Skip past the darker times and fast forward to about nine years later, Meizu would launch another MX, but now it's a totally different animal: a 1.4GHz dual-core Android smartphone that can handle a tad more than just music playback. Of course, company founder Jack Wong and his gang aren't the only players on the paddy field, as we also have the similarly powerful Xiaomi Phone already taking the lead in the Chinese Android enthusiast market. Adding more fuel to the fire is that shortly after the Xiaomi Phone's debut, Wong responded to a related forum post by accusing a certain someone -- which is believed to be Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun -- of abusing his or her old position as an angel investor to deviously walk away with Meizu's trade secrets. Alas, we'll probably never know the truth, so we shall simply observe whether the new Meizu MX will bite back hard and good. Read on for our full review on Meizu's second Android handset.
- Sharp display with slick graphics
- Great music quality through headphones
- Unique casing with good build quality
- Flyme OS not as intuitive as MIUI
- No memory expansion
- ASV viewing angle not as good as IPS
Meizu's third-ever smartphone is its best product yet, but while it's priced attractively, there's some room for improvement.
Packaging and hardware
Despite the spicy back story, there's not a sign of spitefulness on the MX's cute packaging. Unlike most smartphone boxes with vertically stacked internals, here you get a squarish faux booklet that slides out of a white cardboard sleeve, both of which proudly showing off a big gray "MX" logo bang in the middle on the front. There's also a removable blue paper band surrounding the bottom of the sleeve, though its main purpose appears to be to remind us that this is an engineering sample, so there's no telling whether the retail units will come with the same decoration.
Where's the phone, you ask? Just think about how spies conceal their weapons (or in Hannibal Smith's case: cigars) inside hollow hardcover books. Yeah, it's pretty much like that with the MX: after flicking through four simplistic pages of feature highlights, you'll find the MX and its paperwork tucked inside a nicely cut compartment, while a second compartment accessible from the back contains a micro-USB cable and a Micro-to-Mini SIM adapter. In case you're wondering, yes, this pentaband (850, 900, 1,700, 1,900 and 2,100MHz) HSPA+ phone uses a Micro SIM, and you even get a couple of Micro SIM template stickers to help you cut your Mini SIM. Oh, and like the M9, you need to get your own headphones for the MX, though if you pre-order before December 31st, the MX will come with a free headset.
Upon lifting the phone out of the box, our attention immediately focused on the texture of the back casing. Unlike the soft touch cover on many devices these days (including the M9, the Xiaomi Phone and many HTC phones), the MX features a hard white crystal-like case on the back -- the crystal part being that there's a 1mm-thick transparent plastic on top of a 1mm-thick white plastic, thus giving out a special glowing effect around the edges when shone under the light. In terms of grip, we were surprised by how comfortable the shape feels in our hand -- you get a near-straight side, followed by a shallow tapering and then a flat bottom, meaning the phone can sit still on its back. Comparing the 139g-heavy, 10.3mm-thick MX to the bulkier Xiaomi Phone, the latter's combination of girth, more rounded corners plus matte cover certainly offers a more secure grip, though we somehow prefer the former's slightly slippery yet solid feel for a change. We shall let you all be the final judge on this one.
To our surprise, the back cover is actually removable. There's no obvious groove for lifting up the case -- the quick start manual actually instructs us to press down onto the case's micro-USB port opening, and then run our nail or a pick along the slit until the case unclicks at various spots. It was a bit painful for the first few times, but much like giving birth to kids after the first one, the procedure somehow became less of a torture over time -- our thumb must have toughened up. That said, we do wonder how long it'd take before the slit starts to wear out, and the booklet even suggests that we avoid frequently removing the case in order to maintain a tight seal.
But would the users be frequently removing the case, anyway? The 1,600mAh battery isn't user-removable, nor is there a microSD card slot inside; so really, removing the case is just for us to access the spring-loaded Micro SIM tray, and you'd obviously have to be a frequent traveler to keep your nail busy. Another interesting point to highlight is that the camera flashlight is actually placed on the case rather than on the body, and it has three metal contact points underneath for power and earthing. Understandably, Meizu has confirmed that there are currently no plans for swappable cases, though third party manufacturers might churn out some accessories to reach similar goals.
