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A Review Of The Entry-Level Safaricom Neon Android Smartphone

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.28.35 PMThe latest numbers from the Communications Authority indicate that mobile penetration hit 82.6% in Kenya which translates into 33.6 million mobile subscribers – thats a lot! However, the majority of mobile subsribers in Kenya tend to use inexpensive feature phones that sell for less than Kes. 2,000.00 and typically have limited if any kind of meaningful Internet access. It is for this reason that Safaricom’s entry-level and Android-powered Neon smartphone make loads of sense for first-timers coming from feature phones.

The Safaricom Neon retails for Kes. 4,999.00 which in the world of entry-level Android smartphones makes it more or less average when you can buy some for as little as Kes. 4,000.00 or US$ 50.00 – we live in interesting times! The Safaricom Neon is actually the Vodafone 685 which in turn is manufactured by the mobile OEM Alcatel One Touch. At first glance, the first thing that grabs you about the phone is how small it is! It sports a 3.5 Inch screen which means that its dwarfed by the many larger smartphones these days that are trending towards a standard 5 inch screen.

It makes sense that Safaricom came out with its own branded entry-level smartphone in the Neon in that they see a jump of 182% in Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) when a user moves from a feature phone to a smartphone. This is largely due to the fact that the average Internet data usage on a smartphone via the Safaricom network stands at around 40MB per day so clearly even if voice and SMS revenues are showing signs of maturity data-hungry mobile apps like WhatsApp are clearly making up for the difference.

I have used the Safaricom Neon smartphone for about a month and it has been a pleasant if sometimes frustrating experience. Therefore, below is my review of the same:

Specifications

  • 3.5 inch HVGA 320 x 480 pixels & TFT 262K color screen
  • 2MP back facing camera
  • 480 x 640 pixels video capture @ 15 fps
  • Internal Memory 4GB EMMC + 512MB RAM
  • End user memory 1.9GB
  • MicroSD (up to 32GB)
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • Dual Core 1 GHz Processor 
  • 1400mAh Battery

Pros

  • Great battery life
  • Small but very usable (e.g. easy to tap on even with big fingers) which means its unobtrusive
  • Small high quality screen even if not HD quality
  • Fully capable even though entry-level
  • Once Micro SD card installed handles loads of content like music, photos, etc
  • Runs on Android 4.4 KitKat which is impressive!
  • Is 3G capable whilst many other comparable entry-level Android Smartphones can only do EDGE
  • Great HotSpot for WIFI connectivity

Cons

  • Unresponsive when running multiple apps
  • Relatively pricey given that that there are cheaper smartphones in the market with more feature(?)
  • Would not install data-intensive mobile apps like Instagram, Uber and Easy Taxi
  • Pictures and videos taken were of low quality and lacks a flash
  • Single SIM and NOT Dual SIM

Design

2015-04-06 15.52.39The overall design of the Safaricom Neon is decent? It has a plasticky feel that is reminiscent of the Huawei Ideos that was a big hit for Safaricom a few years ago. It definitely does NOT feel like a high-end device but still does feel like a capable entry-level smartphone.

One thing that I found pleasantly surprising is how small it is to the extent that it seemed to get out of the way? This was really cool in a world where the majority of smartphones are now becoming a standard 5 inch size and are too hard to ignore or forget whether you are using them or they are in your pocket(s). I would sometimes forget that I even had the Safaricom Neon until it buzzed in my pocket.

It really harkens back to the early days of smartphones when a 3.5 inch screen was the norm and not the exception! However, it would have been nice if it had a more premium feel to it.

Features

There is nothing really extraordinary about the Safaricom Neon when it comes to the features department. It is a standard run-of-the-mill entry-level smartphone. It comes with a single SIM slot which is somewhat disappointing given that comparable Dual SIM smartphones from a budgetary perspective can be had for the same price, if not less.

One thing I did notice is that Safaricom took the liberty of pre-installing their own mobile apps on the Neon? These included the Safaricom App Store, M-Ledger, Safaricom Daily Nation, MyTunes, etc. I am not a fan of pre-installed mobile apps from the mobile network or mobile device manufacturer as I believe a pure phone is always best.

You get the usual headphones, charger, etc that come of the box. There were no flip covers or other extras included in the box so this was a kawaida (normal) sort of entry-level smartphone – no pun intended.

