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Cyanogen OS adds some useful security and privacy features
Lots of theming options
Dual SIM support
Good battery life
Cannot use second SIM and a MicroSD card at the same time
Camera is prone to blurry images
Tired of the same old mobile operating systems but still want a broadly recognisable handset? Then cast your eye over the BQ Aquaris X5 Cyanogen Edition, which is available exclusively from O2 in the UK. Cyanogen OS is an overlay for Android, so you're assured of some familiarity while also getting something a bit different -- and that something includes some interesting security and privacy features.
The Aquaris X5 Cyanogen Edition isn't as radical as the Spanish handset-maker's Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition -- a world-first released last year. You can find Cyanogen OS on another UK handset, the £129 Wileyfox Swift, but the BQ Aquaris X5 Cyanogen is exclusive to O2.
The BQ Aquaris X5 doesn't look special in terms of its design and build, although the icon on the central touch button under the screen -- a curved array of dots -- mimics the BQ logo. And if you look closely enough you'll notice that the other two soft buttons to its left and right are indicated by small, single dots.
The 5-inch screen sits in a chassis measuring 70.5mm wide by 144.39mm deep by 7.5mm thick and weighing 148g. The bezel above and below the screen is relatively large, making this a rather tall handset. The shell is black, its aluminium back disguised under a matte black finish that's smooth but not overly slippery. The metal edge has a grey sheen and stops slightly shy of the back, which makes the device look a little fatter than it is. The edge curves nicely into the front of the handset, though.
The build is solid: when we tried to bow the phone between two hands we were pleasantly surprised by the almost zero flexibility it displayed.
Connections and controls are pretty standard. Volume and power buttons sit on the right edge, where there's also a SIM caddy that will accommodate two Nano-SIMs, or one SIM and a MicroSD card. This arrangement, which allows you to swap out the storage in favour of a second SIM, doesn't win any plaudits from us: if you regularly use a MicroSD card for storage, you won't appreciate having to sacrifice it whenever you need to insert a second SIM.
There's a headset jack on the top edge and a Micro-USB port and a speaker on the bottom. BQ is quite pushy about the sound output from this speaker, which it says benefits from a soundbox, boasting of 'spectacular' audio quality at its website. Testing this with some YouTube clips revealed a good volume level but too much treble and too little bass for us to agree with that description.
The 5-inch screen's 720-by-1,280 pixel resolution (294ppi) is low-key compared to flagship handsets, but is fine for a phone that costs £179 (inc. VAT) SIM-free direct from BQ -- the same screen resolution is shared by Motorola's £160 Moto G (2015), for example. Still, a 294ppi screen doesn't excel when displaying small text: we found reading websites and ebooks a little bit unsatisfying, although the display is bright and viewing angles are fine.
The Snapdragon 412 used here was announced mid-2015 as an SoC for entry-level handsets, alongside the power-frugal Snapdragon 212. A quad-core CPU, clocked at 1.4GHz and supported by 2GB of RAM, the 412 performs fine for everyday activities.
Internal storage is somewhat meagre, with just 16GB installed, of which 11GB was free on our review unit.
Cyanogen OS (version 12.1) sits on top of Android 5.1.1. (Readers with long memories will remember that Cyanogen was used by OnePlus in its debut OnePlus One handset back in 2014, but was subsequently dropped in favour of the company's own Oxygen OS in the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X.) As mentioned earlier, you can find Cyanogen in another UK handset -- the Wileyfox Swift.
The BQ Aquaris X5 Cyanogen Edition is exclusive to O2 in the UK. It's on the Refresh tariff, which splits bills into a device plan and an airtime plan, cuts the tariff when your handset is paid off, and lets you trade in your phone whenever you wish.
According to O2, this handset is all about giving customers more choice as Cyanogen is "a new option to the traditional Android and iOS systems offered by other networks". We appreciate that it and adds to the range of choice, but as we've already noted, Cyanogen is an add-on to Android rather than a new operating system. What purchasers are really getting here is Android plus some extras.
Setup is very much like setting up any Android handset, and this includes the ability to restore apps from a previous Android smartphone. However you also need to set up a Cyanogen OS account to take full advantage of all that's on offer.
There are some neat security features in the mix. Creating an account gives you, via the Cyanogen website, remote access features that will locate your device -- the location is displayed at the Cyanogen website on a Google map -- and let you remotely lock and remotely wipe your handset.
There are also some nice on-device security features. Privacy Guard gives you a detailed breakdown of how different apps are using your data, for example, and lets you control specific aspects.
You can set up a blocked caller list, while an option to scramble the keypad when you're using a PIN for login might prove useful if you are wary of people watching where your fingers go when you unlock.
A Cyanogen OS account also gives you access to a range of themes. Some you pay for, some are free, and what's on offer includes themes that emulate the UIs of other handsets as well as seasonal variations. You can fiddle with elements within themes too, for further customisation.
The 13-megapixel rear camera shoots full-HD video (1080p) and the front camera delivers 5-megapixel images. Unusually both the front and back cameras have a flash. However, you'll need a steady hand as any motion at all while shooting results in blurred images. Forget trying to take pictures of pets or people unless they -- and you -- can hold still.
Battery life is good. BQ uses a 2,900mAh battery and we found we easily got a day's life from a single charge with a usage regime involving some web access via wi-fi and when out and about, regular email, a bit of YouTube viewing and some phone calls. Keen gamers, music fans, or video watchers may need to recharge during the day though.
If you're on a budget and want the familiarity of an Android handset with some extra security, privacy and theming features, then the BQ Aquaris X5 Cyanogen Edition is worth considering. You'll have to live with moderate-quality cameras, but unless you're a power user you can expect to get good battery life.