UK mobile operator Vodafone has quietly become one of the most reliable budget smartphone suppliers in recent years. The Vodafone Smart N9 continues that trend in many ways, but it’s not quite an unreserved recommendation.
Once again we’re looking at a smart, well-designed phone with the kind of features that you’d expect to see on more prestigious models. Despite this, it’s available for a mere £109 on Pay As You Go.
Those with good memories might note that this is actually around £25 more expensive than last year’s Vodafone Smart N8. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s actually a 30% price bump.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long to see where the extra money is going. This is a step up from the previous model in a number of important ways - though a couple of disappointing shortfalls hold it back.
More for less
A surprisingly stylish design
Android 8.1 Oreo
An 18:9 screen, NFC and a fingerprint scanner
It’s not unusual to see a competent £100 smartphone in 2018, but Vodafone’s aim with the Smart N9 seems to be to imbue it with an uncommon sense of style and panache.
The rather utilitarian plastic looks of the Vodafone Smart N8 have given way to a bold, shiny back and textured metal rim with machined speaker holes.
We’ll discuss that design in more detail in the next section, but it actually looks and feels way more expensive than it is.
This sensation continues with a decent 18:9 screen that fills the front of the device. It’s not what you’d call bezel-less by any means, but it certainly justifies Vodafone’s description of a 'more screen, less frame' display.
The operator also boasts of the Smart N9’s 'Latest technology to enhance your moments'. We’re not entirely sure what it means by that, but we’d identify the Smart N9’s fast and reliable fingerprint scanner, NFC, and 8MP wide-angle selfie cam as meeting that strangely worded description.
Another technological advantage the Vodafone Smart N9 would seem to have over the majority of its contemporaries would be the very latest version of the Android OS, which is version 8.1 Oreo.
We know of certain flagship phones that still aren’t running this iteration at the time of writing, so it’s a fairly big deal.
Design and display
Impressive design with distinctive ribbed metal rim
5.5-inch 18:9 display is bigger and longer than before
The Vodafone Smart N9 represents a considerable step forward for the network’s entry-level phone range in terms of design.
This is a thoroughly pleasant phone to hold, thanks largely to its non-creaky build quality and palm-friendly dimensions of 147.1 x 68.8. It’s just 8.7mm thick and it weighs 145g, so it’s far from a skinny lightweight, but nor is it remotely unwieldy.
Taking a closer look at the materials used, the phone’s shiny (and this time non-removable) rear cover isn’t the fashionable glass component you might initially assume it to be.
It’s actually a clear, highly reflective form of plastic, which rapidly picks up scuffs and smudges.
The phone’s rim is far more pleasant to hold. Vodafone has gone with a curious, finely ribbed metal here. Combined with the matt black colour of our model, and a slight angle at the phone’s mid-point, it has a certain stealth fighter look to it. We’re huge fans.
Also impressive are the volume and power buttons housed within that rim. They’re firm and clicky and distinctively textured in a way that so few budget phone buttons are. It’s often the little things that separate the super-budget phones from the budget phones, but the Vodafone Smart N9 gets most of those things right.
Most, but not all. On the bottom of the phone, in between the two stylishly drilled speaker grilles (only the right of which is an actual speaker grille), you’ll find a micro USB port for charging purposes. No, USB-C still hasn’t reached the entire span of the smartphone market, which is a shame.
Let’s get back to larger and more positive territory, though, because the Vodafone Smart N9 has a really impressive display. It’s big, bright, and well balanced.
At 5.5-inches it’s significantly larger than the Smart N8’s screen, and that comes down to its stretched-out 18:9 aspect ratio. This in itself is another thoroughly modern touch from the N9.
In terms of practical use, 18:9 is more a case of improving the screen-to-body ratio or optimising space rather than massively improving media content. On that front alone, the N9 screen comes up trumps - particularly as Vodafone has done away with the thick black borders that plagued the N8.
The resolution isn’t anything to write home about. At 720 x 1440 or HD+, it’s basically a stretched out form of 720p. That doesn’t have the negative impact on legibility that you might be expecting, though.
Would we have preferred a 1080p or FHD+ display? Of course, but at this price point we certainly don’t demand one. What really matters is that the N9 display gets plenty bright, and that colours pop way more than you might expect from a £100 phone.
2,900mAh battery is quite large given the specs
Video really punishes the battery
The Vodafone Smart N9 comes with a 2,900mAh battery, which is really quite large for a phone of this spec. It’s not far off the size of battery we expect from flagship phones with their 2GHz octa-core chipsets and their QHD displays.
