When it comes to the topic of reviewing a phone that carries a retail price of roughly $100, it’s easy to view them in a favorable light. How can something that doesn’t cost all that much ultimately disappoint? Surely, it’s worth the price tag, right?
As it turns out, there are instances where you can quickly identify where a phone cuts corners. Be it in the build materials, or camera quality, or half-baked interface, there are times where we’d be totally happy spending a bit more in order to get something a little better. And, as the price of unlocked phones continues to bottom out and get more competitive in the sub-$200 space, we find some brands doing better here than others.
Miami-based smartphone maker Blu gets it. As a company who consistently releases lower-cost alternatives to bigger brands, its phones are typically a great value proposition. In other words, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on its products; you often walk away with a device that justifies its cost.
The latest from Blu is its Studio Touch, a $100 unlocked smartphone that works with GSM networks such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, and MetroPCS. On paper, its hardware specifications read like a mid-range phone from 2014. But, there’s just enough here to help it stand out from those older devices.
For starters, the Studio Touch runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the latest official release from Google. Yes, there’s the 7.0 Nougat stuff breathing down our neck, but it’s going to be some time before we start seeing a plethora of models rolling out with that version.
Having such a modern build of Android is a pretty big deal, particularly in the area of security. By running 6.0, the Studio Touch comes with protection against those pesky mobile threats that plague outdated phones.
Another key benefit of having Android 6.0 comes in the user interface, customization, and optimization. By that we mean stuff like Project Volta, Android Doze, and, of course, Material Design. You likely won’t find those details in that 2014 handset with similar hardware.
As it typically does, Blu has opted for a stripped down approach to Android. You’ll find very little installed on the phone that isn’t from Google. And, because it is carrier-agnostic, you won’t be looking at pre-installed apps from wireless providers or third party developers.
This is not to suggest that the phone is completely void of any additional software, though, as there are a couple of titles present. Among them are Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Apps & Games, McAfee Security, Truecaller, and Opera.
As for the Google apps, the Studio Touch comes with the usual suspects in Gmail, Chrome, Drive, Maps, Hangouts, Messenger, and Play Store, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, and YouTube. The phone is also loaded with utilitarian apps for FM Radio, SIM toolkit, videos, email, file managing, music, and a few others. There’s a little something for everyone here with a bit of overlap, but nothing aggravating to the end user.
There’s nothing about the Studio Touch that jumps out at you, but we didn’t expect that going in, either. The “black” version we reviewed offered up a black face but more of a slate grey back panel.
The front side of the phone finds a 5-megapixel camera sitting just off from the top speaker, while below the screen is a fingerprint reader. Yes, you read that right. There’s a fingerprint button which can be used to secure your login and apps. It also doubles as a home button when physically pressed.
On the right side is where the power and volume buttons are located. The power button features a textured design but it’s not all that noticeable to touch. It’s the first one up the side of the phone, but, otherwise, you won’t feel the ridges when blindly looking for the button.
Around back is the 8-megapixel rear camera which is horizontally centered and just down from the top. Down near the bottom is the speaker where you’ll get your music. It’s worth noting that there is Blu branding on both the front and back of the phone but neither is gaudy or awkwardly placed.
The Studio Touch features an internal, non-removable battery; however, the back panel does pull off so that you can insert one of two microSIM cards and/or a microSD card. We found it rather strange to remove the case as it almost looks like you’re pulling the display out instead of a metal case off the back.
Props to Blu here as the aluminum metal casing gives the phone a more premium feel than one might need for this price point. It would be easy to forgo the metal material in favor of the polycarbonate stuff you find in lesser expensive phones. Cheaper doesn’t have to be mean cheaply made and Blu got that right.
The battery cover wraps around the side and comes up to the screen. Save for the very tiny little notch in the top right you would be forgiven not knowing how to remove it. A weird design choice, yes, but fortunately one you don’t have to deal with often.
At 5.0-inches, we really like the pocketability and one-hand experience of the Studio Touch. We have internal debates about whether we need more or less, but it always comes down to personal choice. If your hand isn’t all that big, and you want to be able to reach the edges of your phone with one hand, this one should feel good to you.
As for the resolution, the Studio Touch gives up a 720 x 1280 pixel picture, or technically HD. Were the screen any larger we might have had a beef with this, but it’s perfectly acceptable here. For one, it helps to keep price down. Also, it doesn’t impact the battery as much as something with more pixels.
Reading text, browsing the web, and playing games was as to be expected, and we didn’t run into instances where we felt like it was lacking. Throw the phone into a Google Cardboard, though, and it becomes obvious why we tend to like 1080p and 2k resolution in our devices.
Color was accurate and balanced, but we might have liked for a brighter picture in spots. We found that we had to keep the display brightness dialed up near full more often than in other phones. Other than that, the viewing angles were great and the picture was generally quite satisfactory.
