Phones have progressed enormously in the last few years. If I look at my beloved Nexus 4, bought new in 2012, it had a Snapdragon S4 Pro chip, 2GB RAM, and 16GB storage. It cost me £279, or $349 in the US. For a phone of that quality, $349 was a stupendous price, much cheaper than comparable phones from Samsung, Motorola, or HTC. It kept me going for two years before the battery finally gave out.
Fast forward to this year. A tiny British company, Wileyfox, has released a phone, the Spark, with 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, for £89.99 ($120). In today's climate, with phones having up to 6 times the amount of RAM the Spark has, 1GB is simply not acceptable any more. Similarly, 8GB of storage - of which less than 3GB is actually usable once app updates are installed - is not acceptable, especially when top-tier phones have 128GB of storage, the same as the MacBook Air I'm typing this review on has.
While the Spark lacks grunt, as this review will show, the phone has a way of somehow making it likable. I'm not overly sure how, but it does exude a charm and style that a great many phones do not.
|Size||143 * 70.4 * 8.65 mm|
|Processor||Mediatek MT6735A, quad core, 1.3GHz|
|ROM (storage)||8GB (3.6GB available)|
|Display||5-inch IPS, 1280x720|
|Rear camera||8MP, autofocus, LED flash, 1080p video|
|Front camera||8MP, fixed focus|
|Sensors and connectivity||Bluetooth 4.0, 2.4GHz WifI frequency, FM radio, GPS|
|Screen||Bright, vivid, the screen on this phone feels like it belongs to something much more expensive. I've been impressed when comparing it against other phones of a similar caliber and considerably higher specced.|
|Design||I've been marveling at the stylish design Wileyfox have come up with for the Spark. The sandstone, soft-touch rear cover, the orange highlights, and the clean, logo-less front. It all adds up to a phone that is a pleasure to hold and look at.|
|Removable battery, dual SIM and microSD||All three are supported.|
|Battery||While not outstanding, it got me through the day, which is what you want from a phone really.|
|Storage||8GB of storage simply is not acceptable these days, even less so when only 2.5GB is available after all pre-loaded app updates have completed.|
|RAM||Like the storage, 1GB RAM is not enough in 2016. Apps lag and the whole phone can slow to a crawl or even freeze quite regularly. This is especially noticeable when installing apps.|
|The screen||While bright, vivid, and colorful, it doesn't have an oleophobic layer protecting it from fingerprints and smudges, and glare can be severe.|
|Buttons||Minor, but the volume and power buttons are a little too flush with the sides of the phone for my liking, especially the power button. This makes it hard to find them in your pocket or in a hurry.|
Hardware and Design
The best thing about the Spark is easily the design of the phone and how it's built. While not anything earth-shattering, the understated look gives it a very pleasing feel, with two orange highlights - the Wileyfox wordmark on the rear cover and the speaker grill - accented nicely to the black of everything else. Talking of the rear cover, it has a lovely sandstone texture, giving it a very soft feeling, as well as making the phone feel like it's worth more than it is. There's also a speaker on the back - not great placement since the phone lies flat, but Wileyfox has given this some thought and added two nubs either side of the grill to alleviate the issue of muffled sound. It's touches like this that really make me appreciate the obvious consideration which went into designing this phone. Another one of these nice touches is the inset Wileyfox logo on the rear, with the two-level design feeling nice under your finger. The 8MP camera and accompanying flash also sit at the top, with the camera surround bumping out by the slightest of margins. This causes the phone to rock ever so slightly, but it's such a slight movement that it's not noticeable in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
I really like the orange highlights, both on the hardware and present in the UI design.
The cover is also removable, giving access to the dual SIM slots, a microSD card port, and the removable battery. Both SIM slots take a microSIM, which means I had to rummage around for my adapter, which was a little inconvenient but nothing too bad. The SIM was also quite difficult to get in, requiring it to be at the exact angle otherwise one half would go into the slot while the other wouldn't. The battery and microSD cards are as you would expect.
