Sunday, October 6, 2013

Almost everyone have heard about Oppo’s Find 5 and their upcoming N1, but how does their low end offering look like and how does it feel like using it on a daily basis? We tested Oppo’s cheapest offering to find out.

At a time when Chinese phones were still seen as merely cheaper alternatives for those who were not in a position to get more expensive offerings from Korean, Japanese and American brands, Oppo was one of a few Chinese companies that attempted to break the stigma by launching one of the world’s first 1080p smartphones, the Oppo Find 5. Full HD screens were not the only trick that the Find 5 had up its sleeves though, it also comes with a (then) high end SoC, loads of RAM, good built quality and a nice design that many would argue could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the world had to offer at the time it was launched.

Oppo knows that making a good phone alone would not be enough to steal a part of tech enthusiast’s mindshare, so they followed up by developing a close relationship with CyanogenMod, arguably the world’s most popular custom rom developer team. Their latest flagship, the N1 took the partnership a step further and offered a variant of the phone that comes with CyanogenMod’s firmware out of the box.

As we have seen in the previous weeks, this approach has been successful in allowing the N1 to grab headlines even though it was launched in relatively the same period as the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, was launching the Galaxy Note 3 and Apple, was also launching the iPhone 5S and 5C. This is no less of a magnificent feat for what essentially is a new player in the global smartphone market, a feat that, arguably, even Chinese behemoths such as Huawei and Lenovo have not been able to pull off.

Of course, in our previous discussion, we have learned from HTC’s experience that grabbing tech enthusiast’s mindshare is only part of the game. To have a chance at sustainable success and growth in today’s global smartphone market companies need to have a winning strategy to address prospective consumers in the developing markets because that’s where companies can still expect to gain substantial growth.

Out of the spotlight of mainstream tech media, during the past year or so, Oppo has been addressing this segment of the market as well. In Indonesia, this year alone, Oppo has launched no less than 5 products catering for a vast range of price segments, from as low as US$170 to $550 (the new Oppo N1 is scheduled to be launched on October 15th , no pricing has been announced yet).

So now we that we know that Oppo has a strategy in place to address different price segments in the emerging markets, let’s take a look at how their lower end offering is like and how it stacks up to the competition.

The phone you see below is the Oppo Find Muse R821. At $170, it’s Oppo’s cheapest model. I got this phone earlier this week to find out how Oppo’s lower end offering feels like to use and after spending some time with it, here are my thoughts.

The first thing you’d notice about the Muse is that it does not look cheap. The body is solidly built with no creaks and flex to note. The seams are also well aligned with no uneven panel gaps. The removable back is matte and has a grippy feel to it, a far cry from the Mobil 1 inspired backs of most Samsung phones.  The back is also somewhat curved like the back of the HTC One. The combination of the high grip texture and the ergonomic curve of the back make it comfortable to hold the phone for extended periods. The back is also home to the non-auto focus 3 MP camera up top and the speaker cut out near the bottom edge. There’s also a metallic looking strip that goes around the sides of the phone. Subjectively, I don’t think that I’d feel insecure putting the phone face down on a table next to more expensive phones from the likes of Samsung or LG, it does look good.

Remove the back plate and you’d see the removable 1700 mAH battery, a slot for an SD Card to augment the phone’s 4 GB worth of internal memory, and two GSM SIM slots. One will house a micro SIM while the other takes a normal sized SIM. An interesting feature is that the phone allows the user to choose which one of the two numbers they’d like to use for their data communication. This can come in handy as more prepaid operators are offering data packages with different rates for different times of the day. With this feature owners will be able to choose the card that gives them the most economic data plan and maximize their return on investment.

The left side houses the volume rocker while the power/wake button is situated on the opposite side. These buttons have a nice, well weighted click to them and, thanks to their slightly raised profiles, they are also easy to find. There are no give or play to these buttons adding to the quality feel of the built.

