In the UK, the wireless industry has undergone some changes in the last couple of years. There's sadly less competition on the High Street, and each networks seems to be looking to buy another. One of the more interesting changes for the consumer however, has been the massive improvement of lower-end, mid-range devices that are often much more affordable. Own-brand devices have often carried a bad name in the UK, but as Vodafone's Smart 6 line of products has recently shown, you don't have to spend a huge amount to get a lot these days. Their latest Smart ultra 6 aims to be the cream of the crop, offering a Full HD 5.5-inch display, an octa-core 64-bit CPU and stock Android Lollipop it sure looks that way. At £125 on pay-as-you-go is the Smart ultra 6 really the 4G smartphone that Vodafone makes it out to be? Read on as we try to find out.
So, what exactly are you getting for your £125? Well, the below spec sheet makes it pretty clear that Vodafone have packed this, fairly large, device with all sorts of goodies.
- 5.5-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS Display
- Octa-Core Snapdragon 615 at 1.5 Ghz
- 2GB of RAM
- 3,000 mAh Battery
- 13-megapixel Sony camera with 1080p recording and 5-megapixel front-facing camera
- 16GB of onboard storage with microSD card support
- WiFi 802.11n (single-band only), Bluetooth 4.0, GPS etc
Design and Build
For £125, something has to give, after all producing smartphones might be cheaper than it ever has been, but companies still need to make money. Unfortunately, it would appear that both the overall design and build quality are where Vodafone made their compromises here. Vodafone say that their design team in Dusseldorf have created a minimalist-looking smartphone, and I'm inclined to believe them. I love the fact that there are no logos on the front, I think that's a great move and lets the user's content shine without distraction. Elsewhere however, there's little to write home about, that faux-silver trim around the display feels dated and the back of the device just feels a little below the mark. It's fairly sturdy though, and the display feels tough, which is always a good thing.
The buttons feel mushy and quite shallow, and there's nothing to set the power button apart from the volume rocker, so it can take quite some time to get used to this. At least Vodafone had the sense to put the button on the side, rather than the top of the device though. There's no onscreen buttons here, instead Vodafone have given the Smart ultra 6 capacitive buttons, mercifully these are in the same order as any other Android device so there's not as much of a learning curve. They shine a nice blue color, and the home button pulses as a notification light, which is a subtle and smart reusing of existing hardware. I do wish that they wouldn't disappear all the time however, as the entire front of the display goes dark and it can be hard to find them again, this is again a learning curve though, and once you get used to it, it's fine.
All-in-all, things could be better here, but for £125 this is about what you'd expect, perhaps a little better. The bezels around the display make it pretty big in the hand, but then it's very comfortable to hold when playing games or watching videos, so there's always going to be a tradeoff. I think it looks better in the white than the metallic grey, but this is entirely my preference. If there's a quick way to describe the look and feel it'd be "uninspiring, yet unoffensive".
When someone starts to sell a device with a Full HD display for £125, you instantly start to have doubts. In the past couple of weeks with the Smart ultra 6 I have done everything I would have done with my own devices; watched too much YouTube, played a lot of games and spent time browsing the web. The Smart ultra 6 is definitely better at browsing the web than it is displaying games and video.
The IPS display here definitely feels a little washed out, like the backlight is trying too hard. Having said that, viewing angles are really quite good, there's not much discoloration or anything like that and in most use case it looks great. It is constantly too bright though, even at the lower settings, as a result video and games look good, but they don't 'pop'. If you're a staunch AMOLED obsessive, there's none of the warm saturation and deep blacks here, but if you're not an AMOLED fan and like bright and crisp displays, this gets the job done admirably. I would hate to describe the display here as "lifeless" as that would be unfair, it's sharp and very bright, and if you're not a fan of saturated colors, this is a remarkably good display at this sort of price point. Those looking for a richer tone might need to look elsewhere, though.
There's really not much to say about the software here, because Vodafone have made the excellent decision to go with stock Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. Now, that might not be the absolute latest version of Android, but it still feels fresh and fun. If you've ever used Android 5.0, then you will know how to use this right away.
Vodafone have included a number of their own apps, but they are just that; inclusions rather than replacements. There are apps like a File browser, an FM Radio, a Sound Recorder and a myriad of Vodafone apps. Some might find these annoying, but a sound recorder and file browser are things you might download yourself anyway, and considering they're not included in Android, it's not a horrible inclusion. The one inclusion that I really didn't like was the change from including Google Now as a swipe on the homescreen, to Flipboard.
Now, I have nothing against Flipboard, it's just that Google Now offers so much more than a news app. Plus, it's not all that well integrated, and it more appears abruptly than smoothly transitions into the app. Of course, it's nice to see something different going on here than the usual doldrum of Android features, and besides the Flipboard integration, the launcher is 100% pure Android.
