Review: Meizu M3 Note

While there are plenty of manufacturers hailing from the shores of China's biggest industrial cities, few names are of the same caliber as Meizu. With some incredible growth in the past two years in particular, people have been noticing Meizu more and more both in and outside of mainland China, and for very good reason. Meizu offers some incredible phones for some even more incredible prices, and while they're not perfect they seem to be consistently better than many of their competitors for a fraction of the price. The Meizu M3 Note is priced as an entry-level device but is very much specced as a mid-range phone. It's the first in the M Note series to feature a metal unibody design, and the first to be packing MediaTek's latest Helio processor line.  Let's see how this one stacks up against the fierce competition from China.

Video Review

Specs

Sporting a 5.5-inch 1080p LTPS IPS LCD display on the front of this metal body, you'd never expect the Meizu M3 Note only costs $150 looking the way it does. This sleek metal unibody design measures in at 153.8mm high, 75.6mm wide and 8.2mm thin, and weighs a nicely average 163 grams. Underneath the hood sits a massive non-removable 4,100mAh battery as well as a MediaTek Helio P10 CPU and a Mali-T860MP2 GPU. For reference MediaTek's Helio P10 consists of a 64-bit quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex-A53 CPU and a quad-core 1GHz Cortex-A53 CPU. 2GB of RAM accompanies 16GB of internal storage, or if you need more memory and storage Meizu also offers an option with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. There's even microSD card support here too, so if you need more storage for apps, movies or music you've got the option to buy a cheap microSD card for expandable storage.

Meizu has coated the front of the phone with Dinorex T2X-1 scratch and shock resistant glass, and a 5-megapixel camera with f/2.0 lens is placed underneath as well. On the back side you'll find a dual-tone dual-LED flash located underneath the 13-megapixel camera, which features an f/2.2 lens and Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF). Dual-band WiFi support is here up to 802.11n speeds, and Bluetooth v4.0 Low Energy can be found here too. Lastly we'll look at the supported spectrum of the phone, which covers the global range of 2G and 3G, but only a handful of 4G LTE networks worldwide. In the US you'll only get 3G on any GSM carrier.

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41

In The Box

The real value here is what's inside the phone, not the box itself, but Meizu has of course provided the essentials to get your smartphone journey started. Underneath the phone in the box you'll find a SIM/microSD tray eject tool, a pack of manuals and warranty information, as well as a USB type-A to microUSB cable and a 5v/2a (10W) wall charger.

Display

For $150 you should never expect a display that's going to blow you out of the water, but for an inexpensive IPS LCD display this one does a pretty admirable job, all things considered. The positives here are all the ones you should normally expect from an IPS LCD panel, including excellent brightness range that's easily viewable outdoors in sunlight, as well as the ability to get super dim in the dark to shield your eyes. Color balance trends toward the cool side, but it's nothing overly offensive and will just add a slight tint of blue to the whites on the screen. Even so this isn't all that apparent unless comparing it next to another display, so many users may never even notice it. Viewing angles are great when holding the phone horizontally, and it's very likely it's this sort of orientation that you'll be holding the phone to share with others, watching videos on YouTube or wherever else tickles your fancy. Vertical viewing angles aren't quite as good though, exhibiting an immediate rainbowing effect as soon as the display is turned even a little bit to the side, but the effect wanes as you tilt it to more extreme angles.

There's some light bleed and backlighting inconsistencies across the panel too, but these are really only noticeable when viewing screens with very light or all white backgrounds. Even the refresh rate is fantastic and offers a clean and clear image while scrolling or during fast-moving sections of videos and games. All things said this is a fantastic screen for a phone of this price, and that goes for the digitizer too. A poorly grounded or cheap digitizer often plagues phones at this price range, causing frustrating inconsistencies with touch performance on many inexpensive phones out there. The Meizu M3 Note suffers from none of this and seems to feature just as high quality of a digitizer as you would expect on a modern smartphone, delivering a truly excellent touch experience.

