Good screen, de­cent specs, great price: bud­get smart­phones come into their own with Voda­fone’s 5.5-inch Smart N9

Irish Independent - Business Week - - Technology - ADRIAN WECK­LER

THERE was a time when most peo­ple would scoff at an own-brand smart­phone. It’s fair to say that Voda­fone has es­tab­lished a de­cent track record in knock­ing those as­sump­tions down.

Its new bud­get ‘Smart N9’ de­vice won’t com­pete with an iPhone X or Huawei P20 Pro for your at­ten­tion, but this is no piece of junk. As a sec­ond phone, or a low-cost backup, it ex­cels. Even as a pri­mary smart­phone, this could cut the mus­tard for those who don’t de­mand too much from their hand­set.

In case you’re won­der­ing whether Voda­fone sud­denly man­u­fac­tures things, it doesn’t.

Like its pre­vi­ous own-brand smart­phones, what the op­er­a­tor has done is to take a rea­son­ably well-made smart­phone from the es­tab­lished Chi­nese phone man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant TCL and re­skin it for a Euro­pean mar­ket.

The 5.5-inch screen is clearly a few beats off the high-end Oled dis­plays you now get on flag­ship hand­sets. It’s a HD-light vari­ant at 720p, but is still suf­fi­ciently bright and sharp. It also comes in the 18:9 for­mat, mean­ing that it ac­com­mo­dates what was once con­sid­ered a freak­ishly-large screen in a very man­age­able er­gonomic pack­age. It also has slim ‘fore­head’ and ’chin’ bezels, mean­ing that around 90pc of the en­tire front panel is dis­play rather than big thick edges.

The Smart N9 has what is now a de­fault cam­era con­fig­u­ra­tion on bud­get smart­phones: a 13-megapixel rear lens and an 8-megapixel selfie cam­era. The main rear cam­era is a lit­tle slow, but will do for just about any­one who isn’t go­ing specif­i­cally for a phone with a good cam­era.

The battery (2,900mAh) life isn’t bad on this phone. We found it to be eas­ily on par with many other hand­sets, pos­si­bly be­cause the chip it uses is very low-pow­ered. It will last you a day with nor­mal us­age. It uses the older mi­cro-USB charg­ing stan­dard, which means you should al­ready have lots of spare ca­bles ly­ing around the place.

Other things to like in­clude a 3.5mm head­phone port (hur­rah), even if the ear­phones that come in the box are pretty ba­sic and tinny.

There’s even a (rear-mounted) fin­ger­print reader for se­cu­rity, a fea­ture re­served for premium phones just a cou­ple of years ago.

The phone’s main weak­ness is its lack of on-board stor­age mem­ory. For most peo­ple 16GB just isn’t enough in a pri­mary de­vice you’re go­ing to have for a year or more. Voda­fone has added in a mem­ory card slot so that you can ex­pand the phone’s stor­age abil­ity, but most peo­ple just won’t do this.

An­other ar­guable weak point is the N9’s speed. Pre­dictably, it has a much weaker en­gine than some of the flag­ship de­vices around at the mo­ment. Its 2GB of Ram is the bare min­i­mum a mod­ern phone gets th­ese days, while its Me­di­atek pro­ces­sor per­forms be­low the Snap­dragon chips you’ll find in phones a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive, such as Mo­torola’s G6. Then again, this means that it’s a lit­tle eas­ier on battery life.

The last main quib­ble is that its screen gets a lit­tle greasy and smudgy be­cause it doesn’t have the high-end man­u­fac­tur­ing sub­stance of more ex­pen­sive phones.

There are some soft­ware quirks to know. Be­cause it’s a Voda­fone-branded de­vice, you’ll see a few Voda­fone apps when you switch the phone on. To be fair, the op­er­a­tor has kept th­ese to a rel­a­tive min­i­mum.

Voda­fone also re­gards a few parental soft­ware fea­tures as a sell­ing point. One of th­ese could prob­a­bly be re­garded as handy for col­leagues and part­ners. It’s called ‘force ring’ and it lets you call the phone at full vol­ume, even if the phone has been switched to silent. Other ‘parental fea­tures’ in­clude the abil­ity to re­strict ac­cess to the web, to apps or to Google’s app store.

If you need a pow­er­house of a smart­phone, this isn’t it. But for what you’re pay­ing, this is a bar­gain.

And if for some rea­son you’re look­ing to spend even less, Voda­fone has a ‘lite’ ver­sion of the Smart N9 that has a slightly smaller (5.3-inch) screen and slightly lesser spec­i­fi­ca­tions for €90.

Voda­fone Smart N9, €139 from Voda­fone.ie

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