Budget phones have come a long way in the past few years. Starting with the original Moto G in 2013, previously high-end specifications have been made available at ever lower prices.
Phones with metal unibodies, 1080p screens, powerful chipsets and fingerprint scanners can now be found for well under £200.
However, the toughest nut, the sub-£100 market, hasn’t yet benefited quite as much from this trickle-down. Plagued by a glut of handsets featuring sub-par displays, tired designs and a collective dearth of RAM, it is still mainly the preserve of those who have no other option.
So its easy to be dismissive of the £85 Vodafone Smart N8, but a quick look at the specs list suggests this phone is punching above its weight, so has Vodafone delivered a truly compelling handset at an ultra-low price?
Against the likes of the Honor 5C and other slightly pricier phones the competition is certainly fierce.
Little touches galore
Reliable fingerprint scanner
NFC and reasonable specs
The key to making a great budget handset isn’t to provide gee-whizz features that fail to impress in daily use. Instead, it’s about taking care of the little things, a point that Vodafone has clearly taken on board.
This may not be the first time that a fingerprint scanner has featured on a device sold for less than £100 in the UK, but that isn’t important. What is important is that it works like a dream.
Placed near the rear camera, we found that the scanner always worked without issue, even with damp fingers. In a nice touch, like on devices such as the Honor 5C and Honor 5X, it can also be used to pull down the notification bar without touching the screen.
For people coming from a similarly priced device, this may be their first time using a fingerprint scanner, and they won’t be disappointed.
It does feel very James Bond-ish to pick up the phone, get through to the home screen and pull down the notification shade without so much as touching the display, a big crowd-pleaser in certain circles.
Other little touches abound, such as the inclusion of NFC. Never usually found below the hundred-quid mark, this handy feature allows for contactless payments with your phone, with the likes of Android Pay.
Of course there are less exciting uses too, such as easier pairing to Bluetooth accessories which support it, and pairing to other Android smartphones with the same functionality.
A 720p screen has also been included (which is effectively mandatory nowadays), flanked by a forward-facing speaker – both of which will be covered more thoroughly in a later section.
There is also a quad-core chipset, 16GB of storage and 1.5GB of RAM. As a whole, the Vodafone Smart N8 is seemingly designed as a rebuke to every sub-£100 phone that has come before it.
Design and display
Plain but well-built
Satisfactory 720p screen
While the spec sheet might look outstanding for the price point, the Smart N8 certainly doesn’t.
At this budget tier however, expectations have to be curbed a little. A metal design, such as that on the Wileyfox Swift 2, is out of the question, along with any distinctive colors or interesting quirks.
Instead, while feeling very solid and certainly not showing a great deal of flex, the Smart N8 is hewn from a single block of office-grade boring grey plastic. Weighing in at 151g, and at 8.65mm thick, it is certainly manageable in one hand too.
In said hand it feels comfortable, if unremarkable. The rear is made from a slightly ridged material that resists fingerprints well, while the sides are smooth. Bezels are kept to a minimum on the sides, being fairly large on the top and bottom.
This isn’t going to wow at parties or on the street, but it certainly won’t turn heads in the wrong way either.
As for the display, all that needs to be said is that it is perfectly adequate.
Though it doesn’t get as bright as the likes of a Samsung Galaxy S8, it is just about legible in very bright sunlight. Colours on the other hand are a little too cool, tending towards the blue side. There is a little fade off at the sides, but mostly viewing angles are acceptable.
While 720p doesn’t sound like a lot in the modern age of 4K HDR monsters (like the screen found on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium), in day to day use it is more than adequate. Those who glue phone displays to their eye sockets in search of visible pixels will probably take issue, but most people won’t mind.
Watching YouTube videos, reading and gaming were all satisfactory. Again, the qualifier is the price point, that the screen isn’t unusable is the real win, so for it to have a number of good points is a real surprise.
The next big step will be to add an AMOLED screen at this level, but the LCD screen here is never distractingly bad, and that is something Vodafone can be proud of.
Interface and reliability
Includes mostly useless Vodafone apps
Runs Android Nougat
More than anything else, a smartphone lives and dies by the software it runs, yet many manufacturers opt to bog things down with endlessly customized ‘skins’.
Thankfully, the trend among budget phones has been to shy away from this needless interference, however the Vodafone Smart N8 is somewhere in the middle.
As a carrier, part of Vodafone’s strategy in selling the Smart N8 at such a low price is to use it as something of a Trojan horse, as a means by which to sell the end user further products and services.
This can be seen in the suite of apps that the firm has baked in, of which there are roughly six. All things considered this isn’t too bad, but in an ideal situation there would be zero.
