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Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 – Another Look

I know what you’re thinking, didn’t you guys already review the Ultra 6 when it first came out? Yes indeedy we did, more specifically Matt did over here ( Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 Review ) but you see Voda sent me one as part of an upcoming article or two about their network. So I thought how can I not also review the thing, from my much more audio focused perspective. If that sounds (sounds, get it?) like something of interest, read on, read on.

Thanks to Vodafone UK for the loaner.

First Impressions

The Smart Ultra 6 isn’t a brand new device and neither in the one that I have here. It box is, a box. It’s all natural unglossy card which I still find I like. It’s a brave move in what’s obviously a budget device, risking that people will think it’s a cost choice rather than an environmental sustainability one. So there is the phone, as it is in most boxes. The underside of the device hiding the manuals and junk you’ll never look at, and then below that the accessories. Grrrr, I see they are white. Is it a white phone I have here? No it bloody well isn’t so why oh why are the accessories white? I hate that, hate it deeply. Personally it means if it was mine to keep they would be remaining in the box for all time. There is a white UK plug with a USB socket, a micro USB cable and some white, Apple_esque ear phones. Hmm, by the look of them they can stay in the box too. I really would rather phones came with no earphones rather than ones that are total poo.

Powering the phone up, it’s a big old thing and I can’t help but mentally flash, iPhone 6. Black face with the flash of silver round the outside. Sides all rounded and smooth. In fairness all phones are not exactly wildly different from one another. Its light though, plastic does that and I can never decide if I like phones to be light or heavy like the P8000 I have here also. It’s quite nice really though the back is just so smooth, I would have liked some soft touch coating for grip. I feel the need for case with some grip to it.

The screen looks nice, as do the buttons on the bottom and it is very, VERY welcome to see that ZTE/Vodafone have put the buttons in the right order and not the idiotic backward way Samsung puts them. Back on the left, home in the middle and then multitasking button on the right.

Hardware

Looking up the specifications and it’s got some really nice bits inside. It’s what I’d call the upper / mid-range with its Snapdragon 615, 2GB of RAM, 5.5 inch screen that is a full HD (1920 x 1080) 13MP camera on the back and a 5MP pixel on the front. In fact the only bit of hardware I would say is in the slightest lacking is that it doesn’t support 5GH WiFi. That’s it, that really is the only thing I felt was lacking full stop, never mind taking into account the thing costs only £130. ZTE (the people who actually make the thing) really have packed in a heck of a lot for the pennies. I don’t know if Voda is making a profit on the handsets, I suspect they aren’t as its exclusive to them. If you want this handset you have to buy it from Vodafone.

Storage wise it comes with the more or less standard 16GB. I can’t really complain at that, it’s a big step up in usability from just 8GB that is still often found in cheap handsets. Ahh but it also comes with a micro SD card slot which they say will take up to 64GB. I dare say it would also take a 128 but I don’t have one to try. In fairness 64 is rather a lot and if you’re buying a “cheap” handset your probably not buying 128GB cards anyway.

CPU and GPU are on paper pretty good. Lord knows I’m not one that gets caught up in benchmark numbers as I think we have reached the phone plateau. Just as with computers before them, once there was a time that you needed the fasted each and every year because they were simply too slow for what we wanted. Now for most normal users they really don’t need a quarter of what the most powerful computers can do and now, with phones everyone no longer needs the “best” available. The innards here reflect that they are good enough, they feel fast and smooth in everyday use. Not once did I find myself wanting. It’s a phone, I’m not running some 4 million cell excel spreadsheet or running Photoshop.

Running the updated 3DMARK ”Slingshot using ES3.0” the phone scored just 140. My aging nexus 5 scored 1006. The positively ancient Nexus 4 got 329. My Moto G 4G however scrapped in at 52 and lastly the P8000 (a prime competitor to the Ultra 6) came in at 179. Compared to the Nexus, very old Nexii the Ultra 6 looks very poor but benchmarks are intended to push the limits of hardware.

Firing my own “benchmark” Asphalt 8 I put on high graphics and ran the first race. It ran it perfectly. No stuttering or juddering, so to me it would seem capable of running games just fine. Granted if you’re keeping the phone for 2 years that may not be something true by the end of it.

