The market for phones has changed drastically in the past year or two, and we’re not just talking spec evolution either. Starting somewhere around the Nexus 4 consumers’ perspectives on the value of a phone started changing. No longer were the masses willing to spend $700 or more on a top-tier smartphone, rather they wanted the same kinds of specs but at half the price. This section of the market prompted many Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi, OnePlus, Huawei and plenty of others to start developing phones that matched all or nearly all of the specs from manufacturers like HTC and Samsung but considerably undercut them in the price realm. Starting with the MX4 Meizu has joined that game, creating what would be considered a truly high-end flagship device if it weren’t for the almost low-end price point, particularly in Meizu’s home country of China. It’s this glorious pathway to a truly excellent phone for a truly excellent price that we’ll be exploring today, and we’ll see just how many corners Meizu had to cut, if any, to achieve such an affordable priced device at these specs.
Specs are important on any phone, particularly ones below what’s perceived as a “normal” price point for high-end phones, but Meizu might surprise you here with just how competitive the MX4 is versus other more expensive phones.
16, 32 or 64GB internal storage, no microSD card support
3100 mAh Li-Po battery
Android 4.4.4 FlymeOS 4.0
20.7 megapixel 1/2.3″ Sony Exmor RS sensor
2MP front-facing camera
The biggest difference from most big name flagships out there is the Mediatek processor, which is normally found in entry-level and mid-range phones, but this time it’s a high-end octo-core chipset found inside. The rest of the specs fall in line with all the flagships this year, and the camera itself is among the best of the best thanks to Sony’s powerful Exmor RS sensor normally reserved only for Sony’s Xperia Z series of phones.
The Meizu MX4 supports nearly every band imaginable out there except for US LTE bands, which was unfortunate for me. I used the phone both on T-Mobile and AT&T’s networks and was able to get a solid 3G signal anywhere you’d normally get such a signal on either network.
The battle between IPS LCD and AMOLED has become more and more difficult for each side as both technologies continue to converge in many areas. In general while it seems that IPS LCD is usually brighter and more color accurate, AMOLED has better blacks and higher motion resolution, but Meizu’s IPS LCD panel on the MX4 seems to be somewhere inbetween these positives and negatives. First of all the black levels are the best I’ve ever seen on any phone using an LCD; they aren’t quite AMOLED levels since the backlight is always on in an LCD panel, but they are the closest I’ve ever seen to looking off. Viewing angles as a result are phenomenal and murder most other displays, with the black levels and color accuracy holding firm no matter what angle you look at the display.
The biggest problem was image ghosting, which depends on the colors being displayed. Dark backgrounds and light text show up the most when moving, and while it’s not a deal breaker it does get distracting if you’re really looking for it. Still in probably 98% of the time I used the phone I didn’t notice the ghosting, only when a message preview from Hangouts scrolled across the top, for example, did I notice it. Even then the ghosting isn’t slow enough to not be able to read the text, but it’s worth noting.
Hardware and Build
The build quality of the Meizu MX4 is second to none, and lovers of metal phones will feel right at home here. Forgoing the plastic build of many phones out there Meizu has opted for a full aluminum frame and a removable back with what either feels like metal or actually is. Since the actual clips for the back are plastic it’s difficult to tell for sure whether or not it’s a thin layer of metal outside of the plastic or just a really convincing faux-metal, but either way it feels right at home with the metal sides of the phone and gives it a super premium feel. It’s lightweight enough to be called a modern smartphone and about as thin as the average smartphone in 2014 as well, but doesn’t feel hollow or too light as some smartphones this year have.
The screen sits flush with the rest of the body and there’s no lip or protruding screen here to speak of. The top edge of the sides of the phone is chamfered in, and the bottom edge is curved downward into the curved back of the phone, making this 5.36-inch screen phone feel a little bit smaller in the hand. Speaking of the screen there are almost no bezels to speak of here on either side, and both top and bottom bezels are about as minimal as they come while still leaving room for the home button on the bottom and the speaker and front-facing camera on top.
