Vodacom freely admits that one of the biggest barriers to getting more South Africans using its 3G and 4G data networks is the cost of smart devices, including smartphones and tablets.
It’s one of the main reasons the mobile operator has a strategy of selling its own-branded, low-cost, Chinese-made handsets in the South African market.
And they’ve proved a big success since they were first introduced in the middle of last year, with the Smart Kicka, which made its debut for just R549 (it’s since risen in price by R100 thanks to the weak rand), selling more than a million units.
This week, Vodacom announced four new products — three smartphones and a tablet — that it hopes will spur more demand for data access.
Ranging in price from R1 099 for the 5-inch Smart Grand 6 to R3 199 for the 5,5-inch Smart Ultra 6 (which includes an eight-way processor — four cores at 1,5GHz clock speed and four at 1GHz), the new devices are deliberately priced below brand-name competitors. There’s also a 4G/LTE device, the Smart Speed 6, which is priced at R1 299, which Vodacom claims is the cheapest 4G-capable smartphone in South Africa.
But it’s the Vodacom Smart Ultra 6 that has really caught TechCentral’s eye. Designed by Vodafone and manufactured by ZTE, the Ultra 6 is by far (we think) the cheapest smartphone in its class available in South Africa today.
Unboxing the phone reveals a large-screen smartphone that looks quite similar to the iPhone 6 Plus — no doubt, a deliberate design decision given that the iPhone is such a highly coveted device.
But is it any good?
Let’s deal with the specs first. The Smart Ultra 6’s strongest selling point is its display. It’s an IPS, 1080p, full-HD affair that looks great, even in bright conditions.
It comes packed with 16GB of storage space — same as the entry level iPhone 6s (and it accepts microSD cards up to 64GB), and runs Android 5.0 Lollipop (no word on whether updates to 5.1 or to 6.0 Marshmallow are in the works, so don’t bet on it). As mentioned, it has an octa-core processor, and this is paired with 2GB of RAM, sufficient for a smooth Android experience but less than what you’ll get on top-end Android smartphones today.
The cameras are pretty good, too. The rear one, made by Sony, is 13 megapixels and has an LED flash, while the “selfie” camera has a respectable 5-megapixel sensor. Pictures from the rear camera are no match for modern high-end phones like the iPhone, but they’re also quite acceptable, even in low-light conditions.
Connectivity options include Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE, with a wide range of bands supported (LTE works on 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,8GHz and 2,6GHz, so it’s future-proofed).
Even the battery is quite respectable at 3 000mAh. There’s also GPS (with assisted GPS) and accelerometer and a proximity sensor.
In short, the Smart Ultra 6 has the same specs of a high-end phone of just two years ago — at about a third of the price. Today, these specs make it an upper midrange device. Given the collapse in the value of the rand, though, it is impressive that Vodacom has managed to trim the price to just R3 199.
Vodacom (or more correctly, it’s parent Vodafone) hasn’t fiddled too much with the Android interface, so fans of vanilla Android will enjoy the experience. There are a bunch of Vodacom-related apps included in a folder on the desktop, including the Deezer music streaming service, an education portal and its Video Play service. The apps are easy enough to delete if you don’t want them (they’re not system apps).
The build quality of the Smart Ultra 6 is excellent, though the unibody design could probably do with a bit of improvement, especially the rear, where the plastic makes the phone feel a little on the cheap side. The volume up and down buttons and the on/off button, while well located for quick thumb access, also look a bit jarring. The phone makes up for these niggles to some extent through its slim-line design — it’s just 8,3mm thick.
The only real downside of the Smart Ultra 6 is the fact that it’s effectively a no-name-brand phone. The front might resemble an iPhone, but the fact is that it’s not. And Vodacom’s “teardrop” logo certainly doesn’t have the same brand cachet as Apple’s logo. This will certainly make the brand-conscious look elsewhere (and pay more), but for those who don’t care about labels, the Ultra 6 is a great option with an excellent price tag. We have no doubt that Vodacom is going to sell lots of them. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media