Review of Karbonn A9+
“You are a fool”. That generally is the exclamation my closest friends utter, when they discover that I have purchased yet another gadget from a company of unknown lineage. My Nokia / Samsung / Motorola / Apple / Blackberry friends let me know, without mincing any words, how productive they are on their phones. They let me know that their phones seem to last forever while I am playing Russian Roulette with Indian Currency on Chinese Phones.
It is not without reason that I have started to buy gadgets from fledgling companies in India. Vexed with expensive fancy phones that broke down magically after two years, I chose to buy Zen Mobile Z77 (not one, but two!) for wife and me. It seemed mad to them. It seemed mad to me too, but I was done paying the cost of a Desktop Computer for a phone. Turns out, I had chosen a winner. The phone worked marvelously and I had to physically throw the phone in an Olympian move to finally get it to stop working. My wife’s phone ended it’s career a little more dramatically. After 2.5 years of use and surviving hair-clips and safety-pins in her purse, the phone was eventually stolen by a thief.
After the demise of the Zen Z77, I fell-back to my Nokia 5230 but unfortunately, it is a single SIM phone. The phone does not offer WiFi either. I bought another phone (a LG VS-750) to power my secondary SIM. My primary operator BSNL does a piss-poor job of network connectivity and tower configuration and I find myself constantly out of network. The secondary SIM belongs to Airtel and enjoys better connectivity, but carrying two phones is for those who are being driven around town by a guy dressed in white. I find myself already overloaded with my Laptop bag and Camera bag.
Thus started the search for a new Dual-SIM phone.
I would have merrily bought another Zen Z77 (now at only Rs. 1600!) had it not been for my wife’s insistence that my new phone cost a little more than the one that we gifted to her Maid (an iBall Aspire QE45 that is proving to be a nightmare). Hence a trip to Sangeetha Mobiles (A.S. Rao Nagar) who have consistently proven to provide better pricing among other brick-and-mortar shops.
The sheer variety of Android phones in the market and the rapid rate at which they are being launched proved to be boggling enough for the Salesmen who had to fallback to reading the specs on the box aloud for my benefit. It was only their politeness that kept me in the store and not march away to FlipKart.
As I scanned their store shelves in an attempt to decode the offerings my self, I could not help notice that as I my eyes roamed the bottom shelf to the top, the specifications kept improving, so did the appearance and the price; which raised my eye-brows to the absolute physical limit of the Frontalis muscle.
What stuck my fancy was the Karbonn A9+, which I nearly assumed was an iPhone. The specifications on the attractively designed box did nothing to cause my mind to drift away. A Qualcomm SnapDragon Dual-Core 1.2 GHz CPU, Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), 386MB RAM, 512MB ROM, 2GB Internal Storage, Up-to 32GB External Storage via Micro SD Cards, Dual Camera, Capacitive Touchscreen, GPS, WiFi, 3G … … … In short, it had everything I could think off. All at a price of Rs. 9500/- only (inclusive of additional charges for Insurance and Door-step service by Sangeetha).
The out of box experience of the phone is very good. Packed in a slim white cardboard box, the packaging contains all the technical details you need, to make an informed purchase. This includes Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) values for those who are concerned about harmful effects of cellular radiation.
Opening the box proved to be a hassle (inside case is very tightly fit and must be slid out from one direction only). Once opened, we found the phone with a completely glossy black face lying pristinely in a sea of white card paper. Lifting the phone revealed it’s textured plastic back cover (off white colour) with minimal branding in clean stylish font.
The box contained – Phone with Back-cover, Battery, Hand-free Earphones (White, very similar to iPhone), Charger with USB Cable (white again). Basic paper-work included a User Manual (in error-free English) and a booklet containing a comprehensive list of Service centers.
A phone with a glossy screen this big, definitely needs scratch protection. I asked the store employees to fit a scratch guard and only then we discovered that the phone came pre-installed with a scratch guard!. Even the store employees were caught off-guard and I was possibly their first customer to buy this phone (not surprising considering that the phone only became widely available in 2nd half of October 2012).
To add to my surprise, a spare Scratch Guard slipped out of the manual booklet. Now if only other smart phone manufacturers had the sense to do this. Full marks to Karbonn for making this extra effort.
The back-cover of the phone snaps off easily. Just slide a plastic pick along the edges. Yet it is tight enough to not automatically pop-open. It is very easy to slide in the 2 SIM cards and 1 Micro SD card into their assigned slots. No need to open hinges, covers or use tooth-picks. The battery too slides in and latches smoothly. Reversing these operations is equally easy.
Even with the battery installed, the phone is remarkable light-weight. Not at all like the LG VS-750 which could have gotten me arrested in communally sensitive Hyderabad (for carrying heavy object with lethal potential).