We found the camera experience to be a fairly good one, just so long as you have proper lighting. Unfortunately, low-light indoor shots proved to be a problem for the Studio Touch.
Moreover, there were cases when we found the picture to have a slight haze and/or white glow to them. Outright dark environments and situations with less than perfectly still pictures gave us trouble.
Generally speaking, we were happy to use the camera. There were very few instances where we thought, “this doesn’t work for us”. And, to be fair, even a $200 or $500 phone might have issues in some of those conditions. But, we did end up with daytime photos that could have benefited from more sharp lines and distinct edges. All things considered, for a phone that borders on the edge of $100 it is almost exactly what we would have expected.
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If you are looking for a phone that has a kick-ass camera, you’ve probably already got your eye on something else, something specific. If you are in the market for a phone with a camera decent enough to snap silly or keepsake moments to share on social media, the Studio Touch more than fits the bill.
At 8-megapixels, it delivers large photos that can be cropped and retouched; imperfections can also be overcome in select instances. It may take some learning in what you can and can’t get from the Studio Touch’s camera. Don’t be in a hurry out of the gate to get rolling as you could run into a series of less-than-desirable pics.
Keeping in mind what hardware specs are, the Studio Touch delivers a decent experience. Given we spend so much time with flagship phones and cutting edge tech, we noticed how the phone struggles in areas. The quad-core processor and 1GB RAM are certainly low on the totem pole today. It’s definitely not going to run today’s best games, one of which being Pokemon Go. Indeed, the augmented reality game is built with phones of 2GB RAM in mind.
Suffice it to say, we were leery about first person shooters and driving games. Throwing on a couple of other casual games, though, weren’t a challenge for the Studio Touch. Get into social media, basic photo editing, and music and podcasts, though, and this one works as well as a phone twice its price.
We enjoyed having the fingerprint reader for security and Play Store authentication. This, and the other buttons, responded well to pressing, and gave a tactile feedback. There was no questioning whether something was pressed.
For whatever reason, Blu opted for software buttons on the screen above the fingerprint reader. There’s wasted space on both sides of the reader. While we commend Blu for integrating the added security measure, we would have loved for Blu to fully commit to hardware buttons or software keys. As it turns out, it’s more like one and a half ways of navigating.
Listening to music and speakerphone calls reminds us why we like Bluetooth speakers and headphones. After a few minutes of a playlist, we were reaching to dial down the audio. Not for being so loud or overpowering, but because it “sounded like a phone”. In other words, the range could be much better, the bass heavier, and the max volume louder.
We didn’t think we’d get anything better out of the experience, but we did ponder whether it might be worth stepping into a different phone. Our usage doesn’t call for much music via the phone’s single rear speaker, but yours might. If you play a lot of YouTube videos or expect to watch movies on it, you’ll want to toss in some headphones.
Battery, which is an internal 2500mAh power source, lasts more than a day of average use. We get the sense that we’re getting such decent life because of our conscious efforts. There aren’t any heavy hitting games that we’re playing over and over. It doesn’t hurt to have Android 6.0’s optimizations at play, either. You won’t find any Quick Charge capability here as that’s relegated to select Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. Expect to put in a couple of hours to safely go from empty to full.
Consumers who want a phone that’s going to keep pace with top games will need to look elsewhere. It’s already not able to handle the demands of some current titles; next year’s crop are all but guaranteed to be too much for the phone. On the other hand, buyers looking for a device that keeps them connected to work and social media will be happy with the Studio Touch.
This isn’t the sort of phone that you buy to keep a teen happy, but it’s plenty for parents who don’t find themselves with a face in the screen all day. With support for two SIM cards, it’s also a good solution for people who want a home and work line in one device.
It’s getting more difficult for companies to stand out in the sub-$200 phone space. Blu, who has long positioned themselves as a less expensive hardware maker has delivered a “typical” $100 phone. It’s not outstanding, but it’s certainly not lacking. Are there corners cut? Sure. But they’re not huge cuts and there’s no place where the phone feels lopsided.
You have to set an expectation of what you should get for this sort of money. Blu didn’t set out to release a flagship phone in the Studio Touch. As such, you shouldn’t set out to do the same things your friend is doing with their high end Samsung.
As we were readying our review of the Studio Touch we learned that Blu is releasing an alternate version in September. For only $10 more, customers can double down on memory and storage, getting 2GB and 16GB, respectively. We can’t say without testing it, but that theoretically opens up the door to more games and multi-tasking.
Will it get the next major version of Android? It’s hard to say. But, ask yourself when, if ever, your $400 or $600 phone will get it, too. One of the best things about Blu is that its phones are inexpensive enough to replace when the time comes for a new, key Android release.
We’ve yet to run into a Blu phone that we couldn’t recommend for the money and certainly aren’t ready to do that with this one. If you’re in the market for an unlocked phone to pair with AT&T, T-Mobile, or any of their respective MVNO’s, the Studio Touch is one to consider. This goes double when you have to work with a smaller budget.