Not that long ago, with a budget under 300 dollars you could only afford a borderline-decent smartphone, with a low performance, a weak camera and overall, there was a mile between it and the more expensive, high-end flagship phones.
But, a couple of years back, we have noticed a shift of interest from the smartphone manufacturers, which started focusing a lot more on the low-mid-range phones, than they would before. So, now, we have high-performing smartphones at surprisingly low prices, capable of playing the latest games, having a decent camera and a decent display (there are even a few of them that almost invalidate the ownership of a high-end flagship phone).
In 2018, this statement is truer than ever, since it still is extremely easy to find a great smartphone under 300 dollars that will compete with the flagships from the last year. So, we tried to find the most balanced, high performing smartphones, with a great camera, a large display and we compiled them into this comprehensive list.
UPDATE 10.26.2018: I have added the Motorola Moto G6 Plus to the best phones under 300 dollars list.
1. LG G5
It’s not every day that I get the chance to squeeze into this list of mid-range handsets an actual, recently-released flagship smartphone and this time, the gods have blessed us with the controversial LG G5. The G5 is the 2016’s top handset from LG and, while it was equipped in a similar way as the other Android flagships (such as HTC 10 or Samsung Galaxy S7) the Korean company took some risks and experimented a bit with the exterior of the device in order to make a traditional modular phone.
These experiments backfired in a major way since users were generally unhappy with the overall look and feel of the LG G5, therefore heavily devaluing the device in a span of a year. Still, nobody can deny that the G5 remains a very powerful smartphone even on today’s standards and some may argue that it has the best mobile camera of 2016.
That being said, I am not going to review the LG G5 as a flagship phone, but from a capable mid-ranger point of view and see how does it fare with other affordable handsets released recently (and from the last couple of years).
Design and Display
The design of the LG G5 is the root of all its problems and I’ll let you know why. First of all, most phones, flagship or not, come either in a full glass body or with a combination between glass and metal. The G5 has a metal body (a significant upgrade over the plastic G4), but LG decided to apply the antenna directly to the aluminium casing and add a layer of primer (albeit a rather thick one) on top of it. This broke the metallic feel that most users expected from recent handsets and gave the illusion of plastic, which, nowadays is a no-no even for mid-rangers.
Secondly, LG did not play it safe and tried to accomplished something that every other manufacturer has failed: it tried to create the perfect modular phone. Other companies have tried their hands into modularity (such as the Project Ara) and, while I understand that the smartphone market desperately needs something new, a modular handset is not really the winning formula in the current context (modules are usually very expensive and people have a habit of getting bored and change their phones after about two years).
So, following the traditional way of creating a modular phone, the G5 consists of two separate parts: the larger top zone (with the display on the front and the camera and buttons on the rear) and a smaller bottom side which can get detached to reveal the removable battery (yes, the G5 is one of those rare smartphone to allow the user to change the battery). The body of the LG G5 is slightly smaller than the G4 (down to 5.3 inches), which makes it easier to maneuver and the bezels are slightly narrower on the lateral sides, but still relatively thick on the top and bottom. Comparing it with other similarly priced phones, the G5 is doing quite well and I liked the completely black top front which gives the illusion of a continuous larger display (enhanced by the slight curve towards the top edge).
What attracted some negative criticism is the fact that there are visible irregularities between the main body and the bottom side which breaks the continuity of the phone and it reveals that it’s a detachable part in an unsavoury way (furthermore, if the bottom part is frequently removed, the fixing mechanism can become loose in time and a visible gap can appear). Some things to expect from the G5 are the IR Blaster, the fast and accurate fingerprint reader and the capacitive buttons.
On the front, the G5 features a 5.3-inch IPS LCD display, with a resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels, 16 million colours, a pixel density of 554ppi and is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4. Now, does a small 5.3-inch display really need a 2K resolution? Obviously not, as it will have a heavy impact on the battery life, but while some may argue that there is no distinguishable difference between a 1080p and a 2K panel at that size, I did see a sharper text and better, more realistic images and videos. Comparing it with the usual 1080p of mid-range smartphone, it definitely feels superior, but the decision to avoid the AMOLEDs in favour of the LCD technology has cost the G5 in terms of dimness and brightness (although the advertised maximum 900 nits should be enough for sunny days).
Performance and Software
Inside the case, the LG G5 is equipped with a quad-core Qualcomm MSM8996 Snapdragon 820 chipset (dual-core 2.15GHz Kryo and dual-core 1.6GHz Kryo), an Adreno 530 GPU, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage and you can add up to 256 GB using a microSD card.
I know I said that I would look at it from a mid-ranger point of view, but, it pretty much blows away every smartphone in its price range. The interface feels smooth and reactive, multitasking posed no problems because of its 4GB of RAM and gaming was smooth and without any lost frames. The Snapdragon 820 is known to handle even the most resource-heavy games and yes, the G5 can handle everything you throw at it without breaking a sweat. Since this is a metallic phone (hidden under some layers), the handset will get warm while gaming extensively, but most of the time, the G5 had a constant, acceptable temperature.
Comparing it with the other flagships of 2016, both the S7 and the HTC 10 had a very similar performance and the same can be said about the iPhone 7’s performance, so it’s clear that the G5 can hold its ground against its competitors and it remains a powerful flagship device after all.
The interface of the LG G5 is built on top of the Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), but, as expected it can be upgraded to Android version 7.0 (Nougat) and it will receive the newest Android O (v.8) very soon. The G5’s UI feels very different than on the previous generations, since there is less bloatware (so no unwanted LG apps), but a weird decision was the removal of the app drawer.
I am not sure why LG thought that this would be a good idea (maybe they fancied the iPhone look), but there are ways to get it back (LG has an official launcher available if you want the app drawer back). Overall, the interface felt very close to stock and more responsive than with previous iterations (one very important aspect is that very few G5 smartphones have experienced the bootloop bug, while the G4 is notorious for this generalized problem which, currently, is part of a class-action lawsuit against LG).
Camera and Battery Life
On the rear panel, the LG G5 is equipped with a dual camera setup: a primary 16-megapixel camera with a f/1.8 aperture, 29mm lens, 3-axis OIS and LED flash (it can film 2160p videos at 30fps and 1080p videos at 30 or 60fps) and a secondary 8-megapixel wide-angle camera with a f/2.4 aperture and 12mm lens. The rear camera is the best feature of this phone since it has been regarded many times as possibly the best mobile camera of 2016 and for good reasons.
On its own, the primary shooter is able to capture really sharp pictures in good light, with a high amount of detail, a very good colour reproduction, the images were vibrant and with a proper exposure. In low light, the primary rear camera handled things really well and, while it isn’t perfect (I noticed a bit of noise reduction and occasional overexposure), it is up there, next to the performance level of the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7.
Things get interesting when you switch to the secondary rear camera which has a field of view of 135 degrees (yes, it’s more than the human eye can see), therefore being capable of capturing a lot more scenery than with the primary camera. Of course, the picture quality is more limited, but you’ll find yourself using this feature more often than not.
On the front, there’s an 8-megapixel camera, with an aperture of f/2.0, a 1/4″ sensor size and it can film 1080p videos only. The front-facing camera is really wide, so more than one person can fit into the photo and, while it’s not the best on the market, it’s more than enough for the occasional selfies either during the day or during the night.
While the design choice may not be the best I’ve seen on a flagship phone the last couple of years, LG made another unfortunate choice when it added only a 2800 mAh battery to handle the power and the display of the G5, but on the brighter side, the battery can be removed and exchanged in case of an emergency. I was able to get no more than 3 hours of screen-on time and if used moderately, the battery is able to deliver a full day before needing recharging. The good news though is that LG uses Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (USB type-C), so you can charge the battery from 0 to 60% in half an hour and from 0 to 100% in about an hour.
2. Huawei Honor 8
The Chinese smartphone manufacturers get more popular everyday in the US and the European marketplace (and it’s no surprise since their phones are usually much cheaper than the competition), which has a deep impact into the how flagship smartphones are perceived and it further thins the already narrow line between them and the mid-range handsets.
That being said, a year ago, Huawei released the Honor 8 as one of its latest attempts to take on “the medium-range flagship smartphones” and since the user reaction was pretty much positive, it has put Honor on the map as a highly desirable smartphone manufacturer (along with OnePlus and ZTE). Since OnePlus 3T and ZTE Axon 7 are out of my reach for now, let’s see how does the Honor 8 perform.
