BLUBOO’s budget-minded S3 has a unique style and respectable specs
BLUBOO may not have much presence in the U.S. but the prolific Chinese handset and electronics maker likely needs no introduction in other parts of the world. It also isn’t among the top manufacturers in its home country. However, the company puts an emphasis on build quality and user experience that isn't necessarily common either since it extends from its high-end devices all the way down to its budget line. That is, in fact, at least part of what makes one of its latest entries, the BLUBOO S3, such an intriguing smartphone. That device also features an exceptional battery, better than expected specifications and hardware, and Android 7.0 with plans to update to Oreo in the near future. All of that is available at under $200, with even lower prices at some sites - making this a budget phone with very few, if any, reasons to give it a pass.
Beginning with specs, the BLUBOO S3 is a device which is available at a variety of prices depending on where it is bought. For example, right now it’s available for just short of $170 on AliExpress or $149.99 on Tomtop. For that price, buyers get a Sharp-built 6-inch display with a ratio of 18:9 and a screen-to-body ratio of 91-percent. Resolution for that display is FHD+, set at 1080 x 2160. The cameras are Samsung setups, with the front being rated at 13-megapixels for selfies and the rear array featuring a dual array 21-megapixel and 5-megapixel snapper. There’s a fingerprint scanner at the back and below the cameras, while a dual-tone LED flash sits off to the side. Along the bottom edge are a single speaker, USB 3.0 Type-C charging port, and a microphone. The right-hand edge features a dual nano-SIM slot, with one of those slots able to support micro SD for storage expansion.
Internally, this handset is powered along by MediaTek’s octa-core MTK6750T SoC, clocked at 1.5GHz. That’s backed up by 4GB of memory and 64GB of expandable storage, which can add a further 256GB. The chipset also supports NFC, FM Radio, 4G LTE, and OTG transfers. The powerhouse in this smartphone is an 8500mAh battery, which can be used as a power-bank in a pinch. It fast charges at 12V/2A and has an output of 1A. All of the sensors one would expect in a modern smartphone are also present. That includes G-sensor, gyroscope, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, compass, a geomagnetic sensor, and an accelerator, in addition to GPS, A-GPS, and GLONASS. Bluetooth 4.0 is present for wire-free connectivity. That’s all encompassed in a hefty frame constructed of metals and plastics, weighing in at 280g and measuring 157.8mm x 75.5mm x 11.6mm.
In the Box
Opening up the BLUBOO S3 box, as with many other handsets from the region, reveals a wide assortment of accessories. The device itself arrives with a screen protector already installed, which should prove useful since there's no mention of exactly what level of screen hardening used here. Putting that aside, buyers will also find a warranty card and user manual, which describes the various basic functions of the device, rather than the technical specifications. A two-prong Type C wall adapter is included, the standard for the regions where this is typically sold, along with a 3.2-foot long USB Type-C to standard USB charging cable. A SIM tool is, of course, included. Beyond that, a second screen protector is provided, alongside a rubber protective case which won’t provide a lot of protection but should prevent scratches to the body under most circumstances. Moreover, the company includes a USB Type-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter, USB Type-C to USB A adapter, and an OTG or charging cable to use the S3 as a power bank. That has a USB A male end which runs into a split, ending in a USB Type-C, micro USB, and lightning plug to suit any charging needs.
Hardware and Design
In terms of hardware, the build quality here feels very high, despite that the handset is on the bulky and heavy sides of things. The heft makes the device feel somewhat premium in spite of those things, as does the metal running around the edges. As for materials used, the frame and bezels are metal, while the back plate is plastic. The BLUBOO S3 feels as though it could take a beating and keep on going. All of the buttons are nice and clicky, ports are snug, and speakers and other holes on the device are smoothly embedded to prevent catching. The gaps are minimal, as well, adding to that premium look at feel in spite of how thick the body of the device is. There seems to be almost no flex to the body at all, which sets the device slightly above its competition in terms of quality of build.
In terms of design, this smartphone is available in both a black and gold configuration, with the metal, edging, bezels, and plastics following the color scheme throughout. The back features an accented metal embossed BLUBOO logo, while the front is free of any extra hardware aside from the earpiece, speaker, and sensors. Meanwhile, the back panel also features a unique, ridged feel and design in a diamond pattern. That adds to not only the premium feel but also to the handset's resistance to slipping when placed on most surfaces - aside from making it more appealing to the eye. The fingerprint scanner may be one of the few areas where the design of this phone falls apart. It is entirely too close to the camera array on the rear panel, leading to frequent smudging on the lenses if one isn’t careful. The oversized battery, meanwhile, is the source of all of its bulk and weight so it’s mostly forgivable so long as potential buyers are aware of that trade-off. The battery is, after all, among the key selling points here. There’s also no IP rating here, however, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid exposure to dust and water.
The display used here is nothing special but performs as well as it should, given that it’s been supplied by Sharp. Screen ratio, resolution, and screen-to-body ratio are all great, matching up with modern smartphones ranging from mid-rangers to flagships. Corning’s Gorilla glass is used but BLUBOO doesn’t have listed anywhere precisely which version that is. Brightness, conversely, is also not well defined. That’s listed as “500,” without any indication for which scale of brightness is being used. It’s far more important that the display seems to be bright enough to handle outdoor use on a sunny day, though. In fact, during use while under those circumstances, it does so without being washed out beyond usability. Meanwhile, interactions with that display are as responsive as expected with no noticeable delay. There’s even a glove-mode included for interactions where the fingers need to be covered for whatever reason.
