Ulefone is well-known for its ruggedized, big-battery smartphones that perform well despite low pricing, so an opportunity to review its Ulefone Armor X3 was not one to be missed. Ulefone's Armor X3 is a hyper-ruggedized smartphone that goes above and beyond in that segment. It also features a more-than-generous battery. Coupled with a reasonably good-looking design and a few extra software features for good measure, the experience was generally a good one.
Simultaneously, the OEM has not managed to rid the device of many caveats and drawbacks most commonly associated with the category. So there were plenty of things to be found that will probably be either small issues that must be put up with or dealbreakers, depending on the user. This certainly isn't going to be the phone to buy for its camera or for gaming.
What the Ulefone Armor X3 is, this review has called to light, is a workhorse that won't be too hurtful to the pocketbook. It may not be perfect, but when it comes to rugged phones, this one doesn't disappoint where it really matters. For a current cost of $76.24 on AliExpress, it's one that's well worth digging deeper into.
The Ulefone Armor X3 is pretty rugged and kind of pretty
From a design perspective, Ulefone is one of the top companies when it comes to building a smartphone that looks as rugged as it is. So, in its own rugged way, the Ulefone Armor X3 is a beautiful device, especially in the red color I received to review. It also comes with options for either a nearly black color and a silver color for the "metal" accents. The rubbery thick exterior is always a matte black.
Now, I put "metal" in quotes because it's not immediately clear whether any metal has been used here at all. The accent portion of the frame has a metallic feel but doesn't quite match up with what I'd expected like the textured buttons and the Torx screws holding things together do. And those buttons may not be metal either.
The round buttons for volume controls are a nice touch and there's a secondary button on the opposing side that can be customized in terms of functionality. A long-, single- or double-press of that can be set to do different things.
In hand, Ulefone's Armor X3 feels like it looks but manages that without feeling too bulky or awkward. Hardware keys are in easy reach and the backplate is textured to prevent accidental drops. Dropping this isn't likely to cause a whole lot of damage either. A pre-installed screen protector and an additional glass protector are included.
Each of the super-snug, no wiggle ports is sealed via a flappy rubber tab. Those squeeze into place comfortably and without any gaps. They should last quite some time and help earn this phone an "IP68/IP69K" rating.
The IP68 is how water and dust resistant Ulefone has made the phone. Likely because of those rubber flaps, however, the IP69K rating means this phone can handle steam or pressurized water to a point. It's going to be much more resilient than others.
This battery lasts for days
Ulefone hasn't just worked to ensure the Armor X3 is rugged and looks good while doing it. It's also included a battery that won't disappoint. That makes a lot of sense here because if you're taking your phone somewhere that needs this kind of protection, you may not have access to a plug for a while. There are also a few obvious caveats to how it's approached that.
The biggest drawback here is that the phone charges via micro USB rather than the new, faster standard USB-C. That meant that, in my test, fueling up the 5,000mAh battery took approximately five hours and twenty minutes. That's around 20-percent per hour and is just not great. It didn't get too warm while charging, even during use, which is a plus. But it's a long time to charge.
On the flip side of that, the battery lasts quite a long time too. More common, light use comprised of accessing email, messages, and an hour or so on the web took this phone to 52-percent in a respectable 14-hours. That's including heavy use with the screen on and at 75-brightness for just ten minutes short of five hours.
All things told, it lasted a grand total of 24 hours and 40 minutes of the former type of use with no fewer than 8 hours further of very heavy-use screen-on time. No battery-saving measures were used over that period or during my review of the Ulefone Armor X3. So users can expect to get quite a lot out of a single hour's charge.
The only other real caveat to that is that is 5-hours of charging where water and dust incursion protection are greatly reduced because the rubber protective flap isn't closed. That's an issue that extends to other input/output ports too.
The Ulefone Armor X3 display is serviceable, not great
Where things begin to fall apart in terms of the experience with the Ulefone Armor X3, during this review, is with the display. Ulefone's budget-friendly monster is a great device and the display is bright enough to use even outdoors. In fact, I never turned the brightness up over 6-percent in day-to-day use for my test. The 5.5-inch screen size made it comfortable to hold.
The resolution and touch latency are the issues here.
