Can the Mark 1 and its Fuel OS live up to the claim of being perfect for anyone sick of bloated, gimmicky Android skins?

We’re really can’t stand flashy Android skins which favour bling over usability. Nope, give us a Nexus, a Motorola, OnePlus or Yu any day of the week. Think about it - Google’s designers put in a lot of work, and then it’s washed down the drain by some bright spark who goes “hey, our users don’t need easy Do Not Disturb settings. Nope, what they really need is to dive into three layers of menus. But we'll give them theme support and while we’re at it, we’ll copy the iOS interface wherever we can. And no, we’ll update them to the next version of Android a year after a Nexus device.”

Frankly, Android as it is today really doesn’t give you any reason for whining. Nexus devices are fantastic, and if you really want more features, you’ve got Motorola’s phones and Cyanogen-powered devices which keep most of stock Android, while adding a few new features or (especially in the case of the latter), let you customise the heck out of your phone.

That’s where the Creo Mark 1 comes in - the chaps who gave us the TeeVee streaming dongle have come up with their version of Android: You’ll get new features - some of which seem really useful, frequent updates (and yes, the first update arrived on May 13 as promised), and a mostly untouched Material Design interface. On paper, the Mark 1 and its Fuel OS are like the deal of the century. But how does this fare in real life?

 

Back in black

The Creo Mark 1 is a good-looking device that stands out from the crop of lookalikes (although I do detect a faint resemblance to the Nubia Z9 Mini) but the design’s not without its flaws - it’s a bit too chunky, the glass back is as slippery as an eel that’s been swimming in olive oil, and it’s not the easiest to use with one hand. In fact, we wager almost every other 5.5 incher is easier to use.

Turn on the device and you’re greeted by a 2560x1440 screen. Don’t get too excited as while this IPS display offers good brightness, it’s nowhere near as sharp as you’d expect a 2K screen to be. Black levels are also middling and colour vibrancy is on the muted side. Frankly, a quality Full HD display would have been a far better choice.

Uphill climb

The Mediatek Helio X10 powering the Creo Mark 1 might be a proven performer, but its GPU seems out of its depth when working with a 2K display. Menus sometimes lag and scrolling can be janky, making you feel Fuel OS needs some work before it can claim to be a viable alternative to stock Android or Cyanogen. There’s 3GB RAM on board so multitasking seems smooth - the performance glitches mainly seem to be centred around the Mark 1’s graphical abilities.

Mixed bag, indeed

The battery life is also a case of ‘good on paper, less-than-stellar in the real world’. At 3100mah, the Mark 1 isn’t short of battery, but it drinks up the juice faster than a marathoner at the finish line - perhaps due to a 2K display (bound to be a lot hungrier than Full HD screens). Getting a day’s usage out of the Mark 1 seems unlikely and you’ll have to get used to topping it up during your lunch break.  

But what’s really strange is the omission of a fingerprint scanner. We’re nearly halfway through 2016, and even phones less than half the Mark 1’s price now come with fingerprint scanners - and we’re surprised Creo didn’t think this was important. Overall, skipping the 2K display and fitting in a fingerprint scanner would have been of more use (and would also have improved battery life).There’s also 32GB storage onboard, and you can swap out the second SIM to fit in microSD cards up to 128GB.

Gimme light

The Mark 1’s 21MP camera will keep you quite satisfied when shooting in bright sunlight, with accurate colours and mostly accurate exposure, but it’s also proof that megapixels don’t mean much - low-light shooting results in washed out, insipid photos with lots of noise. But even then, we were impressed with how fast (and true) it focused.

Worried about selfies? The front camera is absolutely fine, but does not stand out in any way - well-lit conditions will see you happy but it delivers dull, grainy shots when pushed.

Nuclear Fuel

Creo’s made it clear they’re focusing on the overall experience, not just the specs. Which means an OS that doesn’t let a love of bling destroy usability. So if you’re a fan of stock Android, you’ll love Fuel OS (based on Android Lollipop 5.1.1). It’s mostly untouched, with even the system settings retaining Material Design. And like Cyanogen OS, Fuel OS adds plenty in terms of customisability: You can remap the capacitive buttons, the SMS app automatically copies OTP codes and segregates messages from businesses.

 

If you travel around a lot and use two SIMs, you can pick which SIM to use for data when out of town. There’s also ‘Echo’ - an answering machine built into your phone, ‘Retriever’, an anti-theft app which can survive a factory reset, and ‘Sense’, phone search and control app which is a bit of a mishmash between Google Now and iOS’s Spotlight. (Sadly, Sense can’t search your emails in the Gmail app).

 

Part of this focus on the software and usability means Creo’s promising monthly updates with new features and bugfixes. The Mark 1 was released on April 13 and the next update came as promised on May 13. Not bad; now just hurry up with Marshmallow.

Initial verdict

The Creo Mark 1’s specs are great (barring the lack of a fingerprint sensor) and Fuel OS is a rare gem where usability doesn’t lose out to design bling. You’re also promised frequent updates, a rather novel thing in the Android world.  

But in practice, it’s not the Nexus or One Plus slayer we’d hoped for: The display is lacklustre, the OS needs polish, and it’s on the pricey side. Still, a pretty good start that portends well for this home-grown device maker. This might be a strictly average device, but if these chaps keep up this work, expect them to hit the ball outta the park soon.

Where to buy Creo Mark 1: