We’ve been saying that virtual reality is the next big thing for over a year now, but 2017 really will be the year VR comes to phones. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S8 and LG’s G6 are among those expected to come with large, high-resolution screens and meaty processors and GPUs to enable the best mobile VR. Those are Snapdragon phones, so what of MediaTek?
The current best (available) MediaTek processor is the Helio X25, which is a deca-core chip that combines two clusters of four low-power, efficient Cortex-A53 cores with a high-performance Cortex-A72 duo, and integrates the 850MHz Mali-T880 MP4 GPU. Don’t assume the Helio X25 is on par with – or with 10 cores even better than – the quad-core Snapdragon 820/821, which is paired with the Adreno 530 GPU and comes in many of today’s flagships; in our benchmarks the Qualcomm chip outdoes it every time. We expect to see a similar situation with the upcoming Helio X30 and Snapdragon 835 – MediaTek X25 processors are ideal for the very best mid-range phones, but not really what we’d class as flagship-level.
The Vernee Apollo is not the first phone to feature the Helio X25 processor (you’ll also find handsets from Xiaomi, Meizu, Elephone and LeEco), but it is the first to combine that processor with a 5.5in 2K screen (a high-resolution display is important for VR as the resolution is halved for each eye) and a VR headset in the box.
We say VR headset – it’s really just a plastic, buttonless, NFC-less version of the Google Cardboard viewer with a rubber insert that is intended to seal around your face (it was too large to fit our face). It’s not Daydream-ready (neither is the Apollo), and the viewer is not especially comfortable in use, though we understand its inclusion given the marketing.
The 2K screen makes the Vernee Apollo a better phone for VR than many others, especially MediaTek phones, though calling it the first MediaTek VR phone is possibly a bit of a stretch. No matter, the Apollo has lots more to offer under £250.
The Apollo is available from a number of Chinese outlets, including Coolicool, TomTop and AliExpress, though the one we recommend is GearBest since you can ship the Apollo from its EU warehouse and therefore avoid any nasty surprises in the form of import duty.
Buying the Apollo from the EU warehouse (£240) is a little more expensive than buying it from China (£208), but if you opt for the latter choice you should bear in mind that import duty is calculated at 20 percent of whatever value is written on the shipping paperwork, plus there’s an admin fee (in our experience this is £11 through DHL). Potentially, if you buy from China you could get an additional fee of up to £52, and in which case the £240 EU option will cost you less overall and come without the added hassle of paying fees.
The Vernee Apollo is sold on a SIM-free basis, which means you can use it with any UK-based mobile operator and on any tariff you like. It’s a dual-SIM phone that can accept a Nano- or Micro-SIM, and supports all three UK 4G bands.
The Apollo is a nicely designed phone with a 6000-series aluminium body and, as we’ve already mentioned, a 2K (or QuadHD) screen. We tested the grey version, which from the rear has nice clean lines with simplistic antenna bands and a slightly protruding camera with a Smart Touch fingerprint scanner below and dual-LED flash to the side.
The sides are slightly curved and with chamfered edges top and bottom, making this 5.5inscreen phablet easier to hold and manageable in a single hand, especially given its weighty 188g body. This also makes it seem thinner than it is, since at 9.3mm it’s pretty chunky for a flagship phone with only a 3180mAh battery inside.
At the front you find 2.5D curved glass, which would flow smoothly into the metal frame were it not for the black plastic bezel that is very obvious as you run a finger across the surface. We presume this will add strength to the edges of the screen as you routinely take it in and out the VR viewer, though it does nothing for the aesthetics.
The screen itself is decent, and with a 2560x1440-pixel resolution the sharpest of any Chinese phone we’ve reviewed. The resulting pixel density of 541ppi is very high, well above that of Retina quality, so you’ll find no fuzzy text or graphics here. Of course, the primary reason for the high resolution is VR, since it is halved for each eye. Used with a VR viewer each eye will see a still-sharp 1080p resolution.
This is an LTPS display, which is easy on power consumption with decent brightness. Vernee quotes stats such as 500 nits brightness, 1500:1 contrast and 95 percent NTSC gamut. We found no reason to complain about the screen, which can be bright enough to use in direct sunlight and dim enough for night-time use. It’s also protected with Gorilla Glass 3.
The Vernee Apollo has a USB-C port at the bottom, which can be used for charging, data transfer and audio. Pleasingly there’s also a headphone jack at the top, so along with the built-in speaker you have plenty of audio options.
A volume rocker and power button are found on the right edge, but rather than a single pin-operated SIM tray on the left there are two. One accepts a single Nano-SIM and the other a Micro-SIM, or you can swap out the Nano-SIM for a microSD card up to 128GB in capacity.
