Ulefone Metal XDA Review: An Often-Hilarious Trainwreck of a Phone, But a Step Forward For Ulefone’s Developer Relations

Ulefone Metal XDA Review: An Often-Hilarious Trainwreck of a Phone, But a Step Forward For Ulefone’s Developer Relations

The Ulefone Metal is an entry level smartphone with a premium finish, that just can’t quite stick the landing. It comes incredibly close to being a phone with good price-performance (especially thanks to Ulefone releasing the kernel sources and trying to support developers), but some issues with polish and a couple “What were they thinking?”-style design decisions create a questionable user experience (for now).

In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Ulefone Metal. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specification sheet out of the way:

Device Name: Ulefone Metal Release Date/Price Available Now, Starts at US$ 109 (MSRP US$ 169)
Android Version 6.0
2016-05-01
Display 5.0 inch 720p LCD (294 ppi)
5 point multi-touch
Chipset MediaTek MTK MT6753 | Octa Core (8×1.3GHz Cortex-A53) | Mali -T720 MP3 GPU Battery 3050 mAh, Charging at 5V 2A
RAM 3GB LPDDR3 666 MHz Sensors Fingerprint, Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Proximity, Compass, Ambient Light
Storage 16 GB, microSD expandability up to 128 GB Connectivity MicroUSB OTG, Dual-SIM slot (nanoSIM and microSIM/microSD), 3.5mm audio jack
Dimensions 143 x 71 x 9.35 mm (67.84% screen-to-body) Rear Camera 8 MP (IMX149), ƒ/2.0, 1080p @ 30 Hz
Weight 155g Front Camera 2 MP

Index

 DesignSoftware – UISoftware – UXPerformanceReal World UXCameraDisplayBattery LifeAudioDeveloper RelationsFinal Thoughts

Design

The feel in-hand reminds me of my old HTC Legend. It’s got that same “heavier than it looks” feel to it and relatively-sturdy looking construction. Its body doesn’t feel “premium” like an HTC 10, but it feels nice in the hand in it’s own right. The solid metal construction and chamfered edges come together nicely. The only problem with the frame itself is that it is not properly supported at the MicroUSB port, allowing you to easily bend the thinner metal between the MicroUSB port and the display into the device with just a small amount of pressure.

Ulefone Metal Feature Image

The feeling in-hand doesn’t extend beyond the frame however. The buttons aren’t loose, but they feel squishy and are quite silent. There’s no satisfying tactile feedback, there’s no click, it just sort of moves out of the way. The SIM tray is a similar story. Yes, it works, but it doesn’t quite click into place the right way, and it can be a tad bit hard to open at times. It often catches on the way in, and you’re left unsure as to whether to push harder (for fear of breaking it), or to take it out and try again. The MicroUSB port is again the same story, and you feel like you’re almost going to break it.

Ulefone Metal Rear Image

Speaking of buttons, the capacitive buttons show some… interesting… choices as well. Not only is the back button on the right (which to be fair, despite what Google recommends, is preferred by some), but the multi-tasking button is instead bound as a menu button, and a long press of home is how you access multi-tasking. I couldn’t find a way to rebind them either. Oh, and they’re a mix of Holo and Holographic style buttons too (except with a blockier back button, and a chimney on the home button).

Ulefone Metal Buttons Short

Interestingly enough, the buttons in the manual don’t match the buttons on the device. In the manual they instead show the home, menu, and back buttons that appeared on the Samsung Galaxy S II, and don’t list how to access the recent apps list.

The Ulefone Metal also shipped with some complimentary accessories, which is nice. Unfortunately the accessories themselves are not so nice.

Ulefone Metal Flip CoverThe case is advertized as being leather, but doesn’t feel like it… that’s fine though, leather isn’t needed for this. It’s a windowless flip cover which fits the phone pretty well, and it wakes the phone when you open it. Unfortunately it doesn’t shut the phone off when you close it. Instead, it puts the phone into a media control mode (which you can’t use through the cover, although it appears that the cover for Ulefone Future can use it) and waits for the screen to timeout before shutting down (which could be a while depending on your settings).

