It's hard to zero in on an affordable yet satisfying unlocked Android smartphone. Other than the $299 LG Nexus 4 or pricey $569.99 Sony Xperia Z, there aren't a lot of viable options, at least in the U.S. market.
Enter the $229 Life Play from Miami-based handset maker Blu Products. Not only does it flaunt a sexy ultrathin design, it boasts Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and takes snappy pictures. It's a valiant attempt but unfortunately its faults, namely a sluggish CPU and a cramped allotment of internal storage, make it tough to recommend. Sure, the Life Play is surprisingly capable for its low price of entry, but you'd be better off coughing up an extra $70 for the LG's smoother Nexus experience.
When I first laid my hands on the Life Play I was surprised and impressed. Frankly, I didn't expect an unlocked phone with such a low sticker price to be so thin and feel quite so modern. For example, the handset's gently rounded edges and almost nonexistent bezel help give it a premium profile.
Measuring 5.3 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide and a mere 0.31 inch thick, the Life Play is trim and relatively compact despite sporting a big 4.7-inch display. It's thinner in fact than the HTC One (5.4 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.37 inch, 5 ounces) and a hair thicker than the Samsung Galaxy S4 (5.4 inches by 2.8 inches by 0.3 inch, 4.6 ounces). Tipping the scales at just 5 ounces, the Life Play won't weigh you down unduly either.
I liked the electric-blue color of my test device, too, which is a refreshing departure from the typical black or silver phones you'll find on store shelves. The Life Play is available in pink, grey, white, and yellow as well.
Above the display sits a 2MP front-facing camera, while running along the bottom edge of the screen are three capacitive buttons for Menu, Home, and Back. Physical buttons on the phone are few, with just keys for volume and power lining the device's right side.
Up top you'll find the Life Play's 3.5mm headphone jack and, oddly enough, a Micro-USB port. Phone makers usually place USB connections on the bottom or sides of their handsets, and it's been a while since I've seen one in this location.
On back of the Blu Life Play is its main 8-megapixel camera with LED flash, in addition to a tiny speaker grille. This colorful back panel features a soft-touch coating that resists fingerprints and smudges, and pops off to uncover a 1,800mAh removable battery. Also here is an SD card slot for adding more storage which is something both the HTC One and LG Nexus 4 lack, not to mention two SIM card slots (one standard-size and one mini).
Equipped with a big, bright, 4.7-inch HD screen (1,280x720p) with an IPS LCD panel, the Blu Life Play does an admirable job of displaying photos, text, and video. I also was pleased by the phone's adequately wide viewing angles.
Of course, the HTC One's screen retained image quality better than the Life Play when I viewed it off angle. The One's higher Full HD (1,920x1,080) resolution also renders sharper details, particularly noticeable when zooming into pictures and Web sites tightly. That said, the Galaxy S4's massive 5-inch Amoled (1,920x1,080) screen delivers lusciously deep blacks and ultrawide viewing angles the other two phones can't touch.
Software and interface
One of the Life Play's big draws, other than its low unlocked price, is its software. Essentially this handset runs an almost stock version of Android 4.2.1 Jelly Bean. Blu did take the liberty of making its own tweaks, but they are made with a light touch, not a heavy hand.
The lock screen is practically the same as vanilla Android, featuring the standard ring you slide right to unlock or left to jump straight to the camera app. There are the usual amount of home screen panels to choose from, too, five to be exact, ready for you to populate with app shortcuts and widgets.
Like the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Life Play has a capacitive Menu button under its screen, something the HTC One lacks. To me though it seems a bit of a throwback to the days before Android Gingerbread when you had to use a separate Menu key to access software settings.
As I said before, the Life Play's core strength is that it comes preloaded with a very modern version of Android Jelly Bean. This software lets it tap directly into Google's deep roster of free services such as Gmail, Google Plus social networking, Drive for cloud data storage, Maps, and GPS navigation.
The device also connects to Google's Play storefronts to purchase movies, TV shows, music, and books, not to mention a wide variety of Android apps from third-party vendors. Thankfully, since the Life Play is an unlocked handset, you won't find any carrier bloatware clogging up its application tray. Blu has installed a few utilities, though, such as a digital compass, the Torch flashlight app, and Sound Recorder for capturing vocal reminders.
I appreciate the Life Play's support for the Google Now advanced search and virtual assistant. Activated either through the Google search toolbar (heading up each home screen) or via its own widget, Now obeys voice commands to set reminders and launch Google queries. Additionally Now will automatically serve up virtual "cards" highlighting weather data, estimated commute time, and how well (or poorly) your favorite sports team is playing.
Choose a SIM
Another interesting capability of the Life Play is its support for multiple SIM cards. As it has both a mini and standard-size SIM card slot, you can slide two compatible SIMs in the handset. You'll then have the choice of making voice calls, sending text messages, and using data connections over the account linked to either SIM.
I admit it's a niche feature, especially in the U.S., but having dual SIM slots will appeal to people who rely on multiple prepaid cellular services and to folks who connect to foreign GSM networks often.
Powering the Blu Life Play is an unconventional 1.2GHz quad-core MediaTek MT6589 chip paired with 1GB of RAM. If you're expecting blazing-fast performance, however, don't get your hopes up. When I subjected the phone to the usual battery of benchmarks, it quickly became clear processing power is not the Life Play's forte.