Hardware and Build

While Meizu is no stranger to metal phones, the M Note series thus far has only been made of plastic to keep costs down. This time around we're seeing the crazy notion of not just the price dropping significantly between generations of M Note phones, but the Meizu M3 Note is the first in the series to feature a metal-clad body. This clearly mirrors industry trends and shows how the industry as a whole is moving toward more quality builds on its devices. It's higher quality materials that make the phone feel significantly more expensive in the hand, all while somehow helping drop the price overall. I did see some wear and tear on the metal that I haven't from more expensive phones though, a testament to the likelihood that this is a cheaper metal than you might find on more expensive phones.

Even still it's going to be tough to find a device priced this way that's both specced and built this well, showing Meizu's expertise in the smartphone game. There's certainly no denying the iPhone influence over the design here in many aspects, and it's likely you'll get a few people that think the phone is some new iPhone with a more rectangular home button if they just see the front or sides of the phone. While that usually would be considered a negative or categorize it as a knock-off, consider the fact that a $150 phone looks and feels more like an iPhone than the fact that it might just be a knock-off, a phone that normally retails for hundreds of dollars more. All the buttons have a satisfying click to them too, reinforcing this quality feel overall.

On the right side you'll find the power button situated just above the mid-point of the phone, while the volume rocker is ever so slightly above that. The left side of the phone holds the dual-SIM/microSD card tray, while the top houses the 3.5mm audio jack. On the bottom you'll find a centered microUSB port, flanked on both sides by what appear to be speaker grilles, although only the right side is actually a speaker. The back of the phone features a metal panel taking up the center 80% of the device, with the top and bottom 10% residing as a metal-painted plastic for better wireless signal strength. Only the camera lens and dual-LED flash break up the metal on the back, however this isn't a camera hump, rather a completely flat back with no protruding elements at all.  On the front you'll find Meizu's unique elongated circle home button, which acts as a physical home button, capacitive back button and a fingerprint reader as well.

Performance and Memory

Overall performance of the system is quite incredible and nearly indistinguishable from phones costing considerably more.  MediaTek has improved their System-on-a-Chip (SoC) processing packages considerably over the years, and it's with the Helio line that it seems they have completely caught up with Qualcomm in every respect, surpassing them in performance of entry-level chips as we used to regularly see AMD do with Intel on the PC side. Apps launch and perform exactly as you would expect them to most of the time, with only a hiccup here and there when launching back from more intensive apps. It's this unloading of RAM and reloading where the device seems to choke a bit, and it's likely due to having to place slower RAM inside to cut costs.

This doesn't mean it's a bad experience by any means most of the time, especially when considering how $150+ phones used to perform. One problem that still seems to plague Meizu's software, however, is a poor multi-tasking experience. On the bright side Meizu has improved the vast majority of the issue that its software has suffered from for years. Flyme OS 5 introduced a more stock looking and behaving recents app carousel, accessed by swiping up from the bottom pane and featuring a carousel of recently accessed app thumbnails that can be scrolled through to easily jump between apps. This is a massive improvement over the old icon-only style of multi-tasking, and there's even a multi-window mode to run more than one app on the same screen at once too.

The problem here lies only in some apps running in the background, delaying notifications until you open the apps. Over the past few months of using the phone on and off I regularly missed emails and Hangouts messages due to these issues, and some other apps also had these problems, although not all of them. Adding them to the exclusion list or trying to lock them into memory didn't solve the problem either, and it's something Meizu is going to have to fix if it wants to attract more customers in the long run. This didn't consistently happen every time, but it's this inconsistency in particular that drove me so crazy.

VR Performance

As a rule of thumb, the more powerful device you have, the better your VR experience generally will be. This is mainly because VR is such an intensive task to render, after all the game has to render the same scene side-by-side with a slight perspective change, thus requiring double the rendering power for the same scene in regular 2D play. As such the Meizu M3 Note isn't going to be the greatest VR game player out there by a long shot, but it's not unusable by any means. Performance in many VR games was adequate, enough to fool your brain into thinking the content was more real than its 2D cousin running on a screen, but not at a high enough framerate to keep users from being sick.

Folks that suffer from motion sickness or headaches due to lower framerates probably should stick to VR gaming elsewhere, but thankfully the screen here is good enough to make other VR content, like videos and such, a much more enjoyable experience. 1080p isn't a super high resolution for VR content, but the pixel density and design help make up for this relative lack of resolution, and the performance of content obviously benefits from that as well.  The screen also has a nice low persistence rate, so fast motion won't be blurry when moving around in the VR world, helping keep some users from becoming nauseous.

