If you thought the likes of the Moto G4 and Wileyfox Swift 2 X were cheap, think again. The Blu Life Max is the latest handset to pair solid specs with a bargain bucket price tag, the only difference here is that instead of coming in under the $200/£200 (around AU$260) marker, this phone can be snapped up for less than $110 or £100 (roughly AU$145).
Never heard of Blu? Well let us introduce you. The American smartphone maker - who’s name actually stands for Bold Like Us - is the latest manufacturer to shake up the handset market.
Not with innovative new features, stunning designs or big marketing campaigns, but by targeting users where it really matters - their wallet.
Despite making other ‘affordable’ phones look positively pricey, the Blu Life Max is a device that pushes the envelope of what you can expect from a bank balance-friendly handset.
Yes, cost-cutting compromises have been made, but there’s still enough left to this device to make it a phone that you’ll consider based on ability, rather than simply its price.
Blu Life Max price and release date
- Out now in the US and UK
- Costs $109.99/£89.99 (around AU$145)
So, just how cheap is the Blu Life Max? Well the phone, which is available now in the US and UK, but with no Australian release in sight, can be snapped up for just $109.99/£89.99 (around AU$145).
That’s not just cheap, that’s less than half the price of the Moto G4 Plus, a handset that’s widely regarded as the king of the affordable phones. It’s also a price tag that could well reshape expectations of what budget phones should be.
More bang for your buck than you’d expect
- Big 3,700mAh battery
- Integrated fingerprint scanner
- Solid on-paper specs
Affordable phones make compromises when it comes to feature lists and specs sheets. It’s an inevitability that comes with the need to cut costly corners somehow. Despite its seriously barebones price tag, however, the Blu Life Max hasn’t skimped on the features front too much.
There are still two cameras, 5MP up front, 8MP around back, a large 720p display, and a huge, 3,700mAh battery. That’s not all that’s been squeezed in, either.
A 1.3GHz quad-core chipset runs the show alongside a solid 2GB of RAM, and, while the phone’s 16GB of internal storage is modest, it can be expanded by up to 64GB via microSD card.
So far, so good then. Pleasingly, the welcome additions aren’t limited to the phone’s hardware, but software too.
Given that it’s still missing from most flagship phones, it’s no surprise that Android 7.0 Nougat is nowhere to be seen here, but instead, a largely untouched version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow has been included, with the near stock Android offering providing a fluid, user-friendly interface.
It’s not just the basic essentials that this phone packs, either. A fingerprint scanner has also been slotted on the device’s rear, an addition still missing from many phones that cost more than three times as much.
This isn’t just a token addition that’s more nuisance than assistance though. The phone’s biometric sensor is pleasingly responsive and speedy. It might not be on par with the iPhone 7’s Touch ID sensor or the fingerprint scanner on the rear of the Google Pixel XL, but it keeps misreads to a minimum and unlocks the phone in prompt fashion.
Although, obviously, the Blu Life Max doesn’t feature a collection of specs ready to compete with the likes of Apple, Samsung and HTC, neither is this a phone that feels like stepping back to 2010.
For the price, it doesn’t just feel well-rounded, but comfortably exceeds expectations.
Design and display
- Large but limiting 5.5-inch 720p display
- Simple, plastic build with removable back
- Available in one color with ugly faux-leather rear
Sometimes cheap really does mean cheerful, and that’s certainly the case with the Blu Life Max’s design. You can forget metal edges or sleek, glass elements, plastic is king here.
Devices like the Moto G4 have proven that doesn’t have to be a barrier to success though, and although simple and plain, the Blu Life Max features a form that feels well-built and is far from ugly or offensive. Well, for the most part.
From the front, it’s a phone that actually looks a lot like the Moto G4. There’s a sizeable chunk of black plastic framing the screen, and finished with smoothly rounded corners. Flip the phone over, however, and things go downhill a bit.
Instead of keeping things simple with a bit matt plastic for a comfortable, grippy feel, the Blu Life Max has been fitted with a faux-leather removable back plate. There’s even some fake stitching embossed into the ugly plastic rear to really try and class things up.
It’s all a bit Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and, although designed to boost the phone’s design appeal, actually makes it look and feel cheaper than it should. It’s a design addition that’s more market stall than high fashion.
Unfortunately, with just one color scheme available, there’s no hiding it behind a different paint job either. Instead, if you plump for the Blu Life Max, you’ll have to make do with a black-fronted phone that has blue tinges to its side and rear.
A faux-leather rear isn’t the phone’s only design quirk either. Somewhat unusually, Blu has opted to fit the phone’s power connection port - an old fashioned micro USB attachment, there’s no USB-C here - to the phone’s top edge.
While this doesn’t make any difference while out and about, use the phone in bed or while lounging on the sofa, and things can get a bit awkwardly contorted if you’ve got the phone plugged in.
