When shopping for a budget or mid-range phone, there is always an element of compromise. How many high-end features, how much capability are you willing to give up for the sake of a few hundred dollars? It's a similar proposition in just about any field - from a multi-year car purchase to a simple meal - but the scales are tipping for mobile. The last few years have been marked by amazing value, and thus less and less compromise, in the mid-range segment.

Which brings us to LeEco. Previously exclusive to the Chinese market, the company's debut in the US is highlighted by the LePro 3. This $400 phone (or just $300, if you catch it in a flash sale) includes a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 821 chipset, competent if not stunning design, and an impressive 4070mAh battery. From a specification standpoint, users are giving up almost nothing by choosing the LePro 3 over more expensive options, with the possible exception of a standard headphone jack.

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But unfortunately, hardware isn't the only side to this story. LeEco's software falls well below expectations even of the generally poor mid-range Android ROMs, with bizarre user interface choices, random bugs, and incessant pushes towards LeEco's own sparse services. A critical failure is a tendency to drop notifications. Those who are looking for cheap hardware might be able to tolerate the LePro 3, but users who want a more holistic, quality Android phone will have to look elsewhere.

Specs

SoC Snapdragon 821
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB (no MicroSD)
Display 5.5-inch 1080p LCD
Battery 4070mAh with QuickCharge 3.0
Camera 16MP f/2.0, 8MP front-facing camera
Software Android 6.0.1 with "eui" software skin
Measurements 151.4 x 73.9 x 7.5mm, 177 grams
Wireless GSM-LTE
Other NFC, rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, USB-C, IR port

The Good

Price With a $400 price tag (just $300 with a flash sale), it's the cheapest phone around with a 5.5" screen and Snapdragon 821 processor.
Battery life The 4070mAh battery is best in class, with up to two days of LTE runtime.
Extras in the box The LePro 3 comes with a free case, USB-C headphones, and a USB-C-to-headphone adapter.

The Not So Good

Software skin LeEco's changes to Android are mostly pointless and confusing.
Missing notifications Push notifications seem to periodically fail, a possible disaster for those who depend on their phone for work.
Poor camera Even for the mid-range price, the LeEco's camera is noticeably lacking.

Hardware

the LePro 3 might just be the best hardware value on the market.

At $300 or $400 (depending on when one buys it), the LePro 3 might just be the best hardware value on the market, dollar-for-dollar. How and why the price is so low is an interesting question, but there's no denying that it's hard to find this much phone at this level. It's all built on a Snapdragon 821 processor with 4GB of RAM, a generous 64GB of storage (no MicroSD card slot), and a 5.5-inch 1080p LCD screen. On top of that users get a 16MP rear camera, 8MP front-facing cam, a rear-mounted fingerprint reader, and a huge 4000mAh battery.

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The LePro 3 looks like... well, it's sort of a mish-mash of several flagship designs. The aluminum body with basic plastic seams borrows a lot from HTC, but the appreciable dedication to symmetry and the hidden capacitive navigation buttons remind me a lot of Samsung. It all combines for a look that's completely lacking in any sort of distinction, but not exactly bad for that. It's the phone equivalent of a Toyota Camry sedan.

That being said, there is some impressive engineering going on here. The LePro 3 has slim bezels and stereo speakers (one on the bottom with the earpiece pulling double duty), and that massive battery fits into a case just 7.5mm thin. That combination of longevity and compact design was a pipedream just a few years ago, and it beats out Samsung's similarly-sized Galaxy S7 Edge by more than 400mAh despite being thinner. The metal case does sacrifice wireless charging, but that seems like a fair trade to me.

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Inside the box is a generous selection of extras. In addition to a standard fast-charging power brick and an A-to-C USB cable, the package comes with a USB-C-to-headphone jack adapter for your current headphones, plus a branded LeEco set with the USB-C port permanently affixed. I got more use out of the former than the latter - though the set doesn't feel cheap thanks to a flat cable and in-line controls, the earbuds are hard plastic with no silicone, so unless your ears match them perfectly they're basically useless. The free transparent TPU case, which covertly covers the entire metal body, is considerably more appreciated.

