It wasn't too long ago that the most premium smartphones you could buy started around $600. That was already quite a tough pill to swallow for many people, and yet smartphone prices at the higher end have ballooned in recent years. This has been the primary motivator for the increasing popularity of budget and value alternatives to the likes of Apple's iPhone X and Samsung's S9 Plus. Companies like OnePlus and Huawei - which recently supplanted Apple as the second largest smartphone manufacturer in the world - have built their entire business models around filling that gap.

In that vein, Cubot's P20 is a good argument against the opulence of the current batch of $1,000 flagships. It's selling price of $169.99 is anywhere from 15-20% the price of 2018 flagships, and while it won't compete with those devices in many aspects, it does do enough that I wasn't necessarily pining for one, either. It didn't blow me off my feet, but it did serve my needs well. The hundreds of dollars you'd save in comparison aren't too bad, either.

CPU MediaTek MT6750T: 64-bit octa-core CPU made of 1.5GHz ARM Cortex-A53 cores
GPU ARM Mali T860 MP2
Operating System Android 8.0 Oreo
Display 6.18" FHD+ 2246 x 1080p (19:9), 403ppi, IPS

Connectivity

Audio: 3.5mm socket
Bluetooth: 4.0
Cellular: Single SIM or Dual SIM | 2G/3G/4G
Location: GPS, A-GPS
USB: micro USB
Wi-Fi: 2.4GHz

Body 156.3 x 75.3 x 8.5mm
Camera

Rear: 20MP + 2MP, f/2.0 aperture, LED flash
Front: 13MP

Video Video: 1080p 30fps
Camera Features FaceBeauty, Blur, Mono, Panorama, PRO, HDR
Storage 64GB + 128GB microSDXC expansion
RAM 4GB
Battery

4,000 mAh
5V, 2A fast charge

Colours Black, Blue, Gradient

Design and Display

When you open the box, the first thing you'll see is the P20's glossy glass back - it's actually made of plastic - with a matte black finish underneath. A glass-like finish to the back of the chassis seems to be the trend for 2018 smartphones (no doubt inspired by the design of the latest crop of iPhones) and while I'm not generally a fan, the matte black colour of the device I received makes it far more palatable. The spontaneous light shows you get courtesy of that glass finish also look much better when contrasted with the dark black underneath.

As can be expected, it's also a fingerprint magnet of legendary proportions, and while Cubot has included a free silicone case to circumvent that very problem, it baffles me as to why Cubot - and a whole host of other device manufacturers - continue to opt for that design choice while they are clearly aware of the consequences. The plastic material used is at least not as slippery as real glass would be, though on the other hand, it doesn't feel as good in the hand, either. I've mostly just resigned myself to using the phone with the case, which is really counterproductive when you consider all the effort that must have gone into designing the phone. I'll be glad as soon as the smartphone industry abandons glass backs and moves on to some other trend.

There's also a double camera at the back, with the flash neatly tucked between them. The fingerprint sensor is found at the centre of the upper quadrant of the chassis, and is exactly where you'd place your index finger while holding the phone in one hand.

Turn the phone over and you're greeted by a 6.18" IPS display with a slightly taller-than-average 19:9 aspect ratio. Smartphones these days are already getting unscrupulously large and the even taller dimensions of the P20 don't help one-handed use much. Still, more screen real-estate is always nice to have when consuming content so I'm not going to complain about it too much. There's also a screen protector already applied, if you're counting freebies.

The front is almost entirely screen, with rather thin bezels. While not entirely apparent when the screen isn't on, there is also a small chin underneath the display that becomes quite pronounced as soon as you turn it on.

That IPS panel is quite a boon when it comes to viewing angles, and quite a surprising inclusion at this price point. Colour reproduction is decent, though they're not as vivid and don't 'pop out' as much as you'd see on a flagship-class OLED display. The same is true of the deep blacks that are the hallmark of OLED screens.

Oh, and the P20 has a notch at the top of its screen that houses the front camera, ambient light sensor and a speaker grill. Notches have honestly become so common these days that I'm not sure there's much to say about it. This was my first time using a notched screen and while it's a little jarring at first, especially when it comes to pulling down the notifications, you get used to it after a while. People say you either love the notch or you hate it; well, I'm far more ambivalent. The P20's notch is also not as wide as on the iPhone X, so it's less immersion-breaking.

At the top of the phone, you'll find a single 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom features a micro USB port for charging and a speaker grill. The speakers are unfortunately downward-facing as a result, but they do get sufficiently loud. Sadly, the sound quality isn't particularly good, with videos sounding not only tinny but also muddled. I also noticed that while the bottom features two cut-outs for audio, there is only one speaker, on the right side. If you're an audiophile, you'll want a good pair of headphones, though that's the case for almost all smartphones.

