I’ve always been a firm believer that you don’t have to spend a fortune to find a great device. You simply need to know where to go looking.
Meet the Thor smartphone from vernee
After selling my LG G2 on eBay a few weeks ago, I found myself on the hunt for a no-frills phone that I can use day in and day out.
I initially considered the Honor 5C or the Moto E3 – both are currently available in the UK at an affordable price. But after buying the Xiaomi Mi Band 2 from Geekbuying last month, I decided to make a second pilgrimage to the online Mecca of Chinese brands and see what’s available in the budget section.
I know that many of you will automatically wince at the sight of cheap and Chinese being used in the same paragraph. But luckily the days of Chinese phones physically falling apart after two weeks of use are mostly gone. In fact, today you will really struggle to find a crap phone for £100 and above (unless you’re Vlad from The Verge).
With all this in mind, my initial reaction was to fork out the asking price of £100-125 for the new Xiaomi Redmi 3S or the Meizu M3S – adding an S at the end of a phone’s name is all the rage these days. But after recently using the Xiaomi Mi 5 and the Meizu M2 Note, I was yearning for the simple pleasures of an unadulterated Android experience.
That’s when I noticed the vernee Thor and its price tag of £95. Using GSMArena’s compare tool, I then proceeded to build the table below to help me understand how the three phones fared against each other.
Motorola Moto E3
Huawei Honor 5C
|Network||2G||GSM 850/900/1800/1900||GSM 850/900/1800/1900||GSM 900/1900/2100|
|3G||HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100||HSDPA 900/2100||HSDPA 900/2100|
|4G||LTE||LTE band 1 (2100), 3 (1800), 7 (2600), 8 (900), 20 (800)||LTE band 1 (2100), 3 (1800), 7 (2600), 20 (800)|
|Dimensions||Body (mm)||143.8 x 71.6 x 8.55||147.1 x 73.8 x 8.3||142 x 70.3 x 7.9|
|SIM type||1 x Micro SIM||2 x Micro SIM||2 x Micro SIM|
|Display||Type||IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors||IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors||IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors|
|Size||5.0 inches||5.2 inches||5.0 inches|
|Resolution||720 x 1280 pixels
(294 ppi pixel density)
|1080 x 1920 pixels
(424 ppi pixel density)
|720 x 1280 pixels
(294 ppi pixel density)
|Protection||Corning Gorilla Glass 3, oleophobic coating||None||Corning Gorilla Glass 3|
|HiSilicon Kirin 650
(16 nm FinFET+)
|CPU||4 x Cortex-A53 (1.0 GHz)||4 x Cortex-A53 (2.0 GHz)
4 x Cortex-A53 (1.7 GHz)
|8 x Cortex-A53 (1.5 GHz)|
|GPU||Mali-T720 MP2 (400 MHz)||Mali-T830 MP2 (600 MHz)||Mali-T720 MP3 (450MHz)|
|RAM||1 GB||2 GB||3 GB|
|8 GB||16 GB||16 GB|
|Card slot||microSD, up to 32 GB (dedicated slot)||microSD, up to 256 GB
(uses SIM 2 slot)
|microSD, up to 128 GB (uses SIM 2 slot)|
|Android 6.0||Android 6.0||Android 6.0|
|Camera||Primary||8 MP, autofocus, geo-tagging, panorama, HDR||13 MP, f/2.0, autofocus, LED flash, geo-tagging, touch focus, face/smile detection, panorama, HDR
Up to 1080p @ 30 fps video
|13 MP, f/2.0, autofocus, LED flash, geo-tagging, touch focus, face/smile detection, panorama, HDR
Up to 1080p @ 30 fps video
|Secondary||5 MP||8 MP, f/2.0||5 MP|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi||802.11 b/g/n||802.11 b/g/n||802.11 b/g/n|
|Bluetooth||Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP||Bluetooth 4.1, A2DP||Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP|
|GPS||Yes, with A-GPS, GLONASS||Yes, with A-GPS, GLONASS||Yes, with A-GPS, GLONASS|
|USB||Micro USB 2.0, USB Host||Micro USB 2.0||Micro USB 2.0|
|Sensors||Accelerometer, proximity||Accelerometer, proximity, compass, ambient light||Accelerometer, proximity, ambient light, fingerprint|
|Battery||2800 mAh battery (Li-Ion)||3000 mAh battery||2800 mAh battery (Li-Ion)|
As you went over the table, you probably noticed a few items highlighted in purple. For me, these represent where the Thor outshines its direct competitors: the lighter weight, the extra RAM memory, the fingerprint sensor, and the more affordable price. The other highlights in bold/italic refer to the octa-core chip, the 13 MP camera, the Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screen, the micro SD card and the support for multiple LTE bands (more on why that is relevant later).
Once the order was placed, it took about eight days for the phone to arrive from Singapore. This is the part where you probably expect me to tell you how I’ve found the phone to be a complete disappointment. However, a week of intense use has revealed that the vernee Thor is perfectly suitable for the kind of applications I expect my phone to run without a hitch.
I’ve used it to take photographs and videos, listen to music in the car, browse the web, check out my social media profiles, and navigate my way through Scotland.
Design and build quality
The first thing that impressed me about the Thor is its design and build quality: it definitely looks much better than its price tag might suggest.
