Review: $149 powerhouse fresh from Hong Kong
Chinese smartphones are going mainstream and western consumers are already familiar with brands like Xiaomi, Huawei and ZTE.
However, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. One in seven smartphones sold in China comes from a domestic brand – and there is no shortage of Chinese smartphone brands you’ve probably never heard of.
Mlais is one of them. This small Hong Kong-based company specialises in (very) affordable phablets and the Mlais M52 Red Note definitely qualifies as one. It’s pre-sale via Chinese resllers like Gearbest for $149, but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at the spec sheet. We will get to the specs and performance later, so let’s start by explaining why we are interested in this particular device, and Chinese phones in general.
Earlier this year we ran an opinion piece on commoditised Android, arguing that smartphones needn’t be prohibitively expensive and should be able to deliver a good user experience at virtually any price point. In fact, sooner or later they will replace feature phones in every market segment. But what does that mean for the average consumer? Don’t we already have phones like the Moto E and Moto G to cover this market segment? Yes we do, but we also have a lot more powerful alternatives like the Mlais M52.
How powerful? The Mlais M52 Red Note is based on a MediaTek MT6752 octa-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz. The phone also includes 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. It sports a 13-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front camera, user-replaceable 3200mAh battery, 4G LTE, 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4.0.
Not bad considering the price, but there are bound to be a lot of trade-offs, right? That’s what this review is all about. We want to see for ourselves, we want to check whether or not a $149 smartphone with impressive mid-range specs can be a good device. Specs aren’t everything, but in a device like the M52, they are obviously the key selling point. But what about the rest of the phone?
Let’s start with the design and build quality.
Design and Build Quality
This is a 5.5-inch phablet, so at 152 x 7.80 x 8.2mm (5.97 x 3.07 x 0.32 inches) it’s not what we’d call compact. The dimensions are comparable to similar devices, and so is the weight – 158g with a relatively powerful 3200mAh power pack.
As for the looks, the design is minimal and at 8.2mm the device does not look too chubby. The front is dominated by the 5.5-inch 720p panel with three capacitive buttons at the bottom. The volume rocker is on the left, while the power button is on the right side. The rear features the camera and flash LED, both of which are placed at the centre of the device, along with a Mlais logo and a big speaker grille at the bottom.
We can’t say we are impressed, but there’s not much to dislike, either. The good news is that the Mlais M52 is available in black, white and two colours – cyan and a vibrant, but light shade of red, a bit like terra cotta. All colour options look quite good, so what about the quality?
The back cover is removable, hence you obviously can’t expect polycarbonate-like rigidity. The finish is glossy, so you’ll have to wipe your fingerprints off on a regular basis. However, the cover feels rather sturdy, although every high gloss finish is susceptible to scuffs and scratches. The plastic is relatively thick, so you don’t get much in the way of flex when you handle the device. The same goes for the rest of the chassis – it feels right, there’s no creaks or cracking when you gently twist it, and it doesn’t feel like a cheap product (although it is one).
When we took the cover off, we were greeted by a good looking interior, which is not something you always see on inexpensive devices. The battery looks ok, as do the memory card and SIM slots. You can see a lot of screws on either side of the device, which is reassuring to say the least. Nothing looks out of place and everything feels like it was assembled with care.
The power button and volume rocker have a metallic finish, which feels somewhat cheap. There is not much more to say, as these are the only buttons on the phone. They get the job done. The Power button is placed on the Samsung / Nexus default right hand side of the phone.
The micro USB connector and the 3.5 mm stereo headset plug are both on the top of the phone, which is not great, but you will learn to live with it.
Our biggest concern is the glass. We are just not sure what sort of glass Mlais opted for, but in this price range it is obvious that Gorilla Glass 3 is out of the question. The phone ships with a pre-installed screen protector, which is not a bad idea, all things considered.
