India's best budget smartphones

The Android wars have just begun, and Google's new Android Ones will soon go head-to-head against the dominant models in the marketplace. Which means it's a great time to see what devices are the best of the budget breed in India currently, and what the new Ones will have to do to wrest customers away from them.
By Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
1 of 5 Rajiv Rao/ZDNET

The attack of the Android Ones

By now, all of you probably know that a few hours ago, Google unveiled its "Android One" phones in India — a crucial endeavor that will expand the Android platform's already dominant global market share to even greater heights. Google wants to do this by positioning the new crop of phones towards the 900 million or so people in India, not to mention those in other developing countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, who are increasingly looking to ditch their "dumb" feature phones for "smart" ones.

This is the El Dorado for smartphone makers, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed, especially considering China's smartphone market is saturating and India's story is just beginning.

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One of Google's current stars, local-boy-done-good Sundar Pichai, threw the covers off the line-up: The Karbonn Sparkle V, Micromax Canvas A1, and Spice Dream UNO, all made by local Indian companies and all of which will be flogged through different local online retailers. Currently, various Android or Android-based smartphones run varied, customised versions of Google's dominant OS, which along with the diverse collection of hardware can make them glitch prone. So, this is an effort to establish some common standards.

But how good are these new Android phones? And how do they compare to what's out there in India today?

Thanks to Moore's Law (Gordon Moore, Intel's founder, famously prophesized that the number of transistors on an affordable CPU would double every two years), every year brings a basketful of savory new choices to avail of with incremental new advances in speed, design, utility, battery, camera, and the various apps that can support them. This year, however, India experienced a veritable avalanche in new phones, many which kept breaking the barrier in pretty profound ways in terms of advances. This summer alone saw several new budget smartphones winning the crown for being the best on the block, only to lose it overnight to someone else.

Will the bar now be reset by the new claimants to the throne?

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It's tough to say, since specs often tend to be very much like the Indian cricket team — good on paper, but a very different proposition on match day. The Android One's specifications, regardless of manufacturer, include an Android v4.4.4 (KitKat) OS, a 4.5-inch LCD capacitive touchscreen, a 1.3GHz quad-core processor, a 5MP primary camera and 2MP secondary camera, and a dual SIM (GSM + GSM). Apparently, these phones will be the lucky recipients of the first lot of the new Android L release — an update that will bring with it Google's new design, enhanced battery life, more robust security features, and other such things.

Naturally, to figure out whether these specs cut the mustard, the new phones will have to be tested by reviewers and then used and abused for a while until a verdict can be delivered. Besides, since one man's dual-core could actually best another man's quad-core depending on who makes it or how the phone is assembled, until the contenders are tested in all departments, we won't know for sure whether they can snatch the mantle of King of the Smartphone Hill.

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Which means that they will have to go up against those in the current Budget Best-of-Breed that have wooed buyers in India. Shortlisting who these players are can be a harrowing task, considering how many players have flooded the market and how similar phones tend to become these days in what is rapidly turning into a commoditized game. Luckily for us, there was no ambiguity about the current winners. It's how they size up against the new Android Ones that is not so clear. Time will tell.

What's more important is that no matter which phone you pick, whether it may be the "One" or one from this list, all of them probably have far better specs than phones that cost twice their tab last year, and at $100 or thereabouts, a ridiculous steal.

Here are India's best budget phones in no particular order.

2 of 5 Rajiv Rao/ZDNET

MOTO E (Rs 6,999 or $116)

For a while, in those halcyon days before the launch of Xiaomi's Redmi 1S and Asus' Zenfone 4.5, the Moto E was the undisputed queen of budget smartphones. In fact, it pretty much obliterated anyone else even thinking of establishing suzerainty over the segment. Maybe this was a foregone conclusion considering that its older and more expensive brother, the Moto G, had done exactly this in its own category. Still, the fact is, nobody in India could have even dreamed of laying hands on such a solid, reliable, and nifty phone like the E at the absolutely jaw-dropping price of Rs 6,999.

