The Meizu MX 4-Core is a truly interesting phone. And as an extention of that, Meizu itself is an interesting company. Founded by Jack Wong, it gained international notoriety when its M8 smartphone drew unwelcome comparisons to Apple's iPhone, particularly from Apple's lawyers, resulting in an early end to its production run.
Meizu claims to be fully vertically integrated - manufacturing, marketing, and selling its phones, a start-to-finish philosophy that results in decreased overhead and more control over its products (it should be noted that Meizu does not actually make all of the components in its phones, however). And the reason it has gone that route is probably obvious to everyone at this point: Mr. Wong and his company want to be the homegrown Chinese smartphone-maker to challenge Apple's increasing presence in the country.
Meizu's main point of appeal? Price. Its 32GB MX 4-Core retails for a mere 3000CYN (appx. $470US), and can be used on most any GSM carrier. If one wanted to do the same with a 16GB iPhone 4S in China, you'd have to cough up almost twice that amount - around 5000CYN (appx. $780US). In a country where many cannot afford costly service contracts and prefer to use prepaid phones, the draw of a cheap (relatively speaking) but fully-featured smartphone is obvious. For those people, Mr. Wong's latest creation, the MX 4-Core, is a well-priced, powerful piece of hardware. In fact, I can't think of a phone out there that provides more processing power and storage for your money than the MX 4-Core (though that statement is heavily asterisked by software issues).
Unfortunately, we don't really write smartphone reviews with the Chinese market in mind. We're thinking about North America, Europe, and other locations where most of today's cutting-edge handsets are readily available. And from that standpoint, the MX 4-Core feels rather incomplete. Sure, its powerful quad-core processor provides excellent performance, and it has an impressive 32GB entry-level storage capacity. But in the US and Europe, its low MSRP is less relevant - many people get their phones on contract, or buy them over a period of time on a carrier equipment plan. And really, the price is most of the sales pitch for the MX 4-Core. In the US, a phone like this just wouldn't be able to compete (though we'll probably never see it here).
Issues of value for money aside, though, the MX 4-Core has plenty of other flaws that would make me wary of recommending it. Software comes first to mind - Flyme OS 1.0, Meizu's heavily skinned take on Android 4.0, feels like a strange Android / MIUI (a custom ROM) / iOS hybrid. It all looks very nice, but the practical reality is that most users have absolutely no desire to live in this unfinished, half-Android, half-not purgatory. It just never felt right to me. Bugs and befuddling feature implementations are all too common, and many perfectly good core Android staples are simply tossed out the window for no apparent reason.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, how about one of those whole "review" things?
Meizu MX 4-Core: Specifications
- Price: 3000CYN (Appx. $470US) for 32GB
- Processor: 1.4GHz Exynos quad-core (32nm)
- GPU: Mali 400MP
- Network Compatibility: Pentaband GSM (HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100)
- Operating System: Android 4.0.3 with Flyme OS 1.0 overlay
- Display: 4" AVS LCD 640x960 (288DPI)
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 32GB storage (29.8GB usable)
- Cameras: VGA front, 8MP rear
- Battery: 1700mAh, non-removable
- NFC / Bluetooth: No / Yes, v2.1
- Ports / Expandable Storage: microUSB / none
- Thickness: 10.3mm (0.41")
- Weight: 139g (0.31lbs)
- The MX 4-Core seems to be a solidly constructed phone. Seams are nice and tight, and the removable rear cover is very well-secured - it actually requires a (very simple) tool in order to be removed.
- The simplistic, minimalist design isn't exactly original (in front profile with the display off, it looks eerily like an iPhone), but given some of the ugly, fussy phones we've seen lately, the MX is refreshingly tasteful and sleek, if a bit dated.
- Performance is quite good, and the MX 4-Core buzzes through most tasks with ease, though the occasional slowdown (especially in 3rd-party apps) was something I definitely noticed.
- Aesthetically, Flyme OS is actually quite nice. It's very minimalistic, and runs pretty smoothly.
- A 32GB starting point for storage is something everyone else needs to pick up on, and along with a cutting-edge quad-core at this price point is great value for money.
