Many modern smartphones are expensive. Each year, the established manufacturers release a flagship device that costs many hundreds of dollars. But many people are unable, or simply don't want to spend so much on a smartphone. The flagship is often followed up by lesser models in the range with correspondingly lower specifications. At the bottom of the range we find those unglamorous models with weak specifications and cheaper prices. These models are often skipped over when devices are reviewed because those people who search for online reviews of smartphones are interested in the very latest mobile technology. However, to put things into perspective, the device I am reviewing today has a UK cost of £40 (around $60), which is less than many people pay per month for their flagship device! The price is exciting, especially when it's matched to a proper Android smartphone even though there are definite compromises along the way.
Entry level devices mean getting as best an experience possible within tightly controlled costs. As the retail price drops, so the importance of saving a few dollars here or there with a cheaper component becomes more important. This causes compromises on the device that we don't see on more expensive models: a few dollars here or there to use a lesser component may be a disproportionately large amount for a small hardware budget. The genius of a good entry level handset is in making the right compromises to get the price down but keep the experience up.
Let me introduce the Vodafone Smart first 6, which is made by TCL, the same company behind Alcatel. and yes: "first" is all in lower case. This is Vodafone UK's take on a 2015 budget Android device. Yes: the customer gets a modest device with modest hardware. As an observation at the start of this review, the first 6 is cheaper than the Android One devices, but the machine's specification is less than Android One offerings. This is important because Google set down Android One's minimum specification with the intention of providing customers with a solid Android experience. From the specification, then, we reasonably infer that the first 6 may not provide such a solid Android experience. I'll write about this later in the review.
As I've already written above, the first 6 has a basic core specification set. By the numbers, then:
- MediaTek MT6752M, 32-bit, 1.0 GHz, dual-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor built on a 28nm die size, backed up by 512 MB of RAM and Mali-400 graphics.
- 4 GB of internal storage (1.6 GB available at first boot). MicroSD card slot, up to 32 GB and as tested with a 16 GB card installed
- 4.0-inch, 480 by 800 resolution LCD for 233ppi sharpness
- Rear mounted 2.0MP camera, although through some software cleverness it behaves as a 3.0MP unit
- 1,400 mAh replaceable battery; claimed battery life is 7 hours talk time
- 3G HSPA, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, GPS, FM Radio
- 121.6mm by 64.4mm by 11.8mm; weighs 112g
Hardware, Design and Build
The Smart first 6 has a rather staid design. The back comes apart for the replaceable battery, MicroSD and MiniSIM. In the box, customers can pick from a black or white rear, which is a nice touch. Along the top edge, there a 3.5mm headphone socket. The lock and volume keys are along the right hand edge as you look at the device and the MicroUSB power and data port is along the bottom edge. There's a single pin hole for the microphone along the bottom. On the back, you'll find the single speaker grill and the camera lens.
On the front of the device, at the bottom we see what looks like Lollipop icons at the bottom of the screen. Yes; the first 6 does not use software buttons on the screen but instead has a Back, Home and Menu button along the bottom row. I adapted to this arrangement very quickly: it's not my preferred way of working with Android but then again I prefer having buttons that are close to Google's arrangement rather than a physical hardware home button.
Unfortunately, the handset feels somewhat hollow and the battery door is cheap feeling. The screen is a dust and fingerprint magnet, too. But whilst the handset doesn't feel premium to handle, it's reasonably compact and lightweight. You also get a spare back in a different color. Ultimately, there's not so much else to say about the design. It's neither exciting nor does it need to be.
Vodafone are also sellling a clear rubber back case for the first 6 at £12, available only in stores.
The first 6 has a 4.0-inch, 480 by 800 pixel LCD screen. It's a non-IPS panel so it doesn't have the same wide viewing angles as flagship devices and the screen quickly becomes unreadable off angle. However, I found the resolution easy to live with despite using something with a 1080p resolution screen as my normal daily driver. Color reproduction is somewhat flat and dull with the screen brightness turned down but otherwise the screen is easy to live with.
One minor annoyance is that the device does not have an automatic brightness control for the screen. The quickest way to access the brightness widget is with a two finger swipe down on the notification area, then tapping the brightness icon and adjusting here. However, if you've made the mistake of not adjusting the brightness up before leaving your house or office, you may find that at low brightness you cannot see the screen well enough to even adjust the brightness which can be a little annoying.
