Wileyfox Spark Review: You get what you pay for

Disclosure: Wileyfox Supplied MobileTechTalk with the Spark to review after attending their launch event, they however have no bearing on the editorial outcome of the review. The Spark has been used on the Three UK Mobile Network for 9 days as my (Dom) Primary device.

Wileyfox made a splash last year when they announced their two devices, the Swift and the Storm, both of which we have reviewed here before. The Swift gave us a great display, cracking performance and a camera unheard of at the £130 price point, and the Storm gave us a camera we hadn’t seen at £200, with a build that was also hard to match. Neither the Swift nor Storm were perfect. The Swift had build quality issues and the Storm had woeful battery life issues, but this review isn’t about the Swift or Storm, this is about the Spark, the lowest end of the three devices Wileyfox announced this month.

Wileyfox Spark Review

The Spark is a £90 phone, which is impressive in and of itself, but it gets more impressive when you read some of the specifications. The Spark has a 5″ 720p IPS display, two 8MP cameras, a removable 2200mAh battery and it has the newest version of CyanogenOS and Android currently available, Android 6.0.1 and CyanogenOS 13. But again the Spark isn’t perfect and to get to that £90 price point Wileyfox had to make sacrifices. It has a 1.3Ghz Quad-Core SoC from MediaTek, only 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal Storage and no fast charging. Some of the more in-depth specs are below.

Specs

  • 5″ 1280×720 IPS Fully laminated display
  • Quad-Core MediaTek MT6735a, 4x Cortex A53@ 1.3Ghz.
  • Mali-T720 GPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8GB inbuilt Storage
  • MicroSD slot, officially supporting up to 32GB (including adoptable storage)
  • 2200mAh removable Lithium-Polymer battery
  • Rear Camera: 8mp OmniVision OV8865, 1.4Micron pixels F2.0 Aperture
  • Front Camera: 8mp OmniVision OV8858, 1.12 Micron Pixels, F2.2 aperture
  • Video Capture, 1080p30 rear, 720p30 front
  • CyanogenOS 13 based on Android 6.0.1

 

For a more in-depth look at the specs, here is a link to the Wileyfox Spec sheet for the Spark

HardwareWileyfox Spark Review

From a pure exterior hardware perspective, there is a lot to like about the Spark. It starts with the nice 2.5D subtly curved glass on the front (albeit without any type of Oleophobic coating, something we’re really not happy about). This glass feels like a pool of water that is just about to erupt over the edge of its container, being just kept in by its surface tension alone. It’s something I’m happy to see on much higher end devices, so I’m very happy seeing it here. Up top we have the ambient light and proximity sensors working as they should; the Ambient light sensor looks at the ambient light in the environment you are in and adjusts the display brightness to be more consistent with the environment. It could be a tad faster, but some devices this cheap don’t even have ambient light sensors, so I’m just going to be grateful we got one here on the Spark. Next up is the proximity sensor which works as it should again; when you come close to the screen in an activity such as a phone call, it deactivates the screen so as to not make any touch interactions from your cheek.

The earpiece and LED notification light are next. let’s start off with the earpiece, because it’s quicker. It’s okay, and that’s about it. As mobile phone earpieces go, it is merely okay, it isn’t very loud, but at least it is clear and crisp, but it could definitely do with a couple extra decibels. Then we have the Notification LED which is an interesting one, with just Red and Green profiles, the Spark doesn’t even cover full RGB, but that doesn’t seem to hamper its usefulness, the Spark allows you to change the colour for things or even disable the light altogether, Wileyfox and Cyanogen here have done a pretty great job with the LED, despite missing an option for blue. Lastly up the top we have the 8MP selfie camera, it’s decent, as long as you aren’t trying to rapid-selfie, but more about the Selfie camera when we get to the dedicated Camera section of the review.

