The MTN Smart S KaiOS phone.

Opinion post by
Hadlee Simons

KaiOS has quietly become a global powerhouse in the mobile industry, bridging the gap between feature phones and smartphones. The so-called smart feature platform is designed for phones with a physical keypad and more modest specs than even Android Go devices.

It’s actually the second-most popular mobile phone platform in India, largely due to the success of the JioPhone range. KaiOS has also since made its way to the Nokia 8110 4G, prepaid feature phones in North America, and now Africa via Orange and MTN handsets.

So how does a KaiOS phone hold up compared to an Android smartphone? I was given an MTN Smart S, which is a ~$17 KaiOS handset that’s just launched in Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and several other African markets. I decided to use it as my primary communication device (i.e. WhatsApp) for a week and some change. Here’s how it went.

About the MTN Smart S

The back of the MTN Smart S KaiOS phone.

Even for a KaiOS phone, the MTN Smart S core specs aren’t impressive on paper. You’ve got a dual-core 1.3Ghz UniSoc chipset (7731E) with 3G connectivity, a 2.4-inch non-touch display, 256MB of RAM, and 512MB of expandable storage. Clearly this isn’t in the same league as the 4G-toting JioPhone, with its 512MB of RAM and 4GB of expandable storage.

There are several other notable specs here though, such as a 2,000mAh battery, dual SIM slots, and a 1.2MP camera on either side of the device. Furthermore, we’ve also got Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi hotspot/tethering functionality, Bluetooth and GPS — not bad at all for the price.

Getting started with KaiOS

A look at KaiOS on the MTN Smart S feature phone.

Setting up KaiOS is pretty easy. You choose your desired system language, keyboard language, and sign up for a KaiOS account if you so wish (for device tracking). It’s a bit weird not having to sign in with your Google account after all this time, but I do hope the company offers the ability to save your device data to the cloud for easier setting up in the future.

Speaking of your Google account, you can actually import your contacts from your Google account via the Contacts app (contacts > options > settings > import contacts > Gmail). Signing in to retrieve your contacts also signs you into Google’s pre-installed apps — but more on these apps in a bit.

Once you’ve set up the device, you’re greeted by a rather spartan homescreen, complete with a garish MTN wallpaper (as if the branding on the rear and on the battery itself wasn’t enough). The homescreen is simple enough to understand, with the left direction key used to summon app shortcuts.

You might not be signing in with your Google account, but KaiOS does let you import your contacts.

System navigation from here is very simple too. Hitting the right direction key takes you to the camera, pressing up takes you to the quick toggle settings menu, and pressing the center key takes you to your app drawer. General navigation is also very intuitive, with the end/reject call key serving as your back button and the center key used to accept whatever is highlighted.

Related: Tame your Android notifications with these 5 tips and tricks

I quite like the quick toggle settings menu in particular (via the up direction key), which essentially apes quick toggles in a notification shade. This gives you easy access to mobile data, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, volume, and other controls. The smartphone flourishes also extend to the main settings menu, giving you plenty of options in several clear categories (e.g. privacy and security, personalization, network and connectivity). You’ve even got the ability to view and tweak permissions on a per-app basis.

KaiOS also offers a notification area (dubbed “notices” and accessible via the homescreen) that serves as your hub for text messages, missed calls, app notifications, and more. It’s a wise move, being a familiar feature for smartphone users and a basic introduction to smartphone-style notifications for newbies.

What I enjoyed

The fact that you’ve got all of these aforementioned smartphone-style features in what is essentially a ~$17 feature phone is really astounding. But there’s plenty more to like about KaiOS.

Probably the biggest reason to get this phone aside from the price tag is the fact that it offers WhatsApp, YouTube, Google Assistant, and Google Maps. WhatsApp in particular is a massive get for the platform, and likely means we’re looking at the cheapest way to get the messaging app on the African continent and other emerging markets. We’ll have more on this particular flavor of WhatsApp in the coming days, but it’s definitely the real deal.