There’s a 3.5 mm jack up top while the microphone and micro USB port is situated at the bottom. Other than the fact that the USB port is located closer to the right edge instead of dead center like on most phones, the port also happens to be among the toughest USB ports I have ever used. It takes quite an effort to plug the charging cable in and out of the port which is then rewarded by a satisfying click. I compare the sensation to the experience of operating the doors on classic Mercedes-Benzes. It takes a bit more effort compared to closing most Japanese cars’ doors, but when you do slam it shut, there’s a rewarding and unmistakable thud to it. Another built quality point for Oppo’s cheapest model.

Flip the phone to its front and you’d see a 4 inch WVGA screen with a pixel density of around 240 PPI. There’s not much to say about the screen other than the fact that it is based on IPS tech so that viewing at acute angles is possible and there is also a minimum gap between the screen and the glass courtesy to OGS manufacturing method. This second point is hitherto a rarity for sub $200 phones. Sunlight legibility is acceptable for the price range. There is also a front facing camera situated next to the earpiece, which sadly is only good for video chats since the resolution is limited to 0.3 MP or VGA. The all capacitive navigation keys are backlit. Unfortunately, due to strong Samsung influence, from left to right they are menu, home, and back.

Like many affordable models in the market nowadays, a Mediatek chip is powering this device. The strange thing is, unlike some other similarly priced smartphones from other Chinese manufacturers, this one does not come with Mediatek’s MT6589 but its dual core cousin, the MT6572. This soc is also based on 28 nm ARM Cortex A7 cores, but unlike the MT6589 it only has two cores instead of four. Another important point to note is the fact that this SoC has Mali 400 GPU instead of Power VR SGX 545 although there is no information on the number of cores used and the clock speed at which the GPU cores are running. The MT6572 on this phone is mated to a 512 MB RAM module. We’ll see how this play out a little later.

On the software side the phone runs Android 4.2.2 with Oppo’s skin on top. It is basically a version of the skin that we have seen on the Oppo Find 5 so I won’t go into too much detail about it. Those who want an in depth look at the skin can check out Anandtech’s review of the Oppo Find 5.

On the imaging side of things, this phone comes with a rather paltry non-auto focus 3 MP and a VGA front camera which is decent for video chats. Oppo provides quite a number of different presents for the camera, complete with a burst mode that Oppo calls “rewind”. There is no LED flash present. Below you can take a look at sample shots taken from both the primary and front camera.

Here are a couple of shots taken with the phone’s camera:

So far we have talked about the phones built quality and specs, but how does it feel like using the phone on a daily basis? Is it a worthy contender in the sub $200 segment?

For those who are not familiar, I am a big proponent of phone capable tablets. For more than 18 months I have used phone capable tablets, exclusively. However, for various reasons, I realize that not everyone would be able to use tablet capable phones exclusively. Hence, as discussed here, phones like this can provide a solution for people who need smaller phones to be used as a secondary device for times when whipping out small tablets is not an option.

To test this I tried using the phone to do most of my daily use cases as much as possible. Only coming back to my GSM Note 8.0 when it was absolutely necessary to do so.

Among the routines I do with my devices, the one that I most often do is reading news on flipboard, switching between it and Chrome as I open up links while at the same time conversing on Hangouts and engaging on people’s post on Google plus. The four apps mentioned loads reasonably quickly and once loaded, scrolling and transitions are fluid. Sharing intents across the apps is a relatively drama free affair.

The problem starts when I start to switch between them as it can take 1 or 2 seconds, at times, from the moment I double tapped the home button to the moment the task switcher pops up on screen. Things got better once the task switcher is up though, as most of the time, I don’t have to wait for more than a second for the other app to take over the screen. this is by no means brisk, but acceptable for this price range. This apparent lag is most likely due to the measly amount of RAM as I haven’t seen a phone shipped with Android 4.2 that comes with less than 1 GB of RAM before.

