7th Jun 2011 | 14:44
Are personalised backplates enough to make this low-cost Android smartphone stand out?
Vodafone Smart: Overview, design and feel
Vodafone's Smart is one of the most affordable Android devices on the market. Certainly, at £70 on pay as you go, it is attractively priced. But does it live up to what Android can offer? A low price and good value for money aren't the same thing.
For all those of you who were expecting us to make the comparison at some point let's get it out of the way. The obvious comparison is with the Orange San Francisco. We simply loved that £99 Android smartphone.
So, the Vodafone Smart enters crowded territory. Vodafone has tried to differentiate things by letting you create custom backplates for £10 each. We got our own TechRadar one, obviously, and it looks pretty special.
You can choose from a range of background colours and patterns, use your own photos or choose text, symbols etc from the web to get a really personalised look. You can have a play on the Vodafone Design Studio web page.
Unfortunately for Vodafone, bespoke backplates aside, the Smart looks every inch a budget handset and behaves like one, too. Our review sample had a white chassis, although black is also available. It feels quite plasticky, and our custom backplate didn't quite fit flush all the way round which was very disappointing.
The Vodafone Smart is light, though, at just 104g, and small at 103.8 x 56.8 x 12.6mm. It's the kind of handset that will suit small, childlike hands, although the build quality is something we can get on board with as it's sturdy plastic and good enough for the price.
However, this necessarily means the screen is small, and at just 2.8 inches you might think it's undercooked for Android.
Features-wise, you've got the smartphone basics packed in, with HSDPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS all here. The camera is limited at just 2 megapixels, and onboard memory is tight at just 130MB. A provided 2GB microSD card immediately gets you over that problem, but rather stupidly it's located under the battery, making hot swapping a total pain in the proverbials.
There's a headset slot and the power button on the top, microUSB connector on the bottom and a volume rocker on the right - and that's it, as far as buttons and connectors are concerned.
So, you can already see that compromises have been made to get the Vodafone Smart to its low, low price point. We need to find out how much the compromises affect our enjoyment.
Vodafone Smart: Interface
The Vodafone Smart runs Android 2.2 (Froyo) and it isn't skinned. This means that the Android experience doesn't suffer from unnecessary clutter. Or, put another way, there are no pretty enhancements to make your use of Android that bit more personalised.
The 528MHz Qualcomm Processor is rather a long way behind the times. The handset takes an age to boot, and at times it can be slow to respond to finger-presses and sweeps.
That said, moving through the five main screens by fingersweeping is easy and responsive enough, and we suspect that if you're not a particularly demanding user, you probably won't be too irritated by slow responses.
What you will notice is the slow speed at which the screen reorients itself when you turn the Smart in your hand. We were constantly peeved by the wait.
There aren't many widgets over and above the Android basics, although you've always got the Market if you want to add more. Vodafone also provides a few apps of its own to boost the Android ones - we'll get to them later on.
An interesting aspect to the interface that you might easily overlook is the battery charge indicator. This is quite important, actually. It's on the lock screen, and is important because there's no charge indication light on the chassis itself.
Vodafone Smart: Contacts and calling
All of your contacts sit happily in the Contacts app ready to be accessed, or you can simply hit the phone dialler icon on the main screen, start to tap out a number and wait for a match to be shown.
It's easy to copy contacts across to the phone from a SIM, so anyone that's not already accessible from Google, Facebook or Twitter can be got into the handset in a jiffy.
When it comes to importing other contacts, you can go through the usual Android Add Accounts procedure to pick up Facebook, Twitter and Google contacts, as well as those from Microsoft Exchange. You've got some control over who to synchronise.
Once you've got the handset populated with contacts, you can think about joining contacts together. The Vodafone Smart makes a good job of doing this automatically when names are the same across Twitter and Facebook, but requires a manual process where they differ. This could take you some time to complete.
Get through it, though, and you can see Twitter updates and get to Facebook profiles relatively easily. We like that when you tap someone's photo in the contacts list, you immediately get to see their most recent tweet.
Using the Vodafone Smart for this kind of activity is a bit tricky, though, simply because the screen is small. We found ourselves squinting a bit to read text on the 240 x 320 pixels, and prodding at the screen accurately when moving through a long contacts list wasn't that fast or comfy, either.
When it comes to actually making calls, the Vodafone Smart is quite pleasant to hold in the hand, and feels dinky at the ear. We found that signal quality and connection was OK with no obvious drops, and the people that we phoned said we sounded fine.
Vodafone Smart: Messaging
Messaging is one of the real tricks of Android, and there's plenty of opportunity to contact people in whichever way that you want. But the small screen and teensy keyboard are a bit of a problem.
Take SMS, for example.
Tapping out a message on the smaller keyboard isn't easy, although there is a reasonable predictive text system.
Oddly, and almost in anticipation of problems, holding down a key gives you the options of its shift key symbol and the two on either side of it.
The threaded view of SMS messages is basic but serviceable, but when you start to type responses, you can barely see anything of what the previous message says.