My biggest issue with the screen is that it can occasionally not read my fingertip properly, such that when trying to provide the unlock code or navigating websites, the device behaves as though the calibration is wrong. This was an intermittent issue with the device and bizarrely only seemed to be an issue with certain websites and the lock screen.
The Vodafone Smart first 6 has a single speaker on the back, which is reasonably loud but distorts above the two thirds point. It'll notify you of things you might need to know about but it's not so great for watching videos or listening to music. There's a 3.5mm headphone socket at the top of the device and to my ears, the Smart sounds well balanced for music. When paired up with a Google account, Google Play Music, WiFi and a reasonably sized MicroSD card, the first 6 becomes a respectable music player, but you'll want to make most of your music available offline. More on this later.
Performance, Memory, Multitasking
As I wrote above, the first 6 has an older, slower dual-core processor backed up with 512 MB of RAM. This processor is the ARM Cortex-A7 design, which has a bias towards power efficiency rather than performance. For academic reference I've put the PCMark benchmark below but it is no surprise that the device isn't all that powerful. It doesn't have the same snap as a mid-range device and sometimes applications take several seconds to open. The sluggish performance is mostly because the device only has 512 MB of RAM, which means the processor must shuffle and reorganize memory contents when switching between applications. CPU Spy reports that the processor spends most of its time at the 1.0 GHz point rather than the 600 MHz point (the lowest clock speed available).
Multitasking, then, means here to switch to a new application and wait for the device to reload. For the serial multitaskers – those people who go from Gmail to Chrome to Instagram to Facebook to Messaging… the first 6 will likely frustrate them. However, to those people who will likely log into Facebook and spend time using just this one application, the first 6 is much less a compromise. Yes, you have to wait several seconds for the Facebook application to load but once you are in, it's not so bad. Given the likely market for the first 6, this probably isn't too big a deal but it is something to bear in mind if you're an existing Android smartphone user.
Another difference between the Smart first 6 and devices with 1 GB or more of RAM is that as you load up more and more connected applications into the first 6, so it struggles more and more. Whilst Android is efficient at dealing with application stubs that are designed to wait until something interesting happens (using the Google Cloud Messaging system), as you add more connected applications, so you use up more and more free RAM. There is over 1.5 GB of space for applications in internal storage but I'd recommend exercising caution before piling on the eBay, Instagram, SnapChat, LinkedIns of the Google Play Store.
To summarize with device performance: the first 6 performs very much in line with my expectations for low end hardware. The phone makes hard work out of switching between applications, but during lighter workloads it's acceptable. This is reflected with the synthetic PCMark benchmark score of 965:
Cellular Data, WiFi, Bluetooth
Vodafone's Smart first 6 is a 3G only device. It's contains a quad band GSM / EDGE radio and a 900 / 2,100 MHz HSPA modem capable of a download speed of up to 21.6 Mbps. I had no issues with signal or coverage but as a caveat, I do not use a Vodafone handset so I was not able to compare how well it kept a signal compared with other Vodafone devices. Nevertheless, it was able to maintain a call even when the signal dropped to one bar.
The first 6 comes with 802.11 b/g/n WiFi operating at the 2.4 GHz point. I had no connection issues with the device whatsoever in the personal and public WiFi hotspots that I tried, with the exception that sometimes it wasn't easy to tap the "connect" button on a public or coffee shop WiFi hotspot.
The first 6 also comes with Bluetooth 4, which uses much less battery than older standards. Again, it worked exactly as I would hope it should. I could connect to my car kit and stream music to a wireless speaker whilst multitasking without issue. Also, leaving Bluetooth on I did not notice a meaningful impact on battery life.
For those of us who buy a 'phone to talk as much as Tweet, you'll be pleased to read that the Smart first 6 acquits itself well in this respect. The earpiece is a little quieter than some models but voice quality is respectable. There's no noise cancelling secondary microphone but people at the other end of line reported that the voice quality was acceptable. As I've written above, the device also holds onto a call even when the signal is weak.
