One of the things that makes the Nexus series of phones so enticing is the extremely affordable pricing options. When the Nexus 4 first hit the scene, it was only $300 for an 8GB model and $350 for the 16GB, then Google slashed the prices by $100, making them even more affordable. In a world where most high-end mobile phones can't be purchased for less than $550-600 off-contract, Nexus pricing is a breath of fresh air. That's exactly what BLU hopes to accomplish with all of its phones: good handsets that won't break the bank (while forgoing the contract route).

Of course, that's a good talk – backing it up is the hard part. Can a phone that costs less than $300 off-contract really deliver a good experience? With that kind of price (and without a huge company like Google to back it), corners undoubtedly have to be cut somewhere. That's the key to a good affordable device: cutting the right corners, while still retaining a good overall experience for the user.

Since this is the first time we've gone hands-on with a BLU product, that's exactly what we're going to tackle in this review. Can a phone be called "good" while keeping the price under $300, or even $250? In short, the answer is hell yes.

Now let's talk about why.

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Specs
  • Display: 4.7-inch 1280x720 IPS with BLU's "Nex Lens" and "Infinite View" technologies
  • Processor: 1.2GHz Mediatek quad-core Cortex A7
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 4GB on-board, microSD card slot
  • Cameras: 8MP rear shooter, 2MP front camera
  • Ports: microSD, microUSB 2.0, dual-SIM slots (one microSIM, one standard)
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 4G 850/1900 (model L100a for American markets) or 850/1200 (model L100i for Latin American markets), HSPA+ 42Mpbs
  • Network compatibility: AT&T, T-Mobile in the U.S.
  • Battery: 1800mAh
  • OS: Android 4.2.1
  • Dimensions and Weight: 137x68.4x7.9mm, 125g
  • Price: ~$220 contract-free
  • What's in the box: BLU Life Play, silicone case, screen protector, microUSB cable, AC Adapter, and BLU wired earbuds
  • Available colors: White, Yellow, Blue, Gray, and Pink
  • Where to buy: Amazon, Negri Electronics
The Good
  • Incredible display. When I first laid eyes on the display, I was convinced it's Super AMOLED. But I was wrong. It's actually an IPS panel with some BLU modifications, and it's beautiful. More on that below.
  • Crazy light and thin. At 7.9mm, the Life Play is incredibly thin, and its 125 gram weight is nothing to scoff at, either. It's impressively easy to carry.
  • Good battery life. My last two personal phones were both Nexus (Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4), neither of which have good battery life. Despite only having an 1,800mAh battery, the Life Play managed to trump both of them without breaking a sweat.
  • Included accessories. Do you know of any other device that ships with an included screen protector and silicone case? Because I don't.
  • Multiple color options. Apparently that's pretty popular.
The Bad
  • Very flimsy back cover. Seriously, the back cover of this phone is crazy thin. It makes the Galaxy Nexus' battery cover look like tank armor in comparison – every time I removed it, I was afraid it was going to break. But it didn't, and eventually I got used to how insanely thin it is.
  • 4GB of internal storage. That's scarily small, even for a budget device. Fortunately, BLU did some things in the software to supplement.
  • No quick access to Google Now. Since the Life Play is lacking on-screen keys, the swipe-up to access Google Now doesn't work. Long-pressing the home button brings up the multi-tasking menu, and double tapping it does nothing. The same goes for long-pressing and/or double tapping the back and menu keys, as well. If you want Google Now, you have to launch the Search app, which is a major bummer.
  • No LTE Support. This isn't a dealbreaker for me personally, but LTE is a very important feature for many. I got good results out of AT&T's HSPA+ network, however, so it wasn't really much of a sticking point.
  • 1GB of RAM. I wouldn't necessarily call this a bad thing per se, but it's definitely not good. 2GB of RAM would've gone a long way in making this phone even better than it already is.

Hardware

Build Quality and Design

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My first thought when taking the Life Play out of its box (after holy crap this thing is bright yellow) was how thin and light it is. It's more than a millimeter thinner than the Nexus 4, and a full 15 grams lighter – that makes for a very tangible difference. At first it made the phone feel slightly fragile, but after using for a few days I began to realize that's just not the case – it's actually far more sturdy than the initial impression leads on.

