Blu Products is an American-based (Miami, FL.) smartphone maker who has been around since 2009. With a primary focus on Android and Windows handsets, the company’s bread and butter is unlocked and less expensive alternatives to other, more familiar manufacturers.
As of today, Blu — Bold Like Us –splits its smart phones into three distinct series. The Dash is the most affordable of its models while the Studio is the mid and upper tier stuff. The Vivo line is where you’ll find the high-end and more polished designs.
The Vivo XL Excel, first introduced at CES in early January features a 5.5-inch display, a 13-megapixel rear camera, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. Powered by an octa-core Mediatek processor, the phone packs 16 gigabytes of storage (ROM) with two gigabytes of memory (RAM). It is not a groundbreaking device by any stretch, however it is a package which most typical smartphone users might consider looking into.
We recently spent a few days with the Vivo XL and have put together the following review for you. Please read on for our impressions and takeaways.
The first thing you notice about the phone is actually the box that it comes in. It’s gold and made of a bit thicker construction than most cardboard boxes. Coupled with a striking black print, the box sets the tone for a more premium smartphone experience.
Upon taking the handset out we notice that it was thinner and lighter than expected. In terms of overall footprint, the phone is pretty close to what you’ll get with the Nexus 6P. At 5.5-inches it’s just a smidge shorter than the Google handset.
After inserting the battery and putting the back case on, the phone feels not unlike the Samsung Galaxy S3. Although people are often quick to call this material a plastic design, it is actually more of a polycarbonate or synthetic material. Indeed, the battery cover has some give and bending in it, but the honeycomb print on the inside helps keep it from cracking.
Handing the phone off to a couple of people for a quick reaction, the first things typically said were that it was a “nice feeling phone”, that it “looked more expensive than it is”, and it was “comfy”. Before going further, I should point out here that the retail price of this phone is only $150. Yep, that is without a contract. And, as if that weren’t enough, the phone supports two SIM cards so you can bounce around from carrier to carrier or mix business and personal lines.
The gold finish on the front somewhat reminds us of the matte gold on the Nexus 6P and it almost borders on the rose gold that you’ll find with the iPhone. The model we reviewed was the Liquid Gold so we imagine the Rose Gold version is even more in line with the Apple counterpart. Other colors offered include Chrome Silver and Midnight Blue.
The battery cover has a pattern printed on it however it is not physically textured. While it certainly looks as if it would have a grip, it is smooth to the touch. Another quick impression before turning on the phone was that this battery cover was quick to pick up fingerprints and smudges. The front however was more forgiving.
But, whereas the rear of the Vivo XL easily picks up finger traces, it is also very easy to wipe down. A simple swipe against a shirt or pant leg and we’re back in business. Were you to put this into a protective case there might be nothing to discuss here — this is somewhat of a non-starter of an issue.
Powering on the phone we found that it offered up bright and sharp display that was easy on the eyes. Although enthusiasts and early adopters might scoff at the bezel around the display, we’ve seen worse and we are quick to remember the value proposition. Remember, we are not dealing with a phone that runs $500 to $700. It would be unfair to compare the traits and hardware materials to something in that realm.
As mentioned before, the Vivo XL supports two SIM cards. It is worth noting, however, that you will have to remove the battery if you want to swap in or out a SIM card in the first position. The second position is more on the side and is accessible simply by removing the battery cover.
The phone supports a micro SD card for expansion. Should the 16GB of storage not be enough, simply add your memory card to increase it.
The power button is on the right hand side just about half way up with the volume buttons slightly higher up the phone but still on the right. The headphone jack is on the top of the phone and is set off to the left about 25% of the way. On the bottom we find the USB Type C port.
With a resolution of 720 by 1,280 pixels, the image looks better than it sounds on paper. Once you get into that 5 inch and five and a half inch space, anything below this is going to look very pixelated. And, while this doesn’t look nearly as sharp as a 1080p or 2k screen, we had no problems reading text and images we’re still very clear.
The display is very bright with a decent amount of contrast. Also, it is possible to adjust the LCD effect from neutral to cool or warm. What this does is slightly tweak the picture by adding or removing a small degree of color. It is a minimal change, going from one to another and is not something that adversely impacts anything you might do on a daily basis.
As expected, there are options to adjust the brightness level manually. Additionally you can set adaptive brightness to dim and lower light settings or brighten itself when outside or in a place where it is called for. In a related note, there’s also an option to adjust economical backlight which automatically adjusts — wait for it — backlight to save power. Toggling on and off you can see what it does for you in different environments. Do know that messing with these sort of settings can have an impact on your battery life, good or bad.