The volume rocker can be found on the left side of the phone, while the power button can be found on the top much like HTC phones. This was uncomfortable to press with one hand, particularly because I’m used to power buttons being on the right side anymore. Meizu opted for a rather interesting capacitive button layout on the MX4 too, which means there’s just a home button and nothing else. Instead of dedicated recents and back buttons Meizu relies on gestures to fulfill these necessary Android requirements. Swiping up on the home button acts as a back button, and swiping up on any blank area to the left or right of the home button gives you the list of recent apps. While this was different from pretty much every Android phone out there it felt very consistent with the UI experience, as you’re always swiping up to get to something.
Performance and Memory
Since Mediatek’s processors aren’t nearly as commonly used as Qualcomm’s processors the question of performance of the MT6595 processor inside the Meizu MX4 vs a Snapdragon 801 was definitely one of the first questions that popped into my head. Thankfully just because the Mediatek name isn’t found on practically every high-end phone doesn’t mean they can’t compete in the world of performance, battery life and features, and I found this to be comparable to a Snapdragon 801 in every way. Even though the resolution of the phone is higher than most, 1920 x 1152 vs most Snapdragon 801 phones running at 1920 x 1080, I found that many games actually outperformed their Snapdragon competitors. Games like Asphalt Overdrive were smoother and had less frequent framerate drops than on the OnePlus One or Xiaomi Mi4. Where I found the biggest performance hit was live wallpaper which seemed to halve the framerate of the home screen no matter which launcher I used. For me this was a disappointment since I’m such a live wallpaper fanatic, but you may not care as much if you don’t use them.
Having “only” 2GB of RAM instead of the 3GB that a number of flagships this fall have shipped with doesn’t really mean a whole lot in practice, and I never found a time where apps had to reload when switching back and forth between them. Apps launched quickly, ran smoothly and overall memory performance is what you would expect out of this tier of a phone. Speaking of multi-tasking Meizu has a similar implementation to Xiaomi when it comes to having a row of 4 icons at the bottom of the screen to show all recent apps. Much like that experience I found myself wishing for the card style app previews that most Android phones have been using forever, as just looking at a row of icons, especially when you’re running a theme, can get confusing.
A 3,100mAh battery has become increasingly popular with larger-screened phones, and there’s a good reason for that. All that screen and processing power under the hood requires a big battery, and I’m happy to say that the Meizu MX4 lasts a full day without question. There were a few days where I couldn’t get more than 3 hours of on-screen time, but it was still off the charger for around 18 hours before it was near death. Standby in particular is absolutely amazing on the MX4, and I found that letting the phone sit with the screen off drains almost no battery at all, taking hours to drain even 10% when not in constant use. This is an important factor for many as they use their phones on their commute to work or school and leave it sitting on a desk or in their pocket or bag for hours at a time, and it’s never nice to pick it up again and see the battery half gone after not even using it for most of the day.
Practically every manufacturer has their own variation of Android to work with, and while everyone at this point has moved to KitKat on the newer phones because of Google’s certification process, that doesn’t mean that all phones are going to behave or look the same. Meizu’s Android skin is called FlymeOS, and it represents a slightly different vision from what other manufacturers have put out, but doesn’t go quite as far as MIUI in attempting to completely transform the way Android looks and works.
Functionally Flyme works a little differently than stock Android, and it’s mostly due to Meizu’s interesting implementation of gestures for the back and recents functions. Meizu also provides a dynamic bar of buttons on the bottom of the screen that will appear or disappear depending on the app, and will also have different context sensitive buttons depending on the app. Obviously an app has to have this functionality built in so it’s limited to Meizu apps, but since so many of those are functionally required for the phone you’re going to see them all the time.
When you turn the phone on you’re obviously going to be greeted by the lockscreen first, and it’s a little bit different from stock Android but fairly similar to other Chinese Android skins. The lockscreen itself is pretty simple with a big clock in the middle with the date underneath, but the shortcuts are what’s a little bit special here. Sliding the screen up will unlock the phone, down will bring down the notification shade, left will launch the camera and right will launch any custom app you would like. What’s cool is that all of this can be done with the screen off entirely, meaning you pretty much never have a reason to turn the screen on first before unlocking the phone or launching an app, unless you’re checking the time of course.