Design and Display
The mid-range smartphone zone is definitely changing and the design of the Honor 8 is proof of that. If one looks at the phone for the first time and moves it from one hand to another, it won’t believe that it is not a premium flagship smartphone. The top and the bottom part of the Honor 8 are completely made of 2.5D glass, with both parts curving towards the edges and being fused to the aluminium band which surrounds the phone. The main attraction of the Honor 8 is the rear glass panel which instead of using the usual six to eight layers, it features 15 layers of glass that use a 3D grating effect, so the light doesn’t simply reflect just like in a mirror, instead it refracts and diffuses in a spectacular and unusual fashion.
The thin bezels and the lack of any bumps all around the case offers a seamless, smooth feeling while holding the phone in hand, but, at the same time, it also feels incredibly slippery (a case is mandatory to ensure the phone’s survival) and bear in mind that the glass is a magnet for fingerprints. On the front of the device, you won’t find any capacitive buttons (the mildly annoying Honor logo sits proudly in their place) and you only get on-screen keys for navigating the interface. On the back, there’s a circular fingerprint sensor which works really fast and, even if it scratches (and it may, because it’s not made of glass or ceramics), it will continue to function correctly.
At the top, Honor has also added an IR blaster (something that seems to becoming extinct from the newer smartphones), which will allow you to control your TV or other compatible devices. Overall, the design of the Honor 8 is second only to the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and that’s saying a lot for such an inexpensive smartphone.
Between the narrow bezels, rests the 5.2-inch LTPS touchscreen display, with 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels and a pixel density of 423ppi. The display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3, so the coating on the screen is a bit less resistant to scratches than a Gorilla Glass 4.
I think the Full-HD resolution is suitable for a 5.2-inch display and I don’t think a 2K would make a noticeable difference to a smaller than a 5.5-inch screen. Of course, the display doesn’t have the high contrast and the vibrancy of an AMOLED, but the images and the text were sharp enough, the colours were a bit on the cooler side and the maximum screen brightness is 455 nits, which is average, but it will definitely handle a sunny day without problems.
Performance and Software
Under the hood, the Honor 8 sports an octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 950 chipset (a quad-core 2.3GHz Cortex-A72 processor and a quad-core 1.8 GHz Cortex A53 processor), a Mali-T880 MP4 GPU, 4GB of RAM and 32 or 64GB of internal storage. Also, the Honor 8 comes with a microSD card slot, which supports an addition of up to 256 GB.
The HiSilicon Kirin 950 chipset is “home-made” by the Chinese company, but it is surprisingly almost on par with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 performance. This means that I had experience some dropped frames from some resource-heavy mobile games, but overall, it had a stellar performance while playing most modern games, the multitasking was smooth and without any stuttering (I could open a large number of apps and I experienced no problems) and most importantly, the phone did not get hot very easily (something that most flagships are guilty of), but it will overheat after more than a couple of hours of heavy playing, which is normal.
The Honor 8 features the Emotion UI 5.0 which is built on top of the Android Marshmallow v6.0 and it’s upgradable to Android Nougat v7.0 (so far, it is unclear if the Honor 8 will receive the update to Android 8.0). Because it lacks an app drawer, every icon for every app is laid bare on the screen (similarly to the iOS from the iPhones) and people that are not used to this approach may get scared by the overcrowded display (of course, in time, people will get used to it, but I like my phone screen to be as clean as possible).
Furthermore, the UI has some interesting features, such as the Smart Key, which gives a lot of additional functionality to the fingerprint sensor (slide the finger down to bring up the notifications, but you can also add some new functions for one press, a double-press or press and hold) and there’s also the motion control which automatically responds a call if you pick up the phone and mutes the call if you turn the device upside-down.
Camera and Battery Life
On the rear side, Huawei equipped the Honor 8 with a dual 12-megapixel camera setup, an f/2.2 aperture, laser autofocus, dual-LED (dual tone) flash and a 1/2.9″ sensor size. The two rear cameras take composite photos (one captures coloured images, while the other shoots monochrome images, which are later combined to give the final result) and this approach is working fine for Honor 8 because the photos are some of the best I’ve seen taken by a mid-range smartphone.
In good lighting, the shots were very good, the images were rich in details, the colours were crisp and accurate and there’s a good amount of contrast. In low-light, the Honor 8’s camera was surprisingly good (even if it lacks optical image stabilization), the photos were rich in detail and there was an impressive balance between shadows and bright areas (although, it sometimes overexposes some photos). An interesting camera feature is that you can alter the amount of blur that’s applied to the background or the foreground. There’s also an 8-megapixel secondary camera which works very well with selfies or for conference calls.
Inside the case, the Honor 8 is equipped with a non-removable 3000 mAh battery and while looping a video continuously, the battery died after about 6 hours and a half. As expected the FullHD display helps a lot with conserving the battery life and you can easily get a day and a half of medium use (light gaming, watching YouTube, checking FaceBook). Additionally, the phone also comes with the Smart Power 4.0 fast battery charging feature which will charge up to 50% in about 30 minutes.
3. Motorola Moto G6 Plus
This year we got a lot of great budget-friendly smartphones, so it was about time to see another Motorola Moto G smartphone and to ensure that the new Moto G6 Plus won’t be left behind after the aggressive competition from Huawei on the low and midrange segment, it seems that Lenovo has once again made some significant improvements over the last generation.
As with every other new handset from the G series, the Moto G6 Plus was created to dominate the low-to-mid-range smartphone market, which means that it has improved some elements from the previous gen (such as the complete transition to a metal and glass body – which has become a normal occurrence even on the more inexpensive phones from the market), but it has also decided to go with the 18:9 ratio, therefore becoming slightly bigger (fear not, there’s no notch), it got a better performing battery and, similarly to the G5S Plus, it also comes with a dual-camera system (to be more in line with the trends of this year).
Without a doubt, 2018 has been a strange year for smartphones since we have budget-priced phones with flagship-level hardware that have significantly shaken the need for flagships smartphones, so the G6 Plus (along with its competitors) offer an elegant design with a more than decent performance and you don’t need to pay high amounts of money for it any more.
Design and Display
The Motorola Moto G5 Plus is the first to have added some premium materials into its build (glass, metal), but since the competition is even fiercer this year, the Motorola Moto G6 Plus features a metal frame and there’s Gorilla Glass on the front and rear sides which makes it both elegant and very slippery, so you may want to use a case (Lenovo provides a transparent protective case inside the box) or even better, a skin (the G6 is the only member of the new series that still sports a plastic rear side).
Furthermore, the corners remain softly curved (even if the larger screen makes the phone look more rectangular) and the slightly curved rear panel allows the phone to sit nicely in the palm of your hand, despite the increased size and weight (it measures 6.30 x 2.97 x 0.31 inches and weighs 5.89 ounces).
Some of the elements that the G6 Plus has in common with its predecessor are the large circular area on the rear side, where rest the two cameras and the flash (but, while it improves the overall look of the device, it is a vulnerable area since it protrudes significantly from the back panel) and the fingerprint sensor which is still on the front, but to accommodate the large display, it is now smaller. Furthermore, the antenna bands are gone and the buttons (volume controller and the Power switch) can still be found on the right side, but they’re positioned a bit higher.
The Moto G6 Plus has also kept the headphone jack and the USB port on the bottom of the device (this time, Lenovo decided to finally go with a reversible Type-C port), while the microSD card slot can still be accessed from the top side – the smartphone lacks any IP rating, but the manufacturer claims that the device is splash resistant.
On front of the Moto G6 Plus rests a 5.9-inch IPS LCD display, with a resolution of 2160 x 1080 pixels, 16 million colours, a pixel density of 401 ppi, excellent viewing angles and, just like most new mid-to-high end smartphones, it decided to switch to the 18:9 ratio (which is fantastic for both watching movies and playing games). Furthermore, the screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 3.
Sure enough, the display is not as vibrant as the OLED screens from some of the flagship handsets, but it’s still a great display, featuring decently accurate colours (they are a bit on the cold side), a proper contrast (approx 1250:1), it’s also quite crisp and, considering it’s size, it doesn’t suffer from pixelation. The brightness is improved over the previous version, now being capable to go up to 700 cd/m2, so it is extremely easy to use the phone on the beach under direct sunlight.