The guided tour of this phone is quick and to the point: the top is where you'll find the microUSB port and headphone jack, the right houses the volume rocker and power button, and that's it. Nice, neat, and compact. I like it, though it did take a bit of time to get acclimated to the power button being below the volume rocker – I constantly hit volume up to turn the phone on for the first week.

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Dat yellow

The back of the device is clean and simple. The 8MP camera and flash are at the top, with the BLU logo and speaker down at the bottom. No frills here. The entire back piece is removable, which is where you'll find the battery, SD card slot, and both SIM card slots. It's a crazy-thin piece of plastic that I swear was going to snap in half the first time I took it off. It's just kind of nuts how thin it is. It's almost non-existent. Despite being so thing and seemingly fragile, I've removed it several dozen times and it's still going strong. Maybe it's made of some new military-grade indestructible... plastic stuff. It seems like it can take a beating.

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That's probably a good thing, actually, because if you decide to forgo the included silicone case, then you're probably going to drop the phone at least once throughout its life. The material used for the back piece is quite slick. Sometimes it's difficult to get a good grip on the unit, which is not a good feeling. Maybe this is one of the reasons BLU decide to include a case in the box.

Speaking of, if you do decide to use the included case, be prepared for the back to come with it every single time you take it off. The back just stays inside the case.

As far as overall design is concerned, the Life Play doesn't look like a $200(ish) device. You know how most budget tablets just look like cheap, crap-tastic slabs of plastic? This phone doesn't suffer from the same problem. If I didn't know how much it costs, I wouldn't believe it based on the build quality (and the user experience, for that matter).

Display

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This is by far the crown jewel of the Life Play hardware experience. The display is beautiful. Colors are rich and vibrant, viewing angles are excellent, and it gets plenty bright for viewing outdoors. BLU knows it looks great, too – the included wallpapers were definitely chosen to highlight the display's capabilities.

When I first looked at it, I was absolutely certain I was looking at some form of AMOLED. The colors are just so rich, I assumed there's no way it wasn't AMOLED, though I did notice a distinct lack of oversaturation that is so common on AMOLED displays. So began the dig to figure out what kind of display the Life Play actually uses.

Turns out it's an IPS panel, which blew my mind. Compared to all the other IPS displays I've seen (which is a fairly large number), the Life Play's display crushes them all with absolutely no comparison. BLU uses a couple of proprietary technologies called Infinite View and Nex Lens to optimize the IPS panel to create the best possible output, and boy does it work.

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The one downside of the additional layers on the display is that they drastically reduce visibility when wearing sunglasses. When going somewhere that required I use navigation, I threw the Life Play in a dock, and immediately thought the display was off. It was completely black – until I removed my sunglasses. I'm not sure what causes this quirk, but it's definitely there and something to consider. I had to choose whether or not to block the sun from my eyes or be able to see navigation. I chose the latter.

Still, I think this was a fantastic move on BLU's part, because generally "budget" phones have terrible displays. That essentially kills the entire experience, regardless of price. With the Life Play (and other new BLU phones, I imagine), you not only get a reasonably-priced phone, but one with a great display. That combination is almost unheard of.

Sound, Speakers, and Call Quality

This is always a weird section for me to write in a review, because I wouldn't say any mobile device has "good" audio, especially when it comes to phones. I guess the real question to answer when talking about a phone's speaker is is it loud enough? And for that, the answer is an undoubted yes. The Life Play's speaker isn't exceptionally loud, but it will definitely do a good job of alerting you when you're getting a call or have a new notification. Not really sure what more to say about that. It does its job.

As far as call quality is concerned, I was pretty much impressed with the Life Play. Calls are crystal clear and loud. I had absolutely no issues hearing the person on the other end, and they said the same about me. So, on this front, all is well.

Storage and Wireless

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Storage is going to be a sore spot for many users, as the Life Play only comes with a measly 4GB. Before you start scoffing and damning the phone, however, BLU has tweaked the system so it allows many apps to be moved to an SD card in their entirety, not just the apk itself. You can also set all apps to automatically install to the SD card. This Gingerbread throwback helps the storage issue out dramatically. The phone also automatically switches to the SD card for pictures taken with the camera, screenshots, downloaded files – basically anything that would normally default to internal storage.