Benchmarks

Benchmarks are where the real performance gap between the Meizu M3 Note and considerably more expensive phones finally shows up in a palpable form. At about half the performance of 2015's flagship devices and about a third of 2016's, the Meizu M3 Note scores relatively low on benchmarks but still pulls through admirably given the price range it sits in. Check out all the benchmarks we ran below along with some comparisons.

Battery Life

Packing a 4,100mAh battery inside all but guarantees unbelievable battery life, and thankfully the Meizu M3 Note comes through in that respect. 2 day battery life is easily achievable with this phone, and it's going to be common place to not worry about having to charge it even after a full day or so with moderate to heavy use. By default Meizu enables a battery saving feature that restricts some background app data but not all, however even turning this to performance mode to theoretically allow all background data to run when requested doesn't seem to affect battery life in any noticeable way. In general I found the battery life on the Meizu M3 Note to be nothing short of incredible, and some of the best battery life you'll find on any modern device without a doubt. Looking at the stats below it's a little difficult to see exactly how well the device did, mainly because Meizu's odd scope is only in 12 hour increments and won't show longer than that. The charger included in the box is a 5v/2a (10W) charger, so charging with this is going to be preferable since this isn't a Qualcomm chipset, which means those QuickCharge branded accessories won't work here.  Charging this battery from 0-100% takes about 2 hours, which isn't terrible but it's not super fast either.

Sound

Quality sound output isn't something you'd necessarily expect to find on a nearly $100 phone, but that's exactly what the Meizu M3 Note delivers. In fact this one easily matches the quality of phones sold for considerably more, delivering balanced audio that's clean, clear and with great range overall. It's not going to blow the spec sheet out of the water, so if you have lofty goals of high-res audio or high quality aptX Bluetooth streaming you're going to need to lower your expectations, but what's found here is absolutely among some of the best you'll find on any standard audio quality scale. On top of a well balanced output there's even a well designed and powerful equalizer that offers 4 presets, a custom preset option and 5 adjustable sound bars for tweaking that audio output. This is well honed to the hardware too and doesn't lower the audio while adjusting it, proving Meizu's care for quality audio goes well beyond most OEMs at this price range.

The external speaker is actually pretty impressive for a single bottom-facing speaker, especially when considering the price range of the phone. Many phones at this price often feature a cheap speaker that not only sounds bad in general, but also isn't very loud. The one here fits in neither of those categories, delivering audio that qualifies as good enough for listening to music with as well as talking over loudspeaker while in fairly noisy environments, like a car on a highway. It's not the best single speaker ever, but when considering that the phone only costs around $150, it absolutely doesn't need to be, and quite honestly matches the single speakers on phones that are exponentially more expensive.

Software

Flyme OS, pronounced Fly Me, has been Meizu's Android skin of choice since Meizu's first Android-powered phones. Flyme 5.1.3.0G is the version we've been running on our review unit for quite some time now, and is built upon Android 5.1 Lollipop. While having a new phone still on Lollipop this late in 2016 is a bit embarrassing for any OEM, comfort at least comes from the fact that Meizu has built in many features that Android 6.0 Marshmallow debuted. We'll cover some of the security features below, but in general Flyme is packed with features and sports a unique look all while still keeping some of the best parts of stock Android here in working form. Out of the box the phone is very lightly packed, only holding a handful of essential apps like a built-in browser, calculator and messaging apps to name a few.

All of these apps really feel really well thought out and designed, including the ability to float the calculator over other windows in order to do quick math calculations without having to switch between apps. The included Toolbox app features helpful tools like a level, magnifying glass, mirror and more. Sure lots of these are fairly gimmicky, but when they are needed they really come in handy, and they take up almost no room on the phone's internal storage at all. Other built-in apps like the file manager help you easily and quickly identify apps, temporary files and other media that are taking up space on your device and can automatically remove them.