The Not So Good
- Flyme OS may be pretty, but the upsides stop there. So much of the usefulness of stock Android has been stripped out and mutated that the phone starts to feel crippled - Meizu wants to emulate iOS in ways that just don't make sense (eg, no app drawer). There's also a lot of general weirdness and bugginess going on with Flyme that I don't like. For me, it's bad enough that it ruins the phone.
- Trying to hear somebody when you're on this phone is basically impossible - the earpiece speaker is garbage and gets no where near loud enough.
- The hardware home button is too small, and having it stick out rather than in means it's no longer a natural resting place for your thumb, and is therefore harder for it to find.
- It really is trying to be an iPhone in some ways.
Design and Build Quality
Clean and solid, if uninspired and smudge-prone.
I'll give Meizu this: the MX 4-Core feels like a solid, refined piece of hardware from a strictly physical perspective. Even for something made of plastic, the seams on the MX feel tight, and the phone elicits almost no creaking or flex. Given its mid-range price, the MX 4-Core is the affirmation of something I've long hoped was true: even a relatively cheap phone doesn't have to feel cheap.
I think part of the reason for this is the fact that Meizu has chosen, like Apple - and that will not be the only time you read those words in this review - to stick with the same basic chassis for two generations. Meizu was able to take their time, and presumably refine the original MX's frame to a point where they have the manufacturing process down pat. Not only does this save on R&D costs, it means the second generation has various kinks and defects worked out (hopefully), allowing the product iteration to focus on internal hardware instead of marketing buzzwords like hyperglazing and wishy-washy new-age "nature" spew.
That isn't to say Meizu is all business and no fun with the MX, though. In fact, they have the coolest product packaging I've ever seen for a smartphone. The box itself is fairly Apple-y, all white, sliding open easily, with the power adapter carefully slotted into holes on its little cardboard pedestal. But then, you're confronted with what looks like a 200 page manual. When you pick it up, though, it's obviously not. Yes, Meizu has put the phone inside a fake book. The USB cable and cover removal tool are also hidden in the back of the book (a little too hidden, I couldn't find them at first). So, what starts out as Apple mimicry ends up being something a lot cooler - I kind of wish other smartphone makers would put some thought into this stuff.
The hardware buttons on the MX 4-Core are my least favorite part of the phone's physical attributes. The volume rocker is mushy, as is the power button. The hardware home button, though, gets a special place in my heart for annoyance. Instead of recessing it into the phone, Meizu made it stick out like a little trackball. Except that it isn't a trackball, and is made of very shiny and slippery plastic. This makes it less natural for your thumb to rest on, and harder to find when whipping the phone out of your pocket. It does look cool, though.
Before I wrap up this section, I will say that the MX is decidedly smudge-prone. It's a shiny plastic phone, so this is something of a given. Oh, and the capacitive touch buttons are little LED lights that make shapes and change direction, look and be amazed:
Performance and Benchmarks
Respectable and mostly smooth, with a barn-burner of a GPU.
The Exynos quad-core chip powering the MX 4-Core pushes Meizu's Flyme-covered version of Android 4.0.3 along with relative ease. Performance inside the OS is absolutely smooth. I did notice issues with 3rd-party apps, though. Some apps I know to work just fine on my One X were noticeably laggy on the MX 4-Core, and that can probably be chocked up to a combination of the phone's oddball resolution and a lack of optimization for its chipset (or perhaps the underlying software - I'm not sure). That said, these incidents were relatively few, and weren't so bad as to ruin the experience. Now, here are some benchmark scores:
GLBenchmark 2.1.5 Egypt, Offscreen 720p
This is a GPU-only test, so this is really only indicative of the Mali 400 GPU's performance. Higher is better.
- Samsung Galaxy S III: 11002
- Meizu MX 4-Core: 10562
- HTC One X (T3): 7164
- HTC One X (S4): 6330
- DROID RAZR: 3202
Quadrant is a holistic benchmark testing CPU, memory, and GPU performance. Higher is better.
Vellamo is a benchmark suite measuring web performance. Higher is better.
As you can see, the MX 4-Core holds its own, especially in the GLBenchmark GPU test. That makes sense, of course, given it has the same GPU as the Galaxy S III. And as always, remember that benchmarks should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
The definition of a "mixed bag."
