Saturday 1 October 2016

Judge Droid: 3 top phones that won't cost a fortune

Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30

Huawei P9
Huawei P9
Vodafone Smart Platinum 7
OnePlus3 phone

Looking for a decent Android work phone that doesn't cost the earth? Of all the models reviewed this year, our Technology Editor picks out three mid-tier models worth looking at.

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1 Huawei P9 (from free on contract or around €500 sim-free)

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While Huawei's P9 has largely been talked about because of its (superb) double-lens camera, the 5.2-inch handset is also a really good work-compatible phone in its own right. Physically, the P9 looks and feels every bit the premium handset. It seems to borrow an awful lot from Apple's iPhone 6 and 6S, with smooth rounded cornering and brushed matt steel casing.

Huawei has put its fingerprint reader on the back of the phone which is easier to manage in the normal way that you hold a phone. It does mean that you have to turn the handset over when it's sitting on a table, though.

The P9 uses USB-C as its charging system which means that your old Android cables won't be much use (although the plug parts still work as normal). The benefit of USB-C is that it's generally faster for data transfers and charging times.

As far as battery life itself goes, the P9 is satisfactorily middle of the road, with a full day's use the norm form its 3,000mAh battery.

While there's 32GB of storage within the device, it also has a microSD card slot that lets you store more if you want.

There is no shortage of power, with an octacore processor and 3GB of Ram. At 423 pixels per inch, the high resolution 5.2-inch screen is bright and sharp. Although not quite at the 500 pixel level of some handsets, anything over 400ppi is easily good enough for the human eye.

A final word on the P9's camera prowess. Its twin 12-megapixel Leica lenses allow it to do things few others are capable of.

Principally, it can create a very shallow depth of field, where the background is a little blurry and makes your subject stand out more. This results in really beautiful portrait shots of people in a way that only big DSLR cameras are usually capable of.

2 Vodafone Smart Platinum 7 (€399 or from free on contract)

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Own-brand smartphones used to be strictly budget affairs. But Vodafone is pushing up the scale, with a very accomplished 5.5-inch Android handset (made by Chinese giant TCL) that feels at home with the big boys.

You can see some of the phone's 'premium' aspiration in its design. It's a metal unibody-style frame with gorilla glass covering the back. The edges of the phone are nicely chamfered and the buttons have a useful grill finish for a tactile perspective.

Another mark of its high-end pretensions is a really, really high-resolution screen (2K definition with 534 pixels per inch, far higher than most other mid-range handsets).

Another signal is the inclusion of a fingerprint scanner. Unlike the iPhone, this scanner is placed on the back of the phone, just underneath the camera. The idea is that you use your index finger rather than your thumb. I have mixed feelings about this, but some will like it. This phone more or less runs pure Android, meaning you can get going on it without wincing at mocked-up 'content screens'.

Unlike some of the newest smartphones, this handset is charged using the older MicroUSB cable (the one all Android phones have been using for the last five years). Overall, this is good insofar as you almost certainly have such a charger knocking around already. But it also supports 'fast' charging, which means you can replete around half the phone's battery in about 30 minutes.

There's quite a lot of power under the hood, here: 3GB of Ram and an octacore processor.

Obviously, if you buy this you'll be using Vodafone's network. It's often a little more expensive than rival operators but generally gives faster 4G data access and has comparatively good coverage around the country.

There's a dedicated photo button on the upper left side of the phone, a feature I really like. Press it twice and it starts the camera, even from a locked state. The 16-megapixel camera itself is pretty good with an f2.0 aperture and HDR.

One thing you might miss with this phone is a choice of accessories. (Vodafone sells its own 'Dad-friendly' folio protector case for €20.)

You're getting an awful lot for your money with this phone, compared to some of the standalone big brands such as Samsung, Sony and HTC.

3 One Plus 3 (€400 from OnePlus.net)

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Want a really good Android phone for under €400? You can't do better than this. There is very little to differentiate this from the top Samsungs, HTCs or Sonys: it's just a smidgeon of battery life. Other than that, this is as good as you'll get. The 5.5-inch phone's looks are bang up to date, with an ultra-slim metal unibody design. One feature I love is its physical 'silent' button: you can toggle between full notifications, 'priority' ones and all-silent operation. This is a lot quicker than pulling down a menu. There's a fingerprint reader on the front of the phone and a souped-up engine under the hood with a whopping 6GB of Ram. It also gives way more internal storage than most rivals, with 64GB (of which around 53GB was available). It comes with Google's newest Android operating system which has a handy 'night mode', making it easier to handle after dark. There are some elements that show the OnePlus 3 is a shade down from the most expensive phones out there. Its high definition screen, while bright and strong, is a touch below the ultra-resolution of some handsets with 401 pixels per inch.

But the only thing I had any issue with was the battery life, which started to get a bit weak around teatime. Admittedly, I had it tethered to a smartwatch all day as well as a pair of Bluetooth headphones. But with more expensive rivals, they have lasted a little longer. Still, I'm a hog when it comes to phone usage so this may not affect others.

And with a USB-C charger, it recharges most of the 3,000mAh battery in half an hour. The handset's (Sony-made) 16-megapixel camera is genuinely good. I took it down to the west of Ireland where the contrast in lighting can strain a lens's ability to deal with light and dark features. But it handled it without much fuss. There's an 8-megapixel selfie camera too. Video recording goes to 4K resolution, just like the top smartphones.

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