The Vivo XL draws power from the MediaTek octa-core processor and 2GB RAM. While not a top-tier device by 2016’s standard, we found that this model still punches above its weight. As devices are treading deeper into the 3GB and 4GB realm of memory, we are sometimes quick to want that from our phones. Maybe it comes from trying to future-proof ourselves with desktop computers or laptops, however we should remember that the average user does not necessarily need that much performance.
To test general usage, we installed a handful of applications and games that a typical smartphone user might enjoy. Examples include various social media apps and casual games. We did not find that the phone was necessarily laggy or unresponsive even when we opened up multiple apps at a time. Moreover, hopping from one app to another went as smoothly as we would expect, and the overall performance was actually better than we had hoped for out of a phone at this price point. In other words, don’t let the 2GB RAM deter you.
We had erroneously anticipated becoming frustrated with the experience. It was thought that at some point during testing we would find a flaw or something specific in its performance to point out that says, “see, this is why the phone only cost this much.” Alas, we did not. There were some quibbles, of course, but nothing that pushes the phone out of its price range.
When it comes to the topic of speakers and sound, the phone could be a touch better. There are no stereo speakers to be found here. Should you play music or a video, your sound will come from the back of the phone.
The speaker grille is just below the battery and, while it puts out a reasonably loud sound, it did have a little bit of tin to it. Again, we have to give the benefit of the doubt because of the price. We are not paying for dual front facing speakers; we have heard worse on phones in the past and have been content.
Battery lasted us well into a second day of usage, which is what we’d hope for in a 3,150mAh unit. Once the 6.0 Marshmallow update is pushed out and the Doze feature is added we would expect to squeeze out even more. The USB Type C charger replenished the battery at an average rate – adding roughly 25 percent juice in an hour’s charging.
One area where the phone comes up a little short is in the aspect of the camera. Although there are plenty of software features and customizations to be found, the overall quality leaves a bit to be desired.
In testing the camera, we notice that it doesn’t handle range as well as other models. But, this is where we remind you to consider the cost of the phone. Bearing that in mind, it still performs as expected. Truth be told, we know people who have smartphones with much better cameras that ultimately take bad photos. For whatever reason, they are content with poorly shot images with blurry subjects and terrible lighting. This wouldn’t fare any worse than what they’re currently putting on Facebook.
As you can see from the gallery of images the camera blows out the white. Even in using the HDR and/or playing with the flash, we found that white edges in lighting and on the edge of items don’t look as clear or sharp as we want. This is not to suggest you can’t clean them up or run them through a photo program for sharing on social media or messages. Let’s be honest here, we are not printing out our photos or hanging them on a wall. If that is the type of using you plan to be, then you certainly do not want to look at this phone.
Generally speaking, the camera captured the subjects quickly and without too much time to focus. We were particularly impressed with the speed in which the phone captured and saved photos and HDR mode.
As far as overall options are concerned, the Blu Vivo XL offers more than you’d expect out of a budget-friendly phone. There’s plenty here to play around with (see below) when it comes to filters and settings for unique images.
We could spend paragraph talking about images, however it ultimately comes down to use your preference. If you look at the gallery and think to yourself hey this is sufficient for me, then there you go. But, if your first reaction is to point out picture flaws and where it comes up short, then this is not for you.
Powered by Android 5.1 Lollipop out of the box, Blu promises this will be upgraded to at least 6.0. We don’t know when that will happen so keep that in mind if you are expecting the latest version of Android. Yes, there are handsets coming out with the newer version of Android, but we venture to guess the target demographic doesn’t really know or care that much about the different versions of Android.
As someone who has spent time with all versions of Android, we have become reliant on some of the features that come with marshmallow, but that is just a personal preference and experience. If you need the latest and greatest, then we lost you a while back.
What we like about this phone is that it is essentially a stock Android experience with no major UI customization. The first time you use the phone you will find a home screen configured with some shortcuts, folders and widgets. Noticeably, the phone does come with Opera installed as a browser option. The app is prominently displayed on the home page right next to the phone, camera, and messaging icons.
Interestingly enough, there is no button to open up any sort of app tray. Instead, your apps and games are accessible by swiping the home screen. For those of you who have spent time with other brands or versions of Android this may feel a little awkward at first — and maybe a nuisance.
