4G for a budget price
- Excellent screen
- Snappy processor
- 4G on a budget
- Uninspired design
- Poor rear camera
- Unnecessary bloatware
Introduction and design
As recently as one year ago, there wasn't a great deal to say about the budget smartphone market. Aside from hero devices such as the original Moto G, consumers who bought into lower-end handsets would find often find themselves frustrated by mediocre screens and battery life. Manufacturers operated under a maxim of frugality, and even the most bone-scraping of cuts would be made.
Fast-forward to the present, and things have changed considerably. China has awoken, and with it a highly competitive domestic smartphone market. Devices manufactured by the likes of Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus are now positioned to flood Western markets, and the established players are beginning to catch on.
Enter the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6, designed by Vodafone and manufactured by telecoms giant ZTE. With a 5.5-inch Full HD screen, 3000mAh battery, Snapdragon 615 processor and 13MP rear-facing camera, the device has formidable specifications. For £125 on Pay As You Go (locked to Vodafone), it presents itself as something of a game-changer, certainly to a British public only just getting used to the idea of a 720p screen at less than £150.
So can the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 really live up to the hype?
The first thing that's apparent when picking up the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is its impeccable balance. When creating a device that is intended to be both thin and long, while still remaining usable with one hand, balance becomes a considerable priority.
Its weight helps here too. Coming in at a mere 159g, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is light without being insubstantial. It feels as though it could take a knock with some confidence, without being so brick-like as to feel clunky.
As for design however, that is another story altogether. Upon first viewing, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 doesn't make a great impression. As the rear of the device attests, it was manufactured by Chinese giant ZTE and designed by Vodafone. And yet, it leaves the distinct impression that design was not a priority, beyond weight and balance.
It's a nondescript grey slab with the look of having been designed by committee. However, it is pleasingly svelte, measuring in at 8.35mm - making it thinner than the portly Nokia Lumia 930.
It isn't as though the phone is exactly ugly, rather that it's eminently forgettable. Made from a grey matte plastic, the device has no features to distinguish it, save for a small chrome-effect Vodafone logo positioned carefully on the rear.
One odd feature that further suggests design-by-committee is the simulated rear back-plate. That is to say, around the device runs a raised line that very much resembles a seam, and yet it's impossible to remove the back. Many phones at this price point have a removable backplate, so the decision to fake it here is surprising. On the top of the device is a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The left side of the Vodafone Smart Ultra Six is free from any buttons, instead offering a removable tray for a MicroSD card to supplement the generous 16GB of internal flash memory.
Moving to the right side, you'll find the power button at the bottom, and the volume controls above this. The buttons are sensibly placed given the size of the device, which is something that could easily have gone wrong. The bottom of the phone holds only a micro-USB slot, for charging and connecting to a PC.
On the back is the 13MP rear-facing camera, along with a single bulb LED flash and a small microphone port. Moving down, there is the Vodafone logo picked out in chrome-effect plastic. At the bottom sits the single rear-firing speaker, an inconspicuous 4G logo, and device information to the bottom left.
Lastly, on the front of the device there is the call speaker, a 5MP selfie camera and, the main attraction, the 5.5 inch Full HD screen, covered with "toughened glass" (no Gorilla Glass here).
Around the rim there is a small strip of yet more chrome-effect plastic, which looks as though it will be the first part of the phone to suffer wear and tear. At the bottom are three capacitive keys, laid out in the same manner as on Android Lollipop.
Although it isn't exactly inspiring, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 must be commended for keeping things simple. It doesn't wow, but nor is it an ugly brick like so many budget devices.
Oh boy, what a display. For the price, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has perhaps the best screen I've ever seen. If this is where the budget market is going, then we're all in for a treat.
Just a year ago, being on a budget meant accepting a resolution of 960 x 540. How things have changed: now devices such as the Microsoft Lumia 640 are at the head of a 720p charge, bringing higher resolution panels as far down the price ladder as is currently possible.
Yet, with a Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 achieves a first at this price point, sidestepping its competitors with a heady PPI of 400. With such a large screen and high pixel count, video and reading on the device are a treat.
This is only emphasized by the colour accuracy of the display. Accustomed to AMOLED screens such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, I have typically been underwhelmed by LCD screens, at least in the budget section of the market where a lack of dazzle is their defining feature.
However the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has changed my opinion, and then some. The screen is pleasant on the eyes, rendering scenes with enough vibrancy to be interesting, but without being so bright as to look cartoonish.