Wileyfox Spark Review

Lastly on the front I need to speak about the Display. The Spark has a 5″ Fully Laminated 720p IPS LCD display, and it’s pretty damn great, and is most certainly the best screen you’re going to get under £100 any time soon. The Spark’s screen is bright, has vibrant colours, has great viewing angles, and acceptable touch latency. They really have spent some money here, and it shows. The screen is likely the best part of the Spark, and that was obvious on day one. They Spark, much like the Swift of last year, only has the option for on-screen buttons, so for some that may infuriate you and drive you away from the purchase, but for myself, on-screen only is a boon and is actually one of the things I look for in a phone.

Wileyfox Spark hands-on

Switching it up a bit, next we’ll look at the back, with the Wileyfox branding above the speaker at the bottom, the awesome 3D Wileyfox logo in the Wileyfox Spark Reviewmiddle, and the 8MP main camera and LED flash up in the top left. The back of the Spark is covered in the softer variant of the Sandstone that OnePlus use and that WIleyfox used on both the Swift and Storm, but with the curvier body of the Spark, the  extra grip is appreciated. On the left spine we have the thin plastic volume rocker, there isn’t much to say here apart from that the travel is decent and there is surprisingly little rattle and movement in the button, the same goes for the opposing side and the power button, it has decent travel and although it wiggles more than the volume rocker does, it’s hardly deal breaking ,especially at this price point. LAstly we have the top and bottom, the top houses the 3.5mm audio jack and the bottom features the MicroUSB charging and data port along with the microphone. The MicroUSB port thankfully doesn’t have the recessed issue that the Swift had, and unlike most inexpensive devices I have had recently, it is oriented the correct way (thin part is the top). The 3.5mm audio jack is there, it exists, I wasn’t able to find out who makes the part, but it doesn’t seem exceptionally high-end (not that it would be at £90) the output isn’t all that clear, earbuds that sound great with other devices seem weaker and less clear on the Spark.

Performance

Wileyfox Spark ReviewLet’s get this out-of-the-way first and foremost, because it needs to be said: The Spark is not a fast phone. There are many potential culprits, such as the 1.3Ghz MediaTek chipset, the 1GB RAM, or slow internal flash storage. Personally, I think the biggest issue is the 8GB of poor quality flash chips used in the phone to get to the bargain basement price point, but that 1GB of RAM really isn’t helping anything by essentially having to reload every 2nd app you change into and out of. The MediaTek MT6735a won’t win any performance awards either. It’s a cheap chip for cheap phones. Now, if it had 4 64bit Cortex A53 CPU cores from ARM, and an 8 Core Mali-T720 GPU backed up with 2GB of RAM and some decent Flash chips (I’m looking at you Spark+) I honestly think the Spark could perform quite well, because the MediaTek chip has been shown to not be total crap in other devices in the past.

Benchmarks aren’t really necessary, but if you really want them I’ll put screenshots in the photo gallery under this paragraph. They aren’t underwhelming to me as I knew what the architecture was capable and what it was not capable of, but for people who aren’t in the phone, when they read :

“A Multitasking Master. A Performance Artist” (make bolder than others)

It is fair to assume that this phone would be fast enough to handle your day-to-day activities with ease, and honestly, it just isn’t. As friend of the site Alex Dobie from Android Central point out in his review: App load times on the Spark in measured in the seconds,even without offloading apps to an SD card. This is made ever worse by the fact that the use of an SD card is essentially mandatory with this device. The Spark gives you 8GB of pitifully slow, cheap flash storage, of which about 3.5GB is available to you, so then you do what I did, you go to amazon and you buy a 32GB MicroSD card (I went for the sub £10 Samsung Evo) I opted to go for a UHS-I MicroSD card instead of a slower Class4,6 or 10 because I knew I’d be taking advantage of the new Marshmallow feature, called adoptable storage. Adoptable storage is, as it sounds, a way for your phone to adopt the storage of the MicroSD and make it part of the main system storage, so if you have an 8GB phone like the Spark, throwing a 32GB MicroSD card in their and toggling on Adoptable storage (Note, adoptable storage formats the MicroSD card and encrypts it, so it can only be used in the phone you are currently using it in, unless you want to format the card to start again) they now have a 32GB phone, Awesome right!

