Given a choice (or rather if given for free) no one would say no to a fancy Galaxy S III or an iPhone 5. Fact is that while there’s a big market for super-smartphones, there’s an even bigger one for handsets that cater to the common user. Budget smartphones are not launched with even half as much pomp and show as their higher-end counterparts, but they still manage to offer an interesting suite of apps and features that more than make up for the lack of sheen. So, here’s MAHANANDA BOHIDAR and SABYASACHI BISWAS's pick of the most efficient handsets in the oft uncelebrated category of budget smartphones.

Nokia Asha 311

Despite all the flak it has been drawing lately, Nokia has been one of the best budget handset makers for as long as one can remember. Though switching from feature phones to smartphones did seem to take the company some time, the latest Nokia Asha 311 holds some promise.

The back panel on the Asha 311 is the only build factor that gives away the fact that it’s a budget phone. The 3-inch display covers most of the fascia with a thin metal trim at the bottom that house the buttons. As opposed to the three buttons that you find on most smartphones these days, Nokia Asha 311 has only two – the traditional Receive and End Call buttons. A lot of the times our fingers wandered towards the centre to the more commonly found ‘Home’ button to get to the homescreen on the handset. The other keys on the body are the volume rocker and the screen lock. Both of these felt extremely rigid to touch. It took more than just a light press to activate these buttons.

The Asha 311 is also one of the rare budget smartphone that utilises Corning Gorilla Glass to protect the display. This also makes swiping across the screen smoother as compared to the likes of Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite.

The Asha 311 has a built-in polarising filter to provide better visibility in sunlight and it works well to an extent. One niggle is that you can’t tweak the brightness on the handset at any time.

The Nokia Asha 311 has three homescreens which you can swipe through. The main homescreen is the space where you can add shortcuts to your favourite apps and contacts. Swiping to the left takes you to a long, colourful matrix of all the applications installed on your phone. Because there is no dedicated button for it, Back or Return shows up as a small virtual arrow on the screen when you want to return to a previous page. The pull-down notification bar is a funky coloured asymmetrical window which gives you one-touch options to enable Wi-Fi, activate your mobile network or Bluetooth, or change your profile. Three options, ‘Play’, ‘Call’ and ‘Write’, also make for a nice shortcut to these functions whenever you need to access them. In this rare case, Series 40 Asha, the company’s proprietary operating system does provide for a refreshing break from the endless Android options. The only bit users might miss out on is the variety of apps they can access from Google Play.

The 3.2 megapixel camera on the handset is a fixed-focus one. So, the lens did tend toover-compensate for poorly lit scenes. Most images we captured, however, were grainy. Nokia Asha 311 has a 4x digital zoom but we doubt you can put it to good use considering the high levels of noise in stills even without being zoomed in.

Due to the restricted screen space, typing in the portrait mode can get slightly uncomfortable. Nokia does provide an alternate to the full QWERTY – the old-style three-or-so bunched alphabets in one key space. However, typing was much easier with both virtual keyboards in the landscape mode. If you exit the Messages app accidentally while drafting an SMS, auto save comes to the rescue and saves it for you.

Pre-installed apps include Social (syncing both Twitter and Facebook), Nokia Life (a push SMS service covering topics ranging from education to spirituality), News Reader (works with RSS feeds), Counters (to keep track of your data usage, calls, SMSes and so on). Third-party apps such as WhatsApp, Nimbuzz, Zomato and a few games including Angry Birds come pre-installed with the unit.

Battery life has always been one of Nokia’s strong points and the Nokia Asha 311 is no exception. With intermittent web usage, the phone gave us company for almost an entire working day. With most apps it didn’t show any signs of slowing down (the handset is powered by a 1GHz processor, the most powerful on this test panel).

Love – Good build and call quality, smooth display

Hate – Low-res screen, average camera

Rs 7,139

Sony Xperia Tipo

Sony has been trying to make a mark in the smartphone market for quite some time now, and it is safe to say that it has succeeded to a certain extent in the form of its NXT series smartphones. The Xperia S, Ion, Sola and U managed to impress and find their way into a lot of consumers’ pockets.

