We love a bargain here at MoDaCo and we also have a long standing history of recommending cheap Chinese phones which can be imported from sites such as Merimobiles and BuySKU. This creates a rather nice intersection point as what we have for review here is the iOcean X7 Elite, a phone that can be bought for around £190 at the time of writing although this price is very variable depending on exchange rates and availability.
What you get for your money is quite extraordinary. A quick breakdown of the specs shows that this model includes a 5" 1080x1920 pixel IPS LCD screen, a 1.5Ghz quad-core processor, 2Gb RAM, 32Gb Storage and a 13 megapixel camera. These specs are right in line with all the latest flagship Android phones including the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.
So, this is a great device on paper, but what about in reality? Lets start with a full look over those specs and then dive straight into the full review.
- Dimensions: 141 x 69 x 8.95 mm
- Weight: 136 grams (150 grams officially)
- 5" IPS LCD, 1080x1920 display with 5 touch points
- 2000 mAh battery
- 13 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash
- 5 megapixel front facing camera
- 1.5GHz MTK6589T quad-core Cortex A7, PowerVR SGX544 GPU
- 2Gb RAM
- 32Gb storage
- 2G GSM: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
- 3G WCDMA: 2100MHz
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g
- GPS receiver with A-GPS
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- microUSB port
- Bluetooth v2.1
- Dual SIM with dual standby
As is sometimes the case with these sorts of devices, the manufacturing tolerances are wider than what we are used to. Hence, some of these specs are not as listed officially. The weight of my X7 is significantly less than the official specs.
What the specs cannot tell you is how the device feels, how well it is made and how durable it is. The X7 is constructed of some pretty mid-range plastics. I think they are similar to the Samsung Galaxy S4 in feel but with a completely plain finish. The back cover snaps off easily showing the 14 plastic hooks used to hold it on - fewer than on the S4. It feels fairly solid but a little light in the hand with that back cover creating a kind of ridge that actually helps when holding the phone. Frankly, it does feel a bit cheap, but no more so than a Galaxy S4 and it is a well made phone which does not creak or rattle. Everything seems to be well put together with consistent responses from the buttons, the back cover and the ports. There are no issues here. As for durability, I don't see any issues apart from the screen which has no obvious scratch resistance.
The X7 is a fair slab of a phone but is actually quite similar to the Galaxy S4 in size overall. It has a non-offensive and featureless design which is completely anonymous with no branding on the front of the phone but is not unattractive. That front is dominated by the 5 inch screen, with room for three capacitive buttons below it and the speaker grille, light and proximity sensors and front facing camera above. All very sensibly laid out. The plastic surrounding the screen is raised above the screen itself meaning there is some security there should you place the phone face down on a surface.
The left of the phone houses the one piece volume rocker whilst the right side is where you find the power buttons. These buttons are positive and easy to find without looking. HTC should take note of how easy it is to design good buttons.
The bottom of the device is where you find the micro USB port and the microphone hole. Up top, you just have the standard 3.5mm headphone hack.
The back is nice and simple despite being the busiest part of the design here. The speaker at the bottom has a small bit of plastic just above it to lift the X7 off a surface in that area and hopefully make the sound easier to hear. At the top there is the camera and single flash along with FHD branding. It is not clear if this branding is for the camera or the screen but it is true either way. iOcean branding is the only other flourish here.
Removing the back reveals the 2000mAh battery along with the dual SIM slots and the micro SD memory card slot. None of these slots can be accessed with the battery in the phone.
This is not a premium device in the hand, but the design is reasonable and it is well dimensioned for a phone with a screen this big. We think this is a good job on a tight budget.
The screen is a 5 inch, 1080p, IPS LCD fully optically laminated beauty. It is a stunning screen. Obviously at its ultra high resolution you would expect it to be crisp, but it also has amazing viewing angles, well balanced colours and reasonable brightness. The only downsides are the less than brilliant black levels and the lack of ultimate brightness. This makes the screen somewhat hard to use outdoors in direct sunlight, hard to the point of being impossible, but I gladly sought out the shade so I could enjoy this amazing screen. A phone at this price has no right to be bearing a screen this good.
