APPLE MAY BE IN DEEP TROUBLE. A REVIEW OF THE BLU LIFE ONE X

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I've been an iPhone user since the release of the iPhone 3g on July 11, 2008.  In the eight years ( wow, doesn't feel that long!) that I've been an iPhone user,  I have never once felt that Apple was in any danger of losing its position of power in the smartphone world.   Of course Android would always sell more devices,  they had the same advantage Windows had.   The advantage of an unlimited base of hardware vendors creating devices for the only other viable platform out there.   But to me, Apple would always be the king profit maker, and it was easy to see why.

Android simply didn't have the cohesive hardware/software experience of Apple.   iOS was always smooth, always polished, always cohesive.  We never had to worry that apps from the app store would destroy our phones, because they were always vetted by Apple.  Every corner of design was thought through again and again to be easy enough for even a toddler to easily grasp.  On top of that, the hardware was even better.  From the pebble like iPhone 3g, to the almost Leica-like machining of the iPhone 4 and 4s,  every hardware revision felt like an extension, and improvement of the cohesive whole.  It was truly beautiful.   Especially compared to the earlier versions of Android with chunky scrolling, horrifically bad UI design, cheaply made plastic-y feeling devices, and tons of carrier and manufacturer bloatware even on "flagship" Android devices costing as much or more than the equivalent iPhone (Samsung's early attempts with TouchWiz are a prime example).

"...APPLE HAS SIMPLY NOT WORKED HARD ENOUGH TO MAINTAIN THeir ADVANTAGE."

Of course in technology, I'm always trying to make sure I'm on the side with the greenest grass.   I've had my share of Android devices float in and out of my house over the years, from a first generation Nexus 7, to a Minix Mini PC,  and even a couple of Amazon Fire Tablets.  Even though none have had the polish of an Apple product,  I've been a first hand witness to the fact that Google has been trying very hard to chip away at Apple's advantage.   Each release is better designed, smoother, and more thoughtful and useful than the last.  Today for the first time, I've seen first hand that Apple has simply not worked hard enough to maintain their advantage, and a large chunk of their business may be in danger because of it.

The Phone that changed my mind - The Blu Life One X

Recently I decided that I am going to have to switch away from Verizon, the carrier I've been with since the iPhone 5.  Since I am still locked into a contract until September,  I figured the only way to figure out which carrier to move to would be to purchase an inexpensive unlocked LTE smartphone online and get a prepaid SIM from AT&T, T-Mobile, and anyone else I could stomach switching to, and simply TRY the services to see which combination of coverage and price would work for me.

A bit of browsing around Amazon led me to the "Life One X" by Blu.  A name that sounds like they put every smartphone naming convention into a hat and picked a few at random. 

Apparently, Blu is an American company that purchases, rebrands, and markets random Chinese Android smartphones as "value" devices in America.    To say that my expectations were low, especially with the absurdly inexpensive $99 off-contract price, is an understatement.   Yes $99 was the full price i paid for the phone, this is an off-contract price.   For comparison the off-contract price of a new 16gb iPhone 6s is $649!

Expectations as they were,  a cursory glance at the specs showed that it was compatible with all of the major LTE bands in America, so into my shopping cart it went, and Amazon Prime delivered it shortly thereafter.

THE ARRIVAL

The box the phone came in was basically a black-colored ripoff of an iPhone box, which is to say extremely premium feeling for a $99 smartphone (at that price I would have been satisfied if it showed up wrapped in newspaper).    I took the plastic wrapped phone out of the box (it was lighter and thinner than I expected), and proceeded to look through the rest of the contents of the box.  Not only did I get a smartphone for $99,  it also came with the requisite charger and micro USB cable,  a pair of earbuds,  a screen protector, AND a full size flip open faux leather case!    Here I was expecting to have had to supply my own charging cable at that price.   Another lesson learned, and not the last to be sure!

None of my testing SIMs had come in yet,  so I decided to just play around with the phone on Wifi to see what it could do.    

The phone itself is surprisingly premium feeling with a beautiful aluminium band around the outside and a curved-at-the-edges Gorilla Glass front display.  The giant BLU logo on the front is pretty ugly,  but a lot of Android phone makers seem to do this anyway.  Not sure why.  The back panel is covered in a plastic-y faux leather which can be pulled off to reveal the dual sim trays and the micro SD card slot.   The battery is sealed.   The leather-patterned plastic on the back plate is a decidedly un-premium touch, but not totally unwelcome as it feels pretty good in the hand.   A premium smartphone like this with the quality of leather Apple uses on the Apple Watch would be insanely good.  I haven't held a Moto X with the leather back, but I'd imagine that would be fantastic in the hand.