The nubs on the back of the phone help to lift it slightly off a surface, causing the speaker not to sound muffled.
On each side are the volume buttons, on the left, and the power button, on the right. Both buttons are clicky and responsive, although the power button is a little too inset into the side of the phone for my liking. Going around the full circumference of the phone is a shiny black band, which is almost certainly plastic but made to look like metal. As I said in my hands-on, I am a fan of these bands, although I'm apprehensive about this one chipping and scratching easily, like others have done.
No oleophobic layer means the glass screen attracts fingerprint and grease at an alarming rate.
While I do have small grievances, like the phone not having a small lip to protect the glass screen, or the microUSB port being offset to the right hand side on the bottom, these aren't enough to make me dislike the hardware itself. It reminds me of the Nexus 4, in an understated way - it's a similar size, similar thickness, and the front looks vaguely similar too.
The screen is another one of the best aspects about the Wileyfox Spark. It's bright and vivid, and while you can see pixels if you look really close, they're all but invisible normally. I compared it against the 6P's AMOLED display and while the colors naturally popped more on the Nexus screen the Spark more than held its own. Color reproduction is accurate if a little washed out, but that might be because I've used a Nexus 6P for 7 months. Practically speaking, it is incredibly reflective, as you can see in many of the photos, and the glass also does not have oleophobic coating, meaning it is a fingerprint magnet.
The screen is bright and colorful, despite being hugely reflective, especially when outside.
The glass is slightly curved in a 2.5D fashion, again reminding me of the Nexus 4. In a similar way, the glass on the Spark just seems to fall away at the edges, which looks really great. There are bezels on either side - I measured them at about 5mm each. The bezels at the top and bottom are equal, around 15mm each. Viewing angles are good - a slight blue tint when nearing 90°, but nothing too major and not noticeable unless you're looking for it. There's no sRGB mode here, but you wouldn't expect one on a device this cheap.
I'm an AMOLED fan - hence the 6P - but this is a better LCD than on some flagship devices from several years ago.
For its comparatively small 2,200mAh Lithium-Ion cell, battery life on the Spark is surprisingly decent. Sure, it's not going to last forever, but as long as it's not pushed too hard it'll generally get you through the day. Looking at the battery stats I get around 3 and a half hours screen-on time, which seems acceptable. Granted my app set up is pretty basic - Fenix, Sync for reddit, third-party Facebook app Swipe, some music. I've vaguely wondered if the processor is under-clocked to provide better battery life at the expense of performance (we'll come to that in a minute), but if you want a cheap, underpowered phone that makes calls and can text other humans, this one should last you.
Charging is slow, as you might expect from a £90 phone with a sub-par processor. Maybe I'm too used to my 6P's rapid charging, but this thing just seems to take ages to actually get anywhere. Sure, if plugged in before bedtime and charged overnight it'll be fine, but if you get home from work and need to go out an hour later, don't expect to have anywhere near a fully charged phone when you leave to go to your all-night party.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
Now we come to the more negative parts of the review. The storage, as already mentioned, is abysmal. Total usable storage is 3.96GB. A clean install nets me 3.5GB free (409MB is already taken up), and with all apps updated that goes down to 2.35GB. With apps like Facebook Messenger, which I use daily, over 100MB and other apps I use every day topping 25MB, this small amount of space just isn't acceptable in 2016. Granted there is microSD card support, with adoptable storage available, but I would still argue that 8GB out the box just isn't enough.
Wireless performance is good enough, if a little on the slow side - things are just slower to load, whether that be in an app or in a web browser. Wireless range, in the 2.4GHz frequency, is normal at least compared to other phones on this frequency that I was able to test. As one might expect of a phone at this price, the Spark lacks 5GHz frequency.
Call quality was good - both myself and the person I was talking to could hear each other and were clear when talking. The microphone is on the bottom edge of the phone, the opposite side of the microUSB port, so it's not likely a hand will get in the way and cause problems. At times, the person I was speaking to on the other end said I was slightly muffled, but not as bad as to cause issues in understanding or clarity.