Speaking of the SD card, the system can handle up to a 32GB microSD card according to BLU. However, I was able to use a high-speed 64GB card without any issues – the system could see and use the entire amount. These two things combined make storage issues almost, well, a non-issue.

In this day and age, wireless radios should work without a hitch, which is true for the Life Play. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about how well Wi-Fi and Bluetooth worked – they both connected easily and worked perfectly. What I am going to talk about, however, is using the Life Play on AT&T.

When it comes to using a non-carrier-optimized phone, the results can be very quirky. I've used phones on AT&T that were so poorly optimized that they were almost unusable, but on the other hand, I've used some that were virtually indistinguishable from an AT&T-branded phone in terms of compatibility and setup. The Life Play falls somewhere more towards the latter, as it was able to pull in some very reasonable speeds while on AT&T's HSPA+ network. I was generally able to pull down somewhere between 3Mbps and 7Mbps most of the time, which should be more than enough to do most things required on mobile. Sure, it's not 60Mbps LTE speeds, but I was able to stream music, watch videos, and all the other things I would normally do on mobile data without a single hiccup.

Camera

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At first blush, I thought the camera on the Life Play was pretty good. It's fast, and the images on the display looked great. Then I looked at them on my PC and had to re-assess the situation.

The Life Play's camera isn't awful, but it's far from the good camera I originally thought it was. Low-light pics are grainy and just poor in quality (as seen in the test shots). Outdoor shots do a much better job of replicating what your eyes see – colors aren't terribly oversaturated like we so often see on lower-end devices. Still, it's far from what I'd call "great."

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The camera app itself has its own batch of settings and image tweaks including panorama mode, HDR, and more – you'll see all the various options in the screenshots below.

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Battery Life

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Despite only packing an 1,800mAh battery, the Life Play gets very reasonable battery life. With general use – something that's incredibly difficult to gauge because, let's be honest, "general" is about as subjective as it comes when talking about smartphone usage – it easily lasted me a day. Under normal circumstances, the phone comes off the charger at roughly 7:30AM or so, and by the time I'm ready to hit the sack at around midnight, there's roughly 30% remaining. That was basically consistent from day to day.

My usage includes an unhealthy amount of texting – oftentimes with MightyText, so the display doesn't actually come on – a few phone calls, constant email and social network checking after 4PM when I step away from the PC for a while, and streaming music in the car and/or shower. With the same amount of usage, my Nexus 4 would have to be on the charger by 7:00 or 8:00 PM for a bump.

Initially one may think "well, it has a removable battery, so I can get an extra." I am inclined to agree with that, except there's one issue: you can't really buy extra batteries. Or any other accessories for that matter, but we'll get into that later.

Software

UI and Features

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If you watch and/or listen to the Android Police Podcast, then you've probably heard me talk about being burned out on Nexus devices. Not because they're bad (because they're anything but), but because I'm just tired of using bone-stock Android all the time. My first Android device was the Motorola Droid, and I've basically been using stock software ever since. As tasteless as many users think Touchwiz and Sense are, I'm just ready for something different – but I'm not entirely sure I want some crazy in-your-face makeover. I think BLU may provide just the right amount of stock and customization on its phones.

The changes made on the Life Play are quite subtle for the most part, and it's mostly all aesthetic. In a way, BLU's changes remind me ever-so-slightly of Touchwiz, if Samsung backed it out of your face quite a bit. I think it's more or less the color scheme that leads me to think that – most of the custom/customized apps have a brown theme. Otherwise, the status bar is very similar to stock Android, but the cellular signal strength indicator is green instead of blue. There's also an option to add the battery percentage to the bar, which is always a nice touch. The notification area still has quick settings, but there are a lot more of them on the Life Play: airplane mode, battery, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, mobile data, data usage, audio profiles, brightness, display timeout, auto-rotation, and power saving features. And all of them are either tappable toggles or links to settings; the toggles can also be long-pressed to access their respective menus. Well done, BLU.

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Pages one and two of the app tray. There is no order. Only chaos.