Tons of other elements are extremely well thought out too, from the option to enable Do Not Disturb mode when a calendar entry meeting pops up on screen, to the ability to press and hold the home button to turn the screen off. It's these little nuances that aren't often thought of, but end up coming in handy after you realize they exist. In fact one of the most interesting things about Meizu's customizations in Android is the way navigation throughout the UI is handled. Since the adoption of Meizu's unique multi-function home button, navigation through the OS is largely done completely through the home button. Tap the home button to go back at any time, click in to go home, and press and hold to lock the phone and shut the screen off. The only time the home button isn't used for navigation is for multi-tasking, which was covered before by swiping up anywhere on the bottom bezel. While it feels odd at first, this navigation really is genius and offers some interesting ways to minimize the amount of buttons on the face all while still providing the same functionality us Android users demand.

A hovering circle called SmartTouch provides some additional navigation options for users who don't want to use these home button and bezel gestures, with some minor customizations that can be made to switch up each gesture a bit. Lastly we'll cover some gestures that are common on modern Android phones, but nonetheless are incredibly convenient. Double tapping the screen when it's off will wake the phone up and display the lock screen, and the phone gives the option to draw over half a dozen different letters like c, o and e to launch any app of the user's choosing on the phone.  There's even a "palm rejection" feature that's oddly named, but keeps these actions from happening when in a user's pocket, preventing embarrassing pocket dialing or messaging.

UI/UX

Once a much more heavily modified and slightly annoying take on Android's standard navigation and UI design, Flyme has followed positive industry trends to pare back the heavier skin designs and instead keep the base designs of stock Android and only modify things visually. Major changes on this phone and version of Flyme versus past generations include a more stock looking and feeling Overview multi-tasking interface, as well as the double pull-down notification shade with large quick toggles that provide quick information and ways to quickly change things like WiFi connection and Bluetooth devices.

There are still a few leftovers from old Flyme navigation and style that can be a bit odd if you're used to how most Android phones work at this point though. Adjusting the volume via the volume rockers, for example, only adjust the media volume and doesn't present options to adjust any of the other system sound levels. To change between silent and regular modes you'll need to toggle the Mute button in the quick toggles section of the notification shade, which is absolutely confusing at first but becomes less annoying after prolonged use. Still not being able to quickly adjust ringtone or notification volume is an irritating design decision that requires users to go all the way into system settings just to adjust such a common setting.

Fingerprint and Security

Fingerprint readers are finally common on even many of the least expensive smartphones nowadays, but that doesn't always mean these are quality or fast readers. Much like many of the other components on this phone, the speed and accuracy of the fingerprint reader rivals even the most expensive phones out there, and yet again shows Meizu's quality testing wins the day even on its least expensive phones. Unlocking takes just a fraction of a second from pressing the home button to wake the phone up, or just to tap the home button to scan when on the lockscreen. Functionality is limited to this, however, since the phone is not yet on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which features a native fingerprint reading API that developers can tap into.

The security center found on previous generation Meizu phones is here and provides just as much excellent functionality to keep users going from a security standpoint. Launching the app will give you a general security score, and tapping this score will scan your phone for things like viruses, temporary files that can be cleaned up, apps that can be stopped from using background data and a number of other tasks. It's here where users can quickly clean up free space on their phone, monitor the data that apps are using both through WiFi and cell data connections, block phone numbers from calling or texting, control permissions for each app, apply different power profiles and even scan for account vulnerabilities and malware. It's an all-encompassing solution that makes keeping your device safe an easy task, and keeps all these related things in one easy to remember spot.

Camera Software

Meizu's camera software hasn't changed much through the years, which is alright in some respects and a bit disappointing in others. Considering what the software looks and acts like on many phones in this price range, Meizu's software is miles ahead of the competition in terms of performance, quality and even features. As might be expected it visually looks like an iOS camera, however instead of swiping left and right to switch modes, a button next to the shutter button is used to toggle a grid of 9 selectable modes. Much like the iOS camera there's only a large shutter button here, and you'll have to switch back and forth between video and photo modes just to take a picture or start a video. This is made less efficient since the software is lacking any fast way to switch between modes, and it's very difficult to quickly start a video to say the least.

