Network own-brand phones have long since stopped being the compromise they once were. Like a supermarket's own flaked corn cereal or beans baked in tomato sauce, they're the acceptable face of smart shopping.
The new Vodafone Smart Speed 6 continues in this vein, offering a substantial set of tasty smartphone features at a price that's far easier to stomach than the big-name brands' own efforts.
Vodafone, smartly recognising an opportunity in the market, has also realised that people who are spending relatively so little on a smartphone might be buying their first – particularly if they're, ahem, older – and accordingly have added some clever features to appeal to the silver shopper.
Let's get this out the way early on: there's more than a touch of the plastic fantastic about the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 – but for £50 you can hardly expect Gorilla Glass and brushed aluminium. Available with black or silver (seen here) rear covers, it's not going to have the neighbourhood nerd wandering over for a fondle.
But beauty is fleeting – and the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 feels tough and dependable, and like a phone that will endure being stuffed in a pocket (or handbag, nestled next to the Fisherman's Friend and bus pass) without complaint.
The rear cover wraps around the sides of the phone, up to just under the edge of the screen, and it's a good, tight fit – I nearly lost a fingernail trying to prize it off. It'll keep the dust out, and the phone in one piece when it invariably hits the deck.
There's no creaking, no big panel gaps between the rear cover and the rest of the phone, and it feels like it'll do that tyke Tommy, the kid down the lane who's been bothering poor Mr Tiddles, a right mischief if he ever shows his face 'round 'ere again. But I digress.
The large-print trio of buttons at the bottom of the screen are easy to see, even if your peepers aren't what they used to be, and the Vodafone branding is pretty discreet, limited to a black logo the size of a five pence piece in the centre of the rear cover and a minuscule 'Designed by Vodafone' at the bottom.
All in all it's pretty inoffensive stuff – and that's the genius. It doesn't scream budget smartphone, and you wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with it amongst your more design-conscious friends toting HTCs or Sonys. And for the price, that's all you can ask for.
A certain demographic – those who'll find the bigger buttons a boon – will appreciate one of the features of the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 that you're offered upon first starting the phone: the chance to opt for a more simplified home screen that offers larger icons and a less cluttered interface.
It's just the thing for getting to grips with all this new-fangled technology, and enables you to quickly access your favourite contacts or apps by swiping right and left respectively.
It's the Android equivalent of a large print book.
Combined with all the helpful little pop-up tips and hints that Vodafone has peppered the entire interface with, you begin to realise just how intimidating a device like a smartphone can be to someone who grew up using a phone with a dial rather than a touchscreen.
And Big Red, bless it, has done a great job – the tips aren't too intrusive, and are easily dismissed if you don't need the helping hand that's offered. To be honest, if you're more of a talker and texter than an app user, you'll probably find this home screen mode far more convenient than the standard one.
But if you're starting to think that you need to be a paid-up member of your local bowls club to find anything to get excited about in the Vodafone Smart Speed 6, bear with me…
It sports 4G LTE connectivity, Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4 ADSP, too, so if you've decided to splash your cash on wireless headphones, rather than a swish smartphone, you're catered for.
The 4.5-inch screen might offer a resolution of just 854 x 480, but it presents a clear, crisp and vibrant image with a wide viewing angle. It's bit of a fingerprint magnet, mind.
The main camera is a Facebook-friendly 5-megapixel number with a flash, support for geo-tagging and an HDR mode. The front-facing camera might only offer two megapixels, but again the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 does the best with what it's got.
The 8GB internal memory is enough for basic use, and there's support for microSD cards up to 32GB if you need more space.
What might be one of the Vodafone Smart Speed 6's trump cards is it's unsullied take on Android 5.1 – aside from the mature mode and a handful of Vodafone apps, it's basically stock. As a result, it's clean, responsive and free from needless frippery.
Performance, battery and camera
The quad-core 1GHz ARM processor and 1GB of RAM mean performance that's more Sunday driver than boy racer. Geekbench 3 scores of 1378 and 487 for multi-core and single core performance are strong enough, though, matching the similarly-priced EE Rook and falling not far short of the Huawei Ascend G7.