Audio and speakers
The speakers are what you'd expect to find on a £90 phone - they do the job, but could be much better. Because the main speaker is on the back, it is slightly muted, although the aforementioned nubs do help with that somewhat, lifting the rear of the phone off the surface by about 1mm.
The audio-out through the headphone jack is similarly in the 'what you'd expect' territory - gets you by but not great. Once again I tested alongside my 6P on multiple songs in multiple genres, with the resulting sound not feeling nearly as bass-y and not as loud. Granted my in-ear earbuds are not the best, but even I could tell that the amplifier on the 6P is better, and even that's not fantastic (I often find myself turning my 6P's volume up, especially when walking alongside a busy road). The AudioFX app on Cyanogen OS does actually work, allowing you to tweak the settings of the music to your personal listening taste. The preset options are the usual suspects; Classical, Dance, Flat, Folk, Heavy, Hip Hop, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and 'Normal,' whatever that means. There is also a custom mode, allowing modification to the default (i.e. 'Normal') settings, and an option to create new presets. This app can also be used with the speaker.
Both cameras on the Wileyfox Spark are 8 megapixels. The rear-facing camera is nothing spectacular, but performs in an acceptable manner when the cost of the phone is considered. Images are a little grainy and noisy, especially in low-light conditions, or even cloudy and overcast, like the weather I took my sample photos for this review in. The resulting pictures are mostly sharp at the place of focus, but blurry elsewhere. This is especially obvious when zooming in to the image. There's a flash too, which is good but only really serves to illuminate the resulting image in bright, xeon-like, unnatural light. It can be used as a flashlight though, which on a phone of this price is useful, and relatively rare - both the Moto E 2014 and Moto E 2015 do not have LED flash.
Detail is good, but only where the image is focused. Further away from the point of focus, the blurrier the result.
The front facing camera is, as already mentioned, also 8 megapixels. As might be expected, this is not as good as the main camera - images are quite noisy and do not show a great amount of detail. This may be due to its fixed focus nature, which does not allow for changing the position or distance of the object being focused on.
Images are slightly grainy, but at this price point that's expected.
Performance on a £90 phone is never going to be amazing, but the Wileyfox Spark slows down the more you use the phone. I'm not sure if this is because Cyanogen OS is not properly optimized for the Mediatek processor, or maybe the Mediatek processor just isn't very good. That 1GB RAM probably isn't helping matters. Surprisingly, the animations and transitions are OK, even when everything else is deathly slow. But the operating system itself just lags up and freezes, allowing it to catch up with the latest inputs. It regularly lagged up when typing something perfectly normal such as an SMS message, and similarly scrolling through large lists of emails or real-time updates in Twitter was hampered by a simple lack of grunt.
The back of the phone has a sandstone cover, which is soft touch and feels like it's worth more than it is.
The problem does not seem to be unoptimized software - if it was, the animations and transitions that Android generally uses to disguise lag would be slow and stuttery, which they're not. However, everything just feels like it's on slow-down - apps take a long time to load once they're on the splash screen, or a toggle appears to have been turned on/off (for example WiFi or Bluetooth) but actually takes a few seconds to turn the component off. Rather, the issue seems to be the awful Mediatek processor - quad core, 1.3GHz - and that 1GB RAM, causing everything to just take a long, long time.
Using the AnTuTu benchmarking software, I was able to see just how much the phone suffered when trying to play 3D graphics. I didn't expect it to be amazing, but the graphics were choppy and low-FPS. Overall the phone got 32915 in AnTuTu, compared to the Moto E 2015's score of 22061, but having used that phone extensively I don't see the chronic lag and slowness the Spark exhibits frequently.