At first sight, there aren't that many surprises externally when it comes to buttons on the MX, but it gets interesting as you touch it more and more. The basics include the power button at the top and the volume rocker on the left, but the physical home button is no longer a flat, round rectangle akin to Samsung's style -- instead, it's now a small dome that's easy to click on, yet it also seems to be small enough to avoid accidental clicks while chilling in our pocket. That said, after a few days of full-time usage, we spotted some light scratches at the tip of the dome, which would explain why no other Android phones have gone with similar button designs. Still, we like our little nipple, so we'll just have avoid letting our phone face downward on the desk.
Other visible features include the micro-USB port (which supports USB host, MHL for HDMI output and S/PDIF for digital audio connection), a microphone and two mysterious dents along the bottom side, as well as a noise-cancelling mic next to the 3.5mm headphone jack at the top side, and a mono speaker on the right-hand side of the back. Before you complain about the lack of a dedicated camera button, it turns out that in the camera app the volume up button doubles up as a single-stage trigger button (obviously not as satisfying as the two-stage camera buttons on many other flagship phones), while volume down toggles between photo mode and video mode.
We'll talk more about music playback in a bit, but since we're here, we do have some thoughts on the speaker. Yes, going mono is certainly a downgrade from the louder stereo speakers on the M8 and M9, though the MX is still a tad louder than the Xiaomi Phone. We can only assume that Meizu had great reasons to give up its hallmark feature, most likely for the sake of the new form factor. Another problem is that due to the position of the speaker, a lot of the times our right palm ends up blocking the audio entirely when holding the MX in portrait orientation. This wouldn't happen if the speaker was located further up the phone.
In our opinion, the most interesting physical feature on the MX is its situation-aware bottom light keys. These are essentially five-dot LED cross matrices, with the left set forming the back key while the other being the menu key. In addition to responding to touch input with a momentary brighter glow, the patterns light up according to the phone's orientation (both landscape modes supported) and the availability of back or menu feature, meaning users should be less frustrated by the lack of response when tapping a dormant key in certain situations (when you're already in settings, for instance). When on standby, the center dots of these keys also blink slowly to indicate new notifications. To sum it up, think HTC Incredible S's optically rotating buttons on steroids. This is obviously a very unique feature amongst the ocean of Android devices these days, and Meizu deserves much credit for such an innovation.
This is obviously a very unique feature amongst the ocean of Android devices these days, and Meizu deserves much credit for such an innovation.
Those who are familiar with Meizu's OS -- now oddly dubbed Flyme OS -- will no doubt know that holding down the back button on the home screen switches off the LCD (same as pressing the power button); and the same goes for the MX. Likewise, holding down both the power button and the home button lets you take a screenshot. But when the phone's completely turned off, holding down both the power button and the volume up key boots the MX into firmware upgrade mode (and you need to place your downloaded update.zip file in the root folder); whereas holding down the power button and the home key lets you wipe your personal data. While these button functions are pretty much the same as the M9, there is however one significant change: instead of double-tapping the home button for the task manager, you now hold down the menu button instead on the MX. We'll come back to that later.
Following the evolution of most phones, one of the biggest physical changes from the M9 to the MX is the screen size increase, making a jump from 3.5 inches to 4 inches but preserving the same 960 x 640 resolution. Honestly, we aren't at all bothered by the drop in pixel density. If anything, we actually enjoyed the larger ASV LCD's improved viewing angles (which also beat the Xiaomi Phone's transflective LCD) and the slightly wider color range. Still, when placed side by side, the iPhone 4S's Retina Display and the HTC Incredible S's SLCD show more realistic colors; but frankly, the quality difference is far from a deal breaker and is hardly noticeable when the MX is on its own.
When Meizu announced that the MX will come with an eight-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor (same technology used by the iPhone 4S and the Xperia Arc or Arc S), naturally we had high expectations on its picture quality; but first, let's focus on the camera app. When capturing stills you can use the menu to toggle between normal mode, smile detection mode and panorama mode. In normal mode you have access to all the usual options such as ISO (from 50 to 3200), scene, a three-level wide dynamic mode (aka HDR), photo size, white balance and geotagging. The flash switch at the top left corner can switch between auto, forced flash and no flash; whereas the button at the top right of the canvas lets you switch between the 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera and the main camera. We suggest users to not depend on the smaller camera for self-portraits, though, as its picture quality is only good enough for quick and dirty video calls.