I expected to have an awful lot to say about the software on the X7, but rather pleasantly there is very little to comment on. The X7 runs an almost vanilla version of Android 4.2.1.
When switching on the device, I found the language set to English (US). UK English can be selected, but you will need to use Morelocales to change the region settings to UK. Either way, there are no real issues here. The biggest surprise to me after the initial boot was that the X7 came fully rooted.
If you hard reset the device, the language and locale are set to some form of Chinese local settings. Obviously the device was shipped from BuySKU after being set to English as they advertise. There are also a lot of Chinese apps installed. The good news is that all these apps can either be uninstalled or disabled which is fantastic.
Despite being a fairly stock ROM there are some tweaks which are mostly positive. The first and most obvious change is that the settings menu has been altered slightly and there are some new colourful icons. Some interesting additions here include Audio Profiles of which 4 are provided by default.
The dialler has been tweaked to include a good implementation of dial pad autocomplete, something that is finally available in stock Android as of version 4.3. The camera app has also been changed, more on that later.
The quick shortcuts in the notification drawer have been added to and improved. There are now shortcuts for managing your data connection, audio profiles and screen rotation among others. I find this a useful and thoughtful addition.
The battery percentage can optionally be shown next to the clock in the top bar, another useful enhancement that is to be welcomed.
Beyond these tweaks, the software on the X7 is stock Android right down to the icons and the lock screen. An impressive job and one of the most appealing things about the phone for me.
The X7 takes 13 megapixel images from its main camera at a resolution of 4096x3072. This may sound very promising but in reality it is closer in quality to mid-range phones from last year most of which were packing 5 megapixel cameras. Pictures come out a little soft, underexposed and often slightly out of focus. The X7 struggles to pick out fine detail yet noise levels are kept under control reasonably well. This is a camera I am more than happy to use for quick snaps and sharing photos to Facebook, but it is not great.
Low light poses a challenge for the X7, but actually it is shadows and mixed light were it performs particularly poorly. You can see in the sample shots below how it struggles with images taken with that mix of shadows and bright light while in an indoor shot, detail is evenly captured even if poorly so. The video camera is more of the same although audio is very clear. I could not discern any difference recording at high or medium quality levels. This would be a disappointing performance for a £500 flagship phone, but is perfectly acceptable for a phone at this price.
Amazingly, the front facing camera is at least as good as the rear facing as long as you are in a well lit area. It is a very good front facing camera.
The camera interface is very simple and offers a reasonable set of adjustments. It has an HDR mode, various scene modes and can capture panoramas as well as multi angle view images which are similar to photospheres. These settings can be annoying to use as some aspects are immediately on hand and other settings have to be found in the settings menus, but at least they are there. You can initiate image and video capture from the same interface which I always find a big bonus too.
Most Chinese market phones accept two SIM cards and the X7 is no exception. In this case, we are able to use one mini SIM and one micro SIM. The phone also supports dual standby, so both SIM cards can be active at once. This can be very convenient, but how well does it work in practice?
The X7 detects when you insert a new SIM card into either slot and you can select which is used for voice calls, text messaging and data. You are able to use whichever of the two SIMs you want for each purpose. Both slots support 3G data connections, but only one SIM card can be active on 3G at once.
Reception on the X7 was generally good but definitely different for the two SIM slots. Whilst this makes no sense, using the mini SIM slot for my 3G connection always led to worse results than using the micro SIM slot. Overall though network speeds were good and signal strength consistent. It should be noted that using both SIM slots does have a deleterious effect on battery life due to two radios drawing power at once.
Call quality is generally excellent although I would prefer the speaker to be a little louder. The external speaker on my X7 is very poor being both quiet and very distorted which is a shame.