Mobile email presents no real surprises. There's the usual account set-up form to fill in, with username, password and potentially your SMTP and POP details too, if the handset can't find them automatically.
We wouldn't recommend this handset if you're a fan of mobile email - the screen and fiddly keyboard aren't really up to it.
That noted, you can switch keyboard layouts with a horizontal sweep. There are three options - the one we've already shown and two alternatives for the ninekey layout or the dual-key BlackBerry-style option. All three work in both tall and wide screen modes.
There are Facebook and Twitter widgets for the home screens, and apps too, but there's nothing that integrates the two into a social networking hub-type application.
We're not too needy of the integrated approach, preferring to deal with each social networking system separately, so that's not a big deal for us - but if you like to get all your messages in one place, the Vodafone Smart isn't for you.
Vodafone Smart: Internet
A smartphone is nothing without good web access. The Vodafone Smart doesn't do too well on this count, to be perfectly frank. In fact it has multiple failings.
Firstly, there's the lack of Flash support. Pop along to the BBC News website, and these days you have the right to fully expect to be able to stream video from it. But sadly that's not possible.
Secondly, there's the problem of slow loading. Even given that the processor runs at just 528MHz, we expected the web to be a tad more speedy than it is. The pauses while new pages were found and loaded had us nearly tearing our hair out in frustration.
Next we're stung by the low screen size and resolution. 2.8 inches and 240 x 320 pixels just don't cut it for web browsing. You can't see enough of many pages at any one time on first load, although scrolling down does let you see more.
A double-tap gets you into a fullscreen view, but at this size text is often too small to read.
To add insult to injury, there's the lack of pinch to zoom. Why this is missing from the Vodafone, with its capacitive screen, we can't understand at all. Is this the start of a trend? We know that the capacitive Samsung Galaxy Pro doesn't have pinch to zoom either.
Zooming is achieved using a couple of icons on screen, and you move in and out in smallish increments. The saving grace is that text reflowing goes to a high zoom level, so at least you're saved a lot of horizontal scrolling.
Pinch to zoom, incidentally, is vital for a lot of games, and its absence will be a real annoyance if you're a gaming fan. Angry Birds is rendered pretty much unplayable without it, for example.
With these factors hampering web use, we have to say that we'd find it hard to recommend the Vodafone Smart to anyone interested in the mobile web.
Vodafone Smart: Camera
The Vodafone Smart is equipped with a 2MP without a flash. At that resolution, it's no surprise that most shots look grainy, though the camera does remarkably well in lower light conditions and has a reasonably good grasp of colour reproduction.
There are very few shooting options on the camera. There are very few settings to fiddle with; the white balance for different lighting conditions such as incandescent, daylight, fluorescent and cloudy, basically. And that's your lot - not even black and white or sepia modes to add a touch of fun.
It was when using the camera that we first hit the very important problem of the screen being hard to see in bright sunlight. On an admittedly very sunny day, we couldn't even see the screen well enough to change settings between shots let alone to adequately frame our photos. We're not exaggerating.
This outdoor view is grainy, though the camera does manage to capture the flow of water reasonably well, indicating that the shutter is quite fast.
In the early evening on a gloomy day, the camera struggles to get the light it needs to take a decent photo.
Indoors the camera captured colours well, but we were quite close to the subject. Notice how the cat's head is out of focus because the camera has focused on the centre of the image.
Vodafone Smart: Video
If you've read the camera section, then the lack of features for video shooting won't surprise. We shot our samples at the highest quality and the resolution was 352 x 288, which is hardly anything to write home about.
Then again, the video camera offers some effects - which is more than we can say for the stills option. You've got monochrome, sepia, negative and solarise to play with. You can see a little bit of the solarise option in our compilation.
Footage was reasonably smooth as long as we didn't pan around too quickly, but we'd not want to share the resulting footage very widely.
Vodafone Smart: Media
You might have got the drift by now that the Vodafone Smart is a fairly mediocre handset, so you shouldn't be expecting anything really wowing about it in terms of media management and playback.
The Android music player is on hand to manage your tunes, and it has no trouble picking these up from a microSD card, though album art sitting beside our tracks in ID3 form wasn't always found.
You've got the usual shuffle and repeat options, as well as the ability to set up playlists. That's all fine and works smoothly without issue.
Sound output through the Vodafone Smart speaker was horribly tinny, and there's no equaliser on board for you to tailor your music playback at all.
Vodafone provides a very poor headset, which we immediately replaced with something better, but despite this we weren't able to fully compensate for the poor quality sound from the Smart itself.
Moving on, there's an FM radio that happily auto-filled 27 of the 40 available slots with stations in a minute or so. Again, output is tinny and not much improved by a reasonably good set of headphones.
There doesn't seem to be RDS, but you can rename stations by hand. There's a mute button on the radio, designed to look like a pause button, which you can tap if you need to stop the noise for a while.
You can get to the radio and the music player from the notifications bar, so you can easily control either from within another app.
Moving on to video playback, the Vodafone Smart copes with MP4s and delivered movie trailers remarkably smoothly. But the widescreen viewing window is tiny, and colours very, very dark.
