An Apple-Like Notch On A Budget
OUKITEL is a fairly prolific company that really needs no introduction and its latest device, the U18, checks most of the boxes any user in search of a budget handset would want. It is capable in terms of both software and hardware, with decent cameras, a large battery, and a generous screen in a relatively small form-factor. While the handset quickly sold out of pre-orders earlier this month and won’t be available until later officially, we did manage to get our hands on one to provide readers a first glance. It’s known that OUKITEL releases a ton of devices on a regular basis but that doesn't make this one any less worthy of checking out - despite several quirks.
In terms of specifications, and at an expected sale price of just $179.99, the OUKITEL U18 is a serious bargain. This handset features a frame machined out of zinc alloy in either gold or black, measuring at 150.5 x 73.2 x 10mm. A 2.5D curved glass 5.85-inch display with a notch at the top for camera and sensors fills the front side. Resolution and screen aspect ratio is set at 1512 x 720 and 21:9, and pixel density is a reasonable 286 ppi. On the front of the device, users find a 13-megapixel camera, with an OmniVision 8858 sensor, with other standard sensors on the other side of an earpiece. Rolling the device to the back reveals a primary dual-camera sensor built on Sony’s IMX135 platform with a 16-megapixel main sensor and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. A dual-tone LED flash sits just to the right and a fingerprint scanner can be found below. Meanwhile, there is no headphone jack present, with audio coming only from the single bottom-firing speaker or through the USB Type-C port. It’s worth noting that this device surprisingly does not feature any type of LED notification light at all.
On the inside, the U18 is powered by a non-removable, SCUD-built "Safe Battery" with overcharge protection and other safety features. With a rating of 4,000mAh and, as mentioned above, charging via USB Type-C, that drives the ever-popular octa-core MediaTek MTK6750T SoC clocked at 1.5GHz and backed by a Mali-T860 chip for graphics. A comfortable amount of RAM and storage are included - at 4GB and 64GB. However, that can be expanded via micro SD card by an additional 64GB thanks to the inclusion of a dual-purpose dual-SIM slot. For software, that whole package is managed by Android 7.0 but the company has promised an update to Android 8.0 at some unspecified point in the future. The whole package weighs in at a hefty 213.75g.
In The Box
Taking the U18 out of its OUKITEL-branded box reveals neither a complete lack or an overabundance of accessories. The device ships packed into a TPU protective case, with the top layer of a film screen protector already ready to be peeled back for maximum protection. It also ships with a standard two-prong wall adapter rated at 5V/2A and a USB Type-C cable for charging. There’s a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter included as well, owing to the device’s lack of a standard headphone jack. Moving past accessories, the OUKITEL U18 ships with other amenities expected with any modern smartphone. That includes a fold-out user manual in several languages, a warranty certificate, and a pin for accessing the handset’s SIM slot.
It's worth pointing out that the TPU case included in the package only protrudes slightly, not quite extending past the 2.5D curved glass of the U18’s display. That means the device isn’t as likely to survive a screen-down drop as well as it would with a more well-built case. It does provide adequate protection for every other part of the device, so it will probably be serviceable as a temporary means of protection. That's by no means a dealbreaker since the majority of devices don't even ship with a case but it is something that will need to be budgeted in for anybody looking to buy this device.
The display included on the U18 responds well and is certainly not small. Regrettably, the odd screen ratio and resolution do cause issues that are going to bug some users. While technically speaking, this is an HD+ screen since it is rated at 1512 x 720, a lot of media is going to be scaled down to a lower resolution rather than stretching to display at the device’s 21:9 ratio. That means that noticeable edge granulation is going to be present in some Android games and other media. It isn’t glaringly obvious but what is obvious is the letterboxing on both the left and right side while the media plays. Again, this won’t occur everywhere since some media does support the resolution. Nevertheless, it occurs often enough that it might stop some users from enjoying the handset. Brightness is good, but could probably be a bit better - though it certainly helps improve battery life.
At the same time, the notch at the top of the screen means there is technically more room for other things on the home screen and elsewhere. Having said that, the notch can create problems too for users who are more accustomed to seeing icons for notifications. There is really only enough space to display a scrolling message or the time at the top left corner, while only Wi-Fi, mobile data, and battery indicators fit in the top right corner. To be fair, it’s a relatively clean way to show important information without taking up space. It also limits what can be done with that space. On a more positive note, the color gamut of this display is not quite HDR-quality but it is very good. The responsiveness of the display, with to up to 5-point touch interaction and extra options for gestures such as 3-finger swipes for screenshots, feels exceptional. Meanwhile, the balance between bezel and screen feels almost perfect since there’s enough there to prevent accidental touches without feeling like the bezel takes up too much screen real estate.
