Most of us live in a world where smartphones cost somewhere between $200 and $800. There's a wide variety of phones in that range, from bargain ZTE and Motorola devices to top-end iPhones and Samsung Galaxy handsets. But there's a whole world beyond that, the exclusive and expensive realm of the luxury smartphone. The latest phone to join those rarified ranks is the 2017 Vertu Constellation. This is both a pedestrian smartphone and one that's sporting out-of-this-world services and construction. The Constellation is a measure in contradictions, as many things made for the billionaire class are.
Vertu has been at this for many years. They were founded as a division of Nokia and have traded hands since a few times; most recently the company was purchased by Turkish businessman Hakan Uzan for £50 million. So Vertu is a small, niche company that deals in small, niche electronics. Their latest release is the 2017 edition of the Constellation, which is what amounts to their mid-tier smartphone.
Mid-tier in Vertu Land means a starting price of $6,000.
Yeah, that's a lot for a phone. Can it possibly be worth that much?
About this review
We're publishing this review after two weeks with the Vertu Constellation, running on the AT&T network in Cincinnati and New York City. Our review unit, loaned from Vertu, was running Android 6.0.1 with the 1 January 2017 security patch.
Vertu Constellation Video Review
Feels so good…
Vertu Constellation Hardware
The Vertu Constellation stands out in a sea of black slab phones. Where more and more phones are becoming more and more anonymous, Vertu has opted to adorn the front of their smartphone with, well, bling. There are at least seven different materials showing on just the front of the phone, yet somehow it's an attractive device. There's no denying that it's ostentatious (the shiny chrome accents see to that), but I found myself liking it as soon as I pulled it out of the box, and it's grown on me ever since.
There's no denying that it's ostentatious, but I found myself liking it right away.
Those materials are a mix of machined aluminum, calf leather, and sapphire. Owing to their relatively small production count, Vertu can get away with sourcing truly premium materials for their phones. Apple tried and failed hard to get a sapphire screen for the iPhone, and after using the Constellation I can understand why Apple spent hundreds of millions of dollars on that quest. The sapphire display cover here is smooth, crystal clear, and supremely hard — sapphire is one of the hardest materials out there, and is far more scratch resistant than even the latest iteration of Gorilla Glass. It's also expensive, especially at the 140 carats needed for the Constellation.
That display is a sharp 5.5-inch QHD model with a 534ppi pixel density. It's an AMOLED panel, but it's been tuned without the excessive color saturation that's a hallmark of AMOLED king Samsung. The panel wasn't incredibly bright, though, and struggled with visibility in sunlight.
Right below the screen, wrapped in a silver accent, is a front-facing fingerprint sensor. This is a first for Vertu, and it's spacious, accurate, and highly responsive. The set-up process is straight Nexus Imprint, with none of the customizations for customization's sake that other manufacturers have seen fit to implement. The fingerprint sensor also doubles as a home button in conjunction with the on-screen key.
These are, hands-down, the best sounding and loudest speakers I've heard on any phone.
Flanking the screen at top and bottom you'll find a pair of stereo speakers. These are, hands-down, the best sounding and loudest speakers I've heard on any phone — even the lauded HTC BoomSound speakers of years past. They're offering Dolby tuning with on-the-fly EQ adjustments through a widget or the on-screen volume controls. The remarkable quality of these speakers helps make up for the regrettably large bezels on this phone — in an era where smartphones are moving more and more towards smaller and smaller bezels, Vertu has either bucked or lagged behind on that trend. The flip side is that there's plenty of space for the large 13mm x 17mm drivers and the necessary acoustic chambers.
Wrapping around the sides of the Vertu Constellation is a hefty machined aluminum frame. Eschewing the smooth and rounded aesthetic of Apple and Samsung, the constellation's metal has a sand-blasted finish, hard corners, and a concave character line that runs the entire height of the phone. It looks like it should be really uncomfortable, but it actually feels great, and helps this large phone grip with ease. That frame is host on the right side of the phone to a volume rocker and an unfortunately wiggly power button, while the left side is home to the dual SIM card/microSD card tray and a ruby button to launch the Vertu Concierge service (more on that later). Up top is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, while on the bottom left corner is a USB-C port — it's angled to match the slightly pointed base of the phone.
If you thought the front of the Constellation was busy, wait until you get a load of the back. We're again looking at multiple materials, and without the requirement to work around the phone's black rectangular screen, Vertu's designers had a canvas to work with. Given what has come out of Vertu's workshops in the past… I think they showed remarkable restraint. It's a relatively simple layout — a band of brushed aluminum bordered by chrome strips stretches across the phone about 1/3 of the way from the top, with the camera and dual-LED flash housed dead center; the matte aluminum frame wraps around on either side, and the rest of the space is filled with a flat expanse of soft brown leather.