Smile detection is pretty self-explanatory and it worked well with our grin (see 14:52 in our above walkthrough video), though the only settings available for fiddling with are ISO, photo size and geotagging. Panorama mode (pictured above) is left with only ISO and geotagging settings, but it also performed well using the phone's gyroscope and our own steady hands, thus producing combined images around the size of 3,264 × 1,120 -- the latter value varies depending on coverage angle -- with clean overlaps. However, the panorama mode only supports one landscape orientation: sweeping from left to right with the MX's volume rocker facing downwards. This is a bizarre design considering that the shutter button (volume up) is normally at the top right corner of a camera.
It's inevitable that we'd compare the MX's f/2.2 camera with the Xiaomi Phone's f/2.4 counterpart with the same eight-megapixel resolution. Interestingly, putting the images side by side shows that these two phones are at two different sides of the scale. While the Xiaomi Phone appears to produce more vibrant images, we find them to be over-saturated most of the time. On the other hand, the MX's wider photos displayed more realistic colors,
We tend to get satisfactory pictures so long as we have wide dynamic mode set to low or medium.
Update: We've been using a final retail unit for a while now and the camera no longer suffers from the green hue problem in auto white balance mode. What's more, we came across a pretty cool Sony Ericsson demo that helped highlight the MX's BSI camera sensor technology (which is very likely provided by Sony as well): it consisted of a black box that contained a toy plane, and when we stuck our MX's lens into the small hole at the top, the camera still managed to capture a surprisingly (and understandably unconvincing) clear image of what appeared to be total darkness to our naked eyes. (And of course, the Xperia Arc S managed the same performance.) You can see some new photos in the second gallery below.
Other than that, we tend to get satisfactory pictures so long as we have wide dynamic mode set to low or medium. One of our favorite stills is a night shot of a dark walkway under some trees and a street lamp: with the assistance of low-level wide dynamic mode, this surprisingly clear image is a prime example for showing off what BSI technology does best. Our macro shots also came out great, and we could get as far down as 5cm above the object without much trouble with the autofocus.
As for video recording, currently the MX beats the 720p-only Xiaomi Phone, though to our surprise, by default the former's video recording resolution is set to 1,080 x 720 only, and it kept disregarding our previous setting, often changing it back to this resolution. Two things boggle us here: why not 1,280 x 720 at least? And why set a video resolution lower than what the camera's advertised for? If the intention here is to save storage space then we'd rather be prompted for a decision upon first boot-up; otherwise we fear many users would be disappointed when they realize they'd been capturing much footage at a lower resolution than intended since day one.
Leaving our rant aside, the 1080p video quality (actually 1,920 x 1,072 at 30fps, MPEG-4 AVC main profile at level 4, up to 25.5Mbps) isn't bad at all bar the same light green hue problem. There's no fancy optical image stabilizing technology here, obviously, but the lack of continuous autofocus -- as featured on the Xperia Arc S and the Xiaomi Phone -- is a slight drawback. That said, you can focus manually while filming by tapping on your desired spot on the screen, but be sure to tap lightly to keep a steady footage, and also beware of the light clicking noise coming from the lens while auto-focusing -- this is more apparent when the lens is facing upwards. We also spotted a couple of bugs here, with the more severe one being that sometimes at night our recording tends to skip frames or slow down at certain points. The lesser problem we saw was that the first second of all our clips captured the camera's preparation autofocus in action, but this should be easy for the engineers to eliminate. Anyhow, see for yourself below.