While the homescreens are essentially identical to stock Android, there's a strange quirk in the app tray: the icons aren't arranged in alphabetical order. And there's no way to re-sort them. Trust me, I've tried everything. It's terribly annoying. Of course, there's always the option of throwing a custom launcher on to fix this silly issue, but let's face it – this shouldn't be an issue in the first place. There should at least be an option to sort the tray's contents alphabetically.

The bulk of the other changes are found in the Settings menu. Aside from a completely different look, Settings also has a "Common Settings" area with quick access to Wi-Fi, Data, Bluetooth, ringtones, display, lockscreen protection, and power savings menus – you know, all the stuff people commonly want to be able to tweak.

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A quick swipe to the left will brings up the full settings menu, which is essentially the same as stock Android in functionality. There are, of course, certain tweaks to allow for specific settings, like dual SIM configuration, for example. BLU has also added a bit of utility here, like a way to schedule a time for the device to power on/off or put the device in airplane mode. If you're the type who shuts their phone off at night, this is an excellent feature that does all the work for you.

And then there's the modified and pre-installed software. Some apps are BLU add-ins, like the file and app managers, while others, like the dialer, have undergone drastic makeovers. Let's take a look at those now.

Bundled and Modified Applications

BLU didn't add a lot in the way of apps, and basically all of them have some sort of usefulness. Let's go bullet-point style for the included apps, as they're all pretty self-explanatory.

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  • Clock – This This takes the place of the default Google clock, but is essentially a skinned version of the app. All the existing functions are present here – alarm, timer, and stopwatch – along with a worldwide clock to keep track the time everywhere you may travel.
  • Compass – Well, this is a compass. It may or may not show your heart's true desire.
  • App Manager – The app manager is an interesting inclusion. It has a feature called "Phone Accelerate" that seems to be somewhat of a memory manager, cache cleaner, and boot optimizer all rolled into one. Each setting can be tweaked independently of the others, but you can also simply shake the device to quickly run all three. While I don't see a lot of use for the memory management aspect, the cache cleaner comes in handy given the device's limited storage, and the boot optimizer keeps everything running smoothly at startup. All in all, I think this is a good addition to the phone.
  • File Explorer – I still don't understand why Android doesn't have a native file manager. No mind, though, the one included by BLU is functional and useful. Does exactly what you want it to.
  • Torch – It's a flashlight.
  • FM Radio – It's, erm, and FM radio.
  • SIM Tookit – I assumed this would be a way to manage the dual SIM slots, but instead I just get an error that says "Application is not installed on your phone." Great. So take it out of the app tray, eh?

That pretty much covers BLU's additions on the software front, so let's take a closer look at the company's modifications to existing Android applications, starting with the most in-your-face makeover: the phone app.

The phone app on the Life Play is a confused place. It doesn't really work like I expected it to – the first time I used it I basically gave up and dialed the number manually. Instead of sliding between the dialer, recent calls, and favorites like in stock Android, the phone launches directly into the dialer and recent calls. Swiping to the right brings up a full keyboard, but get this – it doesn't actually search your contacts when you start typing a name. I don't understand why it's there.

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In order to get to your contacts, you have to hit the head down in the bottom left, which launches the modified contacts (people) app. From here you can access your favorites, but tapping the contact's icon doesn't actually call them. It just launches the favorites menu. At this point, we're like 3 taps and two swipes into something as simple as making a phone called. In the contact's menu, you can finally initiate a phone call, video chat (if applicable), text message, email, IM, or visit any website attached to the contact card.

Seriously though, I just wanted to make a damn phone call. Quickly. I may like a lot of things about this phone, but the dialer/contacts app just isn't part of that. It's far more complicated than it should be. Thankfully, once you've actually called someone, their number will appear in the recently called list, which is shown above the number pad when the phone app is launched.

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Then there's the SMS/MMS app. As another key element to any smartphone, the SMS app is probably even more important than the dialer to most people, so of course BLU had to throw its mark on that as well. Aside from aesthetics, it's really not that different from the stock messaging app, aside from the fact that it has a separate section for "favorites," which allows you to favorite messages for safe keeping.