Being an IPS screen, good viewing angles are a given from the Smart Ultra 6. But the device even exceeded my expectations in this regard, with no drop-off in either colour or brightness, even when viewing from extreme angles.
The only slight downside to the display is the lack of Gorilla Glass. This coating is almost ubiquitous among well known phone manufacturers, and the oil-resistant coating it has helps to keep everything smooth and pleasant.
Having used devices with Gorilla Glass for quite some time, it is easy to detect its absence from the Smart Ultra 6. Scrolling through web pages often required pushing with a little more force than usual to maintain speed, which unfortunately resulted in unwanted presses quite frequently.
The device possesses an automatic brightness setting, although this isn't activated by default. Essentially, this allows the phone to detect environmental brightness and adjust its display accordingly, something that often does not come as standard in mobile devices.
The display can get impressively bright, remaining usable in all but the sunniest of conditions, again something that is unusual at this price point.
In all, this is a screen that wholeheartedly outperforms all expectations. Bright, colourful and detail-packed, this is likely one of the best panels ever available at this price point, and is a high point of the device.
While the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has many admirable qualities, it also has a number of negatives. And of these, the bloatware counts as one of the most significant.
At first glance, the approach taken to the software experience on the device is refreshing. As with the hardware design, Vodafone has opted to leave things primarily as Google intended, with the Smart Ultra boasting an almost stock experience.
This is no doubt something that will leave Android purists overjoyed. Although many manufacturers try to improve on the original experience, such as with Huawei's heavily skinned P8 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, many find it difficult to do so. In the worst cases, complicated manufacturer skins can slow down the software experience, or even worse, confuse the user.
As such, the Vodafone should appeal to many - that is, until they try to text.
When a carrier or manufacturer produces a device, especially for the budget market, services and apps come bundled in, as a way to recoup costs. Vodafone has included quite a few, of which Message+ is the most prominent. Set as the default texting app, it has a long set-up process, and afterwards turns out to be nothing more than a generic, slow instant messenger.
It is hardly alone: Direct Access, My Web, Updates and Vodafone Start, Smart Tips and Smart Flow also make an appearance. Mostly these are quite useless. Direct Access is a link to an online Vodafone accessories store, My Web is a hotlink to the Vodafone website. Updates works to keep all Vodafone apps updated (surprisingly), while Smart Flow is an alternate, buggy, home screen. Lastly, Smart Tips is a series of small guides on how to use a smartphone for the first time, which could admittedly be useful for some.
The prevalence of carrier apps on this device is only emphasized by the general light-touch approach on the rest of the device, and as such is quite jarring.
No frills 4G
4G is the mobile internet technology of the future. Marketed by everyone from phone manufacturers to mobile carriers, it is expected to deliver an appreciable improvement in mobile internet speeds for many across the country - that is, when it arrives.
One of the main barriers of entry to 4G so far, beside a lack of availability outside the big cities, has been price. When the tech debuted in the UK, it came with a significant price point, no matter the tariff. As time has gone by, this bar has been lowered with every passing month, to the point that 4G is now accessible at almost any price point.
To date, however, the very last barrier to entry has remained stubbornly high: phone capability. When purchasing a flagship device, either on contract or SIM-free, it is expected to come with all bells and whistles, attached and working accordingly. The lack of 4G on something like the LG G3 would come as a shock, both to the press and the public.
At the budget level however, especially at the sub-£100 price point, 4G remains something of a luxury. As such, its inclusion on the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 comes as something of a surprise. And as someone used to HSDPA+, this surprise proved to be very pleasant.
In the Swindon area, using the Vodafone network, I was able to achieve and maintain download speeds of 25.77 Mbps and upload speeds of 12.40 Mbps. These are hardly the best that 4G can offer, but the difference from HSDPA+ was quite noticeable.
The inclusion of 4G helps to further set the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 apart from its competitors at this press. While other manufacturers charge extra for models with 4G (such as Motorola's Moto G 4G), that Vodafone offers it as standard is something of a coup.
Cameras and camera software have long been the main sphere for improvement in device design. As phones eliminate the compact camera from the market, image quality is improving with every passing model.
Again, this was something that has typically been the preserve of elite models, like the Samsung Galaxy S6, or the Nokia Lumia 1020, which respectively boast a fast aperture and a crazy megapixel count. Now, this is another battle that is moving into the budget space.
And here is a space in which Vodafone has attempted to distinguish itself from the rest of the budget pack. The Smart Ultra 6 boasts a 13MP sensor, which is quite remarkable given the price point.