The battery comes pre-charged from factory and allows for a great first experience. The Power/Lock button (place on top of phone) requires gentle press for 2 seconds and the phone comes to life in glorious color animation and sound. A few Android OS setup screens later, I am dropped into the Phone’s home screen.
I was able to successfully place calls using both my SIMs from the belly of the store. The audio quality of the phone speakers, phone hands-free speakers and hands-free earphones was very good. It was loud and clear and I did not notice any echo, noise or distortion.
The phone features a WVGA display (800 x 480 pixels) powered by an Adreno 203 GPU. The display was bright, sharp and had very good visibility from all angles. I tested the screen using Screen Test ver 2.2.2 and display did not display Dead Pixels (black / colored dots on white screen), Stuck Pixels (White/colored dots on black screen), Uneven brightness (patches on grey screen), Geometrical distortions or Color Gamut issues. In fact, the color gamut exhibited is way better than the LCD displays of my laptops. I was able to make out distinct shades from the brightest to the darkest shades of the colors. Grays were absolutely neutral.
The phone also features a Proximity Sensor (to turn off display and touch screen when phone is put next to the ear) and a Light Sensor to control the brightness of the screen automatically based on ambient light.
Upon my return to home, I got it connected to my WiFi-G router (phone supports 802.11n). This was painless. Android OS saves router connections and auto-connects to routers as they become available. Android OS allows the WiFi radio can be configured to be Off / Always On /Always On when connected to charger. This way, if you are on battery and there is no WiFi router to connect to, the radio is powered down automatically to save battery.
Note that the phone’s WiFi antenna is not as powerful as one that maybe present on your laptop. At my Client’s office, in a low signal corner, my Acer laptop continued to hold-on to the weak WiFi signal but the phone lost the connection.
The phone supports 3G and GPRS too. I tested the GPRS connection of BSNL briefly and turned it off. While GPRS worked acceptably well, GPRS without a plan is just too expensive (Rs. 30/MB). Fortunately, Andoid OS allows Mobile Data to be turned Off / Off while roaming / On. Naturally, I have turned Mobile Data Off till I subscribe to a 3G / GPRS plan.
The phone comes with two programs for Email. A program titled ‘Email’ supports Push-mail (instant email notification, supported by Hotmail, Microsoft Exchange) and G-Mail (supports synchronisation of Bookmarks, Email, Contacts & Calendar, supported by email IDs on Gmail and Google Apps). It is possible to configure the same email ID on both the programs but you will receive two notifications each time you receive an email. A few mistrials later, I successfully configured 5 email accounts on the Email and Gmail program and downloaded previous 30 days of emails into each account. The email program continued to be responsive.
The phone’s default browser supports HTML 5 (score of 318/500 at html5test.com). Sun Spider 0.9.1 score (average of 3 runs) was 1940.3ms (compared to a score of 250.4ms with Palemoon x64 15.3 on my Acer 5755 and 333.5ms on my Acer 5745). It is possible to install Google Chrome, Opera Mobile or Opera Mini browser to take HTML5 scores to the 400 mark. Browsing websites was quick and fun. Opera Mini provides better browsing experience (compressed images, quick-launch buttons) so you may consider installing that from the Google Play Store.
Google Play Store
Unlike our experience with Motorola Xoom when it was launched in India, access to Google Play Store (Android Market) to download apps was smooth. I provided my Gmail based ID and was logged in. You can either select and download the apps from the Google Play app on the phone or visit Google Play using Chrome browser on the Computer and browse and install the apps. When you select an app for installation on the computer, it downloads automatically into the phone and installs without any further ado.
Apps are installed by default on the Phone Memory (512 MB). You can move them to the internal storage (2GB) or external storage (8GB Micro SD card in my case). You also need to select the Storage memory to be used by Play Store and cannot use both Storage memories for Apps. I chose the Internal Storage memory since 2GB is quite sufficient for my limited apps and I am quite likely to swap the 8GB card for cards of higher capacity.
Note that Android OS requires Widgets (applications that always run on your home screens) to be installed on Phone Memory only. In addition, many apps also require that they be installed on Phone Memory only (most of Google Inc’s apps). Some apps install on Phone Memory but use Storage memory for their data (Google Maps). Newer apps on Play Store feature the ability to be installed entirely on Storage memory.
Google Maps / Navigation:
Google is now providing the ability to store map data for Offline use and turn-by-turn directions. Android OS on the phone updates many Google applications. Once the updates are completed, you will find Google Maps on the phone to be fast and intuitive. You can also use other GPS programs from the Play Store. I have installed City Maps 2 Go and downloaded the road map of AP & West Bengal for Offline use. CM2G uses map data provided by OpenStreetMaps and while it is not as updated as Google Maps, it is a great backup mapping application.
