alcatel smart n9 lite test

Vodafone Smart N9 review: No better than last year's Smart N8

 

Our Rating Price when reviewed 109£15 p/month contracts available

Budget phones can be forgiven many things, but with the Smart N9 Vodafone has barely managed to improve on last year’s model

Pros CheapFingerprint readerGood quality displayCons Laggy UIWeak GPUFiddly touch screenBattery life still poor

Following on from the success of its recent budget handsets, the Smart Prime 7 and – to a lesser extent – the Smart N8, Vodafone has released a double whammy: the Smart N9 and Smart N9 lite, at £109 and £85, respectively. I’m not reviewing the Smart N9 lite here; in essence, it’s a smaller, cheaper, and less specification-heavy alternative to the N9, released to provide an alternative option in line with the price of the N8, which was also £85 on release.

The key question is, with both the N9 lite and the older Smart N8 still available to buy, is it worth stumping up the extra cash for the newer phone?

Vodafone Smart N9: What you need to know

If you were to compare the Smart N9 to one other smartphone, it would have to be the Smart N8. The N9 is the direct successor to the N8, appearing almost exactly a year on from that phone’s release. Vodafone set a high standard for its budget handsets with the N8 and the Smart Prime 7 before that, so the Smart N9 has a lot to live up to.

So how do the two phones differ? The key is the screen. The Smart N9’s display has shot up to 5.5in from 5in, although the phone is no thicker – and in fact slightly lighter – than the 2017 model. That’s thanks to the use of one of the new-style 18:9 aspect ratio screens, which allow for larger displays in phones that still just about usable in one hand.

Elsewhere, the Smart N9 has the latest Android OS on board – Oreo 8.1 – where the N7 came with standard Android 7 and the CPU has been updated, moving to a quad-core Mediatek MT6739WA from a MediaTek MT6737.

Vodafone Smart N9: Price and competition

By releasing the Smart N9 for £109, Vodafone has broken its run of making quality handsets for under £100. At those low prices, smartphones like the Smart Prime 7 and Smart N8, though limited, seemed to make sense. Now the price has jumped, however, and jumped significantly.

In fairness, Vodafone still has a sub-£100 in the Smart N9 lite, although I can’t say much about that since I haven’t had a chance to test or use it. With the same processor running the show, though, general performance should be similar. With a 0.2in smaller display, however, lower resolution and a worse camera, however, it is quite a step down.

If you’re willing to stretch a little more – an extra £50, say – then we’d recommend looking into the Vodafone Smart V8 (£159) from last year, which blows the N9 away in every single category. That’s if you can find it; the phone is no longer being manufactured and is currently sold out on Amazon. The Motorola Moto G6, our favourite budget phone of the year, would be even better. At £220, though, that may be a push too far. A cheaper option from Motorola is the Moto G6 Play; at £159 it’s a great all-rounder and a heavyweight in its price range.

Buy the Vodafone Smart N9 now from Vodafone

Vodafone Smart N9: Design

The Vodafone Smart N9 is far from stunning to behold. At £109, you can’t expect flagship perfection but this phone looks and feels worse than the N8. The biggest problem I have with it is the power button, which is silver and has a weird, ribbed texture. It’s out of place, tacky, and feels horrible under the thumb.

Vodafone has copied the current design trend for glossy rear casing with the Smart N9, ditching the textured grippy material on the back of the N8. This is not a good move – the slick back just makes it that much easier to drop, and it excels at picking up unsightly, greasy fingerprints, which are difficult to clean up.

The inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack is nice and it’s placed at the top of the phone rather than the bottom, where the Micro-USB charging port and speakers are nestled. There are two speaker grilles on the bottom edge as well but only one tinny speaker – there’s nothing but air behind the one on the left.

On the front, there’s a hefty 9mm bezel at the top and bottom of the 5.5in display. The bottom houses nothing, not even a home button. The Home, Back and App buttons appear in a navigation bar, permanently displayed just above the bezel at the bottom of the screen.

On the back, the placement of the camera, LED flash, fingerprint reader, and logo are all in one straight line, right down the middle. The fingerprint reader is ideally positioned because it’s where my index naturally goes when I pick up the phone but the flipside is that you can’t unlock the phone with your fingerprint when its lying face up on a table.

That the camera, fingerprint reader, and Vodafone logo are all circular and symmetrical in size is pleasing. The phone just comes in one colour, Titanium Black, so what you see in our photos is what you get.

Vodafone Smart N9: Display

The Vodafone Smart N9 has an above average display for such a low-cost handset. At 5.5inches, it’s noticeably larger than the N8 and its resolution has been given a slight boost, rising from 720 x 1,280 to 720 x 1,440. Colour performance is surprisingly good, too. Our testing revealed the N9’s display is capable of reproducing 90% of the sRGB gamut coverage, not far off the quality of the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7 (£295).

The display is vibrant and renders images clearly and while maximum brightness on the N9 is lower than on the N8, the difference is minor. What’s not so great is that surface of the screen itself is a bit too grippy. It makes swiping a chore and also means it fails to pick up on more subtle movements. The screen also attracts dirt and grime quickly, which wouldn’t be a problem if you could clean it with a quick wipe on your shirt tails, but it needs a bit more elbow grease than that, unfortunately.