Since this is a small brand device, the choice of accessories is limited, but you should be able to get replacement back covers, flip covers and a few more accessories. We had a chance to check out the flip cover and it’s not bad. There is even a software option to control the Mlais Fashion case. The flip case reminds us of the LG Flip case for the LG G3, and for example it can show a nice looking analog clock when it’s closed.
Overall, the Mlais M52 does not feel like a premium device, but luckily it does not feel like a very cheap one, either. Actually, we’ve seen much more expensive phones with the same or similar foibles, so we’re inclined to say it’s very good for the money.
Mlais M52 Specs and Performance
As far as the specs go, we already covered the basics, but before we proceed let’s take a closer look. It’s worth noting that a lot of Chinese companies churn out 5.5-inch phablets with relatively good specs, but few match the M52 in terms of price/performance. Actually few isn’t the right word, because we can’t think of a single one. Basically you’re getting a good mid-range spec for the price of a low-end device.
Here is the full Mlais M52 spec:
- SoC: MediaTek MT6752, 28nm HPM
- CPU: Eight 64-bit Cortex-A53 cores clocked at up to 1.7GHz
- GPU: ARM Mali-T760 MP2 up to 695MHz
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16GB internal storage, microSD slot up to 64GB
- Display: 5.5-inch 720p IPS OGS laminated panel
- OS: Android 4.4.4 (Android 5.0 OTA coming soon)
- Rear camera: 13-megapixel sensor, autofocus
- Front facing camera: 8-megapixel sensor, 83 degree FOV, f/2.0 aperture
- Battery: 3200mAh lithium polymer, user-replaceable
- Dimensions: 152 x 7.80 x 8.2mm (5.97 x 3.07 x 0.32 inches)
- Weight: 158g
- WiFi and Bluetooth: 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0
- Sensors: ambient light, proximity, gesture, gravity, GPS, A-GPS
- SIM card: dual SIM, micro and standard
- Network support:
4G FDD-LTE:B1/3/7/20 (800/1800/2100/2600)(Standard)
You’ll probably agree that this is quite a spec sheet for a $149 phone. In fact, on paper the Mlais M52 looks like it could take on much more expensive devices, and to be honest it performs like a much more expensive phone.
The MediaTek octa-core SoC backed by 2GB of RAM devoured AnTuTu and scored upwards of 40900 in several consecutive tests, indicating that throttling is not an issue. Lack of custom skins and bloatware also helps make the phone feel responsive and quick. The ZTE Blade S6 powered by the Snapdragon 615 scores 28125, which is obviously significantly slower. Bear in mind that the Snapdragon 615 is shipping in some rather pricey phones like the Galaxy Alpha A7 and HTC One M8s.
In GeekBench the phone scores 810 in single-core score and 3947 in multi-core test. We did notice that when the battery goes down to below 15 percent, the score gets cut in half, suggesting automatic power saving takes a toll on performance. The Mediatek MT6752 SoC's main competitor, the octa-core Snapdragon 615, scores 620 in single and 2852 in multi-core test.
Overall, nobody will complain about the performance, and we mean nobody – the phone is roughly as fast as 2013 Android flagships and can wipe the floor with similarly priced devices (mostly based on quad Cortex-A7 parts).
In Antutu, the MT6752 performs quite well and outpaces the Snapdragon 800 and 615.
In 3D mark, flagships based on Snapdragon 8xx silicon pull ahead with a wide margin, courtesy of much more powerful GPUs.
Basemark also favours big quad-cores.
Quadrant was the only test in which the Mlais lost to the ZTE Blade S6, based on the Snapdragon 615. However, it was a close call.
Performance is not everything, so what about the subjective feeling? What about the display and audio quality?
Audio, Display and Camera Quality
The display is not very bright, although it is still a laminated IPS panel, so you get good viewing angles and colours. It is by no means impressive, especially not when you place it next to a flagship phone, but it gets the job done. In terms of resolution, 720p is not a lot nowadays, especially not on a 5.5-inch panel, but it’s not bad either. MediaTek has a patent pending technology called MiraVision, and this display picture quality optimization techniques makes a big difference when it is turned on. It can optimize picture at the pixel level, making a 720p display appear sharper than without it.
