Reviewers tend to groan when presented with handsets like the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 for a few reasons, not least because it seems unlikely that a £75 phone will have much to offer those of us who play with handsets such as the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S7 day-in day-out.
But when I took the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 out of its box I was forced to rethink my usual preconceptions.
Straight away, this isn't the mush of low-end components and uninspiring design you might expect to see in a phone that costs as little as this one does.
That starts with the look and feel. The Smart Prime 7 is plastic, and to get the SIM and optional microSD cards in you have to pop off the back cover. It's thin and a bit flimsy – it gives way when you push it with modest force – but that's not a negative point.
It's not badly designed at all, and it feels like it will comfortably survive the rigours of day-to-day use.
On the right side are the power button and volume rocker – standard stuff. On the back is a small and nicely subtle Vodafone logo, along with the 8MP camera and LED flash. The headphone jack is on the top, while at the bottom is the micro USB port for charging.
Vodafone has gone for hardware buttons for the Prime 7 – they're capacitive, and only visible when lit by a backlight. You get the standard Android back and home buttons, and what I call the pointless square.
The pointless square does have a point – it's for task-switching – but the decision to make this icon a square is one that will confuse me until the day I die. It makes no logical sense – mind you, the home circle is only fractionally better.
The Smart Prime 7's screen is of a fairly modest resolution. No QHD here, just trusty old 720 x 1280. As a phone snob you might think I'd bemoan that, but actually it's really good.
It's nearly impossible to see the pixels on the 5-inch screen, and the pixels per inch number of 293 is only a little lower than the iPhone SE's 326. In short, the screen is nice, and the spec doesn't really tell the whole story.
I think it's fair to say that price is the key point of this phone. People buying the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 will likely want a handset that offers them basic functionality for a sensible price. Good news guys: this phone goes way beyond that 'basic' requirement.
For one thing it offers 4G, so you'll be well placed to take advantage of fast browsing, downloads and the like; 4G isn't unheard of for budget handsets like this, but it's always great to see, as it makes for a much better phone experience.
Tied into that are Vodafone's optional services, such as Spotify and Sky Sports which, depending on your tariff, you may get some free access to. With 4G these are going to fly along at a fair old clip that even good 3G can't match – it's a real bonus to have.
Another nice selling point is that the Smart Prime 7 offers a simple, stock Android experience – and it's Android 6.0 Marshmallow to boot. Now, I'm not someone who believes custom Android UIs are a bad thing, but I'm also aware that some people quite like the way standard Android looks – and those people will love this phone, as very little has been tweaked.
On the downside there's a fair amount of Vodafone branding. This isn't really a massive surprise – it's a Vodafone-branded device after all, and it's clearly being subsidised by your subscription to its network. And the interference is minimal enough; Vodafone's apps are mostly there to help you monitor your account and sell you accessories.
Also included is Vodafone's Message+, this is like iMessage on an iPhone, and enables you to text people via SMS, but other Vodafone users can be reached using more modern means that don't incur the charge for sending a regular text message. I get what Vodafone is trying to do here, and there are options for video calling too which make sense.
The problem is WhatsApp. In a world where there's a service that everyone is using, and one that does most of the things Message+ does, Vodafone's offering seems sort of pointless. Still, it's there, and it seems decent enough in concept; how much benefit you'll get from it will depend on how many people you know who are on Vodafone.
Because this is a Vodafone exclusive it makes sense to talk about your buying options. At the time of writing the phone is £75 on pay-as-you-go, or you can get it for free on tariffs starting at £16 per month. That entry-level deal only gets you 250MB of data though, so be careful. If I was buying this phone I'd grab it on PAYG and get Vodafone's 1GB bundle for £15 per month – but with no contract, obviously.
You also get an FM radio. I sort of like this – it's a feature that's going extinct on phones, but when you're bored and in an area with poor data coverage it can make for a nice distraction.
Performance and battery
At the core of the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 210, which is a quad-core chip with a processor speed of 1.1GHz and an Adreno 304 GPU.
There's also 1GB of RAM, which is a bit measly these days, although I didn't find it a massive issue; RAM does help keep a phone feeling fluid though, and the more of it you have the better as a rule.
One thing to note is that the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 does not support 5GHz Wi-Fi. This is a shame, because 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is often congested and slow, especially if you live in a busy town or city. It does, however, support Wireless N, which means you should see Wi-Fi speeds of up to 300Mbps in perfect conditions – although that's highly unlikely in the real world.
I did some of the usual tests – gaming with Real Racing 3, and general Google Play app downloads – and felt that apps were a little slower to install on this phone than some more premium models, but not so much so that it was a real concern.
Real Racing ran beautifully too, with loads of detail and none of the stuttering you might see on an underpowered phone.
I used Geekbench to get an idea of how the handset performed in a synthetic test, and it was pretty much as I expected. The Smart Prime 7 isn't going to set any speed records, and it came in slower than the Moto G in both single-core and multi-core tests.
Benchmarks are meaningless to most users, though, and the phone itself feels responsive all the times I've picked it up – so be guided by that, rather than by the Geekbench results.
