BLU Studio 5.3 and Touch Book 7.0 hands-on

You know handset vendors like Samsung, LG, HTC and Motorola. You've probably even heard that manufacturers such as Pantech, Sharp and Acer produce phones as well. But have you ever heard of BLU? If you haven't, don't worry -- you'd be in the ranks of the 99 percent. Calling itself the "leader of the Latin America market with vision to expand worldwide," the outfit is nothing if not confident about its stature in developing countries. In the US, however, it's a completely different story: here, BLU is a virtual unknown: a low-profile brand, selling unlocked phones and tablets via e-tailers at bargain-basement prices.

Our friends at Negri Electronics hooked us up with the BLU Studio 5.3 ($260) and BLU Touch Book 7.0 ($230) for a short time, giving us the chance to play around with them for a little bit. Rather than doing a full review on both items, we felt it was more appropriate to first give the product lineup a formal introduction to the site. BLU, meet Engadget. Engadget, BLU. Let's dive in.

Studio 5.3

The Studio 5.3, also known as the BLU D510, was released last month and is by far the more interesting of the two devices. Bearing a 5.3-inch display (hence the name), it's tempting to knight it as the KIRF Samsung Galaxy Note, though the similarities end with Gingerbread and that massive display.

As you'd imagine, a device with such a large screen isn't for everyone, but it will undoubtedly appeal to a select few budget-minded folks willing to accept the heft in return for larger icons, a bigger virtual keyboard and plenty of working space. However, doodlers and note takers may be put off by the lack of a stylus, and the WVGA display, though respectable and not as pixelated as we'd expected, still doesn't hold a candle to the Note's HD Super AMOLED.

Pulling out a ruler we find that the Studio measures 150 x 81 x 10.9mm (5.9 x 3.19 x 0.43 inches), which is slightly taller (3mm) and fatter (1.2mm) than the Note but just a tad skinnier (2mm). Weighing in at 6.77 ounces, it definitely isn't a lightweight either.

When affixing the KIRF label onto a $260 unlocked GSM device, it's easy to assume it's going to be another chintzy knockoff. On the contrary, the Studio doesn't emanate cheapness at all. In fact, its smooth curves and soft-touch plastic back are just a few design elements that make the device feel so good, so comfortable in hand. When playing with other phones in this price range, we more often than not feel as though they'll break apart into a thousand pieces as soon as we breathe on them. Not so with the Studio.

Admittedly, the components here fall short of the top-notch innards you'll find on the Note, so having the Studio go head-to-head against the likes of the Note simply wouldn't be a fair battle. For instance, the Studio is powered by a MediaTek MT6573 800MHz single-core CPU, a far cry from the Note's 1.4GHz dual-core Exynos powerhouse. Its Quadrant score barely grazed 800 -- an insignificant score compared to the Note's 4,000 -- and in the amount of time the Studio ran through one full cycle on SunSpider 9.1, the Note was able to lap it four times with plenty of milliseconds to spare.

Still, we found the capacitive screen to be more responsive than we were expecting, and the CPU was at least powerful enough to keep the stock Gingerbread device going at a relatively snappy pace. It presented us with a fair amount of lag, but it was nowhere near as much as we had originally presumed. Armed with the understanding that this is strictly meant to be a budget Android device, we were generally quite impressed with its polish.

Rounding out the specs, the Studio 5.3 runs stock Android 2.3.5 (screenshots below), boasts 512MB of RAM, a monstrous 2,500mAh battery, an LED flash for the camera and flashlight, GPS, Bluetooth 2.1, a second SIM slot and support for a FM radio.

A tour of the Studio reveals a few unique design choices. In addition to the standard four capacitive screen buttons on the front, BLU added a physical home button underneath that performs the same functions as its soft counterpart. The left side of the device features a screen orientation lock button right alongside the volume rocker, which we found convenient in several situations. The screen lock / power button, micro-USB charging port and 3.5mm headphone jack all reside up top. The phone's right edge remains void of buttons but does provide a PDMI port for charging, USB and audio / video.

Lifting up the cover, you'll see the gargantuan battery as well as another gem: dual SIM capability. While it's fairly common in other parts of the world to see phones that support two SIM cards, such devices are almost as rare as white unicorns here in the states. As a disclaimer, both slots can take advantage of quadband GSM / EDGE for global use, but only the first one offers a 850 / 1900 / 2100MHz UMTS / HSPA radio for AT&T 3G compatibility. An empty microSD slot hangs out next to the SIM cards, and without a doubt you're going to need extra storage space for the Studio -- internal storage is extremely limited, and the camera won't even turn on without external storage inserted.