Performance and Software
The Motorola Moto G6 Plus is equipped with an octa-core Qualcomm SDM630 Snapdragon 630 (Cortex-A53 clocked at 2.2GHz) which is newer than the Snapdragon 625 from the previous generation and it can offer a performance boost of up to 30%, same as the Adreno 508 which is a significant upgrade over the Adreno 506 from the G5 Plus; the smartphone also comes with 4 or 6GB RAM and 64 or 128GB of flash memory (additionally, you can increase the storage up to 256 GB through the microSD card slot).
The phone does manage to deliver a good day-to-day performance, so, opening multiple apps is handled well and in most cases, it will do just fine running mobile games, but, if you run resource-heavy games or applications, the G6 Plus will show signs of struggle. Similarly to other mid-range handsets, the G6 Plus got a bit warm after some longer gaming sessions.
Software-wise, the Moto G6 Plus features a clean, near stock version of the Android 8.0 Oreo with very few apps from Motorola and it doesn’t suffer from bloatware (Lenovo claims that it will be upgraded to Android 9.0 Pie). Some of the pre-installed Motorola apps are the Moto Voice that works in the same manner as the Google Assistant (which is also available), but it is less responsive and there’s the Moto Display that, if you’re familiar with the Always-On Display, works in a similar way, but it only shows when you have a new notification.
Besides the Moto apps, you’ll also find the Outlook and LinkedIn – both apps can be uninstalled.
Camera and Battery Life
While the G5 Plus had a single rear camera, Lenovo decided to follow the new multi-camera trend and equipped the G5S Plus with a dual-camera system, an implementation that was kept with the new G6 Plus as well. So, on the rear side, there’s a 12-megapixel main camera with an f/1.7 aperture and dual-LED dual-tone flash, as well as a secondary 5-megapixel camera with an f/2.2 aperture, LED flash and a depth sensor. As expected, the secondary camera has the role to adjust the background blur level, while the 12-megapixel camera is the one that captures the photo.
The image quality is good in ideal conditions, so the photos have a decent exposure and a good amount of detail (although some noise can still be seen). Things get a bit tricky in low light, where the noise level increases and the lack of OIS shows the camera’s weaknesses; at the same time, let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a budget smartphone, so the camera does a great job considering the price point of the device.
On the front, the Moto G6 Plus has an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash and an aperture of f/2.2, so it will do a decent job with selfies or conference calls.
While Moto G5 Plus had a 3000mAh battery, the Moto G6 Plus has gained 200 mAh, so it sports a non-removable Li-Ion 3200 mAh battery that can get you through a day if on low to medium use; on medium to extensive use, it managed to score around 11 hours.
Additionally, the G6 Plus comes equipped with the Turbo Power Charging feature, which means that the battery gets from zero to 100 % in less than 2 hours.
4. ZTE Axon Pro
The ZTE Axon Pro was the first attempt from ZTE to create a flagship smartphone at an acceptable price, offering an alternative to the more expensive handsets from Samsung and Apple. It was big and flashy and it definitely caught the attention of lots of people and since it has been released almost two years ago, it’s finally affordable enough to be apart of this top.
Sure enough, the Axon Pro came at the opportune time and became part of “the advent of the mid-range smartphones with flagship hardware”, an event that created a proper middle-ground between the entry-level and the flagship smartphones market. The competition is now harder than ever, so let’s see what can the ZTE Axon Pro bring to the table.
Design and Display
While other smartphone manufacturers cut some corners and went for cheaper, low-quality materials, ZTE decided did not make such compromises and invested in high-quality premium materials when it built the Axon Pro. The case is made of aluminum, with soft rounded corners and thin lateral bezels, which make the smartphone to look somewhat narrow. On the top and the bottom, the metal body prolongs a bit further to leave space for two multi-triangle patterns, from which, one hides the speaker (despite the effect, there is no dual-speaker functionality).
This makes the phone also a bit taller (6.06 x 2.90 x 0.37 in) and it’s also not really lightweight (6.35 ounces), which could have some impact into maneuverability. But, while most people won’t be able to use it with one hand, the phone will sit comfortably into the palm, thanks to the slightly inflated back side. One interesting design addition which will catch your attention is the small recessed zone from the rear side (where resides the back camera), which is also covered by the small-triangles pattern.
Although not an unibody (therefore, lacking the sleek look of the latest flagships from Samsung or Apple), the metal case of the Axon Pro is still elegant enough and it gives a premium vibe.
In-between the two front grills, rests the 5.5 inches IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, which has a resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels, 16 million colors and a pixel density of 534ppi. Furthermore, the screen has wide viewing angles and it’s protected by the Corning Gorilla Glass 3.
Because of the relatively high resolution, images will look clear, the text will be crisp and watching movies will definitely be more than pleasant (opinions are mixed about whether we actually need such a high resolution on a small screen). The display has 466 nits, so it will do just fine under direct sunlight and will handle going to the beach and reading an e-book (a bit lower than the Moto X Pure, which had an insane 715 nits rating).
Performance and Software
The ZTE Axon Pro is equipped with an octa-core Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810 chipset (quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 & quad-core 2GHz Cortex-A57 CPU), along with an Adreno 430 GPU, 32/64 GB available internal storage and 4GB RAM. Unfortunately, ZTE did not equip the Axon Pro with a microSD card slot, so you can’t augment the storage memory (that’s why it’s advisable to go for the higher 64GB variant).
Like other smartphones that are also equipped with a Snapdragon 810 chipset (HTC One M9, OnePlus 2 and Nexus 6P), you can expect a high performance, with games being handled smoothly (even the more demanding ones) and, because the handset also has 4GB of RAM, multitasking should always work properly, even with resource-heavy apps. Some concerns are justified considering that the 810 chipset has a habit of overheating the phone and let’s not forget the fact that smartphones with metal bodies have a tendency to become warm when there are some heavy apps running. But, surprisingly the Axon Pro never reached a high temperature that would shut the phone down (it will get warm, but nothing to make me concerned, so far).
Furthermore, once Android released the new 6.0 Marshmallow version, the Axon Pro was on the list to get it (even though not as fast as the Nexus devices) – now, it can be upgraded to Android Nougat, but it is unclear if it will get the latest Android 8.0 update. What you can expect from the new software is the Google Now and Tap feature, the new App Drawer and the Doze mode (the Axon Pro isn’t a ‘pure Android’ device, so there is a bit of bloatware).
Note: The ZTE Axon Pro supports WiFi calling and VoLTE.
Camera and Battery Life
The ZTE Axon Pro has a primary dual-lens 12.3-megapixel camera with a f/2.0 aperture, dual-LED flash (dual tone), HDR, 1.55µm pixel size and 1/2.3′ sensor size.
The dual-lens rear camera can capture some impressive shots during daylight, with natural, life-like colours and with a lot of detail. Indoors, the camera will also shoot some good photos, but, you will notice a certain degree of noise (especially around the edges) and the colours will have a tendency to be a bit washed out.
If you compare it with the likes of Samsung Galaxy S6, the Axon Pro’s rear camera is definitely inferior, but, as a stand-alone, it is a great camera, suitable for a mid-range handset. On the front, there’s a 8-megapixel camera with a f/2.4 aperture, capable of capturing 1080p videos at 30 fps.
Inside the case, the ZTE Axon Pro has a 3000 mAh Li-Ion battery which is, unfortunately non-removable. The battery will get you through a day if you don’t use the phone heavily (Internet browsing and checking the e-mail should be fine) and if you loop a video, the battery will deplete after about seven and a half hours. Additionally, the Axon Pro has the QuickCharge 2.0, which will charge your phone from 0 to 50% in 30 minutes.
5. Huawei Honor 7X
The Huawei Honor 7X is the successor of last year’s relatively successful mid-ranger, the 6X, which, along with the Honor 8 challenged the mid-to-high range smartphone market and took everyone by surprise with the implementation of powerful hardware suitable for both heavy multitasking and gaming, as well as above-average cameras, all that covered by an attractive design. But the most attractive aspect of both these devices was, of course, the affordable price.
The Honor 7X continues this legacy and this time, it borrows even more elements from the expensive flagship devices, managing to further negate the need to spend a lot of money for a great smartphone experience. That being said, the Honor 7X has a bigger and better display, more powerful internal hardware and a lot more capable cameras so let’s have a closer look at what can this smartphone deliver.
