The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z might pack the biggest, brightest screens and the mightiest processors, but they also come with sky-high price tags. If you just want an Android phone for the everyday essentials of calls, texts and maybe a bit of social networking, there's absolutely no need to spend £500.
With a pay as you go price tag of only £90, the Vodafone Smart 3 is much more suited to those of you with more modest smart phone needs. It's cheap enough too that it might even be worth considering as an emergency phone to take away on a rough and tumble weekend where your precious iPhone 5 might well get damaged.
The Smart 3 has a 4-inch display, a 1GHz single-core processor and a 5-megapixel camera. It's available now from Vodafone.
Should I buy the Vodafone Smart 3?
The Smart 3 has a fairly decent 4-inch screen and a camera that will at the very least let you get a snap of your morning latte for Instagram.
And like the Nokias of old, you're also able to insert your own patterns under the back cover for the ultimate personalisation. A lovely touch, but it's ruined by the plastic cover that's almost too dark to see through.
Best of all though, it's available for only £90 from Vodafone. An excellent budget choice? Not quite. It's powered by a 1GHz single-core processor that struggled with even basic Android navigation. Screen swipes were stuttery and playing anything more demanding than Solitaire isn't enjoyable. It also only gives you a measly 2GB of storage for apps, and its battery life is pretty pathetic.
If you want to be able to personalise the look of your phone more than your mate's Galaxy S4, it's worth a look. For less money though, Huawei's Ascend Y300 has a similar display but its dual-core processor makes things run more smoothly. Alternatively, splash a tad more cash and snap up the Nokia Lumia 520. It has one of the best screens for its price range and the Windows Phone software is fun and less demanding on the processor.
Design and build quality
Look at it from the front and the Smart 3 is a little reminiscent of some of some of HTC's earlier designs, with the extended chin sticking out at the bottom. It's an inoffensive extrusion and it houses a small LED light that alerts you to notifications.
The own-brand phone is actually made by Alcatel, which generally makes perfectly serviceable budget blowers. Those of you looking for a stylish metal case will be left wanting -- but for £90, what did you expect?
Around the back you'll find a very plasticky panel. It's removable, as is the surround that holds it down, letting you put different patterned inserts underneath. There are a few provided or you can do what we did and print out your own.
This kind of personalisation is brilliant in theory, harking back to the days of phones like the Nokia 3200. Alcatel has ruined that almost completely though by using an extremely dark plastic cover that's almost impossible to see through, making the patterns underneath redundant. If it was totally transparent, I could craft a picture of my cat to live beneath it, turning an otherwise plain phone into a thing of unimaginable beauty.
It really needs something to improve the design, too -- as it stands, the phone is far from pretty. The plastic back is very glossy and easily picks up grease. There's no escaping that it's a budget phone, but you really can't expect too much time and money to have been lavished on premium materials and elegant design with such a piffling price.
It feels pretty solid when it's all put together though. The back panel didn't pop off when dropped and there's no unpleasant rattly bits. The standard 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB ports are scattered around the edges, along with a power button and volume rocker.
You only have a piddly 2GB of storage available, which will be a problem for app addicts. You can save your photos and music to an external card, but you can't do the same for apps. N.O.V.A 3, for example, is by itself too big to fit on the phone. Still, this phone really isn't designed for heavy app work or cutting-edge gaming. If you only want Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, it'll be fine.
The phone sports a 4-inch display with an 800x480-pixel resolution. That's fair for a phone of this price. Sure, it'll look rubbish next to the Full HD beasts but -- again -- it's a fraction of the cost. LG's Optimus L3 II is another ultra-budget phone, but its 3.2-inch screen has a resolution of only 320x240 pixels, which made even big icons looks miserable.
Icons here are reasonably sharp, and small text in emails and on web pages is perfectly readable. It doesn't cope well with displaying ebooks, but for the essentials, it'll do fine. It's quite bright too and I've defintiely seen worse colour reproduction on similarly priced phones. Its main let-down is poor viewing angles -- you need to be very square-on to the screen to make out what's going on, so it's not a phone for sharing pics round a table in the pub.
Software and processor
The Smart 3 runs on Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, which is about what I'd expect for a budget phone. There are more recent updates to Google's operating system, but you'll generally find them on higher-end mobiles..
Vodafone has done very little to the Android interface, so veteran 'droiders won't struggle to get to grips with it. It's also simple enough to make it relatively easy for new smart phone converts to learn on. There are a total of five homescreens where you can plonk down apps and live widgets. Any apps not on the homescreen will be found in a grid of apps that's reminiscent of the iPhone's app layout.
It's powered by a 1GHz single-core processor, which even for a budget phone is rather on the weedy side. Unsurprisingly, it turned in a deeply unimpressive performance. Swiping around the Android interface was often laggy and jerky. There were delays when opening menus too, and returning to the homescreen from an app regularly took a few seconds for all the apps to load into view. This all quickly became irritating.
On the Geekbench benchmark test it returned a score of 262. I ran the test multiple times and found the results to vary between 200 and 400. The Huawei Y300 achieved around 492 on the same test, helped by its dual-core chip. It wasn't particularly smooth to use either, but it was more responsive than the Smart 3 and comes with a cheaper pricetag.
It's no surprise then that the Smart 3 isn't much good with games. Comestible-chopping sim Fruit Ninja was too far too jerky to play properly, thanks to an abysmally low frame rate. If mobile gaming is on your agenda, you should really consider splashing some extra cash on a more powerful phone.
The Smart 3 runs off a 1,500mAh battery. That's smaller than many of the batteries in pricier phones, which tend to sit around the 2,000mAh mark. Vodafone reckons you can get roughly six and a half hours of talktime on 3G from the phone, which I reckon is about right. That's not particularly impressive -- these figures are always 'best-case scenario' anyway.
As always though, how long it lasts totally depends on how demanding you are. Again I have to cut it some slack -- the Smart 3 is designed for essential calls, texts and a quick spot of Web browsing. If you turn the screen brightness down, you shouldn't see the battery flat before a day is out. If you plan on streaming video over 3G, make sure you keep a plug handy.
Around the back of the phone is a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash. There's no front-facing camera, so video-calling over Skype is going to be a problem.
I took the snapper for a spin and found it to be reasonable for a low-end phone.
In my first shot of St Paul's Cathedral, the Smart 3 did a decent job of capturing an even exposure. Detail is fair when you look at the whole image -- on your Facebook page, for example -- but look closer and it's clear the camera lags far behind the snappers on higher-end phones such as the Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 925.
It struggled more with this statue. While the face itself was fairly well exposed, the sky was totally blown out and the shadows were overly dark. All together now: for a budget phone, I've certainly seen worse.
The Vodafone Smart 3 is cheap, has a decent screen, and the camera is at least good enough for a shot of your cat in your garden. The interchangeable back inserts would be brilliant if the plastic cover allowed you to see through it, too.
It's let down by a seriously underpowered processor, which makes even basic navigation a juddery hassle. It's not a bad phone for the absolute essentials, but there are better options for similar money.