Head to head unlocked phone cage battle

Nobody is happier about the way the inexpensive and unlocked phone landscape has improved in 2015 than we here at Android Central are. Well, maybe Google is — the best of the best all happen to run Android.

Motorola once ruled this entire space with the Moto G and Moto E, and while they were good phones (and still best in class when looking for the absolute cheapest way to get a smartphone) the new crop from ASUS, Huawei and Alcatel take things a notch higher in price, performance and usability.

We had to get what we consider to be the best of 2015's unlocked, value-conscious phones together and do a bit of comparison.

head to head

We've looked at these three individually, and reviewed them in-depth. That's where you should probably start, so here's some reading to get you started.

As you can see, these are three very different phones with very different experiences to offer. But they all have one thing in common — performance and an overall experience that's better than the price tag suggests. That's why we love them!

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The hardware and overall performance

All three of the phones we're looking at today have "good" internal hardware, but not necessarily "great" internal hardware. The mid-range Snapdragon processors used in the Idol 3 and P8 Lite, or the Intel processor used in ASUS' ZenFone 2 aren't always going to perform on the level of the high-end gear from Qualcomm, Samsung or NVIDIA. If you're into benchmarks, you're not going to be impressed.

But that's not where this conversation should end. All three of the phones we are looking at deliver a pleasant and fairly snappy user experience, often rivaling what you would get from phones costing hundreds and hundreds of dollars more. Switching between apps may take a few milliseconds longer, and loading big apps — for example something like the YouTube app — has slightly more delay, but there's no serious slowdown when using any of these phones most of the time. You will notice this a bit more when loading a processor-intensive game, but even then it's not terrible.

Comparing the three, there is one clear winner — the ASUS ZenFone 2.

ZenFone 2

While we mentioned none of these phones deliver a bad experience (that's why we like them so much) the ZenFone 2 is a step above. The Intel Atom Z3560 CPU and 4GB of RAM (we're using the 64GB model) runs Android, and just about any app you can throw at it, like a champ. You'll never wish you had more power under the hood when using the ZenFone 2. In fact, you'll probably not be thinking about it at all.

We wouldn't tell anyone that the P8 Lite or the Idol 3 are bad phones in the hardware department. They're not, and chances are anyone shopping for a phone in this category would be very happy with the features and performance versus cost ratio. But the ZenFone 2 is an all around better performer.

The design and construction

None of these phones are stepping outside the traditional smartphone design language. They're rectangles with rounded corners and a glass screen around front. There is nothing to surprise anyone — good or bad — and they are all constructed well with no odd gaps or ill-fitting parts.

They are all plastic. Unashamedly plastic as it were. The ZenFone 2 has an industry standard "stiff" plastic backing with a brushed metal look and texture. It's removable for access to the SIM card slots and SD card slot. You also have capacitive buttons (three of them — back, home and multitasking) around front, and the volume controls are on the back. Up top you have the power button and a headphone jack.

The Idol 3 has a very flat and very thin design, with a satin-finished plastic back. It's not removable, and you access the SIM card slot and micro SD card tray via the standard door on the side — push a tool into the hole and it pops out. The power and volume controls are on the sides — power on the left, volume on the right — and the headphone jack is up top. The edges where the glass meets the plastic trim are done very well, and the angles and bevels make the phone smooth everywhere you can touch it.

The Huawei P8 Lite looks like an iPhone 4S. We can't deny that, and we shouldn't. It's very squared, has a faux metal trim band, and the controls and speaker cutout look like they were lifted from a Cupertino designer's desk. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as plenty of people think the iPhone 4S was a beautiful phone. However, it doesn't feel like an iPhone 4S. It's plastic back is split into a glossy top near the camera, and a satin finish over the rest. Volume, power and access to the SIM card tray and a second multi-purpose tray that houses either a SIM card or an SD card are all on the right side, and the headphone jack is on the top.

Again, we have to give the nod to the ZenFone 2 here.

ZenFone 2

The slightly rounded back feels better when you're holding it for long periods, and the no-nonsense approach of a removable back and easy to reach trays for SIM cards and expandable storage just works better than multi-use trays that pop out from the side.

The capacitive buttons aren't a favorite, but they certainly work well and aren't a deal-breaker. Volume buttons on the rear also won't be everyone's cup of tea, but they work well and are easy to reach.

Form the usability side, with the screen off and evaluating just the design, the ZenFone 2 is our clear winner. Keep in mind, we're nitpicking because we need to pick a winner. All of these three phones are easy to hold, easy to use, and don't have any failures when it comes to design.

The software

The software on the three phones we're evaluating is as different as the design. You have three different approaches from three different companies, and some of it works while some of it needs a little work.