There are a few things that suggest the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 should be optimised for long battery life. Remember that slightly lower screen resolution? Well, that helps to keep the power flowing for longer.
There's also the fact that the Snapdragon 210 is designed to offer 4G while keeping the phone running efficiently. And finally, there's the fact that the battery is reasonably high-capacity for a small phone.
Sure enough, with light to moderate use you'll easily get up to 24 hours of battery life. Even after running our standard battery test for 90 minutes with the screen on maximum brightness, and some more typical use – taking a few snaps and general tweeting and emailing – the handset was showing well over half a charge. That's decent, actually, and will suit those who aren't constantly checking their phones.
Speaking of that battery test, it knocked 15% off the charge. That's a respectable figure, and compares well to some high-end phones, which suffer on account of their fancy screens and faster processors – the HTC 10, for example, lost 22% of its battery in the same test.
Moving to the camera department, the first thing to note is that video from the Smart Prime 7 is only 720p, which is a disappointment. On the one hand I guess most people won't need higher-resolution video, but on the other 1080p is pretty much the entry level now, with 4K being a nice option on high-end phones.
There are no frame rate options either; it's locked to something – I assume 30fps – but this isn't made clear. Ultimately, on a budget phone some sacrifices need to be made, and video is probably one area most people won't be that bothered about.
When it comes to stills the picture is a little brighter – at least when the conditions are bright, and that means outdoors in daylight really. The test photos I took with the Smart Prime 7's 8MP rear camera had decent colour for the most part – some bright colours lacked detail, but still looked reasonable.
If you zoom in on the fine detail though, even in well-lit shots, you can see that images are being post-processed fairly heavily, and that it's taking a toll on their sharpness. I've seen this often with budget phones – there's always a certain amount of 'mushiness' to fine detail – but it's not awful here, and photos will be good enough for most uses.
I don't think the autofocus is up to much either. I took several shots which looked okay on-screen, but which weren't correctly focused when viewed at full size. There's an HDR mode too, but this doesn't seem to do much, and I'd probably leave it switched off for most shots.
Things take a turn for the less-impressive indoors, and in lower light. I took test shots in a standard room lit by energy-saving bulbs; this is the sort of lighting you'll typically be shooting under, and the results from the Smart Prime 7 can best be described as "underwhelming" if you're being charitable, or "awful" if you're being less so.
There's a lot of noise, colours are muted and images lack sharpness. None of this is much of a surprise, though; indoors the camera is okay for things like tweeting and taking amusing pictures of your cat, but other than that don't expect too much.
The Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is sensibly-priced, and is aimed at people who want a reasonably capable handset but aren't 'power users'. This is a phone for someone young, or someone old, or, honestly, anyone in the middle who wants a simple-to-use device with an up-to-date version of Android and plenty of upsides.
Vodafone offers this phone exclusively, and it can be obtained either for a one-off fee of £75 for pay-as-you-go users, or free on a £16 per month contract.
The nice thing about this is that while the phone is cheap, you're still getting 4G for blisteringly-fast web access – just make sure you get a tariff with enough data, or you'll blow through it in no time.
The most impressive thing about the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 is that it doesn't look like a cheap handset. It's well built, it has some reasonable features that will give it value for almost any user, and it runs surprisingly smoothly.
The battery life is worth a shout-out too, because it's really decent. You'll get 24 hours out of this handset, even with moderate use, and that's a great thing for a handset that's likely to see a lot of use as a telephone, rather than as a mobile gaming platform or video-blogging powerhouse.
I'm also a big fan of the screen. It doesn't have the sort of specs to make a geek weak at the knees, but it's clear, crisp and has loads of detail. It suffers a bit in bright sunlight, but it's still usable – it's a really good effort all around.
While the camera can produce passable images outdoors and in good light, it's never going to deliver a shot that will wow you. Its photos are fine for, say, Facebook, but I wouldn't want to use them for much more.
The 8GB of internal storage, is, frankly, disappointing. This is a key area of cost-saving for phone manufacturers, but, while there's a microSD card slot for up to 128GB of additional storage, that won't suit all needs – this is a phone that isn't really aimed at people who want to muck about with such things, and 16GB would have been a better option.
I was very happy with the Vodafone Smart Prime 7 until I got to the camera, and then things started to fall apart a bit. However, I can just about live with the slightly weak snapper on this phone, because there are so many other things going on here that are worth celebrating.
The screen is far better than I would have honestly expected, and I also like the design of the Smart Prime 7, which is basic without being cheap and nasty. It's not going to win any beauty contests, but neither is it going to be the butt of a "what are thooooose"style internet meme.
The Smart Prime 7 is more than powerful enough for most uses – I played games, and had no problem with the general speed of the handset. It does quite poorly in benchmarking, but that doesn't worry me unduly, as I wouldn't expect a low-cost device to keep up with today's high-end smartphones.
There's plenty here to like, and not much to dislike. If your phone camera is very important to you then I'd urge caution; aside from that though, the cheap and cheerful Vodafone Smart Prime 7 hits a good note for me.