Performance and Battery Life
The performance of the quad core A7 CPU running at up to 1.5Ghz is good without being outstanding. The issue comes with the GPU trying to drive the very high screen resolution that the X7 has. It is up to the job, but only just. It is not that the phone is slow or lags consistently, but there are times when scrolling will judder or swiping between home screens becomes a struggle. These moments do truly only last a moment though. Overall, performance is impressive and apps open and respond without delay. The ARM A7 cores may not be the fastest performing platform, but it is certainly more than adequate for running Android.
Battery life is largely very impressive. The X7 has a fairly small battery by today's standards but I comfortably got a day out of the battery. If it had the twenty percent larger capacity that most five inch screened flagships from the likes of Samsung or Sony have, then it would match their battery performance too. What is especially impressive is that standby performance quite possibly beats that of the Snapdragon based flagships we are seeing today, but those slightly slower A7 cores have to be driven harder when under load and consequently, the battery suffers.
Risks and Issues
It is important to discuss what the risks are when importing a device such as the X7 although this goes for any device of this type.
The main risks are warranty and certification. Whilst I had a decent experience dealing with a warranty claim with BuySKU, your mileage may vary and there are no guarantees from BuySKU as to what they will do beyond 45 days after delivery. Other retailers have different rules, but none that I can find offer a UK style 1 year warranty.
All phones sold in the European Union are certified to meet a set of safety and performance criteria governing items such as the radios - WiFi, cellular and bluetooth - within the device. Batteries and radiation levels are also tested before a phone can be sold here. Any device you import yourself is highly unlikely to have met these criteria. Whilst it would be surprising of there were issues with any phones these days, you are offered no guarantees. Technically, your cellular network does not have to provide a connection to an uncertified device and they will be unlikely to offer any serious technical support.
Import duties may well be charged and collected by UK Customs authorities although there are no guarantees either way here. How UK Customs decide what level of duty to charge is an unknown too.
But it is also worth noting that the basic underlying hardware is starting to find its way into mainstream devices. The launch of the Oppo R819 recently marks the first EU certified phone to ship with the Mediatek CPU also found in the X7 while there are already a range of tablets available with this hardware.
One of the most annoying issues with the X7 is the left soft button below the screen which is marked as the multi-tasking button but is actually the menu button. Frustrating! It is also noteworthy that on my example at least, the external speaker is very poor and the vibration motor weak. There are perhaps smaller issues, but you can start to see where costs have been cut.
The worst of the issues though is the GPS. It takes a long time to get a lock and unless you are standing still or walking, the lock can be extremely inaccurate. At first, when I was driving, it would have me on roads up to half a mile from where I was, rendering Google Maps Navigation useless. Having tried a few GPS tweaks, it is generally accurate to within 200 metres which is just about acceptable for satellite navigation in general but is still very frustrating. Shockingly, I was forced to stop and ask for directions one time which was most upsetting!
It is worthless trying to compare the X7 to anything else with general UK availability, so I wont bother. There are other devices available for importing from China which are worth looking at such as the Giayu G4, the TCL Idol X and the Zopo ZP980, but I would probably buy the iOcean X7 Plus today which is the same as the X7 Elite except it only has 1Gb of RAM and 16Gb storage - small downgrades - but is even cheaper at around £150 at the time of writing. My concern is that none of these will have the same screen as the X7 Elite and it is hard to be sure. I have used an X7 Youth - lower end than the Elite and Plus - but the screen on that device was not optically laminated and had significantly worse black levels despite being similar in other ways.
So, the iOcean X7 Elite. Can it compete with the best from Samsung, HTC and Sony? No, it can't, but then it is also less than half the cost of those. It IS a very compelling device and is a class act all round. If you are prepared to take the risk and if GPS is not important to you, this phone is better than any similarly priced device you can buy in the UK today.