We'll start with the Huawei P8 Lite and get it out of our system. Remember when we said the P8 Lite looked like an iPhone 4S? When you turn it on, it looks like an iPhone even more. The EMUI featured on the P8 lite has no app drawer, and instead offers grids of icons on pages of your home screen. The settings and quick-settings pull down are white and grey, and even the fonts used scream iOS.

We aren't going to say this is bad. Some people will love it — you get the simple iOS look while having the power of Android under the hood. Some will hate it, because it's not "powerful" or "custom" like Android is "supposed" to be (that's a lot of quote marks, you get the idea). The good news (I think?) is that you can dive into the settings and change it to simple mode, which looks exactly like Windows Phone. The bad news is that you can't install a third-party launcher from Google Play and overwrite any of it. They install just fine, but there is no option to change the default home action to use them. Bad Huawei. Very bad.

Also — the P8 lite ships with Android KitKat as the default OS version. There is no reason a phone shipping in mid-2015 should be running KitKat.

The Idol 3 is the exact opposite. It looks and feels like the version of Android you would get with a Nexus or Motorola phone, with a few additions and features from Alcatel. Things like a Notes application or an office suite are bundled in, but for the most part you can uninstall anything you don't find useful, like AVG antivirus.

On top of the minimalist approach to the software are additions that support hardware features. Audio effects from JBL actually make a difference (the sound on the Idol 3 is great) and controls to support the fully reversible interface make this useful feature more fun with transition effects (that you can turn off).

This isn't "stock" Android, so don't fall into that trap. It's a clean, minimal User Interface that leaves the core of the OS untouched. If you like to use Nova Launcher and customize the heck out of everything, this is the perfect canvas. It also works well and has a subtle beauty on its own.

The ASUS ZenFone 2 falls in the middle. It's a very custom User Interface that's done well and constantly updated to fix bugs and minor issues. Most people couldn't ask for anything more here. Everything, from the home screen(s) to the app drawer, is customizable and the ASUS theme engine allows you to change the look and feel of all of it.

My favorite part of how all this is done is how the updates and ASUS apps are handled. You can uninstall almost all of them if you wish, but the ones you decide to keep are updated through Goggle Play and not some potentially insecure server or third party application market. It's almost as if ASUS listened and paid attention to how Google designed Android to be modular and secure.

You could spend hours and hours setting up the software on your ZenFone 2 and tweak everything to your liking. You could also just install your favorite launcher and use that, without any weirdness in the setting menu or notification panel. We like what we see for the most part.

It's tough to pick a winner between the Idol 3 and the ZenFone 2 here, but we have to give the points to Alcatel's Idol 3.

Idol 3

The Idol 3's software is just a bit more fluid and smooth all around. We could dive into Google Play and replicate most all the great features we see from ASUS, and that might slow things down a bit, but out of the box the Idol 3 is more buttery that you would expect from a $250 phone. And that goes a long way.

Odds and ends

ZenFone 2

  • The camera on all three of these phones is good. None will wow you, and there is no clear winner of which is better when it comes to picture quality or features. Don't expect the same image quality you would get from a Galaxy S6 or an LG G4, and you won't be disappointed.
  • The ZenFone 2 is the clear winner when it comes to reception. Cell service, Wifi and Bluetooth connect faster, stay connected longer, and call quality is clearer. There is no question the ZenFone 2 is superior here.
  • Battery life is decent all around. The ZenFone 2 and Idol 3 are a little better than the P8 Lite, but not enough to make a new bullet point saying how much better they are. Any of these three phones can get you through a day, provided you aren't sitting and watching video or playing games nonstop.
  • I've had zero issues with apps not playing nice with Intel on the ZenFone 2. I'm sure that somewhere there is an app that will hate the Atom processor arrangement, but I haven't found it.
  • On the app side, KitKat on the P8 Lite isn't a nightmare. Everything I want to use works fine on Android 4.4. The issues around security and an older version still remain, however.
  • I actually like all three of these phones, and would recommend them to anyone.

The verdict

ZenFone 2

That last bullet point above is telling. All three of these phones are pretty damn good, and I have recommended them to others. Even the P8 Lite with it's iDentity crisis isn't a bad phone. If you're looking for a great experience, without being tied to any particular carrier or spending $500 or more, you need to look at them.

Because I have to pick a winner, I'm going to pick the ZenFone 2. The minimalism and smoothness of the Idol 3's software is my favorite feature of any of them, but as an all-around choice the ZenFone 2 is the phone I would tell most anyone to go buy. You'll like the performance. You'll like the features. You'll either appreciate the software or you'll turn most of it off and uninstall it.

Most of all, you'll be getting one hell of a phone for $250.

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