Hardware & Design
On the other hand, while OUKITEL’s newest entry to the Android ecosystem is comfortable to hold, it is also heavy and feels somewhat thicker than may have been required. In an industry where the average smartphone is below the 9mm mark in thickness, the U18 comes in at 10mm. The entire frame is also rounded, which adds some to its width and height. As a result, this smartphone has a premium feel that’s just a year or two behind the times. At 213.75 grams, it’s also noticeably heavier than most devices. Unfortunately, problems with the build do appear to extend into the USB Type-C plug as well since, when tested, a secondary plug we had laying around didn’t fit snugly at all. In fact, it fell out with no prompting whatsoever. That wasn’t a problem with the included cable or headphone adapter but the looseness could become a problem over time. Moreover, this handset doesn’t appear to adhere to any standard of USB Type-C since the same issue was present will all other cables and USB Type-C headphones used and no other cable would charge the handset.
Setting those caveats aside, however, the rest of the hardware is quite good and well thought out. For starters, the use of zinc alloy gives the frame and backing a solid, metal texture and feel without the hassle of being a fingerprint magnet. That backing is also two-tone, with a darker color running from side to side across the camera housing. In that darker section, the metal has been shaped into smooth ridges that don’t appear to have any practical function but which do add an interesting aesthetic appeal. The volume rocker and power buttons along the right-hand edge are solidly built, easy to find, and perfectly clicky. Meanwhile, the receiver is built into the top of the phone to limit accidentally dropped calls. The ports, mics, SIM slot, and speakers are cleanly implemented so that there aren’t any wayward edges to get snagged on anything and the OUKITEL U18 has a sleek in-hand feel. The fingerprint scanner is also lightning fast.
Performance & Battery
Benchmarks show that the U18 is not anything too special on the inside but that isn’t necessarily a problem as benchmarks aren’t always 100-percent representative of real-world performance. With regard to performance, the OUKITEL U18’s MediaTek SoC is nothing to be scoffed at. This is one smartphone that can handle just about any task thrown at it with processing power to spare. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, that power feels somewhat wasted since it’s pushing a relatively low-resolution display, to begin with. That only gets worse with consideration for the fact that some applications don’t scale well, resulting in fewer pixels used and a lot of jagged edges and other rendering issues. some media is simply going to feel dated, despite the powerhouse running the package. Conversely, most non-game apps do scale well. So, on the productivity side of the equation, the U18 is not going to let anybody down.
Happily, the 4,000mAh battery pack is a serious contender, as well. A full battery benchmark showed an uptime of around 7.5 hours, with the hardware working at around 50-percent workload and the screen on. Real-world usage reveals a similar longevity despite that the device was also constantly looking for a signal since it didn’t work on our test carrier. That’s impressive, in and of itself, but the U18 also only takes around two and a half hours to charge from completely dead. That means that around an hour of charge provides an additional three hours or so of solid screen-on time even if that doesn’t turn out to be enough to get a user through the day. With that said, this OUKITEL should last a full day with plenty of battery left over for at least part of the second day for the average user.
Connectivity & Audio
Unfortunately, on the connectivity front, we weren’t able to fully test the radios on the OUKITEL U18 because the bands aren’t supported by the carrier we used for this test. This smartphone supports GSM on the 850GHz, 900GHz, 1800GHz, and 1900GHz waves for 2G and 3G is supported via WCDMA at 900GHz and 2100GHz. 4G LTE FDD is provided on bands 1, 3, 7, 8, and 20. The mic and earpiece worked well enough when tested on a call made via Wi-Fi. Bluetooth connectivity is provided via Bluetooth 4.2 and the connection seems to have a much better range than that experienced on other handsets.
As is almost always the case with budget handsets, the onboard bottom-firing speaker does leave something to be desired. It isn’t quite as jangly as these handsets usually are but it is still lacking in terms of the lower end of the sound spectrum. Although it also lacks in terms of punch and volume, it works well enough for alarms, ringers, and notifications. Happily enough, the audio through the USB adapter is, by comparison, exceptionally good. In fact, it is actually far better than what was expected. Nearly the full range of sound is present across a wide variety of music genres and it’s only a shame that no audio adjustment tools are included for fine tuning the various frequencies of sound. Audio over Bluetooth was exceptional.
