Building a budget smartphone that stands out from the crowd has never been harder. From Honor to HTC, BQ to ZTE, a veritable horde of different players are shoveling handsets of varying quality into the hungry hands of a waiting public.
But a year has passed since these launched, and the competition has only become fiercer, with price wars raging. What was powerful and well-priced in 2015 now looks antiquated and weak.
With the newer Wileyfox Spark range, priced at a minimum of £90, the firm hopes to reclaim a little lost magic, while undercutting its competitors significantly.
There is a fine balance to be struck between cost and quality however, so has the Wileyfox Spark Plus, at £120, sacrificed a little too much to be worthy of consideration?
- CyanogenMod gives choice of visual themes
- Aspects of interface are also highly customisable
If there’s one thing that’s immediately obvious about this device, it’s that the USP is not the hardware, but rather the software: CyanogenMod.
In day to day use, there are a few differences between Cyanogen and stock Android. The basic home screen looks identical, but moving to the app list reveals a difference.
Instead of the usual left to right swipes to move between different groups of apps, there's an alphabetical list (like that found on Windows 10 Mobile). Underneath this there is a quick scroll, allowing the user to easily jump to the letter of their choice.
Cyanogen also plays host to a powerful theming engine, with a marketplace for downloading new themes. The available options are currently quite limited, but the ability to change the look of the interface on the fly is still a nice feature to have.
And it’s not just the appearance that you can tweak. Don't like the DPI setting of your screen? There's a switch for that. Want to change the colour temperature of your display? There's a toggle for that. Want to encrypt your phone? You can bet there's an option for that.
Having all this control is of course an enormous boon to the user, but it does come with a price, as there is a great deal of potential to screw things up if you press the wrong thing.
As such, the Spark Plus isn’t ideal for new smartphone users, but the in-built apps do help to make life easier. For those who don't wish to faff about when adding an email account, there is an 'Email' app, which is based on Boxer and really rather nice.
There is also a decent baked-in browser, a Gallery app, FM radio and 'AudioFX' among others.
AudioFX is a reasonably effective digital equaliser, and activating it improves general speaker performance by around 10%. It doesn’t make much difference when listening through headphones though, with the in-built sound chip providing weak bass and iffy trebles.
Lastly, there’s Truecaller, embedded right into the dialler app. This proved to be quite helpful, recognising incoming calls against a user-generated database and alerting you to spam. For those who regularly receive cold, false PPI calls, this could prove to be useful.
Design and display
- A cheap, plastic build
- Reasonably sharp 5-inch 720p screen
Plastic is to be expected in a phone of this price, but even among plastic phones the Wileyfox Spark Plus manages to feel particularly cheap, as this isn't a nice soft touch matt plastic, such as the kind HTC uses on its budget handsets like the Desire 530.
This is a relatively rough, sandpapery material that is grippy but unpleasant to hold, and one that collects fingerprints and oil marks like they are going out of style.
And although plastic is expected, it’s not essential, as for example the metal-clad Lenovo K5 is available for similar money.
The use of plastic certainly keeps the weight down though, with the Plus only coming in at 134.5g. A lightweight device can be a good thing, but in the case of the Wileyfox Spark Plus it ends up feeling, and looking, a little like a toy.
For the money, this is acceptable, but as more rivals are beginning to deliver a full metal construction at ever lower price points, the materials used here are a little disappointing.
Moving beyond the materials, you'll find the ports and buttons in largely expected places. The left side of the Wileyfox Spark Plus is home to the volume rocker, and is otherwise completely flush, while the right of the handset is devoid of features, other than the power button.
The top hosts the 3.5mm headphone jack (a welcome inclusion in this uncertain world). On the bottom of the phone you’ll find the (annoyingly asymmetrical) micro USB port, for charging and data-transfer via a PC.
Compared to 2015's Wileyfox Swift, the Spark Plus has a relatively subdued rump. Here you’ll find the rear-facing 13MP camera with a slight bronze trim, and the bronze 'fox head' logo, along with the subtle 'Wileyfox' lettering above the rear-firing speaker.
The back of the device is fully removable, giving access to the microSD and microSIM card slots. The battery is also removable, giving you the option to replace the battery if you ever feel the need.
Lastly, on the front of the Spark Plus you’ll find the 5-inch 720 x 1280 display (with Dragontrail protection, which is less common than Gorilla Glass, but still tough), the call speaker, a brightness sensor and the 8MP front-facing camera.
A factory-fitted plastic screen protector is also included, although many may wish to remove this as it feels quite unpleasant and sticky after any prolonged use.
For £120, it might be wrong to expect the Wileyfox Spark Plus to be both capable and a potential fashion accessory. But with a number of devices, like the Honor 5C, having metal shells for a similar price (or just a little more), the real value of the handset comes into question.
Though the design of the Wileyfox Spark Plus isn't exactly inspiring, there are a few other features that do it credit. First and foremost among these is the screen.
Although 720p at 5 inches doesn't quite stretch the screen into 'Retina' territory (where individual pixels are invisible to the naked eye), the display is sharp enough for everyday use.
From reading to watching videos, all but the most ardent of pixel peepers should have no issue using this screen for all their multimedia requirements.
Colour reproduction is just OK however. The screen is noticeably warm, making whites a little orange. It does get decently bright though, powering through direct sunlight in most situations.