Nearly everyone conversant with phones in Africa remembers the advent of TECNO, the Chinese mobile company that stormed the market with cheap, sometimes weird handsets and won marketshare for itself with extensive direct marketing and low prices. They have come a long way since then, marking a deviation from the earlier business model with the introduction of its Phantom series, a step into the high level smartphone market. But it wasn’t until maybe the Phantom A+ that TECNO started placing itself alongside other flagships, the top position it has now gone all out to challenge with the introduction of its latest model, the Phantom 5 and a change from alphabetic to numerical naming convention.
For just over a month now, the Phantom 5 has undergone extensive use through various scenario and use cases to ascertain if indeed TECNO has a killer on their hands to justify the premium price they are asking for it. A lot has been written about it, both flatteringly and in a much harsher light but none as thoroughly and objectively as you are going to read here. After a detailed first impression, all the rigors of active use and seemingly a lifetime as a daily driver, this here is the Phantom 5 review.
Hardware and Design
If you have followed the releases this year of the Boom J7 and the Camon C8 models, it is clear that TECNO has redefined its design language to break free from the jinx of the typical Android slab. The first step in this is the emphasis on build material.
Being their most premium device yet, TECNO sets details straight right from the start with its aluminum alloy-type construction. Reminiscent of the all-metal build of recent flagships, the Phantom 5 has a unibody chassis with non-removable backplate and a sealed-in battery.
The advantage of this design results in a phone that is impressively thin at only 6.8mm. The aluminium chassis runs all round the back and sides, broken by plastic flaps over the top and bottom of the phone which hold the antenna and any other electronics which may interfere with metal. There is something military-like in the strict design lines of the back and the sides, interrupted by the 5.5 inch AMOLED display. The Phantom 5 is gorgeous to look at and every single person who saw it was amazed it was a TECNO.
This design does have its drawbacks though. At 151mm x 75.8mm, the Phantom 5 is firmly in phablet category and is difficult to use in operation one-handed especially if your hands are small. Coupled with the fact that it is relatively light, the curved metallic back is slick and has virtually no grip. To prevent dropping it constantly, you may need to use the free flip cover TECNO throws in. The edges of the Phantom 5 are so acute, that they will dig into your palms in both horizontal and portrait orientation which gets irritating with prolonged use.
Still speaking of the back, there is a sound-cancelling microphone towards the top which also helps to capture audio while recording videos and below that are the 13MP main camera accompanied by dual LED flash. TECNO’s prized highlight in the Phantom 5 is the fingerprint sensor which resides just below the camera. Barely visible TECNO and Dolby branding and a prominent speaker grille made up of micro-drilled holes round out the rest.
Thankfully, the physical volume control and power buttons positioned about a third way down the right side are within reach regardless of which hand you use and have decent travel when depressed. You will need the SIM ejector tool to pop out the drawers for the separate dual-SIM and expandable memory slots on opposite sides and they fit flush with the sides, so flush in fact that certain reviews have missed out that this Phantom does have expandable memory. Speaking of storage, 32GB of internal space is standard but the OS and system files take up roughly a fifth of that. For even more, you can pop in a microSD card.
The front of this device mostly comprises of that 5.5-inch, 1080 x 1920 resolution FHD display which is without dispute the best on a TECNO phone so far. Their recent models have had good displays, but that on the Phantom 5 trumps them all, expected considering its flagship status. Colours pop out and are bright, and although they may appear oversaturated sometimes, it is a good thing to see them well represented here. Blacks are black, white is white and all the other colours of the spectrum are what they are meant to be.
The display has an almost 180 degrees viewing angle and at that resolution, pixels are indiscernible to the naked eye and if you need increased visibility outdoors, you can crank it up all the way to the brightest. I had absolutely no issues with this display and its thin side bezels help in narrowing the overall width.
