Announced in late June, the Blu R1 HD is predominately known for one thing: it’s the so-called $50 smartphone. Indeed, the price starts as low as $50 if you are an Amazon Prime customer. Otherwise, it’s an extra $50 for the experience.

As one of the initial phones under the new Amazon Prime discount promotion, the R1 HD positions itself as a first-time users smartphone. It’s not here to break any benchmarks or perform heavy multi-tasking. It is, rather, here to provide customers with something affordable that’s also free from carrier contracts.

As an unlocked handset, the R1 HD works with either AT&T or T-Mobile’s networks as well as any of their respective MVNO brands. It’s a dual-SIM device which means you can actually pull service from two cariers at once. Additionally, it’s breathing room for when you might travel to another country and need a local SIM card.

General Impressions

Let’s be honest – there are definitely going to be corners that need cut if you plan to offer a phone as low as $50 without a subsidy. Where does Blu trim the excess? It starts with the box itself; it feels like the least amount of cardboard you could put together to qualify as a box. The thickness is about half that of any other phone you’ll find and it’s a one-piece cutout that folds together. Think of how a pizza box might be constructed.

r1_hd_box

Get into the box and you find there are no headphones and the charger is about as “basic” as you’ll find. There’s nothing extra about what comes with the phone, however we would have never expected anything special here.

Putting this aside, you go straight to the phone and generally leave the other stuff on the shelf. Chances are a seasoned user already has some headphones they love anyhow. And, since we’re not dealing with any Quick Charge or USB Type-C cables, they’ll probably already have those where they need them, too. This no-frills cord is essentially just a spare. First time users, though, won’t be concerned with charging speeds and/or the newer standard for cables.

Hardware

Speaking in the strict terms of hardware specs, the R1 HD has the makings of a mid-to-high-end Android phone from 2014. Does that matter to you? Well, if you’re replacing your current phone from the last couple of years, you’ll find the Blu model to be a side-step or a step backwards. If you’re new to Android and the world of smartphones, you won’t even know the difference.

r1_hd_battery

Those of you who have spent time with a more premium smartphone or a flagship from the last year or two will recognize the build quality differs here. We were immediately reminded of how the early Android phones from LG felt. By comparison, the R1 HD feels cheaply designed; on its own, though, you’d not really get the sense that the phone is “cheap”. There’s a difference between cheap and inexpensive, and, on the surface, Blu opts for the latter.

Key Specifications

  • Android v6.0 Marshmallow
  • Mediatek 6735 | 1.3GHz Quad Core Processor with Mali-T720
  • 16GB/8GB Internal Storage with microSD (up to 64GB)
  • 2GB/1GB RAM Memory
  • 5.0-inch 720 x 1280 pixel displau
  • 8-megapixel rear camera
  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 2,500mAh battery
  • Network:
    • 2G: 850/900/1800/1900
    • 3G: 850/1700/1900/2100
    • 4G LTE: 2/4/7/17 (12 will be available over-the-air)

Display

The R1 HD offers up a 5-inch display with a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution. It’s technically HD, but not the same as you’ll find in the 1080p and higher phones. How does this translate to you, the typical user? It matters little in the overall scheme of things and looks totally fine for text and images.

There was a time when displays had lower resolution and nobody batted an eye. It’s only when you compare it to what else is available that you see shortcomings. This is actually a common thread for Blu phones; they are more than adequate for what they set out to be and the price is more than fair. Dig just a little deeper, though, and you uncover some of the spots where corners are cut.

blu_r1_hd_lockscreen

Whether indoors or outdoors, we had no problem using the R1 HD. The screen size is right in line with what we like for one-handed use and it’s easy to see from all angels. The Gorilla Glass 3 protection on top ensures the phone handles scuffs, scratches, and minor drops.

General Impressions

Holding the R1 HD, you don’t get the sense that it costs as little as it does. In fact, it looks and feels like something that could fetch at least another fifty bucks. Look under the hood, though, and you see that it just doesn’t have the same horsepower as something else in the $150 space. But, taken as a whole, Blu does a great job of making sure you don’t end up with a “generic” design.

The phone is housed in a metal frame with a polycarbonate backing and matte finish. This offers up a decent grip and non-slip texture that doesn’t attract oils and fingerprints. We’ve felt much more slippery phones.

blu_r1hd_back

As for the configuration of the phone, the volume rocker and power buttons are on the right side of the display. Both buttons have the same metal finish and provide a decent level of feedback and response. The headphone jack is found at the top right of the phone while the microUSB port is at the bottom left.

