Chinese manufacturer Cubot Mobile has been working on expanding their product line up from outside of China across the world. To this end, they have been making their devices available around the world via their website online sales plus other distributors. Cubot have also improved their smartphones, enhancing the design and features whilst offering devices at great prices. What we are looking at today is the Cubot X17 4G smartphone, finished in white and available from GearBest at the usual price of $170, but at the time of writing it's on a special Holiday offer for just $135.
The X17 is very much a mid-range smartphone with an eclectic mix of features and specification and a low end price tag. Some features are greater than we might expect and others are somewhat less. Often, the less expensive smartphones are very much built down to a price and are lacking in certain features. The trick behind any lower or mid-end device is the particular blend of abilities that a given manufacturer has installed into a particular device and how well this fits with the customer. The best mid-range devices leave enough of the great Android smartphone features and dispense with the nice-to-have features. Let's take a look to see how well Cubot have optimized the X17 4G. If you are reading this article with a view to buying the X17, and are considering skipping to the conclusion below in what is going to be a long document, overall the Cubot X17 is a fine mid-range device. Its strengths are in the responsive screen, customizable interface and respectable performance most of the time. Call audio quality is noticeably poorer than flagship grade smartphones but is still usable. The cameras and battery life are acceptable too.
Cubot have made a number of compromises with the X17's specification. Some are typical of mid-range devices and a number are not.
MediaTek MT6735 System-on-Chip, 64-bit, 1.3 GHz, quad core ARM Cortex-A53 processor built on a 28nm processor size, backed up by 3 GB of RAM and ARM's Mali-T720 GPU.
16 GB of internal storage. MicroSD card slot, shared with a SIM slot, supporting up to a 32 GB card and tested as such.
5.0-inch, 1,080 by 1,920 resolution LCD for 441ppi sharpness.
Rear mounted 13MP camera, front facing 5MP camera.
2,500 mAh battery; claimed battery life is two to three days of standby.
Dual SIM standby, offering one NanoSIM and one MicroSIM slot each. 4G Cat. 4 LTE with support for Bands 1, 3, 7 and 20, 3G HSPA, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, GPS, FM Radio.
143.4mm by 69.4mm by 6.1mm thick, weighs 163g.
In The Box
The Cubot X17 arrived in a small, unassuming brown box, which contained the handset itself, a charger adapter, USB cable, some manuals and handbooks plus a spare screen protector. The device was already in a thin plastic case, showing above and featuring a cutout for the rear speaker, plus it was also wearing a screen protector; it's good to have a spare just in case. The supplied charger is rated at 5.0 V and 1.0 A.
On paper, Cubot have given the X17 a reasonably typical size and resolution display at 1080p and 5.0-inch across the diagonal. This gives the device a respectable 441ppi, which means for many people the screen is sharp and clear. However, screen sharpness is only part of what makes a decent screen - color accuracy and saturation, brightness levels, reflectivity and touch sensitivity are also important. However, to write about the screen sharpness first - here the X17 is as sharp as the numbers might suggest. My eyes are unable to distinguish between individual pixels.
With the default screen setting, the X17's LCD has washed out colors that are flat and uninspiring. Fortunately, Cubot have given the device a MiraVision option in the Settings, Display section of the device. The device comes with three modes: Standard, Vivid and User, which is fully customizable with the ability to adjust the brightness, color saturation, sharpness and color. Ultimately, the MiraVision feature doesn't give the screen an AMOLED coloration, but it's noticeably better than the stock color scheme. One quirk with the device, which Android Lollipop comes with but Cubot have removed, is how to bias the automatic screen brightness setting. It's easy to manually adjust brightness using the notification drop down menu and switch the device into automatic or manual modes.
The screen is sensitive enough under the provided screen protector. It's capable of keeping up with my typing and sweeping through applications and menu settings without an issue. The screen protector has a slight matt texture and appearance, and makes the device a pleasure to use. To summarize, the Cubot's 5.0-inch, 1080p display is something of a high point of the device, especially for the price. Being able to fine tune the screen is a welcome feature, and the one tap moving the screen from Standard to Vivid makes an appreciable difference.
Hardware, Design and Build
Although the Cubot X17 is not unattractive, indeed it's quite handsome from some angles, it's also somewhat nondescript in a world of handsome devices. It's built from a combination of metal, glass and plastic and has a certain heft to it, despite being beautifully thin and sturdy. When it arrived in the box, it was already wearing a rather thin and flexible plastic rear case plus a matt screen protector, which should give the device some protection in normal use. The case feels flimsy and might not afford much protection should you drop it but there are other reasons why you might want to keep the X17 in it. It's nice to see Cubot including these accessories in the box.
