Who makes the best cheap phones?
Those in the know might talk about the Moto G dynasty, but our favourite budget phone of the past 12 months was the Vodafone Smart Prime 6, a handset that gave you a wheelbarrow’s worth of phone for just a handful of notes.
All too often a company goes and blows it with their ‘difficult second album’ phone, cashing in their cred to earn a few extra quid at our expense. But the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is yet another cheapo smash. While it could be a lick faster, this is by a large margin the sweetest £75 phone you’ll find on the high street right now.
A budget makeover
A few buyers must have let Vodafone know too, because despite being cheaper than either of those, the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 looks and feels fancier this time around. There’s no magic to this. The phone still uses a pull-off plastic cover, but it now has an almost carbon-fibre-like textured finish rather than an ultra-plain plastic one.
This little tweak turns this from what might be an obvious no-frills phone into one you could easily mistake for a mid-ranger from one of the big names. It’s slim, it’s light and it’s not at all bad-looking.
There’s more to the design upgrade than just the cover, though. Vodafone also wants the Prime 7 to look good on close inspection. Check out the little camera lens ring, for example: it’s real metal. Real metal! On a £75 phone! Is that a flock of pigs I spy overhead?
The extreme edge of the screen is ever-so-slightly curved too, and the screen surround does a pretty good job of convincing you that it curves around smoothly into the sides. There are seams and contours on the Prime 7, but not a single hard edge in sight. Vodafone has new moves, and I like them.
The Smart Prime 7 also has light-up soft keys. You got these in the Prime 6, too, but they’ve been trimmed down a bit to look less like they belong on a toy for 1-3 year olds. Rarely does it seem quite as much like a phone maker has actually read all the criticisms of its phones, and then put the needed fixes in place.
There were few complaints about the last Smart Prime 6 phone screen, which got you lots of pixels for not many pennies. However, even this part has improved (in some respects) in the Prime 7.
At the basic level, this is a 5-inch, 720p phone. We’ve had quite a few of these to choose from over the last three years, and what you normally get from them is a big enough, sharp enough IPS LCD screen, with slightly undersaturated colours. The Vodafone Smart Prime 7 has the same 'that’ll do the trick' sharpness, but with great colour too. Tones pop much more than in the Prime Ultra, and putting the phone right next to the Samsung Galaxy S7 in its most ‘accurate’ Basic display mode, there’s not a huge difference in colour style.
No, I’m not saying this phone has a screen as good as the Galaxy S7’s. What kind of fool do you think I am! But what Vodafone offers here for less than £100 is remarkable. Unlike the £150 Samsung Galaxy J3, there’s an Auto brightness setting too, so you don’t have to mess about with the manual brightness slider all the time.
Making a deal with the red guy
Where’s the catch? The deal with the devil involved here is that a Prime 7 is only going to work with a Vodafone SIM, and that it comes with a bunch of signature bright red Vodafone apps installed. A few of these can be deleted, but you’re stuck with a custom Vodafone dialler, and a Message+ texting app.
You don’t have to use them, of course, and the Prime 7 otherwise looks and feels just like an Android Marshmallow Nexus phone. Indeed, one of the big draws here is the fact that Vodafone doesn’t weigh its phones down with a naff, underdeveloped custom interface. Given how much of the Google apps suite I tend to ignore 99% of the time, ignoring a couple of extra Vodafone apps isn’t too much of a hardship. Even if the punchy screen doesn’t half show off the bright red icons.
Living in the slow lane
There’s one other significant issue to the Vodafone Smart Prime 7: it’s not very fast. Or rather, it's actually pretty slow.
The Prime 7 has a Snapdragon 210 processor, a real runt in Qualcomm’s litter, and one that's slower than the Snapdragon 400 used in the original Moto G back in 2013. It also has a mere 1GB RAM, which I found to be the kiss of death for performance in 2015 budget phones.
The question: how bad is it? Well, look at the Geekbench 3 score and you might be concerned: at 1066 it’s a third lower than budget phones using the Snapdragon 410.
But while it's clearly no screaming speed demon, at least the lag lands in places that aren’t head-bangingly annoying. For example, you can type away without it feeling like the Prime 7 is a geriatric stenographer who's lost their reading glasses. In a similar vein, the top layer of the interface is fairly fast too. Where Android 5.1 could feel outright slow in some 1GB RAM phones, it’s passably quick in the Prime 7, which runs Android 6.0.1 right now.
It’s mostly app load speeds that slow you down. Apps used recently will pop up quickly, but any that have been cleaned-up from the temporary memory can take a good few seconds. And, because there’s not much memory to go around, the Prime 7 seems to purge its banks pretty sharpish. There’s also some lag in more demanding games: 3D racer Asphalt 8 is playable, for instance, but the frame rate isn’t totally smooth and the game’s menus really take a while to load and refresh. Some patience is required. Then again, let's not expect too much: it only costs £75 after all.
