British startup ships its most premium phone yet, as it looks towards a future of subsidies, revenue sharing and life beyond CyanogenOS.
Wileyfox is keen to paint itself as the quintessential startup: a disruptor in a world of crusty, outdated brands. For a company that didn't even exist two years ago, its goals are lofty. It wants to challenge Samsung, and the perception that you need to spent hundreds to get a great smartphone, while beating established mid-level players like OnePlus and Honor. Its arsenal consists of its brand, affordable yet capable hardware, and finely tuned software.
The reality isn't so rosy. Last year's entry-level Wileyfox Swift was pretty good, but the mid-level Storm was underwhelming. And the Spark, released over the summer, was hot garbage. Add to that the recent news that software partner Cyanogen is moving on from being an OS provider, and you've got a fair number of challenges.
In future, Wileyfox wants its customers to be able to upgrade for free.
Nevertheless, the company is bullish. Today at a launch event in London for its new Swift 2 handset, Wileyfox laid out a vision of where it's headed in 2017. Not only does it want to sell good phones for less than the competition, it also wants to let customers upgrade at no cost. Wiley was light on exact details of how this will work, but plans apparently involve sharing revenue from preloaded services with consumers, while working with partners like Amazon and Google to reward consumers who use their services. At the same time, it'll continue to hone its brand, working with charities like Center Point to give away phones to people in need.
But that's the future. The present is the Wileyfox Swift 2, announced and made available for sale today, starting at £159 (or €189). It's a significant step up from the original Swift, a plastic-clad beast which broke cover just over a year ago. And upgrades can be found both inside and out — there's now an attractive metal unibody, complete with polished chamfers and an ample serving of foxy branding. The camera has undergone a significant upgrade, jumping to 16 megapixels on the higher-specced Swift 2 Plus.
The "Plus" model isn't physically bigger — both variants pack 5-inch displays — but it does boast more storage and a better camera. The Swift 2 has a 13-megapixel rear camera, while the Plus bumps you up to 16. Meanwhile the storage and RAM configuration goes from 16GB/2GB in the Swift 2, up to 32GB/3GB in the Plus. The cost of those upgrades is a bump up to a £189 price tag (or €219).
A quicker performer than the Moto G4, and with better build quality to boot.
Besides those few differences, both models share a common hardware setup — that 5-inch display, at 720p resolution, which actually looks pretty decent despite its relatively low density. And a Snapdragon 430 CPU, the latest entry-level part from Qualcomm that brings QuickCharge 3.0 support and eight cores at 1.4GHz. There's also a hefty 2,700mAh battery, which should be ample for the hardware inside. And it's also nice to see a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner brought along for the ride — a relative rarity for phones at this price level — and NFC support, important for Android Pay.
The new Swift 2 models clearly share some design DNA with their predecessors, while upping the game in terms of material and build. The company boasts aircraft-grade aluminum, and talked up the additional manufacturing steps it takes to get the feel of this just right. The result is a pair of phones living around the price point of Motorola's Moto G4 price, but with a much more premium in-hand feel.
As for imaging, we were given a Swift 2 Plus to review, which has the fancier 16-megapixel Samsung camera sensor with PDAF (phase-detection autofocus) and ISOCELL technology for clearer daylight pics. We haven't had the chance to test the lower-end 13-megapixel shooter in the real world, but the "Plus" model's upgraded camera seems relatively impressive given the price tag, even though you'll need to deal with CyanogenOS's relatively clunky camera app. The software experience is basically identical to that of the Spark — though much, much faster thanks to having three times the available RAM. CyangeonOS comes with more features than you'll ever need, and a somewhat OTT orange fox-themed skin as standard — although this is easily changed.
Which brings us to the broader software picture. The Swift 2 runs CyanogenOS 13, complete with "MOD" plugin support, based upon Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. That's unsurprising given that all Wileyfox's previous phones have run Cyanogen's stuff, but it does raise questions about future upgradability because CyanogenOS will soon be going away — questions we put to the company at today's launch event. Wileyfox told us that it's committed to future upgrades for all its phones, including an over-the-air Nougat upgrade "in some way, shape or form" for the Swift 2 series.
With or without CyanogenOS, Wileyfox's 'no bullshit' software experience will live on.
Given the precarious future of CyanogenOS, it's unlikely it will be part of the Swift 2's upgrade path — however representatives stopped short of explicitly throwing Cyanogen under the bus. Instead, we were promised that Wileyfox's "no bullshit" approach to software would continue, whatever happened. "We're keeping our cards close to our chest."
However things play out in the long run, Wileyfox has made a good start with the Swift 2 — a product which should banish memories of the disappointing Spark, a phone which was slow to the point of being unusable. By contrast, the Swift 2 — and in particular the speccier Swift 2 Plus — look like being cheap phones worth checking out.
That's what Wileyfox needs as it doubles down on the European market in 2016 — specifically countries like the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands, where it's already gotten a reasonable amount of traction with its online-only, direct-to-consumer strategy. The next step, the company says, involves working with carriers and MVNOs to offer phones on contract, broadening the means in which it's able to offer its phones to customers And there was even a nod towards working with retailers on subsidized devices, perhaps a nod to a Moto G4-style team-up with someone like Amazon, to show ads somewhere on the device.
Wileyfox's business — and its products — are far from conventional. Nevertheless, despite a few hiccups over the past year, it remains an interesting company to watch.
The Wileyfox Swift 2 and Swift 2 Plus are available to order starting today in the UK and Europe.