The most egregious inclusion is ‘Accessories’, which is merely a portal through which you can buy expensive earphones and other fluff. ‘Phone Guard’ is a pretty but mostly useless tool, putting glossy graphics on the resource management performed at a system level by Android.
‘MyVodafone’ will likely be of some use to those on the network already – displaying more information about plans etc, and ‘Start’ directs new users straight to a ‘Buy’ section.
In all, while the number of included apps could have been a great deal higher, that they are present at all is a bit of a problem. If an app or feature can be added that makes a tangible improvement to the user experience, then that is wonderful.
But the Vodafone Smart N8 has no such nice software value-adds, all that the pre-installed bloat managed to do is distract and annoy.
One thing that certainly can be said is that the user experience in general is pretty solid. And it even boasts Android 7.0 Nougat, something that some more expensive phones can’t yet claim.
And while the software isn’t as smooth as the likes of that on the Google Pixel or the HTC U11, it does the job well enough. The only real, major quirk that we ran across was the microphone bugging out during voice calls, failing to work at all.
This of course removes the 'phone' functionality, leaving only the 'smart', which is quite an issue if you’re stung by it, but presumably isn’t a problem with all handsets.
Users should note that, as hinted at earlier, most manufacturers are very poor at providing timely software releases. Though the Vodafone Smart N8 has one of the newest versions of Android, it isn’t fully up to date (with 7.1.1 being the latest).
And there’s no word on what the software support might be like for the long-term.
Regardless, what this will mean is that, if you have a bug or quirk, it may never be patched away. If you value always having the latest and greatest versions of Android, this may not be the device for you.
Movies, music and gaming
Bright screen but poor audio
Games generally run smoothly
With a bright, reasonably colourful screen, watching movies on the Vodafone Smart N8 is a fairly inoffensive experience.
Though it doesn’t hit the same heights as say, the LG G6, it is nonetheless perfectly acceptable for the price point.
What brings it down considerably is the speaker treatment. Although it points in the right direction, coming out of the front of the phone, it’s powered by a weedy little driver that fails to produce a convincing sound.
This is also the case with headphones, plugging in causes a big drop off in volume - especially if they are of the fancy high-impedance variety.
Generally, we found that the handset was perfectly acceptable for the odd YouTube video, but don’t expect a full cinematic experience.
This lacklustre speaker setup also translates into poor general audio performance, so audiophiles will want to look elsewhere. One nice small touch is the inclusion of an FM radio, which allows for unlimited free music no matter where you are in the world.
And gaming is mostly fine. The quad-core MediaTek MT6737 chipset runs four A53 cores at 1.25GHz, allowing a number of titles to run smoothly. Although anything more than, say, Temple Run, will tax the GPU, playing titles like Asphalt 8 is certainly doable.
Performance and benchmarks
Benchmarks are as you'd expect for the money
As we alluded to earlier on, performance on the Vodafone Smart N8, while not quite up there with screamers like the Huawei P10, is adequate for the price point.
The MediaTek MT6737 chipset used is roughly similar to the Snapdragon 410 series chips found in similar handsets, and as such day-to-day swiping and switching is pretty much par for the course.
The 1.5GB of RAM proved to be fine for general use. Although apps are forced to reload very regularly, it was enough for the system to operate without too many difficulties.
Thermals were a bit of a concern though. The chipset is placed near the rear-camera, and the reason that this is immediately apparent is because this area would frequently reach egg-scrambling temperatures.
The phone can become uncomfortable to hold when it is under full load, which raises questions about the long-term viability of the hardware.
Regardless, it managed a respectable 521 single-core score and 1,484 multi-core one on Geekbench, just behind the slightly more expensive Wileyfox Spark Plus, which achieved a single-core score of 602 and a multi-core one of 1,690.
It’s also close to the significantly pricier Moto G5‘s single-core score of 590, but well below its 2,377 multi-core score.
Not even a day of life with moderate use
Good battery life has always been a must for a successful smartphone. Before, it was mainly the preserve of the flagships, but now, with devices like the Lenovo P2, we are beginning to see better longevity at the budget end.
Unfortunately, the battery life on the Vodafone Smart N8 is slightly sub-par. Though the 2,400mAh battery may seem to be adequate for a phone of this size, what we found was that the device commonly failed to get through a day of moderate to heavy use.
In most cases a day would involve an hour of streaming with Bluetooth headphones on the morning commute, around an hour of calls, messaging and emails throughout the day and half an hour of light gaming in the evening.