Design and materials

From the front with the screen off, the LePro 3 looks like a blank slab of silver. The capacitive buttons are beneath the edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, as is the current style, and are only visible when the phone's screen is on. The centered home button is a LeEco logo (which has been compared to a stylized toilet sign - try forgetting that for the rest of this review!), with "back" on the right and "task" on the left. I normally complain about non-standard layouts for control buttons, but there's a software setting that allows users to swap them, so it's easy enough to deal with. It's one of the few software touches I really like. Up top is a centered, all-flat earpiece flanked by the front-facing camera and light sensor.

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The bottom of the phone shows off the USB Type-C port ringed in plastic and two sets of speaker grilles. The one on the left is cosmetic only, very much like the same feature on the Nexus 5, but easier to forgive thanks to true stereo output from the earpiece. The right edge holds the power button and volume rocker, which are made of aluminum (nice!) and reversed compared to most mainstream phones (less nice). The top is bare aside from a microphone and an infrared port - something of a throwback, which is included in the hope that owners will use it to control LeEco-branded televisions, also on sale in the US for the first time.

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The phone body is unspectacular but serviceable.

The left side of the phone has a standard nano-SIM sled, sans MicroSD card slot - you'll have to settle for 64GB of storage. The rear has a brushed look to the metal with a very Samsung-style "squircle" camera module. The similarly-shaped fingerprint sensor, the only part of the metal body with a standard reflective surface, is beneath it. Other than an embossed LeEco logo and the usual regulatory information, the back is unadorned - there are no carrier logos to be had on this unlocked phone. While the front of the device is flat and the sides are very gently chiseled, the rear is curved for an easy grip.

The phone body is unspectacular but serviceable. The sparse thickness and spare dimensions make it feel considerably smaller than older 5.5" designs. The 1080p screen is not as sharp as what I'm used to, but required very little adjustment - it's more than justified at this price point. Speakers are loud and clear aside from the high treble (not unusual for a phone of any size), and though the camera module sticks out by a millimeter or so, it's encased in a small metal lip that makes me less anxious about damaging the glass than I might otherwise be.

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With the exception of omitting the headphone jack (which I'm fairly certain was a style choice more than an engineering necessity), the LePro 3 works. It takes no risks but makes no major missteps, either. The phone won't turn any heads, but it'll do just about everything you want it to without complaint.

Call quality and reception

I had no problems with the LePro 3's call reception, either around town (in the Monterey/Seaside, California area on T-Mobile) or when using Wi-Fi. Calls were clear and distinct and didn't drop once during my testing period, and reception was as good or better than most of the phones I've tested on T-Mobile in the same area. The phone is compatible with all GSM-LTE carriers. Like most unlocked phones the LePro 3 lacks CDMA bands, so Verizon and Sprint customers need not apply.

Performance

While the LePro 3's interface was considerably more sluggish than I would have expected from a phone packing a Snapdragon 821 processor, it clearly isn't lacking in raw power. Demanding 3D games like Asphalt Extreme didn't give the phone any trouble, though extended play did heat up the aluminum body as expected. The 3DMark Slingshot test gives the LePro 3 a score of 2427 - only about 4% less than the Pixel with the same processor (on Android 7.0).

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Even so, the actual minute-to-minute experience of using the phone was less smooth than I expected. Most apps, especially those by LeEco itself, took at least a second or two to launch... which isn't unheard of, but isn't great for a new top-of-the-line chipset, either. The Qualcomm silicon running the LeEco software is fast like a rocket: it does well in straight lines, but it's far from nimble. The performance on the benchmarks above might (juuuuust might) be attributable to the phone's High Performance Mode, which the device enters and exists with a visible toast notification. Subtle.

Battery Life and fingerprint scanner

As you would expect from a phone with a standard 5.5" 1080p screen and an enormous battery, the LePro 3 can last for quite a while. My first few drains of the device (running only LeEco's software and a few minimal essentials) saw it easily lasting a couple of days on a charge, even when I turned off Wi-Fi and relied exclusively on LTE data. It's an impressive feat. When I loaded up my full personal collection of apps and games (including some heavy widgets in Nova and always-on interface apps like SwipePad) it was able to last for a solid day and a half, including my usual regimen of music, periodic video, and lots of email and browsing with Chrome.

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The rapid charging scheme (Qualcomm's QuickCharge 3.0) is likewise well-implemented. Leaving the phone on a charger for forty minutes or so can easily refill 50% of the battery, enough for a long night out. It's possible that LeEco's software is heavily throttling apps and memory to achieve this impressive battery life, but that's just a guess of mine, and I have to give credit where it's due.