Sample 1080p video clips:
As we mentioned briefly earlier, the MX's slick Flyme OS (currently based on Android 2.3.5 with 4.0 upgrade planned) has preserved many features from the M9, and on the international model it's also rootable. But in case this is your first acquaintance with Meizu's Android customization, it's probably the easiest if you think of it as a crossover between a standard Android OS and iOS: like the latter, there's no dedicated app list here, so all your apps are spread across up to ten home screens; but of course, you can also add widgets, though Flyme only lets you use each of them once, which can be slightly inconvenient for those rocking numerous home screens. Interestingly, the Xiaomi Phone's MIUI OS also features this iOS-like app management, so the Chinese users must be pretty fond of Apple's mobile UX. Alas, unlike MIUI, there's no way of quickly jumping from one home screen to another on Flyme, so you'll just have to work your finger with plenty of horizontal swiping; or simply make better use with your folders.
Leaving the home screen management problem aside, Meizu made it up to us with various goodies dotted across the OS. Starting from the unlock screen, here you can toggle the music player controls by tapping on the menu key, as well as switching on USB storage mode if your MX is plugged into a computer (as pictured above on the left). However, we noticed that the latter activates itself even if a screen lock password is set, so anyone could access the phone's content with just a USB cable. We do appreciate the convenience, but Meizu should also offer a more secure option; after all, most other phones only let you activate mass storage mode after you go pass the screen lock.
Entering the home screen or your last active app is simply a matter of dragging the padlock icon up from the bottom, but if you do the same with either the phone icon or the speech icon on the side, you'll jump straight to either the phone app (which loads up the tab where you last left off) or the messaging app, respectively. And just like the good old days with the M9, these icons will indicate the number of awaiting missed calls and text messages.
Once you're behind the unlock screen, holding down the MX's menu button triggers the task manager; though unlike the one on the M9, this beefed up manager app also lets you toggle various radios like WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS, as well as switching between network modes (3G only, GSM only and GSM/3G auto). Alas, to toggle silent mode, vibration, flight mode (where WiFi cannot be enabled), phone-off mode or screen rotation lock, you'll need to either hold down the power button or dig them up in settings; whereas on MIUI you can simply access them on the notification tray. Having said that, Flyme does have many other hidden gems. As you probably know, on iOS you can tap the top task bar to jump straight to the top of lists, but this isn't possible on pretty much all Android OSes due to the notification tray at the top; so Meizu's cunning solution is to implement this function on the clock area at the top right corner of the screen.
If that doesn't impress you, perhaps MX's remote control tool will: as you can see in our video above, this rare feature lets you remotely control another MX within the same WiFi network. All that's required is to go into Accessibility in Settings, choose Remote Control, and then set up a device name plus a password on the host device. You can then go back to the controlling device to pick the host device from the list, log in using the aforementioned password, and voila! You should see the host device's screen on the controlling device. Understandably, there is a slight lag and a lower frame rate for the controlling end, nor can the controller use pinch-to-zoom or watch a video feed (from the camera app or video player); but still, the input response was pretty much instantaneous for us, and the host device can still be used while connected to its controller. We're not sure how often we'd use MX's remote control feature in real life, but we can definitely see potential in walking new owners through their MXs.
We're not sure how often we'd use MX's remote control feature in real life, but we can definitely see potential in walking new owners through their MXs.
Compared to many phones these days, the MX doesn't come with as many pre-installed handy apps. What you get out of the box are a calculator, an alarm clock, a file browser, a notes app, a voice recorder, an IMAP or Exchange email client, Google Maps (GPS tracking takes about half a minute) and Meizu's own app store, Mstore, which contains mostly Chinese apps. For typing, you get a multitouch English keyboard as well as various input methods for both traditional and simplified Chinese. If we were to give Meizu a wish list, we'd like to see a stopwatch or a countdown timer at least, and then maybe a torch app plus a compass app.
The MX's internet browser comes with all the features that you expect to see on a standard smartphone these days. Once a web page is fully loaded, you get pretty much a full screen view except for the task bar at the top, with the top left corner indicating the number of tabs you have opened. Hitting the menu key gives you thumbnails of all the tabs along with various buttons at the bottom: refresh, add tab, close tab, bookmarks and miscellaneous (which includes forward, history, settings, add to favorites, share URL via email or SMS, add to home screen and view downloads). There's little to complain about the browser -- we got smooth scrolling on our full website, and likewise with pinch-to-zooming. Flash videos worked fine as well until we hit the HD button, but at this day and age, we're inclined to put the blame on Adobe.
