When we read "budget device," most people think of a product designed to be built down to a price. Sometimes, this results in a smartphone or tablet with one or two deal breaking faults. Sometimes, it results in a device that significantly outperforms the expectations for the cost and a good example of this is the 2013, original, Motorola Moto G, which performed like a mid range device but was priced at the bottom end. Motorola weren't the first manufacturer to design and sell a low cost, well performing Android smartphone but they did so very well and the ramifications of the Moto G can still be felt today. And whilst we still have high end and low end devices, there's a wide open space between the two where we find the mid range devices. Mid range devices usually offer hardware a little bit less than that of the flagship device and are missing a feature or two, but have fewer compromises than a low end device. Looking into the future, mid range devices are often not supported by the manufacturer for software updates and similar for as long as flagship devices either.
Our carriers have been taking notice of the segregation in the market between the high end, mid range and low end devices. With the possible exception of Verizon, where they work directly with a manufacturer to sell a high end product as a near-exclusive (the Motorola Droid Turbo), today's carriers tend to stick with the low and mid range devices. Here, they can offer a smartphone tailored to their network. Sometimes, these carrier-branded efforts are mediocre and sometimes they show real signs of brilliance.
Enter the Vodafone Smart prime 6, Vodafone UK carrier's latest mid range Android smartphone. Here is a device that draws inspiration from the original Moto G in that it purports to offer more than the price tag would suggest. The device in question is manufactured by Alcatel (TCT) and carries the model designation V895N. Like the original Moto G, Alcatel have spent their money wisely on the hardware and largely left the software as it leaves Google's engineers.
If you don't particularly want to read through what is going to be a long review document, but instead you're itching to jump to the conclusion: the Smart prime 6 is more of a brilliant mid range than an average effort. There are some compromises, but very few. If I were looking to upgrade my device, the quality of the Smart prime 6 would make me consider moving to Vodafone UK - especially when it costs just £79. Yes; it's that good.
Looking through the specification list is an interesting exercise in seeing where Vodafone made their compromises.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, 64-bit, 1.2 GHz, quad core ARM Cortex-A53 processor built on a 28nm die size, backed up by 1 GB of RAM and Adreno 306 GPU.
- 8 GB of internal storage. MicroSD card slot, up to 64 GB and as tested with a 16 GB card.
- 5.0-inch, 720 by 1,280 resolution LCD for 294ppi sharpness.
- Rear mounted 8.0MP camera, front facing 2.0MP camera.
- 2,500 mAh battery; claimed battery life is 18 hours talk time.
- 4G LTE, 3G HSPA, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, GPS, FM Radio.
- 141.7mm by 71.9mm by 9 mm, weighs 155g.
Hardware, Design and Build
The picture above shows the Vodafone Smart prime 6 next to the HTC One M9. As you can see, the prime 6 is a little shorter but slightly wider than the HTC One, but it lack's the HTC's characteristic BoomSound front facing speakers. Despite the extra height of the prime 6, it didn't feel awkward in the hand but readers should note that I am a long term HTC One M8 owner so I am used to this size of device. Yes; the prime 6 is plastic rather than metal, so it feels different to handle but it's solidly built and well made.
The Smart prime 6 doesn't win any competitions with the design but it feels solid in the hand and has some nice features. The back comes off for the SIM and MicroSD cards but the device feels solid with or without this. Along the top edge, there a 3.5mm headphone socket and the noise cancelling microphone pin hole. 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 also a pin hole for the primary microphone along the bottom. On the back, you'll find the single speaker grill, camera lens and single flash LED and you'll find a small, bright white notification LED on the top left of the front of the screen.
The prime 6 uses illuminated capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen; this is one of the main differences between Vodafone's Android and Google's stock Android. There are Back, Home and Switch App buttons along the bottom row. It contributes to the extra height (or length) of the Smart. I adapted to this arrangement very quickly: it's not my preferred way of working with Android, but this arrangement is very close to Google's arrangement rather than a physical hardware home button.
In the hand, the prime 6 feels like a typical 5.0-inch smartphone. There is a bezel but this did not bother me in the slightest. Instead, at the risk of using a meaningless word, the Smart feels "nice." It's pleasant rather than inspiration; it has a smooth, understated look. It doesn't excite but it doesn't need to. It does, however, feel more premium than one might expect given the very low price tag.
There is not so much to say here: the prime 6 uses a 5.0-inch, 720p IPS LCD that isn't the same quality as a premium flagship smartphone, but is not difficult to live with. Yes, 720p resolution over the 5.0-inch isn't as sharp as a 1080p or 1440p QHD resolution panel but most of the time I simply couldn't a difference. The only weakness is color reproduction, which is paler compared with premium models. In particular, reds are muted, which is ironic given red is very much Vodafone's brand color! In isolation, the prime 6's screen is absolutely fine and it only suffers when compared back to back with a competitor device.