The end result is a phone that has some serious heft — at 241 grams it's one of the heaviest phones we've seen in a long time, but then again, Vertu never made any claims otherwise. And there's something that just seems right that a luxury smartphone should be a weighty one. It's a tech reviewer cliché, but the Vertu Constellation truly does feel great in the hand, and in a completely different manner than a svelte, smooth, and featherweight phone like the new Galaxy S8.
So if this phone is so heavy and expensive, you'd hope for some high-end internals, right? Eh… you're not getting a state-of-the-art smartphone here. The Vertu Constellation launched in early 2017, but it's sporting the specifications of a phone from a year prior. Crack it open an inside you'd find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage augmented by a microSD card slot. Yep, that's what you would find in a Samsung Galaxy S7 or LG G5 from a year ago — not even the later-in-2016 Snapdragon 821 made it into this phone. The reasoning is simple: Vertu doesn't work in big numbers of anything, so their purchasing power is limited, their development team is small, and their engineering lead time is longer. Will the Snapdragon 821 and the brand-new 835 eventually make it into Vertu phones? Without a doubt, but you'll be waiting for a while.
The Vertu Constellation launched in early 2017, but it's sporting the specifications of a phone from early 2016.
That said, the Snapdragon 820 is still a mighty fine chip, even if it's no longer the best in town. It carries the Vertu Constellation with aplomb, certainly far better than the Snapdragon 801 handled itself in the Vertu Signature Touch of 2014. It could simply be that with an 820 running things, the less-than-optimized Vertu software just can't bog it down enough to matter.
Rounding things out on the hardware front, the Constellation sports dual-mode Qi + PMA wireless charging, Bluetooth 4.2, 21 LTE bands, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a 3220mAh battery. That's far from the largest battery we've ever seen, and for the weight of this phone we'd have expected something more inside. But then again, Vertu doesn't have the engineering bench to quickly bring the latest processors to market, let alone develop space-age battery tech.
You'll find a 12MP camera on the back and a 4MP shooter on the front. Both are reasonably good in daylight, though they often struggled with focus and fell short when night fell. I'd have expected more, but as we saw for a long time with Android phone manufacturers: doing cameras right is hard and takes a lot of engineering talent. Vertu might have a great sensor behind that lens, but the pictures it puts out are merely adequate.
The numbers story
Vertu Constellation Specs
|Operating System||Android 6.0.1|
|Display||5.5-inch QHD AMOLED
140-carat sapphire cover
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 820|
|Storage||128GB + microSD (uses SIM slot 2)|
|Audio||Stereo Dolby front-facing speakers
3.5mm headphone jack
|Rear Camera||12MP ƒ/2.0, 1.55 micron pixels
phase detect autofocus, dual-tone LED flash
|Front Camera||4MP ƒ/2.0, 2 micro pixels|
|Dimensions||162mm x 77mm x 10mm|
Vertu Constellation Software
So if the Vertu Constellation's design is aesthetically unique (and debatably attractive — I get it if you don't like it, though I'll admit that it looks a lot better in person), it's certainly got to have some sort of software ace up its sleeve, right? Yes and no. When it comes to the Android OS, Vertu's gone close to stock Android here, with only a custom launcher, old-school-style notification shade, and a few widgets on top of Android 6.0.1. There's nothing terribly special about Vertu's implementation of Android.
The custom analog clock widgets are nice, both in a functionality and a throwback sense. They show the time, and tapping in the center will take you to the clock app, as you'd expect. But along the outside you'll find colored strips indicating your upcoming appointments — tapping there opens an agenda view that will take you to the Vertu Calendar app. And, of course, Vertu felt the need to build their own versions of apps like Calendar and Gallery, but they're blessedly few and easy to ignore. Vertu's software shines in the form of the services it ties into: Vertu Certainty, Vertu Life, and Vertu Concierge.
Certainty is a suite of apps — some third-party, others from Vertu, that aim to provide peace of mind for the Vertu owner. Some are security apps like Silent Circle for encrypted phone calls and messaging or Vertu's own "anti-theft service" (it does not stop your phone from being stolen, only giving you the ability to remotely locate, lock, and wipe the phone through Vertu's website). Others are about convenience, including sync to Apple's iCloud calendar, contacts, and reminders and global Wi-Fi hotspot access through iPass.
Also rolled under the Certainty umbrella is remote assistant support where Vertu's support staff can actually remotely take control of your phone to fix a setting for you or show you how something is done. That's the sort of thing that Vertu can afford to do when they have a relatively small userbase and charge thousands of dollars for their phones.