Design and Display
The design of the Honor 7X does not follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, this time it features a slightly larger case and a bigger display, but it kept the aluminum body, which is now a lot more refined and feels better in hand (the metal unibody curves along the edges to meet the display).
It seems that Honor took notice of the fragile case of the 6X and it’s clear that the 7X is now built in such a way that it will definitely survive a bend test (something that its predecessor could not). Even if it now measures 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, the phone is not uncomfortable to hold (it has a very good grip) and considering that it weighs 5.82 oz, it felt very balanced (as expected, you won’t really be able to operate it with only one hand).
On the rear side, you’ll notice that Honor has now positioned the cameras horizontally towards the left side (while before, these were aligned vertically), it has kept the fingerprint sensor in the same position (the sensor still remains one of the fastest I saw on a smartphone – take notes, LG!) and, besides the small logo towards the bottom side and the necessary antenna lines, nothing else really breaks the design continuity. On the left edge, the smartphone features a SIM tray which allows the addition of a microSD card and, on the right edge of the Honor 7X, you can find the volume controller and the power button, while on the bottom side, there’s a 3.5mm headphones socket and a micro-USB (it’s a shame that Honor still hasn’t gone to the new type-C standard).
The main selling point of the Honor 7X is obviously the front side, where you’ll immediately notice the almost bezel-less IPS LCD touchscreen display which got a significant upgrade from the 5.5 inches of the 6X to 5.93 inches (the screen-to-body ratio is now close to 77%), it has gained a bit in terms of resolution because of the larger display (1080 x 2160 pixels), while also upping the aspect ratio from the usual 16:9 to 18:9. This will definitely make the movie watching experience and the mobile gaming a lot more immersive, but it will also allow more information to be displayed on the screen.
It’s a great thing that the manufacturers have managed to increase the screen size, while not making the smartphone bigger than necessary and since this design approach has been ported so fast to the low-to-mid-range smartphones market (the LG G6 and the Galaxy S8 being the first to do it), it becomes clear that the Honor 7X and the LG Q6 (which also has a larger screen and really narrow bezels) are only the first tease of what we can expect in 2018.
That being said, the quality of the display is decent, managing to deliver reasonably vibrant colours (the black levels are good, although not on par with an AMOLED), good viewing angles and the 450-nit brightness should be more than enough for outdoor visibility (also, the 1080p display is still fine for this size and has a less heavier impact on the battery life, a lot less than a 1440p display would).
Note: Underneath the display there are no capacitive buttons, there’s only the Honor logo occupying the place (it’s less intrusive than on the Honor 6X, but still annoying).
Performance and Software
Inside the case, the manufacturer has equipped the Honor 7X with the proprietary octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 659 chipset (uses a quad-core Cortex-A53 CPU clocked at 2.36 GHz, as well as a quad-core Cortex-A53 CPU clocked at 1.7 GHz) which can be considered slightly better than the Snapdragon 625. It also is equipped with a Mali-T830 MP2 GPU, 3 GB or 4 GB of RAM (the US version seems to be limited to the 3 GB RAM) and 32 or 64 GB of storage memory, which can be enhanced by up to 256 GB using an additional microSD card.
The overall performance of the Honor 7X is a bit better than last year (with the 6X), the multitasking being even smoother (the RAM helps a lot) and it was able to run most of the newer games, 2D, as well as 3D titles, without problems (although if lots of apps are opened in the background, you’ll experience occasional freezes). One thing that I have noticed, though, is that the phone tends to run a bit hot after a while when playing resource-heavy games, something that will have an impact on the battery life.
Note: Similarly to the Honor 6X, the 7X still doesn’t have NFC implemented.
The Honor 7X features the Emotion UI (EMUI) 5.1 which is built on top of Android 7.0 Nougat OS and this is a bit disappointing, since the Android Oreo 8.0 is out for about four months now (we may see an update soon?). Anyway, the interface is quite similar to the 6X UI, having that Android and iOS mashup feeling, so the app drawer is still gone (can be added back through the settings) and there are different layouts to choose from (there’s also a one-hand mode for people that want to operate the phone while having one hand occupied).
Overall, there isn’t that much bloatware, but it can’t really be considered stock by any means, as there are some apps pre-installed, such as the HiCare, HiGame, Mirror, Backup, Weather, Themes and more (and there’s also the expected Google Assistant).
Camera and Battery Life
On the rear side, the Honor 7X has kept the dual-camera setup, this time featuring a 16-megapixel main shooter (1.25 µm pixel size, 1/2.9″ image sensor, can film 1080p videos at 30fps) and a secondary 2-megapixel camera which helps the main one to gain more depth data (it is not monochrome). By default, the camera won’t really be that impressive, but, by adjusting some settings (such as turning on the HDR or modifying the resolution), you’ll be able to get some surprisingly good shots in good light (there’s still some post-processing done to achieve the bokeh effect).
Indoors and in dimly lit scenes, the lack of OIS will have a heavier impact, as you’ll need a steady hand to capture some decent pictures (overall, the shots will be grainier and with a noticeable amount of noise). The front 8-megapixel camera can also capture 1080p videos and the shots are decent, with low noise levels, so it’s more than capable for selfies.
The Honor 7X also comes with a non-removable Li-Ion 3340 mAh battery which should be able to deliver a full day of light to moderate use and, if you want to watch some movies (while on a plane trip), you’ll be able to do so for about 6 hours, while keeping the brightness to about 70 %. The phone does not come with any Quick Charging features, but the provided charger can refill the battery from 0 to 100% in about two and a half hours.
6. Sony Xperia XA2
The appearance of the Pocophone and overall, the impact that the likes of the OnePlus and now, Huawei is making on the global smartphone market is huge because people can get an equivalent performance to the high-end smartphones at a significantly lower price. So, while Samsung, Apple, LG or other similar manufacturer may have to rethink things, Sony is in serious trouble because it always had problems coming with a competitive price tag and a harder time competing in the low to medium range market. Sure, the reason is a combination between a higher quality build, significant camera technology improvements and brand name, but, as expected, a lower priced phone with a higher performance is always the winning combo, even if it comes with some shortcomings (such as less frequent software updates and a less solid build quality).
This meant that Sony had to also cater to a broader audience which expects inexpensive handsets with as many high-end features as possible and that brings us to the Sony Xperia XA2, a successor to last year’s XA1, sharing the same signature design (still unique when compared to the mountain of similar looking smartphones that have been released the last couple of years), but coming as an overall improvement in almost every aspect, including the display, the internal hardware and camera performance. That being said, let’s see if this smartphone is a relevant choice today and if it can dethrone our number one pick for best camera on a mid-range smartphone which, at the moment, is still held by the older LG G5.
Design and Display
While the premium Xperia phones feature a glass and metal chassis, in order to keep the cost a bit lower, the Sony Xperia XA2 went with a plastic rear side, but it has kept aluminum for its rounded sides, where the user grips the phone, so it does have a premium feel and it sits comfortable in the hand despite the rectangular shape (not much has changed on this chapter from the XA1). Even so, the rear panel doesn’t feel like plastic and it can easily be mistaken for metal (the phone feels surprisingly sturdy).
It’s interesting to see that Sony continues to stubbornly keep the same design formula with minor adjustments for every new Xperia iteration and surely, this can be seen as an advantage for its brand identity (and it’s true that the XA2 does feel more elegant than its competitors), but it can also be perceived as a lack of design innovation for long-time users that may crave for something different while looking for their next Xperia phone.
Just like its predecessors, the XA2 has the circular metallic power button positioned on the right edge along with the volume controller and the camera key (yes, there’s a dedicated camera button for a quicker way to capture photos) and also, the microUSB port is now exposed (while on some earlier Xperia models, it was covered by a protective flap). One element that I did not expect to be missing from the previous Xperia XA1 was the fingerprint sensor, especially since this feature is now becoming more popular among the cheapest handsets available on the market, but thankfully, Sony came to its senses and it has added a rear-positioned circular fingerprint sensor which has proven to be very fast and accurate (once again, take note, LG). You may have seen that the LG Q6 has implemented the new facial recognition system (that the flagships from Samsung and Apple are priding themselves with), but I’m not entirely sure if people may prefer it over the efficiency of the fingerprint sensor (I surely don’t).