Overall, this is stock Android with a few apps on top, which is a great way to deliver a device like this on the cheap. Spending money on extra software is only a good idea if you can afford it, and considering this sells for £125 we'd be willing to wager that Vodafone didn't want to spend the extra on fancy software. This is a high point of the Smart ultra 6 and for a lot of consumers will offer a fresh, fun and clean experience.
There's a Snapdragon 615 on the inside of the Smart ultra 6 and you'd think any octa-core CPU would run great, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Android 5.0.2 Lollipop is running the show here, and there's very few modifications if any, but things seem to be pretty unresponsive and fairly slow at times. When it comes to everyday performance, everything runs quickly, but it's not very smooth. All those fun animations in Lollipop feel sluggish and they often stutter. It's a little disappointing to see some stuttering like this, but again this doesn't cost a huge amount, but I would have expected better.
When playing games - I tested Colin McCrae Rally, Crossy Road and Sonic Runners more than anything - things were quick, but again not very smooth and in racing games the frame drops were fairly noticeable. It's almost as if the CPU is keeping up just fine, but the Adreno 405 GPU can't quite keep in line with the rest of the game. For casual titles though, I don't see much of a problem.
Vodafone have packed the Smart ultra 6 with a 13-megapixel sensor from Sony. Right away, expectations are high for a sensor from Sony, after all their own Xperia Z line of devices have some of the best camera hardware on the market. Of course, here things are more than a little different. The Smart ultra 6 is capable of taking decent photos, the problems begin in the camera software, sadly.
The auto mode is absolutely fine, it's easy enough to set a time or turn the flash on or off, and it produces okay photos. There is also a manual mode as well:
It's both surprisingly and pleasing to see a manual mode even offered here, but it's also sadly a prime example of what's wrong the Smart ultra 6's camera experience. It's slow. Anything more than pointing and hitting the button evokes some frustrating load times and the manual mode is great, yet so sluggish it's often hard to use. Having said that, the Smart ultra 6 has more settings than even some of today's high-end devices have, so there is that to consider.
Navigating photos taken quickly in the mini-gallery is okay, but it's again quite slow, and let's the whole show down. It's frustrating to actually use the camera software for anything other than pressing one button in the auto menu. There are lots of other modes though, which make this a versatile, if not frustrating experience.
As for results, below is a gallery of some snaps that hopefully show you what the Smart ultra 6 is capable of. Overall, the results are oversaturated and dark, colors definitely pop but detail seems to be lost in the shadows or blown out by oversaturation. Focus is good however, and once you get it right it's nice and sharp.
Sound and Call Quality
There's one speaker and an earpiece with the Vodafone Smart ultra 6, the speaker being your typical around the back affair and the earpiece, well, it's an earpiece. So, how does this phone sound when making phone calls?
On phone calls, people said that I sounded a little muffled compared to my regular smartphones - Moto X (2014) and Xperia Z2 - but there were few complaints. To me, callers sounded good on my end, if not a little muted. One strange thing that I found with the Smart ultra 6 is that the device got quite hot next to my ear when I was on the phone, but take that for what you will.
Speaker wise, the Smart ultra 6 does a decent job of staying loud and fairly crisp. There's not much body to the sound here, as in there's very little bass, but it's not exactly tinny, either. Crisp is the operative word here, and at times the sound could be a little harsh, but overall I am impressed for one small speaker on a device like this. It doesn't distort at high volumes and it's nice and clear, too.
Using various different earphones and headphones, I'd say that the sound quality here was okay. It's nothing to write home about, but it's far from offensive. I felt like I could have done with a little more warmth and body to the sound, but if you have a fairly decent pair of earphones, this won't disappoint when streaming music on the go.
It doesn't matter how good a smartphone is, if it doesn't get you through the day it's not all that useful, is it? The Smart ultra 6 has a 3,000 mAh battery inside of it. For those that don't know; that's a sizable battery. Even so, the battery life of the Smart ultra 6 could be better.
Playing games or anything CPU-intensive seems to really hurt the longevity of the battery throughout any given day, however the idle time is fantastic. If you're going to keep your phone untouched for a few hours while at work or whatever, then this guy can keep on going quite happily.
Light to moderate users should get a day or more out of this, but those that enjoy games or watching YouTube will find out that 5.5-inch display sucks away at battery life. For a device at this price point, this is an admirable showing, though.
Throughout this review, I've mentioned that this costs just £125, and there's a reason why I kept mentioning it. To purchase a device like this for £125 would have been unheard of a few years ago in the UK market. Since the Moto G arrived, we're finally starting to see just what budget devices can do, and for a lot of people they offer more than enough. The Smart ultra 6 will of course leave you locked to Vodafone's network, but if that works well for you, then that's not much of a problem.
The build quality could be better, the overall physical size of the handset won't be everyone's liking, and performance isn't exactly stellar but, this ticks many of the more important boxes. The display is really quite good at this price point, it has decent battery life (depending on your usage) and it runs Lollipop without messy software getting in the way of an otherwise good experience. While not perfect, Vodafone have set a good standard for what an own-brand smartphone really should be.