One small area of complaint is that when a call comes in and the device is otherwise busy, it can take a couple of seconds before the incoming call screen pops up. Nevertheless, the first 6 gets a thumbs up in this respect as sometimes call quality is one of the compromises seen in a budget device.
Vodafone advertise the first 6 as having a 2.0MP rear camera but with software interpolation takes images with 3.0MP size. As any photographer will tell you, it's not the number of pixels that the sensor has but the lens quality, the sensor quality and to a lesser extent, the software processing of images once taken. This all read, that the first 6 comes with a camera is fine and it works, but the image quality is not great. You can, however, take up to forty pictures by holding down the shutter button, which Google AutoAwesome will usually string into an animated image. The lack of a front facing camera may annoy the SnapChatters or serial Google Hangouts video callers amongst us, however.
I've compiled a small gallery of pictures taken by the first 6:
Smartphone battery life is a very personal thing because all users are different. We have a different blend of applications, we use our devices in different areas to do different things. Anything from the signal, to how often and how we travel through to how frequently we handle our device can make a huge difference to battery life. This means that before I write about my impression of battery life, I need to write about how I use the device. And in the case of the first 6, given the likely target market I tried using the device in a couple of different ways.
To write about the first 6 from the battery life perspective, it comes with a 1,400 mAh battery, which is quite small. However, it also has a 4.0-inch, 480 by 800 pixel screen and a processor optimized for low power consumption and a near-stock software interface, which I hoped might be power efficient.
At first, I decided to bite the bullet and put down my HTC One M8 and pick up the first 6 for a few days. I used my 'phone to make a few voice calls either via the voice network or Google Hangouts, text and Hangout messages, worked with Gmail and Chrome and listened to music via the Google Play Music application. The Smart is a little sluggish, especially switching from Gmail to Chrome and back again, but works fine. However, streaming music over the 3G network destroyed the battery. I tried this connected to a few masts and the result was the same, as though the modem is especially inefficient. Streaming over WiFi was fine from a battery life perspective. I was able to get through a day of use to a charge providing I downloaded my music before I hit the road, or only streamed via WiFi.
The second usage profile was to disable the mobile data connection of the first 6 and only connect to the Internet via the WiFi network. Some of Vodafone's literature implies that the first 6 is an ideal device for those customers who don't want to spend money on a permanent data connection but instead want to enable it when they require it, but otherwise stick to WiFi. The difference in battery life was significant: I went from one day and somewhere a little over two hours of screen on time, to three days and over seven hours of screen on time. As you can see, I was using the device less per day, but it was also using much less battery power in use.
Regardless of if the data connection and WiFi radios are enabled or not, the Smart first 6 sips battery when idle. In this respect, it's one of the better devices I've used, but otherwise the first 6 performed in line with my expectations.
Vodafone's Smart products use an interface that is similar to stock Android, but has a number of subtle changes. So, you get a launcher that looks like the stock launcher, but has a number of adjustments here and there. It's fast, however – I did try the Google Experience Launcher and this was too sluggish on the device. There are some additional options buried in the Settings application; some are fairly trivial such as the ability to add the battery percentage on the status bar, plus the ability to adjust how the notification bar appears on the device, too. These include the ability to have the handset automatically turn off at night and back on again in the morning. One particularly nice trick that the first 6 does is that when entering the lock code, the device does not wait for you to tap "Unlock" after you tap in the final digit, instead it unlocks itself.
I did notice the battery statistics looked somewhat off, showing that the screen is not the main power user behind the radios, but the device wasn't behaving as though the modem or WiFi were massive power hogs.
I started the review by explaining that a budget Android device represents a compromise between performance and price. The Vodafone Smart first 6 errs very much on the side of price rather than performance. Trying to use the device to hold a few conversations in Hangouts whilst listening to music and switching between other applications quickly becomes a frustrating experience as when you switch to another application, you must wait several seconds for the operating system to catch up. However, stick to one application and the first 6 starts to make more sense. Or use it as a cheap Google Play Music device and I can see the appeal. More experienced Android users will be better off saving a little longer for the Motorola Moto E.
And yet… I have enjoyed my time with the first 6. It's capable for basic gaming; it runs Angry Birds just fine, and can then handle a few emails, calls or text messages. For the first time Android customer who isn't constantly checking their smartphone and who doesn't want to spend much on a device, the first 6 makes sense.