A lot of people aren’t willing or able to drop $600 on a smartphone. But the budget end of the market is improving so fast, they really don’t need to just to get a decent device.
Mlais is a Chinese manufacturer offering impressive sets of specs in relatively attractive phones for a fraction of the price competitors charge. A case in point is the Mlais M52 Red Note, which costs as little as $150. It’s not perfect, but it runs Android 5.0 Lollipop, the build quality is decent, the phone is fast, and the camera is pretty good.
If you can find all of this in a package at this price elsewhere, we want to hear about it.
It’s not ugly
With phones in this price bracket, we’re used to seeing designs that, to put it kindly, don’t fill you with desire. It may not sound like an auspicious start, but it’s something of a relief that the Mlais M52 Red Note isn’t ugly. It’s no Galaxy S6 Edge, but it’s fairly slim at 9.1mm, the bezels around the 5.5-inch screen aren’t huge, and the glossy plastic back feels and looks okay. There’s a power button on the right spine and a volume rocker on the left, both with a shiny, metallic finish.
Flip over to the back and there’s a shiny metallic frame around the central camera, with a big speaker grille at the bottom, just below the Mlais logo. You’ll find the microUSB and 3.5mm headphone ports on the top edge.
It’s a large phone, just on the border of phablet territory, and you’ll need big hands for comfortable one-handed operation.
There’s a wee groove at the bottom corner to help you remove the back cover; Mlais includes two alternatives in the box. I got a choice of white, pink, or blue. Inside you’ll find two SIM card slots. Unusually, there’s one for a regular-sized SIM, and one for a microSIM. There’s also a microSD card slot that allows expansion by up to another 32GB.
The touch-sensitive hardware buttons below the screen are a little odd. They light up in pink when you touch them, and it’s not a classy look. There’s a square icon for home in the center, back is on the right, and then there’s a menu button on the left.
If you want to get to your recent apps list, then you have to hold down the home button. Even with the Android 5.0 Lollipop update, the left button is still for “menu” rather than “recent apps.” Hopefully, that’s something that will change in a future update, because it’s irritating and it makes the button virtually useless.
Thankfully, there is an LED this time around, something we missed on the Mlais M9, and you can even choose the color you want for notifications, calls, and messages.
One last unfortunate thing to mention on the design is the cheesy 4G printed in silver at the top right above the screen. Why? Only Mlais can tell you.
Things get even better when you turn it on
The first real compromise I encountered with the Mlais M52 Red Note was the display. It’s a 5.5-inch LCD with a resolution of 1,280 × 720 pixels. If you’re coming from a 1080p display, then you will notice the difference, but it’s actually a very good display. The colors are vibrant, it’s bright, and the viewing angles are good. Whether you’re gaming, reading, or just swiping around, the display won’t disappoint. It’s above average for a phone at this price.
At $150, the Mlais M52 Red Note really challenges the old adage that you get what you pay for.
One of the most impressive things about the Mlais M52 Red Note on paper is the specs. The MediaTek processor is an octa-core MTK6752, clocked at 1.7GHz. It has been paired with a mali-T760 GPU, and there’s 2GB of RAM. Ignore the names and concentrate on this fact: This phone is fast and smooth.
I tried a variety of demanding games and the M52 handled everything graciously. Modern Combat 5 and Asphalt 8 both ran without a hint of stutter and looked gorgeous. The 720p display probably helps here, as it requires less processing power than a higher resolution would.
Checking out the benchmarks, the M52 got a multi-core score of 4,101 the first time I ran Geekbench 3, and 3,944 when I ran it again. That compares well to the LG G Flex2, for example, which scored 4,190 and then 4,065.
Running 3D Mark’s Ice Storm Unlimited, the M52 racked up a respectable 10,671, which is way behind the G Flex2’s 23,280 score, but way ahead of the more expensive ZTE Grand X Max+ — that phone only just managed to creep over 4,000.
General navigation is mostly buttery smooth. You can switch between apps and swipe around at speed without issue. I encountered some slight lag after updating to Android 5.0, but it seemed to settle down after a couple of hours. The only concern is that it does get hot at times. All smartphones heat up a bit under strain, but there were a couple of occasions when the M52 felt very hot to me.
Related: Android 5.0 Lollipop tips
At one point it actually flashed up an alarming message on screen telling me to pull the battery out. I was simultaneously downloading a game and trying to play Modern Combat 5, and it all proved too much. The odd thing was that the phone actually didn’t feel hot. I turned it off, removed the battery, put it back in, and turned it on again; there were no repeat issues. This was shortly after the Android 5.0 update, and there are obviously some bugs to work out.
A light touch for Lollipop
The M52 was running Android 4.4 KitKat when I received it, but the Android 5.0 Lollipop update was quickly piped to the phone over the air. It took a while to update, and I feared the phone was dead when it wouldn’t switch on afterwards, but a battery pull and a bit of fiddling brought it back.