Note that the phone lacks a Magnetometer and most compass apps fail to work.
The phone came pre-installed with copy of Kingsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat Reader. It was easy enough to download additional business apps such as Evernote, Expense Tracker, WordWeb / Merriam-Webster Dictionary etc. These apps installed and worked flawlessly out of the box. The phone remained snappy in-spite of many of these apps running concurrently. A performance degradation does occur and it is noticeable but it is not a show stopper.[table “16” not found /]
Voice Control / On-Screen Keyboard:
Android OS features voice commands for phone control and app navigation. Quite surprisingly, it understood most of my commands spoken in ‘Indian’ English and I did not have to fake an American accent. The feature is particularly useful which searching the web and typing emails. While the on-screen keyboard is very similar to the layout on an iPhone, being able to simply speak out is way faster. The keyboard supports word-completion (T9) but works like the better word-guessing (I9). You can also install 3rd party text input apps such as Swype.
Note that voice-search requires active Internet connection (WiFi / 3G / GPRS). It appears that it will require an OS Update to Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) for offline voice search support.
My single biggest gripe with the phone is it’s relatively short battery life. Though it is armed with a 1420mAH Li-ion battery, the only way to eek out juice for a full day is to not use the features of a Smart Phone. The Zen Z77 was a ‘dumb’ phone. It would make calls well and you could play Java games for a while, but it’s 1200 mAH battery lasted more than 1.5 days.
The phone quickly becomes warm and loses battery if you start WiFi and Bluetooth sessions simultaneously. I am told 3G has an even worse effect on battery life. Google Play store takes away battery life as you download and try out the various apps but what really takes the cake are the ‘Live Wallpapers’. Install any Open-GL based wallpaper (for ex: Anipet Aquarium, Lightscape) and you can watch the battery go from full to zero in an hour.
I am told that poor battery life is a bane of Android OS and unless the phone has a battery capacity of 2500mAH – 4000mAH, one should not expect full-day of tablet functionality from it.
A 30 minute session of Angry Birds (WiFi off) depleted the battery but not dramatically. Standard business apps (email check on notification, SMS check on notification, Answering calls) etc. also did not kill the battery too much. Nevertheless, be prepared to carry the charger with you; better still – use multiple chargers.
A good feature of the phone is that it charges via USB. In fact, the bundled charger delivers 5V DC at 500mA using the standard USB Micro-B connector. I was successful in using the USB charger that came along with the LG VS-750 to charge this phone. Many of my friends who have Blackberry’s with dying battery, keep the phone plugged into their computer’s USB (for charging). It makes their phone look like Bakelite phones of yore. It won’t be funny if my new phone too is relegated to the same status.
Like a Nokia phone, for some reason, the first time full-charge of a battery takes really long. In fact you are left wondering if something is wrong. In my case, it took over 4 hours. With the passing days, the charging has become faster and now I am able to achieve full-charge of the phone from zero in about 2 hours.
FYI, the fully charged new battery reported 4180 mV of charge. It will be interesting to measure the rate of decline of the battery. Another problem would be non-availability of replacement batteries since Karbonn does not document their availability.
Note that if the battery gets deeply discharged, the phone may not power-up even with the charger connected. In fact, it may not even appear to be charging. Just leave it connected to the charger. In a few minutes, the battery will charge sufficiently and the battery charging animation will show. At this point, you can power on the phone.
The phone’s back-cover is an all plastic affair that that does not make a seamless fit. It’s flexible and creaks under pressure. Though it’s a non-issue as far as functioning of the phone is concerned, its the first time in 15 years of mobile phone usage that I am encountering such an issue.
The phone comes armed with a 5MP back camera that also packs a LED Flash and 0.3MP (VGA) front camera. The cameras have very good low-light performance in Low-motion scenes. i.e. if you use Skype Video Calling, the cameras are able to capture a well-exposed image even if the only light source in the room is a 28W tube-light. Try capturing a party-scene (with lots of people moving about) and all you are likely to capture is motion blur outlines. In daylight, the images are captured much more easily and quickly.
A redeeming feature of the phone is the ability to select the focus point. Just touch on the object/person you want to focus on and the camera focuses to bring forth a sharp image. The camera can also automatically select shoot mode and select Macro mode if object is too close to camera. Macro focusing distance is as close as approx. 5 cm.
Additional features such as Color modes (B&W, Sepia etc.) are available along with Flash control. The built-in flash is bright and effective for short distances of 5 feet or less.
The camera can also record video clips and assisted panorama images.
