In my initial unboxing of the EE Rook, where I also gave some first impressions, I stated that someone looking for a low cost smartphone today has a huge number of choices – but this is one of the cheapest.
The days of buying a cheap smartphone and having something that struggles to keep up appear to be over, but there has to be a point where quality does begin to suffer.
So, can such a low cost phone really be a consideration for someone looking to buy a no-frills smartphone, or is it really going too far?
Depending on your priorities, such as not being particularly concerned about the quality of the camera, or a high-definition display to mostly read texts and emails, there’s definitely a market for budget phones. If not four ourselves, I am sure we all know someone who would be a perfect candidate for a low-cost phone, but doesn’t want a phone that will eventually get smashed against a wall.
EE recently decided that even people with relatively modest needs from a smartphone still want and deserve access to its high-speed 4G network. And why not?
The Rook retails at just £39 for existing EE PAYG customers (who need to have an active account, measured by the number of top-ups in the last three months) or £49 for anyone else. Each purchased also requires a £10 top-up, but that’s money you’d be spending anyway.
There’s not a great deal to look at here. It’s just a large slab of rather uninteresting plastic, but to its credit it doesn’t flex or creak much. Nobody should expect it to be winning any design awards, but it’s largely inoffensive. On the front are three capacitive buttons, the 4-inch screen, a front-facing camera and proximity sensor, plus a notification LED in the top-right corner.
On the right side of the phone is a power button near the top, and on the left a volume rocker key. At the top is where the headphone input sits, and a USB port just asking to allow water ingress should you use the phone in the rain. I am amazed that any phone has this port at the top still.
Turn to the back and there’s even less on show. A speaker down bottom, and a fixed-focus 5-megapixel camera with no LED flash. Oh, and a EE logo. Nowhere will you find any mention of the actual manufacturer on the Rook’s exterior, but for those wondering it’s made by ZTE (the giveaway being the battery).
Remove the battery cover and you’ll see the micro SIM card slot and a microSDHC slot. The phone does not support SDXC cards, so no chance of using 64, 128 or 200GB cards here. There’s also that ZTE-branded 1,500mAh battery, which can be easily swapped with a spare.
The 4-inch display, sporting a mere 480×800 pixels. While we now have qHD, HD, Full HD and QHD displays to choose from, this was once the same resolution as used on many flagship models. It’s usable, and the bigger problem will be typing on an obviously smaller on-screen keyboard – but iPhone users managed for long enough.
The bigger problem is the screen quality. We still talk about viewing angles today, but now it’s more a case of moaning about a slight change in image when looking at rather extreme angles. The screen on the Rook is proper old school, where even a small tilt in any direction will see the image getting darker or lighter, with the colours eventually shifting to negative.
Take a look at the images below as the phone is angled back, to see how it affect the picture.
We’ve advanced a lot in screen technology, but you wouldn’t know it with this phone. But, before writing the phone off entirely, when you hold the phone in the ‘correct’ fashion, the screen is fairly normal. When holding the Rook, or indeed any phone, you don’t generally tilt it when looking at it.
What you must bear in mind, however, is that it isn’t going to be good for showing photos to a group of friends, or trying to watch Netflix in bed, but I am not sure either of these things will apply to many people buying this phone.
The camera is perhaps another sign of why this phone is so much cheaper than other devices on the market. Whether you use the front or rear camera, you’re not going to get much from either camera.
The camera at the front is clearly the worst (it’s a pathetic 0.3-megapixels), but as someone not really in to selfies, I rarely care much for them even on phones with 8 or 13-megapixel sensors. But, for taking normal photos with the rear camera, I expect a certain level of quality. At the very least, they should be okay to share on Facebook or another social media service.
You can just about get a photo worth sharing from the Rook camera, if you aren’t intending to zoom in and crop later, or let the photo be viewed at 100%, revealing the sheer lack of detail. Any closer inspection of a photo will quickly show them all to look almost like oil paintings.
In particular, the HDR mode seems to result in a very unnatural photo that will also look awful if anything moves during the time taken to take multiple shots. The HDR mode is simply too slow, and there’s no automatic mode either.
Some people might actually think the HDR photos are more artistic, and sometimes they do look more interesting than the dull photos you’ll get normally, but that’s because the camera is so bad in the first place.
Naturally, you’ll need to take photos in the best possible lighting conditions too, as there’s no flash.
The phone has a multi-angle view feature, akin to the ‘3D’ feature on old Sony Ericsson phones like the Xperia arc (HTC also has something similar), where you can move slowly when taking a photo of an object to get a pseudo-3D image when you play it back (basically allowing you to scroll left and right and see something at different perspectives).
As you can only view this on the phone itself, and the resolution is tiny, it’s not a killer feature. Sony dropped the feature ages ago, and you can see why.
As thumbnails, these images may not look too terrible – but click to view any of them at full size. See now?
HD Video? Don’t make me laugh
For video recording, you get a choice of video quality from low to fine. The phone doesn’t state what the actual differences are in resolution, so I recorded a short clip in each mode to find out that they are: Low 177×144 pixels, Medium 480×320 pixels, High 640×480 pixels, Fine 864×480 pixels. As an example, check the video below. Like taking still photos, the camera doesn’t get any better for video either.