The prime 6 also comes with an ambient light sensor and Android Lollipop's adaptive brightness setting, so it'll brighten and dim the screen to suit the surroundings: I didn't struggle with using the device indoors. Outdoors, even at maximum brightness, it could be difficult to work with as with most modern smartphones - the screen is very reflective, which makes taking a picture of the device difficult without being in the shot myself! And like many modern smartphones it's perhaps a little bit too bright at night, although there are applications that can help here.
The Vodafone Smart has a single speaker on the back, which is typical of the breed. In isolation, it doesn't sound so bad, but it's tinny and distorted at higher volume. The biggest issue for listening to media is that it is on the back of the device rather than on the front, which means it's easily blocked by a hand. There is the tiniest of bumps to keep it proud of the surface it's placed down on and it sits right before the rear of the chassis curves, so when laid flat on a desk or surface, it isn't muffled. However, I would go so far as to say that the single rear-facing speaker is one of the Smart prime 6's compromises.
Performance, Memory, Multitasking
The prime 6 is packing an entry level, 64-bit Qualcomm processor, this being the quad core Snapdragon 410 clocked at up to 1.2 GHz. The Snapdragon 410 is the follow up System-on-Chip (SoC) to the successful Snapdragon 400, which was used in the Moto G. As with the Moto G, the prime 6 has 1 GB of RAM, which compares with the typical 3 GB we find on 2015 flagship devices. This is the second compromise of the device, although in my use it was not a deal breaker.
The more RAM an Android device has, the smooth it runs but the scale is not linear. With 512 MB of RAM, Android has to shunt memory around as the user loads and runs different applications. With 1 GB of RAM, things are considerably better. 2 GB of RAM and things are better but the difference is smaller. Moving to 3 GB shows a smaller improvement. With 1 GB of RAM, we can expect the device to suffer from some slowdowns owing to low memory, especially when using an application known for being greedy with memory. And in use, this is exactly what we see: some websites grind the device down to a crawl, but luckily these usually have an application (such as Amazon) to use instead. Switching between heavyweight applications causes the device to pause as the operating system juggles RAM.
For the benchmarkers out there, the prime 6 doesn't set the charts alight but what it does instead offer is a solid performance across the board. It helps that the Smart runs Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, which is (generally) a smooth and fluid interface. The majority of applications run as well on the Smart prime 6 as on a modern flagship device and at least on the networks I was using, are usually limited in speed by the data or WiFi network you're pulling the data from. The PCMark benchmark ran below is largely for academic purposes as it's how the device felt in use that counts.
And in the hand, most of the time the device performs absolutely fine. The prime 6 can take a second to switch to another task, but it is not outrageously slow and with Lollipop running the show, it remains smooth and fluid. These delays serve as a reminder that the prime 6 is using an entry-level processor with 1 GB of RAM. And moving about the interface, the Smart didn't match the overall snap of a flagship device, but I did not find it frustrating either. The handset also runs cool as well, which is not something all devices share. For the times when it struggles, such as opening a complex website or two, yes things can be sluggish.
For multitasking, the prime 6 comes with Android Lollipop's stock window switching interface, accessed by a tap on the task switcher icon. Switching between applications is as good as can be expected, although sometimes it can take a moment for a new application to launch. Away from complex 3D games, where the prime 6 can struggle, the most obvious difference between this entry level chipset and something from a mid or flagship device is when it is being used for video calling, as sometimes the handset cannot keep up with the video feed.
Most of the time, then, the prime 6 delivers a solid, consistent, robust performance. It's smooth and fluid. It is no flagship device, but it does not feel frustratingly sluggish either. This is backed up by the PCMark score of 3,175, which compared with say the original Motorola Moto G's score of 2,836.
Finally, the thing about the memory is that the device has a claimed 8 GB of internal storage with around 5 GB free at first set up. You can use the MicroSD card to store applications and this helps expand the available space, but if you are planning on installing heavyweight games you'll run out of space very quickly. This is another compromise of the device, but given the entry level SoC it is probably not a gamers' first choice anyway.
Cellular Data, WiFi, Bluetooth
The prime 6 comes with 4G LTE as well as the as-expected GPRS / EDGE, UMTS and HSPA technology. I live in an area with weak Vodafone LTE coverage but had no issues with signal or coverage. At my office, the prime 6 was able to sniff out a weak 4G LTE signal with either no or one bar showing, whereas the considerably more expensive HTC One M9 was firmly locked to Vodafone's 3G network. The Smart prime 6 was also able to hold on to a call with only one bar of signal showing.