A "chubby" phone as described by some, but with a pleasing matte finish and a curved rubberized back that is easy to grip, the E comes with a small 4.3-inch qHD (960x540 pixels) display, but it radiates rich colours and has decent viewing angles. The E's 1.2GHz Snapdragon 200 dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM has won it accolades for no discernible lags or stutters, even while scrolling through multiple apps including Facebook and Twitter.

This is a phone that is reputed to do pretty much everything an Android phone twice its price is able to do. And yet, its utility nods firmly in the direction of the Indian farmer watering his fields or a car mechanic in a remote, backwoods town — it is armed with Gorilla Glass 3 to ward off scratches and breaks, has an anti-smudge coating, and even comes with a nano coating on the inside and outside that safeguards against an accidental splash of water or whisky.

So, what's not to like? Well, compared to its Asian peers (well, I shouldn't say that anymore, considering it's now owned by Lenovo), the camera in the Moto E isn't all that hot — it has no flash or autofocus, and isn't all that great in low light. And for all those small-town or rural Indians itching to get onto the selfie bandwagon, it doesn't come with a front-facing camera (a gross omission, indeed an insult, to urban youth today). But in the interests of society, maybe that's the best thing about it.

If Asus and Xiaomi hadn't come along and ruined the party, it would have comfortably still been ensconced as the undisputed champion of budget smartphones in India. Its one big advantage over these two is its ability to get immediate Android updates. But what lies in store for the E now that the Android One has come out and eclipsed it, on paper, in almost every category including the chipset, camera, and display? Another couple of months should answer that question.

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Asus Zenfone 4 A450CG (Rs 6,999 or $116)

For about a month and a half this year, the Asus Zenfone 4.5 was the master of its domain. Its 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z2520 processor coupled with a 1GB of RAM gave users a seamless navigation experience. At 854x480-pixel resolution, its 4.7-inch display was pretty. It came with the latest Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box, had nice metallic keys, was sturdy, and was designed well.

Its standout feature was its camera. It had an underwhelming front-facing VGA (but this nevertheless trumped the Moto E, which had none). Its 8MP rear shooter, on the other hand, was one of the best in the business, a huge improvement over the Moto E's fixed-focus one and practically sold the phone by itself. One nifty feature allowed you to pump up the brightness of dim scenes by as much as 400 percent. Another allowed you to decrease megapixels when executing a macro shot. Yet another gave you the option of shooting a burst of images. Images were crisp and colours well represented, and the camera recorded 1080p and 720p videos.

The reason I'm referring to it in the past, almost like an unfortunate obituary, is that for the same bargain price of Rs 6,999 ($116), India saw the entrance of the Redmi 1 S that changed the game in a flash. You can read all about the Redmi 1 S in the next slide, but the other more pressing question is what a company like Asus will do vis a vis any of the Android Ones, which pack a better front-facing shooter for Skype calls, field quad-core processors, come with seven regional language options, and offer seamless OS updates for two years?

Asus needs to act fast if it wants to hold on to whatever slim advantages it still has else and not watch its impressive recent entry fade away in the imagination of the Indian budget smartphone buyer.

4 of 5 Rajiv Rao/ZDNET

Redmi 1 S (Rs 6,999 or $116)

When the Redmi 1 S launched a few weeks ago, it blew most of the competition out of the water, and even shouldered aside both the resolute Moto E that had firmly grabbed hold of the "India's best budget smartphone" moniker, as well as the Asus Zenfone 4.5, which usurped the title from the Moto E.

The Redmi 1 S has been hailed universally as such an outstanding phone that it is only appropriate that we begin by looking at what's not so great with it. Is there anything at all that sucks?