There's a pin to remove the SIM and MicroSD card slot on the left edge as the device faces you, which looks very similar to the Apple iPhone pin. You'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack along the top edge but there does not appear to be a noise cancelling microphone; more on this later. The lock and volume keys are along the right hand edge and on the back, there's a camera at the top left complete with the dual color flash module. The camera module protrudes a little when the device is out of the case, but sits flush when in it and this is the first reason why I would recommend keeping the device in the provided case. There's a USB port at the bottom for charging and the computer connection and a single speaker grill on the back.
The Cubot X17 uses capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen, which are not illuminated. That the device has touch-sensitive buttons rather than on-screen buttons is one of the more obvious differences between the Cubot and stock Android. These are arranged in menu, home and back from left to right, which is another difference. It wasn't difficult to adapt to this way of working but I frequently switch between devices; your personal mileage may vary. I do miss the on-screen multi-tasking button and instead I need to long hold the home key, although this screen snaps up quickly once triggered and contains additional information about the device including the remaining battery, voltage, temperature plus the RAM status. There's a simple memory clean up button in this screen, too; for the most part there's no need to clean memory of running tasks and when you do, the device feels sluggish afterwards.
Performance, Memory, Multitasking, Benchmarks
The Cubot X17 is packing an entry level, quad core, 64-bit MediaTek MT6735 processor with a maximum clock speed of 1.3 GHz and is paired up with the ARM Mali-T720 GPU. On paper, this chipset does not sound terribly exciting, especially as the T740 GPU supports up to a 1080p display, so Cubot have maxed out the GPU with their choice of screen resolution. However, the X17 does come with a healthy 3 GB of RAM, which is reassuring for real world performance, and we also need to consider how the overwhelming majority of applications use just one or sometimes two processor cores. That System-on-Chip's single core computation speed is more relevant than the number of cores.
Before I dig into how the device is in the hand, by the numbers and in terms of processing information, the MediaTek MT6735 should perform as well, core for core and clock for clock, as other chipsets based around the ARM Cortex-A53 core. This means that for crunching numbers, the X17 should be as effective as handsets based around the highly successful Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, which itself is mildly quicker than the Snapdragon 400. That the MT6735 has four application cores rather than eight shouldn't make much difference as relatively few applications use more than one or two cores. For much of the time, the octa-core chips of many Chinese competitor mid-range devices are using one or two cores. Comparing the X17 with a device such as the Huawei Mate S, which uses the Kirin 935 (consisting of eight ARM Cortex-A53 cores, four clocked at 1.5 GHz and four more at 2.2 GHz), the X17 is certainly going to be slower, but where as the Mate S shows a Geekbench Single Core speed of 696, the X17 shows 618. This benchmark score underpins the Mate S' sluggish performance rather than the X17's strength in this respect.
And as it happens, in application use the Cubot X17 is smooth, fluid and slick. Moving around typical Android applications such as the Chrome browser, Gmail, email, Calendar, contacts, Hangouts and similar, the X17 is rarely held up by anything other than network activity. If you have cleared RAM of running applications, loading a heavyweight application can take a couple of seconds, but recently used applications are quick to access. Much of the reason for the Cubot's fluid performance is the copious quantity of available memory, which minimizes how frequently Android needs to swap applications into and out of memory. Having plentiful RAM means that the device doesn't run into the usual low-end model performance hiccups such as the Chrome browser grinding to a halt with a couple of open tabs or a complicated webpage. As such, the Cubot is set up the way Android performs strongest: the relatively weak processor is kept sprinting through typical applications thanks to there being plenty of memory.
The gallery below shows a number of classic Android benchmark applications, where the X17 performed as expected. The PC Bench score of 3,317 is a little higher than devices equipped with the 1.2 GHz Snapdragon 410, which we would expect given the MediaTek's slightly higher clock speed - an example being the Vodafone Smart prime 6 with 3,175. The device scored 34,698 on the latest AnTuTu 6.0 application. However, one trend seen throughout the benchmarking process is how the X17 was badly let down by some of its 3D scores. This does not reflect my real world use of the device; yes, the device is not a gaming powerhouse but runs titles such as XCOM: The Enemy Within, Angry Birds Transformers and Need for Speed No Limits with no major hiccups whatsoever. It also runs cool to the touch, which in today's worth of high powered devices is becoming increasingly rare. The Cubot X17 comes with 16 GB of internal storage plus a MicroSD card slot, which may be used if there is no MicroSIM installed. These days of 1080p video recording, 13 MP rear cameras and games occupying several gigabytes of storage, 16 GB does not always go far, but I'm glad to see Cubot giving the X17 16 GB of storage rather than 8 GB.
