India’s budget phone segment already looks to be quite crowded. With the likes of Xiaomi, Huawei and Oppo taking center stage, relatively unknown brands such as itel find it difficult to establish a foothold in the market. Though itel says that it is one of the largest sellers of feature phones in Africa, it was never a key player in India.
This might soon change. A recent report from CyberMedia Research (CMR) has said that itel Mobile has registered a 217 percent growth in India and is one of the few mobile brands to have a “strong upwards trajectory in 2017 despite market fluctuations”.
When I attended itel’s press briefing, it was quite clear that the company is now shifting most of its attention towards promoting its smartphones in the country. To that end, itel has launched 3 new smartphones, but the special emphasis has been put on the itel S42, which is the company’s flagship device. Priced at Rs 8,499, the device is only a flagship in relative terms. The device’s nearest competition, in my opinion, is the Redmi 5.
I had a chance to review the device (there is only one variant with 3 GB RAM + 16 GB storage), for a full 2 weeks and tried to find out what made the device tick. Redmi phones have proven themselves time and time again as the best choice for budget smartphones. Can the itel S42 match Redmi for the budget segment? Read on to find out.
Build and Design: 7.5/10
The phone is sturdily built and has plastic edges with rounded corners, which makes the phone comfortable to hold on to. The phone has a mostly metal back while the top and bottom parts are made of plastic. The metal part has circular patterns on it, which, in my opinion, sometimes make fingerprints look even more smudgy. In that respect it is not quite right to say that the phone is a fingerprint magnet, however, over prolonged usage, the phone will see a lot of fingerprints and it is very difficult to wipe them.
On the front, we see that itel has provided us with a full-screen display, so there is no space for a physical home button. The 3.5 mm headphone jack is present right on the top of the device while the micro USB 2.0 port and the dual speaker grill are present at the bottom. The power button and the volume controls are on the right side of the phone and on the other side is the slot to insert two SIM cards and a micro-SD card. Overall, the itel S42 feels like any other budget smartphone would feel in your hand, and the bezels surrounding the phone seem to be the right size to avoid any accidental touches.
Being only a budget smartphone, we cannot expect a ton of features in the device. However, itel has packed it quite decently enough. Out of the two speaker grills, only one works as a speaker and the second grill is there for the mic, quite like the iPhone.
Inside the device, we find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 SoC along with 3 GB of RAM and 16 GB of internal storage. This is the only variant in which itel offers the device. This storage can be expanded via a microSD card by up to 128 GB. The good thing here is that the phone does not have a hybrid SIM slot. itel instead, offers a dual-SIM + microSD card tray, which means that you can use both the SIM slots along with the microSD card at the same time.
Itel also seems to have put a lot of emphasis on the camera of the device. The front of the phone has a 13 MP sensor alongside a selfie flash and the back of the phone also has 13 MP camera with PDAF enabled.
In terms of connectivity, the phone had all the basic features check marked. There is support for 4G VoLTE on both the SIM slots, Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi 2.5/5 GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n, and GPS. The entire setup of the device is powered by 3,000 mAh battery.
The most important part of any device is the display and unfortunately, the itel S42 doesn’t provide the greatest of displays in the budget segment. While comparing the display to the Moto E4 Plus and the Redmi 5 by playing the same video on all three devices, I could tell quite clearly that the colours were quite muted on the S42. The screen’s top brightness also failed to impress me as I had squint a lot while using the phone in heavy sunlight.
However, as is the trend of 2017 and 2018, itel has provided an 18:9 aspect ratio FullView display on the S42. The 5.65-inch HD+ display has a resolution of 720x1440 pixels, which means that you can only view HD content on the phone, but that’s alright considering the phone’s price. It’s nearest competitor, the Redmi 5, also has the same screen size, the same 18:9 aspect ratio and the same HD+ resolution.
The phone has Android 8.0 out-of-the-box, which is always very nice to see. However, being one of the many people who prefer stock Android UI, seeing the phone’s custom UI has understandably left me disappointed. In my opinion, the smoothness of the stock Android is quite unmatched and the presence of an overlaying UI is usually detrimental to the phone’s performance.
The on-screen navigation buttons form a bar just above the bottom bezel. You can hide them with if you want to, however. There is also the option to switch between the itel navigation buttons and Google's navigation buttons.
The latest software update has provided the phone with the March security patch and one can only hope that itel provides timely software upgrades to its "flagship" device. The App drawer functions quite like on stock Android, and all Oreo features such as the PiP (Picture-in-picture) mode work on the device, albeit with a little lag. Overall, I would say that the UI is not too bad, but being a fan of the pure Android experience, I feel that more manufacturers should use it in their devices.