Meizu uses the proximity sensor up top to mitigate unlocks while in your pocket or bag too, so don’t worry about unlocking your phone on accident. I never had it unlock in my pocket in the time I used it at all, and there were even a few times where I turned the screen on while still in my pocket (on purpose) and I was presented with a message saying I needed to press the volume rocker twice to allow me to unlock it, furthering the security of never unlocking the phone in your pocket even if you press the power button. Double tap to wake is present here too, so if you’d rather use that instead of the button up top you can.
Theming and UI
Here’s where the biggest changes are besides the slight differences in navigation, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Everyone loves to eschew their own visual flair to make Android their own thing, and Meizu’s implementation is no different. I can’t help but feel that it’s better than most though, as it takes what feels like visual cues from the LG G3’s UI style, a little from Xiaomi, and plenty of unique stuff too and combines them for a truly beautiful UI.
Pulling down the notification shade reveals a row of circular, flat white icons at the top for your quick toggle shortcuts with the rest of your notifications below. What’s a little different here is that double swiping down from the very top of the screen brings down the rest of the quick toggle icons instead of switching over to a second screen of quick toggles. Meizu has even made it so that you can long press to reorganize all the icons any way you want instead of having to go to a completely different screen to do that. There are also little triangle icons below WiFi and Display that bring out additional options like connecting to different WiFi hotspots, again without having to go to a completely different screen to do that.
Meizu has implemented a calculator with the ability to turn into a floating window that sits above everything else and is completely movable to anywhere on (or off) the screen. You can take notes while on a phone call but it seems to be only relegated to that function, not elsewhere. Text messages will appear in a pop-up window too, allowing you to respond to a text without having to navigate away from your current active app. I do wish there were more apps that supported this though, as floating windows are always super useful.
What I could have done with here is a settings button in the notification shade, which seems to be removed unless I’m blind. It’s nice to have quick settings but sometimes I need them all. In fact it seems like Meizu has either stripped out or hidden a number of common settings, maybe in order to keep users from switching from their apps all the time. I couldn’t figure out how to change the default messaging app at all, something we’ve enjoyed since the launch of KitKat a year ago. I also wasn’t able to find out how to change out the keyboard from settings outside of going into another keyboard’s settings and doing it from there, something that wasn’t possible with messaging.
Meizu has great theme support and a store where you can get both free and paid themes for your device. Many of these themes seem to be more slick than themes I’ve seen on other phones that support such things, but of course that’s completely down to preference. I’ve put together an article detailing the theme engine and both what it looks like and how it operates if you’d like to check that out more in detail. Meizu’s theme engine isn’t quite as robust as Xiaomi’s or Cyanogen’s, but it’s better than basically everyone else because practically no one else seems to get the whole theming thing.
Meizu’s own brand of apps are well designed and look great for the most part. The dialer for instance is a modified version of the KitKat dialer, presenting you with a commonly called contacts up top and a call log below that. Buttons on the bottom switch between dialer and other functions and it even supports IP calling and call recording. Meizu’s Internet browser is extremely full featured and even enjoys Flash support, which at this point is almost unheard of in phones running KitKat. Messaging was one of the few apps that I felt was lacking quite a bit, and without the obvious ability to switch apps I felt stuck with it. Even group messaging didn’t work right for me no matter what I did, and I’m hoping either Meizu fixes this feature in the messaging app or gives us a way to switch the default messaging app as we should be able to.
Meizu’s home screen launcher is very akin to Xiaomi’s and doesn’t include an app drawer, but allows for both widgets, icons and folders on the desktop for a mixed look. Swiping up on the home screen brings up a search dialog which searches your phone, so quick launching apps with just a few swipes is possible instead of hunting for them in a sea of icons. There’s plenty of other expected apps like the calculator which features floating support, a great calendar that’s both good looking and functional, and a music player that has excellent equalizer support.
Another great trend in Chinese phones nowadays is the security center, which features virus scanning, junk cleaning, data management and permissions management. Meizu is following this trend with an unbelievably full featured security center, allowing you to choose specific permissions for each app, how much data it can use and if it is allowed to use only WiFi or both WiFi and cell data, and more. Notifications are easily handled from this panel too, giving you the ability to easily switch on and off notifications and alerts for every app installed on the phone.