Cubot have chosen to give the X17 a single rear mounted speaker rather than following the trend of giving smartphones one or two front facing speakers. There's a tiny little bump next to the speaker presumably to let sound out when the device is lying on its back, but I found that when the X17 was out of the case the speaker was very easily muffled. In the case, it's a different story and alert tones are easily heard. It isn't the ideal placement of the speaker and a part of me would have preferred Cubot to have removed the capacitive buttons and incorporated a front facing speaker here, but as far as compromises go I do not consider this to be a deal breaker. Despite the speaker pointing away from the screen, it sounded better than I was expecting. On earphones, the Cubot X17 is functional but not exceptional. Sound quality is hollow and quiet: the X17 isn't a great music lovers' handset.
Cellular Data, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
The Cubot X17 supports all four GSM / GPRS / EDGE bands, DC-HSPA (at up to 42 Mbps) on the 900 MHz and 2,100 MHz frequencies, and LTE bands 1, 3 (1,800 MHz), 7 (2,600 MHz) and 20 (800 MHz). I used the device in the UK network with Three as my primary carrier, who use bands 3 and 20. Other UK carriers occupy spectrum in band 7: the X17 is set up to work well for UK and European networks but for our North American readers, you're likely going to be out of luck if you want to use this device on a North American carrier with LTE. This could be a deal breaker.
In terms of network speed, the X17 supports Category 4 LTE and DC-HSPA (42 Mbps) networking. LTE and HSPA speeds were broadly comparable with other devices tested, but slower in areas of poor signal. In a similar manner, I found the X17 to be less tenacious when holding onto a signal compared with some other devices and would more readily drop down from 4G LTE to 3G, or from 3G down to 2G in areas of poor coverage, but despite moving to a stronger but slower signal it still had an adverse impact on battery life. My carrier does not support a data connection over the 2G networks, so this could be a major inconvenience but it only happened a couple of times during a week of testing and both in areas of poor coverage. All up, whilst the device was not showing as strong a signal as my other devices either via the on-screen stock signal meter or a third party application, I did not experience any dropped calls or loss of service.
For Wi-Fi, the X17 supports the 2.4 GHz frequency at up to 802.11n speed and it's missing both the 5 GHz frequency and the higher performance Wi-Fi technologies. Depending on the Wi-Fi you have access to, this may or may not bother you: I didn't have any issues whatsoever with the limited number of Wi-Fi hotspots I connect to on a regular basis. If you are used to a device with 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi, or you want the highest possible Wi-Fi performance for gaming, you are going to miss these features. However, customers wanting higher performance Wi-Fi networking are probably looking at way more expensive devices. The X17 uses Bluetooth 4.0, which worked exactly as planned and made no discernable difference to battery life. I was able to connect the device with other smartphones, tablets and accessories without an issue.
Before I write about the X17's in-call audio, I do need to say that I have "fussy ears" when it comes to call quality. My hearing is less tolerant of murky sounding calls, static or hissing, as compared with colleagues and friends. As I've said, the Cubot X17 is not the most sensitive device I've tested but I also didn't have any issues with dropped calls even with low signal showing.
However, with that said the Cubot's call quality is not as good as say the screen or system performance. Unfortunately, this is a pattern with handset designers building devices down to a price: one area where hardware is typically skimped on is voice telephony, and here we see some evidence that Cubot have paid less attention compared with the rest of the device. These does not appear to be a noise cancelling microphone on the device and people I talked to explained that I sounded a little muffled. Their sound through the earpiece was acceptable if a little quiet, not too dissimilar from the earphone sound quality. Quality is a little improved over a VoIP call. The speaker is loud but not always clear during a call, and in a noisy environment I struggled to use the device. I do need to again caveat this statement by explaining that it is a rare handset where I do not struggle in a noisy background. Overall, I would state that the Cubot X17's call audio is not a strength of the device, but it is certainly usable.
The X19 uses a 13MP rear camera, which through interpolation can take pictures at a synthetic 16MP resolution. Cubot use a similar trick for the front facing camera, bringing the 5MP pixel unit to an 8MP synthetic image.
The stock camera application has the as expected range of automatic and manual features, including setting the exposure, resolution, color balance and saturation. There's an object focus lock and gesture control for taking those selfies, plus a range of live filters that may be applied to pictures; here's a small gallery showing some of these. There are sixteen but half of these look very similar with relatively minor color adjustments.