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The fingerprint scanner is considerably less impressive. It's well-placed on the rear of the device, but actually getting a successful read requires two or more taps about 50% of the time. On the suggestion of an Android Police reader I tried to game the recognition system by registering the same finger multiple times, but improvement was still far below what I was looking for. I defaulted to my standard behavior, inputting my years-old pattern lock in less than a second.

Camera

The back-end software is tuned for low light to an extreme degree.

The LePro 3's camera is technically proficient with a 16MP sensor and 4K video recording capability, but it lacks extras like optical image stabilization. The custom software camera app has most of the bells and whistles you'd expect: manual exposure, 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, slow-motion, and panoramic assist. LeEco's camera specs don't include a maximum aperture rating, but the photos' metadata say the lens is shooting at F/2, which is pretty solid.

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The photos the phone can take are... okay. In sufficient light the camera has decent sharpness, but color accuracy tends to wash out if there's a lot of contrast. I'm betting that's because the back-end software is tuned for low light to an extreme degree. Even in medium light the images get contrast and brightness boosted. That's pretty handy for low light without resorting to a blast of LED flash, but not great for getting the best images in all situations. The LePro 3's camera and processing falls far short of the work that Samsung, Google, and LG are doing... but that's a pretty high standard. For regular snapshots and other jobbing photo duties, it'll do.

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Video is somewhat poor. Even allowing for a lack of stabilization, definition is unclear and colors lack saturation. 4K video is higher definition, obviously, but boosting the resolution doesn't fix the underlying weakness in the lens and sensor. It's not exactly fair to expect a phone with a mid-range price to perform like a flagship in the camera department, but if you want better images, you'll just need to spend more money.

Software

The software skin is the part of the LePro 3 where things start to get ugly. The phone runs Android 6.0.1 and received an update during my review period, ending on the October security update. And while the device has most of the standard features and functions of a latter Android phone, quite a few of the standard functions have been rotated around the interface for no discernable reason. Let me walk you through it:

On the phone's lockscreen you're presented with a recognizable layout, heavy on the clock and light on the notifications - more than three means you won't be able to see them. And that's a problem, because there's no way to expand said notifications on the lockscreen - you can't see what's "below the fold" aside from app logos, and you can't expand individual notifications here. You'll have to unlock the phone and get into the notification shade... unless you've accidentally opened the long-press menu on the notification, after which it will show the notification settings instead.

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Left to right: lockscreen, homescreen, notification drawer.

Speaking of the notification shade, it's looking a little light. If you're hoping to adjust your brightness or connection settings, as is standard even on non-AOSP phones, there's no way to do it here. No, the quick settings panel is on the screen that pops up when you press the Recents button, along with brightness, an always-present music widget, and a second set of settings shortcuts. The actual apps are demoted to about one third of the screen, spread horizontally instead of vertically. This whole screen is less than intuitive.

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The "recents" menu, where all the missing stuff from the notification shade is hanging out.

All new apps automatically get added to the grid - there is no app drawer.

Why the jarring change? I can only assume that it's to make the Android interface more like the iPhone's - note the blurred transparency of the notification shade. (This seems to be an almost universal design decision for skins from Chinese manufacturers - even Lenovo can't help itself.) That approach extends to the homescreen as well, where all the apps are given either dedicated shortcuts or hidden inside folders. All new apps automatically get added to the grid - there is no app drawer. You might think that the white circle with the rainbow trim is an app drawer, and indeed it looks like one. But no, that's LeEco Live, one of three streaming video apps from LeEco, for some reason. We'll get to those later, but for the moment, you should know that this is the only shortcut on the launcher that can't be moved or removed.

Yes, a link to LeEco's video player has taken the place of the app drawer, and it can't be changed at all. The stock homescreen launcher is more or less useless, and I swapped it out for Nova after a week.

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This is what you see when you try to open the app drawer. Which isn't there.

There aren't any other user interface touches that are quite so egregious as that one, and the general look of the phone's software isn't bad. LeEco even borrowed one trick from the Google Now/Nexus launcher: the left home screen opens a Google Now-style information display by default. But like Samsung's worst efforts at the height of its interfering skins a few years ago, it makes everything slower and more cumbersome than it needs to be, undermining the otherwise fast performance of the phone itself. From the spec sheet this device should be right up there with the snappiness of a Nexus or Galaxy phone. It isn't.

