When it comes to the price of a new smartphone; a device capable of accessing the entirety of the world wide web, of playing games and watching movies — how low can you go? Vodafone is selling the new Smart Mini 4 for $69 including a month’s pre-paid service. This is an amazing price, but what exactly do you get for your money? Can a smartphone worth using really be this cheap?
It probably goes without saying, but there is nothing about the Vodafone Smart 4 Mini (VS4M) that stands out being the price tag. In design, the VS4M is about as utilitarian as it gets. A small, black plastic box with a 4-inch touchscreen on the front, and a small camera lens on the back, next to a speaker grille.
There are three touch-sensitive controls on the front of the phone, below the screen, used for Back, Home and Menu operations. You can plug your own headphones into the handset via its 3.5mm socket on the top, and you charge the phone with a micro USB port on the bottom.
If you pull the gun-metal coloured battery cover off you’ll find a Mini SIM sized slot and a section for a micro SD memory card underneath the battery.
In so many ways, the VS4M reminds us of the sorts of smartphones we used to see 5 years ago, when the same handset design would have cost four or fives times as much at retail.
The 4-inch display is the real make or break point, we feel. If you can put up with the dim colours, poor contrast and sticky-feeling touchscreen, then you’ll consider the Mini 4 an absolute bargain. More discerning tech lovers may refuse to use the VSM4 regardless of its bargain bin price.
It’s poor viewing angles are its weakest element and are central to answering the questions: “why is this phone so cheap?”. Tilting the screen away from your face produces a negative effect on screen making it difficult to read and make selections. Titling it vertically, towards your body, is the worst direction, and the screen is unusable at subtle angles in this direction. Side to side is better, but not much.
The display panel is also set into from the glass, which gives light a space to bounce about. This is one of the reasons why the screen appears so dull, but it is also behind the high level of reflections which are always getting in the way of you seeing what you're trying to see on screen.
Otherwise, the VS4M is a very usable device. It uses a Mediatek dual-core processor (1.3GHz) and has 512MB RAM, so while it won’t be winning any speed tests, there is enough power here to do what most people do with smartphones — calling, messaging, social media, web browsing, etc. It doesn’t love multitasking, so you’ll need to be patient while switching tasks.
Impressively, there is even enough grunt to handle some of the slick new games on the Google Play Store. Candy Crush Soda Saga plays well, without any memorably hiccups in graphics or performance. To push the VS4M even further we installed Riptide GP2, a fast-paced jets racing game. This experience wasn’t 100 percent, with plenty of lag in the frame rate visible, but it still managed to be pretty good fun.
Android also plays a part in delivering this smooth performance, with Google's system becoming less power intensive with each version. The VS4M runs on Android Jelly Bean and comes with all the Google apps you'll need, like Maps, Gmail and, most importantly, the Google Play Store.
It is worth nothing that this is a 3G phone only -- no blisteringly fast 4G speeds here.
One common smartphone task you’ll avoid with the VS4M is taking photos. The 3.2 megapixel camera is about as good as you’d expect on the back of a $70 phone. There’s no focus mechanism, images come out pixelated and the colours are so bad the shots might as well be in black and white.
We tried a number of ways to improve the photos with this phone. We installed different camera apps, tried shooting in HDR (high dynamic range) mode and played around with the exposure levels. Ultimately, it is a lost cause.
When you add it up, it’s difficult not to see good value in the Vodafone Smart 4 Mini, even if it is hard to call it a good smartphone. Vodafone is bundling the phone with a $40 pre paid voucher and three months of Spotify Premium (valued at about $36), so the phone is basically a freebie (albeit one that asks you to recharge your account every month).
There is definitely nothing great about the Vodafone Smart 4 Mini, but just getting a device that can do everything a smartphone can for $69 is a plus in our books. That said, if you can stretch your budget a little further, you might also consider the Huawei Ascend Y550 4G for $99 with Vodafone, or the Boost View 5 for $99 with Boost Mobile.
You you already own a more expensive smartphone, you might consider the VS4M a cost-effective Wi-Fi modem. Like all Androids, the phone can be used an internet hotspot for up to 5 devices, and at this price, there are few cheaper.