The more expensive Xperia models come with an IP rating, so they were usually water and dust resistant, but the XA series lacks any of these two capabilities and it’s a shame since Sony smartphones were among the first to adopt the water-resistant feature (which is now pretty common) and it can be considered one of the signature elements of the Xperia line. Overall, the design of the Xperia XA2 still remains quite unique in the smartphone world (where everybody copies everyone), but, since it has a more rectangular shape, it may not be on everyone’s taste and may still not feel as comfortable in hand as the other, more rounded phones.
The front side is mostly occupied by the 5.2-inch IPS LCD display, which has 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels and a pixel density of 424ppi. This is a huge increase over the XA1 which was still stuck on a 720p panel with 294 ppi – sure, other manufacturers were more daring and also went for a wider 18:9 aspect ratio, but even if it’s stuck to the 16:9, I think it’s still a significant step forward for Sony. Furthermore, from the info I could gather, the screen is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4, so it has a very good protection against scratches, but nothing more.
The XA2’s display is really good and if you’re using the Vivid mode, then it is well above average, easily competing with some AMOLED display, having a good colour reproduction, solid contrast levels (approx 1300:1), a good amount of details, as well as clear and crisp text thanks to the increased ppi and, outside, in case of bright sunny days, it won’t be very difficult to watch the screen’s content since it features a peak brightness of 507 cd/m2, which is more than enough. I know that Sony fancies the idea of going past the 1440p resolution on a small screen, but, I genuinely don’t think people would appreciate the effort and would definitely not like a higher price tag for this sole reason.
Performance and Software
Inside the case, the Sony decided to leave behind the Mediatek Helium chip and, instead equipped the Xperia XA2 with an octa-core Qualcomm SDM630 Snapdragon 630 SoC (2.2 GHz Cortex-A53), an Adreno 508 GPU (a step up from the Mali-T880MP2 of the XA1), 3GB of RAM and 32GB of flash storage memory. The XA2 also comes with a microSD card slot (the second SIM slot), so you can add up to 256GB of additional storage.
The Snapdragon 630 paired with the 3 GB of RAM should be able to handle multitasking with ease (and it does, apps load fast and the interface feels responsive), while the Adreno 508 GPU definitely helps a lot with some modern games that require some more resources for a smooth performance.
I did notice some occasional lags and stutters which I’m willing to bet come from a poor software optimization than the internal hardware, but overall, I am quite pleased by the performance improvements made by Sony.
In terms of software, the Sony Xperia XA2 comes with the Android 8.0 (Oreo) and it is worth mentioning that the previous generation, the XA1 is upgradeable to the v8.0 Oreo straight away (this is one of the advantages of the Xperia series). Of course, you won’t get a pure Android experience with either versions since Sony still keeps its custom interface and, while it comes with some preinstalled apps (bloatware), most can be uninstalled or disabled.
Camera and Battery Life
Similarly to the XA1, the Sony Xperia XA2 sports a 23-megapixel rear camera with an aperture of f/2.0, LED flash, autofocus, 1.12 µm pixel size and 1/2.3″ sensor size. The 23-megapixel sensor is definitely one of the most attractive features of this phone which helps a lot with the amount of detail that it can capture and this is shown into the quality of photos.
Outdoors, in good lighting, the camera can capture sharp, detailed photos and with a good colour balance.
It can actually be considered one of the best camera in this price point and it could compete with what the flagships smartphones of last year could offer, well, minus the Pixel 2 XL. Furthermore, the time waiting between shots has been significantly reduced, but the app needs some time until it allows you to press the capture button. That being said, indoors, the shots were also surprisingly decent and clear, with a very good amount of detail. There is a reasonable balance between shadows and light sources (although the camera did sometimes overexpose some brighter white zones), the LED flash does a good job in total darkness, but Sony did not add the much needed optical image stabilization feature which would substantially reduce the amount of noise (it is available on the Ultra model).
On the front, there’s an 8-megapixel camera, with an aperture of f/2.4, which allows you to capture some good selfies and it’s reliable for video calls.
Inside the case, the Sony Xperia XA1 is equipped with a non-removable 3300mAh battery, which is a huge improvement over the last gen’s 2300mAh battery, so it will be able to deliver a solid performance. This way, you can get a full day of moderate use, but, if you want to play a game or watch some YouTube videos, you will end up searching for your charger before bedtime. Thankfully, this time Sony decided to add the Quick Charge 3.0 technology (it’s worth mentioning that the phone comes with a type-C port), but the charger is not included into the package.
7. Asus Zenfone 5Q
The Asus Zenfone 5Q is the newest member of the Zenfone family and it seems that this year, Asus wanted to dominate the mid-range smartphone market in multiple ways: focusing on delivering the best performance using the 5Z, focusing on allowing its users to take great photos with the 5Q and somewhere in the middle, there’s the ZenFone 5.
It’s clear that every year, the manufacturers have a harder time gathering the user’s attention since both the flagships and the mid-range smartphones are powerful enough for most people and perhaps the last differentiating factor is the camera quality.
Dual rear cameras are now a common thing, but Asus went to a different level and equipped the Zenfone 5Q with a quad-camera setup, so both the rear and the front side now feature both a normal and a wide-angle camera.
OK, the cameras are an interesting addition, but did Asus skimp on everything else? It doesn’t seem like it did since the Zenfone 5Q also comes with 18:9 display, a Snapdragon 630 SoC, a 3300 mAh battery and a very attractive price tag, so let’s have a closer look at this device and see how does it stand in the oversaturated smartphone market.
Design and Display
The Asus Zenfone 5Q (also known as the Zenfone 5 Lite) has adopted a slightly different look than its more powerful siblings, sporting a larger case (it measures 6.3 x 3.0 x 0.3 inches as opposed to the 6.0 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches of the Zenfone 5 and 5Z) and, while the the 5Q has a larger top and bottom bezel, it has kept the same look, featuring soft curved edges that make the phone comfortable to hold and it has opted for 2.5D glass on both front and rear side (with an aluminium frame).
The back panel looks really nice, but it is a fingerprint magnet and, since it is very clear, you can use it as a mirror. Furthermore, similarly to its predecessors, the smartphone remains very slippery, so if you don’t want your phone to have a very short life, I suggest to get a protective case from the beginning.
There are further differences between the 5Q and the Zenfone 5 and 5Z: all three devices have the Volume and the Power keys on the right side, while the 5Q added the 3.5mm headphones jack on the top (the 5 and 5Z have it on the bottom) and the rear camera is positioned on the top-middle part on the 5Q, while the dual rear camera on both the 5 and 5Z are positioned vertically on the left side in a very similar manner to the iPhone X. The similarities with Apple’s device don’t end here because on the front, the Zenfone 5 and 5Z feature an almost identical notch on the top front side.
The Asus Zenfone 5Q lacks the display notch, so it does look better in this regard. What’s interesting is that despite its larger size, the screen-to-body ratio is slightly smaller, so we’re getting a 6-inch IPS LCD display (instead of the 6.2 inches of the 5 and 5Z), with 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 2160 pixels, 402 ppi pixel density and 18:9 ratio (so far, I was unable to find out if Asus uses Gorilla Glass for protection against scratches).
Overall, the display is reasonably clear and with a decent colour representation and will be enough for the large majority of people (as expected the colours don’t really pop-out as on AMOLEDs – they’re a bit on the cooler side). Furthermore, the display can go up to approx 480 nits, so it isn’t as bright as its competitors (who can go to as high as 600 nits), so if you want to use it on the beach during the summer, you may have a harder time seeing the displayed content if the sunlight shines directly on the screen.
Performance and Software
The Asus Zenfone 3 features a Qualcomm SDM630 Snapdragon 630 (octa-core 2.2GHz Cortex-A53), backed by an Adreno 508 GPU, 4GB of RAM (there are variants that have 3GB of RAM), 64 GB of internal storage (there are also 32GB variants available) and you can add up to 512GB via microSD.
In terms of performance, the Zenfone 5Q can easily handle most applications and games: it can run some heavier games, it delivers a smooth Internet surfing experience and it can open multiple apps without breaking a sweat. Obviously, the Zenfone 5 and 5Z will handle things a lot better, but, regardless, the ZC600KL remains a capable smartphone that will satisfy even the more demanding users.
Software-wise, the Zenfone 3 comes with the Asus ZenUI 5.0, which is built on the Android 7.1 Nougat platform (it is a bit strange that Asus did not go directly to Oreo considering that the smartphone was released in 2018 – but it does seem to have the upgrade to Android 8.0 Oreo planned for release in the near future).