The device also shipped with a tempered glass screen protector, which is a great addition, as it can be hard to find good screen protectors for some smaller brands. Oddly enough, my device came with two screen protectors pre-applied, the usual shipping one with information about the phone on it, and a second one beneath that which felt like a standard plastic screen protector. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a permanent addition, however it definitely wasn’t applied properly, so I was thankful for being able to switch it out.

The tempered glass screen protector is supposedly curved to fit the 2.5D edge of the screen (although, upon inspection, the edges look rather flat), and supposedly blocks blue light to “protect your eyes” (completely missing the point behind blue light filters). Rather than mentioning the effects of blue light on our circadian rhythm and sleep cycle, Ulefone’s advertising claims that blue light is “a kind of high-energy light that can increase the toxin in macular region of human eye balls” and that “such a protective glass is indispensable to mobile phones.” (nevermind that if that was actually an issue, they could just tune the display to reduce the amount of blue light generated, either through hardware or software).

Ignoring the toxins bit (what “toxins” exactly?), it’s a bit concerning that Ulefone either seems to think that non-ionizing radiation (more specifically, visible light) is dangerous at the levels created by a phone, or they are playing to that crowd in an attempt to sell more devices. Worse still, their marketing implies that they actually went and made their product worse (by including a screen protector that is designed to reduce colour accuracy instead of a normal one) in their half-hearted attempts to attract that crowd. Thankfully, despite what their marketing claims, the screen protector appears to be just a normal screen protector anyway, and won’t damage colour accuracy.

Software – UI

The UI is nice and clean with an approach that stays relatively close to stock Android. The quick settings menu is almost unchanged, with the only major differences being a change in logo for the cellular data symbol and the addition of a toggle which launches a pop-up for audio profiles (separate from the do not disturb toggle).

The settings menu saw a more drastic change however. In place of Android’s settings list (with toggles), there is a four-by-eight array of icons which are sorted into categories (“Wireless & networks”, “Device”, “Personal”, and “System”). These icons are bright colours that feel a bit out of place next to the the rest of the UI, especially when compared to the relatively muted camera and settings icons that Ulefone used. The bright colours don’t carry further into the settings menu however, as once you pick an icon, the page it links to is usually largely the same as it is on stock Android, with the notable exception of the prominently placed “Turbo download” menu, which allows you to use Multipath TCP to simultaneously download over WiFi and cellular connection.

Ulefone also has a persistent notification giving you a quick link to the app permission management page. The only way to get rid of it is to disable permission management (which Ulefone makes nice and easy to do for some reason), and even then it comes back every once in awhile (like when you reboot).

The default launcher comes with two pages dedicated specifically to music and photos, with a giant record player on one (with no visible playback controls), and a small photo gallery on the other (which only lets you see up to two photos at a time, and both are rather shrunken at that with a substantial amount of wasted space). Thankfully both pages can be removed in the settings menu.

The camera UI is relatively basic, but really doesn’t fit in with Material Design. The menus and shutter button in the camera have a distinctive Gingerbread feel to them, with certain parts taking on a bit more of a transparent Holo-esque design.

The sound recorder similarly feels out of place. The flat title bar simply doesn’t fit with the gradient on the timer, or with the slightly skeuomorphic VU meter for that matter. The UI just feels like a mishmash of different styles. It doesn’t have an identity.

While it was clear from day one that the Metal wasn’t licensed by Google (as it was missing almost every required pre-installed app, except the Play Store, Search, and Gmail), Ulefone solidified that position in the first software update I received from them, where they lifted the icons from multiple Google apps for use in their ROM, including the logos from Google Play Music, Google Photos, and Google Messenger (the latter of which they modified by turning some of the lines from white to transparent, removing the depth that the icon normally has). That may fly under the radar while Ulefone is a small company, but doing things like that now leaves them open to copyright lawsuits later on if they grow. Yes, the logos fit well with the majority of the UI (and certainly fit better than the old Gingerbread-style stock Gallery app that Google has abandoned), but there are other options that also would fit, and without being copyright infringement at that.

It’s especially bad if you do something as outrageous as installing Google Photos (because who would want to use Google Photos instead of the default gallery, right⸮), leaving you with two different apps with the same name and logo beside each other, but with substantially different features (unless you decide to disable one).