The last curious addition, is the inclusion of NFC. I believe all phones should have it but what really makes its addition here curious as that Vodafone offer their own NFC wallet app. You top up your separate Voda wallet account and then you can use the phone to pay for things. I wish Voda had slapped on a tenner or something so I could go try it and buy a coffee or something but I wasn’t adding my own money to an account I won’t then have access to shortly. (When they take the handset back.) Still I am pleased to see its inclusion and I’m pleased to see at least one network doing something about wireless payment. It might have been nice if it just added the cost to your normal Voda bill / Voda call credit but hey.

Audio Software

While Voda felt the need to have a video player it hasn’t installed an audio player. Good. Google Play will do nicely and naturally I’m installing Deezer too. Of course being android there are 53 million music app’s out there for you to choose from which is just how it should be. You can choose what works best for you, not what ZTE or Vodafone thinks is best. Oh it does also have an FM radio in there, so err yeah if that matters to you but as it’s not 1973 the odds of me ever firing that up are about the same as me sprouting wings and taking flight.

Audio Hardware

Ahh, now things get serious. With the track record of audio bits from the Snapdragon 400 phones I have high hopes for the 615. My hopes are, well, not really fulfilled. It’s not to say that they don’t sound good, they do I had hoped that being the superior and newer chipset that it would be even better but it’s just not. As I fire up the Moto G 4G with its 400 chipset I am not really noticing much between the two of them. In quality that is, in output power the Moto is pulling away and it can drive the Senn Momentum 2.0 Over-Ear’s I’m playing with better. I’m hesitant to say that the treble is better but that extra power does seem to be refining them more. Then I go back to the 6 and I may be imagining it but is it a little more open in the mids?

Lows

Good. They do lack in the power department to truly drive and sustain low end, taught and lithe. It is best when it’s punching or softening at the depths. The fact is that several years ago the quality level is what I’d have expected from a DAP at this price range. That it’s just a tack on feature is a little bit of a modern marvel. I mean I’m sitting here using a pair of headphones that cost significantly more than the Ultra 6 does, quite happily listening to the tracks the Deezer is throwing my way. I’m enjoying it. It feels unkind to point out the areas where it slips up a little. It’s such a little trier, it’s trying so hard to be as good as the bigger boys. It’s really trying its itty bitty little heart out.

Ultimately it hasn’t the capacitance and electrical power to hold a powerful, low reaching low down into the acoustic depths and when you crank the volume dial (and I can pretty much max it) it’s such a valiant effort but….. ultimately, here is a reason why audiophiles buy separate amps and DAP’s.

Mids

It’s arguably the easy bit and again it’s trying its soul out. It’s really, really trying it’s very damnedest to be as good as it can possibly be. In cleanly simple acoustic stuff it’s really nice too. I could live with this if I had to. I almost want to say there is a little tiny fraction more cream to the mids than in the 400. There seems to be a tiny bit of energy sapping and a push towards the sumptuous and smooth. It’s no secret that is playing to my personal tastes. I like just that sort of vocal style. Lingering and delicate, though there is a hint of air, they lack the detail to truly be called airy. They cream, smoothly on the ear but it’s a light, single cream with a splash of milk. Adel like.

It’s not what I’d pick for gym use as it’s just not quite got the edge and speed for that. Though you could get it by paring it with something sensitive and rather dry. Something like the DBA-02 would liven it up dramatically. I should really fish it out and try but I’m not. I’m joying them as is and with the DBA-02 I won’t.

Highs

Good. However its caveated, it’s good for a phone. I never at any point fount their treble playback to be offensive to my delicate ears but I opted not to push it. The clarity as is, is very good for what it is and I cannot justifiably complain about it.

Still for all its accomplishments, when you pair it to something that costs more than the phone itself does you do hear its shortcomings. The detail is good but not amazing, the extension is again good but not amazing. It actually rolls away quite notably and dampens the hard metallic edges that should be there. It’s just not got the power to shift a drive with the speed the best requires. Not that your typical pairings are going to be capable of displaying that anyway so you could argue it doesn’t matter. The simple fact of the matter is thus, highs are the hardest bit to do and cheap stuff doesn’t nail it. If it could then there wouldn’t be £1000 DAP’s out there.