The panel is still pretty good for browsing and reading, casual gaming and the usual stuff. However, outdoors it simply lacks the contrast and brightness offered by more expensive handsets. The bezels are relatively thick, but that’s to be expected on this sort of device.
In terms of audio quality, call quality is average. There is no fancy noise cancelling microphone, but we doubt users will have much to complain about. The large speaker grille on the back might suggest that the phone has a stereo speaker setup, but it does not. There’s just one speaker on the left side. You won’t get a headset in the box, either.
As for the cameras, we can only say that megapixels are not everything, so you shouldn’t expect any miracles. However, with a 13-megapixel unit on the back and an 8-megapixel sensor, you do get more than you would expect on an entry-level device. The speedy processor also helps, as the camera is relatively fast, which is just as important as imaging quality.
The camera app has a few additional features you won’t find in Google’s camera software, but most of them are gimmicks, although there are a few neat options. It is mainly based on the stock Android KitKat camera but it adds gesture capture support and it will look for your Victory sign to take a picture automatically.
Pictures taken outdoors were quite good considering the price category, but the ones taken in low light ended up with a lot of noise. Once you turn on HDR, things get significantly better in some situations, but you need to keep the phone very steady.
Cropped to 100%, our sample images reveal the camera's abilites in daylight and we have to say we are very pleased. Dynamic range is somewhat limited and colours aren't too vivid, but there is really not much to complain about.
You should have no trouble getting decent looking images indoors during daylight hours, but as you can see the camera struggles in poorly lit environments.
Video at High Quality works in 1280x720 video and there is also a Fine settings, boosting the capture resolution to 1920x1080 and at this setting a 60-second video occupies 119 MB. The microphone will do a decent job in a quiet environment and the camera will be able to change focus almost instantly. In any case the results are average, but you won’t be embarrassed to share videos captured by the Red Note.
The megapixel count is impressive on both cameras, and the results aren't bad. We also compared the M52 to much more expensive devices like HTC's Desire Eye and One M9, and the camera obviously wasn't able to keep up with these premium models. Although we weren’t too impressed by images deliever in low light, we were taken aback by the sheer speed at which we could access the camera, touch to focus and take a few snaps.
This is simply not something you can get on a cheap phone with an underpowered processor, but thanks to the MT6752, the big Mlais is just as fast as devices that cost twice as much, or more. Long story short, the Red Note gets a thumbs up in the camera department. You'd be hard pressed to find anything better for this sort of money.
OS, UI and Everyday Use
This is where it gets really interesting, or not, depending on how you look at it. The Mlais M52 ships with Android 4.4.4, but an OTA update to Android 5.0 is coming soon, just in time for launch. This is probably a matter of weeks, but we could not confirm the date.
Now, when we say Android we mean Android, as in stock Android. There are no skins, no bloatware, nothing. The M52 boots up remarkably fast, since it doesn’t have to deal with bloat. We mentioned the Moto E and G in the introduction, and Mlais is basically emulating Motorola by keeping Android as clean as possible. This means the end user gets a straightforward user interface, just the way Google intended.
Chinese vendors have a habit of using their own Android skins that often try to mimic the look of Apple’s iOS, with squared icons and no app drawer. Not Mlais – and we applaud the small company’s decision to stick to near-stock Android. We really wish more Chinese phonemakers would use the same approach, especially on low-end devices, as it would make their phones more appealing to western consumers.
Since this is practically stock Android, there’s really not much to talk about. Anyone coming from a Moto G or Nexus should feel right at home. The only bad news is that we didn’t get a chance to check it out with Android 5.0, but the update should be available soon, which should make the user experience even better.
Bottom line – this is the best thing about the Red Note.
