(Pocket-lint) - When it comes to carrier-branded smartphones, the expectation is rarely high. In most cases, it seems just an effort from the network operators to peddle out cheap, unimpressive devices with their branding on them. Customer experience and device quality, or value for money, comes second.
But now there's the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7 which, on paper, and in our experience, seems to be great value for money. Is it the one device to turnaround our presumptions?
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Design
There's a lot to like about the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7's design. It's essentially a metal frame sandwiched between two sheets of Corning Gorilla Glass. The glass finish on the back is particularly attractive with its Obsidian-like black colouring and subtle carbon fibre pattern underneath. It looks and feels like a premium phone. What's more, the glass has some attractive, subtle curves to its edges.
The metal frame has an understated dark grey finish with angled, polished chamfer running all around the front and back of the device, further adding to the high-end aesthetic. To make space for some front-firing stereo speakers, the top and bottom portions of the frame are slightly thicker, and have colour-matched plastic inserts with dozens of small machined holes to let the sound out.
Solidity is the key word here. With the way the metal frame has been built, the phone feels very durable and strong. But there is a downside to this design: glass is slippery. As is often the case with glass-surfaced phones, it slips very easily from some surfaces, and grip needs adjusting every so often to make sure it stays securely in-hand during use. With a phone as large as this, it's not the most ergonomic experience either - but that's not to say it's terrible.
On the whole, the Smart Platinum 7 has the solidity, feel and finish of a much more expensive device. Unless you get fingerprints all over it, which happens all too easily. You may want to carry a microfibre cloth around everywhere if you hate seeing smeary prints all over it.
As for ports and hardware buttons, the phone is well-equipped. On the left edge is the single card tray with slots for both a nano SIM and microSD. A textured hardware button sits above that, near the top corner which, when double-pressed, launches the camera and can be used as a shutter button to take pictures. This button can also be reprogrammed to launch another app of your choice, or you can have it take an instant screenshot or clear notifications with a single click.
On the right side are two well-designed buttons: a long volume rocker and a power button. Both of which are large, textured and have an angular design. This texture ensures that you really can't miss them, while the audible click feedback means you know when you've pressed them.
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Display
Like the OnePlus 3, the Platinum 7 costs around the £300 mark. That means some compromises on account of budget, but the screen isn't one of those. It boasts a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels, commonly known as Quad HD, so images and text are sharp and smooth, while the use of an AMOLED panel means colours are vibrant.
Part of the reason Vodafone has chosen to use a Quad HD display is that the network operator has launched its own Smart VR headset - which comes with the phone (our EU sample didn't have one provided, though, so we can't comment further about what it's like). With lenses magnifying every pixel on screen, and being that close to your face, it needs the higher-resolution panel.
Within the screen settings, you can change colour balance if you want to make the appearance cooler or warme, or set colours to be more or less vivid. To our eyes the Smart Platinum 7 looks good as is, straight out of the box. However, sometimes colours alter a little when looking at the phone from an angle - whites sometimes get a blue or pink tint depending on which angle you're looking at it from, and whether there's any light reflecting off the surface.
Combine the display with the stereo front-facing speakers and the Platinum 7 has arguably the best, most immersive media experience of any phone at this price point. You just can't beat playing a decent mobile game, or watching Netflix with two speakers pointing directly at your face. The stereo effect is surprisingly good, as is the audio quality and volume. It's nowhere near as tinny, or treble-heavy as the standard single speakers you usually get on phones.
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Software
With many carrier-branded phones you'll often find a tonne of apps pre-installed that you can't delete, or a tweaked user interface. With the Smart Platinum 7, that isn't the case. For the most part, it's a very clean, stock Android operating system experience.
There are a couple of Vodafone-inspired tweaks here and there - but nothing pervasive or intrusive. Upon first powering-up the phone, there's a brief Vodafone boot-up screen. Then, when setting-up the phone, the last screen offers you the chance to download some of Vodafone's apps from the Play Store. You can un-tick those, if you decide you don't want them.
There are six Vodafone apps pre-installed, one of which is the standard SMS/MMS messaging app. Then there's the Phone+ app which lets you take advantage of Voda's calling technology by making calls from the web on your desktop. Similarly, Message+ does the same for messaging. There's a Tips app for getting you accustomed to different features of Android, an Accessories app linking to deals on phone accessories, and the Start app which takes you to a window to download Voda's other apps.