Soundstage/Instrument separation

Nice. It hasn’t the power needed to really shine in separation but its soundstage is nicely full and rounded. It’s nice. Not awesome but pleasantly enjoyable to sit and listen to. Scale is moderately big, think small church hall sorta scale.

Battery Life

Well it’s hard to truly assess given there are so many factors that alter the battery life you’ll get. Signal strength is a huge one, if you scrape a signal your phone will drain itself dry due to the increased power output needed over being next to a mast. Then there is what you have installed. App’s will run, consume power, especially if they use data. Then there is the big one, the screen. You keep that baby powered up and you can practically watch the battery gauge drop. Spec sheet says it’s a 3000mAh battery which is fairly good. I got a good couple days before I really needed to charge it. Still, for comfort sake I’d still charge nightly.

However I feel I must note that in the battery consumption chart, Vodafone Updates, Direct Accessories, Call+ & Message + were all in there as being significant battery eaters. That did not please me. I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to Call+ & Message+ and presume that it contained all my phone calling. However Vodafone Updates and even more so, Direct Accessories, I can’t forgive. That Voda’s accessory shop should appear on the battery consumption list is unforgivable.

Build Quality

Nice. It was all very cleanly put together, seams all perfectly tight, all very neat. The screen looks lovely, the little buttons at the bottom light up most pleasingly and evenly. There is nothing that I have any issues with. However, I’m not one of those people who equates heavy as being “well built” as the Ultra 6 is not heavy. It’s plastic and as such its very light in the hand. The Ultra 6 feels VERY light. It’s a big thing but in the hand it feels like it weighs practically nothing. So the plastic construction won’t be loved by all. Personally my only issue was that the plastic backing was smooth. It felt so light, so smooth, like it could just fly out of my hand at any moment or a gust of wind would carry it away. I don’t know what a soft touch backing would have cost but for V2 I’d suggest Voda go for something with more grip. In fairness if it was mine to keep adding a more grippy case would solve the issue of course.

UI

The wonderful thing and simultaneously the worst thing about Android is that you can change the User Interface. In android speak they are called Launchers. Is it me or is the Launcher used Stock Android? I am stunned. I remember the Sonyericsson K700 I had back in the day, with something like 12 shortcuts to “Vodafone Live” now sure Voda have added a few apps but it’s very refreshing that they have used plain old Android from Google. Naturally it lasted all of 1 day before I installed Nova Launcher. Still the Voda apps they add on for you are mostly removable. Though the only one I really wanted to get rid off was that battery eating “Direct Accessories” on the whole I’m really impressed with Vodafone not trying to coat it in Voda junk that users don’t want like they did with old K700. A big thumbs up from me here.

In The Hand

I like it, it’s very comfortable with its rounded edges, it’s a little big for my hands but what isn’t these days. It’s not an amazing, wow look at me device. It is nice. In every way that matters I just keep coming back to nice, it’s really pleasant to use. My only misgiving is its slightly slippy nature but if it was mine I’d just slap a case on it. That back is just too smooth for me, I feel like it want to fly out of my hand if given half the chance.

Format Support: It Android, it plays anything you want.

Volume

I am not one for cranking the volume to silly levels so for me it was fine. However I regularly had it at the upper reaches of its volume output. Higher up the scale than I would on most devices. While I was happy it may not quite be loud enough for all. Of course it greatly depends on what you’re plugging into it which I why I loathe that moronic French “volume” cap law. It’s like a law saying you can only have one coffee per morning, so everyone just starts using giant 2 litre mugs. Idiocy from idiot law makers, nothing new I know but still.

Accessories

Well as touched upon earlier, I loathe with a passion companies that bundle white accessories with a black phone. Hate it, hate it, hate it, there is no excuse for it whatsoever. Here they also include some white earphones that not only do I hate visually, I’m not putting them in my ears. I mean if your going to bundle what clearly are rubbish just don’t bother, it’s a waste of money. Let people buy their own earphones. Anyway……. Moving on to what’s otherwise available I am pleasantly surprised. Being a network exclusive I’d expected the case and screen protector option to be limited but there would seem to be plenty on eBay. In fact there is a very nice selection available so if you’re like me and buy 3 cases for every phone you should have plenty of options.

