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Once upon a time, the UK market was dominated by own-brand devices from the major networks. However, over the past decade, these devices faded out to become nothing more than bit-part players in the low end market. However, the market is changing and the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 could herald a new era of smart, disruptive own-brand smartphones where carriers put their names on smartphones that are made by third-party companies you’ve most likely never heard of.

The Smart Ultra 6 doesn’t really fit this as it’s made by ZTE, a Chinese manufacturer who certainly knows how to make smartphones. While the design isn’t the most revolutionary, it’s the specs list and price tag where the Smart Ultra 6 could be this year’s biggest challengers to the mid-range market.

Just how good is this handset though and should other companies be worried? Let’s take a closer look in my hands-on first impressions.

Design

The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 looks like it “borrowed” its design from Apple’s phablet, the iPhone 6 Plus. There’s no removable back cover or battery and the edges are rounded in a way that certainly reminds you of the large iPhone. The key problem with the Smart Ultra 6 design however, is that it’s free of any design inspiration whatsoever. It is a grey slab that – although it is powerful – is just another grey slab and some of the design decisions are peculiar at best.
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On the back is a metallic plastic that stands no chance of ever passing off as metal and despite being a unibody, Vodafone and ZTE have strangely added contours to replicate the seam found on non-unibody devices.

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Bizarre it certainly is but it’s the worst part of the phone as ZTE – who clearly know how to make mobile devices – have delivered a handset that is functional and solid. It’s made from plastic, feels solid in the hand and doesn’t flex or creak. Given the handset’s price tag, the fact it doesn’t appear to have any structural problems is certainly impressive.

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On the right of the Smart Ultra 6, there’s the volume and power keys along with the micro SIM card tray. The volume buttons themselves are a slightly different colour to the back cover, provide ample feedback and are easy enough to find without looking at the phone.

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On the back, the Smart Ultra 6 has a 13MP camera and single-LED flash in the top left corner, a Vodafone logo in the middle and an external speaker in the lower-right edge which supposedly offers impressive audio playback (something we will definitely be testing). The camera comes with autofocus and Full HD 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second while the 5MP front camera supports HD video as well.

The Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 looks a bit boring, there’s no denying, but as we mentioned, it’s not entering a beauty pageant. The key consideration has been to ensure the handset remains affordable and Vodafone and ZTE have certainly achieved this.

Specs & price

This is where the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 stands out from the rest of the handsets at this price point; it currently costs just £125 (approx. $197) free of any contract and has specs that will rival smartphones costing more than double the price tag.

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The Smart Ultra 6 is a rebrand of the ZTE Blade S6 and Blade S6 Plus with a few changes, the main one being an upgrade of the display to Full HD from 720p on ZTE’s devices. The front of the Smart Ultra 6 has a 5.5 inch Full HD 1080p screen that offers 401 pixels per inch density. From first glance, the handset has impressive viewing angles and offers deep blacks with vibrant colours. The display is topped with toughened glass and while it’s certainly not as durable as Gorilla Glass 3, it should still be durable enough for daily usage.

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The bezels all around the screen makes this handset pretty difficult to use in one hand and while Vodafone could have tightened the profile up with smaller bezels, this would have undoubtedly increased the price of the handset; good design doesn’t come cheap and this goes against the philosophy of the Smart Ultra 6. Despite the large bezels, the Smart Ultra 6 still boasts an impressive screen-to-body ratio of 70.3 percent, which is larger than the iPhone 6 Plus.

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Beneath the display, the Smart Ultra 6 features three capacity on-screen keys (Back, Home and Recent Apps) and these all light up blue which looks a little disjointed. However, the home button lights up, letting you know when there’s an unread notification for you to check, which will definitely come in handy.

Smart Ultra 6 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor with four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.5GHz and four more clocked at 1.0GHz. It’s accompanied by 2GB RAM with 16GB internal storage, which can be expanded by up to 64GB using a microSD card.

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Other notable specs of the Smart Ultra 6 include a 3000mAh non-removable battery, Wi-Fi n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and FM Radio. The handset runs on Android 5.1 Lollipop and from first glance, it appears that Vodafone’s ROM only adds a few preloaded applications – which can be disabled or uninstalled – to an otherwise stock-like experience.

First impressions

Yes, the Smart Ultra 6 is dull and not likely to win any design awards or make your friends jealous. At least, not until you tell them about just how much it costs. At a price of £125 ($197), the Smart Ultra 6 is significantly cheaper than anything else offering the same specs and while the design isn’t inspiring, the whole experience certainly will.

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If you don’t mind being on Vodafone (or paying an small additional fee to unlock the handset, either through Vodafone or third-party services) and need a phone that will do everything you want it to, my first instinct is to recommend the Smart Ultra 6. Naturally, using a phone for a few minutes isn’t enough to provide a solid recommendation so you’ll need to wait for the full review for that but this is one smartphone that others should stand up and take notice of.

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While manufacturers often design with the bottom line of price and profit in mind, it seems that Vodafone is making virtually nothing on this handset, which provides reassurance that you can get value for money. If you need a powerful, impressive handset to replace your existing broken or mislaid device, the Smart Ultra 6 will certainly tick every box and the price is low enough to appeal to all users.

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We’ll leave you with a hands on gallery:

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