The reasoning behind it is hard to fathom, too. Although the move has allowed a pair of speaker grilles to be squeezed in to the base of the phone, given only one of them actually pumps out audio, it all feels rather redundant.
Small niggles aside, this is a phone that looks and feels nicer than its price would suggest. At just 8.7mm thick and 153g in weight, it’s notably slimmer than the 9.8mm plump Moto G4, and is comfortable to hold despite its 5.5-inch display.
Unlike the phone’s design, which exceeds price point expectations, the Blu Life Max’s screen is everything you’d expect from an entry-level handset - grainy, dull and generally disappointing.
That’s because the Blu Life Max packs just a 720 x 1280 resolution. While this would be fine on a smaller phone, having been stretched over a 5.5-inch panel, things are underwhelming at best.
The size and resolution combine to form a screen with a lowly 267 pixels-per-inch image density. That’s low enough to give all text a notable level of distortion and a lack of definition. It also makes video viewing a particularly underwhelming affair.
Compared to other ultra-affordable smartphones, it’s reasonable, but the rest of its specs list is closer to devices of twice the price.
Interface and reliability
- Android 6.0 Marshmallow
- Very light Blu skin
- Android Nougat update will drop eventually
Android is boss when it comes to affordable phones, and Google’s mobile OS takes the helm once again here.
The company’s latest version - Android 7.0 Nougat - is nowhere to be seen, although Blu has confirmed to TechRadar that an update will be offered at some point in the future.
Instead, Android 6.0 Marshmallow is the software of choice here. Although not quite stock Android, Blu’s software skin is so light, you’ve essentially got the core Android experience, and that’s key.
Many budget phones cram their software with so much margin-boosting bloatware that the phones become fat, slow, unwieldy offerings. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. Yes, there are a couple of unwanted add-ons, but it’s not overdone.
Those pre-installed apps are a couple of Amazon shopping options and the Opera browser. And even these can be killed off if you want. Beneath that, it’s mostly core Android offerings, with Google’s stock music player lining up alongside the bog-standard gallery, dialler and Chrome apps.
All this combines to create a familiar, welcoming interface. The Blu Life Max is a phone that’s got plenty of customization options and enough user-friendly smarts to appease first time smartphone owners and hardened handset enthusiasts alike.
It’s cleaner than the likes of Huawei’s EMUI skin and even Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, with the traditional app drawer giving you a central location to access all your apps.
Even the Amazon add-ons have their benefits, bringing free app and gaming downloads to the mix.
Movies, music and gaming
- 5.5-inch 720p display doesn’t make for engaging viewing
- Power problems make gaming a sluggish affair
- Audio abilities uninspired
If you’re after a phone that’ll replace your laptop or iPad as your primary on-the move Netflix option, you’re out of luck. Given its price, the Blu Life Max’s entertainment abilities are impressive, but in the grand scheme of things it’s still sub-par.
When gaming or watching video content, it’s not the phone’s low resolution that’s the primary problem, more its lack of brightness. Yes, there is a notable lack of depth and definition, but not being able to crank the brightness only compounds the issues.
Video content with lots of areas of shadow and darkness becomes a murky mess and games fail to add that engaging shine you’re really looking for.
It’s not just the screen that hampers the overall gaming options though, the phone’s chipset isn’t really up to the task either. Playing bigger, more demanding games such as Asphalt 8: Airborne, things just aren’t fluid enough.
Instead, your gaming sessions will be punctuated with stutters and stalls. It’s not unplayable, but neither is it the most enjoyable, relaxing of experiences either.
On to audio, and things don’t get much better. Play music through the phone’s integrated speaker, and it quickly becomes clear that it’s not up to the task, especially when you start pushing the volume up, with things quickly becoming tinny and distorted.
Although we’ve picked apart a number of issues with the Blu Life Max’s entertainment skills, it’s important to remember this is a sub-$110/£100 phone, and little within that price range comes close to its abilities.
Benchmarks and performance
- MediaTek MT6737 paired with 2GB of RAM
- 1.3GHz quad-core chip fails to impress with real world use
- Geekbench scores are equally uninspiring
The Blu Life Max isn’t the fastest phone going, far from it. Whatever you ask the phone to do, you can feel it thinking before springing into action. It’s not just that it’s slow, but every app launch or command request is followed by a notable pause.
We’re not just talking about seriously system demanding tasks such as launching a sizeable game or quickly skipping between different apps, either. Things as simple as pressing ‘reply’ on an email are met with a stutter.
Even for the price, you’d hope for something a little smoother and more refined.
The phone’s MediaTek MT6737’s real world issues are brought into focus when benchmarked, too. Running the Geekbench 4 tests, the Blu Life Max recorded an average score of 1490. This is seriously low.
To put it into context, other affordable phones top the 3000 mark, with the Moto G4 Plus and Honor 6X recording scores of 3047 and 3275 respectively. This performance ultimately hampers what the phone is capable of and its overall user experience.
