Good screen, decent specs, great price: budget smartphones come into their own with Vodafone’s 5.5-inch Smart N9

Vodafone N9.
Vodafone N9.

There was a time when most people would scoff at an own-brand smartphone. It’s fair to say that Vodafone has established a decent track record in knocking those assumptions down.

Its new budget ‘Smart N9’ device won’t compete with an iPhone X or Huawei P20 Pro for your attention, but this is no piece of junk. As a second phone, or a low-cost backup, it excels. Even as a primary smartphone, this could cut the mustard for those who don’t demand too much from their handset.

In case you’re wondering whether Vodafone suddenly manufactures things, it doesn’t.

Like its previous own-brand smartphones, what the operator has done is to take a reasonably well-made smartphone from the established Chinese phone manufacturing giant TCL and reskin it for a European market.

The 5.5-inch screen is clearly a few beats off the high-end Oled displays you now get on flagship handsets. It’s a HD-light variant at 720p, but is still sufficiently bright and sharp. It also comes in the 18:9 format, meaning that it accommodates what was once considered a freakishly-large screen in a very manageable ergonomic package. It also has slim ‘forehead’ and ‘chin’ bezels, meaning that around 90pc of the entire front panel is display rather than big thick edges.

The Smart N9 has what is now a default camera configuration on budget smartphones: a 13-megapixel rear lens and an 8-megapixel selfie camera. The main rear camera is a little slow, but will do for just about anyone who isn’t going specifically for a phone with a good camera.

The battery (2,900mAh) life isn’t bad on this phone. We found it to be easily on par with many other handsets, possibly because the chip it uses is very low-powered. It will last you a day with normal usage. It uses the older micro-USB charging standard, which means you should already have lots of spare cables lying around the place.

Other things to like include a 3.5mm headphone port (hurrah), even if the earphones that come in the box are pretty basic and tinny.

There’s even a (rear-mounted) fingerprint reader for security, a feature reserved for premium phones just a couple of years ago.

The phone’s main weakness is its lack of on-board storage memory. For most people 16GB just isn’t enough in a primary device you’re going to have for a year or more. Vodafone has added in a memory card slot so that you can expand the phone’s storage ability, but most people just won’t do this.

Another arguable weak point is the N9’s speed. Predictably, it has a much weaker engine than some of the flagship devices around at the moment. Its 2GB of Ram is the bare minimum a modern phone gets these days, while its Mediatek processor performs below the Snapdragon chips you’ll find in phones a little more expensive, such as Motorola’s G6. Then again, this means that it’s a little easier on battery life.

The last main quibble is that its screen gets a little greasy and smudgy because it doesn’t have the high-end manufacturing substance of more expensive phones.

There are some software quirks to know. Because it’s a Vodafone-branded device, you’ll see a few Vodafone apps when you switch the phone on. To be fair, the operator has kept these to a relative minimum.

Vodafone also regards a few parental software features as a selling point. One of these could probably be regarded as handy for colleagues and partners. It’s called ‘force ring’ and it lets you call the phone at full volume, even if the phone has been switched to silent. Other ‘parental features’ include the ability to restrict access to the web, to apps or to Google’s app store.

If you need a powerhouse of a smartphone, this isn’t it. But for what you’re paying, this is a bargain.

And if for some reason you’re looking to spend even less, Vodafone has a ‘lite’ version of the Smart N9 that has a slightly smaller (5.3-inch) screen and slightly lesser specifications for €90.

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