File management is also possible from the security app and lets you easily sort all the files on your phone into size, giving you an idea of what’s hogging up your phone’s precious storage space and what’s not really a big deal. There’s also a junk cleaner that gets rid of old APKs, cache and other files that don’t really need to be sitting on your system forever. It’s a fantastic and super easy way to manage your storage and keep your phone running as smoothly as possible.
The built in music app contains controls for sound quality, specifically related to the equalizer and Dirac HD sound. There are a few presets in the equalizer or you could just move the sliders to make it sound like you want. Dirac HD audio attempts to create higher quality audio profiles for better sound through headphones and works quite well in my estimation. If you’re looking for a local app to play music this is a great one, but since there’s no SD card slot on the phone you’re going to need to make sure you get the larger version if you’re interested in local music instead of a cloud music player like Google Play Music or Spotify, to name a few. Sound quality was phenomenal from the Meizu MX4 and rivaled my personal favorite OnePlus One’s audio output, definitely over taking just about every other phone I’ve tried in the past.
Meizu has decided to relocate the airplane mode and volume control to the notification bar. There are icons for mute and vibrate so you can toggle sound on and off as well as vibrate independently, and airplane mode is also located up here instead of in the power menu. It took me a little while to get used to this but I found it to be quicker than holding power and clicking vibrate or mute. I’m not a fan of how volume is adjusted though, as the volume rockers always seem to adjust media volume, and the only time it works differently is when on a phone call where the volume rocker adjusts the in-call sound.
The speaker on the device is a single speaker located on the bottom of the phone, giving pretty good volume and clarity considering the size. Loudspeaker on a phone call left a little to be desired though as it was overly quiet, but that’s definitely a software setting that can be changed since notification and media volumes system wide were considerably louder. It’s not HTC Boom Sound but then again not much is, and of course it’s considerably better than the speaker Samsung likes to stick on the back of the phone too. One oddity I did find is that Meizu seems to have completely forgotten about Do Not Disturb mode. While this isn’t in stock Android 4.4 KitKat most manufacturers build it in and have for years, so it was disappointing to have to just set the phone on vibrate at night to keep it quiet.
Always my favorite part of reviews where the camera is exceptionally good, the Meizu MX4’s camera is among the finest cameras I’ve ever seen on any smartphone. It utilizes Sony’s latest high-end Exmor RS sensor, coming in at 1/2.3″ and 20.7 megapixels this sensor not only picks up a ton of detail but it picks up a ton of light too. I found that pretty much no matter what situation I was in the camera did exceptionally well, and definitely a notch better than most cameras out there. Megapixels don’t mean everything, but they certainly play a role in the equation of good pictures because of the enhanced detail they can bring, but sensor size and pixel size have become increasingly important because the larger either of those are the more light the camera can accept. This results in clearer, less blurry and more detailed photos overall.
Interface and Settings
The camera interface will be familiar at this point to anyone who’s used a smartphone of any kind before. On the very bottom of the screen you’ll find Meizu’s dynamic action bar which here has a back, flash, effects, switch camera and more options button. Effects are filters like black & white, sepia, etc, and more options will bring up an additional dialog that lets you change options like photo and video size, toggling HDR, gridlines, level gauge and a countdown timer. Above this bar you’ll find the shutter button in the middle with the video recording button to the left and the gallery to the right.
All the way on the top of the screen you’ll find an indicator letting you know you can swipe for more settings anywhere on the screen. This was a really interesting implementation of choosing between all the settings instead of seeing a carousel or grid of icons letting you know which one, and reminded me a lot of the OnePlus One’s interface. Options within here include auto, manual, beauty, panorama, light field, night, scan, slow motion and microspur.
Microspur is a forced macro mode with the closest focus setting, Slow motion is for 120FPS 720p video, scan is a built in barcode scanner, light field takes multiple shots with different focal lengths and lets you refocus after the shot has been taken. What’s particularly cool about light field is that it adjusts the exposure while refocusing too, so if something in the foreground is lighter than the background the exposure will be different depending on what it focused on. Manual mode is of particular interest here because it allows you to change to much of how the phone takes pictures. Super fine adjustments of ISO, shutter speed, exposure and even manual focusing is possible here, and it’s all very easy to use too.