It’s certainly a lot larger than the Vodafone Smart N8’s 2,400mAh battery, at any rate. Of course, with a significantly larger display, there’s a lot more call for that power.
This generally balances out for the expected all-day performance, particularly when your usage is light to moderate. We’re talking calls, texts, emails and some light web browsing.
However, hitting the Smart N9 with more intensive tasks really takes its toll. The standard TechRadar battery test involves playing a 90-minute 720p looping video with the screen brightness set to full, and the N9 lost 24% of its charge on average.
In fairness, most budget phones do struggle with this task. it’s actually an improvement on last year’s Smart N8, which lost 28%. The similarly-priced Nokia 2 lost just 15% in this test, though that phone has a freakishly large battery. Meanwhile, the still-available (at a knock-down price) Moto G5 lost 22%.
You won’t be getting any more than average battery performance from the Vodafone Smart N9, and you’re best served going lightly on the media playback.
13MP camera isn’t capable of much
Slow camera response
Almost refreshingly for a budget phone, Vodafone doesn’t make any grand claims about the Smart N9’s photographic capabilities.
There are no gimmicky specs either, no dual-lens cameras or flimsy focus effects. This is a single-lens 13MP camera, plain and simple.
Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said for the N9’s camera, beyond the fact that it offers a fairly clean and intuitive UI and the option of Pro controls.
Even then, the speed of the actual camera app and the response time between pressing the shutter button and a picture being taken is pretty sub-standard. Good luck capturing anything in motion, too.
The quality of the images it captures isn’t very good at all, either. In that respect, there appears to have been little improvement since the Vodafone Smart N8.
Even in decent natural lighting, images tend to look flat and dull, with colours and details smudging together. Bright areas tend to be overexposed, too.
There is a manual HDR mode that can be activated with a control situated to the left of the viewfinder, which certainly improves things quite a bit. That said, you can almost hear the cogs working as the N9’s weak chipset works furiously to process the visual data. Speedy it is not.
Deprive the camera of significant light, and the shots are almost not worth taking. The N9’s autofocus struggles to lock on in these conditions, and the results are murky and blurry.
The one notable improvement over the Smart N8 comes from the front-facing camera, which this year is an 8MP example with a wide-angle lens. This means that you can squeeze a lot more people and/or scenery into your selfies, which will doubtless appeal to the kind of (young) people who might be drawn in by that low price.
It’s a rare positive in a pretty poor camera offering. As with the N8, it’s hardly a surprise or a disgrace that the N9’s camera offering is bad. However, that 30% price bump makes it a little harder to overlook.
Interface and reliability
Lightly modified Android 8.1 Oreo
Level of Vodafone bloatware not quite as bad
Vodafone’s smartphones have always elicited mixed emotions on the software front, and the Vodafone Smart N9 is no different.
On the one hand you always get a lightweight, close-to-stock and up to date version of the Android operating system. On the other hand, Vodafone does tend to insist on pumping its phones with bloatware, from ugly widgets to pointless apps.
On the first point, you’re getting Android Oreo 8.1 here. We could name some very expensive phones that still aren’t running this version.
It’s a largely faithful take on Google’s popular OS, with the same crisp icons and menus. You get a familiar app tray, which can be raised with a dedicated virtual button or a swipe up from the bottom of the home screen.
One handy addition is the addition of a shortcut to your favourite app by swiping left from the home screen. You could set it to bring up your email, for example, or the clock app if you’re constantly setting timers and alarms.
Given that Vodafone used to devote this entire screen to its Tips app, this is clear progress. We still pine for the Google Now days, but as Google seems to have abandoned it in favour of Google Assistant we can’t really hold Vodafone to account for its absence.
Speaking of Google’s voice-activated personal assistant, it doesn’t seem to be listening out for your prompts as on other budget phones. You can use it, but you’ll need to tap that microphone button on the Google widget at the top of the main home screen to access it, or else press and hold the virtual home button.
On the matter of bloatware, Vodafone appears to have scaled back on the level of carrier fluff with the Smart N9. The messaging and caller apps are stock Android efforts rather than the network’s ugly alternatives, which is genuine progress.
Conversely, My Vodafone is essentially a big network account and FAQ app, while the aforementioned Tips also gets its own app icon, and is actually pretty useful for introducing beginners to Android. We’re not mad on either, but we can see that they might have a use.
The Start widget over on the second home screen is just an eyesore, though. This chunky pane pushes a bunch of Vodafone services and help topics, which seem to wander beyond the realms of the absolutely necessary.
In its defence, the pre-installation of these services is part of the reason Vodafone’s phones are so cheap in the first place. All can be easily removed, too.