The Thor is also light but somehow doesn’t feel flimsy. vernee claims its frame is made from a titanium alloy which reduces the phone’s weight to just 140g. In order to keep costs down, the USB connector is a standard Type-B affair and the back panel is made of plastic.
Surprisingly, the back panel is also fully removable which means you can access the battery although a note engraved on the back asks users to avoid dismantling it. vernee says the phone features a modular design that should be easy to repair; so if you a passion for electronics and a set of appropriate tools, you can tinker with the various components on display below.
There are three touch buttons on the front mapped to the usual Android navigation keys (back, home and overview) while the power and volume controls are on the right side. I’ve found the keys to be responsive although the physical buttons do wobble a bit.
A pressure-based fingerprint sensor can also be found on the back – a very unexpected feature on a phone that costs less than £100. The only complaint I have is that the fingerprint recognition is very hit or miss (although I’m hoping this isn’t a hardware problem and will be fixed in a future software update).
The display appears bright even in direct sunlight and feels very responsive. The 720p resolution can be relatively low for a 5 inch display but I honestly don’t find it too troubling, especially after using an iPhone 5s for almost two years now.
Overall performance and battery life
If you’ve bought this phone hoping it could be gaming powerhouse, look away now.
Its graphics performance in GFXBench 4.0 only hits 2.9 fps in the 1080p Manhattan 3.1 offscreen test. I’ve also added the results from the 3DMark Sling Shot benchmark tests for reference.
However, for the more mundane applications, the octa-core MediaTek chipset delivers more than enough performance and is also easy on the battery. During my week-long trip to Scotland, applications such as Spotify, Chrome, Twitter, Yahoo Mail, NAVIGON, Maps, Skype or Google Fit ran with very few problems.
I’ve also noticed that the phone rarely tends to overheat when running multiple tasks at the same time. The Thor includes two graphite plates on each side of the main PCB in order to dissipate heat faster which seems to work pretty well most of the time.
When it came to the battery life, the most I could get was three days under normal to reduced usage but one day and a half should be the norm for most users. I’ve also ran a battery test using PCMark for Android to give you an idea of how the phone compares to other devices.
4G and GPS connectivity
I am a big fan of my Xiaomi phones but the biggest problem for non-Chinese customers is the severe limitation of available 4G bands for Snapdragon-powered devices that ship from China. Unfortunately this affects pretty much everyone in North America and Europe, even though the latest Snapdragon SoCs are more than capable of supporting all LTE frequencies in use today.
Luckily, the Thor does not include a Snapdragon SoC but instead features a chip from MediaTek: the MT6753. Marketed as a WorldMode LTE platform, the MediaTek MT6753 inside the Thor actually supports the full range of LTE bands listed on its product page compared to the Snapdragon-based phones that ship from China.
Since I am a Vodafone UK customer (and in the process of switching over to EE in the near future), it was very important that the three frequencies used by the main UK operators (800, 1800 and 2600 MHz, respectively) were fully supported. After swapping in different SIMs from Vodafone, iD Mobile and EE, I breathed a sigh of relief to see that 4G worked perfectly fine every time.
Another usual gripe with Chinese phones is the varying performance of the GPS chipset. I’ve actually used the Thor quite a lot as the go-to sat nav device for traveling around Scotland and noticed some minor issues with the GPS. These would occur in the first minute of starting NAVIGON but would soon disappear once the device locked in the satellite signal; after that, it was smooth sailing to my next destination.
In total, I covered about 1,300 miles in one week and experienced the loss of GPS signal only three times during my trip. Each time, the loss was only temporary and the phone quickly recovered after a few seconds.
The vernee Thor has a 13 MP camera but the sensor doesn’t really impress in any way. I wouldn’t recommend it for low light photography although in normal conditions some of the photos look passable at first glance.
Once you display the photos on a bigger screen, the lack of detail becomes apparent.
Camera samples from the vernee Thor
The camera UI also gives users the ability to capture photos in HDR mode. The effect it produces is relatively noticeable in certain conditions – you can find some samples below.
HDR enabled (left) vs. no HDR (right)
You should also manage your expectations when it comes to its video recording capabilities. There are no advanced features like image stabilization but the HD videos I’ve shot are good enough for viewing on the device and sharing with friends and family.
Software and user interface
The phone runs an almost unmodified version of Android 6.0 – which I like. Since it was released in May/June 2016, the Thor has received four OTA updates, bringing its security patch level to July 5th, 2016 (at the time of writing) and fixing several issues with the display and the sensitivity/stability of the range sensor.
One issue I experienced recently happened during the last update when the phone displayed an error message while trying to install the downloaded firmware. After searching for help on vernee’s forum, I discovered that the cache partition needed to be wiped. The procedure to do this is relatively straightforward but it involves rebooting the phone in recovery mode, navigating through the various options and choosing the right one.
I can understand how all of this might be very confusing/frightening for a regular consumer, so hopefully future updates will work out of the box.
At the end of the day, I asked myself a simple question:
Is this phone worth the £95 I spent on it? Absolutely yes!
If you’re wiling to accept the minor issues listed above, then there is absolutely no reason to spend £400-£600 for a smartphone when you can get the vernee Thor for much, much less.