So far things aren’t looking great, but in terms of performance, the Rook isn’t actually that far behind some of the 2014 flagships, The phone uses a 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53, quad-core MediaTek CPU clocked at 1GHz, with a ARM Mali T720 GPU, and 1GB of RAM.
Sure, things have moved on considerably this year with benchmarks topping 50,000, but let’s get a sense of perspective here. Anything over 20,000 isn’t bad (as per the AnTuTu score pictured right) and the phone is responsive, which is probably more important than anything else.
People want a good user experience, not selecting something and waiting for a response, and the Rook copes perfectly well here. Thanks to Android Lollipop 5.1, it is also well optimised and should hopefully be free of the various issues that dogged the OS for most of the year.
It is unclear if ZTE and EE will support the phone for future updates, including the likelihood of it receiving Android M, but as it stands it’s pretty much the latest version of Android.
In terms of 4G performance, the phone can be used with EE’s double speed 4G network, although it won’t go as far as supporting the potential 300Mbps speeds you can now get in select cities around the UK (by using both 1800MHz and 2600MHz spectrum at the same time). The phone supports LTE at 800, 900, 1800 and 2600MHz.
Nevertheless, it supports speeds of up to 150Mbps, so you won’t have to sit around waiting for web pages to load, apps to download, or video to stream. Even where 4G isn’t yet available, you have fast 3G access to fall back to.
The Rook comes with 8GB of internal storage, plus a card slot that’s good for adding up to 32GB. Sadly it really is just 32GB, and a 128GB card that I inserted as a test was promptly rejected as unreadable (and couldn’t be formatted either).
This means there’s a fairly small amount of internal space to install apps, which is likely going to be the biggest problem in the long term. No matter you might think – just copy apps to the SD card. Yes, that would be an ideal solution if you could actually do it. But you can’t.
You can nominate the SD card as the default write disk, but it still doesn’t result in apps being installed on the memory card. Nor can you appear to transfer apps to the SD card after installing them internally. It’s an alarming ‘fail’.
I have no idea if this will be fixed in an upcoming update, but until then it means you’ve got about 3.5GB to play with and that’s your lot. It makes the memory card a lot less useful than it ought to be.
Turn back the clock four years or so and many phones had less than 500MB of storage space set aside for apps, but that was then, and this is now.
By now, you’re probably not expecting me to say anything positive, and – sadly – I wish I could start saying ‘panic over’ and wax lyrical about how the speaker saves the day, making for a perfect music player or speakerphone etc.
But I can’t, as the rear speaker is just as disappointing as the screen. It’s very quiet and incredibly tinny.
Perhaps I should point out you’ve got a headphone jack and Bluetooth audio support, but the headphones bundled in the box are only fit for the bin so even they won’t improve things.
Coupled with the screen, this won’t be a top choice phone for playing media – although investing in a decent set of cans, or speakers (wired or not) will make a world of difference. It’s hard not to.
Sooner or later I’m going to find something that stands out, and surprisingly the battery didn’t perform anywhere near as badly as I feared. With just 1,500mAh I expected the worst, but perhaps the tiny screen has one big benefit. That and the fact most users are unlikely to be pushing the phone to its limits very often. Indeed, when I checked the CPU running, I found one core usually sits in sleep mode most of the time.
The all important screen on time averaged around three and a half hours, which isn’t fantastic but likely ample in this case. Left in standby and with minimal usage, the type of usage of someone who isn’t glued to their smartphone 24/7, the phone lasted for two days and with more to spare. You could possibly push this to three days, but most will settle for having it last from dawn to dusk with a reasonable buffer.
Here the Rook passes with flying colours.
There are obviously caveats, such as how good a phone signal you have, but it’s one area where the phone can hold its head up high. Goodness knows this phone needs some support.
Believe it or not, the Rook isn’t a terrible phone, despite all of the above negatives mentioned. If you’re asking how I could possibly come to that conclusion, let me explain.
It’s a phone you can get for under £40 if you’re an existing EE prepay customer, and it works fine for making calls, texting, email and web browsing. It may not let you install loads of games (in fact, it may struggle with just a handful), but would you have ever bought this for gaming? If you want access to your bank, get transport information, check maps, read the news, follow your favourite sport, or use other productivity style apps, you’ll have no problems with the Rook.
The camera is dross, but there are plenty of people not so interested in taking photos on a phone – or perhaps photos in general. It’s not going to make for a decent media player either, but with some decent headphones you could still get a reasonable experience with Netflix or Spotify, or use the phone as a remote control for a Chromecast or Fire TV stick instead.
With fast 4G, and Wi-Fi (2.4GHz only, just in case you expected otherwise) and the ability to use the phone as a portable hotspot (making it cheaper than most portable wireless hotspots), there’s definitely a market for this phone.
Anyone who hoped that this might match, or better, the performance of the likes of the Moto E for less money can now be reassured that it doesn’t. The Moto E has a better screen, audio, and even faster performance from its Qualcomm 64-bit SoC. But the Moto E costs nearer £100, so it’s all relative.
EE wanted to release a cheap 4G smartphone and it has achieved that aim. It’s not the best phone on the market, but hopefully you now know what’s good and what’s bad.
What’s in the box?
- EE Rook handset
- 1,500mAh battery
- USB cable (no mains adapter)
- Basic user guide & warranty information