LeEco's first phone for the US nails the basics but fails on software

The Le Pro3 feels amazing, but its weird interface is annoying.

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    LeEco is a name you've probably never heard of, but the Chinese electronics company has been popping up everywhere over the past year. It's well-known in China for its TVs and phones, and it also has subsidiaries in the music, film and even bicycle-making businesses. Like many other Chinese phone makers before it, LeEco is eyeing the US market, with its first offering being the Le Pro3. This $400 Android phone covers the basics, delivering excellent hardware, respectable performance and all-day battery life, though it misses the mark with its heavily skinned software.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $389.00
    78
    Pros
    • Excellent build quality
    • Speedy performance
    • Long battery life
    Cons
    • No headphone jack
    • No microSD card slot
    • Unreliable camera, especially in low light
    • Unintuitive interface

    Summary

    The Le Pro3 is a capable, long-lasting phone that's wrapped up in a body that feels more expensive than it costs. But its missing headphone jack and heavy skin are likely to put off most users. Those are crucial missteps for the company to make in its first phone for the US. Its unreliable camera also disappoints. Still, for $400, the Le Pro3 delivers great performance and excellent battery life in a premium design.

    Hardware

    For a phone that costs just $400, the Le Pro3 is seriously well-constructed. Everyone I've shown the device to has been instantly impressed by how premium it feels. It's just dense enough to feel expensive but not so much that it's heavy. Still, LeEco won't score points for creativity here. This phone's rectangular silhouette and slightly curved rear are reminiscent of other Android phones like the HTC 10, OnePlus 3 and Huawei Mate 9. Its brushed-metal back has a glossy coating and is home to both a fingerprint sensor and a slightly protruding camera. My review unit is silver, though an equally attractive gold version is also available.

    There aren't any physical buttons on the Pro3's front (the volume rocker and power button are on the right edge); instead, capacitive navigation keys sit below the screen. These light up when touched but otherwise disappear into the background, making them hard for new users to find. Over time, though, I remembered where they were and found myself poking at them instinctively, without having to look.

    Gallery: LeEco Le Pro3 review | 13 Photos

    LeEco made some odd choices with the Pro3's design that have proved unpopular on other phones. It left out a headphone jack and a microSD card slot for expandable storage, so you're stuck with the 64GB of onboard space (and 5TB of cloud storage through LeCloud, which is nice). For audio, you'll have to use the USB-C port at the bottom of the phone and plug in either the USB-C headphones or USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter that are included. What was LeEco thinking? Surely it can't believe it has as much cachet as, say, Apple, which itself has caught flack for doing away with such a common port.

    Oh, and if you were thinking that the reason for removing this jack was to enable water resistance, you'd be mistaken: The Pro3 will not survive dips. According to LeEco, removing the headphone jack is feasible now because USB-C tech along with a customized chip on its earphones have improved audio quality "to such an extent that we believe now is the perfect time to make the shift." It cited its sales numbers in China and India as an indication that "users are adopting well to USB-C based audio," and it said it is the first company in the world to remove the port. Still, you'll be frustrated when you lose your included earphones or adapter and can't find a compatible set at a moment's notice.

    Display and sound

    I was initially quite taken with the Le Pro3's nearly bezel-less, 5.5-inch full HD LCD display. Icons and text scattered across a starry wallpaper looked crisp, and pictures were vibrant. But when I watched an episode of Friends on Netflix, I noticed that the image quality was a bit flat compared to what I'm used to on Apple and Samsung devices. In short, this screen lacks the deep blacks and punchy, saturated colors of its AMOLED counterparts.

    Still, it's bright with generous viewing angles, so I'm not complaining. Plus, you can choose from one of four color profiles (LeEco, Vivid, Natural and Soft), although I found that all of them fall short of AMOLED screens.

    Complementing the screens are two powerful bottom-mounted speakers that pump out decent audio. It is typically loud enough to hear from a room away, but music tracks, including my current favorite, Starboy by The Weeknd, tend to get slightly tinny at top volume.

    Software

    Like most other Chinese phones in the US, the Le Pro3 runs a modified version of the latest available version of Android (in this case, 6.0.1 Marshmallow). The company calls its skin Ecosystem User Interface, or EUI (those familiar with obscure details like interface names will catch that this is similar to Huawei's EMUI). But the differences LeEco made are more noticeable than on other manufacturers' skins, to the point where I had to unlearn some old habits.

    Instead of swiping down from the top of the screen to find settings shortcuts such as display brightness and WiFi connectivity, you'll have to tap the All Apps button. Here, the top two-thirds of the display are dominated by a panel of options, as well as stuff like the flashlight and button for Do Not Disturb mode. This section's layout looks kind of like the Control Center on an iPhone, except that you can swipe horizontally to see more options in the top row of shortcut symbols.

    This large block not only reduces the amount of space available to show all of your open apps (which are laid out side by side in the bottom third) but is also an unnecessary change. The space left behind by what would ordinarily be a quick settings panel in the notifications drawer is delegated to a Notifications Management page, which lets you decide precisely which apps you'll allow alerts from and which ones you'll block.

    Gallery: LeEco Le Pro3 software screenshots | 19 Photos

    Another difference between EUI and stock Android is the page of curated content you'll find when you swipe all the way to the left. It's called LeView, and it is quite similar to HTC's BlinkFeed and OnePlus' Shelf, putting a slew of what it calls entertainment that it thinks you'll like in one easily accessed place. The materials here are generally videos pulled from YouTube and LeEco's own library, and I found most of these pretty obscure and irrelevant to my tastes. I'm not entirely sure why the system thought "Juicy Lucy Meatballs" and "Mega Gummy Bear" were good suggestions for me, considering I never looked up food or candy while reviewing the phone.

