(Pocket-lint) - When looking for affordable devices, it can often be difficult to find a phone without too many compromises, especially at the lower-end of the scale. With the Smart Ultra 7, Vodafone is looking to give you as much for your money as possible, in a phone that costs just £135.
Like the higher-end Platinum 7, the Ultra 7 is essentially a rebranded Alcatel phone, albeit one fixed to Vodafone's network. Could it be the Android phone to buy if your budget isn't big?
Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 review: Design
As you'd expect, being a phone targeted at the low-end of the market means you're not going to get luxury. In other words: you won't find any premium anodised metal or high-end Gorilla Glass in the Ultra 7. Instead, it's an-all plastic affair with a screen covered in a less expensive Dragontail glass.
Just because it's plastic doesn't mean there's nothing to like about its design, as there's the odd flourish of aesthetic appeal. The plastic frame around the edges has an attractive brushed metal-effect finish to it, while the glass on the front subtly curves towards the edges. A chrome finish around the phone's edges ensures the home button stands out on the front, while the volume rocker switch and power button have the same textured finish we like on the more expensive Platinum 7.
The actual home button doesn't feel particularly well made, though, giving a spongey feel when pressed rather than a solid click. On either side of this button are capacitive back and recent apps keys which light-up when touched.
Similar to Samsung Galaxy S phones of old, the rear plastic shell is removable and gives access to the micro SIM card slot (note: it's not the even smaller nano SIM variety) and the microSD card slot. The rear cover itself is pretty flimsy and is finished with a ever-so-slightly grippy, subtle geometrical pattern.
In theory it's easy to remove: simply find the groove near the bottom edge, stick in a thumbnail and pry it away from the frame before pulling off the entire cover. In practice, it takes some effort, which does come as a reassurance that it's very unlikely to just fall off during use, or if you happen to drop the phone. Thankfully, you shouldn't need to do it all that often since the battery is not replaceable - it's sealed inside its own metal casing with a clear warning not to attempt to remove it.
The only other minor complaint about the Smart 7's design is that the bezel around the edges of the screen is quite thick, which makes the phone relatively wide and hard to use one-handed. Swiping across the screen with a thumb to dismiss notifications or Google Now cards can be particularly challenging.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 review: Display
With this being a low-end device, it's great to see a large 5.5-inch Full HD display (1,920 x 1,080 resolution). To directly compare this to any high-end phones would be unfair, but it's LCD rather than AMOLED which means you won't get the same deep blacks, high contrast ratios or eye-popping colour. Instead blacks look dark grey and colours are a little understated.
There are compromises with the screen build too. The most noticeable is that the screen isn't fully laminated to the front glass surface. That means you will notice a slight gap between the display panel and the glass. Thankfully, it doesn't cause any major issues, but there is a slight warm tint when looking at the screen from an angle. Although, saying that, viewing angles are still good, with content viewable even from an acute angle.
When looking at the display head-on, it's hard not to be impressed by the Smart 7's sharpness and clarity. It's brilliant for a device as affordable as this. Watching movies or playing the odd game on this screen is just as pleasant as on most phones.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 review: Software
Like its more expensive Platinum sibling, the Smart Ultra 7 comes loaded with some custom Vodafone apps and software. Apps like Call+ and Message+ plus help Vodafone customers take advantage of the carrier's advanced phone and messaging services, while the Tips app helps get first-time smartphone users up to speed with how to use their new phone.
Otherwise it's mostly a clean, stock Android Marshmallow operating system experience. Everything from the app drawer and settings menu to the recent apps screen and drop-down notifications are just as you'd find them in a Nexus or Motorola phone. Because of this, our early experiences using the device have been fast, fluid and responsive.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 review: Performance
In the past, budget phones have been forced to run with distinctly average processors to keep the cost of build down. Not so much in the Smart Ultra 7. While it's not the most high-end of powerful mobile chips, the Helio P10 inside features eight cores. As a reminder, this is the same processor found inside the Oppo F1 Plus - a phone which costs more than double this Vodafone's asking price.
Judging how good the Smart 7's performance is depends very much on your expectations of a budget phone. Thanks to being a virtually clean version of Android, it gets through most daily tasks without breaking a sweat.
Still, fast-moving animations have a tendency to stutter slightly, while games do load slower than they might on a more premium smartphone. There's the odd occasion when data loading pauses, before catching up with itself, but this is to be expected on the bottom-end of the smartphone market. The overall experience is decent, and certainly shouldn't be bad enough to put you off parting with the modest amount of cash.
Again, there are compromises in the other hardware specs, but none that should affect daily use too much. It has only 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage (around 10GB of which is usable). You're not restricted to 16GB, however, as you can expand using a microSD card - and you can even make use of Android Marshmallow's ability to adopt microSD card storage as internal storage to save your app data and so on.
Other trade-offs include the lack of a fingerprint sensor or quick-charge support.
Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 review: Battery life
Since there's no quick-charge it does take some time to fill up the Smart Ultra 7's 2,960mAh battery. But with a battery of that capacity, Android Marshmallow's optimisations and only having a 1080p display, a full charge will last you a full day without even trying. Indeed, even when we accidentally left navigation running on Google Maps one afternoon it still kept going until about 2am the next morning.
It's reassuring to know that even budget phones like this can get through a full day with at least 30 per cent capacity remaining. With Google's Doze mode baked into Android it's also comforting to know it won't lose more than a few per cent when left on standby overnight.
Smart Ultra 7 review: Camera
Like the rest of the Smart Ultra 7's features, the camera should definitely be good enough for most users. It's a 13-megapixel sensor with phase-detection autofocus (PDAF), which is also equipped with HDR (high dynamic range) and an f/2.0 aperture lens.
The camera's results seems a far cry from the fuzzy, distorted and over-saturated photos we're used to seeing in the ultra-affordable market.
Our first few shots show ample detail and great colour, at least in good light. Once light levels drop, detail starts to disappear, and image noise creeps in, leaving you with fuzzy looking images. Generally speaking, shots are good enough to share on social media with your friends. Just don't go hoping to win any photography awards with it.
The most frustrating part about the camera experience is that unless there's even light, it doesn't like to focus too easily. If a close-up object has bright directional light reflecting off its edges somewhere, the autofocus gives up. At times, even when it does manage to focus, the image can come out with very harsh light levels and over-saturated colours.
If selfies are a big deal to you, you'll be pleased to know the front-facing 5-megapixel snapper also comes with a dual-LED flash. But, again, its results are fuzzy.
Combined with its clean software, powerful processor and long-lasting battery, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 7 is easily one of the best phones under £150. There simply aren't many phones on the market at this price point with the same feature list, especially not with a large 5.5-inch Full HD resolution display.
It may not feel as nice in the hand as the new Wileyfox Spark X, but it is a better all-round phone. Plus it's worth pointing out the obvious Vodafone tie-in, meaning you'll need to be a monthly customer to use the phone. Or, alternatively, you could just buy the Alcatel equivalent outright and use it with any network provider.
So is the Smart Ultra 7 the Android phone to buy if your budget isn't especially big? Well, its direct competition spec-wise is probably the new Moto G - which has a more refined design, better camera and smoother experience, but also costs at least £35 more. Every pound counts these days, so the decision lies in how much you appreciate the extra craftsmanship and quality.