A front-facing camera, rated at 8MP sits above the display with its own flash which should improve the lighting on those selfies and just beside them is the usual sensor array (which is nearly invisible on that all-black display). A small earpiece grille completes the top assembly. Noticeably absent – for me anyway – is the notification LED, not a big deal for most, but considering how TECNO made us love it by incorporating it into the Boom J7’s red ring, it is missed here. The Phantom 5 ditches the physical and uses software keys instead, which felt odd at first if one takes in consideration the size of bottom bezel on this display, but after the initial mastery of how to show and dismiss them, they worked just fine for me. I also like how the keyboard-switch icon is at the bottom when typing instead of on top where some others put it.
In my previous review, I did say the Boom J7 was TECNO’s best designed phone ever. Now I take that back. Everyone I have shown this phone to agree that the Phantom 5 does deserve that title – for now.
Another first marked by this flagship was that it shipped with Android 5.1 Lollipop compared to KitKat which its predecessors came with. With time this point has become somehow moot since the next OS version, Marshmallow has been released by Google. As is the case with the previous two models released, TECNO has stuck with their own in-house theme skinned on top of Lollipop which admittedly leans towards a thinner font and a flat vibrant icon palette but still has its own quirks which can be annoying sometimes.
In line with the fingerprint security technology, unlocking the phone requires a PIN or placing your finger on the sensor at the back (if security is not your thing, you can skip this altogether in Settings). The sensor is impressively fast, and registering your prints is easy but despite the hype when TECNO launched this, it still has a fair degree of mismatches depending on how you place your finger. The failure rate is low, but it would rather err than let you unlock with a random print, which is good.
TECNO has toned down the jarring wallpaper/font clash that was present on the Boom J7 and tried to simplify the settings menu into four loosely-grouped categories which are less confusing. The drop-down notification shade is typical Android 5.1, nothing new here except the icons are reminiscent of another brand’s flagship. The animated weather lock-screen also makes a comeback, which I approve of.
The software implementation on the Phantom 5 still has its pitfalls though. First of all, while there is an app drawer, there is no way to rearrange your app icons or create folders except on the home screen. You can uninstall the bloatware apps that come with the phone (thankfully) but the Phantom 5 insists on arranging apps exactly in the order you install them – right after its own system apps – instead of alphabetically or randomly. If like me, you like arranging apps based on the frequency you use them, this will be a major pet peeve for you.
Another glaring omission which I am surprised no one has caught on to is the fact that there is no BOLD font in the entire font library of this device. This is confusing for stuff like your email Inbox which denotes unread mail in bolder font for instance. The app switcher has a big Clear All button which means you will often mistakenly close apps in it where you mean to close just the bottom one and the swipe feature for accepting or rejecting calls is annoying. Personally, I wish they would stick closer to stock Android.
Minor annoyances aside, the 1.5GHz MT6753 Octa-core Processor coupled with the Mali -T720 GPU handled operations very well and there wasn’t any stutter while switching between apps. There is a noticeable half to one-second delay while launching them but it is not much cause for alarm. The Phantom 5 also has 3GB of RAM but even when the phone is doing nothing, half of that is already used up which underlines the need for TECNO to improve on their software optimizations. Even more on the plus side, it hardly ever heats up except during intense 3D gaming.
There have been speculations about whether TECNO will update the Phantom 5 to Marshmallow based on their poor track record of never updating the OS on previous models. Interestingly, this Phantom has seen 3 minor software updates (bug fixes and performance improvements) pushed OTA since launch so that is a good sign that their software team is sitting up. It is left to be seen if they will indeed extend this to Android 6.0.
Call Quality and Network
The dual microSIM configuration on the P5 supports 2G GSM 900/1800/1900 MHz, 3G HSDPA 900/2100MHz, 4G LTE, EDGE and GPRS on both SIMs simultaneously meaning all bands are adequately covered. As usual with dual SIMs, you can designate them individually to handle calls, network and SMS or set a default SIM for all of these. Call quality is really good and there were no phone-induced dropped calls.
During the launch, there were a lot of announcements regarding the main and secondary cameras including specs like their megapixel count, front camera flash LED, f2.0 large aperture and fast-tracking auto-focus. Basically, these specs combined together are meant to give you the most impressive TECNO photographic experience yet.
