If you've never heard of a smartphone maker by the name of Meizu, that's understandable. (Even though we actually reviewed their first Android smartphone about 2 years ago.) That's because Meizu, despite selling some phones outside of its home market - China - does no advertising and has very little press outreach in the western world.
Meizu's latest phone, the MX4, sells in mainland China for under $300 (1,799 Chinese Yuan) in 16GB trim. Now that the smartphone enthusiast world has been opened up to the incredibly competitive pricing of Chinese phonemakers via OnePlus, though, this doesn't sound especially crazy. If I were to tell you that say, a year ago, you'd be a lot more impressed, because it is indeed crazy cheap. The 32GB model, by the way, costs just about $35 more, and the 64GB model around $65 more than that.
So, you're thinking, "and my OnePlus One and I should be paying attention... why?" Well, as cheap high-end phones go, OnePlus is a relative newbie in the Chinese smartphone scene - Meizu and Xiaomi have been building brand cults around their absurdly affordable hardware for several years. They've done so on the basis of offering industry-leading specifications, highly stylized, bold user interfaces, and add-ons and services that appeal to Chinese smartphone buyers, which is part of the reason they haven't expanded very far outside their domestic market: they're a Ford Mustang in a world filled with Golf GTIs.
The Meizu MX4 is the cheap muscle car of smartphones. High-end Snapdragon 801 or 805 quad-core processor? Nope - how about a beefy MediaTek octa-core with four ARM A17 cores clocked at 2.2GHz and a PowerVR GPU? It has a brand-spanking new 20.7MP Sony camera module that supports 30FPS 4K video and 120FPS 720p slow motion with a dual-LED flash. It has a vivid and bright 5.36" 1920x1152 (weirdo resolution) IPS LCD covered in Gorilla Glass 3, a 3100 mAh battery, and skips the microSD card slot. It also has an 'NXP Smart PS' audio processing hub, evidence for the existence of which I am unable to find anywhere but Meizu's website, but they claim it offers a 13% increase in "audio performance" (right...) and a 100% increase in max volume, probably meaning a better headphone amplifier.
Limited LTE support for a few bands outside of China are a bit of a disappointment (all China Mobile LTE bands are in there, though), but this phone really isn't intended to be used a lot outside of China to begin with (my review unit doesn't even have US FCC certification), and there's little chance it'll be as cheap if you're not buying it in China or Hong Kong.
And yes, there is a very obvious elephant in the room, which is why this review hasn't yet had a picture of the phone with the screen on. Behold:
Deep breaths, people, deep breaths. I know - it's, it's it's... so Appley. And, wait for it, the Meizu MX4 will come in gold, don't-call-it-space gray, and white. And it doesn't have an app drawer. Or, as mentioned, an SD card slot. It does have a circular [capacitive] home button, a very flat UI design, and doesn't actually seem to let you switch the default launcher (this may be a bug, I'm waiting to hear back).
However, in Hong Kong and with any model sold abroad, it will have Google Play, so there's that, meaning yes, it is a "real" Android phone, it's just a really different one.
What's it like to use? Frankly, apart from not having LTE support here in the US, it's pretty good. The MediaTek processor is quick, though I honestly wasn't very impressed with it - the MX4 feels no faster than my Snapdragon 801 devices, and oftentimes seems slower in multitasking situations.
The display is very good, easily on par with any of the high-end IPS panels of the last year or so with lots of brightness and, to my eyes, great color reproduction, and the screen:bezel ratio means it's not a major handful in the literal sense. The camera is actually pretty good, too, I'm really liking the images I'm getting out of this thing. The build quality seems solid, as well, while the back plate of the phone is a thin plastic, the whole frame is aluminum and the battery isn't removable, so the MX4 is very rigid but also pretty nice to hold.
The image quality from the 20.7MP (in 4:3 mode) Sony Exmor RS model IMX220 with 1/2.3" sensor is good, but I can't help but feel that without Sony's image processing and lenses you're losing out on some of the potential that large sensor provides. Shots sometimes had strange white balance, focusing issues, and performance in the dark just wasn't great. Sensor and lens are very important, but how an image is processed is, I'd argue, more important on a smartphone, where most people aren't getting down and dirty with photo editing and RAW capture isn't yet an option. Also, most smartphone OEMs use Sony image sensors anyway because Sony makes the best small sensors out there (even Apple uses them, though Samsung recently stopped with the S5), Meizu just has one of the newer, more expensive ones.
On the upside, the MX4's full manual mode allows you access to shutter speed, ISO, EV adjustment, and even a manual focus slider (oddly, though, no white balance), a lot more than most mainstream phones are offering these days.
Battery life has been surprisingly decent, too, despite leaving that 8-core MediaTek chip in "performance mode" for the duration of my testing. As for how it fares on the benchmark circuit (another rather important consideration in the Chinese domestic market)? An AnTuTu score of 48,889 is nothing to scoff at, placing it very comfortably ahead of the One M8 or Galaxy S5 that bench around 41000-42000. Interestingly, the Meizu scored slightly lower in AnTuTu's multitask UX test, around 15% lower than the GS5. This may account for some of the performance hiccups I noticed - the Meizu is noticeably slower at launching and switching apps than my Galaxy S5, which is already significantly slower than the G3 or HTC One M8. This is a bit disappointing, as the MX4's A17 high-performance cores are a significantly newer architecture than the loosely-A15-based Krait 600 processor in the Galaxy S5.