Typically, although more megapixels definitely does not equal better photos, bigger numbers sell more phones simply through sounding more impressive. Last year, many devices hovering around the £100 price point had a 5MP camera, sometimes even without autofocus. Many devices in this price bracket that have debuted so far this year have gone one better, with the Moto G 2014 and the Microsoft Lumia 640 sporting an 8MP sensor with autofocus and a flash.
With 13MP to play with, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 immediately distinguishes itself from its peers, though the performance of this sensor is quite something else altogether.
Performance and battery life
Usually, at least at the moment, when selecting a budget device, the choice of processor can be a little underwhelming. With nearly every device running either a Qualcomm Snapdragon 415 or a MediaTek chip, performance is mostly the same between devices. In the present that means that most are adequate for the needs of the average user, and this is certainly the case with the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6.
In fact, the device comes with a slightly higher specification than most, running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, which comes a similar architecture to the 415 but is clocked at a slightly higher speed. Keeping memory operations tiding over nicely is a healthy 2GB of RAM.
On a whole, the device runs mostly without a hitch. Running Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 nips and zips between applications with only the occasional delay, and handles most games quite well.
Game Dev Story, as might be expected ran perfectly. Subway Surfers, a slightly more memory intensive game, ran with only slight hiccups when entering new areas, which did impede gameplay slightly when playing at higher speeds. Crossy Road also ran smoothly, though the likes of Dead Trigger 2 could struggle a little.
As for Geekbench, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 achieved a respectable single core score of 634, coming in at slightly under the Samsung Galaxy S4, which scored 658. The multiple core score was also acceptable, coming in at 2,091, higher than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and even approaching the performance of the Google Nexus 5.
Though not quite a patch on the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the iPhone 6, the score of the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 shows just how far budget devices have come. While the top has plateaued slightly, the lower end of the market continues to makes gains.
For the average user, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 ought to suffice nicely. I generally found it a pleasant surprise in day-to-day use. If you don't expect a blazing-fast gaming demon, then this will certainly do.
On first unpacking the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6, I was greeted with the pleasant revelation that it had a fully charged battery. Everything on the device, including several battery manager apps, assured me that this was the case, and so I went about my business without a thought.
After three hours of listening to music on Spotify via wired headphones, and checking the occasional song lyric online however, and the battery continued to read 100%. Indeed, even after two days, and shutting down from a lack of power, the battery continued to claim it had full capacity. As such, gaining an accurate measure of battery life became quite difficult.
Nonetheless, I carefully tracked my usage, and it is safe to say that the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 has a good battery life, if not exactly great. Vodafone claims that it should be possible to get up to two days' use from the device, but in my experience this is only with very light use.
Starting the day at 7am, and pounding the battery throughout the day with heavy internet use, some tethering, music, a little gaming and constant messaging, the device went caput at around 7:30 pm. In more average usage, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 ought to manage around four-and-a-half hours of screen-on time, easily enough for the average user.
However, road warriors and keen gamers will want to keep a spare battery pack handy, as the device doesn't quite have the stamina to hang with the best. Moreover, lacking any version of the quick-charge technology that has become standard among more expensive devices, the Smart Ultra 6 takes several hours to charge fully.
A battery saver mode is available, restricting processor performance and background data in order to achieve a few hours of extra use.
Although not reaching quite the same battery heights as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 or the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is a competent performer and ought to meet the needs of the average user.
The essentials and camera
From a mobile communications expert such as Vodafone, it might be expected that call quality would be excellent. Instead it is merely average, and this is entirely acceptable.
Calls sometimes sound a little tinny, and callers on the other end of the line remarked that occasionally a little echo could creep into the call, but otherwise the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is on par with its peers.
Either using 4G or HSDPA+, internet speeds were, on the whole, excellent. The device kept a strong connection almost no matter the location. As a result, browsing the web was a highly pleasant experience, especially given the extra screen space on offer.
Although the built-in Android keyboard lacks gesture typing support, it's sensibly laid out and generally quite pleasant to use, though most users will likely opt to install the far better Google Keyboard from the Play Store.
Audio quality is something that manufacturers are increasingly focusing on, even at this price point. Consumers are beginning to expect their phone to suffice as an impromptu music player that will make them the envy of their companions.
The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 does not quite hit this note. Though the sound from the rear-firing speaker is free from distortion, this may be simply because the speaker cannot quite get loud enough to distort. Almost anything - a shower, a passing car or a light breeze - can drown out the weak beats thrown by this tiny speaker.