Now, Sony has a small but pretty impressive offering in the sub-10k smartphone market, in the form of the Xperia Tipo. The Tipo is a small, chubby handset that promises to deliver a host of big features in its compact form factor.

The design of the Tipo is quite simple, with a 3.2-inch screen set in a metal bezel and three capacitive navigation soft keys, and a curved, plastic back panel. While the panel may be plastic, the design and feel of the back panel adds a little ‘premiumness’ to the phone. Unlike many NXT phones, this one does not feature the transparent band, but the badging on the bezel looks quite stylish. The design is reminiscent of the Walkman series phones Sony had produced a few years ago. But the design is not the only thing that reminds one of the Walkman series – the music apps inside and the sound quality are just as great as in the Walkman series phones.

The Xperia Tipo is powered by an 800 MHz CPU, which in our opinion wasn’t quite capable of supporting all of its apps and features. Because on the inside, it is filled with a few ‘processor-sapping’ features that other phones in its class don’t have. It is the only phone in our comparison chart that runs on Android version 4.0 ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich). This makes the user interface very smooth and friendly. So while the UI is great some apps just freeze! For instance, if one receives a new text and opens it from the pull down notification menu, while working on one app, the text app opens, but takes a lot of time to display the text. It also freezes occasionally while replying to texts. Apps like WhatsApp (which comes preloaded) and Gtalk, however, run very smoothly. Sony has also added its own Timescape UI, which has really deep Facebook integration. This feature will definitely pull a lot of younger customers towards the Tipo. Also, the Tipo comes bundled with the Office Suite, making it a smartphone in every sense. The company also packs in 50 GB of cloud storage with the handset.

Further, the Tipo has a dual-SIM variant, known as the Tipo Dual. The only addition to this is a second SIM card slot inside the rear hatch. While many phones have made the second SIM slots accessible by adding them along the sides (where one doesn’t have to open the back panel), Sony has a smart button included. This physical switch, placed under the volume rocker on the right-hand side, can let the user decide which SIM to use for outgoing calls or data. The battery can last for about 9 hours on a single charge, with regular surfing, texting/WhatsApping and a few voice calls.

We say- the Tipo is a great phone for anyone who likes music on the go, and wants to make a style statement with a smartphone that fits the pocket, both in terms of money and size.

Love – FB integration, smooth UI

Hate – Slow texting, average processor

Rs 9,999

LG Optimus L3 Dual

From the time when the first colour-screen feature phones with polyphonic ringtones had entered the Indian market, up to the point where smartphones arrived, LG had a good run. Once the buyers got a taste of Android, Windows Phone or iOS toting smartphones, they never bothered going back towards the bland feature phones.

LG did roll out 30k plus smartphones, like the Optimus 3D Max and the 4X HD, but they weren’t exactly big hits in the market. So we decided to take a look at one of the smallest (read most inexpensive) of its smartphone lineup for this comparison, the Optimus L3 Dual.

The L3 Dual follows the same design traits as the other L-Series smartphones, with chrome bezel running around the 3.2-inch screen and four capacitive navigation buttons, and a mesh-like pattern on the plastic back panel for a sturdy grip. One of the capacitive buttons is for swapping between SIM cards. The volume rocker is on the left-hand side, and the power/sleep button is on the top, placed very ergonomically within the reach of one’s index finger. The overall design is quite appealing with clean lines and curved edges. We didn’t understand why LG hasn’t provided a notification light.

At the heart of the Optimus L3, there’s an 800MHz processor, which is quite breezy for light applications, but falters once the user decides to go into serious multitasking between 3-4 apps. An internal memory of 1GB and a 384MB RAM are serious disappointments for textually addictive people. Within a day of texting (around 80 texts inbound and 100 sent), FBing and some Whatsapping, the phone started slowing down drastically.

The LG Optimus L3 Dual runs on Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread, which looks very basic and meagre. Meagre might not be that bad, for the phone’s interface is simple and quite sensible. There are no heavy skin modifications on the basic Android UI, although the pull-down notification menu shows the notifications in quite big font sizes, which results in a lot of vertical scrolling if there are many notifications.

