We highly doubt anyone would purchase a phone solely based on the quality of its packaging, but an extra bit of polish certainly makes for a more favorable first impression. What's more, manufacturers offering more intricate eye candy tend to be of the mindset that even the littlest details can make a difference. Meizu, it seems, understands this. The Meizu MX 4-core comes in an all-white box, and the unit we received featured a blue ribbon marking it as an engineering sample, and offering the tagline "Dream, upgraded. New surprises begin from here." Inside is a Chinese outlet plug with a female USB port on the right edge. Meanwhile, a minimalistic white book with the letters "MX" printed on it takes up the rest of the box. Here you'll find the first surprise the company is referring to: the "book" looks exactly like a Meizu-penned hardback novel -- or, perhaps, the largest user manual known to man. In reality, it's hollowed-out on the inside to allow room for the actual phone, with three pages of marketing material attached above it. We're not sure if this is one final attempt to deter potential thieves from looting the box, but it's not the only secret this particular "book" holds. Turn it around and you'll find an extra leaflet covering up another hollowed-out compartment containing a micro-USB cable and a handy tool to help you take off the phone's back cover. Sadly, we couldn't find any headphones hidden in the box, try as we did.
But what about the phone itself? If you've ever played with last year's dual-core MX, you may have a difficult time telling the two devices apart. That's because Meizu has, in an extremely rare move, put a new phone in nearly the same exact chassis. On the version made for the Chinese market you'll notice Meizu's name in Chinese on the top-right corner of the front side. But the only branding that can be found on the global iterations is the name of the phone (and its GB count, in the case of the white models). Aside from this, there are no telltale signs that this is the 4-core. If you haven't had the chance to handle the previous MX model in real life, we won't hold it against you -- both the current and old MX are a pretty rare sight outside of China, though Meizu is intent on expanding the phone's reach. Despite being sold for a reasonable HK$3,099 (US$400) in Hong Kong, a 32GB version of the phone will likely run you around $650 or so on this side of the Pacific (if you can find an e-tailer that has one in stock, that is). In this case, what newbies will find is a phone that borrows from Apple and Android, in terms of both hardware and software. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise since the company's most infamous device is the M8, a phone that bore a few similarities to the iPhone -- enough, at least, to draw the attention of Cupertino's legal team in 2010. The manufacturer has since chosen to put a heavily skinned version of Android on its phones, but as you'll see later in the review, it hasn't completely let up on the Apple design references.
Let's start with the tangible goods first: the front side features a 4-inch 960 x 640 ASV display with a pixel density of 288ppi. The resolution is the same as the Retina display, but it uses a larger panel. The bezel is rather large, and really should've been trimmed. The earpiece and VGA front-facing camera sit above the screen, but the real party takes place below the panel. Here, you'll notice a three-button setup that, at first glance, appears similar to what you'd find on many other Android devices: two capacitive buttons with a physical home key sandwiched in between. But look a little closer, and you may find yourself in awe with what Meizu's done. The home key resembles a tiny dome that rises above the surface of the screen just enough to offer easy access (you'll still want to be careful about accidental presses, however). As we soon discovered, with much delight, this button is quite comfortable to use once you get used to it.
So what's so special about the capacitive keys? As with the previous-gen MX, these keys are situation-aware: they light up with respect to the phone's orientation (portrait and landscape modes) and will also change depending on the availability of the feature each button represents. In other words, the key on the right will display three dots when there's actually a menu to utilize, but only one dot otherwise (for example, when you're looking at the home panel or settings menu, where the menu key is dormant). Additionally, both buttons will light up if you receive a notification while the phone's in standby mode. All of these features were on the previous MX, but we appreciate that Meizu chose to use them here as well.
The left side of the MX 4-core is home to a volume rocker, while the top has a power / standby button, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an opening for a noise-cancelling mic. Heading down to the bottom you'll find the micro-USB port (which supports USB host, MHL for HDMI output and S/PDIF for digital audio connection), along with the same pair of mysterious dents as before (which do serve a purpose: professionals insert a special tool into these holes to remove the back cover). The right side of the phone is completely devoid of buttons.