Google’s trio of apps are also quite impressive, starting with YouTube. It’s pretty much a web app that gives you access to your home menu, subscriptions, playlists, and account information. There are several omissions though, such as the ability to download videos, adjust quality (understandable given the tiny display), and a dark mode. But I’ve been able to enjoy my music playlists just fine on here for the most part.

YouTube on the MTN Smart S, running KaiOS.

Maps is another Google app featured here and while it’s nowhere near as complex as the Android app, the core functionality is present. You can search (or voice search) for a destination, browse through predefined categories (e.g. restaurants, fuel stations etc), or simply view the map itself.

There are two major downsides to using Google Maps on KaiOS — the time it takes to get a lock on your location, and the inability to download maps to your microSD card. The former is really frustrating as it takes minutes rather than seconds to get a fix on your position. The latter is pretty disappointing too, especially in regions where mobile data remains prohibitively expensive.

Read: Google Assistant guide: Make the most of your virtual assistant

Probably the most impressive app available for KaiOS right now is Google Assistant, which supports mostly the same core Assistant commands as your Android phone or Google Home speaker. You can pose general trivia questions, send a text message, play desired content on YouTube, open the camera, and more with your voice.

Again, there are a few omissions with Assistant, such as the lack of major third party integration (no WhatsApp integration here), and the inability to toggle system settings. The app did a good job of recognizing my commands anyway, performing quickly enough via the phone’s 3G connection as it did on Wi-Fi. I’d much rather use Assistant on this phone than launch the browser and type in a search — it’s so much easier to use your voice.

Google Assistant on a KaiOS phone.

There are a few other nifty options I didn’t expect to see on the platform, such as Do Not Track functionality, OTA updates, the ability to clear memory from the power menu, USB storage functionality, and find my device capabilities. When taken together, it’s clear that KaiOS has some major potential.

MTN is promising between two and five days of battery life, although you’ll need to cut connectivity and turn down the brightness to reach anywhere close to that figure. I generally found myself getting roughly a day and a half of battery life for everyday usage (WhatsApp, music, and YouTube). I wouldn’t bank on it having much juice to spare after two or three days in your hiking backpack.

I have to constantly remind myself of the price tag when I complain about its numerous faults. And yes, it has some significant issues.

It’s still not a smartphone

Google Maps on KaiOS.

For all of its smartphone trappings, there are several omissions to remind you that you’re not quite using a smartphone after all. Probably the biggest casualty is multitasking, as it’s simply not present here. Okay, that’s not completely true, as you can listen to music while using other apps, but that’s about as far as it goes. That means no pausing a YouTube clip to respond to a message, then picking up where you left off — you’ll have to search for that clip from scratch. It also means no hopping between the browser and Facebook without both apps being reloaded into memory.

Another missing feature here is system-wide copy/paste functionality, as it seems like the onus is on individual developers to implement it within their apps. One example of copy/paste functionality on the platform is WhatsApp, but you can’t copy a WhatsApp message and paste it in your browser or on Twitter, for example.

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The web browser is another disappointment, even when compared to the likes of Opera Mini, as it lacks tabbed browsing, the ability to save pages for offline reading, and an ad blocker. At least the main settings menu allows you to change the search engine, clear your cookies and browsing history, and adjust Do Not Track functionality. It’s actually possible to actually use Instagram (including photo uploads and Story viewing) and Reddit via this browser. Just don’t expect Netflix playback to work.

The music and video players are very basic too and are a far cry from your smartphone’s pre-installed players. The music app, for example, doesn’t allow you to create playlists. Instead, you can only listen via artist, album, or just shuffle everything.

KaiOS lacks a good web browser, copy/paste functionality, and an easy way to side-load apps.

Another blemish for KaiOS right now is the fragmented app store situation, as it seems to allow manufacturers to replace the Kai Store with their own storefront. This means that an app available for India’s JioPhone might not be available on the MTN Smart S or any other KaiOS phone.