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It's not all bad. Though the phone's main menu screen has the usual unnecessary shuffle of options (including a "dual-app" menu with just one entry for WeChat), there are a few I really appreciate, mostly borrowed from custom ROMs. As mentioned above, the navigation buttons can be swapped at will, making an adjustment from any other Android phone relatively simple. The backlight can be enabled or disabled without any extra software, too - very handy if you'd rather not see that stylized toilet logo all the time. And in a bit of truly helpful design, there's an option for a long-press on any of the buttons to activate the LED flashlight. I've seen similar options in other phones (like Samsung's rugged Active line), but they're few and far between.

Notifications

There are other nice additions to the software: it's easy to swap shortcuts on the notification recents menu out and customize them, and a Wi-Fi calling option is available from the start. But none of those make it any easier to get over the more glaring issue with the software, and it's this: the LePro 3 downright fails at push notifications.

The LePro 3 downright fails at push notifications.

Not for every notification, and not all the time. But I've seen alerts from every one of my critical apps go to my two-year-old Nexus phone and skip the LeEco, sometimes for hours, until I manually open the app in question. Gmail, Slack, Hangouts, Google Calendar, Fenix, all of which are vital to my everyday workflow, have failed me numerous times while using the LePro 3 as my primary device. That's caused me to miss some crucial alerts for work and my personal life.

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I've even seen Google's standard Clock app miss alarms - alarms for cryin' out loud, something that cell phones have been nailing for decades! I had to switch to LeEco's skinned clock app just to make sure I didn't oversleep in the morning. I also noticed that Google Play Music's heads-up notification would appear randomly while music was playing, long before a song change and often simply because the phone was rotated.

If there's one thing that causes me to withdraw a buy recommendation for the LePro 3, it's this inconsistency with background notifications. I haven't been able to find a primary cause, though I'm guessing it's some unnecessarily intense memory management and/or battery optimization. I also can't say with a certainty that it will happen with every LePro 3 phone sold, or with the cheaper Le S3. But if a stranger were to ask me if the phone was worth it for the price, I'd have to ask him how much money reliable email alerts are worth.

Apps

The LePro 3 comes with a predictable bevvy of manufacturer-skinned apps - pretty much everything on the phone has been either tweaked or replaced. I won't bore you with the slight changes to the clock or calculator, but some of the included apps are worth noting. Here are the extras on the phone that you wouldn't necessarily expect to see on an unlocked device:

  • Compass
  • Le
  • LeVidi
  • Live
  • My LeEco
  • Phone Manager
  • Remote Control
  • Player
  • ...and one lonely little partner app, Yahoo Weather

Phone Manager is just a secondary and wholly unnecessary set of shortcuts to some of the existing settings menus, though it does have a screen that allows for quickly disabling third-party apps and some (but not all) system apps. The remote control app is included for LeEco's televisions, and I couldn't get it to work with my generic TV. Third-party remote apps wouldn't work, either, so the infrared port is a bit of a bust for me. My LeEco is an account management app, like similar offerings from Samsung and HTC, which manages the "LeEco Pass" and storage freebies I'll cover later in this review.

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Let's take a look at those three video apps. First, yes, "Le" is a video app, though the name and icon don't indicate that at all. It's a streaming video service that includes movies and television. While very little of the content is actually recognizable - there are a lot of self-styled "indie" movies and web series on display - it hardly matters anyway. It's mostly hidden behind six-minute previews, after which the user must buy "add-ons" for the app that are basically subscriptions.

There's Tastemade, SeeSo, Machinima, Havoc, and a bunch of less-notable additions, some of which are included in the LeEco Pass, some of which aren't. And sprinkled in between all of this paid content is the occasional full TV show or movie available for free... without any indication of what's free and what isn't, or even which bit of content belongs to which service. It's a mess, and I can't see anyone paying for any of this over something like Netflix or Hulu.

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This is not what user value looks like.