- Huge 3,700mAh battery squeezed in
- Will sneak through two days with steady use
- No fast charging skills
What the Blu Life Max lacks in raw power and screen quality, it more than makes up for when it comes to battery life.
Arguably the phone’s best feature, it plays host to a massive 3,700mAh battery. That’s bigger than the power supply packed into the flagship, 5.5-inch, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.
It’s not just size without substance, either, the Blu Life Max holds its charge well, too. The company’s claims of managing three days between trips to the mains are slightly exaggerated, but you should be able to eke two working days out of the device before requiring an urgent power up.
It’s good that the phone holds its charge well, because getting it in there is a pretty slow process. That’s because there are no fast charging skills. Although this is an addition usually reserved for higher end handsets, it has been creeping down the price points recently, popping up on phones such as the Wileyfox Swift 2 X.
Using the phone for a moderate amount of daily web-browsing, WhatsApp messaging and email answering - plus a bit of commute-busting gaming - we managed to get two days out of it before needing to connect to the mains.
Running our regular battery test - which involves playing a set 90-minute video with the brightness cranked up to full - the Blu Life Max showed its strong staying power, losing just 17% of a full charge.
This is much better than the 23% of its much smaller battery the Huawei P9 Lite haemorrhaged during the same test, and the 27% of charge given up by the Wileyfox Swift 2 X.
It’s not the best score we’ve seen recorded by an affordable phone though.
Although equal to the result recorded by the Moto G4 Plus, the Blu Life Max lines up marginally behind the Honor 6X, which lost 15% of its battery life, and well behind the 8% loss of the Lenovo P2 – a phone with an even bigger 5,100mAh juice pack.
- 8MP primary camera on the rear
- 5MP selfie camera with its own flash
Smartphones have quickly become the camera of choice for most, killing off large swathes of dedicated snappers. The Blu Life Max, however, shouldn’t have the camera industry too worried, as its efforts tread the line between average and poor, even accounting for the phone’s minimalist price tag.
On paper, the phone’s two cameras - an 8MP, autofocus-enhanced rear offering and a 5MP front-facing selfie shooter that’s been bolstered with its own integrated flash - sound solid. Unfortunately, the on-paper specs don’t tell the whole story.
Break out the Blu Life Max to capture a can’t-miss moment, and, well, you might rather have missed it than be left with the blurry, low quality results you’re presented with.
One of the camera’s main problems is its focal length. There’s no wide angle offering here, which means capturing city shots requires a lot of leaning back to fit everything in.
Bundle this with a slow, inaccurate autofocus and an inability to handle light sources, and images quickly become overblown, with areas of both light and shade transforming into a muddled mess. Lacking any sort of HDR skills, the camera also really struggles to define intricate areas of light and shade, resulting in flat, lifeless images.
The addition of a selfie flash is welcome, but again it does little to mask the fundamental lack of quality beneath.
Images captured with the front-facing camera are grainy, noisy and lacking any sort of depth or definition. If you’re a Snapchat addict or fond of the occasional vanity post on Facebook, the Blu Life Max is going to do nothing to flatter.
The Blu Life Max is a solid budget phone, but one that constantly fails to clear that final hurdle. It excels in some areas, but falls short in others.
Yes, it’s a phone that’s pushing boundaries, but it could benefit more from putting added focus on the basics rather than the innovation.
Sure, its integrated fingerprint scanner is a welcome addition on such a wallet-friendly phone, but if we could scrap that in favor of a sharper screen and smoother user experience, we would.
Who's this for?
The Blu Life Max is a phone for anyone on a budget. Barely more expensive than an old-school feature phone, it brings smartphone skills, albeit largely basic ones, to the masses.
Despite its price, it still gives the full smartphone experience, however, with a large screen and near-stock Android interface creating a foundation that’s friendly to smartphone fans and technophobes alike.
Should you buy it?
In terms of core specs and overall performance, the Blu Life Max isn’t the most engaging of phones available. It’s hard to argue with a sub-$110/£90 (around AU$145) price tag though.
If price is your defining purchase factor, then there’s little else as cheap that offers such a comprehensive array of specs.
You won't find many decent smartphones that are cheaper than the Blu Life Max, but spend a little more and you can get a lot more, as the competition below shows.
Still the king of the affordable phones, the Moto G4 features a similarly plastic design to the Blu Life Max, along with a 5.5-inch screen of its own.
Unlike its cheaper rival, however, this sub-$200/£200/AU$330 handset adds a 1080p resolution and more grunt to the mix.
If you can afford the difference, you’ll get a smother, more engaging and photo-friendly experience from the Moto G4 in the long run.
- Read our full Moto G4 review
Another step up the price ladder, this slick metal handset possesses a number of things the Blu Life Max lacks - most notably a high-end metal build.
A phone that can match the Max for battery life, its cameras (including a dual-lens one on the back) are in a totally different league. Though thanks to a heavy overlay you won’t get such a smooth user interface.
- Read our full Honor 6X review
First reviewed: February 2017