Performance and Battery Life
In terms of performance, the MediaTek’s MTK6750T is a capable SoC, although it is a bit underclocked for the more intense games on the Play Store. Having said that, it will run nearly any application currently available with no issues whatsoever. That’s not necessarily well-represented in the benchmark tests we performed on our test unit, which showed the compute score was just below a Samsung Galaxy S6. The single-core score was just below a Nexus 5, whereas the multi-core score was much better as is typical with MediaTek chipsets. That came in closer to a OnePlus 2. These scores are obviously not great but, as noted above, don’t always tell the whole story and we didn’t note any problems with performance - with the exception of hardware intensive gaming.
In that same vein, the BLUBOO S3 didn’t perform quite as well as expected in our battery bench test either. To be clear, it did perform far better than the overwhelming majority of handsets on the market due to its massive battery. The test results showed around 8-hours of screen-on time with the processor pegged at around half use. Due to the size of the battery, screen dimming was shut off for the test and the brightness was turned all the way up, however. Once we began using the device under more realistic conditions, with the brightness being auto-managed and the device not placed under constant load, we managed more than 3 days between charges. It’s worth noting that isn’t necessarily typical, and our use was on the heavy side. BLUBOO rates this device as having a 6-day life between charges. With that said, even charging at 12V/2A, this battery does take some time to refill. In our experience, that’s just shy of 3 hours with the device turned off.
Connectivity and Audio
For audio, the single bottom-firing speaker performs admirably but not as well as might be hoped. There are certainly worse experiences with music played directly on-device to be had in the mobile world - some from even more expensive devices. But it probably shouldn’t be recommended with this device. Sound comes off a bit underwhelming, though it is certainly loud enough. Connecting headphones via the included USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter or Bluetooth solves that problem readily enough, resulting in exactly the near-lossless experience expected. The quality of sound from the earpiece, on the other hand, was nearly as good as some high-end devices we’ve tested so there are no complaints on that front and the overall audio experience is not at all negative.
Our test of data connectivity took place in the U.S. We were able to get a relatively slow connection utilizing a Straight Talk SIM connected to T-Mobile’s towers - allowing for just over a 3.5Mbps connection. The radios performed as well as can be expected since this device really isn’t made for use within the country. Call quality was good and the connection was stable. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections are also very stable, thanks to its support of Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11a/n/b/g/ac wireless protocols. Meanwhile, hotspots are supported by this device, as are NFC connections for wireless payment apps and other uses. That means users should be able to connect this to whatever accessories they like or use it as a means to get other devices connected if they need to. Moreover, it means that most of the connectivity options that are available function almost flawlessly, just as they might with any given flagship.
2G: GSM Bands 2, 3, 5, and 8
3G: WCDMA Bands 1, 5, and 8
4G FDD-LTE: Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, and 20
4G TDD-LTE: Bands 38, 39, 40, and 41
Software with this BLUBOO budget device does not spring up any surprises. The iteration of Android 7.0 Nougat found on the S3 is as close to stock as anything and there aren’t really any unexpected software included. In fact, nearly everything that is included is Google-made. Aside from the typical accessibilities software found in the settings of nearly every Chinese handset and the inclusion of Face ID features for security, users should expect a stock experience. AOSP fills in for the few non-Google apps such as the camera software, FM radio software, calculator, and the clock. The Android Security Patch level is set at March 5, 2018. At some point post-launch, BLUBOO is expected to upgrade the firmware to Android 8.1 Oreo and there will likely be a security update included there, as well. However, no firm date has been given for that, as of this writing.
The cameras, as mentioned above, depend almost entirely on AOSP software. That has both positive and negative effects on the overall experience. In general, the Samsung camera sensors perform as expected. However, in circumstances with a lot of light, particularly outdoors in bright sunlight, some shots will get washed out. We noted that happened regardless of whether HDR mode was turned on or not. That seems to be a problem on the software side since the hardware itself should be top-notch. So it's something that might be fixed, with any luck, when that Android 8.1 update arrives. That primary shooter hardware, on the other hand, is settled within a slim metal frame on the back of the device with minimal protrusion. That should provide some protective benefit to the lenses.
With that said, there aren't really any surprises here either. BLUBOO chose not to include the novelty filters found in many Chinese handsets, opting instead to focus on including HDR and optimal distancing. That means the Bokeh effect is relatively good, as is detail captured in shots with a broader subject. As mentioned above, light washout does become a problem where lighting is bright but in other shots, the cameras perform well enough. One caveat with those is that video capture is only at 1080p, rather than 4K. Meanwhile, the shutter speed could stand to be improved. That particular problem is especially noticeable in HDR mode, where shots can take up to a second or more to process. The software also throws up a reminder in that mode, telling users to keep their hands steady, so that may not all be an issue in post-processing.
The battery should last for days
Doubles as a power bank for other devices
USB Type-C with fast charging
91-percent screen to body ratio
Solid build quality with unique aesthetics
Sharp-built screen and Samsung-built cameras
Somewhat bulky and heavy
No IP rating to speak of
The fingerprint sensor is too close to the cameras
Camera optimization could be better but is serviceable
With consideration for the price of this particular device, whether or not it is a great buy or a pass is going to come down to the individual user. However, what small issues do exist are either in terms of unavoidable bulkiness or camera software which could see improvement in a future update. Given that the BLUBOO S3 is technically a budget handset, on the other hand, it is difficult to argue with a 6-inch FHD+ display coupled with the wide array of sensors and radios that are included. Those simply aren’t always included with smartphones in the tier. Conversely, the aesthetics are similarly not going to be for everyone but the 8,500mAh battery both explains the bulkiness and weight and provides days of use without concern that the handset will suddenly turn off. So, the only fair conclusion to reach here is that although there are certainly trade-offs to consider, as with every smartphone in that part of the Android spectrum. In any case, BLUBOO is quickly becoming a brand to watch and its S3 is definitely worth a look.