When I'm using the MX 4-Core at my desk, the display is something I really don't notice. And for a mid-range smartphone, that's a good thing. I don't think about the resolution or brightness, or really even the colors. However, while we're on the subject, the MX 4-Core's LCD panel gets pretty bright, and the 288DPI is more than adequate given it's only four inches across. Colors are surprisingly good, and while not eye-poppingly-SAMOLED-vivid, are more accurate than many phones in this range. Reds don't look too hot, greens are a little dull (but I've seen worse), and yellows are yellow.
The viewing angles are perhaps the worst I've seen on any phone in recent memory, though. Color distortion is terrible at any sort of angle, and only gets worse the further you tilt the device. The other Achilles heel? Sunlight performance is downright bad. In combination with the very narrow viewing angle, seeing the display in bright daylight is a real challenge.
The resolution Meizu has chosen is simply a blatant grab at the iPhone. There's no reason to have a 640x960 Android phone unless you want to mimic the iconic proportions of Apple's smartphone when you plaster it up on a giant billboard, and given the look of the front of the MX, I think we all see what's going on there. The resolution, I think, also leads to other real usability problems, which I'll discuss later.
That quad-core processor is a hungry little guy.
Battery life on the MX 4-Core isn't what I'd call bad, but it's by no means very good. The 1700mAh cell (which you can see by removing the rear cover, but not actually swap out) provides a day of moderate to light usage, but put it under strain and it's clear that Meizu really hasn't worked out the power management on this thing. Even while idle and on Wi-Fi, the MX 4-Core exhibited an unusual amount of drain. There's little doubt in my mind that heavier users will be reaching for a charger by the late afternoon. You can, under the accessibility menu, set the CPU profile to a "low" mode, and this doesn't impact performance too much (that I noticed), but it didn't seem to improve battery life much, either.
Storage / Wireless / Call Quality
An absolutely lamentable call quality experience.
Storage on the Meizu MX 4-Core clocks in at a very respectable 29.8GB usable on the base model. And while many may rejoice at the ample internal space, the lack of a microSD card slot may leave some wanting a little more room. The 64GB model, though, should keep even the biggest media junkie happy.
Wireless performance on the MX was solid. Wi-Fi speeds were very good, Bluetooth worked (though it's only 2.1), and GPS locks were pretty quick. Network speeds were what I'd expect given its HSPA+ 21Mbps rating.
Call quality is abysmal. Meizu picked the tiniest, crappiest little speaker it possibly could for the MX, and it basically makes phone calls happening anywhere but a graveyard or a church impossible to hear. I was in shock at just how bad it was. If you're picking up this phone, you need a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone. Parties on the other end had a bit of trouble hearing me, too, especially outdoors. I assume Meizu's logic here is that most people in China use Bluetooth earpieces, and it saved them a buck. Unwise, in my view.
Audio / Speaker
The MX 4-Core's headphone audio is a very pleasant surprise.
The MX provides a surprisingly good audio experience from the headphone jack. It's plenty loud, fidelity is very good, and dynamic range seems strong. It's entirely possible this device is using the Wolfson DAC that is integrated with Samsung's Exynos chipset, and that's one of the best audio hubs out there for mobile devices right now. Here, the Meizu MX 4-Core gets great marks from me.
The external speaker, though, is much less satisfying. It sounds like a budget phone external speaker - loud, piercing, and hollow. You get what you pay for, I guess.
All brains, no soul.
The camera on the MX 4-Core is... interesting. It provides very good macro performance for a phone camera, and the general sharpness of images, even at full zoom, is impressive. It's no Galaxy S III in that regard, but in terms of actually preserving the captured content's form, the MX 4-Core does a pretty good job. In fact, I'd say the level of detail matches my HTC One X. Colors, though, are its downfall. Even a hint of contrast or mixed lighting sends the MX 4-Core's rear shooter into full-on panic, washing out and overexposing all over the place.
Flyme OS's pretty looks quickly give way to its neutered functionality and various oddities.
And this is where it all falls apart. From a hardware standpoint, the Meizu MX 4-Core is a pretty great little phone. Unfortunately, Flyme OS really does ruin it, and in ways I just can't forgive.