Speaker

Well anyone using a phone speaker for music needs to be shot but, if you’re wanting to watch a little TV show or something in your lonely hotel room while away for work, then you sorta could. The volume is so so and in MX Player where you can over drive the volume its fine. However pulling up Netflix and slapping on The Good Wife, it is too quiet. Even in a silent room it’s not comfortably loud enough to watch stuff on Netflix.

Camera

The numbers say a 13MP rear and a 5MP on the front. Both pretty big for a cheap handset. Now as I’ve mentioned before, I am not a camera person so I really can’t speak with any authority on the matter. For my eyes they look pretty reasonable and by what I’ve read other think so too. I mean it can’t compare to a real, proper camera much like it can’t compete with a high quality DAP. To me it looks good enough to use and be happy with.

Reception

It’s hard to be exact on the reception ability as Vodafone is not my normal network so I don’t know where the questionable signal spots are so I can’t really say what is network and what in phone. However….. it’s been rather good. For some reason today as I write this it has taken somewhat of a nose dive and signal strength is flitting between full bars and two bars. The throughput has taken a dive too and is only giving me about 12mbit down and about the 14mbit up. So while I say it’s taken a dive it’s not exactly unusably slow!!! Even in this state it’s down load speed as about twice what my land connection can get me and is a dozen times better than my upload. Still, with the phone being plastic clad and not metal I would expect it to a little better than most of holding onto a signal.

The Good

Value. The phone is a middling to upper ish range device but with a middling to low end price tag. There isn’t anywhere I feel the device stands out as being great, maybe its screen which is a full HD, 1920 x 1080. That’s the same number of pixels as your 42 inch TV has but in your hand, for the budget the screen is probably the single most impressive feature. The whole however is that the Ultra 6 is just better in every aspect than you would think you should get from a device with its price tag, nothing is exceptional but it skimps nowhere, everything is better than it deserves to be.

The Bad

Well there isn’t really anything that’s bad. If anything it’s the backing, it’s just too slippy for my liking but if I was keeping it I’d put a case on anyway. That’s it. Well, maybe that it’s tied to Vodafone could be an issue for some if Vodafone is poo where you live or you simply don’t live in the UK. I’m really struggling to find anything bad.

Value

All the reviews I’ve seen of the Ultra 6 all declare it to be super good value. It is. The “no ifs no buts” it’s the new “Orange San Francisco,” it’s beyond good for what it costs. It is very probably the single best value phone you can buy in the UK, in a shop, right now.

Conclusion

The Ultra 6 is a crazy good value device. Plain and simply if I was looking for a new phone and I could only have one, this would have to be a contender. It’s not just cheap, it’s sooooo cheap. You put this phone next to any phone, no matter how expensive and there just isn’t anywhere it falls behind except in benchmarks. It really can’t match the most powerful CPU and GPU’s but who expects it to???? it’s what, maybe a quarter of the price of flagships? The Iphone 6s Plus starts at £620 and it can’t take a micro SD card. That’s £500 more expensive!!!

Price really is the headliner feature of the Ultra 6. Its specs are all amazing for the price, not as absolutes in themselves. The price therefore is key, utterly central to how you must think of the Ultra 6. It is the defining aspect that means you will buy it or not. You can get the same specs, better specs in a variety of other places. You can even pretty much the same specs from other devices if you look hard enough but I have never found one to be available in the UK high-street. The closest I could find was the Sony M4 Aqua but its £200 and only has a 1280 x 720 screen. Upon asking one the helper chaps at The Carphone Warehouse, when I asked if there was anything they know of comparable the reply was “There unfortunately is nothing comparable from other networks.”

I believe that is the core of the Ultra 6. There just is nothing available in the UK for the other networks that can compete with it. Its specs are outstanding for the money, it is that simple. It may not be the world greatest phone but I cannot think of anything that represents better value for money.

About Mark Ramos

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