We like to install a custom launcher on our devices so our experience is uniform and tailored to suit our specific needs. It helps us when jumping from one model or device to another on a regular basis.
If you prefer a minimal or clean desktop, you may find yourself a little put off by the Blu way of doing things. Download a lot of apps and you potentially have pages or screens full of icons.
The phone does come with Google Mobile Services which means you get all of the standard applications including Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Drive, Hangouts, and the Play Store. This is an important distinction that not all lower price manufacturers offer.
Look around a bit and you’ll discover there are knock off brands and very inexpensive models on the market. On the surface they may appear to be the phone you want, but play with the software and you see where corners are often cut. Rest easy knowing that with the Blu Vivo XL you can get into the Play Store and download all the titles you expect.
In addition to the Google suite of applications, we found the phone was preinstalled with a couple of Amazon titles including the standard Amazon app, Kindle app and one designed to install other apps and games.
Other preinstalled applications worth noting include an FM radio which works when you plug in headphones, a compass, “Torch” (flashlight), and Yahoo weather. McAfee security comes pre-installed on the phone as well and is designed to keep a watchful eye on your mobile experience. If you don’t like it, you can remove it.
In terms of keyboard the phone is set up to use TouchPal 2016 as the default. This means that you can theme your keyboard or customize it with a wide variety of settings. Some of the options here include toggling word gesture, a dedicated number row, auto-correction, and auto-capitalization. You can also switch the keyboard to learn from your messages and import contact names. This is helpful if you have friends or family or the occasional email with a contact that has a unique name. We’re more of a Google keyboard lover, however this was not that difficult to get used to.
The Chameleon application is pretty cool if you are looking to create a custom or handpicked theme. Simply point the camera at an object or room and you’ll be able to select color droplets based on what’s seen. These colors, once applied, will change your wallpaper as well as the various menus and setting screens.
Along the same lines there is a Theme Park application which lets you choose from a variety of wallpapers including static images and live wallpapers. There are also a half-dozen themes to choose from which are essentially bundles based around a common design.
Digging around a little deeper in some of the settings, you will find options to adjust gestures notifications and other personal preferences. It is also possible to set separate ringtones and message tones for the different SIM cards.
Although the Android OS is pretty much untouched, there’s a little bit here that adds to the overall experience. Nothing that should slow down an Android update from rolling out, mind you, but enough to help it stand out from a pure stock build.
We were impressed with the total package of the Vivo XL. It was not all that long ago that we paid double for lesser phone and felt okay about it.
As more users become acclimated to the concept of buying a phone and then selecting the carrier, devices such as these will stand out. As much as we like a flagship experience like a Samsung Galaxy S6 or LG G4, it is sometimes hard to justify paying that much money every few years. This goes double if you are on a prepaid carrier and do not have the luxury of equipment installation pricing. If you are looking to pay for your phone up front, then you want to get as much bang for your buck as possible. A phone like the Vivo XL truly is bang for the buck.
Unlocked is the way to go. You need to get used to that concept as soon as you can. Blu, one of the emerging brands to watch in this space, only concerns itself with GSM-ready devices free of any carrier influence.
There is peace of mind knowing that you can leave your carrier behind and still use the same phone when you go across the street to a different provider. Tossing the secondary SIM card here and there’s added flexibility for international travel or multiple phone lines.
Also in its favor is the fact that it’s pretty much untouched Android. That’s a big win for people who don’t like custom UI’s or excessive skinning and preloaded applications. Blu hasn’t necessarily proven to be incredibly adept at pushing out software updates, but that could be a non-issue for Average Joe types. As long as it’s supported with security updates and patches any vulnerabilities, we’re okay recommending the 5.1 Lollipop release.
There is peace of mind knowing that you can leave your carrier behind and still use the same phone when you go across the street to a different provider. Tossing the secondary SIM slot and you have flexibility for international travel or multiple phone lines on the same device.
The Vivo XL is thin, sharp looking, and offers a big display at a small price. For a lot of people, that’s all that matters. The camera could be better and the sound could be more robust, but we could also be looking at a $200 phone instead.
In thinking about the target demographic, we feel that this is more than sufficient enough to get the job done. Heck, there’s even a little bit left over, too.
Where to Buy
Launching today (January 29), the Vivo XL can be had at Best Buy for a downright incredible price of $99. While that’s a $50 savings off its normal cost of $150, it’s only a short time promotional rate. Look for a wider retail and online seller availability in the coming weeks.