The UI looks better with each iteration and it definitely feels cleaner, but it still has some amount of bloatware. It seems that Asus just doesn’t want to understand that users despise pre-installed apps and that a cleaner, stock-like software is the preferred option (Samsung learned this lesson eventually).
Camera and Battery Life
The Asus Zenfone 5Q is a rather unique device as it sports a dual-camera setup on the rear side and a dual-camera setup on the front. The 16-megapixel (f/2.2 aperture and the PDAF technology) primary + the 8-megapixel wide-angle (120-degree) secondary rear cameras (which work independently) will allow you to capture some great photos with a lot of detail and with decently accurate colours (although I have noticed a bit of oversaturation) when shooting during daylight or in bright environments.
Indoors and in low-light, the camera remained more than decent and, while I have noticed a bit of noise, it still preformed way above its competitors from the same price range.
On the front, there’s the 20-megapixel primary camera (f/2.0 aperture, 1/2.8″) and the same 8-megapixel wide-angle secondary camera as on the rear side (covers 120 degrees) which don’t differ that much from the rear cameras, so they’re pretty great for taking selfies (and the wide-angle camera allows you to fit more people in the shot).
Asus Zenfone 3 is equipped with a 3300 mAh non-removable Li-Ion battery which seems to be the best fit considering the size of the display. That being said, you can get a full day under normal to heavy use and can handle up to 10 hours of video playback (70% screen brightness).
Unfortunately, the smartphone does not come with a USB-C port, instead it decided to keep the older standard, the micro-USB port and, considering the fact that it lacks support for fast charging, the battery will take up to two hours to go from zero to 100 percent.
8. Motorola Moto G5 Plus
Another year, another Motorola Moto G smartphone, but this time, Lenovo outdid itself with the new Moto G5 Plus. Motorola phones from the G series have always aimed for the budget side of the mid-range type of handsets and the this remains true even for the Moto G5 Plus, but what has changed is that the days of full plastic cases are gone and the metal and glass approach has taken over even the more inexpensive phones from the market.
Of course, this isn’t the first mid-range phone to ditch the plastic body, since Asus has done the same with its Zenfone 3, as well as Huawei with its Honor 6X and Honor 8, but it goes to show how blurred has become the line between mid-rangers and flagships smartphones (you don’t need to pay high amounts of money anymore to get an elegant device with a more than decent performance).
Design and Display
OK, I may have spoken too soon because, even if it is mainly a metal and glass phone (there are some plastic elements), the Motorola Moto G5 Plus is not really as elegant as the newer Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, OnePlus 3T or even the Honor 8. Despite that, it does have some aesthetic value, featuring a nice curved back which is mainly made of aluminium, while the frame along with the top and bottom sides are actually made of plastic. I like how the G5 Plus borrowed from the more expensive Moto Z Play the large circular glass area on the back panel in which resides the camera, as it gives the phone a more premium look. But, that’s not really everything that the G5 Plus has borrowed from the Z series, since you will also find some similarities with the earpiece design.
Like I said before, the back panel is not completely flat, featuring a slight curve, so the phone can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand and it seems that Motorola also decided to cut down from the 5.5-inch display of the Moto G4 Plus to 5.2 inches, which means that the phone can more easily be manoeuvred (you can even try your luck using it with one hand if you have bigger hands). Everything else is pretty much the same as on the G4 Plus: the volume controller lies on the right side just above the Power button, the headphones jack and the micro USB port can be found on the bottom of the device (I’m not sure why, but Motorola decided to keep the microUSB instead of going with the USB-C port), while the microSD card slot can be accessed from the top (this time, the back cannot be removed and there is no NFC support).
Overall, the Motorola Moto G5 Plus is not an ugly smartphone and it definitely bargains its way into the premium land, but I’m not really a fan of the gold variant, since it makes the phone looks a bit outdated, but the darker (Lunar Grey) Moto G5 Plus hides some of its imperfections quite well, so I find it more appealing.
One of the most important parts of modern smartphones is the display and the Motorola Moto G5 Plus does a reasonably good job: it features a 5.2-inches IPS LCD display, with 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920p and a pixel density of 424 ppi. The screen is protected from scratches by Corning Gorilla Glass 3.
The 1080p display is suitable for such small screens and a 2K or more display may be overkill since the eye wouldn’t really be able to distinguish the pixels (also, such a screen goes easier on the battery).
That being said, the display of the Moto G5 Plus is suitable for watching videos on YouTube and movies, but the colours seem a bit muted and weren’t as vivid as on the other flagship phones (expected considering the price point), but on the plus side, the screen is brighter than the G4 Plus (which was already bright enough to handle outdoors activities during the summer) reaching up to 591 nits.
Underneath the display, there’s a small fingerprint sensor which reacts very fast and remains usable even if the surface gets scratched.
Performance and Software
Inside the case, the Motorola Moto G5 Plus is equipped with an octa-core Qualcomm MSM8953 Snapdragon 625 chipset (2GHz Cortex A53 CPU), an Adreno 506 GPU, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage (the phone also comes as 2/4GB of RAM or 16/32GB of storage variants). The internal storage memory of the G5 Plus can be expanded up to 256 GB using the microSD card slot.
The octa-core Snapdragon 625 is pretty much the standard for the latest mid-range smartphones (the Asus Zenfone 3 is also equipped with it) and its a nice, capable processor, as it has proven its value over time as a battery efficient piece of hardware that does not heat up easily and can deliver a good performance. And that holds true for most part with the Moto G5 Plus, since it can handle multitasking without problems (the RAM helps a lot) and also, some resource-heavy games ran smoothly for most of the time (there was the occasional dropped frame, but nothing too serious). Since the case has some metal elements, the phone will get a bit hotter than its predecessor, especially when playing extensive games for longer periods of time or while fast charging, but it is more of a minor inconvenience and not a real problem (so far).
The interface of the Moto G5 Plus is built on top of the Android v7.0 Nougat and, similarly to the previous versions of Moto G, it tries to keep the original feel of Android and doesn’t add too many of its apps. Android Nougat comes with the split-screen mode, better Notifications, enhanced Doze on the Go and Google Assistant.
Some of the more interesting features from Motorola are the Moto Actions (open the camera by moving your wrist or move the phone in a chopping motion to turn on the flashlight) and the Moto Display (which shows a preview of the notifications and updates). Motorola Moto G5 Plus has been confirmed to receive the update to the latest Android 8.0.
Camera and Battery Life
On the rear side, the Motorola Moto G5 Plus features a 12-megapixel camera, with an f/1.7 aperture, dual-LED (dual tone) flash, face detection and auto-HDR. It came as a surprise to see that Motorola went down from the 16-megapixel camera to a 12-megapixel one, but it doesn’t really seem to affect the quality of the images at all (the G5 Plus’ camera has a better aperture and a better sensor) and that’s the problem, the camera performs pretty much the same as that on the G4 Plus.
So, in good lighting, the camera can capture some pretty good photos, with sharp details, it had a very good exposure and the colours were rich enough (although not even close to the level of quality of the Galaxy S7 or S8 cameras). In low lighting, things were a bit better than the G4 Plus, since the camera could capture an acceptable amount of detail, but it did overblow any light source and there still was some noticeable noise. On the front, the G5 plus is equipped with a 5-megapixel camera with an aperture of f/2.2 (perfect for selfies or video conferences).
The Motorola Moto G4 Plus had a good battery life and the G5 Plus is pretty much the same in this regard, being equipped with a 3000 mAh non-removable battery which can get you through a day and a half if you use it moderately. If used extensively, I got about 9 to 10 hours. Additionally, the G5 Plus makes use of the TurboPower charger and can get the battery from 0 to 100 % in about an hour.
9. Alcatel Idol 5S
The Alcatel Idol 5S is the latest handset released by the Chinese manufacturer in an attempt to swim out of the large crowded ocean of nearly-identical mid-range smartphones and to also gain a more stable place which would stick years from now (and favour its next smartphone iterations). Alcatel has had a hard time being relevant since the emergence of smartphones and, while it has made some breakthroughs with the Idol 3 (which allowed its users to rotate the interface whichever way was up), the following Idol 4 and 4S went pretty much unnoticed by the general public, even if it had some new features (VR implementation, improved display, Windows and Android platforms).