Sound quality in loudspeaker mode (how I prefer taking my calls), however, is acceptable and I never felt like I had to put the phone next to my ear. The lack of USB-C in a 2018 smartphone, regardless of its price point, is also a sore point in my eyes.

The left side of the phone contains a cut-out for the SIM and microSD card tray, while the volume rocker and power button are located on the right. Both are clicky and tactile, and I have no complaints about them.

The P20 looks and feels far more premium than its price would suggest, and its external design is one of the first things that stick out to me about how far budget phones have come from the early days of Android. Gone are the tacky, ugly looking $100 phones. In today's smartphone market, even the cheapest of phones seem to sport a clean and attractive industrial design that isn't necessarily too far away from what you'd see on a premium device. That is most certainly a welcome development. My only gripe is with the wall of compliance certifications under the Cubot logo that takes away from what is an otherwise good-looking phone. I hope the company will find some way of putting them somewhere else in future iterations.

Fingerprint Sensor

The P20 sports a fingerprint sensor, and I'm glad to see more and more budget smartphones are able to include it. The P20, however, may not be the best example of one. For one, it takes the screen a whole second to turn on, making it feel slower than the 0.1s time found in Cubot's promotional material. Even worse, the sensor was often unable to identify my fingerprints, prompting me to retry a second or even a third time. It's still faster than typing a long password, and biometric authentication at this price is a nifty inclusion, but as it stands, the fingerprint sensor is one of the P20's weakest links.

Another pet peeve that turned me off was the haptic feedback. When your fingerprint is accepted, the phone is supposed to vibrate once, and when the sensor rejects your print, it vibrates twice. On a number of occasions, though, I found the phone vibrating twice even when the fingerprint was accepted, leaving me confused as to whether the phone was unlocked or if I needed to try again. If you're listening, Cubot engineers, no tactile feedback might be better than, as in this case, unintuitive or erroneous feedback.

Camera

Camera performance is the most glaring difference between flagship and budget phones these days, and is precisely why many of the higher-tier phones have started focusing so much of their marketing on camera quality.

I'm not really a photography aficionado so my opinion may not be the most accurate, but I found the dual 20+2MP rear camera on the P20 to be good, and functional. It's obviously not the best, and something like the identically named P20 Pro from Huawei would easily demolish Cubot's camera setup, especially when it comes to low-lighting conditions. The P20's camera struggles quite a bit in that regard.

The shutter speed on the P20 is not instantaneous, but also not atrociously slow like the last budget smartphone I used as a daily driver. It'll take half a second to a second, but not too long. Switch over to HDR mode, though, and the phone takes 3-5 seconds to process a single image capture. HDR mode does make a difference, though, transforming some wall art in a poorly lit corridor in my university so that colours would pop out just that little bit more.

Surprisingly, while the phone includes a dual-camera setup, it does not include portrait mode for pictures. There is a blur option in the camera app but that's simply a software trick allowing you to blur everything but a circular area of your choice, and not much else.

The front camera on the P20 is a 13MP sensor, and it's passable. The included 'beauty mode' in the camera app is just a whitening filter at best and quite unrealistic so I'd advise you to stay away from it.

In conclusion, if you're in a brightly lit area, the P20 isn't half bad. Switch over to low-lighting conditions, and camera performance really takes a hit with grainy results and an abysmal lack of detail.

Battery Life

One aspect of Cubot's decision making that I was extremely pleased with is the inclusion of a 4,000mAh battery on the P20. Not only is this much more than most flagships these days, that battery capacity even eclipses many other budget phones like the Moto G6 and Alcatel 3V, which cost $249 and $150, respectively, and yet come with only a 3,000mAh battery.

I didn't see the 1+ days of battery life I was expecting when I first read that large number but I rarely ever ran out of juice during the day and often had plenty to spare when I got back home in the evening. The battery settings don't show detailed statistics about changes in battery life over time and which apps were the most power hungry, something I sorely missed compared to my last phone. I had to download a third-party app to make up for that lack of functionality.

The phone also supports 5V/2A fast charging, but it's a far cry from something like the OnePlus 6's Dash Charge. In my usage, I found the phone capable of going from 0% to a full charge in around 2.5-3 hours.

One departure from the otherwise really good build quality of the P20 was the placement of the micro USB port. It seems to not have been set properly in the chassis, resulting in the charging cable uncomfortably jutting out instead of going in all the way. It's a small problem, but it is annoying and often leaves you unsure as to whether the phone's actually charging or not.

Performance and Storage

The MediaTek MT6750T powering the Cubot P20 is an octa-core chip, but it's sporting only the lower power A53 cores from ARM, with no big.LITTLE combination of higher-power silicon paired with battery-friendly lower-power chips. That means the P20 is nowhere close to 2018 flagships when it comes to processing power, though at the $170 price point, that's to be expected.