For starters, this is an HD+ panel. So even though it's fairly good in terms of resolution along one axis at 720 x 1440 pixels, it still isn't as clear as might be hoped. That's a small issue and one that's hardly unique to the Ulefone Armor X3. But it's going to be bothersome for those who care about that kind of thing.
The second issue, although likely solvable via a future software update, is more difficult to contend with. It's not clear whether that's the result of the somewhat paltry 2GB RAM in this handset and the comparatively weak MediaTek-built MT6580 processor — a quad-core unit clocked at 1.3GHz. Conversely, it could come back to the optimizations in the software.
The screen just doesn't feel as responsive as other devices I've used in the price range. All throughout my review of the Ulefone Armor X3, I found myself having to tap things more than once to instantiate a click. That's not unmanageable, of course. It's also not entirely uncommon in budget smartphones. But it broke the collective good of the experience early on.
The screen looks good for what it is and the refresh rate doesn't leave much room for complaint, although not expressly listed. But the latency will be more annoying to some users than others. So it bears pointing out.
How are the speakers, calls, and connections?
The biggest hit taken by the Ulefone Armor X3 in terms of its capabilities as a smartphone is, without a doubt, the fact that 4G LTE isn't supported. Only 3G radios are included here. With 5G rollouts rapidly ramping up, that could be a problem for some. More directly, it simply will be a problem for many users.
That does also mean that users should have ready access to networking since 3G networks are prevalent.
I was able to get access to a solid 3G connection even in the US where I was testing, in fact. My connection was carried through StraightTalk. And that's good because it means this will work in a pinch as a backup phone or as a starter phone. Of course, it will also work where the phone is going to be abused at work or in a similar environment.
Call quality, at least on the Ulefone Armor X3 side on the network I reviewed the phone on, is okay. The individual called to test that noticed that they couldn't tell a difference between a call received from this phone and other, more expensive devices. Bluetooth connections appear solid within reason for Bluetooth 4.0 as well, although I'd have liked to see a newer variant used here. The same can be said of Wi-Fi connectivity.
The issue that was noted with voice quality on my end, however, comes back to yet another obvious issue with the device itself. That's the fact that the speakers here are just not where I would have expected even in the $100 range. Sounds on calls were slightly garbled. They weren't unacceptably bad but it was noteworthy. I could still hear just fine in the speakerphone or earpiece mode.
When it came to playing some media, conversely, things just got worse. Audio fidelity here is certainly good enough for notifications, alarms, ringtones. This phone is just not made for media consumption beyond necessity. Sounds are loud but lack any real punch to speak of. The low end is all but nonexistent.
Bluetooth and the included 3.5mm headphone jack — a rarity in phones recently — alleviate the issues for the most part but aren't at audiophile levels or even close.
In music playback, where vocals are pulled back in the mix, those are brought forward. Where drums are meant to be pronounced they aren't. The tinny nature of the audio is obvious, even in movie playback. So these speakers are just anything but well-balanced. That was disappointing but, as with most of this phone's attributes, that's not what this phone is made for.
Acceptable photos from a somewhat unremarkable camera experience
Under dead-even lighting, this phone performs admirably. In fact, it performs well enough that it holds its own against its primary competitors under those conditions. Color saturation is almost dead-on accurate and details aren't too pixelated or blurry at all. Artifacts and distortions are near nonexistent.
Under any other kind of lighting, that quickly fades. For example, when shooting a scene with two different brightnesses, both areas in the scene suffer.
At least a couple of shots in the Android Headlines sample gallery via Flickr showcase that.
Taken under a partly-cloudy sky of a flower nestled behind the corner of a building, the shadowy areas are almost black. The camera over-brightens well-lit areas, to the contrary. Details of the plant, being shaded and lit, are there but aren't captured well enough to show properly on a screen larger than the average smartphone.
Another shot, capturing the infotainment system of a vehicle, had a similar issue. Because that capture was caught with the light above, instead of shadowing everything out, a bloom was created. Colors were washed out.
In both instances, the effect was easy to recreate. That means that they could feasibly be used to artistic effect. It also shows severe limits on the usability of the camera. The camera underperforms indoors except in a well-lit room. Low light photography is a mess of lost details, with only a flash to compensate.