Movies, music and gaming
Big, bright screen shows media well
Headphone jack and tinny speaker
16GB of storage is not enough
We put the Vodafone Smart N9’s media chops to the test with a range of media types, from Amazon Video movies to the new YouTube Music app and a whole range of games. The overall outcome was generally okay, particularly for a phone of this price, albeit far from perfect.
Visual media looks good on the N9’s big, bright, 18:9 display. That said, it’s worth pointing out that you won’t be seeing Full HD video in its native glory, which is definitely noticeable.
While games make better use of that 18:9 aspect ratio, they don’t run all that well. 3D action games like Shadowgun Legends and even the brilliantly optimised Guns of Boom were stuttery despite defaulting to low-detail mode.
Audio is adequate, rather than accomplished. The sole speaker on the bottom of the phone isn’t particularly crisp or bassy, but it does at least get plenty loud - if sometimes ear-piercingly shrill.
You’re far better off using the top-mounted headphone socket for your music needs - a feature that will pretty soon be a USP for budget phones like this, you feel.
Talking of beloved but increasingly marginalised audio technology, we’re pleased to see that Vodafone has once again included an FM Radio app here. Plug in a set of earphones and you’ll be able to tune into the airwaves wherever you are in the world, without any data requirement.
When it comes to storing that media, you’ll need to make use of the Smart N9’s microSD slot pretty sharply. With just 16GB of internal storage - 6GB of which is taken up by Android - we found ourselves running out of space within a week.
Specs and benchmark performance
MediaTek 6739WA isn’t a good performer at all
We hinted at it in the previous section, but the Vodafone Smart N9 is not a strong performer. In fact, we’d suggest that the single biggest thing holding it back from loftier things is its sheer sluggishness.
That can be put down to a few things. First and most apparent is the MediaTek 6739WA chipset that’s at the phone’s heart. It’s a low-end chipset in every way, with four Cortex-A53 cores running at 1.3 GHz.
Combined with just 2GB of RAM - an improvement over the Vodafone Smart N8’s 1.5GB, but still shy of Android’s comfort zone - it doesn’t make for smooth handling. We’ve already pointed out that gaming performance isn’t good, but it affects even general performance.
Booting up apps and loading up web pages comes with a clear pause, camera performance is slow, it takes ages for the fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone - even menus like the app tray stutter mid-animation.
Our Geekbench 4 benchmark tests reflected this underwhelming perception. An average multicore score of 1,628 is far from impressive, though it does manage to pip the Vodafone Smart N8 on 1,484. That’s not really saying much though.
It should be clear that we’re not holding the Smart N9 against flagship phones here. Head up to the £150 to £200 region and you’ll find extremely fluid handsets that will do everything well, such as the Moto G6 Play, which scored 2,394 points.
Of course, that’s still a lot more money than the £109 Vodafone Smart N9. If you’re shopping at this price point, £50 to £100 can be a massive gap to bridge, but the performance gap is even more noticeable.
Vodafone has produced another competent entry-level smartphone in the Vodafone Smart N9, and this time it’s a lot easier on the eye.
With a sharp, modern design and an appealingly punchy display, this is a step forward for the range in a number of ways.
Unfortunately its performance is distractingly sluggish, while the 13MP main camera isn’t really good for anything. That might be understandable in a £110 phone, but you only need to spend a little extra to get a lot better.
Who’s this for?
This being a Vodafone handset, the Vodafone Smart N9 is obviously well-suited to Vodafone customers looking for a cheap new phone.
It’s also a great pick if you have a strictly limited £100 budget, but don’t want to have to carry around a cheap-feeling chunk of plastic.
Should you buy it?
Vodafone has emerged as one of the best providers of budget smartphones in the UK, and the Vodafone Smart N9 is a stylish new contender. The way it looks and feels in the hand is quite uncommon for a £100 phone.
Also commendable is the phone’s 5.5-inch display, which stretches out to fill most of the front of the phone. It really does feel a lot classier than its price tag would suggest.
Unfortunately, poor performance and a terrible camera bring those expectations back down to Earth. Add in a price bump from last year’s model and some strong alternatives a little further up the price scale, and it’s a case of two steps forward, two steps back for Vodafone.
There are other cheap phones that offer more, such as the following three:
Motorola’s popular entry-level smartphone has been superseded by the Moto G6, but it’s still available to buy online for a price just slightly north of the Smart N9.
For just a little more you’re getting superior performance, a sharper display, a better camera, and none of the operator bloatware.
On the downside, the Moto G5 doesn’t have NFC. Unlike the Vodafone Smart N9, then, you won’t be able to use Google Pay on it.