Kogan Agora 5.0" Dual-core Smartphone £119
27th Feb 2013 | 01:10
Cheap as chips
Introduction and design
The budget-priced smartphone posed a peculiar problem for technology reviewers. Often we need to look closely to spot the parts of a new gadget that demand attention, and perhaps criticism, but with a cheap phone, these elements are plain to see. But for every shortcoming, there is a part of the mind that replies, "yeah, but it's only $150".
So when does that excuse wear out?
It certainly not the first thing you think when you take the Agora 5-inch out of the box. In fact, we were genuinely surprised at how good the phone looks and feels, given how cheap it is.
It also looks a lot like the original Samsung Galaxy Note. Like, a lot. The shape of the handset, the position of the buttons, the fact that it has a rectangular Home button below the screen: everything screams Samsung.
Even the back of the phone looks like the Note, with the same textured plastic battery cover and the same positioning of the camera lens and flash.
This isn't great for Samsung, but it is a boon for those of you who pick up this bad boy for a quarter of what it costs to buy a Galaxy Note.
The first letdown comes when you turn the phone on and see the screen's 800 x 600 pixels stretched across the 5-inch display. If you've every connected your computer into a TV, you'll know what we're talking about here. Pixels are more visible and everything looks sort of soft, like it's just out of focus.
Not only, but the colour of this screen is pretty woeful, too. When viewed at the optimal angle, all screen elements look washed out, with an obvious blue hue across the panel. When viewed off-axis, however subtle the angle, the image of screen degrades considerably.
There is also so obvious colour banding in this screen, so that gradients of colour appear as strips of incrementally different colours, rather than one smooth transition in tone.
But, you know, it's only $150, right? Not when you add the cost of the painkillers you'll need to dull the throbbing headache emminating from behind your eyes.
Interface and performance
In what is ultimately a cost saving excerise, but a move that will make the modding community happy, Kogan doesn't touch the Android interface, leaving it mostly stock. There are a few apps and additions to the system menu, but otherwise this is exactly as it would be on a Google Nexus device.
Well, not exactly. There is, for example, the addition of a Quick Settings menu added to the notification curtain, which is certainly a handy extra.
Everything else is stock, down to the widgets and wallpapers. This is sort of like a clean canvas, given the number of customisable Launcher apps you can download through the Play Store.
A little unsteady
If you are hoping that a stock UI means faster performance, this isn't the case, unfortunately. General navigation is hampered by subtle, yet regular pauses in the animations and transitions. Not so much that it holds up the use of the phone, but it is consistent and noticeable.
We also had the phone crash on us during the review period. A proper, pull the battery, sigh loudly, phone crash. We can only hope this isn't indicative of the stability of the system on the rest of Kogan's stock.
The cheap phone excuse wears thin for us on this point. Budget priced phones can be smaller, can have lower quality or absent features, but all phones need stable software.
Dual-SIM and connectivity
One of the unique selling points of this phone is so unique it lives in the title. Dual-SIM phones are relatively unheard of outside of Asia, thanks mostly to the strength of the mobile operators and their distaste for handsets that would primarily be used to promote the services of their competitors.
But Kogan sells this handset directly via its online store, and it certainly doesn't care which SIM card you put in the phone. Though, we're sure they'd prefer one of the slots to have a Kogan Mobile SIM installed.
SIM on, SIM off
The dual-SIM functionality is very easy to use, with a dedicated system menu slot set aside just ofr this purpose. Both slots work the same way, and you can choose which SIM is responsible for which services, or you can choose to have the phone ask you before each call or SMS.
It would have been nice to have a dedicated Home screen shortcut or a widget for the dual-SIM settings, given that you are likely to access them frequently.
Both slots can be used for data too, with network compatibility for Australia's 3G networks on 900 and 2100MHz. Data speeds are capped at 7.2Mbps for downloads, but to be honest, we haven't noticed the difference in everyday web browsing.
If you prefer to save on mobile data, there is a Wi-Fi module onboard for connection to networks at home or at the office. There is also Bluetooth onboard for connecting to peripherals and other phones.
Interestingly, there is an app installed that controls Bluetooth connections to input tools, like mouse and keyboard. This is a function that is available on all new Android phones, but we've never seen it so prominently displayed before.
While we might have been pleasantly surprised by the build quality of this phone, the camera is exactly as we expected it to be. Though it looks like the same camera on a Galaxy Nexus, with the same same user interface and tools, the image sensor is among the worst we've seen for quite some time.
But then, this is only a $150 phone, and for that sort of money, you can't have absolutely everything.
This photo of peaches and nectarines is taken outdoors on a clear, sunny day. You'll notice that the colours are washed out, and that the focus is soft.
Admittedly, this photo would be difficult for most smartphone cameras, but what surprised us was that the flash didn't fire despite being on auto-flash mode.
Again, the colours here are all wrong, making this vibrant bouquet seem sickly.
With the flash switched to 'on'. You can see the flash light in the white elements, but it isn't very powerful otherwise.