Otherwise, the messaging app features something really neat: pinch-to-zoom within each message window. The only downside of this is that it reverts back to the stock size every time the message is closed and re-opened. Still, it's a pretty neat feature that I accidentally discovered while just messing around.

Past these changes, the Life Play offers an experience very similar to that of a stock Android device. The changes are subtle and nice, and I actually enjoy the brighter, whiter theme of most apps and the settings menu. Overall, the changes aren't obtrusive and are incredibly easy to adjust to.

Performance

This is clearly going to be one of the areas where we discuss things that could potentially make or break this device. It's packing a 1.2GHz quad-core Mediatek processor, which is definitely known for being a budget brand and simply doesn't scream "powerhouse" to anyone in this world. Turns out there may be more than meets the eye to this processor, however, as BLU claims to have chosen this particular model because it's based on the Cortex A7 architecture and supposedly has excellent power saving features. Given the battery life of the Life Play, I'm inclined to thing this was a good decision.

But I digress, this section is about performance. Right out of the gate the Life Play has all odds against it – with a budget processor and only one gigabyte of RAM, there simply isn't a lot to persuade users that this device is going to hold up to the daily grind.

But you can't judge a device on specs alone – the Life Play is surprisingly snappy and incredibly functional. During my time using it as my primary device, I haven't noticed a single bit of lag, even when installing apps (which is a sticking point for many users). With that said, it isn't the most fluid device I've ever used. Despite apps launching quickly, transition animations are noticeably choppy at times, especially when transitioning through multiple apps. I wouldn't necessarily say this means it performs poorly, as everything still happens in a very reasonable amount of time, but you can definitely tell it's having some issues running everything in the background and making the animations look pretty. In this case, I actually attribute that to the limited amount of RAM – I've said over and over again that an additional gigabyte goes a long way in a device, and this is one of those times that would likely make a tremendous difference. Still, most of the issues that have shown up on the Life Play have strictly been eye-candy based (like the choppy animations) – the performance is definitely there.

When I say "the performance is definitely there," I don't mean "this device will smoke everything you've ever seen." Not at all. What I mean is that the device is capable of doing the things that most users want to do with their phones without showing signs of lag. It's not lighting fast. It doesn't have face-melting power. But for $220 and no contract, you simply can't beat the experience the Life Play has to offer. The only device I've used that provides a better experience for the money is the Nexus 4, and it's completely sold out with no chance or becoming available again. At this point, I've stopped counting it as a competitor to the Life Play for just that reason.

Before we get into a few benchmarks, let's talk about gaming. While I don't personally game on my phone that much, I know that a lot of users do. The Life Play was able to hold up very well with games like Dead Trigger and Riptide GP 2 – there wasn't a bit of lag or stutter at all on either game. Oddly enough, however, it had a few issues with Canabalt HD. The game didn't show any sort of delay, but it was fairly choppy, even after using the built-in app manager to "clean processes." I found it ironic that graphically intense(ish) games like DT and Riptide played without issue, but it struggled to deliver a consistent experience with a simple game like Canabalt. Given the nature of the gameplay, this actually made it pretty difficult – it wasn't impossible, but it's still not something I'd readily recommend.

OK, now we can look at some benches. On the left we have the Nexus 4 strictly for comparison purposes, with the Life Play on the right.

Geekbench 3

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AnTuTu

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Androbench

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As you can clearly see, the Nexus 4 out-performs the Life Play in basically every way as far as sheer numbers are concerned. What may surprise you, however, is the margin in which it is the victor. It wasn't as drastic as I expected.

It's also worth noting that the Life Play has CPU power saving mode that "limits the maximum CPU performance to conserve battery life and lower device temperature," but I'm simply not sure that this toggle does anything. The performance is identical – as are the benchmark scores – in both modes.