The prime 6 has comes with 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4. I had no connection issues with the device whatsoever in the personal and public WiFi hotspots that I tried and I was able to keep Bluetooth running all of the time with no material difference to battery life. Bluetooth worked as expected and connected to my car kit and Bluetooth speakers with no issues.
One of the more unfortunate traits of low end devices is that manufacturers do not spend so much money on telephony components - typically, the earpiece is quiet, or produces poor sound quality and sometimes both. Perhaps the microphone isn't in a great place, or the device can drop a call in an area of low signal. This is not appear to be the case with the Vodafone Smart prime 6: the handset is excellent for calls. It's one of the best smartphones I have ever used for calling. Voices are loud and clear whilst at the other side, callers reported I was loud and clear, even having to turn the volume down. I have already covered how well the device clings on to a call when traveling through an area with poor signal.
The Smart prime 6 comes with a 8.0MP rear camera backed up with a 2.0MP front facing camera. Vodafone have given the Smart prime 6 a simple interface and an acceptable camera. Camera performance is fine in brighter light but the camera struggles when things are getting dark. The flash helps, and you can turn on the flash as a flashlight when taking pictures too, but the Smart prime 6's camera is one of the weaker items of the handset.
Included above is a gallery of pictures taken using the prime 6 in a number of locations and with different lighting conditions. As you can see, the camera struggles with varying lighting conditions.
Battery life is a very personal thing because we all have different applications, different habits, signals, accessories and similar. My own use of a smartphone is reasonably lightweight: I use it for calling and messaging either over the carrier or data connection using Google Hangouts, usually close to a couple of hours of conversations. In a typical day, I'll have the screen on for a couple of hours, more if I video call. I keep all radios on, that being; cellular data, NFC, Bluetooth and WiFi. I keep location services enabled and my screen is set to my automatic brightness.
From the numbers perspective, the prime 6 comes with a 2,500 mAh battery, a power efficient System-on-Chip and a 720p resolution display. The lower the screen resolution, the less hard the device has to work and so it stands to reason that the prime 6 should show decent battery life, all things being equal.
And so it turns out to be: the device was showing just under four hours of screen on time over almost two days, using the device as my main handset. This included over an hour of calling via Google Hangouts and some video calling too. All up, the prime 6's battery life is commendable.
As with the recently reviewed Vodafone Smart first 6, the prime 6 uses an interface that is similar to stock Android with a number of subtle changes and a lot of Vodafone applications installed as standard. The first difference is the inclusion of the capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen. The launcher is similar to the Google Experience Launcher but has a favorite application if you swipe right, so you can customize the app here rather than always getting Google Now. By default, the device uses Flipboard here (and again you can see a certain HTC influence here) but it's easy to switch this to be the Google Search application, or for that matter anything else you want to. Vodafone have also included the Simple Launcher, which as the name suggests, simplifies how the device looks and feels. The left home screen contains favorite contacts, the centre screen contains your six favorite apps and the screen to the right has space for another nine applications.
Under the skin, the prime 6 is very close to stock Android. The usual suspects are here from Google's Power Saver mode through to the settings menu; there is very little change. This is good news from a usability perspective. Whether this will be a device receiving software updates in a timely fashion remains to be seen. However, on software updates; it would not be recommend buying the Smart prime 6 - or any handset - based on what the software may deliver going forwards.
There is a large number of Vodafone applications installed onto the device. There are all manner of account management applications to network testing to accessory websites. Whilst there are over a dozen, and the device encourages you to download more during the initial setup of the device, these may all be removed from the device via the usual Uninstall route. So yes, there's a chunk of Vodafone bloat on the device but it's easily removed. The one exception is Vodafone insist on bundling their own Messenger client on the device. It was easy to switch to Google Hangouts for text messaging, or another third party application.
The Vodafone Smart prime 6 is a brilliant example of a low-cost handset with a thoughtful set of components and performance where it counts. Highlights of the device include the brilliant call quality, solid battery life and very near stock Android 5.0 Lollipop software. Where there are compromises to be made, none of these feel like a deal breaker. The screen isn't flagship grade and there were no problems adjusting to 720p resolution from time spent at 1080p. The camera is indifferent and the Snapdragon 410 hardware doesn't scream along. There is only a relatively limited amount of internal space for applications, so if you have plans to install heavyweight games then the prime 6 is not the device for you - but given the Snapdragon 410 processor and 720p, the prime 6 is not likely to be on your shortlist.
For everybody else looking for a competent mid range device, especially if you like the look and feel of stock Android, the Vodafone Smart prime 6 is a great place to start if you are happy and able to use Vodafone UK as a carrier.