As we mentioned earlier, mobile data speeds on the phone are capped to a maximum of 7.2MBps because of the kind of modem used in the Agora. This sounds like it should hold the phone back, but in truth, it doesn't.
In fact, the biggest problem with web browsing on this phone is the quality of the screen, though we think most people will be able to get passed this downside enough for a quick Google search from time to time.
The default browser appears to be based on Google's Chrome browser, with the same tabbed browsing graphic and the same settings and options.
This is a good thing; the Chrome browser is fast and renders pages well. It is no different on the Agora. Pages load as quickly as the network latency allows, and everything looks the way it should.
You also get a grabbed tabbed browsing interface with this browser, too. You can have numerous pages open at once, and easily switch between them using the icon on the right hand side of the URL bar.
Social networking is also well represented, with apps for Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Google Talk all pre-installed.
Calling, Messaging and Email
In line with the decision to keep a stock Android experience on the Agora, all apps for calling, messaging, contacts and email are just as they would be found on a Google phone.
We like this especially, the Android address book from Ice Cream Sandwich is so clean-looking and well laid out, and the calling app is functional.
Of course, these everyday elements are slightly augmented to account for the fact that you could have two SIM cards installed. For example, when you send or receive an SMS, the message has a little flag beside it to tell you which service it was sent or received from.
There are two email apps, as there are on all Android phones. Gmail has its own space, with one of the best email app designs on the market. All other email, particularly Exchange mail for businesses, goes through the standard Email app.
When typing a message, you get the choice of two keyboard types, the standard Android one or something called Magic Keyboard; a bonus app pre-installed on the phone.
To be honest, we're not sure what it is about Magic Keyboard that makes it other-worldly, it really looks and works like most other smartphone keyboards on the market.
Neither of the pre-installed keyboards is a match for Swype and its continuous input method, though. If you buy an Agora we recommend you head straight to beta.swype.com and download the latest version.
Maps and apps
Mapping and navigation duties are handled by Google Maps and the free turn-by-turn navigation that comes with it. This is when the value of this phone really comes into its own. Not only do you get a decent smartphone, with full access to games and apps, but if you were to splash out on a phone cradle, this handset would easily replace a stand-alone GPS unit.
Of course, like web browsing, the quality of the screen is an issue for when you are using the phone for in-car navigation. You really have to be in exactly the right position to get the best possible image out of this screen, and that may not always be convenient from behind the wheel of your car.
As we mentioned before, there are few extra apps installed on our review unit that are not part of the stock Android build. There is the social networking tools, Facebook, Twitter, etc, plus the Bluetooth tool for connecting a keyboard mouse.
In the System Menu there are a few more additions. One that caught our eye was a schedule tool for automatically turning the power on and off. If you can live without your phone at night, you could set it to turn off at midnight and back on at 6 am, saving 8-hours of standy power usage for the next day.
You can also create your own audio profiles in the Sound menu on the phone. This is handy if you don't find that the standard "silent" and "vibrate" presets don't cover your usage patterns.
There is a lot to like about the Agora smartphone beyond its bargain-bin price tag. Kogan has excelled at creating a product which is so full-featured on a budget, even if some of these features don't perform as you might expect them to.
What we liked
Overall, the build quality of the Agora is excellent. The phone feels as solid and sturdy as the Galaxy Note it looks so much like, without being too thick or heavy.
The dual-SIM feature is bound to be a winner with a certain segment of the market, especially those with family overseas and a second SIM card for cheaper international call rates. It's great that this all works so seamlessly too, that is easy to choose which service to use, and it is all clearly labelled.
But it is the value proposition which is most alluring. For AU$150, you get a phone that can pretty much do everything the more expensive models can. You can play games, use maps and navigation, send and receive business emails; the works.
What we didn't like
For starters, the camera is rubbish, quite like cameras from several years ago used to be. The image sensor struggles in almost all lighting conditions, and the resulting images are grainy and washed out.
The screen is also like smartphones from several years ago, only much bigger and poorer-looking as a result. An 800 x 600 pixel resolution is much the same as the WVGA resolution screens that were dominant in 2009 and 2010, and perhaps this is how Kogan gets them so cheaply.
The phone is still very usable with this screen, but it is clearly of a much lower quality than the screens in the phones being released today.
With most of our criticisms, we're happy to put down to the fact that this is a cheap model, and you get what you pay for. The terrible camera is no great suprise, and the lower mobile data rates are fine for everyday browsing.
But the screen is integral to the smartphone experience, and we have to be looking for quality in this area no matter what. Kogan has chosen to make this a headline-grabbing 5-inch display, but in doing so, has detracted from the viewing experience overall. The panel also suffers from poor off-axis display, giving it a washed out appearance.
Likewise, stability issues need to be ironed out of phones in all price categories, and we definitely noticed a lot of lagging and a few pauses and crashes as we used the Agora. That said, this could just be a minor issue with our review unit and not reflective of the product release as a whole.
Though it's not perfect, the Agora is still a bargain, especially if you're in the market for a dual-SIM phone. It certainly shows that today's important personal technology is in the grasp of just about everyone, which is truly an amazing thing.