Around back, you'll see the 4-core's 8-megapixel camera and LED flash at the top, and a pair of speaker grilles located on the lower left corner -- a horrible position for the external speakers when you're holding the phone in portrait mode. The cover is incredibly glossy, but looks can be deceiving. Instead of using a single standard layer of plastic, both 4-core models offer a dual-layer setup with each measuring 1mm thick. Look closely at the headphone jack or speakers and you'll see what we mean -- the outside stratum is actually a transparent plastic, so what you really see is the white plastic underneath. This crystal-like build appears to be another hardware flourish that few other phone manufacturers have attempted to duplicate. Still, you'll notice another connection to Apple here: the finish here calls to mind the materials used on the original white iBook, iPod and flat-panel iMac. Additionally, the LED flash is located on the outside of the back cover, rather than the body of the phone. It's able to function with the help of two contact points on the reverse side of the cover that are used to provide power and grounding.
As with the last-gen MX, the back cover is removable, except it doesn't require that special tool we mentioned earlier. In the current model, unfortunately, removing the backing requires nothing short of an act of Congress. To do this, take either your fingernail or the funky guitar-pick-like tool from the box and, beginning at the micro-USB port on the bottom edge, work your way around the edges until the cover pops off. Your reward for this achievement is access to the micro-SIM tray... and that's it. There is no user-accessible microSD slot. The 1,700mAh battery (an improvement over the original's 1,600mAh capacity) gives the misleading impression that it can be lifted out of its comfortable bed. In fact, though, this isn't possible without thoroughly tearing down the device. This inconvenience may be minor to some, but as you'll see later in the review, it can become a source of irritation for frequent travelers or users who demand as much power as possible.
The MX 4-core's measurements of 121.3 x 63.3 x 10.3 mm (4.78 x 2.49 x 0.41 inches) aren't envelope-pushers by any stretch of the imagination, but they do make for a fairly comfortable in-hand experience. The edges are straight, with a very slight taper on the back that flatten toward the middle. This reviewer was able to handle the device well enough with his average-sized hands, though the phone's glossy finish makes the 4-core a little slick-feeling. At 4.9 ounces (139g), it's a bit heavier than what we'd imagine a phone of this size would weigh, but it's at least light enough that most people won't notice or care (it's just one gram lighter than the iPhone 4S, after all). We found ourselves intrigued by the mystery surrounding the quad-core CPU. Most spec sheets and third-party diagnostic apps confirm that the silicon embedded within the latest MX is a rebranded 1.4GHz Exynos 4412 chip with a Mali-400MP manning the graphics and a full gigabyte of RAM to supplement both. The mystery, however, is that despite the mounting evidence, Meizu won't specify exactly what chip is used. We were simply told that it's named the MX5Q, though a simple Google search matched this chip with the Exynos. (Even some of the company's marketing materials confirm that this mysterious SoC is a 32nm Cortex A9 wafer clocked at 1.4GHz, without getting more specific.)
Lastly, an element of the phone that should be of particular interest to international roamers and T-Mobile US customers is Meizu's inclusion of a pentaband (850, 900, 1,700, 1,900 and 2,100MHz) HSPA+ / UMTS radio, which tops out at 21Mbps. It also has quadband GSM / EDGE. Lastly, it contains radios for Bluetooth 2.1 and WiFi 802.11b/g/n but lacks NFC support.
If you've perused the spec sheet, you shouldn't expect the 4-core to have a top-notch display. Still, it's actually a little better than the resolution would suggest. It can't really compete with the Retina display (despite having the same resolution on a larger screen) or the HTC One X's SLCD 2 panel -- its whites aren't as bright, and its blacks aren't quite as dark. However, it does offer a wide color range and we liked the amount of detail retained in images, though some high-res videos showed slightly oversaturated colors. As the non-PenTile (RGB) screen delivers a pixel density of roughly 288ppi, we had a difficult time picking out jagged lines or any form of pixelation. The viewing angles are so wide that the display remains usable even if you're viewing it nearly edge-on. We could read almost everything on the screen in direct sunlight as long as the display was cranked up to full brightness. The only exception was when we tried viewing detailed images or videos.