Mlais has exercised a very light touch here: This is almost stock Android 5.0. The only difference between it and a Nexus device is a couple of extra entries in the menu.
You’ll find a gestures menu, for example, offering familiar things like double tap to wake but also letting you draw letters on the screen when it’s off, to launch specific apps. The fact that it’s configurable is great, and it mostly seems to work well, bringing the screen to life and auto-launching your specified app when you draw the right letter. Some work more reliably than others, and there’s a pause before it works, long enough to tempt you to repeat the gesture. I also suspect this gimmick is a bit of a battery drain.
The only other addition in the menu is an option to schedule a power on and off time. You can actually have the Mlais M52 Red Note turn itself completely off and on at set times. I’m not sure many people will want to do that, but it’s nice to have the option, and it does work.
Every app I tried before the Android 5.0 update worked perfectly, but afterwards I found that YouTube crashes when you try to play a video. Camera performance went downhill as well, particularly when the light isn’t perfect, as has battery life, but I’ll get to that in more detail in a minute.
Mlais promised a new update within a week to deal with the bugs, and while it hadn’t arrived when I turned this review in, I’m inclined to give the company some leeway. My Nexus 7 had all sorts of bugs when it first updated to Android 5.0 – lots of phones did, in fact, leaving many to question the quality of Google’s initial build. I suspect Mlais joined many phone makers in rushing to get Android 5.0 out. But it’s so close to stock that I don’t think it will take them long to sort these issues out.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Mlais M52 Red Note comes with the bare minimum of apps: There was just one page in the app drawer when I opened it. You won’t even find Google’s apps here by default, though I had no problem installing them, and the Play Store is present and works fine of course.
The camera is variable
Most of my experiences with the camera have been good. It’s rated at 13 megapixels, but it actually takes better pictures if you set it to 8 megapixels. I found it very good at close-ups, capable of capturing fine details and producing reasonably accurate colors.
It does seem a little worse after the Android 5.0 update, however, meaning there’s likely room for the company to do some optimizing work. In particular, low-light performance is shockingly bad. Noise creeps in straight away in anything less than bright conditions. The camera can’t really handle movement either, so be sure to turn anti-shake on in the menu. You’ll still find that any movement while shooting results in blurring. Still, in perfect conditions you can capture some great shots.
There are plenty of camera modes, including standards like panorama but also neat novelties such as face-beauty mode, motion tracking, picture-in-picture, and live photo mode. The camera app also offers a lot of options you can dig into, if you’re so inclined. The front-facing camera is rated at 8 megapixels and seems more than adequate for decent selfies.
Video is a definite weakness. The action looks choppy, it’s very slow to deal with changes in light, and the overall quality is flat-out poor.
Battery life is a weak spot
The Mlais M52 Red Note has a 3,200mAh battery. I found that standby is very good, but there were times when it drained quite quickly and I couldn’t really pinpoint the cause.
If you can find all of this at this price elsewhere, we want to hear about it.
After 15 minutes of web browsing with brightness up high the battery drained 7 percent. A quick 10-minute blast of Clash of Clans drained the battery by 6 percent, and I got the same result after 10 minutes of Modern Combat 5. Left on standby overnight it drained only 3 percent.
The M52 should see you through an average day with some charge, and that’s going to be enough for most people, but I have concerns about the variability of its performance.
Sound, GPS, and calls
The speaker is on the back, and the audio quality is tinny and unpleasant. But if you plug headphones in you’ll have no complaints, and an FM radio app is one of the few pre-installed options.
I found the GPS was fast to get a lock and, after installing Google Maps, the navigation support was fine. GPS can be a weak spot for budget phones, so this was a pleasing discovery.
The volume and clarity for calls is fine, and I had no problems getting a signal. This does say 4G on the front – in big, shiny letters — but the phone uses the 800/1,800/2,100/2,600 MHz bands for LTE. Check with your carrier to see what bands it supports: You may end up on the slower HSPA+ 3G rather than fast LTE.
We were quite impressed with the Mlais M9 at $110, but the M52 Red Note blows it out of the water, and only costs an extra $40. We have to mention the same caveats we noted with the M9, of course – you’ll have to buy the M52 Red Note online from a retailer like Geekbuying or GearBest, and if you do run into issues, there’s no support line to call.
Any interested bargain shoppers should weigh in their own minds our concerns about the variable battery life, camera performance, and poor speaker against the fact that this is a fast phone, with a big display, running Android 5.0 Lollipop.
Related: Mlais M9 review
Yet at $150, the Mlais M52 Red Note really challenges the old adage that you get what you pay for. It’s head and shoulders above the budget crowd. If cash is tight, you should give it some serious thought.
- It costs just $150
- Android 5.0 Lollipop
- Fast performance
- Decent camera
- No bloatware
- Speaker is poor
- 720p resolution
- Occasional lag
- Aftercare concerns