The camera launches in a pretty average speed, although maybe a little bit quicker than some other phones in this price range, taking 3 to 4 seconds total to launch and allow picture taking. Shutter speed is instant on all but HDR mode, which takes a handful of seconds to take the actual shot. In fact it's not just taking the HDR shot that's slow, it's actually navigating to and enabling it that makes it less likely to be commonly used. In fact switching modes in general could be a little quicker, especially for commonly used ones like photo and video, and the labeling for mode switching isn't clear at first either.

Camera Results

All things considered this is a pretty amazing camera, especially for the price range. At 13-megapixels the rear-facing camera on the M3 Note packs a punch that most in this price range could only dream of, delivering consistent results that will very likely make you say wow. Easily on par with flagships only two years ago or so, this 13-megapixel sensor has all the makings of greatness and is only held back by a few negatives. Low light performance is decent overall, but often times the software prioritizes ISO over shutter speed, holding the shutter open a little too long and allowing hand jitter to blurry up the image. I found this to be a problem anywhere that doesn't have direct sunlight, effectively, so as you'll notice from the gallery below even shots indoors in well lit conditions can turn out blurry.

The picture also gets a tad muddy when moving into actual low lighting conditions; times of the day like dawn, dusk or night. This is expected and isn't any worse than one might imagine it being, especially on a $150 device. Dynamic range is pretty average, but the lack of a competent HDR mode hurts the possibility of getting better dynamic range at any point. HDR mode is just too slow to make it useful, and unless you can hold your hand perfectly still the shot is going to turn out blurry. This has been a problem on Meizu devices for some time now, unfortunately, but will hopefully be rectified in a future software update for the camera.

Zoom detail is normally fantastic, especially during the day, and shows a more raw, or pure, output from the software than some other OEM cameras provide. This presents a pleasing image that's free from heavy processing, and one that allows more details to enter the frame than some other cameras out there, even on phones considerably more expensive. Even the front facing camera is excellent and takes some seriously impressive selfies at 5-megapixel resolution. Great overall balance is present here, although since there's no front-facing flash the night-time selfies are going to suffer from being overly soft due to noise needing to be filtered out. Overall the performance of the camera exceeds expectations, especially for the price range, and I found myself to be incredibly pleased with most aspects of the picture taking abilities of the phone.

Video mode is just as good too, delivering solid 1080p video, although there's no image stabilization present.  Details are clear and the mp4 codec used is much higher quality than the codec many phones at this price range use to say the least. Frame rate is perfectly locked at 30fps, and there's even a 120FPS 480p video mode here for some pretty decent slow motion video recording. The front-facing camera also takes 1080p video, giving you some great selfie video to share with friends and family. See all the pictures and video we took for the review in the gallery below.

The Good

Price in general

Metal build

Above average screen

Excellent camera, especially at this price

Battery life

Sound output

Fantastic performance in nearly everything

Blazing fast and accurate fingerprint scanner

Significantly improved software design over previous Flyme versions

The Bad

Big issues with some apps not running in the background

No NFC

Still running Android 5.1 Lollipop

Conclusion

For $150 it's hard to have any sort of expectations about what kind of quality you'll find from a metal clad smartphone with a 4,100mAh battery. These features, coupled with the 1080p screen, excellent 13-megapixel rear-facing camera and 5-megapixel front-facing camera, some overall fantastic performance and just a great experience in general make the Meizu M3 Note an easy recommendation for sure. Those looking for a cheaper entry into the smartphone market really don't need to look any further, and while it's beyond disappointing that Meizu is still running Android Lollipop on a phone released in 2016, some features help make up for this. Users who rely on Google Hangouts for communication are going to find this to be a frustrating experience to say the least, as there are some significant problems with the phone's ability to allow all apps to run in the background. Hopefully these can be ironed out, because otherwise this is one of the most solid, well-rounded phones we've seen in this price range in a very long time.

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About the Author
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Nick Sutrich

Event / Reviews Editor
Nick has written for Androidheadlines since 2013, is Review Editor for the site, and has traveled to many tech events across the world. His background is as Systems Administrator and overall technology enthusiast. Nick loves to review all kind of different devices but specializes in Android smartphones, smartphone camera reviews, and all things VR, both here on the site and on our YouTube channel. He is very passionate about smartphones and the continued improvement they can bring into people’s lives and is an expert on many different types of technologies, including mobile devices, VR, and cameras. Contact him at [email protected]