Hey folks! This is leche1982 signing in again with another budget smartphone review (credits as usual to Alex from the Technoclast) for the BTS community. And for once, it’s not an Android phone!
Cherry Mobile has firmly established itself as the primary brand for cheap smartphones in the country with a combination of a plethora of low-end models released seemingly every week and pricing that is generally the same, if not lower than, those if its nearest competitors. With a few exceptions (the Windows 6.5-equipped Eclipse back in 2010 and last year’s Ace running Firefox OS, for example), the company’s smartphone offerings have almost always been Android phones.
Cherry Mobile’s announcement of the Alpha series of phones and tablets last year marked their first major commitment to a non-Android product line and caused a notable buzz in the Philippines. For the first time, Windows 8.1 units would be available to the general public at very affordable prices, and consumers on a budget finally had worthwhile product choices other than Android.
I was fortunate enough to get a unit of Cherry Mobile’s higher-end Windows smartphone offering, the Alpha Luxe, for this review. Time to find out if budget Windows smartphones have as much to offer as their Android counterparts.
Physical Design and Ergonomics
I was actually pretty impressed with the appearance of the Alpha Luxe during initial unboxing – I believe my initial comment to Alex were “Hindi mukhang P5,000 unit ito”. It borrows quite a few design features from the Samsung Galaxy S4 in the aluminum-looking band going around the sides of the phone, and the glossy removable plastic back. The back itself has a pattern reminiscent of the squares on the back of the Nexus 4 which adds to the premium look of the device.
Aesthetics aside, the Alpha Luxe follows fairly standard smartphone design – front camera and proximity sensor at the top of the 5” screen, rear camera centered at the top, power button on the right side, volume rocker on the left side, and the headphone jack at the top. The only departure from standard port placement is the location of the micro-USB port at the top as well. The phone also utilizes the standard Windows Phone Back, Home, and Search capacitive buttons.
I encountered no real ergonomic issues while using the Alpha Luxe as my primary phone – the buttons were responsive and well-placed, and I was already used to swiping around on a 5” screen. I only had two very minor complaints that could be chalked up to personal preference: the lack of a notification LED and the dedicated Search button. The former was because I had gotten used to being informed of incoming notifications without turning the screen on, and the latter was mainly because I preferred either a Menu button or a Recent Apps button instead in that location.
Overall, I’d consider the phone’s physical design of the phone to be a big plus.
Screen and Display
The Cherry Mobile Alpha Luxe’s IPS-rated screen has 1280×720 HD resolution, resulting in 294ppi worth of pixel density – perfectly satisfactory for a budget phone in 2015. Screen brightness seems to be acceptable, but since the phone allows only for “Low”, “Medium”, and “High” settings, it’s difficult to compare it to my Nexus 5. At “High” settings, the screen is easily visible even in direct sunlight, while viewing angles are also very good, which are also pluses.
However, when I ran some screen tests on the Alpha Luxe, they revealed that the screen only exhibited 5-point multitouch capabilities. In addition, the tests detected some issues with registering touches at the top of the screen. These result suggest that a lower-end screen used in manufacturing this phone, an unfortunate but somewhat understandable compromise.
Overall, I’d consider the phone’s screen as a plus, but not a major one.
Windows as an OS
As mentioned, the Cherry Mobile Alpha Luxe is the first example of Windows Phone I’ve formally reviewed, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time in this review to discuss the Windows Phone 8.1 OS and how it compares to Android.
Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft’s latest version of its mobile OS offering, differentiates itself primarily on its Metro UI ‘tiled’ approach to displaying app shortcuts and information. Unlike Android, which has distinct icon shortcuts for apps and widgets to display information, WP displays everything in tiles of varying sizes in the homescreen, and the user can adjust tile sizes according to his/her preferences. The overall appearance is similar to HTC’s Blinkfeed and is something PC users with Windows 8 and 8.1 are already well familiar with.
There’s a limited degree of customization users can do with Windows Phone 8.1, mainly in arrangement of the tiles and setting up a background that will be displayed in the tiles themselves. For the most part though, there’s not much in the way of modifications one can make to the overall UI itself, which is similar to the degree of control Apple has on iOS.
The good thing about this degree of control is that means that the OS and software support is coming from Microsoft and not Cherry Mobile, whose support can be… spotty, at best. I recently received an OTA update to the OS for this phone, which I verified was released by Microsoft and not Cherry. This is a definite plus for users who’ve had less than satisfactory experiences with the latter’s customer support.
Similar to Android and iOS, WP has a pull down notifications screen it calls the Action Center, complete with toggles and swipeable notifications. It also boasts of Cortana, a voice assistant similar to Siri and Google Now that is actually quite a bit more entertaining to interact with than the other two. These two features though were only added to WP in this latest version, while Android and iOS have had the equivalents for some time beforehand. This gives the impression that Windows Phone as an OS seems to be a generation or so behind its peers.