Wileyfox Spark ReviewWell actually, no, not really. As was pointed out to me by Paul O’Brien of MoDaCo fame, apps need to explicitly state they can take advantage of adoptable storage, otherwise they only install to that pitiful 3.5GB block from the internal flash, and let me remind you, the flash in here is slow, S.L.O.W, slower than an arthritic dog swimming through a sea of molasses , it’s borderline unusable, weirdly enough, I think the flash chips in the Samsung MicroSD card are higher quality than the ones inside the phone, as throwing it in the phone and turning adoptable storage on, the Sprak felt faster than just using the “normal” flash. So whilst Adoptable storage does help this wound, it doesn’t help the salt and glass that Wileyfox put in there with the paltry amount of internal storage, and then just making it worse by putting slow, crap storage in their. The Spark is somehow hesitant but also snappy, I don’t how they did this, and I highly doubt it is intentional, but there are some parts of the Spark that feel totally fine, but as soon as you start interacting with anything that requires any time of strenuous compute, the phone gives out, treating the Spark like a smartphone shouldn’t be a chore.

People who are on a budget shouldn’t have to feel like they bought something budget, and a lot of the time, the Spark feels budget, because the experience is just bad.

Battery

So next up we have something that surprisingly isn’t terrible, which is the battery experience. The Spark comes with a 2200mAh Li-Po (Lithium-Polymer) removable battery that’s only real weakness is the glacial amount of time it takes to charge. Let’s start with how I use my phone, there is 4 email accounts syncing, 2 Twitter accounts, facebook, Google+, Skype,Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat and so much more, I tend to keep the screen brightness on around 50%, but the mighty bright screen on the Spark makes that closer to 25/30%, the Spark easily made it through the day with upwards of 20% battery left, and It’s a good thing, because as I said, charging the Spark during the day is a non-starter, unless you charged the Spark the night before, you’re going to have a bad time.

 

Wileyfox Spark Review
This first test was done when the Screen on the Spark was not allowed to dim at all.

 

 

Wileyfox Spark Review
This second test was done while the screen was allowed to dim to one of its lowest settings, note the drastic difference.

So how good is the battery of the Spark? well here is the Geekbench battery benchmark, and just like with the performance numbers above, benchmarks aren’t everything, but the Spark really has done quite well.

 

So what about charging, why do I keep coming back to that? Well because charging on the Spark is locked at 1amp, at least that’s what Wileyfox told me, but it feels like it’s been locked much lower, closer to 500mA. The Spark just takes an insane amount of time to charge, not just in 2016 where even the slowest fast-charge spec is mile ahead, but just due to the size of the battery. 2200mAh is not a huge battery, but as I said, if for whatever reason you didn’t charge the Spark overnight, you’d better be at a desk all day where you can charge it, or have a spare phone. To illustrate the point, one day I did forget to charge it, so I went to plug it in at my office whilst I went to make coffee and eat breakfast. I came back 45 minutes later and the Spark had gained a measly 10% and this was all the while plugged into the 5v4a VOOC Charger that came with the Oppo F1 Plus (Yes I know the Spark won’t charge at 5v4a, but I wanted to remove any bottlenecks, so I put  it on to charge on my highest power charger). Even devices that don’t come with any type of specified Quick Charge such as Qualcomm QuickCharge, Samsung Adaptive Fast charge, VOOC or even the USB Implementers Forum USB Power Delivery Spec, are often able to charge at something like 5v2a, enough to suck in a healthy amount of juice from any charger these days, and the charge times are another area where the Spark shows that the race to the bottom isn’t always beneficial.

Camera

The Camera setup on the Spark is actually surprising, not for megapixel count, as we all know, megapixels mean almost nothing compared to other parts of the setup, so let’s talk about the rear camera first.

Wileyfox Spark Review

The rear gets an 8MP unit from OmniVision, an OV8865, an autofocus capable unit with a surprisingly large 1.4Micron pixel size and a so-so aperture of f2.2 and a lens size of 1/3.2″. For the uninitiated, the impressive part of that string of numbers was 1.4Microns, in the easiest terms possible, the bigger that number, the more light it can let in. Most smartphones come in at 1.12Microns, with some even dropping down to 1.0Microns, but some go up to 1.55Microns, or in the case of HTC’s UltraPixel goes up to 2.0Microns. So for the £90 the Spark having a camera sensor that has a pixel size of that size, is mighty impressive, So how is it?