So what about "LeVidi," which at least sounds like a video app? The welcome screen says it's a video aggregator, gathering "all the best videos from the internet in one place." Setup includes selecting your favorite broad topics like tech and sports. Then it shows recommended videos broken down into sub-categories, sort of like a very simplified version of YouTube. And that comparison is apt, since every single video without exception seems to be a YouTube embed. Yes, for some reason LeEco made a skinned YouTube app, though without handy features like access to your Google account or a mini-player, there's no reason to use it over the YouTube app that's already installed on the phone.

For some reason LeEco made a skinned YouTube app

Player is a simple local video player, but there is in fact a third web video app on the phone, that "LIVE" shortcut hiding out on the homescreen where the app drawer should be. This is another collection of streaming shows, this time presented in a forced horizontal layout for no obvious reason. The app claims to be live streams, though most of the content is just pre-recorded shows running on a loop. Vice, Variety, and Machinima were the only live streams that I actually recognized, and none of them were showing anything I particularly cared about on the rare occasions when I opened the app... mostly by accident.

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This trio of video apps, none of which are particularly useful or appealing, illustrate LeEco's desire to be an Amazon-style one-stop-shop for entertainment, shopping, web storage, and even transportation. The haphazard and unfocused nature of the apps (and to a larger extent the phone itself) shows why LeEco's eyes are bigger than its stomach. Not only are these nigh-useless video offerings lacking in real content that can't be had easier elsewhere, the fact that there are three of them pre-installed and ostensibly competing with each other demonstrates a phenomenal lack of focus in both software design and branding.

EcoPass

The EcoPass is LeEco's attempt at a Prime-style service.

All that extraneous branding also shows that LeEco really wants people to buy the EcoPass. Or at least have the pass, because weeks after the US release, the company still hasn't actually said how much it costs. The LePro 3 and the cheaper Le S3 come with three months of the pass. So what do you get? Here's the breakdown according to the site:
  • 1000 ecopoints, redeemable for premium videos from partners like Sling, Machinima, Tastemade, and SeeSo
  • Unlimited photo and video storage, plus 5TB of general cloud storage
  • 2-year hardware warranty on phones (as long as the pass stays active)
  • Exclusive discounts on the LeMall shop
  • Prioritized calls to LeEco's service centers

So the EcoPass is LeEco's attempt at an Amazon Prime-style service. This continuing revenue stream is probably part of the reason LeEco is so eager to sell its phones and televisions at a steep discount. The extended warranty and cloud storage are probably the bigger draws here - LeEco's entertainment partners are paltry, and since its selection of branded hardware is limited and one only needs service occasionally, discounts and prioritized calls don't add much value.

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Which brings us to the essential question: how much does the EcoPass cost when the promotional time runs out? I have no idea, and neither does LeEco. The pass is still in a "trial version," according to the FAQ. That's a horrible bit of omission for something so clearly central to the company's consumer strategy.

Value

The obvious primary competition for the LePro 3 is the OnePlus 3. Though the older phone only uses a Snapdragon 820, the screen, storage, body design, and camera are comparable, at least on a technical level. The OP3 has an edge with 6GB of RAM, while the LePro 3 beats it with more than 1000mAh of battery difference. But with the LeEco phone's poor software skin, substandard camera, and habit of dropping notifications and other alerts, I'd have to recommend the OnePlus without hesitation. (And that's not even counting the headphone jack.) The new OnePlus 3T has the newer processor and has a slightly larger battery than the OP3, albeit with an extra $40 charge.

Other phones worth considering in this price bracket include the ZenFone 3, either of the older 2015 Nexus phones (now available at $400 or less, even new), the ZTE Axon 7, and the Xperia X.

Conclusion

Without some intensive software fixes, it's impossible to recommend.

With LeEco's low price high-powered hardware, there's no denying that the company has made an impression on the market. But with a phone that's severely lacking in polish, it's already in danger of becoming little more than a footnote. (The fact that LeEco's actual strategy seems bizarre and inconsistent isn't helping.) While the value of the LePro 3 is undeniable in terms of hardware, the poorly-implemented software, middling camera, and seemingly unavoidable notification errors make it a deal on paper only. Those compromises to functionality and experiences carry a huge hidden cost.

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Customers looking for the absolute best power-to-price ratio without any other considerations will be tempted by the LePro 3, especially with the $100 discount from flash sales. But without some intensive software fixes (or perhaps adoption by the aftermarket ROM community), it's impossible to recommend it over the current competition.