With its innovative bezel-free display, the Sharp Aquos Crystal makes up for its shortcomings with a forward-thinking design and an affordable price tag
Sharp has long been a company synonymous with its LCD panels, so its no surprise that its first major foray into the U.S. smartphone market, the Aquos Crystal, puts that long history of innovation to good use. Now available on Boost Mobile, along with Sprint and Virgin Mobile, Sharp's latest offers a flagship-worthy design and a solid list of specs for an affordable, contract-free $149. It may be far from perfect, but does its eye-catching bezel-free display make up for its shortcomings? Here's our fast take on the Sharp Aquos Crystal.
The Aquos Crystal is by and large the most gorgeous non-flagship you could buy today. It's a bold statement, no doubt, and I'd even be willing to go a step further in saying that its striking design rivals phones double and triple its price. What makes the Aquos Crystal stand out is its edge-to-edge display: It's unlike anything we've ever seen on a smartphone before, and is hopefully a sign of things to come for mobile panels.
Make no mistake: there is no trickery here, no slight of hand or optical illusions. This display truly is bezel-free. The panel extends to the very edges of the top, left, and right of the phone, while the bottom is flanked by a thick strip that houses the device's microphone, ambient light sensor, notification light and front-facing camera. If you're wondering where the earpiece is, stop looking for one: Sharp has it with direct wave receiver, a cutting edge technology that uses vibrations instead of traditional amplified noise to transfer the sound of the caller on the other end. While the result might not be as loud or as clear as a standard telephone earpiece, it does have its perks, including the ability to place your ear anywhere on the display to hear the other end.
There is no trickery here, no slight of hand or optical illusions. This display truly is bezel-free.
The panel itself, a 5-inch Aquos S-CG Silicon LCD slab pumping out a 1280x720 resolution, is bright, crisp and clear and produces accurate colors with dark blacks and crisp, clean whites. Having been spoiled by other more pixel-dense displays in recent months, the 720p resolution here flirts with being insufficient at this size — at times I noticed pixels while reading lines of text, and I often wondered why some of the colors seemed washed out before remembering what I was looking at. It's absolutely acceptable and passable in 99.9 percent of situations, but be wary if you're coming from a 1080p or QHD display, as you're bound to notice the difference.
One gripe with the display is that it sits below a pretty thick layer of glass, which often causes poor viewing angles and light refraction, especially towards the edges of the device. It's a growing pain for this type of bezel-free technology, and we hope it can be overcome in future iterations.
The rest of the Aquos Crystal's hardware compliments the display quite nicely: its frame is sturdy and strong despite its plastic components, and the curved design, akin to what Motorola has done of late, nicely hides its .4-inch thickness and 4.97 ounce weight, helping the Aquos Crystal to feel comfortable and usable in one hand. Its white, pocked plastic rear could be a bit sturdier, but at least its removable, providing access to the SIM card, a microSD slot (which expands the 8GB of internal storage up to 128 GB), and a non-removable 2,040mAh battery (more on that in the next section).
The Sharp Aquos Crystal uses a Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.2Ghz to keep things running, and paired with 1.5GB of RAM, it's able to produce a pretty smooth user experience. Again, if you're coming from any of Snapdragon's latest-generation processors or have gotten used to your flagship's lightening fast performance, you will indeed notice that the Crystal lags at times and isn't quite as buttery smooth as we'd like it to be. You'll also notice that games and other intensive tasks like photo editing and video playback take a minor yet perceivable toll on the Crystal's performance. But for those upgrading to the Crystal, or for those using it for more basic tasks like messaging and social media, taking photos and non-intensive gaming, the Crystal performs just fine.
Where the lower-resolution display and underpowered processor redeem themselves is through the Crystal's battery life: this 2,040mAh lithium-ion pack might not seem large, but in real world usage, it'll easily get you through a full 14 hour day. On a standard weekday I use my device from 7 a.m. – 11 p.m. for things like playing music, watching videos, taking photos, and reading articles, and I never found myself looking for a charge before bedtime. Results may vary, naturally, but for most users the battery life will not be a concern on the Aquos Crystal.
The Aquos Crystal runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat out of the box, and little else: Sharp has kept its touch to a minimum here, smattering stock Android with a handful of tweaks that help put some of its unique hardware features to good use.
One such alteration is the addition of harman/kardon audio software, a technology that increases clarity and depth of both headphone and Bluetooth audio quality. We've met this technology before, most recently on Sprint's variant of the HTC One M8, and it's likely a product of a fruitful relationship between Boost's parent carrier and harman/kardon.
There are two main feature in play here: Clari-Fi "restores the quality of compressed audio," while LiveStage uses surround sound tweaks to "provide a more realistic headphone listening experience." The results are a clearer, louder, deeper listening experience when using just about any headphones or Bluetooth headset. It's just too bad the h/k technology doesn't work with the Aquos Crystal's built in speaker, which isn't quite as loud or clear as I wish it were.
Sharp has also tweaked stock Android's display controls to better utilize its edgeless panel. You'll be able to choose from three color modes, including Standard, Dynamic and Natural, as well as options for controlling the display, such as swiping or shaking it to turn on and off, or keeping it illuminated while the phone is in your hand. There's also a cool "frameless effect" that highlights the edges of the display upon turning it on.
Naturally, this particular Boost-branded model ships with some of the carrier's bloatware, including the Boost Zone app hub, MobileID, and AirG IM and messaging service, among a few others. Luckily, things like NextRadio, NBA GameTime, and other non-Boost specific apps can be uninstalled.
Sharp took some time in crafting a custom camera experience, and the results are a fully loaded shooter that produces less-than-ideal shots. And that's really too bad, because the Aquos Crystal's camera has everything it needs to succeed: with 8 megapixels, anti-shake and anti-flicker, and a plethora of custom controls, one would think a well-balanced shot is within reach.
Unfortunately, it's not. The camera is laggy at times and slow to focus, which often results in missed opportunities. And when you are able to snap off a shot, it's often washed out and grainy, even in well-lit situations. Dim lighting brings things from bad to worse, and I found most of the results bordering on unusable.
One cool trick that Sharp has done here is what it calls a Framing Advisor: essentially, the Aquos Crystal's camera will automatically adjust its guidelines to shoot balanced shots based on the subject. For example, if you're shooting scenery, guidelines will show you how best to frame both the front and foregrounds; for food, guidelines will help fill the entire shot with your plate. It's a helpful trick, especially for those with a trained eye, but unfortunately it's not enough to smooth over the camera's rough edges.
Two years ago, the Sharp Aquos Crystal would have been a no-brainer for just about any postpaid customer. Boost's model, priced at $150 without a contract on plans starting at $35 per month is a downright steal, but today, it's no longer the only, or necessarily best, choice.
Things have come a long way, and Boost and other carriers like it now offer a portfolio that rivals the big four: with flagships like the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus sitting atop its lineup, ranging all the way down to a $60 Kyocera Hydro, there's technology for just about every budget.
At the Aquos' Crystal's level, Boost also offers the LG Volt for $179, the HTC Desire 910 for $100, and the original Moto G for $80, all of which match if not best the Crystal in areas like camera quality and performance. But Sharp made a contender with the Aquos Crystal's gorgeous, forward thinking design and emphasis on small, innovative features like audio quality and earpiece-free calling that really add up in terms of usability. The Aquos Crystal isn't the best phone on the market, but at this price point, it's a pretty great buy.