Conversely, Cyanogen OS has been pretty stable for me in my testing. There's the occasional crash, and it kicks apps out of RAM pretty aggressively, but for the most part it's been as stable as any other phone on the market. As has been said before, bugs and issues can pop up at any time, so this isn't a "this phone is rock solid" statement, but it has at least been stable for me.
Because the Spark runs Cyanogen OS, it gets pretty close to what many would deem to be 'stock' Android, at least in looks. If you run CyanogenMod on your device you'll know what to expect here - a sort of stock Android+ experience. It has a few innocuous things added, like a custom launcher and the Cyanogen account system, which mostly stays out of the way. The other improvements (or not) are tweaks in the Settings menu, adding things like Profiles and navigation bar customization.
Because the launcher is usually the first point of interaction with Android, other than the lockscreen, it's most often the thing that is complained about the most. Cyanogen's launcher on the Spark is pretty similar to the AOSP launcher in most ways: the widget picker is the same, as is the general layout of the homescreens (although this can be customized). The app drawer is the major change, however: while still vertical, apps are separated into alphabetical categories, a la the Marshmallow dev previews. The background by default is dark, with letters for navigation listed horizontally at the bottom, scrolling through the apps by letter. There's also a search bar up at the top. In addition, the app drawer button on the homescreen is a Wileyfox logo, instead of the usual six dots; an interesting branding change, and probably invisible to most users. Folders are also different in appearance, with a dark background and showing in a grid-like fashion. These folders can be locked with a pattern if required, securing them against unwanted intruders.
Left: the Cyanogen home screen. Middle: the app drawer, vastly different from Google's. Right: the widget/wallpaper/settings Activity.
Of course, because this is Cyanogen, all this can be customised and tweaked as per personal preference. While it doesn't have as many options as something like Nova Launcher, a considerable number of settings exist for fine tuning the experience.
For the most part, Cyanogen's account system stays out of the way. It asks if you'd like to create or login to an account when setting the device up, but doesn't force the issue, and can be skipped easily. From what I can tell, the account has three major benefits: Access to the Themes app; Live Caller ID, identifying who's calling at any given time and blocking spam callers; and a 'Find your phone' function. If you don't log in, it doesn't bother or nag you with annoying notifications, which is great.
Above: the Cyanogen account screen when not signed in.
This bit's easy. Cyanogen OS's open-source counterpart, CyanogenMod, is well-known for its abundance of settings, tweaks and options available to customise the Android experience perfectly to your liking. While there are too many to go through individually, the status and navigation bars can both be altered, the entire system UI re-themed, and system profiles created to turn on or off certain sensors or network connections at certain times. In terms of custom skins, it makes Cyanogen different from the rest, while not really taking anything away (unless you don't like having multiple options).
The full list of settings options on the Wileyfox Spark. Too many to list here in detail, but if you use or know CyanogenMod you'll be aware of the amount of options available.
The Wileyfox Spark is polarizing. Price considered, it looks and feels great, as if it's worth more than it is. While it's obvious Wileyfox have cut corners to get the price down - the camera is a great example - it's a charming phone. It makes you want to like it, somehow. Yet the software performance and meager storage and RAM just let it down immeasurably. It's like having a great looking car in just the color you've always wanted, but then you find the throttle sticks slightly, the boot is tiny, and the fuel economy is awful.
If Wileyfox and Cyanogen can fix the performance - if it can be fixed, and I somehow doubt it - I could almost recommend this phone. Almost. But when it has 1GB RAM and under 2.5GB of usable storage once the all the phone's pre-loaded apps updated, I can't in good conscience say to somebody, "this is a good phone." It would be a lie. Even with a microSD card, it just isn't good enough in 2016.
While I haven't used them, I would hope the Wileyfox Spark+, with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage would be much better. Granted it still has a Mediatek processor, but at least that miserable amount of RAM and storage are both doubled.
Nick Muir, the Wileyfox CEO, said at the phone's announcement that his company focused on the experience of the Wileyfox Spark. I'm not sure what that means in specifics, but maybe next time it should focus on the internal experience as well as the external.