The rear cover is removable, opening up access to the microSD card slot and dual microSIM card slots. It’s worth noting that the battery is not removable. At 2,500mAh it’s plenty to get users through a full day of use. Give the phone extended usage of LTE, such as video streaming, and you’ll find the battery ends up around 8-9 hours, or more — still respectable.

Camera

The Blu R1 HD features an 8-megapixel rear camera with a f/2.0 aperture and a 5-megapixel front-facing shooter. Both cameras offer up LED flashes to help users capture better shots in lower lighting conditions. On paper they’re right about the middle of the pack, edging toward the low end. In practicalilty, though, it’s better than it sounds.

We were impressed with the camera, especially considering the price tag of the phone. We’re certainly not trying to imply that it should replace your current setup, but you might be surprised by it. And, when you get technical about it, the camera does overexpose some photos, especially as you get into darker environments. Keeping in mind what you’re likely to do with the images, though, they suffice far more often than not.

Blu R1 HD

If the camera is a main priority for you, pass on the R1 HD. That should go without saying, actually. You’re probably looking at something else for your needs anyhow. But, it has not been all that long since we had much more expensive phones that took much worse photos.

Shutter speeds were quicker than expected, even in cases of HDR. A word of caution, though as you might end up with some odd double-exposure or ghosting. Still images and slower moving things captured nicely, but be careful with the quicker subjects.

r1_hd_camera_screen

You can see from the embedded gallery that photos generally come out rather nicely. Factor in some editing and processing via Snapseed or another app and you have photos totally worthy of social media sharing. It won’t take long to figure out what you can and cannot get from the R1 HD’s camera.

As for the camera app itself, there are a number of options for shooting, including panoramic, night, face beauty, sports, and professional (manual). Each works well in their respective intended situations, but the auto is where we suspect you’ll play most often. There’s also a DualView mode which uses both cameras, leaving a selfie on top of your main photo. It’s weird, with the selfie shaped like a ‘W’, and didn’t do much to wow us.

Software

If there’s one thing we’ve come to appreciate in Blu, it’s that it doesn’t spend time messing with a custom version of Android. Essentially a stock build, this doesn’t come across as having any particular agenda. To us, there’s few things worse in smartphones than a bunch of carrier-branded apps that we rarely use.

The same goes for the R1 HD, for the most part. While it doesn’t come loaded with a host of random apps, games, or services, it does come with its share of Amazon titles. This applies to both the standard Blu R1 HD as well as the discounted Prime Exclusive one for Amazon Prime subscribers. Indeed, each has Amazon, Amazon Drive, Amazon Music, Audible, Amazon Kindle, and Amazon Video. There are just a few others between the two, but those are largely the overlapping apps.

amazon_apps_r1hd

Should you opt for the default R1 HD, that’s about the extent of the UI and app changes. Oh, and it’s worth pointing out here, that you can uninstall some of those titles, but not all. Pick up the $50 and/or $60 the R1 HD Prime Exclusive, though, and you’ll have more Amazon presence.

The Prime-exclusive version displays offers and ads, on your lock screen and in your notification shade. Moreover, they are said to be personalized deals and product recommendations so they don’t feel like random advertisements.

If you are a fan or user of the Amazon ecosystem, you probably won’t have an issue with the ads and offers. Heck, if this is your first Android phone, you probably don’t even know what it would be like without. It’s not a simple case of full screen ads every time you unlock or something random in your pull down shade. It changes every time you use it, but doesn’t ever feel so heavy that we’re upset about it. We didn’t find them any more intrusive than what we get on a Fire tablet. Really, they do seem to skew more toward things we’d use or buy.

r1_hd_case

The R1 HD runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is the the lastest version available today. The 7.0 Nougat stuff comes later this year; it’s unclear whether this phone will even see it. If you absolutely expect your handset maker to support your device with an update or two, this is not going to be the route to take.

To us, if you’re looking to snag a phone for $100-$150, you might want to consider it an almost “as is” device. This doesn’t mean you have a burner, or a disposable phone, but you’ve got what you’ve got for as long as you’ve got it.