However, most users will simply want to point and click the camera at their chosen subject and here I need to write that the Cubot performed "as expected." The camera struggled with overexposure under certain lighting conditions, but by the same token would also focus quickly onto an object in the foreground. As you can see from the gallery below, the X17 failed to take some of the technically more difficult pictures, but overall the main camera is better than it is not.
The front facing camera performs well enough, but as readers might appreciate, it is a little difficult to take pictures using this! If you look through the gallery you'll see one picture-in-picture image using both the main and front facing camera.
The Cubot X17 has a 2,500 mAh embedded rechargeable battery, which is on a par with many mid-range devices. There are no fast charging technologies in use for the handset, but perhaps because the battery is relatively small, when connected with a 2A charger the device will gain a little under 1% per minute when put on charge under around 80% remaining charge. It charges somewhat slower with a less powerful charger in use.
The X17's internal battery statistics are at odds with third party battery managers, showing that the device radio was using a lot of battery power. The GSam Battery Monitor was extrapolating the device would show somewhere around four hours of screen on time, which is for mixed use but only occasional access to Wi-Fi. There were no particular troublesome applications appearing in the device battery screen, but in areas of poor signal there was a meaningful difference between keeping AutoSync on or off, which was more obvious with the X17 compared with other devices I've used. Using the Wi-Fi network, where available, helped reduce battery consumption.
Ther X17 also has an "Intelligent power saving standby" mode set at the top of the default battery monitoring screen. Quite how this feature works is not documented and is not obvious looking through either the stock battery monitoring screen or third party applications. I could not tell a difference in battery life either way. I can tell the difference with the PCMark Battery Benchmark and here the X17 scored just over five hours with the screen manually set to the lowest point. In daily use, my take on the Cubot's battery is that it's adequate. Cubot's claim of two to three days of standby is probably about right, but this is not how a smartphone is going to be used. I could see through a day on a charge, with an extrapolated five hours of screen on time but the battery was looking low by the evening.
Software and Features
Cubot have given the stock Android interface a mild polish. I've covered some of the improvements and changes to in review to this point. Most of the changes are adding features whilst retaining device performance. The drop down menu, for example, enables one tap control over the data connection whereas stock Android requires two taps. As the X17 comes with MediaTek's HotKnot short range data transfer radio, there is also a shortcut for this in the drop down menu.
The device uses a launcher described as "Launcher3," which is similar to the Google Now Launcher in terms of look and feel although it does not include the swipe to Google Now function. Unfortunately, I was not able to get the Google Now Launcher to work on the device, but other third party launchers such as the Nova Launcher work flawlessly. Cubot have added a few features to the Android Settings menu and the only item I could find that has been removed is the ability to adjust the auto brightness of the screen, discussed above. I'm also pleased to write that Cubot resisted the temptation to include a lot of third party applications into the device and instead, the X17 comes relatively clutter free. One oddity is that the old stock Android browser makes an appearance and it cannot be disabled or removed without root access; the Chrome browser works great on the 'phone.
In terms of additional features over and above stock Android, these include Gestures, such as the ability to double tap the screen in order to wake the device, or double tap the home button to lock the screen. Some of the X17's stock applications (the gallery, camera and FM Radio) support the ability to use Air Gesture, but unfortunately most of my attempts to utilize this feature involved me waving my hand over the device like an extra from Star Wars and with the device refusing to cooperate unless my hand was a couple of inches from the display. Some of the Cubot's features appeared to be borrowed from Android 6.0 Marshmallow's feature list, including the intelligent power saving standby mode, individual application security settings. You can also control access to individual pictures or messages on the device and set up an auto-theft feature, whereby sending a text message can remove lock or wipe the device. Cubot's software includes the ability to prevent applications from launching as the device reboots, too.
Finally, writing of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, there's no word on when Marshmallow might arrive for the X17.
Great screen for a device costing somewhere close to $150.
Responsive and lightweight user interface.
Metal build and neat, inoffensive design.
Indifferent sound quality.
Mediocre rear camera.
Almost no North American LTE support.
The Cubot X17 is a good example of a mid-range device where the manufacturer has chosen individual features to save money on. For the Cubot, the manufacturer has spent less on the sound quality, the rear camera and North American LTE band support aspects of the device. Any or all of these could be deal breakers. Against this, the screen is good, the device performs strongly and has plenty of nice additional software features. We should also consider the price, as the X17 is available for around $150. Should you pick one up? If you are looking for an inexpensive device with European LTE support and have great hearing, or do not spend long on the 'phone, the X17 definitely merits going onto the shortlist. You can check out the phone and pick it up over at Gearbest.