When TECNO launched the Boom J7 last year, it made a lot of people sit up with its radical design showing the company was ready to step away from mediocre regular Android slab templates and create a design language of its own. Since then they haven’t looked back.
The Boom J8 is its successor and the latest music-centric device from TECNO’s roster boasting improved specs as well as new audio enhancements and a different design from last year’s. It also features the company’s first attempt at an in-house OS (as opposed to customized themes and wallpapers), a higher price bracket and a bit of marketing flair to push its own Boom headphone range.
This here is the Boom J8 review.
Hardware and Design
TECNO’s releases have had three major templates since last year: the premium metal-alloy design reserved for their high-end flagship, the pro-camera feel for the Camon series and the “hip youth” one for the Boom devices. This year, they seem to have abandoned individual distinctions and fused high-end and hip designs together. The marriage of these two is the Boom J8 although you can still see the cut-backs so as not to encroach on superior Phantom territory.
The J8 measures 76.84 x 153.3 x 7.35mm which makes it bigger and thicker than the Phantom 5 flagship but the reason for this is the bigger 5.5-inch HD IPS display compared to last year’s 5-inch one. This means the J8 is also in phablet territory with it’s typical issues concerning one-handed operation.
The cheap plastic build almost distracts from the beauty of the J8’s design although the metallic surrounding band rescues it while also drawing inevitable comparisons with the iPhone. The volume control buttons that flank the right side and the power button just underneath them are delightfully metallic and there are no capacitive buttons in front since the J8 uses onscreen keys.
The slick plastic back doesn’t really help either as the phone tends to slide around in your hand a bit although the rounded corners that nestle in your palms are a blessing compared to the sharp edges of the Phantom. Other advantages include the thinness and lightness of the frame which makes it easier to balance in the hand.
The usual sensors and a 5MP camera with flash round up the top while the otherwise empty bottom bezel houses an LED strip tagged “Breathing Light” that serves as a notification LED as well as a music pulsar.
A mid-rate construction for a mid-range device, but TECNO deserves props for their recent efforts in design. If you want the most premium finish for the J8, go for the Charcoal Grey model. Its dark exterior and the sandstone finish on the back which aids grip beats any other the company has produced before.
The J8 now has a bigger IPS display although it is still HD meaning it has a resolution of 720×1280 driven by a Mali-T720 renderer. Despite being HD, the display isn’t bad at all and you won’t notice individual pixels much even at small font sizes. One problem with cheaper displays on these devices though is that the blacks and whites always suffer by presenting a gray cast instead. The calibration isn’t exactly the best as blues also suffer but reds pop. The Boom J8 display does have some tricks up its sleeve by tweaking the brightness in the camera and gallery apps for maximum visibility but my favourite part is its readability under direct sunlight thanks to a less reflective screen that is easier to use outdoors.
Even though the J8 still uses a quad-core MTK processor in this reincarnation, the improved MT6735 chipset coupled with increased RAM means it sails through most tasks effortlessly. You can toss several 2D and 3D games at it, minimize them and when they become active again, they will resume from where they left off. The Boom J8 doesn’t lag even though it wouldn’t hurt if touch responsiveness was a bit faster.
The Boom J8 ships with 16GB ROM storage but after loading up on major social media apps, email and games, that 16GB tends to run out quick. System files already take up just over 5GB of that space and the Miscellaneous section tend to mushroom rapidly as well. Your best bet would be to take advantage of the external memory capabilities and stock up on expandable storage for your media files and run the embedded memory manager from time to time to clear out junk.
The spec updates compared to its predecessor definitely gave the J8 a boost and it feels good running a device that doesn’t feel hampered by price cuts.
It is 2016, Android 6.0 Marshmallow has been released and developers are already getting Android N, yet TECNO still decided to stick with 5.1 Lollipop, choosing instead to release a modded version which they have dubbed HiOS.
For a customized UI, HiOS doesn’t deviate much from the other modified themes you may have seen on the Camon C8 or the Phantom 5. Icon, font and wallpaper templates aren’t so different although they are their own individual apps and the ultra-power battery management modes from previous models still carries over. Shortcut apps like a wallpaper switcher are included and there are new apps for the Boom Maxx equalizer features while the Boom Player gets a 2.1 update.
But the star of the show as TECNO would have you believe is Hi Manager, a memory and storage optimization app that closes background apps to free RAM, clears junk from the cache and manages app startup to keep your phone in shape. You can do this all manually from the Settings menu but having it all as one app simplifies things. The most important tools in Hi Manager for me are the Harassment Block features (goodbye spam SMS and robocalls) and Bandwidth Management which lets you dictate what apps get to use your data or get cut-off.
HiOS is laudable for its smooth transitions, widgets, app drawer, multiple folder support and nice UI touches like a swipe right from the Home screen for its Boom widget and touch gestures but one wishes they had stuck more to stock Android icons instead of cartoonish ones with square opaque borders and rounded corners. That’s probably just nitpicking but an attention to details goes a long way. This attention to detail is lacking in the Chinese characters that manage to sneak into a few options and the typos.