The UI just feels like a mishmash of different styles. It doesn’t have an identity.

That being said, the logos that they designed themselves are actually not half bad (I’m assuming that they were designed in house). The camera icon follows Material design fairly well, and fits with the rest of the UI. It really is a shame that Ulefone felt that copyright infringement was a better path than continuing to create their own logos.

Software – Features & UX

Ulefone Metal Floating IconThere is a floating shortcut button, reminiscent of Facebook’s Chat Heads and Paranoid Android’s Halo, that gives you quick access to some useful features, like a clipping tool for screenshots, or a floating calculator, or quick access to settings. I’ll be the first to say that I can be extremely picky about how this type of UI element is implemented (I absolutely adored Halo, but Chat Heads never really caught my attention), and something about this method just doesn’t sit right with me. It might have been the inability to hide it (even when watching video), or how slow the animation to bring it up is, I’m not quite sure, but whatever it was, I promptly started looking for a way to disable it, and I couldn’t find an option. I understand the appeal of a floating quick actions tile, but I never really found any benefit in this one, and it only ended up getting in the way for me.

I normally take a few tries to get my phones to learn my fingerprint, and the Ulefone Metal is no exception there. What was an exception was that the Ulefone Metal has the ability to bind the fingerprint sensor to open different apps for different fingers. This can be a very useful feature, but in this case it brought a major issue. Ulefone didn’t properly set up the bounding boxes in the fingerprint menu, making it extremely difficult to access the menu for renaming and deleting a finger. The settings gear to access it is very small and hard to hit with my big clumsy hands, with most of my attempts to access it resulting in me opening the menu for choosing which app to activate with that finger instead. It got to the point where I just gave up, and left the phone without a working fingerprint sensor, which is really a shame. Thankfully, it is an issue that could be relatively easily fixed with a software update. HTC, Sony, Xiaomi, ZTE, etc. all have a way of handling this without issue. You just make the bounding box be a square from the top of the row to the bottom of the row (and the same width), instead of just barely covering the target object itself. You can even place a small visible separator to help people identify where the button ends and the rest of the row begins. It’s a tiny little thing, but it can make a world of a difference.

While the device does let you hot swap SIM cards, it can be a bit slow to recognize the change, resulting in a bit of a wait after you put a SIM card in before you can use it, or a bit of a wait after you take the SIM card out before the data connection stops.

The Ulefone Metal also has a weird design choice in that any time you come within range of an open Wi-Fi network, it notifies you. If your phone is set to vibrate, it vibrates. If your phone is set to ring, it rings. As with most features that Ulefone added, there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn this one off. The only way I found to disable this “feature” is to disable the Wi-Fi network notification completely, which results in you losing some functionality in order to disable Ulefone’s “addition”, just like with the permission management notification.

Performance

While phone SoCs have come a long way, there is still a substantial performance gap between a flagship SoC like the Snapdragon 820 or Exynos 8890, and an entry level chip like the MediaTek MT6753. The eight A53 cores running at 1.3 GHz are distinctively low-end, and the three cluster Mali-T720 GPU isn’t a powerhouse either. The experience is designed with the intent of competing with Qualcomm Snapdragon 4xx and 61x series chips, and it shows. While the MediaTek MT6753 won’t win any performance titles, the A53-based design should have fantastic energy efficiency, at least in theory.

CPU & System

While the A53 isn’t very powerful, it does take up a tiny amount of die space and is incredibly efficient, allowing MediaTek to shove eight of them into the entry level MT6753 chipset. As a result, the Ulefone Metal suffers heavily in single core tests, but the eight A53 cores allow it to perform reasonably in multi core tests.

This shows up very clearly in Geekbench, where the phone is barely able to hit 600 in single core testing, but multi-core testing from idle sees it hitting a respectable score of 2468, about half of what the flagship chips are putting up currently.

The Ulefone Metal has a weak showing in PCMark however, with competing devices like the Honor 5XNextbit Robin (both of which we reviewed earlier), and the ZTE ZMax Pro handily beating it in every category except for the Web subscore, where the Ulefone Metal pulled even.

AnTuTu tells the same tale of woe, with the similarly-priced ZTE ZMax Pro leading in every category (and doubling the score for 3D). Some of the subscores for AnTuTu stay relatively close though, with the Ulefone Metal not trailing by too much in the RAM subcategory.