Despite a lot of space above and below the screen, which makes the Apollo a rather tall 152mm, the navigation bar is displayed onscreen. You can fiddle around with its layout in the Settings menu.
There probably would have been space under the screen to fit the fingerprint scanner, but we like the rear positioning as it falls naturally under the forefinger as you use the phone, and can be used to both wake and unlock the screen at once. It’s a decent scanner, recognising your fingerprint in 0.1s and allegedly becoming more accurate over time.
As we noted in the introduction to this review, the Vernee Apollo is one of few phones to run MediaTek’s current best Helio X25 processor, a deca-core chip with eight Cortex-A53 cores and two Cortex-A72 cores, plus an integrated 850MHz Mali-T880 MP4 GPU. The Helio chip can run at clock speeds of up to 2.5GHz, which is the main difference between it and the slightly slower-clocked Helio X20. Vernee pairs this processor with 4GB of RAM and a generous 64GB of storage.
On its site Vernee compares the core specification of the Apollo with the Xiaomi Mi5s Plus and OnePlus 3T. On paper it sounds impressive: a deca-core processor against their quad-core chips, a higher-resolution screen, a matching amount of memory and storage, and a higher megapixel rating on the primary camera. In fact the deca-core Helio X25 is not a match for the quad-core Snapdragon 821, and the 4GB of RAM is of the slower LPDDR3 rather than LPDDR4 variety (plus the OnePlus 3T has 6GB). Its higher-resolution screen is no doubt a good thing, but actually held it back in our graphics tests. And, as we well know, piling on the megapixels doesn’t always make for a better camera. On the plus side, it is cheaper than those phones.
In real-world use the Apollo feels fast, with multitasking, gaming and multimedia no issue for it. In our synthetic benchmarks it couldn’t compete with the OnePlus 3T, and is in fact a better match or Helio X20/X25 phones such as the Elephone S7, Xiaomi Redmi Note 4, Meizu MX6 and Vernee Apollo Lite.
The battery is on the small side for a 5.5in 2K-screen phablet, rated at just 3180mAh, so you’ll need to charge it every day. It doesn’t support wireless charging or, having a MediaTek chip, Qualcomm Quick Charge, but with a compatible adaptor Vcharge allows it to get a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes.
Usually with Chinese phones you must be careful to ensure they are supported on your home network. Fortunately the Apollo works with all UK 4G bands, so it’s just as good on O2, GiffGaff or Sky Mobile as it is Vodafone, Three and EE. However, if you are buying outside the UK you should check the specifications and our guide on how to tell whether a phone is supported by your network.
The Apollo is a dual-SIM dualstandby phone, which means it can send and receive calls on two separate SIMs (although obviously not at exactly the same time). For data you must select one of the two SIMs, although you can change between them in the Settings.
The only thing that’s really missing in terms of connectivity is NFC, which is necessary for making mobile payments and can be useful with some VR headsets. You do get dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and A-GPS (GLONASS is not specified) and OTG.
In a nice change from the countless Chinese phones with 13Mp cameras
that pass through PC Advisor’s doors, the Vernee Apollo is fitted with a 21Mp, 1/2.4in Sony IMX230. Specs include a dual-tone LED flash, 0.1s phase-detection autofocus, f/2.2 aperture and 4K video recording with videos saved in H.265 format.
We were impressed with the quality of our test photos, shot by default in a 21Mp widescreen format. Although viewed at full-size they show some softness at the extreme edges and are a bit grainy, overall they are amazingly sharp. And the HDR mode is the best we’ve seen on a phone at this price. It’s incredible to think the two images were shot at the same time, the first in Auto and the second HDR.
The camera app itself offers a number of real-time filters, but shooting modes are limited to Auto, Panorama, HDR and a 40-shot burst mode. You can alter the ISO, white balance, exposure and image properties in the settings.
At the front is an 8Mp selfie camera, which includes the same real-time filters, HDR mode and a Beauty mode.
The Apollo runs a vanilla version of Android Marshmallow, and the company confirms that it will be updated to Nougat, the latest version of the OS. There’s a Turbo Download mode (which combines 4G and Wi-Fi for faster downloads), but very little in the way of preinstalled apps. There’s a GoVR Player, for example, but no Google apps other than the Google Play store. This means you’ll need to download the likes of Gmail, Maps and YouTube yourself if you wish to use them, and a benefit of this is storage isn’t wasted if you don’t. You can wake the screen with the fingerprint scanner and alter the layout of the navigation bar, but that’s really it. And that’s not a bad thing.
The Vernee Apollo is a MediaTek flagship, which isn’t what we expect from Qualcomm Snapdragon flagships, but a very decent phone nonetheless. It’s pretty powerful, with a nice screen, a great camera and a relatively untouched Android OS. At less than £250, you can’t argue with its value.