The camera UI is virtually unchanged from that on the C8, even though its settings have been deliberately pared down to make it appear simpler. The usual filters and enhancements like clipart and borders you can use to embellish your photos are present although manual settings like ISO and white balance have been removed. In their place are default photo modes like Auto and Night mode, panorama and even face beauty mode plus a picture-in-picture mode that lets you create a photo captured by both back and front lenses simultaneously as well as Electronic Image Stabilization. Gimmicky features like gesture, voice and smile shot also make an appearance.
The image quality from the Phantom 5 lends credence to the claim that some of those fancy specs they mentioned actually seem true. Outdoors photos came out good and even indoors images with bad lighting are so much improved although the Phantom 5 cheats sometimes by excessively exposing the scene and over saturating colours to make them appear brighter. Fast-tracking auto-focus means there are fewer instances of blur in images that have movement in them and you can enable object tracking via tapping on the viewfinder display to focus manually.
That is for the primary camera. Despite a front-facing camera that boasts a megapixel count even higher than what you find on some main phone cameras, there’s nothing here too spectacular if you take selfies. Interestingly, the Phantom 5 clearly leaves the Camon C8 in the dust, which is a bit surprising considering that phone was marketed as a photographer’s dream device. The 13MP rear camera on the Phantom 5 is TECNO’s foot in the door. You could consider it a worthy challenger to other big-name OEM flagships although it does not overthrow any of them soundly despite the hype.
Once you stop squirming and get over the fact that the 3000mAh-rated battery here is sealed in and non-user replaceable, you would be in for another pleasant surprise. The Phantom 5 is one of the few android devices I have used that has faithfully delivered nearly 24-hour battery life in all my mixed-use case scenarios.
While switching back and forth between email, social media, music and the occasional gaming session, the Phantom 5 still had at least 15% power left at the end of the day. Whatever power management features TECNO has worked on to achieve this should be replicated in all their phone models going forward. It also confirms the fact that 3000mAh should be the required minimum for anyone who takes their phone usage seriously.
The usual power widgets and ultra-saving modes are here should you need to better enhance and monitor your power consumption rates.
By the time you may have gotten rid of the bloatware installed on this device, the only one worth keeping will be file-transfer apps like Xender and definitely the revamped Boom v2.0 player. Boom 2.0 is TECNO’s media player/music streaming and download tie-in app and it does a relatively good job if a mostly African music catalogue is your thing. Boom also has a fascinating FM radio plug-in that displays the stations’ call signs, logos and frequencies within Nigeria at least which you can search based on location or broadcast frequency.
Dolby Atmos sound technology has been licensed here, and you can hear it especially with the external speakers and the range of equalizers but there are no special built-in amplifiers. If earphones are your thing, a really cool pair is tossed in the packaging which are identical to the metallic ones in the J7 but not as good.
There is also a wallpaper gallery and CarlCare support to round out the package but there is no quick-charging power adaptor here, neither is there wireless charging support like the more expensive OEMs are moving to. NFC is also absent which isn’t much to cry about for now but keep that in mind as we embrace wireless payment solutions in the near future.
The Phantom 5 is the phone that marks TECNO’s big move in placing themselves firmly in the big leagues. On this point, it delivers on many grounds even though the attempts in trying to establish an unique identity different from stock Android bogs down the software experience sometimes.
However, status doesn’t come cheap. The elephant in the room is going to be if this new flagship’s status will be at par with the price TECNO is asking for it. The Phantom series has always been priced higher, but right now people are becoming used to the budget attractiveness of Android One and other competing Chinese brands filling up the sub-N40,000 mid-range with white label brands who now have the same fingerprint sensors, 3GB RAM and 13MP camera the Phantom 5 boasts of, that it will take some convincing to get people to put down N69, 999 rather than add several thousands more and get a higher name brand.
Is the Phantom 5 worth it? Yes it is. And it could be even better if TECNO figures out the direction the market is heading, ditches its sometimes quirky attempts at customizing a UI identity for itself, listens to its customers more and prices appropriately. The Phantom 5 is a statement, a good one at that, given its unenviable role in being launched at a point where one either takes the brand seriously or feels betrayed by its price aspirations. It is left to see if this statement is loud enough to get people to listen where it matters – with their wallets.