On the multimedia front, the MX's native video player supports a handful of formats including MP4, 3GP, MOV, MKV, AVI, FLV, MPEG and M2TS (and before you ask, WMV didn't work for us); whereas the native music app can handle the usual MP3 plus M4A files, along with the more obscure FLAC, APE, AAC, OGG and many more formats. But like the M9, there's no FM radio to be found on the MX. Meizu's reasoning here is that online audio streaming is the way forward, though it didn't indicate whether this is a hardware or software limitation, nor has it thrown in the same native music streaming app that the M9 had. Our guess is that Meizu didn't secure a new licensing deal (if any), but then again, there are plenty of alternatives in the app stores these days (especially the Chinese ones), so no biggie.
Speaking of app stores, we noticed that the Android Market on our MX is limited to just one download at a time, as opposed to allowing multiple download streams like many other flagship devices do. This goes along with many other weird default settings that we've had to change, where possible, to get the most out of the phone. For example: vibration notification was disabled; the auto-capitalization on the default English keyboard (which itself also has a weird layout due to the lack of row offsets) was also switched off; the punctuation mark bar on the English keyboard had to be launched manually every time we open the keyboard; and we had to install Gmail by ourselves as well (yet Google Talk and Google Translate were already dumped in a folder).
Still, none of the above are as weird as this: it turns out that there is a "CPU level" -- hidden inside Accessibility in Settings, oddly enough -- that's set to normal by default, which means the clock speed was capped at 1GHz. Considering that we usually get about six to seven hours worth of normal usage on the 1.4GHz "high" setting (with 3G constantly on as well), or even just under 5.5 hours on our standard video loop test (we got about just 10 minutes more on the Xiaomi Phone, which has a much bigger battery), we don't really see the need to underclock the phone to preserve battery juice. Worse yet, surely it's not very nice to underpower a product without telling its owner? Perhaps Meizu will reconsider this odd decision once it has a solid stable firmware for the retail units.
We usually get about six to seven hours worth of normal usage on the 1.4GHz "high" setting.
Once we got our MX charged up again, we decided to do a stress test on its video playback performance. We loaded up three 1080p .MOV movie trailers from Apple's website, with video bit rate ranging from 9Mbps to 10Mbps. To our surprise, all three played smoothly except for one or two moments where the video and audio were out of sync, but it only took a couple of seconds to catch up. We then checked these offending spots in the 720p version of the clips (at about 6Mbps), and unsurprisingly, the playback was flawless. That said, we noticed a tiny delay between the video and the audio when playing the same 720p clip through an MHL adapter (we used the Galaxy S II's HDMI adapter -- which also simultaneously charges up the phone -- as Meizu doesn't currently offer one), so hopefully this is something that can be tweaked in the software. We also had a go at playing Shadowgun on the big screen, and while the graphics looked great, we had a hard time with keeping our thumbs on the virtual buttons while simultaneously looking at the TV. Guess we'll be needing some Fling minis made just for Shadowgun -- one pad on the left and two on the right.
The native music app itself is plenty of fun, though it's not that much different than the one on the M9. With our hf3 earphones, we could use the call button to play and pause with a single click, skip track by double-clicking, and go to the previous track by triple-clicking. As for the UI you still get four tabs at the bottom in this order: playlists, songs, albums (by artists) and now playing. The repeat and shuffle buttons are on the left and right-hand side of the top song info bar, respectively, and tapping anywhere up there toggles the scrobbling dot on the timeline. Swiping horizontally in the middle lets you jump between the album art, an ice blue visualizer and the current playlist. Hitting the menu key would prompt a dialog that lets you choose between the shutdown timer (from five minutes up to an hour), song info and equalizer. If you need help remembering the words, you can go into song info to search for lyrics (as well as album art) for the current song. Once chosen, the lyrics would then start auto-scrolling below the visualizer, and tapping it would let it run atop of the visualizer. It's no doubt a cool feature, but sadly, we'll be needing more help to build up a larger lyrics library for non-Chinese music; and also, Meizu seems to have forgotten to provide a way to delete wrong lyrics.