The menu is quite different from other phones in this segment. Instead of having multiple menu screens which can be accessed by swiping horizontally, the Optimus L3 has one long vertical-swipe accessed vertical menu. For someone who has used any other smartphone, this menu might seem to be a little quirky, but a user upgrading from a basic or feature phone might find this very friendly.

We wouldn’t call the Optimus L3 as very social-network friendly, because there is hardly any FB integration, and social network apps do not come preloaded. Although installing FB, Twitter and Whatsapp isn’t really rocket science, LG might put a few customers off by not caring about their social needs. Web pages and hi-res images don’t look too good on the 3.2 inch screen either.

The camera and the music player on the Optimus L3 are quite basic. There are a limited number of shooting modes offered, and the phone performs well only in bright, Sun-lit conditions. The music player is accessible from the pull-down menu, and has all the basic functions, but we couldn’t find an equalizer.

We say – The LG Optimus L3 is as basic as basic gets. It offers an Android platform and an 800MHz processor, but the memory isn’t quite good for users who keep juggling between apps. The design is pretty good for its price, but with an average camera and shallow SNS integration, it might put a few customers off.

Love – Sturdy design, simple UI

Hate – Inadequate memory, poor graphics

Rs 9,750

Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite

While Samsung has been hitting the ball out of the park with its Galaxy line-up of high-end handsets, it does not seem to have forgotten the basic smartphone range. Every once in a while, the company launches budget and mid-range smartphones - one of the latest being the Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite. Dual SIMs are mostly preferred by frequent travellers and this handset seems to pack in as many ‘smart’ features as it can in the tiny form factor.

The Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite has the smallest display on the test bench. While the 2.8-inch screen is not exactly spacious, the touch sensitivity on the handset is quite accurate thereby avoiding a lot of inconvenience that smallish screens usually present the user with. Unlike the Nokia Asha 311, the virtual keyboard on the Duos Lite wasn’t a pain to type on. Despite the restricted screen space, the keyboard turned out to be impressively accurate. It avoided typos beautifully and somehow didn’t feel too cramped even in the portrait mode. The fascia has only one physical button – the Home. On either side is an arrow indicating ‘Back/Return’ and a couple of lines that indicate ‘Settings’. The more common three-button operation results in more fluid interaction with the handset (which was not the case with Nokia Asha 311). Although the touch buttons aren’t backlit, it’s quite easy to operate in the dark once you learn where the two buttons are located.

Being a budget handset, the build quality isn’t outstanding. We didn’t think that the plastic body would withstand a crack or two in case of an accidental drop. Running Android 2.3, the Galaxy Y Duos Lite has three customisable homescreens which you can use. The pre-installed apps are the familiar bunch you’ll find on any Android smartphone, including Polaris Office (although we doubt you’ll have the patience to compose documents on this handset) and a suite of Google apps.

While using two SIM cards, the Galaxy Y Duos Lite lets you receive incoming calls to both numbers. But you’ll have to activate one specific SIM that you want to make calls from. The sound quality on the handset was quite good. A thoughtful gesture that the company has built in is that the proximity sensor on the Duos Lite kicks in when you make a call. More importantly, you need to “double tap” the screen to activate it during a call. So, the chances of activating it by mistake are really low. The Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite comes with only a 2-megger camera so we didn’t expect exceptional results. The snaps we took were pretty good for a 2-meg sensor. While the colours were almost a perfect replica of the original, there was a significant amount of bleed when zoomed in. Overall, the pictures didn’t have a lot of detail, but made up for image quality by reproducing colours and adapting to ambient light well. Most apps on the phone were quite snappy. The handset is powered by an 832 MHz processor. We were hooked on to Cordy for a while and there were no hiccups during multitasking on the phone. With an always-on GPRS connection and a couple of voice calls, the handset showed red only after a full working day.

Love – Decent camera, mobile hotspot

Hate – Average build quality, small screen

Rs 6,990

mahananda.bohidar@thehindu.co.in

sabyasachi.b@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on October 16, 2012)
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