Video is pretty straightforward and without many options. You can change the resolution all the way up to 4K, and there’s also slow motion 720p video that can be selected. Outside of that there’s not too much to do; no HDR video, no options for other types of slow motion video, etc. The oddity here is that the sensor seems to crop the frame when taking a video, resulting in a zoomed looking video. Since the sensor is 20.7 megapixels this makes sense, but in practice it’s a little jarring starting the camera and your video feels like it’s 5 feet away from you.
There’s always the question of when we’re going to reach SLR quality on our phones, or at least close enough to that. We’re definitely getting to the point where the vast majority of people have either replaced their standalone cameras or are considering it, and if more phones were like the Meizu MX4 that number would be even higher. Everything about the picture taking experience here is a joy, from adjusting settings manually to just taking the shot, Meizu has packed one of the industry’s best cameras on board the MX4 and packed some excellent software to go with it. We’ve seen time and time again in the past that no matter how good the sensor or the lens, when you have sub-par software you’re going to get sub-par pictures.
Meizu’s color accuracy, light balance and focusing are top notch, fast and accurate to life. The size of the sensor helps a lot here as the larger pixels and sensor size allow it to have higher dynamic lighting range than other sensors on the market, and the software does a great job of balancing ISO and shutter speed in most situations. I found this particularly to be the case in mixed lighting conditions where it would give a good balanced image even though there were lots of harsh darks and lights in the scene. The only time this wasn’t true was in darker situations where the software constantly upps the shutter speed in favor of a low ISO to avoid excessive noise. This produced an excellent image that was clean and relatively free of noise, but any movement was blurred.
I got past this by holding down the shutter button, which quickly takes 30 shots in less than one second, and then chose the best shot from there. This was actually really easy to adjust to because of how well designed the burst photo management screen is. When you open the gallery all burst shots are nested in one main image, so scrolling through the gallery won’t look like more than one shot even though you took 30 at a time. Clicking on this burst photo will open all of the shots in the sequence, with a save all or just save selected functions. The saved photos are then placed outside of this nested burst shot and you can easily delete all the burst photos except for your favorite one with a single click. It’s super well designed and had me getting over the annoyance of the slow shutter in low light and enjoying truly excellent low light photos in just a few seconds.
Unfortunately this burst mode doesn’t translate into the HDR mode, where the shutter can be painfully slow and I ended up getting pictures with double images about half the time. Even in bright light and resting the phone on something resulted in double images and the results of the shutter taking too long to take the rest of the pictures in the exposure bracket. Optical Image Stabilization would likely help here but the biggest problem seems to just come from sheer shutter speed, because the processing end of the photo seems to only take a second or two once the pictures are snapped.
When I did get a photo free from ghost effects the HDR was phenomenal and among the best I’ve seen. Nothing is as good as Google’s HDR+ algorithm but this is darn close to that quality, pulling detail out of the shadows and lessening the harshness of overbright spots. I was particularly impressed with the color accuracy yet again as many phones over saturate their HDR shots, and I didn’t notice any haloing or other weird artifacts that can sometimes take place with HDR photos.
Final Thoughts and TL;DR
All in all this is easily one of the best phones of the year. For under $400 you’re getting a 16GB phone with superb build quality, one of the best LCDs on the market, a better camera than probably 98% of phones out there, and a great UI experience that’s unique and well designed. For about $50 more you’ll get double the storage, which is good for pretty much everyone, and Meizu’s update schedule promises to keep on top of the software version race as well as constantly adding new features that are important to users. Meizu’s FlymeOS 4.0 offers robust theme support with its own theme store which will keep your device looking fresh if you ever tire of the stock look of FlymeOS.
Performance is right on par with the other top-end smartphones out there, and sound output quality through the headphone jack is among the very best available. Those looking to game on their phones will enjoy the 5.34-inch screen as it provides plenty of space for seeing all the action but isn’t so big that it’s uncomfortable for most people thanks to Meizu’s super small bezels not just on the sides but also on the top and bottom. While some of the software changes Meizu has made take some getting used to, like swiping up from home to go back and swiping up from the bottom bezel for recent apps, they aren’t bad decisions, just different.
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