LAS VEGAS—I suspect we're going to be hearing a lot more about phone brand Coolpad pretty soon. While it's been in the US market since 2012, the former smartphone maker was recently snapped up by deep-pocketed LeEco, which means it's going to have lots of dollars behind it and lots of desire to become bigger on our shores.
The Coolpad Conjr, available for pre-order January 5 on Amazon, is the company's first foray into unlocked phones in the US. From a hardware perspective, it's a pretty good deal for $179.99. It'll compete in that market with Huawei's Honor phones, Moto's G lineup, Blu's phones and other low-cost unlocked devices.
The Conjr is your typical rounded gray slab, with a 5-inch 720p screen that has nicely saturated colors and a round fingerprint scanner on the back. It has a 13MP main camera and an 8MP front-facing camera, 16GB of storage, 3GB of RAM, and a MicroSD card slot. It's running on a relatively low-rent Mediatek 6735 processor, and it's LTE banded for both AT&T and T-Mobile.
So far, so good. I've been playing with one here at CES, and it's a cute entry-level phone, which is happily non-huge and has good basic specs. The main camera looks great outdoors but struggles in low light. The selfie camera is unusually good for a phone this cheap.
But oh, man, the software.
The Conjr runs a very heavily skinned version of Android 6.0.1, and it's kind of a mess. There is just far too much going on. Much of it is well-meaning; Coolpad has added a lot of useful (and some peculiar) features, which I'll get to in a minute. But the skin makes the phone feel laggy, a lot of fit and finish is lacking, and many of the changes are just unnecessary.
All the icons are different from Google's. Even the Play Store! Why did you have to change the Play Store icon, Coolpad? Dig into the Cool Manager utility app, and you find really useful features like call blocking, app-by-app data limitation, and easy app privacy settings. Another useful feature lets you log into two Facebook or WhatsApp accounts at the same time.
But the text in the Cool Manager app is oddly spaced and the language seems stilted. Pull down the windowshade to see the nonstandard notifications pane, and sometimes it snaps back annoyingly against your will. The Photos and Music apps are different from the standard Google ones but no better, just different to be different. There's no app drawer, and pulling up from the bottom of the screen summons a too-iPhone-like quick settings panel.
I'm still trying to figure out the feature in the selfie camera, which claims I'm "Mr. McDreamy" and 34 years old. I mean, I like it, but I can't understand why it's there or how to turn it off.
If you wonder why Coolpad is doing this, it's because it's Chinese. In China, where Google basically doesn't exist, Android phone makers have to develop entire software stacks to replace Google mobile services. Every phone maker has its own UI, and Chinese consumers love cutesy icons and complex shortcut systems, a Huawei exec once explained to me. But here in the US, design tastes are different, and we like Google's UI.
Here's the really important thing about Coolpad: LeEco.
LeEco is a giant Chinese conglomerate that's been snapping up and spawning companies left and right. Called by some the "Netflix of China," it bought TV maker Vizio, it made the movie The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, and it really wants to be a big player in phones. But its Le Pro 3 phone is shackled by a commitment to carrier-free sales and an awful software skin tied to LeEco's lousy content lineup in the US.
Coolpad, on the other hand, has had a relationship with T-Mobile since 2012. The Catalyst, its latest budget phone, has been a successful seller, Coolpad spokeswoman Xin Hamilton said. As ZTE explained to me yesterday, about 88 percent of phones in the US are still sold through carriers. In June, LeEco bought a controlling interest in Coolpad.
LeEco told me that the two companies are being operated separately, at least for now. But you see where this might be going. If LeEco and Coolpad work together, LeEco's very deep pockets could combine with Coolpad's carrier relationship to give it a bigger place in this market. It'll have to steal market share from someone. That someone might be Alcatel OneTouch, especially if Alcatel's parent TCL finds upscale BlackBerry branded phones to be more profitable in the U.S.
Coolpad has cool hardware at a good price. Now it just needs to remember how great Google's Android UI is, and it could really take off.