We were surprised to see a set of screen gestures available on this rather stock Android 4.4.4 phone. A double tap will turn the phone on, swipe up when the screen is off, will unlock the phone. If you draw a C on a turned off screen, you will launch the camera app, while a V would launch a flashlight, and you can even control the music player with gestures. The annoying part was that the capacitive buttons light up in red for a few seconds only. It is easy to forget where the home is, or where is the menu or back button. They would light up instantly when you would touch one of them but, we would like to see a bit more control over them. This is a minor issue since users are bound to get used to their location in a matter of days.
As far as everyday use goes, the phone suffers from typical phablet foibles – it’s a bit too big for single-handed use and pocketability may be limited. Luckily at 8.2mm it is quite thin for its size and spec.
Dual SIM support is common on Chinese phones and the Mlais M52 is no exception. Many phones nowadays ship with a dual-use tray, so you get a choice of using two SIM cards, or a single SIM card and memory card. The Mlais M52 can accommodate two SIM cards (one standard, one micro) and a microSD card up to 64GB at the same time, which is nice.
In terms of network support, the phone be compatible with 3G networks in many regions, and quite a few 4G standards are supported, too. However, before you decide to pick one up, you need to do your homework and check whether or not it supports the right standards for your region/carrier, just in case.
With a 3200mAh battery, the Mlais M52 should have no trouble keeping up with a busy schedule. Even with heavy use you should get a day of use, but if you’re very light on data and content consumption, you could get as much as two days. Although 3200mAh sounds like a lot and many users are likely to expect more than a day on a single charge, keep in mind that the device features a big display and relatively powerful hardware, so don’t expect miracles. We also suspect it’s not as optimised as big brand phones.
Were we wrong to call 2015 the year of commoditised Android phones? Can $99-$199 devices really offer a good user experience? The short answer would be yes, but it’s a bit more complicated.
When we first Googled “Mlais M52”, we ended up reading an article on the Miles M52 experimental aircraft that could have beaten Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 to the sound barrier, had Britain not gone nearly bankrupt in 1947. The good news is that you’re not likely to go bankrupt if you choose to get a commoditised Android phone from China, because some of them offer truly staggering value for money, like the M52 Red Note. The bad news is that brand recognition, support and image are just as important for many consumers as the spec, if not more. If you’re more interested in specs than badges, you may find this device very appealing.
The Mlais M52 is a grunt, an inexpensive yet powerful phone that should appeal to frugal users who don’t want to spend a lot of money on a phone, but still want a lot of power and practicality. If it was a car, it would be a big American pickup, while Samsung and Apple flagships would be the equivalent of pricey European coupes. It offers great performance, on par with flagships of yesteryear, for the price of a Moto G or less. Oh, and one more thing – this sample was provided by Gearbest, who also have a discount coupon for our readers – so if you’re interested in buying one, you can actually order it for $136 with free shipping (Coupon GBM52). Of course, customs and sales tax or VAT may apply, but in any case you’re looking at Moto G money. The regular price will be $159, while $149 is the presale price.
We admit it, we are spoiled by flagship phones and this is the first Chinese phablet we every laid our hands on, so the team’s expectations ranged from good to terrible. Funny as it may sound, the Red Note’s biggest problem may be its incredibly low price, because we suspect a lot of people will dismiss it outright, thinking it’s simply too cheap to be any good. After spending some time with the Mlais M52, our scepticism was gone. If someone was to stick a big brand badge on the M52, add a fancier finish on the back, they could easily charge $100 more for it and we’re sure people would still buy it, thinking it’s a steal. In fact, we showed it to a Moto G 2nd generation user, a programmer, who thought he was tinkering around with a €300 device.
We liked it, not as an inexpensive device with a lot of caveats, but as a good device, regardless of price. The Red Note not perfect, far from it, but you really can’t do much better in this price range, so the Mlais M52 gets a resounding thumbs up.
Mlais M52 Pros and Cons
Good all-round spec
Near-stock Android experience with no bloatware
Clean design with a few nice colour options
Exceptional value for money
Durability (glossy finish, glass)
Long-term support and serviceability
Mediocre rear speaker