Perhaps the final major disappointment with the platform is the difficulty in side-loading apps. It’s nowhere near as easy as ticking a box in Android, as you’ll need to jailbreak the device or flash to the GerdaOS platform instead. Unfortunately, it seems like neither option actually applies to the MTN Smart S specifically.

One minor inconvenience is that fast-charging isn’t available on the phone or supported by the platform. I don’t mind it too much as I usually charged the phone overnight, but it could be a bigger issue if it’s your only phone or you’re in a hurry.

Reduced specs, and it shows

MTN Smart S KaiOS phone.

There’s really no other way to say this, but the combination of KaiOS and the host hardware has a couple of significant performance problems. I get the distinct impression that this is due to the core specs rather than KaiOS itself.

For starters, typing is an excruciating experience owing to the sheer lag. This is particularly apparent when typing in WhatsApp or the browser, as entering a text field and typing too quickly only results in numbers being entered. You literally have to wait a couple of seconds after entering a text field to make sure that the phone switches to letters.

I’ve even had messages disappearing from the text field in WhatsApp as I was composing them. This issue didn’t seem to happen outside the IM app, but it’s still immensely frustrating when it’s arguably the phone’s biggest selling point. Predictive text doesn’t help much either as it’s utterly unintuitive — autocorrect, this is not.

There is some hope though, as Google has previously announced that it’ll be bringing voice typing to KaiOS. If it works half as well as Google Assistant then it’ll be a major improvement over the keypad. Fingers crossed that it comes to all KaiOS phones.

Read: 10 best messenger apps and chat apps for Android

The lag issue extends to other areas too, such as going back to the homescreen, and using the web browser and Twitter app. Google’s apps are pretty smooth in comparison, as is scrolling through the app drawer and actually launching apps.

Then there are the frequent storage and RAM alerts, with both taking place since day one. These issues are to be expected for a phone with 256MB of RAM and 512MB of (expandable) storage. But storage alerts after installing one app, using the browser, and importing my contacts? That’s incredibly disappointing. The platform doesn’t let you shift application data to the microSD card either, which would’ve probably made a big difference. Adding insult to injury is a system update that broke the “application data” option in settings — any time I clicked the option and the settings menu froze in place until I hit back a few times.

RAM notifications are almost as annoying, mainly occurring when using the rudimentary web browser. You won’t be browsing for very long until the app simply shuts down as modern mobile webpages seem to be too much work for the phone.

Who is it for?

The MTN Smart S KaiOS phone, showing the home screen.

The MTN Smart S is definitely one of the more frustrating phones I’ve ever used, smartphone or otherwise. Between the excruciatingly slow typing experience, disappearing messages in WhatsApp, and frequent RAM/storage alerts, even feature phones feel like a faster, more pleasant experience. I was initially waiting for this phone to launch as I wanted one for an elderly relative, but I’m honestly glad I got the Nokia 105 instead.

Then again, the Nokia 105 and other feature phones don’t have Wi-Fi, Google apps, and WhatsApp. With feature-phones in the market coming in at ~$10 to ~$14 (150 to 200 rand here in South Africa), and the cheapest smartphone starting at around $28, the ~$17 KaiOS device sits squarely in-between the two categories.

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More affluent readers might ask why consumers wouldn’t just add $10 extra to get a smartphone. The truth is that there are scores of feature phone-toting consumers in emerging markets that simply can’t afford $10 more. In markets where $10 extra can mean the difference between eating for the week and not, a $17 phone with WhatsApp and other smart features might be a game-changer. As woefully compromised as it is in terms of specs, there’s really nothing like it in many markets.

The price, which is closer to feature phones, also means that those on the hunt for a burner phone have a much more capable option at their disposal. Just prepare for a barrage of storage/RAM alerts and a particularly painful typing experience.

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