After seeing the results of the other benchmarks, Basemark held no major surprises either. While the Ulefone Metal pulled even with the ZTE ZMax Pro in the System subscore, it fell behind in every other subscore, with only half the graphics score of the ZTE.

In our sustained load test, the Ulefone Metal gets incredibly hot, with my Seek Compact Pro reading the surface as hitting a scorching 52°C | 125.6°F, and still climbing by the end of our test. Surprisingly, single core performance did not drop despite those high temperatures, but multicore saw a ~10% drop in Geekbench score from the first run to the last. This test barely fazes most devices that we review, and this result shows substantially higher temperatures than even the Snapdragon 810 devices that were known for throttling as a result of overheating. It should be noted that while the Ulefone Metal hits 38°C | 100.4°F after just one run (more than most phones’ peak temperatures in this test), the device started at just 26 degrees in our pre-test measurements.

This phone doesn’t throttle much, but it really should. There is no excuse for a phone getting so hot that you can barely hold it. Even temperatures in the high 30s, which the Ulefone Metal hits after just a couple minutes of use, can a be a bit uncomfortable. Something in the 50s is outright hot to the touch.

GPU & Gaming

The phone’s GPU is incredibly weak: a three-cluster Mali-T720 simply doesn’t keep up with any Qualcomm chip currently on the market, and it really shows. The Ulefone Metal’s low resolution helps to mitigate the issues that the weak GPU brings, but even that can only do so much.

3DMark Slingshot is barely even a slideshow (with certain sections being listed as having a frame rate of “0”), Manhattan has single digit frame rates, and even the age old T-Rex brings the Ulefone Metal to its knees.

Thankfully, despite getting quite hot in our sustained graphics test, frame rates didn’t drop further with continued usage. Although it was already pretty close to 0 anyway. In our 3DMark throttling test, the Ulefone Metal hits 43 degrees after just its first run, which also happens to be the temperature that the Google Pixel XL peaked at in this test, and it continues to climb as the test goes on. Towards the end of the test, performance drops a little bit, but you really should expect more throttling from a device that is getting this hot (and continuing to get hotter as the test ended).

GFXBench’s battery life test is a similar story, with performance staying mostly around the same level, while temperatures continued to climb. The results were surprisingly consistent as the test went on, with the results all staying in a range of 395.1 frames per run, +/- 1.1 frames. That’s a mere 0.3% variance up or down, resulting in substantial range compression (and a spiky looking graph). For comparison, the Pixel XL sees a drop of around 10% from its first run to its lowest score.

With how tiny the performance drops are for the Ulefone Metal and how extremely high the temperatures get (in both our CPU and GPU throttling tests, as well as in endurance tests like PCMark’s and GFXBench’s battery life tests), it almost looks as if the Ulefone Metal simply doesn’t have any substantial thermal management code (performing at the highest level it can, regardless as to how hot it gets), which would be scary if true.

Memory & Storage

Having 3GB of RAM is absolutely fantastic for an entry-level phone, and should be more than enough to ensure that you won’t run out of RAM in all but the most RAM intensive situations. This is helped further by the fairly lean OS that the phone runs by default. With nothing open, the Ulefone Metal was reporting just 850MB used, and over 2 GB available.

Ulefone Metal Sequential Random
Read Speed 154.10 MB/s 11.87 MB/s
Write Speed 37.66 MB/s 4.63 MB/s

The storage is about on par with what would be expected for the price (tested on Androbench, threads set to 1 and sequential buffer size set at 256 kB). While 16GB with an SD card is enough to get by on (although I tend to prefer 32GB and higher), and while the performance is definitely on the slower side, it is acceptable for the price.

Real World Performance

The OS generally performs fairly smoothly, but there are a couple weird hangs in certain places. When you go to unlock the device, after swiping up it will freeze for a half second before bringing up the page to enter your pattern/pin/password.

Some of the bugs are just strange. In the default launcher, when you long press an app icon to move it, usually it will stay on the page it is currently on, but occasionally it will jump to the primary home screen (even if that screen is full).

