Can $160 buy a smartphone worth using? We tried one to find out

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Looks can only take a phone so far, and the Uhans S1 lacks the power and refinement of hardware that costs only a little more

It’s new smartphone time, and you’ve got about $160 in your pocket to spend. Is it really possible to get anything more than a basic phone for that price? After all, you can’t even pick up a Motorola Moto G4 for that. Your gaze may be drawn to China, where cheap Android phones are plentiful, and will possibly land on the Uhans S1. Rightly so, because it’s very good-looking, and comes in on budget. The question is, what’s it like? We’ve had one in our pocket for the weekend to find out.

Remember the OnePlus X? It was an absolute stunner, and the Uhans S1 looks very similar to it, with glass on the front and rear and a metal chassis sandwiched between. But there are differences. There are no textured side panels, for starters, and no knurled notification alert button on the side, although there is a fingerprint sensor on the rear. The screen size is the same at 5 inches, but it’s an LCD panel with a 1,280 × 720 pixel resolution rather than a Full HD AMOLED screen.

The Uhans S1 is very comfortable to hold, although it’s a slippery little thing, and the 6.8mm slim chassis emphasizes the 2.5D glass panel’s curve over the display. Its similarity to the OnePlus X, and therefore the iPhone 5 and 5S, may be clear, but we doubt anyone will complain about it paying homage to damn fine looking smartphones. Just don’t expect the finish to be quite up alongside those two phones. You can feel slight imperfections along the edges where the metal joins the screen, for example.

The fingerprint sensor is very fast, but it takes a while to get used to the way it likes to work, and that can be frustrating. Other smartphones with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors, such as the LG G5 and the Nexus 6P, respond to the flat surface of a fingertip. The Uhans S1 prefers the very tip, regardless of how you scan it in during setup. Even then the hit rate isn’t 100 percent, but we did note it’s better at handling damp fingers than the iPhone’s TouchID sensor. There’s no NFC, so Android Pay isn’t supported. More successful is the display. It may not be 1080p or AMOLED, but it’s bright and colorful, and the viewing angles are excellent.

Continuing with the good news is Android 6.0 Marshmallow, a version of Google’s mobile operating system still not available on some smartphones that cost five times what you’ll pay for the Uhans S1. It’s covered by the company’s own user interface, called FreemeOS, which is much like Huawei’s EMUI in that all the apps are spread across several home screens. Otherwise Uhans hasn’t tampered with Android that much. The notification shade is close to standard, and Google Now is available with a long press of the software home button. Google Play’s installed, along with a few Uhans stock apps, such as a notes app, video player, and file manager. A theme changer and theme app are also onboard (but can be deleted).

Uhans powers the S1 with a MediaTek Mt6753 processor running at 1.3GHz and 3GB of RAM. It’s not a common processor outside of China, and the sizable chunk of RAM means it’s perfectly adequate for common tasks, including streaming video. It’s not one for hardcore gamers, however. Danmaku Unlimited is a favorite game for testing, as it challenges even the best devices with its HD mode. The game slowed down considerably even in normal mode and was almost unplayable on hard mode, with HD graphics activated. You can tell it’s working hard. Playing CSR2 afterwards, we noticed the rear of the phone get suitably warm to the touch.

The rear camera has a 13-megapixel Sony sensor and took good pictures, even when the light was challenging. A slide-in settings screen reveals a panorama mode, HDR setting, and a weird FilmMode where the camera creates a letterbox effect by cropping the picture. On the front is a 5-megapixel selfie cam, with a highly capable beauty mode. If you’re into drastically altering your face to the point of being unrecognizable, you’ll love it. Everyone else will stick to normal mode.

I was warned about poor battery performance before the Uhans S1 arrived, and sure enough it wasn’t fantastic. A mere eight hours was possible with normal use, but expect six when you’re putting it through its paces, such as some heavy gaming and prolonged camera use. That’s not good at all, but it’s to be expected when there’s only a 2,200mAh cell inside. Finally, there were connectivity problems, with the phone not always connecting to the O2 4G network in the U.K., despite the band being supported.

So let’s say $160 is the absolute maximum you have to spend on a phone. There are indeed good things about the Uhans S1 — so should you get it? It’s impossible for us not to recommend waiting until next pay day, or saving up a little more, instead of buying this phone. The battery life alone really makes the S1 difficult to recommend. Yes, we did like the camera, screen, and addition of a fingerprint sensor — all three are strong positives at this price. However, the Moto G is almost within reach at this point, as is the $200 Huawei Honor 5X. If you’re in the U.K, the Honor 5C is 150 British pounds, and the OnePlus X itself can still be found if you try hard.

It’s early days for Uhans, but things will need to improve if this company wants to take the fight to the many other budget smartphone manufacturers out there. If you’re still intent on picking up the Uhans S1, it’s available through various importers, including GearBest.

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