Well, some say that it has a tendency to pick up fingerprints and smudges. Also, the phone isn't apparently all that smooth when running a lot of apps. In fact, many feel that the Moto E feels zippier than the Redmi, despite fielding a processor that has lower specs on paper (which is why one has to take paper specs with a grain of salt). Users have also noticed that sunlight forces the Redmi to fluctuate its brightness levels noticeably and erratically.

But these are mere quibbles when you consider the feast of features and overall performance that are enough to make a budget smartphone buyer giddy with joy. The Redmi thrashes the Moto E in the camera department, with a shooter that is unmatched at this price and capable of taking some pretty pics with laudable definition and sharpness, and is able to shoot in full HD (1080p) and everything below. It even outpaces the shooter on the Asus, according to many. It is also more attractive, with a 312ppi pixel density (versus the E, at 256, and the Zenfone, at 199) and the only phone to offer a 720p (HD) display in this category.

The software is a slightly mixed bag. On one hand, its highly customized user interface allows you to custom design a whole host of things, from home screen to boot animations, but it is after all based on software that seems light years behind us today, namely Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean). Xiaomi has said that it will upgrade to to Android 4.4 KitKat later this year.

Overall, it's a phenomenal product for the price and is a true all-rounder. It looks sleek and has great build quality, and is possibly the current titleholder for the badge of Badshah of Budget Smartphones.

But there's the rub. Becoming the new Badshah involves actually being available in stores or online for purchase, much like the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Android Ones. Ahhh, if only we (or anyone for that matter) could get our hands on one. Xiaomi has attracted an ocean of ire for testing out the Indian waters with only a few thousand handsets. If it doesn't change that strategy soon, it may miss the boat on attracting the hordes of Indians champing at the bit to pocket a budget Android today and locking it in for a decade.

5 of 5 Rajiv Rao/ZDNET

Micromax Canvas Unite 2 (Rs 6,500 or $108)

Micromax, the local brand gone global with Mr Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman as its brand ambassador, has had a great ride in the last few years, and has largely contributed to Samsung's smartphone slide in India. (One analyst report even put it ahead of the Korean heavyweight in this category, but IDC begs to differ.)

After my beloved Samsung S2's motherboard departed this world after a nasty fall, I decided to put my faith in a Canvas HD. Unfortunately, as impressive as it looked, the phone's OS began to crash with more regularity than an Indian Air Force Mig-21 only a few days after purchase. And with no time or patience to stand in an unending line at a service center, this pretty much ended my Micromax experiment. But if I were looking for a budget smartphone today (or should I say last week, considering the Android One was launched today?), I would most certainly consider the Unite 2.

The phone has some pretty decent specs, with a 4.7-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) and a pixel density of 199ppi, a 1.3GHz quad-core processor, along with 1GB of RAM, which assures users a stutter-free experience for the most part. Its 5-megapixel rear camera takes some decent pictures and is an improvement over the fixed-focus Moto E. It even has a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, which, for selfie-crazed individuals, is a valuable addition. Its brightness levels are apparently good, it feels sturdy, and all in all, the Unite seems like a pretty good buy.

Of course, even with all of these laudable specs, and the praiseworthy price of Rs 6,500, it wouldn't stand much of a chance against the Redmi 1S or the Zenfone, and could even be trumped by the sheer rock solidness and overall build quality of the Moto E. However, the one thing that puts the Unite 2 on this list and perhaps even on even footing with the rest is that nestled inside it are 21 preloaded, local Indian languages — a considerable weapon, considering the enormous number of rural and small-town Indian users spread over a diverse linguistic and geographical terrain that are yet to gravitate towards smartphones. It demonstrates that Micromax is forever ready and willing to innovate for the local market.

Of course, all of the Android Ones (including Micromax's Android One version, the Canvas A1) already come with seven local languages, so I'm not sure how much of a value proposition the extra languages are by themselves to new phone buyers who speak one of the seven in the new droids. I won't be too surprised to see Micromax either phasing the Unite 2 out, or dropping its price substantially in coming months.

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