IRL: Kogan's Agora HD, a $189 smartphone made obsolete by the Moto G

Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

IRL: Kogan's Agora HD, a $189 smartphone made obsolete by the Moto G

When I first came across Kogan at last year's CES, it was for the launch of the Aussie company's very first Agora smartphone. It was a modestly specced handset with some performance issues, but that was understandable: the going price was just $149, a sign that affordability was considered above all else. Then just nine months later, a follow-up smartphone, the Agora HD, was announced. A new 720p, 5-inch display and quad-core 1.2GHz processor were the headline features, but really there were improvements across the board. It was inevitable the price had to go up, too, but even then $189 felt like a small hop compared with the leap in hardware.

In theory, at least, the only "value propositions" I could think of to pit against the Agora HD were nameless Android smartphones with similar specs available on eBay, Amazon and other etailers. I guess one advantage to Kogan is that it has a website you can visit and various ways to get in touch, not that I have any personal experience with its customer service. The company doesn't make its own devices, though, but I was told by Kogan that it worked with a manufacturer to steer hardware and design decisions, meaning than the Agora HD isn't merely a rebadged device. Anyway, the new handset had me intrigued, and I was eager to try it out.

When a unit landed on my doorstep, I was pleasantly surprised. For some reason, I'd built up the impression it would be sloppily constructed, even though the first Agora was actually quite well made. Build quality was of a high standard, with a rubbery, textured back panel wrapping the majority of the device and a glass-dominated face. If Samsung's Galaxy S III and HTC's One X had a love child, it would look like the Agora HD, with the general stylings of the former and camera hump of the latter. Inspiration isn't a bad thing, though, and Kogan managed to pull off a perfectly respectable, if not generic, handset.

My initial impressions were quickly dulled, however, as I spent the next hour with a scalpel, an old mini-SIM and backache, crafting an adapter for my micro-SIM. I'm still not entirely sure why Kogan decided on two mini-SIM slots for the Agora HD. But then again, I'm not au fait with SIM standards in every market where the Agora HD's sold, so maybe it caters to the majority. Once the adapter chore was complete, the phone settled in as my daily driver with surprising ease. Having had the opportunity to fondle a bunch of top-tier phones, I was prepared for a notable gap in performance, but the Agora HD purrs along quite nicely. Thanks are partly due, no doubt, to the simple, clean AOSP Android 4.2.2 build. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention that MediaTek quad-core processor, though: it'll see you through an online round of ShadowGun: DeadZone as well as any flagship.

At first, I didn't really want for anything. Battery life was no better or worse than what I'm used to (a day, day and a half of normal usage). And as I mentioned, the performance was more than acceptable. But at $189, there had to be some corners cut, right? Yep. For starters, I was forever reading roaming warning messages, as if the handset couldn't suss out the origin of my SIM. GPS was erratic, frequently taking an age to find signal, only then to jump to random locations and back. Furthermore, the display auto-brightness setting was like staring into a strobe light.

Otherwise, the 720p display had nice color temperature, but was basically useless in strong sunlight, regardless of how high the brightness was set. The 8-megapixel camera, too, had the opposite affliction. Even in moderately low-light conditions, quality tanked heavily. Turned out you could only squeeze a 6-megapixel image out of the stock camera app, and in tricky lighting conditions the auto-contrast and white balance settings tended to go awry. Focus and shutter speeds were a little sluggish also, but as with most smartphone cameras with a few megapixels, I took a number of memorable snaps when conditions were just right (see the shot below for an example).

One major issue I experienced was an incompatibility with headphones that have a mic/button module. Music came out muffled and impossible to listen to -- unless you held the button down -- then it came through clear as day. Needless to say, I didn't use it as my portable jukebox. Despite all this, though, I used the Agora HD for some time without any one problem driving me to switch, and I've used it since on occasion. I was constantly reminded I was holding a fairly powerful handset for $189 all in. And that's worth... something.

I initially thought that Kogan had arrived at a particularly opportune time, given the recent retirement of the $199 Nexus 4. That window was short, however, as I had ended up switching from the Agora HD to the Moto G. I'd determined the former's killer feature was its price, and then the Moto G arrived at $10 cheaper, for $179. It was totally polished, and I had little to complain about compared with the relatively mammoth list of cons I had for the Agora HD. Still, if Kogan decides to give it another shot with a third iteration that's as much an improvement as this model was over the original, well, I'm sure I'd be intrigued to check that out, too.