Itel has quite aggressively marketed the camera on the device and after taking a few photos with the phone and comparing it with the Redmi 5, I found that the former took slightly better photos in comparison. The 13 MP single rear camera has a flash sitting right below it and in bright and sunny conditions the photos look like they were taken on a mid-range phone. The colours are a bit oversaturated, but one can expect such things from a sub-Rs 10,000 device. Also, the phone tends to overexpose images at times during bright sunlight.
The selfies coming from the camera without the selfie flash were decent enough and also gave brighter and clearer selfies in low light as well. Also, with the selfie flash, the device captured some good selfies, and that too in very minimal lighting conditions. However, if selfies are what you are interested in, then Oppo and Vivo have better options for you.
The phone, in general, takes quick photos and also seems to have its autofocus working just fine. The camera gives more or less the correct light exposure while inside a dimly lit room in certain conditions, however, the results seem to be a bit inconsistent. Capturing photos on a brightly lit street at night produced decent photos. But as soon as the light dropped, the phone generated very noisy pictures and missed out on most of the detail.
The video camera on the phone appears not to be anything special. It can shoot videos in HD and for this price range, I obviously do not expect any OIS. The video appears to be slightly jerky and exposure calibration is an issue for videos as well. Even so, for a Rs 8,500 device, I feel the phone has done a decent job of photography, and for the most part, video as well.
A Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 SoC powers the itel S42 and this is the first time that itel has collaborated with Qualcomm for chipsets in its smartphones. While one cannot expect much from a Rs 8,499 smartphone, I was still disappointed not to see the inclusion of at least a Snapdragon 430, if not the Snapdragon 450 that is present on the Redmi 5.
The performance of the phone could be considered as average, to say the least. While I mostly didn’t experience any kind of lag on the device while browsing the internet or generally operating the phone’s UI, many heavy apps such as Facebook and Snapchat lagged quite a bit after using them for only 1-2 minutes. Other daily apps such as WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram functioned fine.
I tried out a few games on the itel S42, such as Modern Combat 5 and Asphalt 8 and found that at low graphics Asphalt 8 performed just fine while Modern Combat was too laggy. Bumping up the graphics caused the phone to hang a lot and sometimes caused unexpected shutdowns as well. While playing less graphics-intensive games like Fruit Ninja and Temple Run, I found that the phone performed decently.
One major issue I found was that of the 16 GB of storage that was offered, I saw only 8.7 GB free. Since itel does not offer any other variant of the device, you are effectively left with only that much internal storage for yourself. Granted you can always use a micro-SD card to bump up the storage, but I still feel that the phone should at least have 32 GB of internal memory to begin with if it is offering 3 GB of RAM.
The dual-speaker grill seems to be just about loud enough for me to hear it ringing from the far corner of my hall. The rear fingerprint scanner also seems to be quite fast and is accurate enough. A software upgrade has also bought the face unlock feature to the device, but that felt more like a gimmick than anything else as it took too long to respond and was not very reliable even when ample light was present.
Battery Life: 7/10
The battery seems to be the phone's saving grace. While running the PCMark Work 2.0 test for battery life, the itel S42 with its 3,000 mAh battery turned up with a battery life of 11 hours and 37 minutes, which can be considered pretty good considering the Redmi 5 managed 12 hours 18 min when we reviewed it.
However, in real-world usage, I felt that the phone’s battery was draining faster than what I had anticipated. I’m not quite sure if it is the phone’s UI or a software glitch, but the phone barely lasted me an entire day.
As a matter of fact, consuming mobile video content on 4G for around 30 minutes used up 15 percent of the capacity. This seems way too high.
Verdict and Pricing in India
The itel S42 is a phone that is built quite well, has a decent enough camera that is on par with certain mid-range smartphones and it can certainly appease selfie enthusiasts. However, the phone's lifeless display and dismal performance are enough of an excuse for ignoring the phone.
Do I think that the itel S42 is a good budget smartphone? In a way, yes. Do I think that the Rs 8,499 tag justifies it? I don’t think so. Considering that itel is primarily a feature phone player, I have to give credit to the company for bringing out a smartphone that can, for the most part, stand alongside major players like Xiaomi, Oppo and Honor. However, in my opinion, people will be more satisfied if they spend Rs 500 more and get the Redmi 5, which not only has a better processor but also has more storage and a good battery life.
On a side note, I would like to also add that while I was writing down this review, the Oppo Realme 1 had not arrived. Now having seen the that the device just costs about 500 bucks more than the itel S42, I would have to say that on paper the Realme 1 absolutely wipes the floor with the S42. I'll know for sure when we review the Realme 1.
The itel S42 will not be available via any online medium of sale, so if you wish to purchase the device you would need to visit itel’s partnered offline stores. Again, this makes Xiaomi and Oppo more favourable as you can have the device home delivered at your convenience. Why itel has not also opted for the online route still baffles me.