Depending on how you see it, HiOS proposes to be a big deal but it is not quite there yet. It should be interesting to see how HiOS evolves with the promised Marshmallow update and new features in the near future.
Call Quality and Network
This is one area that Chinese OEMs mastered earlier and dual SIM management follows the tried and true procedures long laid down. You can choose any of the two SIMs for calls and/or data and both support the full band of radios the J8 ships with.
There were no dropped calls during the cause of this review that weren’t network-induced but for some non-discernible reason, the call volume on my review unit was very low even at max settings meaning that clarity suffered and using it in noisy surroundings was more stress than it was worth. Using the speakerphone was still no better. I am willing to cut TECNO some slack here and blame the unit instead since no other person seemed to have this complaint but hopefully a future update might fix this if it is a bug.
What good is a Boom review without a section dedicated to music? As usual, TECNO hypes the music characteristics of the J8 and the inclusion of licensed Waves plug-ins as well as a Maxx Audio equalizer app seems to justify this. The Boom Player app, a combination FM radio/music media player as well as offline and streaming digital music service/library has also gotten an update to fix any issues one might had with the former and includes more payment options.
The included Boom headphones are nice and the cans have effective noise-canceling properties by completely enclosing your ears but they aren’t much different sound-quality wise than the earphones that shipped with the Phantom 5. Boom Maxx is equipped with pre-configured treble, mid and bass levels and you can also create your own custom presets. Music from the Boom J8 is relatively impressive with rich highs and enhanced bass but these sound more like software tweaks rather than better DACs for instance.
The highly-touted stereo speakers drilled into the bottom of the phone are a bad example of design over function. Block the left one with a thumb or your palm (typical when you play games in landscape mode for instance) and the sound all but disappears. My advice: Enjoy the hype but don’t go throwing away your home-theater system just yet.
Another area that has seen improvements is the camera which climbs out of budget 8MP terrain and into the 13MPs previously reserved for flagships. The front camera is also cranked up from 2MP to 5MP and features a front-facing flash for brighter selfies.
The Camera UI looks bare-bones at first but its simplified UI hides extras like panorama and slow-motion modes as well as beautification features. There are also the usual toggles for HDR, aspect ratio and gesture shot but most of the manual settings are missing. There are no real-time preset filters either but you can apply them in edits later on (destructive, because you will lose the originals).
Even at that, with the automatic settings you will take good photographs but for best results shoot outdoors with bright lights. Indoor scenes that are poorly-lit aren’t made any better by digital noise levels. And if you want to take selfies with that front camera, be prepared for a bit of frustration as switching from the back to front camera is really slow.
They could have stuck to the same old specs and called it a day so it is good to see the J8 doesn’t suffer any cuts here. However, the camera experience seems held-back by the removal of manual modes and other professional features, an obvious move not to cannibalize the C8 and P5.
3000mAh is the magic spot nowadays, the benchmark for any OEM who wants to be serious in the African market with its peculiar power issues and thankfully the J8 delivers on this. The battery is sealed-in so you can’t replace them by yourself but this is the way of the world now so get used to it.
Battery life on the Boom J8 easily lasts most of the day with moderate to heavy use and the positives of HiOS’ power-handling are the almost linear battery drain and the customizable smart features that kick in when your battery drops below certain fixed levels. The advantage here is that the drain isn’t accelerated once your battery falls below 40% for example, and you can switch off apps and even the network to extend mileage. Power-saving mode turns the display monochrome, disables everything except essential phone services and switches to a green energy logo lockscreen environmentalists would be proud of.
Extra Features & Accessories
There are the usual extra features typical of Android phones like the calculator, calendar, notebook, sound recorder, an FM radio (duplicated with a graphic UI in Boom player) and bloatware like Palmplay, Palmchat and a weather app/widget as well as a couple of games.
There are a few design touches like the notification LED strip mentioned earlier which pulses with your music (only via the Boom Player app) and flashes for notifications or while charging and a lovely shutdown/reboot screen.
Extra accessories include the usual power brick and USB cord, paper documentation and the included Boom headphones. There’s also a free folio case to cover up that white backplate when it gets scratched up a bit with constant handling.
The usual question comes up here. Is the Boom J8 a worthy upgrade to the J7? With it’s improvements in display, battery life, RAM and chipset, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” TECNO gets most things right with the J8, however the N40, 000 to N50, 000 price they are asking for it is going to give some people pause especially since the average Nigerian targets the sub N40k price bracket.
The Boom J8 borrows a bit from the last Phantom 5 flagship but not so much as to encroach on its territory and while HiOS is a fair attempt to create a new UI for TECNO, it still needs a bit of work to smooth out its rough edges and take out its cartoonish look.
A proposed future OS update to Marshmallow would make all the difference and convince naysayers that TECNO takes upgrades seriously and further cement the Boom J8’s place as a worthy competitor in the game of mid-range.