Setting up the cellular data connection for the first time is a bit of a pain. The phone defaults to data being turned off (which is a good idea to some extent), but after inserting a SIM card it asks you if you wish to enable data for that SIM card. If you hit yes it turns on data for the SIM card in Settings->SIM cards, but it leaves the one in Settings->Data usage->Carrier Name set to off, and you have to manually go in and change it.

The scroll friction on the Ulefone Metal seems to have been set very high. In the settings menu, anything other than a heavy swipe will only travel a short distance.

Some of the bugs are just strange.

For example, a swipe that would get me all the way from the top of the HTC 10’s settings menu to the bottom, will only move the Ulefone Metal’s settings menu a couple lines.

Signal strength appears to be fairly weak. The phone supports Band 7 LTE (for which there are multiple towers near my house), but I had to walk almost right next to the tower before I could get connection. WCDMA is a bit stronger, but according to the spec sheet I shouldn’t have WCDMA connection in the first place. The phone officially only supports WCDMA bands 1 and 8, but in Canada, networks only use bands 2, 4, and 5. After some exploring with MediaTek’s Engineer Mode, we discovered that the phone supports WCDMA band 5, despite claiming that it doesn’t, and was using that to connect to the network.

We reached out to Ulefone to inquire about this issue, and after a bit of investigation on their part, they said that the Ulefone Metal “does support UMTS Band 5, but the software hasn’t been optimized well, so we don’t announce it officially.” This was a bit worrying to us for a couple reasons. If the WCDMA band 5 support is truly too poorly optimized to even be announced, then it likely should have been disabled through software until a point in time at which it is ready for use (as, if the claim is true, leaving it enabled could potentially cause a host of other issues).

More importantly though, it caused some worry for us that the Ulefone Metal was potentially not licensed to use WCDMA band 5. So, since the Ulefone Metal’s packaging marks it as being tested by both the FCC and CE, we decided to take a look at the FCC filing information to confirm that it had been tested and approved for use of WCDMA band 5. Unfortunately, we could not find any, so we reached out to Ulefone again to see if they could direct us to the filing information (which they are required to keep on hand for CE). As it turned out, Ulefone did not get FCC certification for the Ulefone Metal, and the FCC logo was printed in error. Thankfully Ulefone was able to provide us with the CE technical file, which unfortunately does not list it as being certified for use on WCDMA band 5. Upon learning that the Ulefone Metal is likely unlicensed to use WCDMA band 5, I switched the phone into airplane mode, and have not re-enabled the cellular radio since.

Camera

The camera hardware is interesting in some ways. The Sony Exmor R IMX149 sensor is mentioned almost nowhere online (with just 30,000 Google results), except in reference to a couple of small brands, with it not even appearing among Sony’s product listings. We reached out to a couple of these smaller companies, and from what we gather, it appears that the IMX149 was a custom sensor developed for a “larger OEM” which was used in a prior device, and the remaining stock is now being cleared out as it is no longer needed for that device. We reached out to Sony as well to try to learn more about the IMX149, but they were not available for comment about the sensor’s history (for obvious reasons).

The Sony Exmor R IMX149 is a 6.18 mm x 5.85 mm BSI CMOS sensor with a 5.7 mm (1/3.2 Type) diagonal and 1.4 μm pixels with a total resolution of 3288 x 2512, allowing for an effective resolution of 3280 x 2464. This is about the same size and resolution as the IMX145 that appeared in a couple of the phones in Apple’s iPhone line, and the popular IMX179 that is used as the front facing camera for the Google PixelPixel XL, and Nexus 6P, and the rear facing camera for the Nexus 5. That being said, there is a lot more to sensor quality than just the size and resolution.

Unfortunately, the fast pace at which cameras have been improving combined with some software oddities and what looks like a very poor lens, means that the camera simply doesn’t stack up.

First up is Ulefone’s decision to allow the cameras to capture at 13 MP and 5 MP instead of their native 8 MP and 2 MP. While there is some interesting discussion to be had about alternate ways of interpreting image data from Bayer filter sensors, the differences between pixels and sensels, and super-resolution photography, Ulefone does not appear to have leveraged any of them. In the images below are resized crops of 13 MP and 8 MP photos taken consecutively, and most of them either appear to be either so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable, or are even slightly in favour of the 8 MP version. This would indicate that they may just be running an upscaling filter after capturing the images at the camera’s native resolution.