A further downside is that the Vodafone Prime 7 only has 8GB storage, just under 2GB of which you can actually play with. That won’t go far if you start using the camera too, but on the plus side you can add more storage space via microSD.
The Vodafone Smart Prime 7's camera is your classic 'mixed bag'. Compare it to something like the Motorola Moto G and it’s not going to come off too well, but nor is it totally dreadful. Especially once you remember that it costs just £75. Did we mention that it costs just £75?
On the back is an 8-megapixel camera with a flash. Let’s talk pros and cons. Its colours are good for a phone this cheap, aside from occasional dodgy blues, and the Prime 7 is surprisingly adept at judging a scene. Cheap phones often smudge light sources or get the metering totally wrong as soon as they are given something a bit tough to deal with. But this phone does OK, heading to the conservative end of exposure metering so you don’t end up with skies of pure blown-out white.
The flipside to that is that shots can end up looking dull instead - its dynamic range isn’t great, predictably enough, and it doesn't have the software chops to compensate. The most competent phone cameras these days have Auto HDR modes that flick optimisation on when needed, but here the HDR mode is separate and very, very slow. Hit the shutter button and you’ll wait almost five seconds before you can snap another photo. HDR is dead effective, though, and is what you’ll need to use on those miserable-as-Morrissey overcast days.
So, it's not without problems, but the Prime 7 has cranked out some of the best photos I’ve seen from a sub-£80 phone. Most phones this cheap have flat-out crap cameras. This one is a mite slow to focus, but can take Instagram-worthy shots.
It’s not bad at dealing with indoors lighting either, once again getting the lighting and white balance just right most of the time. At night the lack of OIS makes it easy to end up with slightly blurry shots, but a phone this cheap was never going to be any good for night shooting. Its camera app is good, though, with a simple layout very similar to the iPhone one. As is generally the case with cheap phones, the manual mode is rubbish, mind. You can’t control shutter speed or focusing, making it more trouble than it’s worth.
Still, all these problems just crumble when you look back at the price, which isn’t far off what you could spend in a London bar if you get roped into buying a few birthday drinks one evening.
The front camera is respectable, too: it has a 5-megapixel sensor, which is impressive for the price, and is a dab hand at getting skin tones looking natural even in indoors lighting. However, no matter how near or far you hold the Vodafone Smart Prime 7, shots usually look a bit soft.
So no, the Prime 7 is no Moto G, let alone a Galaxy S7. But at a price where some phones are so bad they’ll leave you missing your Nokia 3210, it does well enough.
Cherries on top
One area where the Smart Prime 7 really punches above its weight is battery life - and that's going to be more important to many of the people this phone is aimed at than its speed when gaming. You get a 2540mAh battery, which is about right for a 5-inch, 720p phone, and in practice I've found I can get to bedtime with about 25-30% left. Anything that lasts through a day is going to be easy to live with, so a phone which does that with something to spare is a real winner.
Playing a 720p film on loop it’ll last 10.5 hours, which is great, outlasting the Moto G and the Oppo F1, both of which are far more expensive. No, you're never going to play a 720p film on loop for 10.5 hours, but it reinforces our feeling that stamina is not going to be a problem here. And while you don’t get any fancy extras such as fast-charging or a USB-C standard, no-one’s putting those in phones this cheap yet, so we won't mark it down for that.
That the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 speaker isn’t utterly terribly is another nice surprise. At max volume, phones this cheap often sound like a small rodent munching on Rice Krispies, but this one doesn’t distort. Don’t get too excited: it’s not super-loud and sounds a bit thin. But it could be much worse given the - you guessed it - bargain price of £75.
Vodafone Smart Prime 7 verdict
The Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is a lesson in quite how cheap phones can get before they seem cobbled together out of bits found in charity shop bargain bins.
On specs alone it easily holds its own against rivals which cost twice the price. But talking the talk is no good if you can't walk the walk, and fortunately the Smart Prime 7 struts along with far greater style than it should given its price.
Alright, so it's really not that fast, but unlike other phones cursed with weedy processors, it does a good job of confining its sluggishness to relatively unimportant areas. Battery life and screen are far more critical to most people's daily lives and here the Smart Prime 7 excels, with more-than-a-day stamina and punchy colours respectively. It looks great too, and while its camera is no award-winner, it performs well enough to be usable.
So, what you have here is a phone that does the basics very well and even with some flair. Oh, and it costs £75.
Yes, the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is a solid-gold bargain.