In real world the Spark’s camera is capable, but continuing the trend of other things on the Spark, it’s sloooooow. It’s slow to open, relatively slow to focus and then slow to capture, which on more than one occasion led me to lose the shot because the subject had moved. If you have time to compose the shot, the Spark is actually surprisingly capable, it’s not going to replace your DSLR, and you shouldn’t expect it to, and honestly, most of the time it’s too slow to get the shot you wanted, but if it is not mission critical, and not time sensitive, you’re able to get a not terrible shot on the Spark.

 

So flipping onto the front, the OV8858 unit from OmniVision is another 8mp unit, this time is fixed focus, it has a 1.12Micron Pixel size, and F2.0 aperture and a lens size of 1/4″. The front facing camera is about as impressive as a fixed focus omnivision camera can be, It takes photos which look a little washed out, but the main issue, as with the rear camera is speed, most of the time, people don’t want to compose a selfie and hold it for upwards of 5 seconds whilst it tries to expose and then capture and then save the image, and that’s what you have to do on the Spark. For £90 you should be glad you’re getting an 8MP camera on the front, even if it is hampered by the sluggishness of the overall system.

 

And as with all the phones I have been testing recently, I have tried to take a little Vlog on each one so you get to see the video capture on each. The front camera on the Spark is only able to capture 720p30 FPS whilst the back is capable of 1080p30. Video looks better than stills do, albeit not by much. Exposure swings are minimal, but when they happen they’re swift and are over quick. Overall the camera experience on the Spark isn’t great, but it could be much worse, especially looking at its price tag. As long as you follow the golden rule, which is: If it is time sensitive, don’t try to use the Spark, you should be fine.

There was going to be a Vlog with the Spark, as I try to do with all my recent review videos, but sadly, due to some abnormalities with the recordings, over half of them were unusable, so instead here is a short 1080p video sample from the rear camera.

Thermals

This thing get’s hot, and not just a little warm, I’m talking about the upper quarter of the phone gets so hot I want to turn it off and put it down hot. Hot enough that I was worried it was going to damage components or hurt me, The heating problem is easy to replicate as well, just do anything even remotely taxing, which on this phone can be scrolling through Instagram for more than 5 minutes, the phone starts to lock up and then down the bottom by the MicroUSB port and the upper quarter of the phone get somewhat dangerously hot.

I Don’t know what it is , but this last year, phones have been coming out with much higher operating temperatures than before, and no-one really benefits from it. It started out as only high-end phone, but in the last few months, the BQ Aquaris X5 (since fixed with a recent system OTA) and now the Wileyfox Spark, both low-cost devices that are getting seriously, dangerously hot whilst in use.  I don’t know if it is a glitch, or if this is intended behaviour, I’d hope it’d be the first, so they have plausible deniability, otherwise the engineers over at Wileyfox need to go get their heads examined, because these thermals are out of control.

Software

CyanogenOS is back again, this time in Marshmallow Flavour. CyanogenOS 13.0 is what ships on the Spark, powered by Android 6.0.1, and we get all the goodness of Marshmallow with the goodness and endless customisability of Cyanogen. CyanogenOS is no longer the niche shipping feature it once was, but that doesn’t mean it has lost it’s appeal, It’s privacy features, security features, customisability and stability are all things to be lauded.

Starting with the negatives, because it is a much smaller list. Starting with probably the most glaring omission, the Spark triggers Whatsapp’s “Custom ROM” warning when launched for the first time, this makes sense as CyanogenOS is based on the open source custom ROM CyanogenMod, but as the commercial entity Cyanogen Inc, should have made sure that their shipping software doesn’t trip Custom ROM warnings like this.

