In case you don’t know, Smartisan is a newbie in Chinese phone manufacture space with only one smartphone in the market before the U1.
It is famous for its interestingly unparalleled motto: ‘the idealism’ or 情怀 in Chinese, which is the trademark gimmick of their fan base. While Xiaomi and other competitors were attracting millions of buyers with high price-performance ratio product, Smartisan’s 2014 crafted flagship T1 was tagged 3000-3500 RMB at launch, and dropped sharply to 1980-2450 RMB after 4 months.
It ended up suffering from a capacity problem. By August 2015, 255,000 T1s were sold, which is a few zeros less than Xiaomi, who resembles a bit more market pragmatism.
After all the trials and errors in making their debutante, it is rational to say, U1 is Smartisan’s compromise between quality and price. U1 sells only ¥999 ($140, 32GB version), and the OS is of full charisma just like the founder Luo Yonghao. For those who’d never drop money on an non-iPhone phone (like me), 999 RMB is worth a try. And how am I going to keep it or not after trial? The phone itself will answer it.
- Weighs: 155 g
- 152.9 x 76.9 x 9 mm
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 1.5 GHz qcta-core processor
- 2GB RAM
- Dual-SIM (4G/2G)
- 16GB / 32GB Storage
- 2900mAh battery
- 5.5 inch display
- 13MP rear, 5MP front camera
- MSRP: 16GB ￥899/ 32GB ￥999
- Product info page (in Chinese)
- Low price
- NFC is still there
- Pretty hardware design
- Interchangable rear covers
- The OS is special in looking
- No support for China Telecom network
- No 5GHz band in WiFi
- No memory expansion
- The second SIM slot only has 2G connectivity
Design: No Alarms and No Surprises
For a gadget phone in 1000 RMB range, we weren’t be prepared for ultimate craftsmanship and extreme performance; and all you can expect is a practical and solid phone.
At this point, U1 does the job well. Although the phone is made of plastic, the overall visual impression does not look that cheap. The rear cover is also masked by a rubber-like touch backing, which makes it feel less like a plastic toy, more like a real phone.
As the CEO Luo Yonghao mentioned on Weibo, U1 is a brand new product line for Smartisan, so don’t go judging it as the successor to the T1, the U1 is at one third of the T1 and we have to keep that in mind.
It doesn’t follow T1’s extreme symmetry rule, thought the U1 still has some Smartisan T1 features, like the symmetrical left and right side keys as well as the all-in-one pill shape sensor & speaker in upper front.
The back is curved plastic instead of iPhone 4-like flat glass. The power button is now in pill shape while the T1’s is symmetrically round to meet with the shape of headphone jack; the three physical navigation buttons have been abandoned.
The phone itself doesn’t necessarily finish ahead of other Chinese budget phones, it’s looks haven’t particularly tempted me (even it has the iconic rear cover), but it’s not the ugliest phone on the market. To me it is an appropriate budget phone; big, solid, and ready to use.
Smartisan OS: A Paranoid Android
In China people can’t get access to most of the Google service so to provide a handy OS modification is a must for the smartphone makers, as well as an opportunity to set themselves apart. In the 1000 RMB range, the hardware is on par with other competitors, it’s the software that sets it apart.
Smartisan OS is the reason this “artisan” was willing to bend down compromise in hardware design.
This Android mod reflects the aesthetic taste of its CEO Luo Yonghao, the former English teacher and Chinese online celebrity, which is a skeuomorphism of the long abandoned design language after Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away.
Skeuomorphism, Skeuomorphism, Realism
As for Android mods, I think Smartisan OS is the bravest, and finest dedication to Apple’s lost skeuomorphism.
— Boyuan Wang (@MrBoyuanWang) August 21, 2015
Since Apple turned to a 2D design in 2013, there’s barely a company that will put more focus on designing the older, iconic icons and UI. I myself hate to see the mobile UI becoming that thin, light and surreal. I often recall the stunning design of the iTunes metallic slider in iOS 6, reflecting with the phone tilting. Luo Yonghao is a crazy fan of Steve Jobs and a devoted follower of this “heavy” design language, so what Smartisan OS showcased are all based on his early tastes and values.
