Until now smaller Chinese OEMs have concentrated on shipping 3G smartphones and there has been a dearth of 4G LTE phones. Thankfully that is now changing and companies like ZTE, Zopo and ThL are starting to ship low- and mid-range devices with built-in 4G LTE. A ThL L969 arrived on my desk a few days ago and I have been testing it to see how a sub $140 4G device performs.
The L969 is primarily about its support for 4G and the rest is about price. At one fifth of the price of a flagship device from Samsung, Sony or LG, the ThL L969 intentionally offers a low- to mid-range feature set. So there is no HD display, no NFC and a low-end camera. But what you do get is a reasonable processor package, a great battery, 3G and 4G connectivity, and room for expansion with an SD card slot that supports up to 64GB.
|Display||5 inch, IPS, 854 x 480 (WVGA)|
|Processor||1.3GHz, quad-core Mediatek MT6582, Cortex-A7|
|Storage||8GB, microSD card slot, up to 64GB|
|Camera||5 Megapixel Rear Camera, VGA Front Camera|
|Connectivity||GPS, microUSB 2.0, Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth|
|Networks||GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz. 3G 850/1900/2100MHz. 4G LTE 1800/2600MHz.|
|Software||Android 4.4 with Google Play|
|Dimensions||145 x 72 x 9 mm. 164 grams|
|SIM slots||1x Normal SIM|
The L969 is roughly the same size as other 5 inch devices from ThL (e.g. the ThL 5000, and the ThL W200s). It is easy to hold and probably on the limit of what you could comfortable get in your pocket. Available in black or white, the latter has a metal colored band around the edge, while the darker version keeps the band the same color as the surrounding plastic. The back cover uses a dimpled plastic that provides extra grip, while not attracting fingerprints.
Around the edges are the various buttons and ports. On the very top edge is the micro USB port (used for charging and data transfer) along with the headphone jack. All the controls are on the right, first comes the volume rocker and below that the power button. This means that if you hold the phone in your left hand it is very easy to reach the buttons with your fingers.
On the back of the phone is the camera housing and an LED flash. The camera protrudes slightly from the back of the phone which means that it can wobble a little if you are trying to type with it on a flat surface.
The specs say that the device is 9mm thick, but according to my crude measurements it is more like 10mm, even 11mm if you include the protruding camera. Having said that, the device doesn’t feel thick or bulky in the hand or to look at.
The display on the L969 is mediocre at best, mainly due to its low resolution, but it is still very usable. It also has good viewing angles since the screen uses IPS. The display is flanked by reasonably sized bezels, at about 4mm each. While above the display is the space for the earpiece, camera and proximity detectors; and below the L969 sports three capacitive buttons.
The L969 isn’t a processing powerhouse, however the processor does an admirable job of providing a fluid and responsive experience. The quad-core Cortex-A7 based processor is coupled with an ARM Mali-400 GPU, which could be seen as the very minimum for a smartphone, and due to the smaller screen resolution the GPU is more than sufficient.
The L969 AnTuTu scores are respectable considering the processor and the price point. Antutu v5.0 gives the device a score of 18991 which means the device is comparable to the Nexus 4 and the Moto G. For Epic Citadel, the demo app for the Unreal 3D engine, the L969 managed 58.7 frames per second (fps) on the High Performance setting.
In terms of GPS performance the L969 is good. I stepped outside, activated the GPS and although the initial lock takes around a minute, subsequent locks are quicker. I took the device for a short trip in my car and it managed to maintain a GPS lock at all times, including in built up areas.
One of the problems with some previous ThL phones which I have reviewed was that the GPS and Bluetooth didn’t get along with each other. Separately they worked fine, but as soon as an app used the location services the Bluetooth output began to stutter and lag. Thankfully the L969 doesn’t suffer from this problem at all.
However it does have a different problem. If you are streaming music to a Bluetooth speaker everything works fine, including the Wi-Fi. However the moment you start using the GPS subsystem (via say Google Maps) the Wi-Fi stops working. This only happens if you are using a Bluetooth device. As soon as you stop streaming music to the Bluetooth device the Wi-Fi starts working again. You can use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi together, you can use the GPS and the Bluetooth together, but you can’t use Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi together, go figure!