Vertu Life is essentially what'd happen if the concierge had a bulletin board. Vertu's agents have arranged for access to a wide range of events and venues, and they're all available to you. From backstage passes for Coachella to 19th-century port wine to a luxury vacation to Antarctica (complete with emperor penguins and champagne) to priority reservations with perks at restaurants around the world, you'll find a lot worth exploring in Vertu Life. It all comes at a cost, though. Vertu might have arranged for special discounts or bonuses with these packages, but none of them will be particularly cheap.
The crown jewel of the Vertu services is Concierge. If there's any reason to buy a Vertu, this is it. Concierge isn't some newfangled AI or virtual assistant — it's real people making real judgment calls about what will best help you. Concierge is all about meeting your needs, be it something as basic as booking dinner reservations or things far more complicated. They offer communications in voice call, text chat, or via email — whatever suits your needs at the moment.
When the service is first set up for a new user, Vertu will call you (after making sure it's a good time to call) to orient you with the service, what they can do (basically anything), and how it all works. I took the opportunity to ask my primary Concierge manager, Melanie, what the most unique request she'd fulfilled was: she booked a Hollywood A-list makeup artist to fly to Miami and spend five hours teaching a client how to do makeup like the stars.
I could have searched through thousands of restaurants in New York City, but I let the concierge make a reservation for me. The steak was phenomoenal.
I used Concierge for something a bit more pedestrian: dinner reservations in a city I don't know that well. I was in New York City for the Samsung Galaxy S8 launch event, and for that evening I wanted to be able to take the team out for dinner (and to celebrate the simultaneous birthday of one MrMobile). I could have been a normal person and spent too much time researching restaurants on Google and Yelp (Did you know that there are a lot of places to eat in New York? Who knew!) and then finding an available reservation via OpenTable.
Instead, I hit the ruby button on the side of the phone, fired up the Concierge chat, and asked for a reservation for someplace nice but still somewhat casual. The concierge I was connected with confirmed the date and number of guests, and then went to work. An hour later, there was a reservation in my inbox for a steakhouse in downtown Manhattan. I probably wouldn't have picked it myself, but that's for the best, because it ended up being one of the best steaks I've ever had. Vertu even went so far as to arrange for complimentary appetizers (have you ever had a religious experience with bacon, because I did that night) and a round of Prosecco for the table at dessert.
Vertu Constellation In Real Life
It's kind of strange to think that something as simple as a phone could make you feel special, but Vertu phones do that to me. It might simply be because they're absurdly expensive and it feels so weird to know that I've been walking around with one in my pocket. And it might be because of the human-driven power of Concierge and knowing that it's just a ruby button away from fulfilling my every wish. Or it might be because I'm just kind of smitten with this phone, flaws and all, because it is so ridiculous and ostentatious.
But there is no getting around that this is not a perfect phone, especially for what you might expect for a $6,000 price tag. You're not getting top-end specs or the latest Android software (Nougat is several months away, if ever coming at all), and with heavy use you'll still struggle to make it through the day, despite the heft of this phone making you think it must be full of lithium-ion battery.
For all those shortcomings, though, the Vertu Constellation is still the sort of phone I think would be fun to have weighing down my pocket. It's certainly a conversation starter amongst my also-not-billionaires friends — I usually start with telling them which phone it is, walk them through the various features and materials, and then ask for a price. Everybody lowballs it because nobody can conceive of a phone costing this much.
Do you wear a crown? A real one?
Vertu Constellation: Is it worth it?
This isn't an easy phone to review. In 2017 I feel as if I should be lighting on fire and throwing into a dumpster any phone that comes with these specs at anything approaching consumer flagship pricing, let alone blowing past it on its way to thousands of dollars as the Vertu Constellation does. But a Vertu phone is more than just the specs, more than just a dumb screen to run smart apps like every other Android phone.
It's a status symbol; that you can afford to live the kind of lifestyle where a $6,000 phone is nothing and where you have the time and money to ask a Concierge to arrange for you to do things like party backstage at Coachella or reserve a dinner at the booked-for-the-next-year hot restaurant of the month.
You can see the target customer in setting up your Vertu Account. Where a typical phone might offer only a few options for title — Mister, Miss, Doctor — Vertu Accounts offer a laundry list of titles, ranging from King and Queen to Sheikh and Lord and His Excellency (my favorite). This is a phone for the super rich, for oil barons and oligarchs and literal royalty.
You're not getting a technically superior product in the Vertu Constellation. You're getting a luxury product, with all of the trappings that a luxury gadget should provide. No, a Vertu can't make you coffee, but it can help you find the best coffee shop on the planet and book a private jet to get you there.
As the old saying about prices goes, "If you have to ask…"