The Vodafone Smart is a budget Android smartphone which can be yours for the princely sum of £75. It is a network-skinned Huawei U8160, also known as the Vodafone 858, and like many of the current run of OEM devices, is designed to be affordable above all else. But have too many corners been cut? Does opting for a smartphone on a budget limit how smart it actually is?
In the pursuit of value for money it is finished in plastics, although it feels pretty sturdy in the hand, with only a minor degree of creaking when grasped. It is a compact handset, measuring 56 x 106 x 12mm, so will easily slip into any pocket or bag and nestles down nicely in the hand. Although the design isn’t especially sophisticated, we like the simplicity of the clean lines, even if there is a little too much space taken up by bezel, and not enough screen.
Beneath the 2.8-inch display are four touch buttons for your regular Android controls of home, menu, back and search, with ample space beneath for Vodafone to place their logo. We’re guessing this is a popular choice when branding devices, but we can’t help wishing that more of this space was taken up by the display.
One unique feature of the Vodafone Smart is the ability to customise the covers, so if you feel you want to emblazon your company logo, tag or whatever on it, then you can easily and cleanly do so. Of course we have one with the Pocket-lint logo on…
Elsewhere you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top along with the power/standby button, a volume rocker on the right-hand side and the Micro-USB connection in the bottom.
Basic is a basic does
As a starting point the Vodafone Smart doesn’t do too much wrong. It is cheap, so that restricts the expectations from a performance point of view. Running Android 2.2.1 (at the time of writing) it does at least present you with a relatively up-to-date version of Android unfettered by alterations. Vodafone have added a few apps to service their own community, such as shopping links, but these are easily avoided and don’t change the core experience.
There has been a change to the keyboard however, using TouchPal Input, which offers up a smart keyboard with decent prediction and correction, if not quite as slick as our favourite SwiftKey. There is one problem, however, which is pretty much unavoidable. With a screen size this small, the keyboard dominates it, so you never really have that much space to see what is going on. Start dialling a phone number and the contact suggestions don’t fit in the space available, so you spend more time pressing arrows and moving screens around than you would do if you had slightly more space.
But Android works well enough on a small screen and we’d rather pick Android over a proprietary operating system for the ease of synchronisation with Google’s services. You don’t just get basic services either, you can head off into Android Market and download all sorts of applications, although obviously you don’t have the compatibility here to run many of the more sophisticated applications or games - BBC iPlayer, for example, isn’t going to work for you; on a device this small, media consumption is going to be somewhat limited overall.
As a music player it copes better, the stock Android Music player supplying your tunes in a logical manner. The external speakers provides reasonable volume, but is tinny as you’d expect. You don’t get the sort of music shortcut controls you do from the likes of HTC or Samsung by default, although a third-party music player, such as DoubleTwist or AmazonMP3, will give you a better overall experience.
Navigation and operation of the device is generally fast enough, although you will find that opening apps and reacting to notifications comes with something of a delay, so don’t expect to skip around like you do on more powerful devices.
Sitting at the core of the Vodafone Smart is a 528MHz processor with 256MB RAM, the sort of specs that phones had 2 years ago, and making this one of the least powerful phones we’ve seen this year. Internal storage is limited, so if carrying music around is on your list of wants, you’ll need to insert a microSD card - up to 32GB is supported.
But the modest stats aren’t the biggest problem with the Vodafone Smart. The real issue we have with the Smart is the screen. The small size is one thing, but the low resolution of 240 x 320 really doesn’t bring much to the party, nor does the limited viewing angle.
The result is that things never quite look sharp enough, colours are a little flat and you’ll spend a lot of time moving around and zooming to get to see the details which can’t be resolved with any degree of fine detail. There is no multitouch support either, so no pinch zooming in the browser or Google Maps, making things just that little bit more fiddly.
Surprisingly, too, we found that battery life wasn’t great. We’ve seen some low spec devices that will see the day out, but in our testing of the Vodafone Smart we found the battery levels dropped off at quite a rate, so you’ll still be charging this phone most nights, unless you take serious moves to curtail power consumption. It out-performs many high-end devices, simply because you won’t be pushing it as hard, but at the same time, you’re not capturing HD video, or enjoying an expansive display.
Calling isn’t a problem and we found that callers came across clearly and reported that we came though loud and clear too. Messaging is a little fiddly because of the screen size on offer and as we’ve mentioned, the text never really looks sharp, it’s always a little fuzzy.
Around the back of the Vodafone Smart you’ll find a 2-megapixel camera. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a 2-megapixel camera on a phone and here you don’t get any photographic luxuries - it isn’t autofocus, so the results are limited, the sort of thing common from camera phones a few years back, with soft images, lots of fringing and poor colour reproduction. The low screen resolution also means that you can’t really judge the results of your snaps on the fly.
Video too is very basic, only offering 352 x 288 resolution at 15fps at the highest settings, so not really keeping pace with current offerings and only really suitable for sharing between devices.
There are a number of budget Android devices appearing now, but this appears to be amongst the cheapest out there. It isn’t as advanced as rival network’s budget Orange San Francisco, which costs a little more, but it is based on the same device as their new Orange Stockholm, so it will be interesting to see how the two compare.
At its very core you can’t criticise affordability, but for a slightly higher initial outlay on PAYG you could find yourself getting much more from your phone. If you are limited in your budget and want to experience something of the Android revolution then the Vodafone Smart is certainly a first step, but the low power and poor screen will limit that experience.