All of the issues here could likely be fixed with a software update, even with just an f/1.8 aperture 8-megapixel + 2-megapixel array to work with at the back. The front camera has similar problems of its own due to only being a 5-megapixel snapper.
Software is, in fact, the overarching issue at hand with this camera. It's limited, with no user-accessible HDR features, no Pro Mode, no filters, and really no amenities other than standard options in the "Settings" menu. There's only a Photo, Video, Beauty, and Portrait mode.
Ulefone Armor X3 offers a clean if slow software experience
The software experience and ultimately the user experience with this phone can be surmised with one short phrase, slower than average. That's going to be frustrating for those who are coming from higher-end devices. It shouldn't prevent too many problems for those that aren't. In terms of where that's most prominent, that can be summarized in fewer words — everywhere.
Usually, I notice plenty of latency during initial setup that quickly fades as things are installed and all of the phone's settings are brought up to date. That didn't happen here. Instead, latency got only marginally better once the initial setup process was complete.
Apps don't launch immediately, there's lag even in some of the lighter games, and the camera is slow to respond regardless of whether taking a picture, focusing, or switching to the gallery view.
There are quite a few software tweaks in place that begin to make up for that, in Ulefone's near-stock Android 9 layout. But there are caveats in how Ulefone approaches UX too. Its iteration of Android can take advantage of an app drawer, for instance. There's a setting for that. But it starts without one, using an iPhone-like method of showing all apps on the various home screens.
A pill-shaped button is present but only accesses recent apps, in a strange blend of old and new Android navigation. The other option is a standard navigation bar.
Most of what's installed by default is stock Google software. Ulefone includes a sound recorder, note-taking app, SIM toolkit, and FM radio as extras.
That's in addition to its standard "OutDoor Toolbox," full of handy DIY tools. Based on a combination of camera and other positioning sensors, that adds a Bubble Level, Pic Hanging tool, Height Meter, Magnifier, and a Plumb Bob. A Flashlight, Compass, and Alarm are part of that suite as well.
The software here is great in that it is somewhat minimal with extra things to make the experience better. There's an underwater camera, for example, which doesn't use the touch screen at all — taking full advantage of how resilient the hardware is.
Ulefone has ensured the screen works with gloves too, via one of many such 'Intelligent assistance' settings that center around gestures and touch interaction.
Face unlocking is present but doesn't offer a great experience when a hat or glasses are worn.
Customizing elements can be accessed via a long-press on the home screen, similar to secondary launcher apps. That's also where the home screen and app drawer settings are found. Alongside those and standard widget options, users will find a choice of three themes. Those change the clock, wallpaper, and app icons.
It's a nice touch on top of what otherwise will feel like a subpar experience. For those who haven't used budget smartphones before or who are coming from an older device, it will be noticeably improved over previous experiences. It just falls short of what I expected from a modern smartphone of any stripe.
The low-impact pre-installs ensure that plenty of the 32GB expandable storage included with this phone remains for apps, videos, and photos.
Should you buy?
Whether or not this phone is suitable for purchase is going to vary widely from person to person. In some ways, it will vary much more than others in the sub-$100 Android device category — based on its current pricing online. For gaming or using intensive applications, this is obviously not going to be the one to buy. If 4G LTE is an absolute must or the camera needs to perform well in any lighting, it isn't either.
Most devices that will do better are, of course, in a higher price bracket. But that's going to vary too, depending on which aspect of the device is most important to the consumer.
Conversely, if taking photos underwater, dealing with blowing dust and pressurized water, or working around steam is a must, this may just be the option to go with. Not only does it perform well enough across most areas to meet the needs of day-to-day use. Ulefone has also ensured the Armor X3 is comfortable to hold and holds up against other physical abuses.
So in that sense, if those things are important, whether or not to buy is going to be a no-brainer. This Ulefone Armor X3 review certainly shows plenty of issues with this handset — most fixable with software. It's going to be a difficult task finding another phone with ruggedization that holds up as well as this one does. More difficult still finding one that costs under $100 or that has similar two-day battery life.
That all makes this phone difficult to recommend to everyday users but patently easy to recommend if ruggedization is the key factor.