Where the camera fails is Dynamic Range and Color Rendition. If you take images of very vibrant scenes, colors seem to shift towards grey. Green leaves and Yellow petals of Marigold flowers turned grey. If you shoot scenes with areas of high brightness and deep shadows, areas in shade become too dark in the image. Thankfully, the bright areas do not blow-out.
Detail-wise, the 5MP camera leaves a lot to be desired. While the images distinctly have more detail than the 2MP camera on my Nokia 5230 and the 3.2MP camera on the LG VS-750, the quality of images is awful when compared to a 2MP HP Digital Camera that is 10 years old. I have maintained that Mega-Pixel marketing is a fallacy and just like PMPO rating for audio systems, customers should avoid considering it as a factor when evaluating a camera. Not only the 5MP images do not have the sharpness that is expected, the extremely heavy JPEG compression that is applied makes them look like up-scaled VGA images.
In short, photography enthusiasts will be sorely disappointed with this camera.
The phone OS includes ‘Developer Options’ menu in Settings. This is very useful for software developers and those who are trying to enable ‘USB to Go’ etc. However, the debug mode itself has a serious bug. If you enable ‘Strict Mode’, then it just does not get disabled no matter how many times you turn it off. The only way to stop the red flashes around the border of the screen, is to reset the phone to factory settings.
Touch Screen Issues:
The phone’s touch screen acts really cranky when the phone is plugged into a charging source.
Touch registrations go haywire and it becomes nearly impossible to use the phone. I have seen this issue with Capacitive Touch-Screens when we used them for creating Multimedia Kiosks, but to see it a decade later on a battery powered device means that there maybe an engineering issue with the phone.
Upon disconnecting from the charging source, the phone’s touch screen acts normally and requires no re-calibration. Unfortunately, the phone did not come with a Recalibration option either. In future, should I need recalibration of the screen, I maybe on my own.
If you will also find that the Android buttons placed at the bottom of the phone do not work if you are not holding the phone.
For ex: if the phone is on a table/bed, you will find that the bottom row of buttons are not functional. The moment you slide your palm under the phone, they start working properly. If you place the phone over a headphone wire, the buttons start working. Fortunately, the rest of the screen works as expected but without back-button and home button functionality, using the phone becomes near impossible.
One buyer has recommended that the phone works perfectly when he used the USB charger of another manufacturer. He claimed that the charger included by Karbonn delivers slightly higher voltage than 5V and causes most of these touch screen issues. In my case, when I charged the phone in the bedroom (different electrical phase), even with the Karbonn charger, the phone behaved like a Gentleman!
The touch response also went crazy when I placed the phone next to a Karbonn A21 and when it was placed on a bubble wrap.
So there is definitely an issue with charging voltage / static electricity / inductive coils etc. There are definitely engineering issues with touch on this phone. Maybe Karbonn will fix this issue, maybe they won’t. Though unlike USA, even if the issue is fixed, we are unlikely to see a mass-recall and replacement of the devices.
A common anathema for Android users, the phone does not offer PC Synchronization the way Nokia does with it’s PC Suite software. There is no bundled software. There is nothing available on Google Play Store either. The only way to transfer your contacts from Outlook to phone is to export it as CSV and import it in Gmail. When the phone synchronizes the Gmail account, it will transfer the contacts. There is no way to automatically transfer Contact information and Profile images from Facebook into the phone either. To top it all, the Facebook app is a bloatware and must be installed on Phone Memory only.
Sangeetha Mobiles added on costs such as Sangeetha Swift (Rs.199/-, for insurance) and Sangeetha Delight (Rs.99/-, door-step servicing). They claim that these costs are mandatory. These costs make Sangeetha more expensive than most Online Stores. Are these costs acceptable or should buyers have an option? I am all for these costs being optional but I also suggest that insurance of an expensive mobile phone maybe worth it. Insurance companies in India are notorious for making it extremely difficult to process a claim and quite possibly your claim will be rejected. Nevertheless, insurance rarely proves it’s value until the occasion calls for it.
A phone like the Karbonn A9+ costs less than 1/3rd the cost of a branded state-of-the-art Smartphone (for ex: Samsung Galaxy Note II N7100, Rs.37K on SnapDeal on Nov 18, 2012). Are you also getting a 1/3rd phone?
I had the pleasure of using the Note II today and comparing the Karbonn to the Samsung would be comparing Apples to Oranges. The fluidity of the interface, the quality of the camera, the 720p HD Videos, the absolutely COMPLETE set of features sets the Galaxy Note II in a class of it’s own. Even the iPhone is not a patch on the Galaxy.
If comparing the Karbonn A9+ with Samsung Galaxy Note II (or similar phones), the question is not whether you are getting a 33% phone. It is do you need a 300% phone?