We don't think this latter problem was due to our samples, which we've played on a lot of handsets without the overabundance of blue tinge they received here.
The other way of getting video is via YouTube, and here we had mixed results. Again, the screen was really too dull and dark for full enjoyment, and videos were occasionally jerky to begin with. But, over Wi-Fi in particular, the Smart did well once it hit its stride.
Vodafone Smart: Battery life and connectivity
Even the battery life of the Vodafone Smart disappoints. The 1200mAh battery ought, in theory, to keep the handset going for the better part of a day, considering that it has a fairly small screen to run.
However, our experience suggests otherwise. We got from early morning to mid-afternoon on days with a bit of email, a bit of web browsing, some video streaming and general messaging, and the battery was less than half full. Even light users will could need to charge mid-day.
There's no charge light on the chassis, but if the power is on you can see the current charge percentage on the lock screen.
We've already noted that the smartphone basics are sorted, with HDSPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS all present and correct. As with other Android 2.2 handsets, you can use the Vodafone Smart as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices, too, although this absolutely decimates the battery.
Obvioulsy there's nothing useful like a DLNA streaming client on board, and we didn't really expect one, as streaming media to your TV isn't going to be a priority to the users Vodafone is targeting with this phone.
Getting files on and off the phone is relatively easy, as connecting the Smart up to your computer with the USB cable will activate the disk mode on the phone - from there you can browse the files and drag and drop new stuff across with ease.
It's not a super-fast experience, but will easily do the job for a few music tracks here and there, plus it's an easy way to nab your photos should you be able to work out which folder they're hidden in.
Vodafone Smart: Maps and apps
Of course Google Maps is present, and we had a chance to put this to the test along with the Smart GPS when walking to a location that was new to us. Sadly, the handset fell at the first hurdle: it was a sunny day and we could barely see the screen.
If we cradled the phone in our hand to actually see where we were going, it was an OK experience - similarly, using it in the car was an acceptable option, although the darker screen and low-resolution meant we couldn't just glance at the display to see what was going along when driving along, which seems a little dangerous.
Vodafone adds a file manager to Android's basic apps, and this can access both the internal memory and the microSD card, so you can easily manage any files that you download or copy to the handset.
There's also a copy of Documents To Go for viewing - but not editing - Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files. There's an app called Notepad that enables you to make little reminders to yourself, but there are many other better-featured options available free in the Android Market.
Vodafone's additions also include a link to its own online music store, and a prepay PAYG manager that lets you check your balance and top up credit. All in all, it's nothing overly impressive.
Vodafone Smart: Benchmarks
How it rates against the rest - higher is better
How we test
TechRadar aims to produce the most helpful phone reviews on the web, so you're able to make a more informed buying decision.
Part of this testing process includes benchmarking. It's a good way of measuring the overall performance of a product's internal hardware components.
We use Antutu System Benchmark to test tablets. It's a comprehensive Android benchmarking app and produces consistent results.
Antutu measures an Android device's CPU performance, 2D and 3D graphics performance, memory speed and internal and external storage read/write speeds. It combines the results for each test and gives the device a final score.
We test each device three times and take an average.
Vodafone Smart: Hands-on gallery
Vodafone Smart: Verdict
There's something not quite right about taking an operating system that has great potential and shoving it into a handset whose specifications are so low that they take away much of the ability to do what the operating system offers. But that's what Vodafone has done with the Smart.
We're struggling here. OK, we like the price, and the fact that you can design your own bespoke backplates.
But in all honesty, we don't think we'd recommend the purchase of this smartphone to anyone, as although we can see it appealing to someone that wants their first smartphone experience, there are better options on the market for the money and the functionality of the Smart is just too poor for us to find much positive.
The biggest problem of the lot is the screen. It's small and low-resolution, making video viewing and web browsing tricky at times. In addition, it fades to nearly nothing in outdoor light. Take it out with you on a sunny day and we challenge you to see it at all.
Factor in the lack of pinch to zoom and it's almost as if Vodafone has set out to deliberately hamstring the Smart.
The camera is way too poorly specified at just 2MP. Really, 3MP is entry-level for a smartphone these days, although the results weren't atrocious.
Battery life was poor even when we kept our use of the device down to a minimum. The lack of a charge light on the chassis is brought into the spotlight by the poor battery life too, as we had to interact with the phone to check it was charged.
If the Vodafone Smart proves anything it proves one thing, it's that we were oh so right to sing the praises of the Orange San Francisco.
Yes, it's £29 more, but the difference between £70 for the Vodafone Smart and £99 for Orange's little lovely is all the difference in the world. Pay the extra and you won't regret it.
The budget smartphone market is set to become a really fierce battleground in the coming months, so once you've broken the £120 price barrier we're starting to see some really nice handsets indeed for the cash.
While the Vodafone Smart is alright-ish for the money, unless you're desperate for a back-up Android phone we'd recommend you save up for a month or two more and take a look at something like the Samsung Galaxy Ace too.