makes sense.  The dual-core GPU helps things for sure, but overall this is not a super fast performer.  Check out the benchmark results below, noting that the 3DMark Slingshot OpenGL ES3.1 test ran so slow it wasn’t worth benchmarking.

Phone Calls and Network

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US mobile carrier support is here up to 3G HSPA and worked relatively well on T-Mobile in my testing (1900/2100MHz).  I normally don’t get any dropped calls with T-Mobile in my area but I experienced a few with the Umi Fair, and I also noticed a few times where the signal would completely drop off for a second or two.  AT&T coverage may be a little more spotty too as only the 1900MHz band is supported.  European LTE bands are supported here, but of course make sure to check with your carrier of choice to see if the bands below are supported.  WiFi up to 802.11n is supported, and even 5GHz mode is supported too, giving expanded wireless support that’s very uncommon on phones in this price range.  Call quality itself wasn’t bad, but the volume wasn’t very high and the speaker is a bit muffled, meaning you’re not going to enjoy talking on this phone with lots of background noise.

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA: 900/1900/2100MHz

LTE Bands: 800/1800/2600MHz

Battery Life

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Battery life is pretty average on a good day, and could be poor if you’re a super heavy user.  The fault here lies in the tiny battery, which only holds a 2,000mAh capacity and is significantly smaller than many phones on the market.  The MediaTek processor inside certainly helps keep things in line, but when pushing that 720p screen and the processor with intensive games and HD video you might find yourself needing a charge before the day is out.  Web browsing and other tasks that keep it light will certainly help keep the battery going longer than the heavier lifting tasks, but don’t expect to get more than a full day even with moderate to light use.  Benchmarks showed a possibility of around 4 and a half hours of screen on time, however I only ever got around 2 and a half at best.

Sound

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Sound output was excellent via Bluetooth, offering lossless audio in addition to good mixing out of the box.  Audio from the 3.5mm headset jack was just as good too, offering nice clean, clear audio that represents a nice full range of sound.  There are some other predefined audio adjustments here such as loudness for the speaker, a generic “enhancement” for the 3.5mm headset jack that can be toggled, and virtual surround sound for either audio outputs.  Sometimes these help and sometimes they don’t, it really just depends on what you’ve hooked the phone up to and what you’re trying to output, so playing around with these settings could net you better audio.  The speaker on the back of the device was surprisingly loud and clear, and gave some great audio for games and videos.

Software

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Umi has basically left Android alone when it comes to look and feel, and has only added features on top of stock Android 5.1 Lollipop.  This is always an excellent decision, especially on lower powered phones, as the heavy skins and dozens and dozens of features tends to bog the phone down.  The list of features here is still healthy though, and you’re not going to be missing out on some basic functionality just because you don’t want to spend so much on a device.  Things like double tap to wake are here, and launching apps by drawing pre-defined letters with the screen off is possible too.  Make sure to use the fingerprint scanner or a password/PIN code when using this feature though, as you’ll likely end up pocket dialing or launching apps on accident otherwise.

Swiping gestures are here too and allow such things like waiving your hand in front of the screen to take a picture, moving through the gallery with a hand wave, etc.  This is a common feature now but no less useful when the situation is right.  Outside of these features you’re not going to find a whole lot outside of what stock Android 5.1 Lollipop provides, which is fine since you can download apps to replace any needed functionality anyway.  That’s also good given that there’s only a total of 8GB of internal storage here, 4GB of which is usable for apps and data without tapping into that expandable microSD card slot.  The only odd thing here is that Umi removed the tinted status bar portion of Android, meaning you’re always going to have a black status bar up top.  Not sure why this was a design decision but it is what it is.

Security and Privacy

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Having a fingerprint scanner on the Umi Fair certainly gives it an automatic advantage over other phones in this price range on paper, but how well does it work?  Excellent for the most part, but it’s a tad bit slow.  First off you can’t unlock the phone without turning the screen on, so the fingerprint scanner isn’t there for convenience, just security.  Second it normally takes 2 seconds to register the fingerprint, whereas scanners on more expensive phones take fractions of a second.  None of this is really a big deal though, and it certainly doesn’t keep the fingerprint scanner from being useful, mainly because it gets the most important thing right: accuracy.  I only ever had it tell me it couldn’t read my fingerprint twice during my usage time, and that’s a higher success rate than most.

At the present time fingerprints can only be used to unlock the phone, but if there’s an Android 6.0 Marshmallow update it’ll also be able to be used for additional apps as they are made since it’s got official support in the OS.  In addition to this you’ll find auto-start management to keep apps from starting up when you restart the phone, as well as a full per-app permissions section.  This allows you to control permissions for each app and on the individual permissions level too, so denying access to sensitive information for individual apps is possible via this method.  There’s also a simple mobile anti-theft tool here to send an SMS to the phone to remotely wipe it in case it gets lost, and of course using Google’s Android Device Manager will help you find it too.

Camera

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The interface for the camera is identical to just about every other phone in this price range and doesn’t present any surprises either.  On the right you’ll find dedicated shutter and record buttons, while the left side features the camera modes which encompass auto mode, live photo, motion tracking, beauty face, panorama and multi-angle shot.  The biggest difference here is that Umi uses a 16:9 wide aspect ratio lens instead of a standard 4:3 or 3:2 one, meaning the picture will take up the entire viewfinder instead of just a square in the middle of it.  Under settings you’ll find plenty of ways to tweak the image and add various features like zero shutter lag for pictures or digital image stabilization for video.

Photos are taken nice and quickly during good lighting, although the focus is quite slow at times.  Low light shots take a little longer too, and HDR shots take the longest by far.  In fact I would say just don’t bother using HDR, as it not only takes way too long to even take the shot, but doesn’t help it in any way in the vast majority of circumstances.  Overall though the photos taken with regular auto mode are darn good for this price range, and exhibit a level of clarity not often found in such cameras.  The focusing can be a major problem at times though, and many of my low light shots are out of focus completely, something that’s not all that noticeable until you bring the picture on to a bigger screen.  Video was excellent in daylight, however in lower light the framerate drops off a cliff and messes with the audio too, making low light videos nearly useless.  Check out the videos and images in the gallery below.

The Good

Fingerprint scanner

720p screen

Removable back/battery

MicroSD expansion

Dual-SIM

Great sound output

Light and unobtrusive software

Great daylight shots and video

The Bad

Slow when taxed heavily

Poor low light video

Focusing can take way too long on the camera and be inaccurate

Fingerprint scanner is slow

Below average battery life

Final Thoughts

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The Umi Fair is a rather interesting little phone that’s priced incredibly well, but really could use a spec boost in some areas.  The 720p screen looks great for the price but ends up taxing the processor just a little too much, causing some considerably lag and delay when trying to use more than a few apps on the phone.  3D gaming is not exactly great, although it’ll work, and you’re really just going to need to come into this needing some patience if you’re not willing to shell out a bit more for a faster phone.  Having a fingerprint scanner is a big deal, especially at this price range, and Umi’s light and unobtrusive implementation of Android helps sway things to the positive side.  Overall it’s a pretty good phone, especially for the $99 price, just don’t expect to be running super fast with this one.