Otherwise, It’s plain sailing. If you aren’t aware, CyanogenOS is like AOSP+, It’s stock android with a load of great additions that make the experience greater if you want to mod and tweak, but don’t negatively impact you if you’re just a normal user. If there was just one part of CyanogenOS I’d change, that’d be the camera app, it looks dated, feels dated, and just doesn’t work all that well, I almost instantly downloaded the Google Camera app, which whilst it did not improve the quality of the shots, it at least improved the experience of taking the shot, which in some cases is just as important.

Cyanogen specific features are pretty great, we have LiveDisplay, which works a bit like F.Lux on your PC or Mac, it adjusts the colour temperature of the screen, effectively removing the blue part of the spectrum so that it is less damaging to your eyes, this means that at night, it doesn’t keep you awake as much and doesn’t hurt your eyes, but during the day it acts as a normal display. CyanogenOS also comes with literally years of themes in its theme store, allowing you to change so much of the OS, it’s practically impossible to have an identical layout to someone else once you start tweaking. But as I stated earlier, if you Don’t want to do that, you don’t have an inferior experience, it just leaves you alone, like a luxury car brand doesn’t have to actively ask you to buy its cars, the theme aspects of CyanogenOS don’t nag you to use them, because they know that if theming is important to you, you’ll find it, and you’ll know where to look.

Connectivity and Radios

Another way you can tell the Spark is a budget device is in it’s radio, it just isn’t very good, whether it be limited band support or just poor antennas, it doesn’t matter, the end result is a device that more often than not struggles to grasp a signal in places that others are fine with, the speeds when you have a decent connection are just okay, and lastly, and most importantly, there seems to either be an issue with my unit, or just buggy software, but on more than one occasion, the device refuses to admit that my SIM card is installed, despite the fact that I was using it for phone calls minutes prior.

Even if it isn’t an issue for you because you don’t make many calls, it is still an issue when you can’t get any data though, which is another issue that I had on the spark, were the SIM might be recognised, and signal is there, but no data is transferring, I have tried resets, reboots, swapping SIM slots and changing the APNs all to no avail, this is either a hardware issue on my unit, or just a really bad software bug, because a smartphone is kinda useless without a data connection.

Conclusion

So this is a bit of a polarising phone, but in the end it’s going to be super hard for me to recommend the Spark to anyone and for a couple of good reasons. First off is the speed, this thing is sometimes cripplingly slow, unusably slow, slow enough to make you think that you haven’t pressed the screen although you definitely did; that’s one. The other is the Storage. 8GB of storage just isn’t enough, especially when only 3.5gb is free for you to use and adding in a MicroSD card for adoptable storage wont install every app on the MicroSD card, and lastly is the price, whilst the race to the bottom means we can now buy a phone with an HD Display for under £100, it isn’t worth it if it isn’t a phone you want to use, and a lot of the time, the Spark is just that, a chore to use.

Compound that with the fact that last years low-end phone, the Swift is regularly on sale for £99, or just £10 more than the Spark, but offers much better performance,screen,camera and has a smudge-resistant screen, It becomes next to impossible to recommend the Spark. Adding in that the Spark+ is going to retail for £115, £25 more than the Spark, but you get 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, as well as a Samsung ISOCELL camera on the back, you are getting an updated Swift for either £15 less than retail, or £15 more than the regularly discounted price of the Swift. Pricing is where Wileyfox have shot themselves in the foot this year, and I honestly don’t know why the standard Spark exists, it sullies a good brand’s name with poor performance, relatively poor camera, and poor thermals all to reach the magical £90 price point, but to me, it just isn’t worth it.

Wileyfox Spark

£89.99
5.8

Build Quality

7.0/10

Screen

8.0/10

Performance

2.0/10

Camera

4.0/10

Battery

8.0/10

Pros

  • Screen isn't horrendous
  • CyanogenOS 13 is great
  • Cameras don't suck if you can compose shots

Cons

  • Unusably slow sometimes
  • Takes an age to charge
  • Most of the time the cameras suck
  • 8GB of storage is pitiful
  • Cheap flash doesnt help the speed issue

About Domenico Lamberti

Technology has been a big part of my life for years, whether it be ripping the family computer apart to see how it worked, playing with the new phones that Dad brought home from work. Senior Reviewer for MTT.

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