It isn't quite sufficient for throwing those bangin' beats, but for media consumption in a quiet room, it is about OK. There is also a surprisingly decent FM Radio app included.
GPS performance was acceptable in most situations, achieving a quick lock even in areas without a great deal of coverage.
With a 13MP rear-facing camera, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is among the first, at least in the UK, to offer so many megapixels at such a low price point.
More megapixels is not always better however. The quality of photos often depends on sensor size, generally the bigger the better. Smaller sensors gather less light, and as such often have to work harder to produce better images, utilizing software tricks to help with things like colour and sharpness than many people use to judge photos.
The higher number of megapixels however only helps to reduce the amount of light that such a small sensor can receive, in addition to negatively affecting low-light performance, this can sometimes even affect detail capture.
As such, when I activated the camera app on the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 for the first time, my expectations were not exactly high.
The camera app itself turned out to be something of a surprise however, being both usable and customizable. Upon starting, three modes are available to the user, which can be activated by either taping or sliding, much as with the iPhone 6. "Mode" allows access to High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode, filters, smile detection image capture, interval capture and a panorama mode.
Interestingly, there is also a multi-exposure mode. This allows for the capture of several images, which are then stitched together to create various effects, similar to the process of bracketing with a more traditional camera. Unfortunately, the results of this mode vary wildly, and often leave an obvious painterly look. Using it requires either a steady hand or a tripod, and as I lacked both, I found I did not use it very often.
There are also a number of manual controls, to change things such as ISO in order to better compose shots.
On the left hand side of the app, there is a toggle to switch between the 13MP rear-facing camera and the 5MP selfie cam. There is also a timer which can be set to three, five or ten seconds, an automatic flash toggle and quick access to the settings menu, which allows for more fine-tuning of capture.
On the right, there is a toggle to activate movie capture mode (which begins capturing footage instantaneously upon selection) and a link to the gallery app at the bottom.
In good lighting, the sensor manages adequately. Fine detail isn't too smudged, colour reproduction is a little cool and noise keeps its ugly head down. Move from these conditions however, and things change for the worse. The sensor struggles to handle low-light conditions, and even in brighter settings photos can often have a smudgy look to them. Video recorded by the device is similarly flat.
The selfie camera is another story. With 5 MP and a nice wide-angle to play with, the snapper achieves pleasant results, even without having to resort to the horrors of the common Beauty modes found in many snappers these days.
Though disappointing in some key areas, I found that using the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 was mostly a pleasant experience. Even at a lower price point, it manages to outcompete most of its peers, especially in terms of performance.
The full HD, 5.5-inch panel on the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is a true beauty. Offering excellent clarity, colour reproduction and brightness, it is the screen of a smartphone that is at least twice as expensive.
With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 chugging away inside, performance on the device is great. Navigating the UI is a seamless experience, while games mostly maintain consistent framerates, outside of the more intensive titles.
Reception on the device is fantastic: even in areas where I normally receive no reception, the Smart Ultra 6 still managed to maintain a strong connection. In areas with 4G, internet speeds were commonly very fast, even when compared to other devices, especially at the same price point.
As the competition continues to heat up at the lower end of the market, it is no longer acceptable to pass off a grey slab as a modern smartphone. Though the design of the device is inoffensive, the Smart Ultra 6 struggles to stand out against more colourful and attractive competitors.
The rear-facing camera, though possessing some promising hardware, produces only barely adequate results. Images are often washed out, with the sensor having a very poor dynamic range, and video is also very flat with a washed-out look.
Battery life, though mostly acceptable, does not meet the claims set by Vodafone. Though many users will find this acceptable anyway, this is certainly not the battery champion it is set out to be. The excessive bloatware also makes for a poor impression.
For £125 on Pay As You Go, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 could be the budget device to beat at the moment. And with a large, bright Full HD screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor, 3000mAh battery, 13MP rear-facing camera and 5MP wide angle selfie cam, on paper this certainly appears to be the case.
However, with a bland design, poor camera performance and a battery that is only adequate, the constraints of this price point certainly make themselves heard.
In many other ways however, the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 exceeds its price point, and then some. The screen is excellent, the performance is more than satisfactory, and the inclusion of a 4G radio, let alone a good one, at this point is very encouraging.
With the Smart Ultra 6, Vodafone is attempting to cast off the appearance of compromise that has dogged its smartphone efforts so far, and has mostly succeeded. The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 is one of the most exciting devices of the year at this price point, and as such is well worth a look, especially if you're on Vodafone's network already.
First reviewed: July 2015