The Etel Curiosity N3: a mixed bag with four cores

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Etel’s been around for quite a while. In fact, this homebrew brand once did an excellent job of converting the former “Chinese phone” market into branded device owners with an actual warranty backing them up.

However, times have changed. Android happened. Now there’s no shortage of competitors in the budget smartphone market – we’ve seen plenty of manufacturers churning out one cheap smartphone after another, most of them cheap OEM designs that differ only in the shape and branding.

In this space, at a price of Rs 21,900, comes Etel’s biggest shot to date: the Curiosity N3. We’ve got a unit of our hands: let’s see how well it does – and whether it’s worth the money.

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The looks and build

From the front, the Etel N3 is one of the best-looking budget smartphones we’ve ever seen. It’s not fancy. Neither is it excessively rounded or colorful: it’s a mature-looking phone, with a 4.5” screen embedded in a front with acceptable bezels. It’s not particularly slim – a millimeter thinner than the Lumia 525 – but it well in the hand and is fairly heavy. The back panel, which is a matt black plastic, slightly cheapens the look with excessive lettering and serves as a fingerprint magnet royale.

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Build-wise, it’s very well done on the outside, about as solid as an HTC One X. There’s a bit of backlight bleed around the edges of the screen.

The specsheet

deetsThe Curiosity N3’s specsheet is an odd one. It’s a quad-core phone. It has a MediaTek MT6582 processor with four cores and a clock speed on 1.3 Ghz, complete with a Mali-400 MP GPU, running Android 4.2 . Now technically, that’s only a tad under a Samsung Galaxy S3’s power. What’s weird is that it has only 512 MB of RAM (in practice, 460 MB).

While we’ve seen time and time again that it’s perfectly possible to get by with 512 MB of RAM, we have to question the wisdom of hitching it to a quad-core processor of any kind. It’s like dropping a V6 engine inside a Maruti 800 and expecting it to sound cool. It’s not. What you have is a phone theoretically capable of handling any app on the market, including the highest-end games, but being unable to because of a missing slice of memory.

The screen is this phone’s biggest luxury. While the 480×854 resolution (240 dpi) doesn’t seem like much, it’s an IPS display – a cheaper cousin of what you’ll find in the iPhone. This is as good as it gets in a budget device. It’s crisp, colors are vivid, the screen as a whole is very readable and it’s very responsive. There’s also an 8MP camera on the back (which we’ll test), a 2MP front camera, HSDPA 21 Mbps (not that you’ll ever get those speeds) and a 1750 mAH battery to boot. And dual-sim functionality. It’d be a very rounded package if not the RAM.

Etel also claims 4GB of internal memory, though there’s actually only 1.72 GB that you can use.

Interface

Most phone manufacturers either go stock or do horrible things to the Android interface. Etel’s opted for a middle path. They’ve replaced the icons with their own (all of them clearly reworked iOS 6 icons) and left everything else untouched.

This means stock Android is a simple launcher change away. There’s also the option to change the color scheme of the menus, switching between a very iOS-ish white and the usual default Android menus, both of which are quite pleasant. Usually, this option is kept hidden.

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Performance

The Etel N3’s stock performance is epic. It’s fast and snappy in the menus and on the homescreen. Lag sets in only with the “water” Live wallpaper, which is forgivable.

However, if you expect to run Asphalt minimized while flipping over to your social media feeds, forget the idea. The Etel N3 is supremely good at one heavy thing at a time or three to four smaller processes. Which means yes, Facebook and Whatsapp can run, but don’t expect to run a Youtube video at the same time without lag. There’s only so much you can do with 512 MB of RAM, quad-core or no quad-core.

Battery life is good by default. Unless you throw it into use, the CPU keeps three cores turned off and one core at 598 Mhz. Heavy use burns out the battery pretty fast. We hit around 18 hours in our average day-of-use test, which includes an hour of music, a screen-on-time of roughly three hours, WiFi enabled around the clock with email, Whatsapp and Facebook syncing away. It’s enough to take you through a workday: definitely not enough to watch video on. If, and how the battery life will change after a month of use is not yet determined.

Camera, sound and other essentials

The camera is usable. On one hand, it copes with light quite well, picking up color in sub-light conditions. Greens are slightly washed out, reds are a tad too vivid and there’s a little bit of noise – nevertheless, very acceptable performance and detail. It has an HDR mode that captures a bit more detail and produces noisier pictures.

The reds are OK. The green - definitely washed-out.
The reds are OK. The green – definitely washed-out.

On the flip side, the camera app lags. Quite badly, if you’ve got night mode enabled (essential for taking pictures indoors or in the evening). You need a lot of patience and very stationary subjects to make this work.

There’s minimal bloatware. Etel Life Style Lounge (functionally useless), OfficeSuite 6, Raging Thunder 2 and Touchpal keyboard (which you’d want to replace with Swiftkey or Swype) are all that’s outside the stock Google set.

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The phone is also noisy. Someone has seen fit to equip this phone with a speaker to match any of those blaring Chinese phones you hear on the bus. The camera app’s shutter sound is so loud your neighbors know when you take a picture of your cat.

Music playback is acceptable on the speaker, but when it comes to headphones, it’s like most phones based on MediaTek SoCs – mediocre. There’s a certain loss in clarity and lack of punch that occurs even on 320kbps tracks with a decent pair of headphones. The N3 has a problem with headphones with mics – they just won’t fit properly.

Packaging and verdict

The packaging is where Etel hit it really well. We’re used to seeing crappy headsets in these boxes. Etel’s stock headset is cheap but it is wearable. Also included is a smooth, well-made flip cover with a back panel attached – a very thoughtful touch, one that usually costs the user a thousand rupees or so from a phone shop.

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All in all, is it worth it? Yes if you want a cheap smartphone with decent looks, a good display and a usable camera (for still shots, anyway). Etel’s built a pretty solid device with decent ergonomics. The 512 MB of RAM is still weird. No if you intend to multitask like crazy – for that, you might have to stop being stingy and start ruffling through that bank account. It’s available at Takas.lk.

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