Movie playback is fine, with the screen doing a good job of reproducing subtle shades and gradients. Even games are handled with relative ease. Real Racing 3 won't run at a super-smooth frame rate and curved lines are a little jagged, but it does run – and well enough to be properly enjoyable.
Sound is impressive on all fronts, from in-game audio to music streaming and MP3 playback, particularly with headphones. There's none of that annoying background hiss that you often find on cheaper devices that use inexpensive audio components.
Battery life is nothing to write home about, but nothing that'll draw complaint, either – I wrung a couple of days out of it under average conditions. Streaming a 90-minute YouTube movie over Wi-Fi sucked up just over 32% of the battery life, dropping from 99% at the start to 67% at the end.
The Vodafone Smart Speed 6 experience as a whole is just as pleasant – this smartphone really does live up to its name. There's no noticeable lag when navigating the user interface, when waking it up or switching from app to app; it just goes to show how flexible Lollipop is on lower-end smartphones when paired with the right components.
The primary camera is actually the only aspect of the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 that gives away its budget background.
My expectations weren't high to begin with, limited as this camera is by its 5-megapixel sensor, although as the Apple iPhone routinely shows, high megapixel counts aren't everything. The Vodafone Smart speed 6 isn't capable of any fancy image processing to make up for the resolution shortfall, though.
Outdoor shots appeared slightly underexposed when using the normal photo mode, or washed out and overexposed when shooting in HDR mode.
The results indoors are marginally better than outdoors – the flash is useful for lighting subjects at close range, and the camera coped with low light conditions far better than it did brighter ones.
Whatever the setting, though, images are grainy, and anything in the picture that's a metre or so away from the lens loses definition.
Geo-tagging and the HDR mode are the only extra bells you get on the imaging front. There's no macro mode and no spot focusing, no facility to capture raw images or any other indulgence.
You can record video at 1280 x 720, though, producing pretty smooth footage that suffers from the same slight underexposure that dogged the still pictures. Digital image stabilisation is available if your hand isn't as steady as once was.
The Vodafone Smart Speed 6 is an extremely capable entry-level smartphone. When you factor in the price, it's hard to beat – it's a great all-round performer, let down only by the sub-standard main camera.
The thoughtful – and genuinely useful – tweaks that cater for people for whom this will be their first smartphone. They demystify the whole experience without belittling it.
Playing games, music and movies, despite the low-resolution 854 x 480 screen, is an enjoyable experience and not hampered by the budget hardware. The audio quality over headphones is particularly good.
The no-frills approach to Android Lollipop means the user experience is smooth, responsive and free from bloat. I hope Vodafone doesn't wait too long to bring Marshmallow to the Smart Speed 6.
The disappointing camera performance lets down what would otherwise be a fantastic budget all-rounder. It's adequate for quick shots indoors, but take it out into the wider world and it buckles under the pressure.
The Smart Speed 6 is locked to the Vodafone network – it's an ideal pay as you go handset, but your options are limited when you can't easily swap networks.
The choice of only silver and black rear covers is disappointingly dull, especially as younger customers are likely to be a large part of this smartphone's market. Even a third, white option would have been a welcome addition.
It's difficult to complain too vociferously about a full-fat smartphone experience that costs just £50 – but when each network operator offers its own cut-price caller, it often comes down to the little differences that separate them. When we reviewed the EE Rook, we liked the capable hardware but rankled at the restrictive viewing angle, sub-par camera and limited on-board memory.
The Vodafone Smart Speed 6 certainly avoids the first of those criticisms, with a screen that's slightly larger (4.5 inches compared to 4 inches, with a resolution of 854 x 480 as opposed to the Rook's 800 x 480) and viewable from a far wider range of angles. Watching a movie isn't as arduous on the Smart Speed 6, and the built-in speakers aren't too bad, either.
The problems with the camera are common to both phones. Snapping anything other than quick shots for sharing on social media is pretty much out of the question, although the Smart Speed 6 does offer a flash. And as for the limited on-board memory, well, buy a microSD card – they're cheaper than they've ever been.
All of which makes the Vodafone Smart Speed 6 a pretty savvy silver surfer. There's nothing else out there at the moment that offers 4G LTE connectivity with such a well-rounded combination of features, performance and price.