I tried the same test with Bluetooth, GPS and 4G (with Wi-Fi off) and everything worked fine. This means the practical limitations of this weird bug are probably quite limited. In other words, using a Bluetooth device while using Google Maps (with a 4G data connection) in your car should work fine.
Probably the strongest individual component in the ThL L969 is its battery. At 2700mAh, the battery is performs very well. When running Epic Citadel, in its Guided Tour mode, the device lasts just under 4.5 hours before it runs out of juice. For YouTube streaming (over Wi-Fi) the device does a even better and can handle almost 10 hours on one charge. Watching an MP4 movie from the internal storage yields around 16 hours of viewing pleasure. All the tests were carried out with the screen on half brightness, syncing enabled and Wi-Fi on.
The ThL L969 is a single SIM device and supports 3G on 850/1900/2100MHz and 4G on 1800/2600MHz. Each 4G provider around the world uses one of the pre-defined frequency bands. In my country my carrier uses 1800MHz, so the L969 worked with 4G without any problems. The speed tests I performed confirmed much higher throughput than those I get on 3G. 1800 and 2600MHz are very popular ranges used in many parts of Africa, some but not all parts of Central and South America and large parts of Asia. In Europe you are pretty much guaranteed to find at least one carrier that offers 4G-LTE on one of those two frequencies. Unfortunately none of the North American carriers use these frequencies. Before buying the phone you should check with your carrier to ensure compatibility, or if you trust Wikipedia then it has a global list of LTE networks.
This device is compatible with three 3G frequencies. 2100MHz is the most common 3G frequency and should work in most places around the world, however a lot of carriers also use secondary 3G spectrum ranges. In Asia and South America this is often 850MHz and 1900MHz, but in Europe it tends to be 900MHz. In the USA a couple of providers use 850MHz and 1900MHz, however most use 1700MHz in combination with a second band. I have not tested this device in the USA, so I can’t confirm if it will work with any particular carrier. However 2G calls should work fine. You need to check with your carrier to ensure compatibility or check the List of UMTS networks page.
I compared the Wi-Fi signals strengths of the L969 with other devices I have and it performed equally as well. I was able to access the Internet from all around the house and outside without any problems.
If the battery was the strongest individual component in the L969 then the camera is probably the weakest. That isn’t to say that the camera is bad, but it is certainly at the low-end of what consumers expect from a smartphone. At 5MP the pictures won’t be winning any prizes, however for the occasional quick shot when you don’t have another camera, it will suffice. Because the phone runs Android 4.4 KitKat I was able to use Google’s camera app. The best thing to do is to look at the pictures below and decide for yourself.
The L969 comes with stock Android 4.4.2 with a few minor tweaks: there is an additional control in the Battery section of the Settings called “Standby intelligent power saver”, and there is also a section in the settings to enable the “Multitasking Window”, a little “always on-top” menu which gives you quick access to a few miniature apps including a notepad and a music player.
The Security section also features an Apps permission setting. When enabled you can control which apps have permission to make calls, send SMS message, get your location and so on. Once enabled the default permission is for each app to ask before using a restricted service.
The built-in launcher is ‘Launcher 3’ from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and not the Google Experience Launcher from devices like the Nexus 5. What that basically means is that you can’t swipe left to launch Google Now. This build of ‘Launcher 3’ also has some ThL custom icons. One minor point is that all the icon backgrounds are squares with curved edges. This means that if you install an app with a transparent background then it gets placed on a colored square. Look at the Google camera and GPS Test icons in the screenshot below.
The device comes with full Google Play support and all of the normal Google apps are available. For those Google apps not pre-installed, a quick trip to the Play Store gets you everything you need. There were a few bloatware apps that came pre-installed including the Baidu Browser and a couple of third party app stores. However these were easy enough to uninstall.
The 8GB of internal storage is probably a bit limiting and seems to be divided up in a less than optimal way. There is 2GB of internal storage (used mainly for apps and 4.5GB of phone storage (for your media). However you can use an SD card (up to 64GB) and set the memory card to be the default write location for the device.
If you are looking for a cheap way to get a 4G phone then it is worth considering the ThL L969. To keep the prices down the display and the camera aren’t amazing, however the battery is great and the 4G worked out-of-the-box. Considering the price point its advantages easily outweigh its disadvantages.