Meizu may still have a fair bit of software performance optimization to undertake yet, though, as the company's handsets are released on a rapid-fire semiannual schedule in order to keep up with China's highly competitive marketplace. Just how much the MX4 can expect to be updated, I'm frankly not sure: in China, Android OS version is significantly less relevant to phone buyers simply because many new Android features rely on Google services and apps in order to be fully taken advantage of. Meizu's time would likely be better spent optimizing and tidying up its currently shipping platform and adding its own new features rather than focusing on preparing for a new version of Android most of its users will never take anything close to full advantage of, especially given Flyme OS's heavy skinning.
How different is Flyme OS? Well, for one, in its current incarnation I can't even change the launcher - I'm hoping this is a bug. Because otherwise you're stuck without an app drawer, and that's something a lot of people just aren't interested in (granted, Huawei, Meizu, and Xiaomi have all removed app drawers from their devices, so...).
Flyme OS does borrow heavily from the iOS aesthetic, down to the "wait they got rid of that in iOS 7" pull-up app switcher that doesn't actually show where in a particular app you're working, and even the shortcut to bring up a system-wide search bar by swiping up (to be fair, it's down in iOS) anywhere on a homescreen. Holding the home button also is supposed to bring up the not-Siri "smart voice" assistant, but this feature was disabled after I updated my MX4 to the latest prerelease ROM.
A big part of Meizu's draw in China are Flyme's built-in extras, like a music streaming hub, cloud-synced contacts, messages, notes, and a phone finder service, and a robust set of device security options. Since I'm not in China, it seemed rather silly to pretend to understand the online stuff, as most of the setup process isn't even in English. The new security center tools also don't seem to be on my ROM in the first place, and probably will be added later (like the voice assistant).
Once you have Google services on the MX4, though, it's a lot like using most other Android phones, and the iOS apes really don't get in your way. The multitasking situation, I'd argue, is a serious nuisance, but other than that I didn't find navigating the rest of the UI too painful.
The fact is that the Meizu MX4 is still a great example of the stark differences between the Chinese market and the "rest of the world" when it comes to smartphones. The iPhone had and continues to have a profound influence on smartphone design and culture in China, but the thing is, China seems very much OK with that. Xiaomi and Meizu are both highly popular companies with strong community followings, and neither seems particularly shy about rummaging around in the Apple parts and marketing bin for some "inspiration."
Meanwhile, the big players like Huawei and ZTE have started to look abroad for growth, and I'd argue their smartphones have become considerably more distant - both in design and features - from Apple as a result. Granted, China-favorite Lenovo's still focused strongly on its domestic base and doing whatever the hell it is you want to call the Vibe Z2 Pro, so it's not as though China's smartphone market is easily defined in every respect.
So, will we be seeing Meizu MX8s pop up for sale on Amazon for $300 in the next two or three years, duking it out with the Xiaomi Mi9 and OnePlus One... Five as the low-cost performance phone race heats up in America? It's hard to say, but I honestly wouldn't bet on that future. China's domestic market still has so much room for growth that companies like Meizu, Xiaomi, and OnePlus can afford to ignore the US and Europe basically forever if they really want to, as vast and quickly-developing swaths of southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent would arguably be much easier pickings (a strategy Xiaomi is currently exploring). It may also be that America just isn't the sort of market for the "muscle car" kind of smartphones China is putting out, ironically.
For now, Meizu remains an oddity relegated to a corner of the world most Americans don't really know much about aside from what they read in the Panda Express menu (just being realistic here). Much like selling a Ford Mustang in luxury-car-obsessed China (which Ford is going to try anyway), selling a Meizu MX4 in iPhone-and-Galaxy-loving America would be a long shot. The brand, the product philosophy, and the appeal simply aren't there at a big enough level, which does make me a bit sad, as Chinese smartphone OEMs do have a lot of interesting things to offer. But until they put the marketing money where their mouths are (and keep a good, wide berth between their software and Apple's lawyers), I don't think they stand a chance.
Now, if you're just looking for a good Android phone with good specifications and a good price, is the MX4 one to consider? I'd say only if you really don't care about Android itself, which you probably do, because you're reading this website. The connection between Google and Meizu is as distant as it can be without not existing - this phone is clearly designed for specification junkies and brand loyalists more than it is Android lovers. It has Google because not having Google would make it unsellable outside China, that's just reality. It also seems unlikely to me that international online sales will get the sort of super-low-price-love Chinese buyers will.
That all considered, it does have a great screen, a pretty good camera, and who knows, with updates and optimization that MediaTek octa-core chip could become the powerhouse its benchmark scores suggest. Team that up with what I'd call an attractive phone with an extremely admirable screen:bezel ratio that makes it easily pocketable, and the MX4 is not without its merits. If nothing else, it's interesting - you have to give it that.