I wouldn’t really call the Idol 4S an unexpected underdog, but more of an experiment which Alcatel kept at a too expensive price tag and the competition was ruthless. It seems that the Idol 5S took an entirely different direction (although it kept some key elements from its predecessor), so let’s see if Alcatel got it right this time.
Design and Display
At first glance, there aren’t many differences between the Idol 4S and the Idol 5S and if it wasn’t for the reduced size, you couldn’t really tell them apart. The 5S features the same 2.5D front and back glass panels kept together by a metal frame, which protrudes slightly all around and especially on the top and bottom, leaving space for the dual speaker setup.
It’s surprising to see this in a budget-oriented smartphone and the 3.6W front-facing speakers are loud and manage to produce a good quality sound (also, when watching a video or movie, you won’t cover the speaker with your hand, as it happens so often even with flagship handsets). While I’m definitely a fan of glass phones (because of their elegance), these devices are more prone to shatter on mild impacts and the panels do retain fingerprints and smudges.
It’s nice to see that Alcatel kept the unique design formula of the Idol 4S, as it makes it stand out from the low-to-mid-range crowd and the choice to go from 5.5 inches of the 4S to 5.2 inches has made the phone easily manoeuvrable (especially for one-handed use). Some things that have been changed from the previous model are the rear camera location (it’s now on the top left), the removal of the boom key (which was programmable) and the unexpected, but welcomed inclusion of a USB type-C port on the bottom (there’s also the rear fingerprint sensor in the centre of the rear panel which, besides unlocking the display, it also supports various other motions – swipe down to view notifications or slide to navigate through the gallery).
On the front, Alcatel has equipped the Idol 5S with a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display, which features 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels, a pixel density of 424 ppi and it is being protected by an Asahi Dragontrail scratch-resistant glass and covered by an oleophobic coating.
For people that are familiar with the Idol 4S, it may come as a surprise to see that Alcatel went with a lower resolution screen (from the 1440 x 2560 pixels and 534 ppi of the Idol 4S) and an IPS instead of the AMOLED, but it’s clear that it had to cut some costs from somewhere and, to be honest, it is not a bad display: the colours are a bit on the cool side, but can be adjusted towards a more warmer tone, the text looks crisp, it has good viewing angles and it is very bright at its 548 nits (easily visible in bright daylight).
Furthermore, the Idol 5S remains VR compatible, just like its predecessor (but, yes, the images won’t be as detailed as before).
Performance and Software
Inside the case, the Alcatel Idol 5S is equipped with a quad-core Qualcomm MSM8953 Snapdragon 625 chipset (2.0 GHz Cortex-A53), an Adreno 506 GPU, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage memory and a possible addition of up to 256 GB of storage through the microSD card slot.
The lower specs of the Idol 5S may come as a surprise, but, while some may wonder what the manufacturer was thinking, just be aware that Alcatel is experimenting and tries to find a way into the mainstream of mid-range smartphones, something which the more expensive Alcatel 4S could not accomplish, even if it was better equipped (the midrange is a tricky zone for smartphone manufacturers).
So, the Idol 5S will behave as expected: it will handle most of the games, but you won’t have a smooth experience with resource-heavy games and apps (especially because of the weaker GPU); the multitasking was reasonable (the 3GB of RAM help a lot in this department), with occasional slowdowns, but the real problem is the VR experience, where better internal hardware could have made a big difference (there is noticeable lag and stuttering, where the Idol 4S did a much better job).
The interface of the Idol 5S is built on top of the Android 7.1 Nougat platform (it is unclear whether it will be updated to Android 8.0) and, depending on your choice, it can be either close to stock Android (a delight for purists) or, if you’re really tight on the budget, you could opt to go with the Amazon offer and this way, you’ll get a ton of bloatware. The ad-free version has almost no pre-installed apps (a Radio and a File Transfer app, as well as the VR Home launcher and the VR Store – but, no, this time you won’t get the VR headset included) and you get every other feature that comes from the Android Nougat (such as the Google Assistant and the multi-window).
Note: The Idol 5S supports the three-finger swipe to snap a screenshot and you can also turn the phone face down to mute an incoming call.
Camera and Battery Life
The Idol 5S sports a 12-megapixel rear camera with a f/2.0 aperture, dual-LED flash, 1/2.8″ sensor size and phase detection autofocus. As can be seen, the rear camera is another area affected by Alcatel’s downgrade process, but, surprisingly, it did not affect that much the quality of the photos. In good light, you’ll be able to capture some good shots, with plenty of detail, sharpness and with reasonably accurate colours (although, they’re a bit saturated). In low-light, things are not looking that great: there’s a lot of noise, the colours are a bit washed out and, to capture a reasonable photo, you need to keep the camera still for a longer period of time for it to properly focus.
On the front, Alcatel equipped the Idol 5S with an 8-megapixel camera, with a f/2.0 aperture and a 1/3.2″ sensor size. The front camera will do fine with capturing selfies or with video conferences (just like every other smartphone in this price range).
None of the other downgrades really bothered me as much as the reduction in battery capacity from the 3000 mAh of the 4S to only 2620 mAh. This will translate into barely a full day of battery life with moderate use and no more than 5 hours of video looping. Furthermore, the Idol 5S lacks any type of fast charging capabilities.
10. LG Q6
LG has had a couple of rough years, first because the modular experiment LG G5 was not welcomed by the audience, even if it had flagship-level specs and secondly, because the G6, while it was and still is a great smartphone, it came at the wrong moment and was overshadowed by Samsung’s Galaxy S8, which had the advantage of exclusivity for the better Snapdragon 835 chipset.
Even so, compared to the G5, the LG G6 was such as fundamentally different device (a more refined exterior, a lot more screen estate, better battery life, while pretty much keeping the same camera as last year’s flagship and most, important, no more modularity) that it managed to once again change the people’s perception towards the Korean manufacturer, which gave it more confidence into releasing a mid-range variant of the flagship smartphone called LG Q6.
Design and Display
While a bit smaller, the Q6 keeps the same design and look as the G6, featuring an almost bezel-less case, with soft rounded corners, which makes it very comfortable to hold and a glass front with a plastic rear side kept together by an aluminium frame (7000 series). Unfortunately, LG had to cut from the premium materials to keep the cost as low as possible and went for a plastic back panel which is covered by a glossy finish (so it does try to mimic glass) and, as expected it will retain fingerprints or smudges and it will scratch easily, but, if you drop the phone, it will offer a better overall shock protection.
The Honor 8 has kept a high place as one of the most elegant mid-range smartphones on the market, but since the LG Q6 has adhered to the new small-to-no bezels fashion, it does manage to raise the bar for all affordable smartphones on the market from the design point of view.
On the left of the device, you can find the volume controller and the nano-SIM & microSD card slot, while on the right, there’s the Power/Lock key. On the bottom of the smartphone, you can find the 3.5mm headset jack and the USB charging port (LG decided to steer clear of the USB type-C), while on the rear side, there’s a single mono speaker. You may have noticed that LG ‘forgot’ to add a fingerprint sensor, something which even some smartphones at a lower price point have implemented and the reason for that (except the financial one, as I suspect) is that it decided to simply go with the new facial recognition system.
The phone manages to recognize a face really fast and immediately unlocks the phone (the whole process is almost as fast as the fingerprint sensor) and you can add more than one person to be able to unlock your device, but, by default, you can use a photo of yourself to bypass the security system.
To fix this, you can use the advanced face recognition feature which will make the process a lot slower and it will not work too well in low light (call me old fashioned, but I do prefer the reliability of a fingerprint sensor any day). Similarly to the G6, the Q6 does not feature an IR blaster, but it does come equipped with NFC.
In between the slim bezels, there’s a 5.5-inch IPS LCD touchscreen display, with 16 million colours, 18:9 aspect ratio (an increase from the common 16:9), a resolution of 1080 x 2160 pixels and a pixel density of 442ppi (the screen is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3).
While it definitely looks impressive, the display is another element that had to undergo some downgrades and while it won’t be as sharp as the 1440p display of the G6 (which has a 564 ppi pixel density), the resolution is definitely enough for the smaller 5.5-inch display (cut back from the 5.7 inches of the G6). Besides the fact that the display is very vibrant and crisp, with a decent colour reproduction, the aspect ratio is one of the most interesting parts of the smartphones, since it will make gaming and watching movies a more immersive experience.