When it comes to synthetic benchmarks, the P20's MT6750T is not going to be winning any medals. This is a low-end device, and it shows when you run more intensive loads on it. Looking at AnTuTu, which is a more general gauge for smartphone performance, the P20 earned a very middling 56,664. Nothing to really write home about.

Moving on to a CPU-specific test, GeekBench 4, it's a similar story with both the multi-core and single-core results coming in at around 30-40% of what 2018 flagships can accomplish.

GPU testing via GFXBench confirms what should be expected at this price point: you're not going to be playing PUBG on the P20. It's good for casual mobile games and runs them well enough, but anything too graphically intensive and you'll want to buy a more expensive handset with a more powerful Soc.

Synthetic benchmarks only tell half the story, though, and are useful only in testing the limits of technology. Thus, the more pertinent metric is your subjective experience using it day-to-day and, in that regard, the phone does not disappoint. Scrolling through the launcher is buttery smooth. The same is not always true of apps, and while I did experience some stuttering and lag, it wasn't so egregious as to serve as an impediment to my use of the phone.

The copious 4GB of RAM also keeps things moving along nicely when it comes to multitasking and running multiple apps simultaneously. 64GB of internal storage, with the option to expand that by 128GB via a microSD card, is nice to see as well. Returning to a comparison with the Moto G6 and Alcatel 3V, the P20 is clearly ahead in this department compared to the shoddy 2GB + 16GB that frustrated our Boyd Chan so much in his review of the $150 3V. The Moto G6 too comes with 1GB less of RAM and 32GB less storage despite costing almost $100 more than the P20.

When pushing the phone to its limits, it does get hot, and the insulating properties of the plastic back mean that once it does, the heat isn't dissipated as quickly. To be clear, it's never burning hot but just a little uncomfortable to hold. Just one more reason why glass/plastic backs need to go.

Software

The P20 runs a near-stock version of Android. That means the software doesn't bog down your phone's performance. There's also zero bloatware of any kind, with Cubot making the right choice of not including its own suite of basic apps like email, instead opting for Google's offerings.

I did, however, experience a few issues initially setting up the phone. I decided to forego adding my Outlook account, which includes my calendar, during the initial setup on the phone and, to my surprise, the option to add Exchange Active Sync was no longer available in the phone's settings. That meant that while I could add my Outlook account and sync my emails, the calendar associated with it wouldn't sync unless I used the official Outlook app. It also meant that I couldn't access the calendar on third-party apps or widgets.

That was simply unacceptable for me and meant that I ultimately had to reset the phone, and go through the setup process all over again. Weirdly enough, this time around I was able to use Exchange Active Sync during setup but didn't get the option to add my Google account during setup, and had to wait until the phone had started up properly.

These initial hiccups notwithstanding, the software and the launcher on the P20 held up well enough. Swiping to the left of the home screen leads you to the Google Now feed, and you can swipe up to pull up the app drawer. You can also hide the navigation bar in the settings if you want a full-screen experience but without an iPhone X-like gesture-based interface for the home, back and multitasking buttons, you'll need to pull it back up all the time and I found the whole exercise tedious so I've just left it as it is. Hopefully, the phone will be updated to Android 9.0 which addresses the problem. Beyond that, the launcher is pretty standard for a stock Android experience.

Cubot's decision to ship the P20 with Android 8.0 while the 8.1 update is commercially available is lamentable. It also makes me sceptical of their promise to update the phone to Android 9.0 at a future date. Most low-end phones tend to sport the same version of Android that they come with for their lifetimes and while I'd love to see Cubot buck that trend, I'll believe it when I see it.

Pricing

A quick note on the phone's pricing: while the phone normally retails for $169.99, you will be able to grab one from GearBest for just $129.99 following its launch on August 6 until August 12.

Conclusion

The Cubot P20 is a surprisingly capable device offering a ton of value for the price it extracts. From the design to the display to everyday performance to battery life, the phone constantly exceeded my expectations for what a low-end $170-phone should feel like as a daily driver. Now, maybe that's more of a statement about the evolution and maturity of the smartphone market as a whole than anything particularly specific to the P20, but Cubot has done an excellent job nonetheless of creating a showcase for why you may no longer need to buy the best and most expensive device in order to have a decent smartphone experience.

That doesn't mean corners weren't cut - indeed, they were - but none of them were too glaringly annoying to the point where I would be hesitant in recommending the device to someone looking for a budget option. When you put those compromises in the context of it's $169.99 price, especially, they don't stick out too much.

Indeed, the user experience is good enough that you may be completely satisfied with something like the P20 even if more expensive options were available. That is, if you're not going to be playing graphics-intensive 3D games on your phone and if you're not really too concerned with camera performance. For everything else, the P20 is more than capable of satisfying your needs.

 

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

Ahead of its official launch, new details emerge about the Galaxy Note9 and Galaxy Watch

Next Story

Microsoft Movies & TV rejoins Movies Anywhere [Update]

15 Comments - Add comment

Advertisement