Looking for a budget phone? It's always easy to recommend the latest Moto G — a phone that's simple and just works. However, there are other options out there, one of the very best being the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6.
The Ultra 6 costs just £125 and easily outdoes the Moto G in a lot of technical respects, especially if you want a larger screen but don't want to pay, say, £300 for it. Unless you import a phone from a retailer no-one's ever heard of from a brand no-one's ever heard of, then it's hard to get better hardware than this Vodafone handset.
Is it perfect? No, for some of you the Moto G might be a better pick because, unlike this Vodafone, you can run any carrier on it. The Smart 6 is locked to Vodafone's network, although there's no obligation to pay for an extended contract. Still, in the sheer value-for-money stakes the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is pretty much unbeatable. Here's why.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Design
Whip out a Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 in a darkened room and those with less than 20/20 vision might think you've just bought an iPhone 6S Plus. The Ultra 6 is roughly the same size, and has pretty similar dimensions, plus both have 5.5-inch 1080p screens. It's big, but not embarrassingly so now that Apple has gone and made such phones more socially acceptable.
Switch the house lights on, though, and you'll see the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 isn't anywhere near as impressive. What do you expect? It only costs £125. It has a plastic body and comes in grey or silver — both of which look a tiny bit drab and when it's in then hand you're not going to convince anyone you paid £500.
Unlike the Moto G, however, the Vodafone is not much fatter than the most expensive competition (it's 7.6mm), probably because all that extra "footprint" space makes fitting-in the necessary components that much easier. There are separate soft keys too, letting the screen fill up with whatever game, website or video you want to look at.
So although it's low on personality in terms of build, in a day-to-day practical sense the Smart Ultra 6 is just as good as most other 5.5-inch phones.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Features
The design is not going to make many jaws drop, but the closer you cross-reference hardware with that price, the more credit you have to send Vodafone's way. First, the Smart Ultra 6 has 16GB storage, which is very generous for a phone this affordable. Others at the price will only net you 8GB. There's a microSD card slot too, so the inbuilt memory isn't your limit.
The lead draw, though, is the screen. That 5.5-inch display's 1920 x 1080 resolution makes it far bigger and far sharper than what you'd get from one of the big brands at this price point. Although the screen's colours don't pop like those of a Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, the colour tone comes across as pretty naturally.
Like most good mid-range phones, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has an IPS LCD display, which doesn't start looking odd from an askew angle. Contrast isn't perfect but, as with the colour rendition, it's not obvious most of the time. And if you want cinema-grade pictures as you watch Netflix in bed, you'll have to pay a lot more.
If you don't have a lot of money to play with, then this Vodafone is one of the best large-scale media-devouring phones available.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Performance & specs
It has the specs to match too. You'll see an awful lot of Snapdragon 410 phones at this price, but the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 goes one step further with a Snapdragon 615. It's like the 410, but doubles the number of cores to make sure even 1080p phones run fine.
Does it? Absolutely. The Ultra currently runs Android 5.1.1 rather than 6.0 Marshmallow (which would feel a bit quicker all-round) but there's none of the keyboard lag or ultra-slow app loads that can make cheaper phones a bit of a trial to use at times.
You more-or-less get the same sort of gaming experience as you do with the Moto G, but scaled up to 1080p and 5.5 inches. Better, in other words. Some fancy visual effects made for the real top-end chipsets won't be available, but it's not as if most people would notice.
The weak side of this particular entertainment area is sound. The Smart Ultra 6 doesn't have a great speaker arrangement. Its solitary output sits on the back, sounds thin and can sound outright horrible at maximum volume with busier-sounding tracks. The Moto G is better in this department, but not exactly headliner-worthy either.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Software
For games, films and browsing, it's hard to think of a better ultra-budget phone. However, as ever with one of thee network-branded phones there's a sacrifice or two involved.
