Let's just get it out of the way now: The AQUOS Crystal looks fantastic. It's the only phone I've ever tested that prompted random bystanders to either gawk or give it a double take as they walked by. One look is enough to reveal why: Those people were ogling the 5-inch 720p screen sitting up front... and more specifically, the lack of just about anything surrounding it. Squint hard enough and you'll see just the faintest hint of a bezel running around the screen, so small that it may as well not be there. The effect is utterly striking -- it feels like you're holding some sort of J.J. Abramsian Star Trek floating-screen prop in your hand instead of a smartphone you can buy from a store right now.
It isn't long before you notice why the Crystal earned its name, either. The glass covering the screen is angled at the edges to look like some sort of precious stone, an effect that's usually more obnoxious than neat since it creates a pair of distracting rainbow lines where the material angles sharply. That gemstone motif informs the rest of the phone's design, too: It's mostly hard angles and flat edges, making the gently curving back the only real concession to comfort you'll find. Still, since there's hardly any cruft taking up space around the screen, the Crystal feels surprisingly small when you're holding onto it -- in fact, the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 feel downright unwieldy in comparison.
Since a full seven-eighths of the phone's face is nothing but screen, Sharp had to get creative when it came time to load it up with the usual accoutrements. Take the Crystal's earpiece, for instance: There isn't one. Well, not a traditional one, anyway. Rather than try and squeeze one in above the display (and ruin that lovely floating effect), Sharp included what it calls a Direct Wave Receiver that essentially turns the entire front glass panel into an earpiece. It's hardly a new concept -- Kyocera's been playing with the idea of speaker-less phones for a few years now and Google Glass has a bone-conducting transmitter -- but Sharp's solution sounds better than you might think. Meanwhile, the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera is actually located in a silver expanse along the bottom edge of the phone's face, which some of you will know is definitely not prime placement for selfies.
The rest of the Crystal is decidedly sparse: The 8-megapixel camera and LED flash sit high on the phone's rear, amid a sea of dimpled, white plastic that forms the removable battery cover. Underneath that lies the (sadly) non-removable 2,040mAh battery, with nano-SIM and microSD card slots nestled right above it. Turns out that latter addition is pretty crucial, since it will let you add up to 128GB of storage to a device that only comes with 8GB of space (only about four of which you can use right out of the gate). When it comes to the brains of the operation, don't let the premium looks fool you: We're working with a pretty modest spec list here. There's a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 thrumming away inside that plastic frame, paired with 1.5GB of RAM and a CDMA/LTE radio -- nothing terribly new, nor astonishingly snappy, but not a bad choice considering the Crystal's cheapo price tag.
Display and sound
It'd be pretty stupid of Sharp to use a subpar screen when it removed nearly everything that could possibly distract you from it. Thankfully, it's got the chops to make some impressive displays, and the 5-inch LCD panel it crammed into the Crystal doesn't disappoint. First, the elephant in the room: Yes, the screen only runs at 720p, and no, that's not a bad thing. It's plenty bright when you need it to be and colors are well-saturated, though whites aren't as crisp and blacks aren't as sumptuous as they are on more premium devices. Still, pictures and videos pop when there's no border restraining them -- even poking through your email feels just a little wondrous.
Alas, that screen ain't perfect. My biggest niggle comes to the fore when you look at the Crystal's screen from an angle. This isn't an issue with viewing angles; your face could be perpendicular to the display and you'd still be able to make out what was going on without much trouble. No, there's actually some prominent light leakage going on at the edges of the panel. It's not so noticeable on the longer left and right edges, but there's enough light bleeding through along the screen's top side that my eyes couldn't avoid gravitating there when I was indoors (the power of the sun usually overpowers it). Distraction? You bet. Dealbreaker? Probably not. I'm not sure how widespread this issue is, or if it's even avoidable given how the screen is laid out. Still, it's a mild annoyance at worst and it's even more tolerable considering how much the phone'll set you back.