TURN IT ON

Turning on the device, I was greeted by the colorful BLU logo and a startup chime.   First impressions;  the speaker on this thing is god awful.    It's that terrible, tinny sound you remember from your old flip phone.   But the display,  the display is absolutely GORGEOUS.   A read of the specs show its a 1080P IPS Display.   It may not be quite as good as the one on the iPhone 6s Plus.   The color gamut is not quite as good, and the accuracy isn't quite as good.   But surprisingly, its about 90% as good!   Colors are bright and vibrant,  blacks are dark, and text is crisp.   

Setting up the device was a breeze,  as it is for most Android devices.   I signed in with my google account, and I was off to the races installing my favorite apps.   The responsiveness of this phone blew me away from the get go.   Everything felt snappy.   There was very little lag even with quite a few applications open.   Typing didn't feel as responsive at first, and I was certainly slower than on my iPhone, but it turned out that the stock keyboard, TouchPal, is just terrible,  and switching over to the Google Keyboard fixed everything and I was back up to speed.  So far so good!   Even the small bit of gaming I did felt pretty good.   Alto's adventure was smooth as silk,  as was Beach Buggy Racing.

DAILY DRIVER

So I have spent the last week or so using this phone as my daily driver, and I can say that it has functioned pretty well.   The microphone and the speakers on this device are NOT great.   But I speak on the phone so little that this isn't a giant issue.   Talking over bluetooth is better still.    Wifi reception is good,  and everything remains snappy and responsive.  Battery life also gets me through the day pretty well.   Which is good, because there would be no good way to charge it if it didn't.   Apparently this phone doesn't support any of Android's quick charging standards because charging on this thing is INTERMINABLY SLOW.    Like, overnight slow.  

The camera is also nowhere near as good as my iPhone.   The viewfinder is stuttery, and there is a pretty significant lag between pressing the button and getting a photo.   When you do nail a shot,  it looks pretty good,  but nothing to write home about.   It may be higher resolution than the iPhone camera, but it feels less sharp and the dynamic range seems to be worse.

I also miss having a fingerprint reader for unlocking the device.   I would miss Apple Pay too if I ever used it,   which I don't because there are barely any stores near me that take it.

So far I'm only really missing 3 things from my iPhone.   iMessage, Overcast, and Photoshop Fix.    The latter is coming "soon" to Android so that's good,  but I haven't found a podcast app that is anywhere near as good as Overcast is, or as good as Apple's default app for that matter.   Pocket Casts is decent,  and there seems to be a lot of developer interest in these apps on the Android side now,  so it might just be a matter of time for that one.

iMessage is a bit tougher.   There are a ton of messaging solutions on Android but none that seem to work quite as well at mixing SMS and messages as iMessage does.   Something tells me Google is working hard at this one, and a comprehensive solution is probably on its way.

GET TO THE POINT

The point is that this device is far better than it has any right to be at $99.  Is it a great device?  No.   But it is a solidly good one.   The fact that any company can stay afloat selling a device that is this solid for such little money should have Apple worried.   The fact that a $99 smartphone can accommodate 95% of a hardcore Apple user's smartphone needs should have Apple very worried.   

Apple's recent forays into services have not served them very well.   Apple photos is decent but nothing spectacular.   Apple Music is a total mess.   Siri is still slow and inaccurate.  Heck, even iCloud after a few years of baking is still kind of a buggy mess.   It took until the last iOS 9.3 beta for my notes to finally start syncing correctly between my Mac and my iPhone.

As more and more of the things we do on our smartphones are connected to backend cloud services and our devices become more and more just dumb terminals,   Apple is going to have to step up their game tremendously if they want to compete.  Especially considering that Google has way more experience in this area.   All of their services; to use an Apple phrase; Just work.   My contacts are always there,  my Google Docs always work and always sync between my browser and my phone.   Google Photos is a far superior service to Apple photos in almost every way.

They have been able to the fact that  iOS's is simply a better engineered operating system as a bit of a crutch since Steve passed away,  and it seems like they have been coasting a little.   And as the OS itself becomes less and less relevant,  all we will have left to rest on is the quality of the hardware, and the quality of the services.  The hardware quality is as good as ever with Jony at the helm there,  but the services side of Apple is in some serious trouble.

As beautiful as the iPhone is as a device,  I have to wonder how I can continue to justify spending $700+ on a device,  when most of my needs can be met by some random $99 smartphone.

Will I go back to my iPhone?  Yes.   For iMessage, and for the better camera, and for those few apps that I like to have,  I will.    And more than likely I will be purchasing the iPhone 7 in September.    But for the very first time,  that decision is no longer a no-brainer.

Posted on February 29, 2016 and filed under Technology.