While the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6's software looks and feels just like 5.0-era vanilla Android (using a paged apps menu rather than the new "scroll" style), it also comes with a bunch of surprise "bonus apps" that link through to Vodafone services like its website and account services area.
It's a bit of a clutter. However, you can actually delete a few of these, and the — at our count — three you can't bin are the more useful ones. That's the Wi-Fi/messenger dialler, Vodafone Whatsapp-a-like, and an app that lets you download even more Vodafone service apps like the phone-securing Protect.
Ok, if you're reading this you probably don't want them. But at least you're not actually lumbered with the whole sea of red that washes over the whole top of the Smart Ultra 6's apps menu fresh out of the box.
Thanks to the 16GB storage there's plenty of room for your own apps (just under 10GB is available) and there's that microSD card slot too. The Ultra 6 is out to please the masses with its price, but there's hardcore Android fan appeal here too.
It's also reassuring to see Vodafone is updating the software every now and then. We've been using the phone for a while and have had a couple of update pushes. Some budget blowers from the likes of Huawei don't seem to get updated, like, ever.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Cameras
The Smart Ultra 6's camera has had a substantial update since the phone launched too. While not on the level of Samsung's higher-end phones, it's now a reasonable app with behind-the-scenes software that lets you shoot at quite a speedy rate.
The part that sticks out and lets the Ultra 6 down is its HDR mode, which is very slow. The autofocus also isn't always reliable enough either. Manually seelecting the focus point is respectable, but leave the job to the phone and it regularly leaves the shot slightly out of focus. You need to be proactive in making sure focus has occurred where it should have.
As with so many other elements of the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6, it's the hardware that really shines. The phone has a 13-megapixel Sony sensor and an f/2.0 lens. This increase in resolution from your average 8-megapixel phone is more significant than you might think; while Sony has made some pretty poor 8-megapixel phone sensors to suit low-end manufacturer budgets, it hasn't yet made any particularly bad 13-megapixel ones.
Vodafone doesn't advertise exactly what sensor is used, but it seems likely this is the same IMX214 used in the 3rd-gen Moto G and original OnePlus One. Not bad, right?
The proof, of course, is in the results. In good or moderate lighting you can get some great results. There's only some of the ugly purple fringing you see in some of Sony's own budget phones, among a lot of detail. The colours look fairly natural, although some shots were a little drab — probably the fault of the current weather keeping things a bit mute.
There's no optical image stabilisation and the phone tends to use slightly longer exposure times rather than whacking up the ISO sensitivity, meaning it can at times require a little patience to get a properly sharp night photo. Even in the London Underground the camera opted to shoot at ISO 292 and image noise is still clear to see. So unless your hands are very still, you're likely to get blur.
But the price-to-performance ratio is great, comparable with the Moto G, even if that phone pips it with more interesting, intuitive software.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 review: Battery Life
Sometimes just putting the right hardware together can really work when you have Android as a backbone. That's true with the battery too.
The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has a 3000mAh battery, and that gets you rather good stamina even when compared to some of the 2015 flagships. If only because several like the LG G4 don't last all that long off a single charge.
The Smart Ultra 6 will generally last you a full day, leaving around 30 per cent in the tank by bed time — so just about enough to break into day two with. This is all hugely dependent on how you use the phone, of course, but it's what we found after settling down into normal use.
The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is a phone of such great value that you'll wish it wasn't only available from Vodafone. However, the Vodafone is a substantially better deal than the arch-rival EE Harrier.
The main reason to think twice about buying the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is that — and no prizes for guessing this one — it comes locked to Vodafone. And some other networks like Three, Tesco and GiffGaff arguably offer some better services deals for those looking to save pennies.
If you're looking for an affordable phone with a sharp screen, decent battery life and a camera that, with a bit of effort, can take very good shots do make the Smart Ultra 6 one of the very best low-cost phones around. There's perhaps a bit more consistency with the Moto G, plus you don't have to deal with the app bloat if you choose the Motorola, but if you want an iPhone 6 Plus scale on a budget then look no further.