Seeing these results, we reached out to Ulefone again, and they confirmed that there was no secret sauce here. It’s just a “standard scaling algorithm”.

Interesting hardware choices and questionable scaling decisions aside, there still remains the question of whether the Ulefone Metal has a good camera, and the answer is no.

In our first daylight scene, the Ulefone Metal’s camera weaknesses shine through quite heavily. In the non-HDR images, it somehow manages to almost completely blow out the sky, while simultaneously underexposing the rest of the image. The HDR images for the Ulefone are a bit better, reducing the amount of clipping and brightening up some of the dark areas, but it also crushed the blacks a bit (for reasons unknown). The Ulefone Metal performs so poorly in this sample, that even the HDR image is arguably outperformed by the non-HDR images taken from my $10 Moto E.

For reference, here is what the histogram for the same picture taken with an HTC 10 looks like. The very leftmost and rightmost bars in each image represent the amount of clipping.

Unfortunately this trend was not limited to the first picture set. The Ulefone Metal underperformed in every test of the rear facing camera that we tried, including numerous sets beyond what we included in this article.

The worst part of the camera appears to be the lens, and that really shines through in pictures that require substantial dynamic range to be captured properly. The night shots with streetlights in them came out as such a blurry mess that I started to doubt whether I had actually cleaned the lens properly. So, I gave the lens an extra thorough wipedown and went out to test it a second time, and got the same results. It’s a wonder how a lens this bad made it through QA.

The images from the Moto E are particularly telling in this instance. The Moto E performs terribly, and that is to be expected with its 5 MP 1/5″ sensor, however the higher quality lenses on the Moto E results in it seeing substantially less blurring of the street light. It really leaves us wondering how the Ulefone Metal could have performed with better glass.

The HDR images are a bit more interesting in some ways. The Ulefone Metal definitely sees some improvements in foreground brightness, but the red tint only gets worse, and the limitations of the poor quality glass show through just as strongly. While the Sony Xperia Z3 and the ZTE ZMax Pro pick up substantially more background details in the HDR images, the background continues to be a giant black blur for the Ulefone Metal.

Last, and certainly least for photography on the Ulefone Metal, is the flash. The flash is extremely weak, to the point where I almost cannot imagine a situation in which it would be useful. In the flash test below, I took pictures of a tiny hill in relative darkness with a couple different phones. In this test, most of the phones lit up most of the hill, with the HTC 10 even lighting up the whole thing (including the small trees on top).

The Ulefone Metal’s flash failed to do that. In fact, it barely was able to light up my own feet when I pointed it directly downward. It was so bad that the HTC 10 without flash performed about as well as the Metal with flash.

Now, admittedly, I rarely use flash when taking photos, instead trying to find better lighting and finding ways to use longer exposures whenever possible, but sometimes you simply cannot avoid it. For the times where you simply can’t avoid using flash, the Ulefone Metal’s flash is weak enough that you might as well not have one.

With the actual photos are out of the way, let’s touch on the features. Ulefone advertises a manual photo mode for the Metal that actually looks pretty nice, but I couldn’t find anything that even resembled it. The closest I found was a manual ISO setting hidden away in a menu.

Video defaults to an H.264 video and AAC audio in a .3gp container at 640×480 @ 30 Hz for some reason. It can be switched to 1920×1080 @ 30 Hz, but the setting doesn’t tell you that it is changing the resolution. It just lists four “Video Quality” settings to choose from, “Low”, “Medium”, “High”, and “Fine”. Recording from the lockscreen always defaults to the “Medium” setting of 640 x 480 @ 30 Hz, even if you have it set otherwise in the phone itself. That means every time you want to record video without unlocking the phone, you have decide between either manually resetting the resolution, killing the entire speed advantage of not unlocking, or making do with 640×480 video.

The camera has a slow motion video mode, which are all the rage right now. But instead of increasing the frame rate and then playing it back at a reduced speed (so you still get ~30 frames per second of video), it drops the frame rate from 30 Hz to 20 Hz, so that if you play it back at one quarter speed, you get just 5 frames per second, and it is quite noticeable. It also limits the resolution to 640 x 480 and disables EIS and Noise Reduction, but at that point, I don’t think anyone cares anymore. You’re much better off just filming at normal speed and manually slowing it down yourself.