OUKITEL’s U18 ships with Android 7.0 and the company has said that it will receive an update to Android Oreo (8.0) at some unspecified future date. Tried and true Nougat performs as well as expected, including Google Assistant. Meanwhile, the overlay resembles something very close to Google’s stock Android launcher, complete with a Google Now feed on the leftmost screen. Because this is Android 7.0 the app drawer is still accessed with a button tap rather than a swipe up gesture. Aside from the phone, music, contacts, and camera applications, which appear to be custom build off of stock AOSP, pre-installed apps are pure Google. The security patch level is January 5, 2018, so this handset is almost completely up-to-date with regard to vulnerabilities and bugs.
The software feels very smooth and adapts well to the U18’s odd screen ratio across the board. So users won’t have to put up with anything out of place for any of the software that ships with this smartphone. There don’t appear to be any bugs, either. That’s promising since even the most high-cost Android devices often ship with at least a few issues. With that said, boot up does seem to take a long time with this device - up to a full minute, including security measures - and, overall, the software seems a bit sluggish for the first 10-15 seconds after the boot sequence completes.
In terms of specialty software, casting and screen recording are available without installing any additional software and Google Home does not come pre-installed on this device. It also comes with a dedicated System Manager application for managing which applications start at boot, app locking, automatic cache cleaning, power, and other resources. That isn’t the most useful tool, with consideration for the generous RAM and Storage available but it would certainly be handy as those start to fill up. Beyond that, it’s worth pointing out that this OUKITEL also features facial recognition software that appears to work reasonably well as a secondary security measure. Fingerprint scanning can be used when it’s too dark to work and a pin, password, or pattern can be used for additional security on start-up.
The cameras included with this handset are genuinely built on good hardware. So it is a bit disappointing that they seem to suffer the same lack of optimization as most other budget handsets. That's not to say that OUKITEL hasn't made an effort. The image quality under most lighting circumstances is noticeably better than many other devices that have been reviewed within the price range. Similarly, HDR mode makes a noteworthy difference while it simply doesn't seem to with many other smartphones in its price range. Pro shooting tools are also present on screen in "Pro mode" instead of being tucked away in a menu, which makes the experience of adjusting photos on the fly a much simpler task. The OUKITEL U18 camera also features the same range of artistic overlays and filters for photos that many users have likely come to expect from Chinese OEMs. The front facing camera seems to perform somewhat better, in all regards, or at least as well as the vast majority of front shooters do.
Shooting video in up to 1080p works wonderfully on this device, leaving us with another reason to presume that the photo side issues come down to post-processing and software. Getting footage can be accomplished without the microphone on through the overflow menu, which is useful since the mic feels just a little too good in that respect. Images can also be taken during capture, while post-shot features allow for easy video stabilization. Unfortunately, panorama mode appears to utilize a video mode, as well. That means photos tend to come out exceptionally blurry if the user moves even a little too quickly.
The Good & The Bad
On the positive side of the equation, audio quality through headphones or Bluetooth is exceptional. It may lack in adjustments or equalization features, but it performs well enough that it would likely be enjoyable for all but the most strongly-professed audiophile. That the handset includes built-in screen recording and casting features, near stock android, and a generally bug-free software environment, are icing on the cake. Meanwhile, the addition facial recognition and rapid-fire fingerprint scanner for security, as well as premium materials make an otherwise outdated device - aesthetically - feel downright premium. Performance of the internals also seems to hold up very well in all but the most intensive applications or games, while a generously sized battery provides up to 7.5 hours of screen-on time with moderate usage. Finally, the camera software seems to be the issue on the photography front, so a secondary camera application could probably be used to improve quality there, while video footage is crisp. There's really nothing to complain about with the front camera.
On the other side of the equation, this handset does seem to have some optimization or software problems with that main camera setup. Photos are better than with some other cheap smartphones but users shouldn't expect flagship quality. Booting up the device is also somewhat sluggish, which could cause issues for some users even if it isn't a deal breaker. The included speaker is a bit on the weak side, lacking in terms of punch or volume, while the screen's low resolution and the use of an odd screen ratio make for a lackluster experience in some instances. The general aesthetics of the U18 are also a bit old-school, although it still feels nice in-hand. Finally, the apparent decision to use a proprietary or non-standard USB Type-C port is extremely annoying since it leaves users out of luck if their cable or headphone adapter breaks - unless they can find a direct OEM replacement.
As with all budget-minded devices, there are trade-offs to consider with the OUKITEL U18. That does not, in any way, mean that this is a poorly-made or bad device. However, the contrasts represented by those do seem noticeably starker than with some other devices in its price range. Having said that, the U18 is likely still a great choice for users who want a slightly better camera than some other, hate fingerprints on their device, want a long battery life, or listen to a lot of music via Bluetooth. In fact, coupled with the inclusion of a brilliantly optimized - generally speaking - software environment, plenty of RAM and storage, and a dual-SIM slot it may still rank among the best devices in its class.