The 6.0 means you’ve got some of the latest in protection from Google, plus all of the recent design principles. It also means you can conceivably run many of the apps and games on the market. Many, but not all; the hardware might place limitations on what you plan to do.

We wager that the target audience doesn’t even know what to expect in terms of software updates, version numbers, etc. First-time buyers and casual users aren’t going to concern themselves with the various releases.

Performance

This is one of those areas where you cannot help but compare to other phones. As a site that routinely reviews smartphones, we get our hands on all sorts of devices. Typically, though, we use the more flagship stuff for ourself as we like to stay on the cutting edge. But, that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to keep up with the latest and greatest.

Using the R1 HD as a daily driver was difficult for us, particularly at first. We noticed there would be some lag in hopping around from one app to another. Get more than a few games going in the background and you’d see a little chugging happening. Nothing crazy, but stuff we notice after spending time with more powerful phones.

speaker_r1hd

On its own, the R1 HD handles your typical daily tasks without much griping. Emails, calls, text, Facebook, and other stuff doesn’t present much of a challenge to it, so long as you have the 2GB RAM model.

It’s here where we implore you to consider dropping the extra $10 for the 2GB RAM and 16GB storage. Not doing so would be about the silliest thing you can do as it essentially shuts the door to apps and future capabilities sooner rather than later. Yeah, the ten bucks is all it takes to add at least a few more months of life to it. You never know when you’ll be on the edge of not being able to install a game like Pokemon Go.

Conclusion

It’s really hard to find fault with a phone that costs as low as $50 for Amazon Prime customers. Even at $99, it’s still a good choice. Why? It’s unlocked and ready to work with a variety of carriers; it supports two SIM cards. The stock Android experience and very little preloaded apps ensure you get as much as you can out of the storage.

Blu does a great job of balancing low cost with “cheap” build materials. It’s not a luxury model or anything that pretends to be more than what it has under the hood. The R1 HD is a great utilitarian phone for someone who is just dabbling in Android. Moreover, it’s a hell of a band-aid if you need something to tie you over until the next phone.

r1hd_coffee

Blu is quickly becoming one of our favorite unlocked smartphone makers. The US-based company is constantly putting out new models that span the entire spectrum for consumers. It just so happens that the R1 HD is on the low end. That doesn’t mean it’s a poorly made phone or one that’s not worth considering. The opposite is true, actually.

Is it possible to go wrong with a $50 smartphone? In a word, yes. Did Blu go wrong with the R1 HD? Hardly. Thankfully, Blu didn’t cut all of the corners it could have with this phone. Although the price has damn near bottomed out for these devices, the quality hasn’t.

If you’re in the market for something that’s no-frills and aimed at first-time buyers, you’ll want to start with this phone. For $50-$100, depending on how you buy, there’s nothing else to consider. Heck, you’ll probably have a tough time convincing yourself to spend more on anything else. It’s no wonder that, as of today, this is a #1 best seller on Amazon.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Build Quality
Display
Performance
Software
Camera
Sound
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  • PreachJohn

    Definitely a thoro’ and reasonable conclusion Review.
    This is where I think Chen, brilliant as he’s been for Canada’s Blackberry made a critical marketing faux pas catering to the top end high priced Market with the Priv. When high priced top end Phones were already sharply competitive in their crowded field. Profit margins razor thin for most.
    And just when the Chinese Manufacturers and Others were starting to flood the Market.with much lower priced Phones with some really decent and even high end specs than ever before. Forcing the overall prices of Cell Phones downward. Just as Blu is doing.
    Really appreciate this write up. A harbinger of things to come. It males me want to be Blu.

  • brownj00

    Breaking news, as they say. It’s great- assuming you WANT the CHINESE SPYWARE, and reports of your private data back to the company every 72 hours.
    Link: http://thehackernews.com/2016/11/hacking-android-smartphone.html

    Since they were caught, maybe they remove it. So if you have one, you might want to check out the details to make sure you got the “update”. Or, just root it as I guess that would work too.

    • it says that they fixed that issue in an update

  • Have you heard of any battery issues with this phone, I just want to buy it for pokemon go and i have seen a few people post reviews about fire hazards with the battery catching fire.

  • blzd

    How’s the voice quality and speaker phone on this? The camera doesn’t seem half bad, does anyone know what this Blu phone is sold as in other parts of the world? I read they usually rebrand Gionee devices.