Performance

2015-04-06 16.01.26The performance of the Safaricom Neon was at times surprisingly good and at others disappointing? Starting with the good news, I was able to install the majority of my typical mobile apps such as DropBox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. I am something of a power user when it comes to smartphones so having all of my essential mobile apps on such an entry-level device was really cool given that it runs Android 4.4 KitKat. However, it could not seem to run mobile apps like Uber and Easy Taxi which I actually use on a daily basis! This was disappointing but not entirely surprising? Given the entry-level credentials of this device, I knew it would not all be smooth sailing.

In terms of a disappointing performance, I did notice that once you had a good number of mobile apps running concurrently the Safaricom Neon became unresponsive! It would be really slow in terms of scrolling through app screens or swapping between apps. If you were streaming YouTube you would notice the video freezing even as the audio came through. Again, these issues were not entirely unexpected but certainly irritating when they did happen. It was also essential to install a Micro SD card given that there is limited memory available for content like music, photos, etc.

Display

The 3.5 inch screen on the Safaricom Neon was surprising sharp and crisp, even though this was no where near HD or AMOLED quality. It was really good and I found myself impressed with the quality. I also noticed that typing on such a small screen was actually OK most of the time once you got the hang of it? It was certainly a lot better than the last 3.5 inch screen smartphone I used which happens to be the Huawei Ideos a few years back. Clearly, over time, the technology has improved massively on all fronts!

Camera

IMG_20150406_155020The camera on the Safaricom Neon is only 2 megapixels which in this day an age is really really inadequate even if it is capable? I too a few photos of which I have shared a good one here and whilst they are decent I would expect an entry-level device like this one to have anywhere from 3 to 5 megapixels. The camera also lacked a flash so it was only good for scenarios where the lighting was good.

Another big downside for me was also the fact that I could not install Instagram? I live, eat, and breath Instagram so this will not go down well – especially with the younger demographics (READ: Millenials) in Kenya who are HUGE Instagram aficionados.

However, if one is looking at how bad cameras tend to be on feature phones, this would be like night and day if your upgrading from one to the Safaricom Neon – not to mention all the additional controls that come with an Android smartphone camera.

Battery

The battery on the Safaricom Neon worked really well for me. I noticed that if I used the Internet sporadically, I could go for days (yes, DAYS!) without a recharge. Basically, the Safaricom Neon was a beast (albeit, a small one) when it came to the battery department in a day and age when most high(er)-end smartphones require charging at least once a day, if not more, depending on how you use them. For sure, a smaller screen with fewer pixels to drive pays dividends when your using the 1400mAh battery on Safaricom Neon.

Bottomline

Whichever way you look at it, the Safaricom Neon is incredibly good value for money and a highly capable Android smartphone for either first time smartphone users (i.e. feature phone upgraders) or other users who want a decent second smartphone. For me, a major downside was the inability to install key mobile apps like Instagram, Uber and Easy Taxi which I actually use on a regular basis.

I also found the performance somewhat lacking in terms of being able to really power through the the things I needed to do without waiting for screens to change or closing apps to use only one app for optimum performance. As mentioned before in this post, I am a smartphone power user so the Safaricom Neon would never satisfy someone like me completely. However, that being said, I would say it would suffice for the average user quite well and for this reason I give it a solid 7/10 rating!

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8 Comments

  1. Caleb Kaminju
    May 22, 2015 at 6:57 pm — Reply

    Bought this phone last week and I’m surprised it does not support Instagram yet it’s running on Android. I&M Bank Mobile phone application also refused to install. Can’t complain much though, the gadget is ultra-cheap.

  2. June 4, 2015 at 7:39 am — Reply

    The tab is fairly cheap and best for first-time tab users, children, or anyone who needs a bigger screen for reading. Check out a review of the tab here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zBGzhS__6o

  3. June 21, 2015 at 7:49 am — Reply

    Bought it yesterday. Hope it supports whatsapp

  4. benelux
    December 3, 2015 at 6:20 pm — Reply

    i wonder why you say instagram isnt supported in neon yet i enjoy it every day,

    • December 19, 2015 at 4:36 pm — Reply

      @benelux that was not the case when I did my review.

  5. Daniel Ngugi Kamau
    July 2, 2016 at 11:34 am — Reply

    Bought this phone this week.it’s good except battery is draining power too quickly.or am i doing something wrong? good phone though

    • July 2, 2016 at 11:43 am — Reply

      @daniel which apps are you running? Is the phone always online? Those could be factors.

  6. paul
    March 15, 2017 at 4:37 pm — Reply

    I am surprised i can’t even delete the contacts that have been saved in the phone book,what you can delete is the call log

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