The UI in Smartisan OS reminds me mostly of iOS 6 and prior, which is thick, heavy and textured. There’s even a hint of paranoia in the way Luo and his team have done this, every element is visual realism. So there is light, there is shadow, there are water drops, there is texture.
You can’t hate the UI for being so elaborate, although it looks like a mixed sketchbook of quick illustrations downloading from Dribble. And when the designers are too focused on adding realistic design to digital, it is easy to fall down to the other extreme, just like the Huawei Watch that makes TechCrunch’s John Biggs feel weird.
For example, the icon on the left is for the Smartisan Forum, but the message inside the icon is vague for non-Chinese users. “To pour water” is a Chinese Internet idiom for salivating over something. So the water (or saliva) is intends to show off beautiful design, but it makes no sense to foreign buyers.
Anyway, I like the boldness, and dedication to the skeuomorph which is actually pleasantly convergent from other Android mods. I guess Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall would be interested to see this, but also mad to see it on Android.
Commitment to Detail
The Smartisan OS is indeed as handy as jailbroken iOS. The system gives a bulk of useful functions and tweaks to make the user feel comfortable. To be honest I myself quite like the system, because of the wealth of options. The side keys are customisable, so is the theme. Not only can users change from a 3×3 or 4×4 grids theme, but also the original Andriod 4.4 Kitkat theme.
The unique OCD (yes, obsessive-compulsive disorder) settings are not like the accessibility settings in other systems, and they are a strange reminder that some companies in China are out of touch with the politically correct foreign buyers. In China OCD is more like a compliment for the people who can’t ignore the details, so the Smartisan see themselves as proud designers with this setting, no harassment nor discrimination.
In the OCD settings users can easily enable the function of swiping to clear all the badges, or hiding the icon label. The shaft in the virtual vinyl player in Music app can also be hidden – what a disorder it is!
It is an enjoyable pleasure to see the exquisite animations in Smartisan OS. Neat and bright, the animations take on the role that iOS 6 used to play. From lock screen to app switch, you will find a similar but fresh feeling.
Thanks to Smartisan’s paranoia, the Smartisan OS is finally a unique one, and everyone may have their own Smartisan system because of the inclusive options and settings.
Performance/Battery: Fitter Happier
Smartisan is a ready-to-use phone, and yes it has 18 removable bloatware apps in OS 2.0. As for benchmark performance, Smartisan is famous for intentionally underclocking its CPU when the system detects any benchmark app running. So what I can say is, the phone fits the OS, and it runs fluently for most of the time but the animation does lag under some circumstances. The Qualcomm heat flaw? No sign of it yet.
The standby time is 5 to 6 hours, just enough for a day’s use. Although it has no quick charge or hardware based power saving tech, a straightforward power saving mode which only allow phone calls and SMS is included in its OS. Also when the battery goes flat during a call, the system will automatically send a message to the other end saying you are out of battery. So despite the unsurprising battery, at least it has plan B for low battery communication.
Display/Camera: No Surprises
The display is a okay, standard HD screen, not much to emphasis. The rear camera comes with a 12.78MP f/2.0 set of lens, it focuses quick and the speed of imaging is quick too, combined with its two side keys, it is really handy to take snaps. Anyway, the camera is not bad for a budget phone, the function of its app is easy to use too.
Would I take it or not? Firstly, the hardware is not outstanding, even compare to other budget phones, but the software is really, really special and worth trying.
Luo said this U1 is made for young men, and I can’t agree more. The inner being of this phone is brave and rebellious, just like the youngsters. Even though he is once again betraying his lack of knowledge about the foreign market with such statements. Secondly, the design is almost IKEA-like in style, which represents the “cheap and chic” concept.
Finally, Smartisan themselves are young. The company started from a joke and endless controversy, and it didn’t get defeated. I’d love to see it go to the US and Japan.
In a word, I like the Smartisan OS, and I can’t wait to see the flagship Smartisan T2 coming this year.