A budget Android Lollipop smartphone from a relatively unknown brand probably isn’t your usual first choice for an upgrade. Indeed, it might – superficially at least – seem like a downgrade. But are you ignoring some decent hardware with this type of thinking?
We’ve taken a look at an Android device that has been generating some good reviews – is it really as strong as these reviews suggest? Or is this affordable handset merely a challenger to the midrange efforts of large manufacturers like Sony and Samsung?
The Umi eMax Mini is lightweight and delivers the Android 5.0 Lollipop experience with the usual iOS-inspired UI design found on Chinese smartphones. But is it worth your while? At the end of this review, we’ll be giving our test unit away to one lucky reader!
Unboxing the eMax Mini
We’ve seen some ostentatious smartphone packaging lately, most notably the Huawei P8 with its retro disc drive-style plastic box. But as you would expect from a budget Chinese smartphone, little expense has been made on the initial presentation.
Inside the 1990s-style, silver-grey, 6-by-6 sleeve, is a slightly smaller black box, within which you’ll find the Umi eMax Mini. Hard foam packaging separates the phone, charger and USB cable, while a brief leaflet highlights the camera, flashlight, sensors, camera, and so on.
This is not to say that the unboxing is disappointing; rather, it is brief and lets you get to grips with the phone straightaway.
What’s Inside the Umi EMax Mini?
An octa-core Snapdragon 615 CPU sits at the heart of the 139.8 x 69.6 x 8.9mm Android Lollipop-powered eMax Mini, bringing 64-bit architecture into the sub $200 bracket. In tandem is the once-ubiquitous Adreno 405 GPU, 16 GB ROM and 2 GB RAM. Output is via a 5.0 inch FHD IPS OGS display – more on that below.
We’re giving away the dual SIM option; old style SIM cards are required for this device, so if you’re buying or are lucky enough to win, you’ll need adaptors or new SIMs from your providers. Where 4G LTE is available, this phone is capable of high speed mobile Internet.
The cameras on the eMax Mini are 13 MP main and 8 MP secondary. Neither is outstanding, but at the same time, they don’t disappoint either.
The eMax Mini is listed as having Eyerprint scanner technology for retinal unlocking, however we were unable to find the means of activating and using this; certainly there was no obvious app or setting, so it seems likely that this feature was dropped, or it remains purely for the larger Umi eMax.
Unusually for smartphones in 2015, the eMax Mini has a removable back plate, which is how the dual SIM slots and microSD slot are accessed. The 3,050mAh battery is also revealed, however this is non-removable, and as such not replaceable.
Performance and Battery Life
The low hardware requirements of the phone have a good impact on battery life. After the initial charge, the handset sat for three days on standby, without losing more than 30% of battery life.
An unusual quirk with this phone is that that wireless – supposedly 802.11 b/g/n (as noted above) –slower than you would expect. Compared to my Nexus 5 (2013) I would estimate the Umi eMax Mini’s wireless speed is about 60%.
This brings us to benchmarking. Antutu Benchmark presents a very low result, around half that of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Don’t plan on doing anything much more extreme than making calls, social networking and web browsing!
Daily Use: Does the Umi EMax Mini Feel Like a Phone?
Chinese smartphone manufacturers seem obsessed by Apple. This is wholly obvious in the Umi eMax Mini, with the default UI presenting a collection of iOS-style icons. Beyond this, the UI seems to be very close to stock Android 5.0 Lollipop.
One thing that stands out about this phone is the display. Often unresponsive with a cheap, plasticy feel, it harks back to the cheaper resistive touchscreen phones and tablets rather than the slick usability of the modern capacitive touchscreens (what’s the difference?).
OGS (One Glass Solution) technology is employed here, a technique which aims to cut the cost of capacitive displays by removing one of the layers of glass and replacing it with a thin insulating material. However the IPS OGS Full lamination technology just doesn’t deliver.
This is clearly a disadvantage.
I suspect we all encounter a couple of responsiveness issues each day using smartphones, regardless of their model or manufacturer. Here, though, the problem is utterly frustrating. Like going back in time and finding that the world is a nicer place except for the lack of microwave meals, the mock-resistive touch screen is a poor choice that could send the user scurrying back to whatever smartphone they migrated from.
Another UI related problem is in the phone hardware. Unlike most Android 5.0 Lollipop devices, the Umi eMax Mini doesn’t offer software buttons. Instead, the Back/Home/Recents buttons are hardware, and while this isn’t a problem, the way they are implemented is troublesome.
Instead of baring button icons or being permanently illuminated, the buttons are largely anonymous, the LEDs only lighting up if you manage to precisely tap the button you’re aiming for. In daylight this isn’t too great a problem; in the dark, however, it makes using the phone quite difficult, as your eyesight is overwhelmed by the display brightness.
Apps and Gaming Experience
It’s always worth testing out a new phone with your favorite apps to make sure that it makes the grade. I’ve installed Twitter, Feedly and Temple Run on this device to get an idea of the level of performance I can expect. This isn’t to gauge any form of official benchmarking, merely to get an idea of how I would feel about this phone with daily use.
First up, I tried Temple Run. It plays quite well, and although the issues with the display affect the gaming experience, I lasted far longer than I expected.
Next, I moved onto Feedly. Syncing was as quick as you might expect, and sharing was also quick. Indeed, I shared directly into Twitter, which handled the data without any problems. Running Twitter independently, the expected performance was also present.
Now, often I have more extreme requirements from a smartphone; at the very least, rooting. Sadly, it seems as though there is a big question mark over whether this is possible, and how reliable it is to unlock the bootloader, root, and install a custom ROM with this device.
Overall, performance seems to be more than adequate for standard email, browsing, social networking and light gaming use.
Using the Camera
The 13 MP main and 8 MP secondary cameras are adequate, and although the MP rating is high for a budget camera, there is nothing in the software that supports or builds on this. All we get is a variation on the stock camera app, but this does include an automatic mode switching between HDR, panorama, time-lapse photography, barcode/QR code scanning and software for making faces beautiful.
In its favor, however, the software switches quickly between front and back cameras, should you fancy a fast selfie.
The shots here demonstrate the differences between the 2013 Nexus 5 camera, and the UMI eMax Mini. There’s a wintry dullness to the image on the right, as well as a flatter focus. However, the photographic hardware is clearly there, and with a camera-focused firmware update and a more sophisticated app, the photo on the left could end up being a lot closer to the one on the right.
Should You Buy the Umi EMax Mini?
High end, “flagship” Android smartphones have struggled of late not to disappear into their own self-importance. Having a great camera is a bonus; being able to watch streaming video and videogames is also a massive advantage, and if that’s all you’re looking for, plus a build quality to make your friends and colleagues drool, then opting for a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Xperia Z5 is probably your best option.
Of course, it might not be what you’re looking for. You might have budgetary issues; endless mobile games might be utterly irrelevant to you; your DSLR takes great photos already.
You might be a contrarian, never daring to bare your rebellious streak. And in all honesty, most people won’t even care that it’s not a Samsung or a Sony or a HTC.
The fact is, this is a perfectly good smartphone. Its build quality might not be hugely impressive and it might benchmark lower than you care to mention. But if you’re looking for a functional phone with an element of the “smart” about it, and don’t want to spend a small fortune (after all, you can buy a laptop PC for less than a flagship smartphone), and the quality of the build and the responsiveness of the touchscreen are not priorities, then the Umi eMax Mini might be exactly what you’re looking for.
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