There are only a few things in life that qualify as pure, undoubtable bargains. The £1.09 McDonads cheeseburger jumps to mind. A pint of lager from Wetherspoons. A Freddo chocolate bar.
We might have to add the Blu Life Max to that list as well. I don’t think I’ve seen a better equipped phone for less cash.
For less than £90, you get a tasty looking phone with the same hardware that would have passed for a flagship just a year or two ago. How does a 5.5in screen, fingerprint sensor, quad-core CPU and expandable storage sound?
And that’s before you realise it’s got a whopping 3700mAh battery on board, too.
With prices going up to £120 after a pre-launch discount expires, though, is it worth snapping one up while you can? I’ve been putting one to the test to find out.
Fake leather and faux stitching? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Blu has taken more than a few pointers from the Galaxy Note 3, which kicked off a temporary trend a few years ago.
In some ways, the BLU makes me feel kind of nostalgic. I haven’t been able to take the back off of a phone in what feels like forever, so it’s kind of quaint to see it here. You definitely won’t mistake the rear cover for actual leather, though - it’s as plastic as they come.
The metal-effect outer frame looks decent enough in dark blue, but the phone in general feels unnaturally light for its size.
The microUSB charging port is in an odd place at the top of the phone, too - I would have expected to find it at the bottom between the speaker grilles, but it’s hanging out up top with the headphone jack. At least you actually get a headphone jack, though - right, Apple fans?
Sit it on a desk, though, and no-one walking past would know you only spent £100 on it - so I guess that means BLU has done its job.
SCREEN and AUDIO
I was expecting the screen to be average at best, and while the resolution won’t blow you away (it’s only 720p, after all) it’s decent enough for day-to-day use.
You get lots of screen space, even with Android’s on-screen buttons, and it’s certainly bright enough to use outdoors. No it’s not as crisp as a 1080p panel would be, but you’d need to spend a lot more cash to get one, and even then you’ll only really notice when you’ve got the two phones side-by-side.
Colours are reasonably punchy, even if everything is slightly on the cool side, so your photos and video will look respectable enough.
I’m not convinced by the “2.5D glass”, though. It’s nowhere near as pronounced as it is on other, more expensive phones, and the outer frame covers it up too much to notice anyway.
Sound quality isn’t quite up to scratch, either. Shifting the microUSB port to the top of the phone frees up the bottom for two speaker grilles, but there’s actually only one speaker in there.
It’s tinny - very tinny. You’ll want to pack a pair of headphones for playing even the briefest of YouTube clips.
PERFORMANCE and BATTERY LIFE
A sub-£100 phone was never going to be a performance powerhouse, and with a quad-core Mediatek CPU on board, the Life Max is no exception. It lags behind two-year-old flagship phones in terms of benchmark scores, and the 2GB of RAM will only be good for a bit of light multitasking. I would occasionally notice a bit of stutter, and animations weren’t always entirely smooth, but if you’re sticking to web browsing, Facebook and WhatsApp, it will get the job done.
Most of the 2D games in the Google Play Store will be perfectly playable, but more demanding 3D titles will struggle. Frame rates will tumble if you insist on playing everything at high detail settings, so you’ll need to make a sacrifice if you want smooth gameplay.
So far, so predictable for a budget phone, but the battery stands out. It’s a huge 3700mAh model, which is bigger than the batteries you’ll find in most of today’s flagship phones.
Now the low screen resolution and low-powered processor begin to make sense. Combined, they’ll help you last up to three days away from the mains under normal use. My “normal” is a bit more demanding, so I usually needed to recharge after two, but that’s still very good going for a budget handset.
Annoyingly, though, there’s no quick charging, and you’re stuck with a microUSB port instead of USB-C. But hey, at least all your old cables will have a little bit more useful life in them. If you’re really in a rush, you could always buy a spare battery, too - they’re easily replaced.
It’s nigh-on impossible to get a fingerprint sensor in a phone that costs less than £100, but BLU has managed it - or at least it did while the pre-release discount was in effect. But still, even at £110, that’s still mighty impressive.
It doesn’t have any fancy gestures like the Google Pixel, and isn’t a button like the LG G6, but it unlocks your phone - and that’s what really matters. It’s fast enough to make it a useful alternative to an on-screen password or PIN.
Pop the back cover off and you’ll spot the dual SIM card slot. There’s no hybrid nonsense going on here - there’s a completely separate microSD card slot. That means you can have space for all your music and photos, your main SIM and a work or travel SIM at the same time - that’s almost unheard of.
Another excellent plus point: BLU hasn’t slapped on a horrid custom UI over Android 6.0.1. OK, so Marshmallow isn’t the latest and greatest version of Google’s OS, but I’d much rather have a near-stock look than Nougat buried under layers of icon packs and funky menus.
There are hardly any built-in apps, part from the ones Google provides, so you’ll be able to use almost all of the 16GB of on board storage.
If there was one area BLU stood a chance of making any savings on the Life Max, it was the camera. That’s why there’s an 8MP sensor on the back, which is merely passable in terms of quality.
My test shots all looked rather washed out, even in bright outdoor environments where there’s plenty of light, and the shutter lag is really noticeable. HDR shots are even worse, taking over a second to record a shot.
It tends to overexpose images, too. Zoom in and you’ll spot a real lack of detail as well, but at least from 100% things look OK.
On the other hand, autofocus is really pretty good, so I didn’t have to tap to focus very much. There’s a reasonable manual mode, and a few nice extras like smile detection, but you’ll have more binners than winners unless you accept its limitations.
The 5MP front-facer does get a flash for better selfies, admittedly, so it’s not like BLU has given up on the camera altogether. It’s serviceable for Skype calls and arm’s length face photos, which is pretty much all you can ask at this price.
BLU LIFE MAX VERDICT
The BLU Life Max has brilliant battery life and it costs very little of your precious cash. Did you really need to know any more?
If you have a very tight budget, and are after a phone that can just be a phone - not a camera, not a games console, and not a multimedia machine - then it’s a good buy. A 5.5in display, fingerprint sensor and surprisingly slick (if a little out of fashion) design are usually out of reach at this price.
It makes a decent backup phone, too, with a near-stock version of Android that’ll feel familiar no matter which brand makes your main handset.
For anyone after a phone to use every day, though? Be prepared to live with quite a few compromises, or accept that you’ll need to spend more money to get the phone you really want.