The camera is one of the worst smartphone cameras I have used to date, and I have a feeling the image sensor is not to blame. Poor quality glass, an unintuitive UI, and questionable software decisions come together to make for a very poor photography experience.

The front facing camera is atrocious. The non-HDR images taken with the Ulefone Metal have so much clipping that it looks like I applied a filter, and the HDR images aren’t much better. Looking at the histograms from this scene is a bit ridiculous to be honest.

Display

A 720p 5” LCD display is certainly nothing to write home about, but it does very well in certain areas for a phone in this price point. The display gets surprisingly bright for an entry level phone, outshining my Moto E 2015, and the white point calibration feels pretty decent (if a bit blue at times). Unfortunately that brightness does mean that the display doesn’t get quite dark enough at night at minimum brightness though, with it easily lighting up dark rooms, and it still isn’t quite bright enough for easy reading in daylight either.

Ulefone Metal Daylight Picture

Despite those positives, the fact that it is a $109 phone does shine through in certain ways. Most noticeably, colour shift starts appearing fairly heavily at even a 45 degree angle, and there is some backlight bleed (although it is fairly uniform on our test device).

Ulefone Metal Colour Bars

Battery Life

It pains me to say this, as battery life is one of the features that I care the most about, but the Ulefone Metal has fairly bad battery life. With the hardware it has it shouldn’t, but it does.

Ulefone Metal PCMark 2.0 Work Battery Life
Min. Brightness 5 h 55 m
Med. Brightness 4 h 51 m
Max Brightness 3 h 44 m

Ulefone advertises that the Metal’s 3,050 mAh Li-Po battery with its 5” HD screen as equivalent to a 5.5” FHD phone with a 4,500 mAh battery (it would theoretically be closer to a 3,400 mAh battery in that situation, but I digress) and that it is capable of “1.5-day normal use or 1-day heavy use”, but it simply doesn’t live up to that. If anything, in my testing it gets just over that of standby most of the time, let alone “heavy use”. Even a light benchmark like PCMark killed it in 4 hours on minimum brightness on certain runs (on a freshly wiped device). For comparison, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 with its 5.5” FHD display and 4,000 mAh battery got almost 16 hours in the same test.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing the issue. A portion of the problem may be the WiFi battery drain bug that the Ulefone Metal has, however it is likely just misreporting the WiFi drain, rather than actually draining extra power, as my unit consistently claims ~20% WiFi drain, even while in airplane mode. When left on for two days, it reported about 10,000 mAh of battery drain between WiFi and Phone Idle alone, but still had 43% of its 3,050 mAh battery left.

Even in airplane mode on minimum brightness (where the WiFi power usage should have no effect), the phone could only eke out 7 hours and 20 minutes of PCMark.

Ulefone is now aware of the misreported battery drain issue and are working on fixing it, but it is looking like that won’t address the issues with battery life.

Audio

I put this phone’s speaker up against every phone I had nearby trying to find a device that I liked less, and I could barely find one. I’m a little bit shocked to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen audio quality this bad. Even the Moto E that I picked up for $10 last year handily outperforms the Ulefone Metal. So did the HTC 10 (obviously), the Samsung Galaxy S7, the Moto X Play, the ZTE ZMax Pro, the LG G2, and the Sony Xperia Z3.

I tested it against a Samsung Galaxy S2, hoping that it would beat it, but it didn’t. The Ulefone Metal is louder, but the S2 still has much clearer audio. It’s a toss-up at best.

So I broke out my HTC Legend (not helping the whole situation with Froyo on the dashboard) to test against it, and while I finally found a phone that the Ulefone Metal beats in speaker quality, it wasn’t by much. The HTC Legend (a midrange phone from almost 7 years ago) was louder than the Ulefone Metal by a significant margin, thanks in part to its front-facing speaker, but it was really tinny and had almost no bass (and I have reason to suspect that the speaker on my HTC Legend might be damaged…).