The occasional couple of seconds lag between calling up the task switcher and having it come on screen is not the worst part of using this phone. While Waiting up to 2 seconds for apps that are already running is something I can tolerate, a bigger problem comes up almost every time I wanted to return to the homescreen from inside an app. Most of the time, I had to wait between 5 to 10 seconds to have the homescreen redrawn. Yep, that wasn’t a typo, it took between 5 to 10 seconds to have Oppo’s launcher redraw the homescreen. So the simple act of opening a new app while inside another app can be a quarter of a minute affair. Obviously, this is borderline unacceptable. Using efficient, third party, launchers like Apex and Nova improves things by a considerable margin which says a lot about the efficiency, or lack thereof, of Oppo’s launcher. However, we’re trying to get an idea of how it feels like to use the phone in stock form and in that regard, I struggle to think if anyone at Oppo had actually tried using the phone for extended periods of time before they decide to offer it on sale.

This is a sight that users will be familiar with

With that said, the phone does not perform too badly in benchmarks and casual games. Below you can see the examples of Antutu and Quadrant runs I did. Out of 5 runs, Antutu scores average at around 10,000 with Quadrant standard scores averaging around the 3500 mark. Epic Citadel, however, was a no go. Casual games like Temple Run 2 runs well with no noticeable slowdowns. The phone even manages to run more demanding 3D games such as RipTide GP 2 at close to 30 fps on stock settings with occasional slowdowns. I couldn’t try larger games such as Real Racing 3 though, for reasons explained below.

The phone comes with 4 GB of internal memory of which 1 GB is available for system and apps. Installing my standard list of must have apps like Google+, Hangouts, Flipboard, Pocket, Keep, Drive and Whatsapp along with Oppo’s bundled apps left me with less than 80 MB of free space in system memory. Thankfully, Oppo’s firmware allows most of the apps to be installed on an external SD card.  After moving most of the apps to external memory, I was able to free up more than 50% of the 1 GB worth of main memory. Unfortunately, freeing up main memory did not do much to improve the home screen loading time. It still takes around 8 seconds to load up the homescreen from inside an app most of the time.

As I discussed at length here, in the emerging markets, the primary target of sub $200 phones like the Oppo Find Muse are either smartphone late adopters looking to have their first smartphone or people who already have tablet capable phones looking to have a small, practical phone to serve as their secondary device. With that in mind, do I think that Oppo Find Muse’s immaculate build quality and premium design are enough to offset its downsides?

The short answer is no. While I admit that it is hard for me to imagine anyone, even first time smartphone owners, would endure the pain of having to wait close to 10 seconds to jump back to the homescreen that was not the primary reason behind my verdict. My reason was that there’s a similarly priced alternative from Lenovo called the A706.

While, unlike the Oppo Find Muse, Lenovo’s alternative might look a bit like an ugly duckling when put down on a table top next to more expensive phones, the Lenovo not only comes with a larger 4.5 inch screen, but also a quad core processor and, most importantly, 1 GB of RAM capacity. That goes a long way towards its performance, as although it runs a slightly older Android version (4.1), there is no noticeable lag in switching between apps and jumping back to the home screen on Lenovo’s A706. Furthermore, Lenovo’s offering comes with an autofocus 5 Megapixel rear camera that should be able to produce much better shots than Oppo Find Muse’s 3 MP non-auto focus shooter.

This brings me to my next point. Comparing the Oppo Find Muse to Lenovo’s A706 gives us a chance to observe the two company’s different approach to compete for consumer’s attention in the very crowded emerging market smartphone space. Lenovo took the most obvious route of offering the most specs for the money, while Oppo is trying to offer upscale design and build quality while cutting some corners in specs. That is a legitimate tactic to employ, but in the case of the Find Muse, I’m afraid Oppo has cut one too many corner. Shipping the phone with twice the RAM capacity would have helped if it solves the homescreen loading problem and improves task switching speed. But as it stands, the Find Muse is a phone that I can’t recommend to anyone.