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The affordable smartphone market is where the big opportunity is; it’s often referred to as the way to get “the next billion" smartphone users. Microsoft’s Windows Phones, Mozilla’s Firefox OS based phones and Samsung’s forthcoming Tizen OS are all competing for this market. Google’s target: to offer better smartphones than its rivals, at the $100 (around 6,000) price point. The software giant went back to the drawing board, and came up with a new strategy for its affordable Android phones.

What exactly is Android One?

The name suggests that it is a new version of Android, but it isn’t. Android One is actually a program, a project if you like. The basic idea is to solve the inconsistent performance and user experience issues that have plagued affordable Android smartphones till now, a problem now too big for Google to ignore.

Strict guidelines

Google has specified hardware requirements that smartphone makers need to follow for Android One branded phones. Google has approved a series of hardware components—processors, graphics, storage, battery and cameras—and will be responsible for ensuring that Android is completely optimized with these components.

Verdict: Good. Google’s strictness is welcome. We have seen far too many substandard basic Android phones.

‘Made for India’ features

Each phone must have expandable memory, removable battery, dual-SIM slots, FM Radio and Google Translate with Hindi.

Verdict: Good. This adds to the “value for money" aspect.

No customization

All Android One phones will have the default Android interface. Phone makers will not be allowed to change how the operating system looks and functions.

Verdict: Win. Customization is good, in theory. But there have been examples of haphazard execution.

Affordable Nexus

Google says that Android One phones will get OS updates just like the Nexus devices—as soon as they are rolled out. Till now, phone makers either didn’t bother with OS updates, or spent ages optimizing it with their own customizations. The OS update Android L will be heading to these phones later this year.

Verdict: Wait and watch. It is still not clear whether Google will push the updates, or depend on phone makers to do it.

Partnerships

Micromax, Karbonn and Spice are making the first set of Android One phones. MediaTek and Qualcomm will provide the processors. Acer, Asus, HTC, Intex, Lava, Lenovo, Panasonic and Xolo will also make Android One phones.

Verdict: Wait and watch. Remember, many manufacturers had lined up to make Windows Phones a couple of years ago?

Retail

Initially, these phones will be available exclusively on online retail websites like Flipkart (Spice), Amazon (Micromax) and Snapdeal (Karbonn). Later, they will also be available in brick and mortar stores.

Verdict: Good. Google wants to reach the customers in tier II and III cities.

The devices

There are three Android One phones to choose from at the moment. Basic specifications are the same for all three—4.5-inch IPS (in-plane switching) display (854x480 pixels), 1 GB RAM, a 5 MP rear camera and a 2 MP rear camera, MediaTekMT6582 quad-core processor and 1,700mAh user-removable battery.

Google has controlled most of the design elements, from the placement and design of the power and volume keys, to the location of the groove that opens the cover of the battery compartment.

The performance of these phones immediately feels superior to most non-Android One rivals. One drawback is that the camera will not be usable unless there is a memory card installed. There is no separate gallery app, but Google Photos. Remember to turn off auto-backups if you don’t want your images to be automatically uploaded to Google Drive.

Micromax Canvas A1

6,499 The A1’s design is very similar to some of Micromax’s other Android phones. There is a unique brushed metal ring around the camera and the flash. The phone is slim, feels quite solid, and the soft-feel finish enhances the grip.

The display has rich colours and adequate text crispness. But the reflective glass on the screen hinders usage outdoors.

While other Android versions use around 550 MB of RAM when idle, One’s optimizations mean it uses only 300 MB. This leaves more room for apps and multitasking. A free 8 GB memory card is shipped with the phone.

Karbonn Sparkle V

6,399 Karbonn, like Micromax, has used design elements seen in some of its other phones. The Sparkle V is available in red, silver, blue, black and white colours. Even though the back panel doesn’t have the reassuring soft-feel finish, the Sparkle V feels the best built of this lot.

At the same brightness levels, the white colours look purer on the Canvas A1, but the Sparkle V’s screen has slightly sharper text. Performance is quite smooth, and apps open quickly. Swiping between the home screens and the app drawer pages didn’t indicate any sluggishness.

Snapdeal is bundling an 8 GB memory card with the phone.

Spice Dream Uno

6,299The Dream Uno looks very similar to the Canvas A1. The screen has the best colour reproduction and the sharpest text. Whites are not as pure as the Canvas A1, but that hasn’t restricted the colour gamut.

This phone also seemed the snappiest of the lot, a point proved when we compared the RAM usage—278 MB in idle mode, while the other two use around 300 MB. The Spice Cloud offers 15 GB of cloud storage space.

The Dream Uno definitely has the advantage of being the least expensive Android One option.

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