Own-brand smartphones are a cheap way of getting a handset without the commitment of a contract - you simply buy and go with whichever carrier you fancy. Which is why the £199 of the Bush Spira E3X - which is effectively an “Argos phone” in the UK, given that's where it retails - makes it an appealing proposition. But it's not a one-call burner, it's actually got a variety of specs that make it worth considering.
Sure, it's a bit of a chunky monkey, as a larger and weightier device than similar 5.5-inch devices. But under the hood there's 64GB of storage, which is plenty to store all your pictures and goodies; 4GB RAM to avoid the system getting bogged down and slow when too many apps are running; and other more premium features such as a fingerprint scanner to access the device, and a metal build rather than shonky plastic.
So is the E3X one of the better sub-£200 phones on the market? And is, um, Bush back in fashion?
Bush Spira E3X review: Design
If you like small phones then you won't like the E3X (it's 8.8mm thick). If you like light phones then you won't like the E3X either (it's 186g). But if you like bang for your buck and a phone that could double-up as a self-defence weapon, then you'll probably like the E3X's reassuring heft and overall build quality.
This big ol' chunk of a phone has a metal edge and buttons, holding together the textured rear panel - which looks as though it comes off but doesn't. It's got a sense of OnePlus 2 about it, which is no bad thing really.
The fingerprint scanner works relatively well, with haptic feedback confirming its use, but it's ability to quickly unlock the device is more on par with the LG G4 rather than the likes of the super-fast Huawei handsets of today. Nay bad, just not the best implementation of such tech.
The 3,000mAh battery is sealed within and provides plenty of capacity to keep it ticking along through a full day with lots of charge left. We forgot to charge it one night and there was still enough battery to continue the next day. The USB Type-C port at the bottom means faster charging is possible, and while it's not the very fastest implementation on the market, it's a great option to quickly re-juice the phone at short top-up intervals, if needed.
With the latest in USB tech, it seems extremely odd, then, that the dual SIM card slots are both Micro SIM sized. Which caused us an issue for days before we could go and find an adapter to make our Nano SIM fit in order to review the phone.
With an EE SIM popped inside - you get to choose whichever carrier you wish, as the phone is unlocked, which is one of its big selling points - and we found the signal to be typically poor. And our day-to-day Three signal is usually bad, but this Bush doesn't seem friendly on the antennas front. Treat with caution if you live in a lead box.
Bush Spira E3X review: Performance
Interestingly, the E3X has enough welly behind it to make it a more comprehensive phone choice than, say, the more expensive Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 (which is carrier locked). The Bush doesn't look as nice, but when it comes down to cash that might not matter.
With its octa-core processor and 4GB RAM there's no issue in loading apps or playing games on the Spira E3X. We've been thumbing through Candy Crush Saga and, for the most part, it's been a smooth experience with only the very occasional graphical hiccup (the briefest of pauses in animation smoothness, for example).
The 5.5-inch screen is what makes the E3X so large, but also what sees it render such bold visuals. The panel's 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) resolution is fine, just not flagship in terms of resolution. However, the screen seems to have a glossy overcoat that's more prone to catching greasy fingerprints than many other phones we're used to using. There's enough brightness to cut through that, albeit not as much brightness as some of the competition - and the E3X has a slightly murky yellow colour cast too.
Running behind the scenes in Google's Android operating system, which has been largely untouched by Bush/Argos. There is one really annoying point, though: the Android soft keys, used to control the device, need to be activated by a swipe-up from the bottom of the screen; they then knock content above them out of they way - which is really annoying. There's loads of space to have them hard-wired onto a capacitive layer below the screen itself, so why Bush hasn't done this is simply baffling. It doesn't make the phone inoperable, but it slows things down and is inelegant.
In addition there is an Argos app which auto-loads upon setting up the E3X for the first time. Maybe that's ok, though, as it's not especially in-your-face and, if you want, it can be uninstalled and kept out of your way.
Bush Spira E3X review: Camera
A big number on the E3X's spec sheet is the 21-megapixel camera, with a Sony-sourced sensor. Sony makes most of the camera sensors in phones these days, so that's no surprise, but it's also a good thing in terms of expected quality.
Camera operability, however, is limited. It's very slow to shoot, with a lot of lag. There's not enough manual control beyond press-to-focus on screen. The low frame-rate feedback isn't ideal. The flash seems to fire in most situations, which is irksome. And in low-light situations the “normal” auto mode fails to lift exposure to a usable level, we've found.
There is an HDR (high dynamic range) option to help compensate for shadows and highlights, which delivers a much better exposure, but requires a steady hand and a bit of patience to get right. Overall quality is reasonably good - but as the phone doesn't have optical stabilisation or a wide-open aperture keeping things sharp is trickier than some higher-end setups. Colour lacks vibrancy and punch too.
On the plus side, there are a variety of easy-to-use filters, face detection autofocus, raw file shooting (DNG) if you want it, and the files from camera are so big that on screen their quality looks great.
On paper the Bush Spira E3X shows lots of promise - especially the dual SIM, 64GB storage, 4GB RAM and decent-lasting 3,000mAh battery. In practice those aspects do deliver, as does the general fluidity of the phone, but its in other areas where the device just can't quite take down the competition.
The lack of capacitive buttons is irksome, the camera operation can't impress like its headline 21-megapixels might make you think, reception has been poor during our testing, and the hefty build of this device makes OnePlus, Motorola and even other carrier-locked devices seem attractive.
If you're looking for an unlocked, SIM-free device for under £200 then the Bush Spira E3X is an acceptable option. But having used oodles of phones over the years, given the option right now we'd forego the Spira's fingerprint scanner and instead opt for the 32GB version of the Moto G - which might not be as powerful on paper, but is just a better all-round user experience in reality.
Perhaps Bush isn't back in fashion after all, then. Although some will really love it.