Sadly, the audio side doesn't quite live up to the (pretty high) bar the screen has set. Sharp (and Sprint, I'm sure) have tried to augment the Crystal's musical chops with Harman Kardon's Clari-Fi and LiveStage audio-enhancing tech. I've taken both features for a spin in the past, and there wasn't much new to report back here. Clari-Fi once again does a fine job of livening up your audio tracks by sharpening mids and highs and enhancing vocals, but that all really comes down to the song you're listening to -- some will sound vastly improved; others will hardly change, and you probably won't notice any of those software-enhanced nuances the minute you get on the subway.
And what of LiveStage? I still can't for the life of me understand why anyone would bother to turn this on. In a perfect world, the feature would add reverb just so and tweak tracks to make them sound as though they're being performed in front of you. Instead, it adds a bit of aural distance between the layers of a song and almost always makes them sound worse. Maybe my ears, battered as they are thanks to years of loud Japanese rock, just don't get it. I'd wager yours won't either, but hey -- it's not a dealbreaker. And, of course, none of those features even work without headphones plugged in, which is sort of a shame considering the single rear speaker is purely average when it comes to pumping out the jams. The speaker's wimpy muddiness is pretty much par for the course for a budget smartphone, which, while unavoidable, is still a bummer.
I (like many of you, I suspect) am an Android purist. Shocker, right? Thankfully, Sharp hardly futzed with Google's OS before throwing it on the Crystal: It runs a pretty clean build of Android 4.4.2... that just happens to be festooned with all the extraneous Sprint apps you could think of. Upon first boot, I was greeted by a preloaded AccuWeather widget on the home screen, a Sprint featured-apps widget on another and no fewer than 20 additional apps and bolt-on services that the carrier decided I needed to have. Fortunately, most of those bright yellow Sprint icons are merely pointers to listings in the Google Play store, which means they're easy to dismiss with extreme prejudice.
Not all of them are useless cruft, though: MobiSystems' Office Suite 7 contains solid document and spreadsheet apps, and NBA Game Time and NASCAR Mobile are easily accessible if you're into ballers and racers, respectively. There's also a pretty impressive Siri/Cortana analog in the form of Speaktoit's Assistant app (yeah, its branding could use a little work) that'll read you the day's top headlines, translate languages and let you check in on Foursquare in addition to the de facto slew of virtual assistant tasks. What few bits Sharp did add are centered on the screen; so-called Frameless effect settings allow you to enable visual notifications that surge across the display. Meanwhile, an additional screen lock will kick in once you initiate or pick up a call just to make sure your cheek doesn't accidentally hang up on your friends for you. Hardly the fanciest things you'll ever see, but surprisingly useful all the same.
Every phone maker is guilty of cutting corners with cameras at least once (especially with mid-range phones for the masses), and Sharp is no different. The main imaging attraction is an 8-megapixel rear camera that mostly churns out soft, grainy, under-saturated shots, even when there's a seemingly sufficient amount of light bathing your subjects. Take it into the great outdoors on a bright day, though, and things start to improve a bit -- you'll be able to pick out just a little more detail in your photos, but the end results are still rarely worth getting worked up over.
If anything, I'm fonder of the equally lacking 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera because it's quirky and isn't where it should be. As mentioned before, it sits at the bottom of the Crystal's face -- in order to take a selfie that isn't 90 percent neck and chin(s), you've got to turn the Crystal upside-down. Honestly, it sounds like much more of a hassle than it actually is (though the repeated visual reminders of everything going on south of my face are a little disturbing). Anyway, it's good enough for a Skype video call or a group Hangout; just don't expect to snap any masterpieces with it. As usual, both cameras will record video (with resolutions maxing out at 1080p and 720p for the main and secondary shooters, respectively). Surprise, surprise: Video doesn't come out so hot either, as it's laden with grain and the lens takes a bit longer to switch focus than I'd like to see.