Of those six, four can't be deleted. As you'd expect, the key messaging app is one of those. Phone+, Message+ and the Start app are also baked in. However, you can remove the Tips and Accessories apps.
In all, given the necessity of those apps to use Vodafone's services, it's not a terrible amount of bloatware. Vodafone could easily have loaded the phone with every single one of its apps. But it hasn't. We admire that restraint.
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Performance
Inside the Platinum 7 you'll find the Snapdragon 652 processor with eight cores, sat alongside 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage (which can be expanded by microSD card). All of which adds up to give the phone good all-round performance. It's generally fast and fluid, thanks to the clean and light software.
The mid-range processor from Qualcomm is easily robust enough to power any of your day-to-day tasks, but it's not perfect. We found a couple of times that processing onscreen content would pause at odd occasions, especially during gaming. Animations would be really smooth almost all the time, and then intermittently just stop for a fraction of a second before continuing at smooth pace. It's not like the mid-range phones of old where animations generally stutter throughout though.
There's also a round fingerprint sensor on the phone's back, which sits flush with the glass panel, and recognises pre-registered prints relatively quickly. It's not quite as fast as those found in the Huawei P9 or Oppo F1 Plus, but it detects and unlocks the phone quickly enough that it doesn't feel slow. We rarely experienced any instances of fingerprints not being recognised.
As a rarely mentioned positive: we also noticed a number of instances where reception, or signal strength, was better with the Platinum 7 than with our other Vodafone SIM-equipped devices.
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Battery life
With mixed usage, the Smart Platinum 7's battery easily lasted until the end of a full day with plenty of juice spare. Even enough to last through the night in standby mode and in to a second day.
As with most Android Marshmallow-powered phones a lot of this battery performance is down to the standby optimisations in Google Doze. Over a full night on standby it will generally lose less than five per cent.
Because it has one of the more modern processors from Qualcomm, Vodafone has been able to equip Quick Charge 3.0 technology too. The 3,000mAh battery can charge from to 50 per cent in just 30-minutes, and up to 100 per cent in less than 90-minutes. It's speedy.
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7: Camera
While the 16-megapixel camera might not be the most pixel-dense sensor out there, it has enough hardware and software features to keep most happy. The PDAF (phase-detection autofocus) means it focus on objects really quickly, even when they're close-up. In real-life experience, the technology really does the trick, and the added HDR (high dynamic range) means shadow and highlights are well balanced.
The problem with the camera is that the end results aren't consistent. Some shots will have a nice balance and sharpness to them, while others won't - even when taking the same shot twice. A lot of the time, even in good light, there's a softness and lack of biting detail.
In low-light, it gets worse; at least in automatic mode. Details are very fuzzy and image noise is noticeable. But there is plus side: a manual camera mode allows you adjust all the important photo capture settings like ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, white balance and focus. With a tripod, it's perhaps the only way you'll get close to decent low-light shots with the camera.
Perhaps more impressive is the plethora options in the camera's app. Like a lot of phone cameras you can take panoramic photos, slow-mo videos with effects like night mode, HDR and even shoot video in resolutions up to 4K. Like its photos, the colours in videos are nicely balanced in good light, but detail sometimes lacks.
The front camera has 8-megapixels and even has its own LED flash. Results are about as good as you'd expect. We've seen better, but they're sharp enough for the odd Instagram selfie.
If you're a Vodafone customer and are looking at upgrading to a phone that costs around £30 per month, or don't want to spend more than £300 outright on a phone, then the Platinum 7 is a fantastic choice. It's not perfect, but it's great value for money.
If you're not on Vodafone and are convinced this is the phone for you, it's worth remembering that this is essentially a rebadged Alcatel Idol 4S; which itself is due to be released soon and could mean sticking to a different network/carrier instead. Or, for the sake of £10, we'd opt for the more powerful innards of the OnePlus 3 and accept that phone's cut in screen resolution.
As an overall package, however, the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7 is right up there as one of the best phones you can buy around the £300 mark. It's fast, has great build, stunning looks and great audio chops. It may not have the best camera in the world, and you have to be on Vodafone's network, but there's power and elegance beyond what the price tag suggests.