The rear camera is a bit of a curiosity. It's advertised as a 5MP shooter (with an LED flash included), and is even labeled on the actual phone as such. But when snapping pictures, we stumbled across an option for eight-megapixel resolution. BLU doesn't come right out and say it, but given how highly compressed the higher-res images are, it seems as though the sensor is indeed five megapixels but simply has an option to upscale the pics. As a result, you won't be seeing any extra detail by opting for the higher setting -- a shame, since fine lines isn't an area where the camera excels. And while you can tweak the Studio's camera in numerous ways, thanks to the gratuitous amount of settings included within the UI such as autofocus, ISO, brightness, white balance, saturation and so on, it's not going to make a mountain of a difference. In many respects, it's a lot like putting lipstick on a pig: no matter how you dress up the photo, it's not going to look like it was taken with a DSLR.

The camera's also capable of taking 480p video at 30fps, which offers results par with what we've come to expect from a budget device -- it's slightly choppy at times and doesn't give the greatest color saturation, but the mic picked up our voice incredibly well while quieting down the noisy road in front of us.

We didn't have enough time to run the full gamut of intensive battery evaluations, but we were able to push the 2,500mAh juicepack through our standard video rundown test, which resulted in a total life of roughly seven hours. For folks keeping track at home, the Samsung Galaxy Note's identically sized battery lasted nine hours and thirty minutes.

Touch Book 7.0

The Touch Book 7.0 is BLU's first attempt at an Android tablet, and sadly there isn't much that makes this particular offering stand out of the crowd. If the Studio 5.3 is the KIRF Note, the Touch Book appears to be in the running for the title of KIRF Samsung Galaxy Tab -- the original version, that is.

In contrast to the Studio, the Touch Book does a better job of modeling its components close to the version it's KIRFing. In full disclosure, this wasn't as difficult a feat to pull off as its 5.3-inch sibling, considering the original Galaxy Tab came out in November 2010 and the Note only started shipping in October 2011.

The Touch Book is powered by an 800MHz single-core Qualcomm MSM7227-T CPU and 512MB of RAM, sports a 7-inch 800 x 480 display (giving it a pixel density of around 133ppi), uses a 3.2MP rear camera with no LED flash and includes quadband GSM and 850 / 1900 / 2100 UMTS and HSPA radios to offer AT&T support. It also suffers the same fate as the Studio when it comes to internal storage, which means you'll want to grab a microSD card to store photos, music and video. Oh, and the Touch Book runs stock Froyo. That's right, Android 2.2.2, to be specific.

The volume rocker and power / screen lock button reside on the upper edge of the device. The left is left sans ports or buttons and the bottom edge contains a 3.5mm headphone jack and microSD card. The back holds a speaker grille and a 3.2MP rear camera, awkwardly jutting out of the soft touch plastic back. On the right you'll find the easily accessible SIM card slot and proprietary BLU charging port, which uses a magnetic connection similar to the current lineup of MacBooks.

We were hoping to be pleasantly surprised with the Touch Book, akin to our first impressions of the Studio. Sadly, this wasn't the case. During our brief time with it, we couldn't find anything that made the tablet stand out above the hundreds of other knockoff Android slabs we've encountered. It was sluggish, the touchscreen wasn't incredibly responsive and the browser was so laggy it was painful to use.

Looking at the specs, the only thing that will really draw eyes to the Touch Book is the $230 retail price, but even then it may still be a difficult sale for budget-conscious tablet seekers. To provide a little perspective, it was released around the same time as the NOVO7, a $100 7-inch slate running Ice Cream Sandwich.


Now that we've held hands and sung Kumbaya together, will we be inviting BLU to the annual company picnic this summer? We want to hand out love and affection to any respectable phone maker capable of producing a well-made budget device without relying on the control of carriers, after all. Given our first impressions of the Studio 5.3, the company's on track to accomplishing that feat, although the Touch Book 7.0 almost feels like a step backwards -- especially considering its close competition is bringing the heat for a lower cost. We'd like to see the manufacturer continue progressing in its craft and hopefully eventually it will be making the products getting KIRFed, instead of the other way around.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this hands-on.