All of this would usually see the battery conk out at around 7pm. This will be manageable for most, since by that point you’ll likely be home and able to plug it in, but it is certainly far from the 2-day dream.
The situation is no better when it comes to video performance. Running the TechRadar video test (a 720p video played at full brightness for 90 minutes) saw the battery drop from 81% to 53%, a 28% drop.
The Moto G5 for comparison dropped 22% and even that only has average life. So if you like to watch a lot of video on the go, the Vodafone Smart N8 isn’t for you.
13MP rear and 5MP front-facing camera
Photos are low quality
Typically, even the most budget of blowers comes with a series of grandiose claims attached to its camera. Talk of phase detect autofocus, backside illuminated sensors and all sorts of other exotic tech end up in marketing pitches, and yet rarely to any real effect.
The Vodafone Smart N8 doesn’t come with a fancy aperture, or indeed anything else. Both cameras have a flash, and both also have a middle of the road resolution at 13MP and 5MP for the rear and front respectively, and that is it.
But the performance is what counts and sadly that is far from impressive.
In decent lighting, and with a static subject, the autofocus will lock on quickly enough, and produce shots that are reasonably true to life – but that is the best that can be said for them.
In most conditions, the focus will hunt continuously, completely unable to get a lock on anything moving faster than an asthmatic snail. Curiously, the phone also really struggles to get a focus in macro shots, particularly with red flowers.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode does make an appearance however. This essentially allows a camera to take three shots and combine them, for better dynamic range, colour and details.
The difficulties in focusing are made far worse when activating HDR mode though, and moving even an inch produces a weird ghosting effect – like an old-fashioned double exposure.
A ‘Night Mode’ also makes an appearance, but all this does is change the white balance and activate a slightly longer shutter, with limited effect.
There is also a ‘Pro’ mode, allowing you manually focus, which helps considerably in getting around the issues with autofocus.
Generally though, shots are grainy, mushy and noisy. Detail is poorly represented, highlights are completely blown out in relatively simple scenes and the autofocus is from another century.
The selfie camera fares much the same, producing noisy shots with mushy detail and poor dynamic range.
For £85, having a camera that isn’t quite the worst thing in the world is a small achievement, but this is the Vodafone Smart N8’s biggest failing.
Making any good budget phone, let alone one that costs less than £100, is a daunting prospect for any manufacturer, and Vodafone has had a damn good crack.
In many ways, the Vodafone Smart N8 bats out of its price range. With an accurate fingerprint scanner, NFC, a good-enough screen and respectable performance, day to day use is great.
No other competitor offers the same package for a similar outlay, and yet sacrifices have been made. The speaker may be front-facing, but it’s poor. Battery life is mediocre, and the camera verges on being unusable.
In all, this is a solid handset but nothing more. While at times it comes close to greatness, it simply has too many drawbacks to make it worthy of the big leagues, but definitely fits in as one of the most impressive double-digit priced phones available today.
Who’s this for
If you are a Vodafone customer looking for a backup phone to take to gigs or in case yours goes kaput, then the Vodafone Smart N8 is a solid bet. Those looking for their first smartphone will also be tempted by the low price point.
People looking for the best performance, or the most powerful camera on a smartphone, should look elsewhere, and at spending a little more money.
Should you buy it?
Any phone costing less than £100 is often difficult to recommend. By spending a little more, consumers can get a hold of far more features, executed more competently.
And yet, the Vodafone Smart N8 is an odd beast. It has features that no other phone at this price point has, and there is a relatively rare level of thought and care in its design.
Ultimately, this phone will serve someone well who is willing to settle for a little less. The basics of a smartphone are here, and mostly done well, but other budget options are available for not vastly more, and are leagues ahead in almost every regard. This phone is recommendable, but only if you're really set on spending under £100.
The Vodafone Smart N8 is remarkably cheap, but spend a little more and in some cases you can get a lot more, as the alternatives below demonstrate.
Released in 2016, and now going for as low as £120 on Amazon, the Honor 5C has a 5.2 inch 1080p screen, 2GB of RAM, an octa-core chipset, a 3,000mAh battery and a 13MP rear-facing camera.
For just a little more than the Smart N8, you get a better screen, a more powerful chip, a bigger battery and a better camera. What’s more, the handset also has a part metal design, trumping the Vodafone in almost every regard.
The Moto G5 is more expensive than the Vodafone Smart N8, however it offers so much more. It comes packing a 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 430 chipset, a 2,800mAh battery and a capable 13MP camera.
This, like the Honor 5C, also benefits from a metal design, as well as various 'Moto Actions' - gestures such as chopping with the phone to activate the torch. This is one of the most complete budget packages in mobile at the moment.