After booting up the device for the first time, you'll find that Meizu's Flyme OS is not your average Android skin. If you think Samsung and HTC have gone too far in their respective Android user interfaces, prepare to shift rather uncomfortably in your chair for the next few paragraphs -- it's going to be a bumpy ride. Indeed, Meizu's homebrewed skin may be a stranger to the Western hemisphere, but it still emits an aura of familiarity despite the fact that it bears virtually no trace of Google's stock UI. That's because after just a few minutes of playing with the device, we were reminded more of iOS than Android. (As we mentioned earlier, this comes as no surprise; we imagine Meizu has been on speed dial in Apple's legal office for several years.) Flyme OS, which we've seen on previous Meizu devices, is an interesting mash-up of the two popular operating systems.
At first, the lock screen makes it seem like Flyme won't be a drastic departure from stock Android. Date and time are at the top just underneath the notification bar and above the music controls (only displayed during playback, of course), while three quick-access icons sit at the bottom of the screen. When sliding the icons up, Flyme adds in a clever animation that makes it appear as though the destination screen is being dragged up along with the icon itself. The home panel is your typical 4 x 4 grid with the app dock hanging out at the bottom and a larger-than-usual status bar up top. The bar, which is twice as thick as the standard Android option, displays the date and time on the left, with all notifications pushed to the right. Meizu also threw in the remaining battery capacity on the lower right portion of the bar. As a side note, the status bar shrinks down to the normal size when you enter an application.
The app dock is also unique. Up to five icons can reside within it, though only four can be switched around. The one app that isn't going anywhere is Meizu's very own web browser, which we'll return to in just a moment. Perhaps the most jarring change in the Flyme setup, however, is the omission of an app tray. Every single app on the device is displayed on one of the home pages in the same style as iOS (and MIUI, incidentally). What's more, you can have up to 12 pages to place your apps and widgets, and each one is created in exactly the same fashion (dragging the app as far to the right as you can until a new panel appears). Having so many pages is frustrating, though, because the OS doesn't have a way of jumping to the panel of your choice, which means you have no choice but to swipe from page to page. What if you just can't live without the app tray? Here's an easy solution: download a launcher that still supports one and your problem becomes a thing of the past. We installed Apex and were able to bring up a very familiar menu, complete with apps and widgets. By the way, multitasking also leans closer to Apple's approach: long-pressing the menu button brings up a horizontal bar with three layers. The middle layer is the most prominent, displaying four app icons at a time. To find more recent apps, just slide your finger to the left and you're treated to another set of four. Above these icons sits a button that enables you to close all of your open apps in one fell swoop. If you prefer, you can still get rid of them one at a time by long-pressing icons until a large X appears below, after which you just drag and drop it. The bottom layer is reserved for a basic music player, which unfortunately doesn't appear to offer any support for third-party apps.
The notification bar is also slightly different than what you'd typically expect. On top, you'll find a set of quick-toggle buttons for WiFi, airplane mode, Bluetooth, GPS and sync. The date and a "clear all" button hang out just above these. However, the most interesting part is over on the right: a drop-down menu allowing you to switch between WiFi networks and the type of mobile network (you can choose between 3G-only, GSM-only or auto). Notifications can still be swiped away one at a time if necessary. Lastly, you can only drag the bar itself down as far as the bottom-most notification; in other words, if you don't have any to look at, the bar will only go down far enough to expose the quick controls found at the top. This may feel jarring to some, but we actually appreciated that the notification drop-down didn't unnecessarily obscure whatever it was we were looking at. Despite its Apple-inspired layout, the device runs Ice Cream Sandwich -- version 4.0.3, to be exact. This means you still have access to the Play Store and whatever widgets you want. But without an app tray, where can you find the widgets? They're in the settings menu, under "customize" -- not necessarily the first place you'd think to look, but it's there nonetheless. Fortunately, unlike last year's MX, you can place the same widget in more than one spot. Speaking of ICS, there are a few features missing from Flyme. Face Unlock, for instance, is MIA, as is the data usage setting. Additionally, many of the core apps have been tweaked, the stock keyboard isn't included as an option, Android Beam isn't supported (naturally, since NFC isn't onboard) and so on.