Let's start with the positives, though. Flyme OS is pretty. It really does look good, I love the lockscreen, the charging animation on the lockscreen, the expanded notification bar when you're on a homescreen, and the quick power controls when you pull it down. If only Meizu had just stopped there. But they didn't. They had to rewrite the Android book, and in doing so, have created some sort of one-armed iOS-Android mutant.
The app drawer? There isn't one. Yes, you can download a custom launcher, but you shouldn't have to. All your downloaded apps populate on the far right homescreen, and removing the shortcuts uninstalls them. Just like iOS. Long-pressing on an empty area of a homescreen does nothing - just like iOS. You have to go to the Settings -> Customize menu to add widgets or change wallpaper. I'll stop with the iOS comparisons, because I'm sure you're getting the point by now.
Notifications have been inexplicably dumbed down - only a single bubble displays next to the signal icon showing an unread notification is in the pull down bar. There are no context-specific icons, either, just the stock dialogue bubble.
The stock keyboard is pretty awful, accuracy is mediocre and placement of keys is very odd, but that's understandable given that this phone is primarily meant for the Chinese market. It's easily replaced with something else.
Next up, system volume. One part of Android I love is context-sensitive volume controls, they're something that I really just can't live without. Meizu apparently doesn't agree, and just got rid of them altogether. The volume rocker only controls media volume, no matter what app you're in. Instead, a combination of either volume up or down and the power button toggle silent mode. They've actually managed to reduce the functionality of the OS here. Why? I really don't understand. That silent mode toggle requires 2 hands if you aren't going to accidentally turn off the screen, too. It just makes no sense. Notification volume is only controlled via the audio settings menu.
Battery stats has been removed from the settings menu. Android 4.0's native screenshot shortcut has been disabled (Meizu does not include an alternate method). The app management menu is gone, which means there is no way that I've found to clear app defaults without uninstalling the app. Unless it's a system app, then you're apparently screwed. The stock Android power widget has been removed, and the only way to adjust brightness is via the settings menu. Long-pressing the menu capacitive key for the recent apps menu pops up the settings dialogue in some third-party apps. Those neat party-trick capacitive touch buttons can have their brightness adjusted, but you can't make them vibrate. I could keep going on with all these little issues, but I don't really care to at this point. Let's get to the biggest one.
The system DPI is just set up wrong. I don't know if it's the aspect ratio of the 640x960 display, or just Meizu thinking we're all really nearsighted, but just look at this comparison of the amount of content my One X shows on screen versus the MX 4-Core, it's pathetic:
In the actual homescreen and system UI, everything looks fine on the Meizu. But on any 3rd party app, it's like the DPI goes into Playskool mode. The system DPI setting in the settings menu only has "Normal" and "Large," so there's no way to scale it back down. Because of this, using the MX 4-Core for basic tasks like email feels like going back to my Nexus One.
It's difficult for me to provide a comprehensive overview of Flyme, because at every turn it seems there is something wrong, or simply gone. There are features I could praise, like the partial-shade notification bar, or the beautiful lockscreen. But considering how much time talking about what Flyme OS lacks, and what's broken, these are hardly redeeming points.
The MX 4-Core really is like a Ford Pinto with a V10 engine. The almost laughable combination of a cutting-edge quad-core Exynos processor with the MX's unassuming plastic form factor and dumbed-down software experience makes for quite the odd couple. On the one hand, it definitely is fast (most of the time). But it's also a bit of a gas-guzzler, and Flyme OS's limitations and irregularities make it really hard to figure out just how to use all of that extra power in a meaningful way. A poor call quality experience and an abnormal display resolution don't help make the sale. Frankly, I'm not even sure what the point of a quad-core processor is in a phone like the MX - I'm guessing it has a lot more to do with marketing than megaflops.
In China, where the MX 4-Core will be a very aggressively-priced contender, Mr. Wong's phone may fare very well. And maybe, in that market, a lower cost of entry and homegrown status will continue to win Meizu even more fanfare. Unfortunately, the MX 4-Core just isn't ready to compete in a more cutthroat global smartphone space, where devices like the Galaxy S III, One X / S, and even the iPhone cost most subscribers very little up front.
Still, I look forward to what Meizu's next phone will bring. And I really hope it comes in a box shaped like a book.