Just being back-mounted alone is a bit of a strike against a speaker, but worse than that, the speaker had muddy bass and tinny highs. It definitely is possible to have acceptable audio with a rear facing speaker (as the ZTE ZMax Pro proves), but the Ulefone Metal simply isn’t up to the task.

Ulefone Metal EQHeadphone audio was fine, it had no problem driving my Sennheiser HD 598s, but I can’t think of a single modern phone that really does have issues with that. Audio quality was a bit of a step down from some of the other phones I tested with, especially in terms of clarity, but it wasn’t really something I would have noticed if I wasn’t looking for it. It’s got a bit of a weird curve to it though. Some mid-range sounds that would normally be barely noticeable in the background sit right out in front with the Metal, as if they were the focus of the song. And that curve really butchers some songs. Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth in particular loses a large chunk of its complexity with the Ulefone Metal. If you enable their EQ, it just gets worse. The “Normal” mode pushes the bass, and adds extra distortion in the process, and the more aggressive EQ settings aren’t any better.

The microphone does an OK job. It seems to trend a bit quiet and does a poor job of cutting out noise from wind, but it does a good enough job to get by for the price. The one part where it really does fall flat is the fact that it only has a single microphone, which is mounted on the bottom. While this is fine for phone calls in areas with little background noise, it makes it extremely hard for the phone to perform any noise cancellation, makes it harder to hear the subject when recording a video, and can have a dramatic effect on call audio. For comparison, the Moto E and ZTE ZMax Pro that I keep bringing up both have multiple microphones.

If you use the built in voice recorder, it records in AAC at ~128 kbps, again in a .3gpp container, which is fine (although it would have been nice to see some higher quality choices). Oddly enough, despite only having one microphone, the Ulefone Metal still records “Stereo” audio. The two audio tracks are identical, provide no real benefit, and only serve to increase file size, but there are two of them.

Developer Relations

We are very pleased to see that Ulefone released the kernel sources for the Ulefone Metal, and they did it in an acceptable amount of time to boot. While the MediaTek chipset and lack of pre-existing popularity among developers will likely hold back the development of ROMs, it is a good starting point that will help interest in Ulefone’s devices grow in the development community over time. If Ulefone keeps up the good work with the Metal’s software, their next phone will be more likely to see a strong developer following (and we may even see a nice little community develop for the Metal over time).

That developer friendliness is already starting to pay dividends. Just a couple days ago, XDA members fire855, DerTeufel1980, and superdragonpt launched a 7.1.1 AOSP ROM for the Ulefone Metal as part of their Team M.A.D. (Mediatek Android Developers) project, which has gotten quite a bit of positive attention for the Ulefone Metal. We haven’t had a chance yet to test their build ourselves, but we are quite excited to see how it progresses.

As for Ulefone, it appears that they are providing some updates, and even included a decently laid out changelog, which is fantastic to see. Unfortunately, the changelog wasn’t listed in the OTA itself (which only had “Minor Bug Fixes” listed), and certain key changes weren’t mentioned (like the icon changes mentioned in the UI section of this review).

We will have to see how this progresses, but if Ulefone can build upon this stepping stone, they may be able to find a niche and build a loyal development community for their products.

Final Thoughts

The Ulefone Metal looks and feels like a nice phone, but its rough edges and the tough competition at that price point prevent me from recommending it. It has many of the right pieces, but it simply hasn’t put them all together yet.

While the Metal is lacking, it does show great potential for the future. The build feels solid, the spec sheet ticks almost all of the boxes for the price point, and Ulefone seems to be putting a legitimate effort into their developer relations. There are just a couple (major) nagging issues that need to be fixed.

If Ulefone can 1. figure out what is causing their battery drain issues, 2. continue to polish the rough edges of their software (especially the camera software), and 3. make regular incremental upgrades, then one of their future phones could be a solid choice.

In the meantime though, it is incredibly hard to recommend the Ulefone Metal over a device like the ZTE ZMax Pro, the Xiaomi Redmi 4, or a refurb flagship from previous years like the unlocked refurb/used LG G3 devices that can be found for around $110 USD on Ebay and Swappa currently. At the device’s MSRP of $169, the competition gets even tougher with phones like the Nextbit Robin and the BLU Life One X2 joining the fun.

 

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