Buy the Vodafone Smart N9 now from Vodafone

Vodafone Smart N9: Performance and battery life

Here’s where the Vodafone Smart N9 really falls flat. The Smart N9 has 2GB of RAM, so it struggles to run multiple heavy duty applications simultaneously. Its meagre 16GB storage can be backed up with an additional 32GB via microSD – pretty terrible, considering many phones start with 32GB storage.

Inside the N9 is an ultra-budget Mediatek MT6739WA quad-core processor, the CPU as you’ll find in the Smart N9 lite. It’s disappointing Vodafone didn’t see fit to employ a more powerful chip inside the larger and more expensive of its two new phones. And with such a weak foundation, it was no surprise to see the Smart N9 perform poorly in benchmarks.

In the Geekbench 4 single-core test, the N9 cranked out a CPU speed of 583, a near identical result to the Motorola Moto G6 Play. But in the multicore segment of the test, the Smart N9’s processor achieved only 1,632 – marginally faster than the year old Smart N8 and miles short of the 2,394 CPU speed of the Moto G6 Play.

As for GPU, the news is even worse. In the GFXBench Manhattan 3 onscreen test, the Vodafone Smart N9 returned a paltry average frame rate of 4fps – no better than the Smart N8. Both the Manhattan test and the Car Chase test on GFXBench looked like PowerPoint slideshows on the Smart N9.

The true ‘real world’ test of a budget phone’s GPU is, of course, to see if it will run Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile. Surprisingly, it did run, but barely. The game automatically reduced the graphics quality and frame rate to the lowest possible settings on setup and, even then, the phone can barely render other players within the game. All you see is a collection of floating guns running around an environment that loads ten feet at a time. Of the cheap phones I’ve tested PUBG Mobile on so far, this is the worst by far.

Battery life is, again, unimpressive. In our standard video playback test the Smart N9 lasted 9hrs 11mins, or about 30 minutes longer than the Smart N8. That’s not terrible but it’s not good either. This is is a phone that, from the get go, will need topping up before the end of most days. There’s no support for quick charging, either, so it’s pretty slow to juice up.

Vodafone Smart N9: Camera

The Vodafone Smart N9 has a 13-megapixel camera on the rear accompanied by a single LED flash and an 8-megapixel camera on the front while video capture quality is limited to a fairly bog-standard 1080p at 30fps.

In use, the camera is fiddly. If you’re taking a shot and only have one chance, you’d better make sure you have a steady hand and that none of your subjects moves while you’re doing so. The slightest hand movement causes severe blurring.

Use HDR mode and the effect is reduced but, on the other hand, it takes ages for the HDR mode to take a picture – good training for aspiring human statues but annoying for everyone else.

Shooting video is also a pain because the N9 camera offers no stabilisation and the image takes a couple of seconds to re-focus every time the camera is moved. In a panning shot, the video lags well behind the movement of the phone.

In the comparison shots, you’ll notice the blurring of detail on surfaces at medium-distance. For example, with the Smart N9 camera brickwork turns into a fuzzy, splodgy, uni-coloured mess, while on the OnePlus 6’s camera each block is individually defined and the subtle colour differences between are seen much more clearly.

To be fair, the OnePlus 6 is much more expensive, but it does illustrate the point that if you want a decent camera in a phone, you have to pay a bit more than this. If you want decent snaps on a budget, go for a Moto G6 or G6 Play.

Buy the Vodafone Smart N9 now from Vodafone

Vodafone Smart N9: Software

Both the Vodafone Smart N9 and N9 lite come with the latest Android Oreo 8.1 Operating System straight out of the box. Vodafone has placed a light overlay on top with a few extra features, such as an irritating ‘swipe right for your favourite app’ section on the home screen, which thankfully can be disabled. There are a few undesirable Vodafone apps and widgets as well, but these are all simple to hide away or uninstall.

The appearance of the OS is not the issue: the problem lies in its function. The words “laggy” and “unresponsive” don’t do this phone’s UI justice, but they’ll do. It is slow to download apps, and even slower to boot them up.

It is painfully slow to respond to finger taps and screen swipes and this all makes browsing the internet on the Smart N9 a genuinely stressful process. Sometimes the phone simply forgets to do things you’ve asked it to do, like install an app from the Play Store.

Vodafone Smart N9: Verdict

In short, the Vodafone Smart N9 is not a great smartphone and though more expensive, it isn’t any better than its cheaper forebear, the Smart N8, despite an updated MediaTek, bigger screen and slightly higher resolution.

The laggy interface and unresponsive touchscreen make the N9 frustrating to use. It’s also less attractive than the Smart N8 – and it’s not as if the N8 was a beacon of cutting-edge phone design.

Simply put, we do not recommend that you buy the Vodafone Smart N9. At £109, it’s not good enough to justify the extra expense over the Smart N8 (now £70) nor anywhere near as good as any number of £140-plus phones. Even the Motorola Moto G5 – far from the greatest budget handset – is a better choice and now a mere £10 more expensive.

Buy the Vodafone Smart N9 now from Vodafone

 

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