After having launched its “$50 phone”, the R1 HD last summer, Blu is back with a new take on its entry-level handset experience. Remember the unlocked one that was sold to Amazon Prime customers for the price of a decent steak dinner? Indeed, the R1 Plus is a slightly refreshed version of the device but with a little more where it counts.
Before diving into the review we should make a distinction. As Blu tells us, customers should not equate the R1 branding with Amazon or Amazon Prime. While they may be offered through the online retailer, they are not exclusive. Moreover, the company promises more models in the R1 family in due time. With that said, look for this particular phone to hit Amazon as soon as tomorrow, April 29.
This time around we’re looking at a price tag of around $159 without any incentives or Amazon deals. In other words, about $50 higher than the standard cost of its forebear. As a bonus for early adopters, Blu is selling the R1 Plus at a $50 discount through both Amazon and Best Buy. It’s a 24 hour deal, but you can get it for only $109.99 if you act fast!
As an unlocked handset, the R1 Plus 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 carriers at once. It’s also a bit of breathing room for when you might travel to another country and need a local SIM card for a short while.
As was the case with its predecessor, the R1 HD, Blu has trimmed things along the edges. You have to do something to keep prices ultra-low, right? Again we find things get started at the box itself; it feels like about half the quality of cardboard material as you’d find in a pricey flagship device. Does it matter in the end? Hardly, but you gotta start somewhere.
Getting into the box we find there are no headphones but there is a very simple microUSB charger. This time around we do get a silicon protective case as well as a screen protector. Both are probably worth about $15-$20 in total, but it’s a nice gesture and something most customers look to buy anyhow. You’ll also get a SIM card removal tool and what looks to be a guitar pick. This is the tool you will use to get into your phone to replace the SIM card or insert a microSD card. DO NOT LOSE IT. More on that later.
Whereas the R1 HD might have included hardware that was two years behind the top tier of high-end phones, the R1 Plus closes the gap somewhat. Given the refresh comes less than one year, Blu has done a good job of squeezing better specs into the experience without increasing the price all that much.
First time smartphone users won’t realize it, but these are roughly the same specs that powered key phones from 2015. If you’re moving from an existing, non-flagship device, you might consider this a sidestep.
Those of you who have spent time with a flagship phone or one built with more premium materials, you will feel the difference in quality. It’s not a “cheap” experience, but it doesn’t have anything that comes across as remarkable. The R1 Plus, like its predecessor, errs on the side of inexpensive where it could have easily gone more generic. But, if you are the type who hopes other people take a second glance at your device, this is not the one for you.
- Android v6.0 Marshmallow
- Mediatek 6737 | 1.3GHz Quad Core Processor with Mali-T720
- 32GB Internal Storage with microSD (up to 64GB)
- 3GB RAM Memory
- 5.5-inch 720 x 1280 pixel display
- 13-megapixel rear camera
- 5-megapixel front-facing camera
- 4,000mAh battery
- 2G: 850/900/1800/1900
- 3G: 850/1700/1900/2100
- 4G LTE: 2/4/7/17 (12 will be available over-the-air)
The R1 Plus offers up a 5.5-inch display with a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution. It’s technically HD, though not the same as 1080p and certainly nowhere near the 2K stuff in most higher end phones. This likely matters little in the overall scheme of things for the target demographic and works just fine for text, images, and games.
As often is the case with device like those from Blu and other low-cost unlocked phone makers, it’s only when you compare them to what else is on the market that you see shortcomings and key differences. While they are more than adequate for what they set out to do, there are certainly reasons why another, larger brand can ask for more.
In both indoors and outdoors settings, the R1 Plus works just fine. The 5.5-inch feels little thicker than others available today; the curved back and slightly wider bezels give it just enough to make it feel like a bulkier Google Pixel XL. The Gorilla Glass 3 carries over from the last model and gives it moderate protection against scuffs, scratches, and minor drops. With Corning now offering a 5th generation of its glass we might have like for Gorilla Glass 4, but, again… costs.
Holding the R1 Plus, one doesn’t immediately feel like they are holding a budget device of $100-$150. Generally speaking, the device is solid, constructed decently enough, and looks to hold up over the long haul.
Like the R1 HD, the phone is housed in a metal cover to protect the battery; a powder coat finish and chamfered decorative stripe give it a nice aesthetic touch. The phone allows for a decent grip and the texture doesn’t attract oils or fingerprints. The silver version reminds of darker HTC phones.
As for the configuration of the phone, the volume rocker and power buttons are on the right side of the display. The power button now has some knurling on it to help differentiate it from the volume. All three deliver feedback and response in line within our expectations. The headphone jack is found at the top side, toward the left of the phone while the microUSB port is at the bottom and further to the 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 4,000mAh it’s much improved over the R1 Plus and gave us far more than a day’s use. We tend to charge at night out of habit, but we imagine that more basic users could stretch two days out of a full battery.