The Downside of it All

As much as I enjoy the BLU Life Play not only as an affordable device, but just as a good Android device in general, it would be unfair to omit the negative aspects of a device like this. First and foremost, there is almost no third-party support for any BLU device – and that goes for both hardware accessory makers and the Android software/rooting/modification community. While there is currently a method for rooting the Life Play fairly easily, trying to find a good ROM may be an issue for those who care about such things. I personally feel like its stock software is exceptionally good, but it would be ignorant of me to think everyone else would share those sentiments. The modification community is going strong, and there are a good number among you who would refuse to buy a device with this level of aftermarket support. With that said, I would like to see the community pay attention to BLU the way it has with other, far more expensive manufacturers. After all, there are no carriers associated with these devices to lock bootloaders and/or tell you that you can't do with the phone what you please. The low price is yet another bonus – why pay $200 on-contract when you can pay $200 (or thereabouts) without having to commit to one carrier?

The next hurdle that BLU will need to face if it really wants wide adoption is Android version updates. The Life Play is currently running 4.2.1, which is new enough to get by – 4.2.2 and 4.3 are very much incremental updates that make very little difference to the OS as a whole, but that's likely to change with 4.4. Will the Life Play get 4.4? It's hard to say at this point, especially considering we don't even know when it will generally be available. If BLU can manage to deliver timely updates to all the devices in the "Life" line, that will go a long way to impress Android users as a whole. I don't expect Nexus-level update timelines here, but without a carrier to get in the way and slow the process, I see no reason why reasonably-timed OTAs are out of the question.

Then there's hardware accessories, such as cases and the like. While the Life Play comes with its own silicone case, that won't be enough for some users, and you won't find Otterbox, Spigen, Seidio, or any of the other big names making cases (or any other accessories) for the Life Play. In fact, if you go search Amazon for "BLU Life Play case" right now, you won't find anything specific for the device – only some generic cases that should fit basically any commonly-sized phone. That may not be a huge deal to some, but it definitely plays a role in whether or not many users will decide to buy this, or another BLU, phone.

These are just some of the things that one will need to consider when pondering purchasing this phone. Will this section be trivial to some users? Sure it will. But it's just as important to many others. Ultimately, I would love to see the community embrace BLU as an important step forward for Android. No other manufacturer is putting out this kind of quality at these prices, and that's something we shouldn't overlook.

Conclusion

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Well, that was an eye-full, wasn't it? We don't normally end up with such long reviews for budget devices, but I felt like there was a lot to talk about with this phone, not only in terms of the phone itself, but also on a philosophical level. The idea of a $200 off-contract phone is enticing, but it's also hard to fathom a good phone being that affordable. I feel like BLU has done something remarkable with the Life Play – it says to me that this is a company that understands the mobile space. It has a firm grasp on what customers want. The folks in charge are active in the mobile community and aren't just some schmucks in suits-and-ties (or the equivalent women's gear) that sit behind a huge desk and make way too much money.

All the decisions made to cut the costs on this phone were extremely well thought-out – something we don't often find on budget devices. Whereas the bulk of cost-cutting generally shows up in the display, the Life Play has an absolutely fantastic screen. The decision to use a Mediatek quad-core Cortex A7 CPU was also a good one, as it's justified by the extended battery life and beneficial power-saving features. Sure, it does take a hit in the performance department as a result, that's purely in numbers. It doesn't feel slow when you're actually using it. Still, I know there are those out there who will immediately bash the phone for not having top-of-the-line hardware throughout.

In the title I said that BLU cut costs in all the right places and I stand by that statement. However, I'd like to address one more thing: longevity of life. How well the device will perform in the months to come is my primary concern. We've seen it happen so many times before – a device comes out, reviewers use it for two or three weeks (sometimes less) and give it a great review. Then, three or four months later, the device is basically unusably slow. While this has happened with high-end hardware (*cough* Transformer Prime *cough*), it's often true of budget devices, as they're simply not built for the long haul. Sure, at $200, most people can afford to upgrade yearly, but even then, the device should perform well for the entire year. Not be great for the first three months and frustrating for the remaining nine.

But I'm not saying that this will happen with the Life Play, and I don't want it to be assumed that I'm suggesting it will be the case. But having spent as much time as I have with mobile technology, I've learned that this fact is something you simply can't ignore.

In the end, though, I still readily recommend this device for most users. I'm not going to tell anyone to avoid a good handset because of potential issues in the future – that would just be silly. Still, there are the ones who will shun it because of <insert whatever reason here> and that's OK.

For me personally, though, my next phone just might be a BLU.