    Through its subsidiaries, LeEco has a hand in the music and film industries, making it a content company in addition to a device maker. Perhaps because of this, the Pro3 offers multiple ways to access new, relatively unknown multimedia. In addition to LeView, you'll also find the Live app, which lets you watch movies such as Hostel and House of the Rising Sun as well as TV shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Soul Mates. Most of the available titles are pretty obscure, though; you won't find the latest movies or most popular programs here. Bummer.

    Cameras

    Gallery: LeEco Le Pro3 camera samples | 25 Photos

    The Le Pro3 is also a letdown when it comes to imaging performance: Its 16-megapixel rear camera is hit or miss. In bright daylight, it takes crisp, stunning pictures, and I was happy to show off the gorgeous landscapes I shot with it. But in low light, my sample shots turned out muddy and dark while my colleagues' faces looked splotchy in a dimly lit bar. Turning on the flash helped reclaim the lost detail, and because the flash's light is a slightly warm, orangy color, skin tones look particularly rich -- not overexposed and blue, like what you tend to see with cooler bulbs.

    It's mostly the same story with the 8-megapixel camera up front, which captures sharp, vibrant selfies in bright light but yields muted colors in poorly lit environments. Too bad there isn't a flash here to save your nighttime portraits.

    You can play around with the camera app's various modes to try to improve your shots, but they're a bit hard to find. Four main options are available right below the viewfinder -- Video, Photo, Pano and Slo-mo. Other tools, such as Night mode or HDR, are somewhat hidden. You need to tap the gear icon on the top right of the app, which displays two different panels -- a grid to tweak things like ISO, white balance, shutter sound and timer, and a row of five additional settings below it. That second section is where you'll find HDR, Night, Beauty and Square modes, and it's easy to miss because the eye goes straight to the first set of options.

    Performance and battery life

    The Pro3's cameras may be disappointing, but its performance exceeded my expectations. Thanks to its 2.35GHz quad-core Snapdragon 821 chip and 4GB of RAM, the Pro3 was generally responsive as I jumped from open app to open app without delay. The phone also kept up with my somewhat maniacal scrolling up and down Engadget's home page in Chrome, pausing occasionally to load images and GIFs. However, there were some small hiccups. The Live app crashed on me the first time I tried to launch it, although that hasn't happened since.

    LeEco Le Pro3 OnePlus 3 Alcatel Idol 4S Google Pixel
    AndEBench Pro 13,354 13,841 9,742 14,941
    Vellamo 3.0 6,559 5,202 4,831 5,343
    3DMark IS Unlimited 31,753 30,058 18,051 28,645
    GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 30 48 15 46
    CF-Bench 42,572 41,653 75,760 30,997

    The Pro3's benchmark results paint a similar picture. It beat other phones in its class like the OnePlus 3 and the Alcatel Idol 4S on most performance tests. It's worth noting, too, that these devices offer older, slower processors for the same price as the Le Pro3.

    OnePlus took the lead on ANDEbench but lost to LeEco in every other round, including the graphics test 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. In that, the Le Pro 3 trashed even top-tier devices like the HTC 10, Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel. The latter uses the same Snapdragon 821 chipset as the Le Pro3 and delivered stronger results in overall performance.

    The Pro3's large 4,070mAh battery squeezed out an impressive 10 hours and 44 minutes on Engadget's rundown test, which involves looping a high-definition video at 50 percent brightness. That's longer than the Idol 4S and OnePlus 3 lasted in the same test. Plus, it retains its power when idle. Indeed, I was impressed to find that after a couple days of languishing in my purse, the Le Pro3 was still alive.

    Since the Le Pro3 supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, it's supposed to charge 38 percent more efficiently than Quick Charge 2.0, which got most phones to 50 percent in 30 minutes. In general, plugging the phone in for 15 minutes got me to about 30 percent power, which, considering the size of the battery, is pretty decent.

    The competition

    The Le Pro3 goes up against the OnePlus 3, the Alcatel Idol 4S and the ZTE Axon 7, all of which cost about $400. They all have pleasing designs too, though none of them feel as expensive as the Le Pro3.

    Android purists may want to stick with the OnePlus 3 or the Idol 4S, both of which run skinned versions of Android but mostly stand by Google's basic navigational features. Fans of virtual reality in particular should consider the Alcatel phone, which comes with its own headset and immersive VR content. The Axon 7 is also a good VR choice, as ZTE promises it will eventually be compatible with Google's Daydream VR platform. It also has a sharper quad HD screen to boot.

    If you need a phone that can handle your intense multitasking, the OnePlus 3 is a slightly better option than the Pro3, beating it in most performance tests. But the Pro3 is no slouch either, coming in faster than the Alcatel and ZTE options.

    Finally, if you can't live without your favorite wired headphones, you're better off with any of the other three, all of which sport traditional headphone jacks.

    Wrap-up

    The Le Pro3 feels like it costs hundreds more than its $400 asking price, and it performs well for the money too. However, as LeEco's first offering in the US, the Le Pro3 gets some important things wrong. Users here aren't likely to unlearn old habits for a phone that's not much better than similarly priced handsets, so the different software and missing headphone jack are missteps that will cost LeEco customers. I also wish the camera performed better in low light. In spite of all of this, the Le Pro3 is a capable phone that punches above its weight, at least as far as design and performance go.

    Cherlynn is reviews editor of Engadget. She grew up in Singapore and came to New York in 2012. After earning her master's in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she fell in like with tech at her first job, covering smartphones and wearables for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide. Nowadays, she spends too much time coming up with ideas for podcasts, IGTV shows and creative out-of-office messages. She also tweets excessively and thinks there aren't enough selfies and crop tops in the world.

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