Of course, what we really care about here is the audio quality. We've already shown our disappointment over the mono loudspeaker, but luckily, we found some sweet audio coming straight out of the 3.5mm headphone jack, and it's definitely an improvement from the M9. For instance, in Diana Krall's Isn't This A Lovely Day (from the album From This Moment On), her voice becomes significantly livelier with a fuller mid-range, while the occasional trumpet manages to hit the higher frequencies that the M9 seemed to have missed. We could also sense a wider range in the bass region, thus providing better control over the drums and the double bass. All in all, the MX makes the M9's audio sound dull, and we'd even argue that it has a finer bass control than the iPhone 4 (especially on the lighter vibrations of the double bass), but obviously you'd need a pair of nice earphones to fully appreciate this difference -- we've been pretty happy with our Etymotic hf3 matched with ACS custom earphone sleeves. Oh, and don't forget that there's also Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, which worked just fine with our Nokia Play 360° wireless speaker.
All in all, the MX makes the M9's audio sound dull, and we'd even argue that it has a finer bass control than the iPhone 4.
Similarly, phone calls were easy to listen to on the MX's little earpiece, and on the other end the voice coming from the MX's caller is cleaner but a bit tinny. This is likely due to the nature of dual-mic noise cancellation as proven by our Nexus One, but hey, it does drown out a bit of background noise. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that the phone app also has some nice goodies in settings, such as exporting or importing contacts to and from a VCF file, a customizable blacklist for spam calls, and having an automatic SMS sent to a declined caller. For the creeps out there, you can even set it so that every single phone call gets automatically recorded (rather than having to hit the record button).
Last but not least, Flyme OS actually comes with a suite of cloud services (hence the name "fly me"). While the service isn't fully operational just yet, we're promised automatic backup of our text messages, call logs, contacts, notes and settings, along with an iMessage-like phone number-based IM service that'll initially be supported in China only. Additionally, you'll also be able to locate and remote-lock your MX using the Flyme website, but again, it's not quite ready to be poked around just yet.
Don't worry, we haven't forgotten to give the MX some benchmark love for its 1.4GHz dual-core Exynos 4210 processor (garnished with 1GB 1066MHz LPDDR2 RAM and a Mali-400 MP graphics chip). But first off, boot time: our MX takes about 38 seconds to get to the lock screen, whereas our Xiaomi Phone takes only about 21 seconds. We then did a quick file transfer test over USB, and again, our MX's 8.5MB/s write speed hangs head in shame in front of the Xiaomi's 13.3MB/s; but to be fair, we did put a Class 10 microSD card in the latter device. Too bad we can't upgrade the MX's storage. However, the benchmark scores are more positive, with Quadrant and NenaMark both indicating that the MX is much better at 3D rendering, though there's clearly space for improvement in browser performance.
|Benchmark||Meizu MX||Xiaomi Phone||Samsung Galaxy Note||HTC Rezound|
|Quadrant (higher is better)||4,224||3,784||3,998||2,347|
|Linpack single / multi (MFLOPS; higher is better)||53.74 / 73.40||55.74 / 82.52||64.30 / 95.66||52 / 60.3|
|NenaMark1 (fps; higher is better)||59||49.7||57.7||53.5|
|NenaMark2 (fps; higher is better)||44.4||32.0||32.8||35.8|
|Neocore (fps; higher is better)||58.9||61.4||51.8||59.8|
|Sunspider (ms; lower is better)||2,816||2,586||2,902||2,961|
|Vellamo (higher is better)||916||1,194||944||920|
Will Meizu be able to hold Xiaomi back? It's hard to tell in the short term. Sure, performance-wise both the MX and the Xiaomi Phone are very similar, but the price war is obviously the biggest problem for the former. That said, with the help of regular fan events and forum interaction across the country, we think the company's users will remain loyal for a very long time. It's easier said than done, of course, but here's hoping that said outfit will figure out how to offer new services that will either help subsidize hardware cost or simply to make the existing devices of better value for the money. After all, that's exactly what Xiaomi's Lei Jun is gunning for, and Meizu must act quickly before its fierce competitor gobble up more of its users.