Performance and Software
Inside the case, LG has equipped the Q6 with a 64-bit Qualcomm MSM8940 Snapdragon 435 chipset (octa-core Cortex-A53 clocked at 1.4GHz), an Adreno 505 GPU, 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage memory (on top of that, you can add up to 256 GB using a microSD card). As you would expect, the Snapdragon 435 is not a powerful chip (it’s actually quite modest even for a mid-ranger), but it will do a decent job with most apps, especially because of those 3GB of RAM which will handle multitasking with ease and in everyday use you won’t notice any slow-downs or lag (that is, until you put it next to a flagship smartphone).
Furthermore, if you like to play resource-heavy games, then this phone may not be the best fit, but with most other games, it will deliver a decent performance.
At first glance, the design and overall look of the Q6 is definitely better than the G5, but, since the Q6 is a bit underwhelming (more than a bit actually), if you can ignore the problematic quirks of the G5, you would get a far better performance with the latter (the LG G5 handles everything you throw at it without breaking a sweat and, at this moment, it’s very similarly priced to the Q6).
The Q6 uses the v7.1.1 Nougat of Android (which includes pretty much all the fixes and patches released by Android so far for this version), but it will be updated to the latest Android 8.0 Oreo as soon as LG finishes creating its own variant of the OS. To be honest LG hasn’t really made that many changes to the stock version of Android during the years and I expect that the v8.0 to also have some minor design tweaks and nothing more (no bloatware from LG). The only weird thing that I noticed on the LG’s UI based Nougat version is that it lacks an app drawer by default (although, you can enable it afterwards).
Camera and Battery Life
The camera has been one of the best things about the last two generations of LG flagships and it seems that the manufacturer wanted to keep this advantage over its competitors even in the case of the mid-ranger LG Q6. So, the smartphone comes equipped with a 13-megapixel rear camera, with an f/2.2 aperture, LED flash and autofocus, but there is no OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) and this will have an impact on how the camera will behave.
In good light, the Q6 manages to capture very good photos, with a decent level of details and an accurate colour reproduction (the contrast is also quite decent). Indoors and in low light, the LG Q6 also does a good job, having a low level of noise and blur, but, since it lacks OIS, you need a steady hand especially in dimmer environments. On the front, the smartphone features a 5-megapixel wide-angle camera (100 degree), with an f/2.2 aperture and a 1.12 µm pixel size. The front camera is not really fantastic, although it is fairly decent with capturing selfies and the wide-angle will allow more people into the shot.
LG has decided to implement a non-removable Li-Po 3000 mAh battery inside the Q6, which is down from the 3300 of the G6, but higher than the 2800 of the LG G5. The battery will deliver up to 10 hours of continuous video playback and it will easily last for a full day until it will need recharging (it does not feature any fast charging technology, but it will take under two hours to fully charge the battery).
11. Huawei Honor 6X
The Honor 6X is the second best smartphone from Huawei, after the fairly successful Honor 8, both of these handsets aiming towards the mid-to-higher-end smartphone market, as well as taking a swing at the more established flagship phones. Huawei is not new to the smartphone world, being a well known name in China and that gave it enough confidence to try its luck in the US and Europe market (and it seems that it may have struck gold because of the continuously increased popularity with every iteration of released devices).
The Honor 6X doesn’t really bring nothing new to the table (that’s something usually reserved for the flagship handsets), but it promises to take some elements of the more expensive handsets and combine them in such a way as to give the best mid-range smartphone experience. Let’s see if it manages to rise up to the expectations.
Design and Display
The Honor 6X is one of the first smartphones in the mid-range class to feature a metal and glass case, but, while holding the phone in hand, it did not give the same high-quality vibe that some more pricier metallic handsets could. While the back panel is mostly made of metal, with the upper and bottom sides made of plastic for a proper call reception, it did not strike me as sturdy and I’m not really sure it would survive a serious bend test. Despite that, from the visual point of view, the phone looks nice, the slightly curved corners do give a higher comfort level when holding the handset in hand and there are protruded camera lenses which reduce the risk of accidentally dropping the phone.
At its 5.94 x 3.00 x 0.32 inches, the phone is relatively large, so there is no chance you can operate it with only one hand, but I did enjoy how the back side curves and allows the phone to sit comfortably in the hand. Furthermore, on the front, there is a 2.5D glass panel (similar to the more expensive Honor 8) and there are no capacitive buttons, their place being taken by the Honor logo (there are three virtual keys for navigating through the interface). On the rear side, underneath the dual-camera, there is a recessed circular fingerprint scanner, which was surprisingly quick and responsive, but be aware that it scratches and if enough damage has been done, it will stop functioning all together (ceramics or glass would have been a better choice, but, let’s not forget that this is a budget phone after all).
The most important aspect of any phone is, of course, the screen and the Honor 6x is equipped with a 5.5 inches LTPS IPS LCD display, with 16 millions colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels and a pixel density of 403 ppi. I’m not really sure what type of glass protection Huwaei used, but it’s certainly not Corning Gorilla Glass and it scratches way easier than a phone with the aforementioned type of protection, so, to keep your phone safe, you should use a screen protector.
Since we are dealing with a 5.5-inch display, I was not really sure that a 1080p resolution would suffice, but, while not as sharp as a Quad-HD display or with the deep blacks of an AMOLED panel, it did perform really well when watching videos and images: the text was crisp, the colours were reasonably accurate (although a bit washed out) and you get the option to choose between a cooler or warmer colour temperature. Also, let’s not forget that the display goes easier on the battery life.
Performance and Software
Inside the case, Huawei has equipped the Honor 6X with an octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 655 chipset (a quad-core 2.1GHz Cortex A53 processor and a quad-core 1.7GHz Cortex A53 processor), along with a Mali-T830MP2 GPU, 3GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage memory (there is also a 4GB of RAM + 64GB storage variant). Additionally, the Honor 6X has a microSD card slot (the second SIM slot) which allows you to add up to 256GB more storage memory.
The HiSilicon Kirin 655 is pretty much the equivalent of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 650 chipset, so we can expect the phone to behave as a high-end mid-ranger. And this is pretty much the case, because the Honor 6X handles multitasking very well (I haven’t noticed any slow-down or lag), resource-heavy games ran reasonably well (there were some dropped frames and the occasional freezes), but with the large portion of games and apps, you won’t have absolutely no issue. The phone will get warm if you play games for an extensive amount of time, but I have not yet experienced any noticeable overheating problems.
Note: One feature which is unfortunately missing, is the NFC function.
The Honor 6X runs the Emotion UI 4.1 interface which is built on top of Android v6.0 Marshmallow OS and it can be upgraded to Android v7.0 Nougat (it has also been confirmed that it will receive the latest Android 8.0 update). Similarly to other Chinese manufacturers, Huawei decided to get rid of the app drawer in favour of the more iOS-ish look, where all apps are laid bare on the screen, making the display seem overcrowded. I’m not sure Android users will appreciate this approach, since it’s way far from the stock-looking Android, but it’s definitely something new for non-Apple users.
Besides the fair amount of bloatware, there are some interesting features worth mentioning, such as pick the phone to automatically answer a call or flip the phone upside-down to mute any incoming calls.
Camera and Battery Life
On the rear side, the Honor 6X sports a dual camera, a main one with a 12-megapixel sensor and secondary one with a 2-megapixel sensor with a wider aperture range (LED flash, phase detection autofocus and 1/2.9″ sensor size). The main camera manages to capture very good photos during the day, with a decent amount of detail and with accurate colours. The secondary, wide-aperture camera is a bit more tricky and it didn’t always work as intended (even high end smartphones, such as LG G5 learned this the hard way). Its purpose is to allow the bokeh effect, where you can either blur the background or the foreground, but, the camera did prove to be hit-and-miss.
Indoors and in low-light, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a mid-range phone because the photos were a lot grainier and there was a larger amount of noise. On the front, the phone has an 8-megapixel camera which can film 1080p videos and it is perfect for selfies and video conferences.
The Honor 6X is also equipped with a non-removable 3340 mAh battery which will get you through a day and half of medium use (especially because of the resolution of the display) and in a continuous video loop test, the battery drained in about 6 hours and a half. Since it doesn’t have any quick charging features, the Honor 6X will go from 0 to 100% in about 2 hours.