This impression became even more pronounced once I looked into the Windows Phone app store. While most major apps can be found in the store, some apps that are near-requirements for me (such as Gmail and Hangouts) only have unofficial versions available. The games I currently play (Hearthstone and 80 days) are nowhere to be found either, which should serve as a warning to prospective buyers: don’t expect the same degree of app depth as you’ll find on the Apple App Store or on Google Play.
Overall, my impression of Windows Phone 8.1 as an OS is that it works good to great for general smartphone use and is a decent choice for people purchasing smartphones for the first time, but it still doesn’t feel quite as polished or as all-around complete as either Android or iOS.
Internals and Performance
The Cherry Mobile Alpha Luxe sports a Qualcomm MSM8212 Snapdragon 200 1.2 quad-core processor with an Adreno 302 GPU and 1 GB RAM. Benchmark-wise, the Snapdragon 200 performance is comparable to that of the Mediatek 1.3 GHz quad-core MT6582M with Mali-400 GPU, which was used in many budget Android phones in 2014.
The phone’s own benchmarks rate it as having performance equivalent to the Nokia Lumia 1020, which was released a year before. While this sounds rather impressive for a budget phone (most budget phones today will match the performance of flagships from two years ago at best), this comparison between the Lumia 1020, LG G2, and iPhone 5s states that the Lumia does not compare favorably to other 2013 flagships.
Overall, I’d rate the Alpha Luxe’s processor performance as equal to other budget phones in its price class, most of which carry the Mediatek 6582 processor.
General usage did not expose any performance issues on the Alpha Luxe that I noticed, a lot of which can be attributed to the smoothness of Windows Phone 8.1 as a whole. Gaming in general was more or less what I had expected – less demanding games like Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run 2 ran perfectly fine, while Minion Rush and Asphalt 8 encountered longer than usual loading times and occasional performance stutters, but not to the extent that they made the games unplayable. This is definitely not a phone for hardcore gamers.
Battery life was as expected as well, considering the 720p display and 2000mAh battery capacity – around 10 hours of moderate use with mobile data turned on. Disappointing, but expected. In a comparative battery test with the Google Nexus 5 (via playing a 720P video on loop), the Alpha Luxe averaged 22.0% battery loss per hour (66% loss in three hours), while the Nexus 5 averaged 18.33% battery loss per hour.
Internal storage was set at 8GB, of which 7.28GB was usable – a definite plus in my book. MicroSD support is also provided, so users will have space for their extraneous stuff.
Overall, I’d rate the phone’s performance as pretty much on the level of its peers that are priced around P5,000. Nothing spectacular, but nothing disastrous either.
The Cherry Mobile Alpha Luxe sports an 8MP rear camera and 2MP front camera, both of which are fairly standard specs for phones in this price range. The rear camera seemed comparable to the camera of my Nexus 5 – the former captured colors more accurately, while the latter was able to capture more detail, especially those details showing reflected light. The front camera was able to produce shots acceptable for social media use and for basic video calling, but I wouldn’t recommend it for any other use.
Overall, I’d consider the phone’s cameras to be just okay – not great, but not horrible either. (Left: Alpha Luxe; Right: Nexus 5)
Media and Connectivity
Windows Phone 8.1 has native support for m4v videos (based on the battery test I did), so I had no complaints about the Alps Luxe’s video capabilities. Speaker volume and quality seemed fine as well, although I did seem to run into occasional issues where sound would still come out of the speakers even after I had plugged in headphones or earphones into the phone.
Most standard phone connectivity options like Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth worked with no noticeable issues on my end. I also had no issues with standard phone calls or texts, or with 3G data on either SIM. Supposedly, WP 8.1 supports OTG, but I was unable to get flash drives or USB input devices to work on the Alpha Luxe.
The Cherry Mobile Alpha Luxe has quite a few things going for it: a premium look, good screen resolution, and performance equal to its peers within its price range. At an SRP of P4,999 (P3,999 at some online stores), it would appear to be a worthy budget smartphone consideration. And I’d happily recommend it, if it weren’t for one major limiting factor: the Windows Phone OS itself.
As an owner of an Android phone and an iPad, I found myself comparing Windows Phone unfavorably to Android and iOS. Android beats it in terms of customization and integration of Google services (which I find indispensable nowadays), while iOS beats it in terms of ease of use. Windows Phone as it is right now just doesn’t seem to have that distinguishing characteristic that it can use as a selling point, and with its app store lagging behind, it’s a tall order right now to convince users to switch from the other two OSes to WP. Hopefully, WP 10 gives it the kick in the pants it needs to compete on more even ground.
I’m not deluding myself into thinking Android has no issues itself; I fully recognize its own limitations and understand that some consumers may not want Android due to those limitations. For those consumers, the Alpha Luxe is probably the best non-Android budget smartphone in the current market they can get. For everybody else though, the current crop of budget Android phones will probably have more to offer.
Alex likes doges and wowes. Much bio.
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