Speaking of the rear cover, this was one the absolute hardest cases we’ve ever removed from a phone. Were it not for the “guitar pick” plastic piece we could not get into the phone. You’ll start with a small spot on the right side of the display and pull the entire back and sides. It looks much easier than it truly is and we worry about users in the wild who might want to drop in a SIM when traveling. Or, swapping a microSD card out. Be prepared for some aggravation.
The Blu R1 Plus features a 13-megapixel rear camera with a f/2.2 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 practice, though, we were surprised by the results.
Given the cost of the phone, we were happy with the pictures. And, when you consider that a lot of our photos are viewed on mobile devices or as status updates, it works even better. Even the default settings gave us images that we’d be happy sharing without any post-processing or editing.
HDR pictures took a little bit longer to snap and process than we might have liked, but that could be a result of coming directly from a much pricier phone. We found still life shots to work great, but don’t try to grab an HDR shot of your puppy or Junior’s home run swing. You’ll get blurred results where it counts.
Camera Samples (Flickr)
You can see from the embedded gallery that photos generally come out decently enough for casual users. Edit a few of them via Snapseed or another tool and you’ll end up with have photos that look great on social media.
To be sure, lower light scenarios will give you grainy results, especially when zoomed in; color could come out a bit over-saturated at times. But, there’s nothing here that alarmed us or gave us pause. It took us about 30 pictures before we realized the limitations of the R1 Plus’s camera. We’ve become fond of doing some tweaking with apps and the pics here can be adjusted to our liking.
As for the camera app itself, there are a number of options for shooting, including panoramic, night, face beauty, sports, and professional. Each works well in their respective intended situations, but the auto is where we suspect you’ll play most often. There’s also a Scene Frame mode which basically puts your photo inside of a setting. Examples include a side rear view mirror of a car, a painter’s canvas, a window.
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 Plus.
While this one doesn’t come loaded with a host of random apps, games, or services, it does come with its share of Amazon titles. Our review unit had Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Music, Audible, Amazon Photos, Amazon Apps & Games, and Amazon Video. Other than that, we have Opera (and Chrome) for web browsing, and a standard video player.
There’s a full suite of Google apps and services present, too. Titles include Drive, Calendar, Gmail, Hangouts, Messenger, Maps, Photos, YouTube, Play Music, Play Movies & TV, and the Play Store.
The R1 Plus runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is technically only one version behind what’s available today. Android 7.0 Nougat is offered on most new models and it’s not immediately clear when this phone will see it. Blu, in its press release for the phone, pledges the 7.0 update.
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’ll want to know going in that official software support could end before you’re done with the phone. This isn’t exactly exclusive to Blu, of course, so don’t let that color your impression of this model.
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.
For what it’s worth, we noticed that this had the Android security patch dated from October 5, 2016. That’s a little concerning to us and we hope to see something else pushed before long. Android, as a platform, doesn’t look and function all that different over the last few releases, but security, malware, and other threats could cause problems.
Using the R1 Plus as a daily driver proved somewhat challenging for us only because we’ve been toting around much pricier and more powerful phones. We did hand it off to more casual users, and those who are currently carrying phones that are a good 1-2 years old; they typically had no qualms or problems.
As we see it, 3GB memory is where things start. Sure, there are 2GB models on the market, and likely more to come, but we don’t recommend going that low. Processors have moved pretty quickly over the last few years and Android optimization helps, but there’s no such thing as too much memory.
The R1 Plus handles typical daily tasks without any problems. Be it browsing the web, pounding out emails and messages, social media, or games, the phone hopped in and out of apps with no major stutters.
It’s difficult to take issue with a smartphone that runs $100-$150, especially one that is unlocked and capable of Volte and HD Voice support (T-Mobile users only). And, when you get an unadulterated version of Android, support for two SIM cards, and a two-day battery, it’s even harder.
Blu does a great job of balancing low cost with “cheap” build materials. The R1 Plus is a solid “every man” phone for someone who is just getting into smartphones. Broke your expensive flagship? This one can replace that for the time being. Need a device that your kids can take to after school events or sleepovers? Mom tired of her old smartphone with the 3.5-inch or 4-inch screen? You get the point.
Blu has become one of our favorite unlocked smartphone makers, particularly because they’re US-based. But, the pressure is on, and there are dozens of companies fighting it out in this space. With some getting more popular in the US, it’s harder than ever to stand out. Does the Blu R1 Plus stand out? Not necessarily. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, though.
We understand that going with microUSB was probably cheaper for Blu than opting for the new-emerging standard in the USB Type C. With that said, we expect that anything that arrives in the second half of 2017 should have that as the charging port. And, considering Blu has used it in some of its other models, we feel it’s time to draw the hard line.
Although Android 6.0 supports fingerprint scanners at the platform level, this phone does not have one. It took some getting used to for us as most of what we test or use on a daily basis has one. As we move into Android 0 and perhaps an 8.0 release, it’s time to make this standard, too. Blu employs them in most of their phones. It’s time for the whole industry to adopt it at all levels.
If you’re the type of person who is cost-conscious and/or doesn’t need much from your phone, we have no reservations with recommending Blu. We’d like to see some more current software (security patches, at least), but, as is, it’s worth $150.