TP-Link Neffos N1 – Premium phone for a budget price

Neffos, the mobile phone brand from TP-Link (yes, that company, the one that makes routers) has just come up with its latest and greatest handset – the N1. Despite Neffos being a rather unknown brand in the market, the N1 goes head to head with the industry’s best budget premium smartphones like the Xiaomi Mi A1. If you’re in the market for a new phone with great specs but don’t want to pay a bomb for the flagships, then this might just be the one for you. But before we go into the in-depth review, here’s what we liked (and what we didn’t):

Pros

  • Price
  • Good, up to date specs
  • Pleasant user interface
  • Premium craftmanship
  • Volume slider
  • Long battery life

Cons

  • Fat bezels
  • Freeze-ups in certain apps

Unboxing

The flat packaging for the N1 is pretty well done.

The N1 comes in a flat-ish square packaging, different from the usual rectangular box. There’s a USB C cable (yes this phone has USB C) and wired headphones. From the packaging to the accessories, everything is rather average, nothing really stands out, be it good or bad. But that’s actually a good thing, because Neffos put the money where it really matters.

Build Quality

The build quality on the N1 is fit for a $1000 phone.

There’s no second guessing Neffos’ intentions here. They’re out to give you an all-out premium device, and it shows in the N1’s craftsmanship. The sleek, precision engineered chassis looks beautiful and feels even better. Tolerances are tight, there was almost no play in the buttons, and the plastic antenna strip sits flush to the point it is almost indistinguishable if you run your finger over it (I kept running my finger across it because it’s just so well assembled!) It feels so good – it’s definitely up to standard with the best in the industry. I also loved the glass strip along the top edge of the phone which added a unique design element to the phone. It’s reminiscent of the Nexus 6P’s camera visor but done much more subtly. Only problem is, it’s prone to scratching if you don’t use a case.

The glass camera visor on the N1. Notice the scratch beside the camera flash?

Other than that, though, the overall design is rather mainstream, with an obvious resemblance to the iPhone 6’s back. There’s nothing wrong with it, however; it still looks beautiful.

One feature that some may miss, though is water resistance. For me, it’s a reasonable omission to keep costs down, but it really depends on your usage.

Fat, fat bezels

Yucks! These fat bezels are so 2017.

The front however, is an utterly different story. In my entire time with the phone, this is my main, perhaps only, sore point. Whether TP-Link didn’t get the memo, or whether they thought it wasn’t a big deal, I just can’t forgive the N1 for the ugly fat bezels on the N1. The phone has so much going for it (as you will see later) that it’s a shame Neffos tempered all their efforts with these ugly, fat bezels, especially when even budget phones are starting to feature narrow bezels. Thankfully, though, that is about the only bad thing in the entire design of the phone.

Ergonomics & Features

Perhaps where the N1 plays its strongest cards is in its features. It stacks a lot of plus points here, sporting most of those “Why can’t all phones have it?” features.

Seriously, all phones should have a hardware mute switch.

The first thing that comes to mind is the hardware mute switch. Otherwise exclusive to the iPhone and OnePlus series, it’s the pinnacle of those features which are simple to implement, extremely handy, but somehow forgotten by most big players. It’s even textured differently so you can find and toggle it by just reaching into your pocket. Other simple, but often omitted additions include a micro SD card slot, 3.5mm jack, and USB C. What’s amazing is that the N1 has all these features – to date I have yet to see another phone which offers the entire combination.

Neffos claims a 0.2s fingerprint sensor unlock. And after using it, I’m convinced their claims are true.

Lastly, the fingerprint sensor is worth mentioning. It’s located at the back of the phone, just at the spot where your index finger tends to be, and makes absolutely no fuss about unlocking your phone. Just rest your finger on it and the phone is instantaneously unlocked. It almost always read the fingerprint accurately, even when my finger was slightly wet or greasy. Neffos evidently put in a lot of effort into the reader – boasting that it takes a 0.2s to unlock the phone and mentioning that it uses a self-learning algorithm to unlock faster over time. (I couldn’t tell though, because it was instantaneous and accurate right from the start)

Screen

Despite being IPS, the screen on the N1 is outstanding, especially considering the price of the phone. I’ll start off by stating that the screen is IPS, rather than AMOLED tech that we’re accustomed to seeing on the latest flagship devices. That’s a bummer, mainly because it rules out the possibility of an Always On Display. But there isn’t much else I can fault the screen for. Although another major selling point of AMOLED over IPS tech is its contrast, the N1’s screen contrast is excellent (Neffos rates it as 1800:1) – the blacks are superb, to the extent that I double checked the spec sheet just to make sure it wasn’t actually AMOLED. Backlight bleed is only visible in a dark environment with the brightness set painfully high. Furthermore, even though the display is “only” 1080p, it is perfectly sharp – you need to inspect it closely with a magnifying glass to make out the pixels. Colours are less saturated than on AMOLED displays but are instead more natural and (from what I observed comparing it to a colour-accurate monitor) are quite accurate. Overall, I really like this display, despite being a fan of AMOLED screens.

UI & Performance

For the hardware, the N1 houses a Helio P25 octa-core processor. While not industry-leading, it’s still buttery smooth for day-to-day tasks, including heavy multitasking. Furthermore, it didn’t seem to slow down over time, even though I downloaded a ton of apps, using the phone as my daily driver for some time.

But there was one situation where the phone struggled – Google Maps. Although there wasn’t a hint of lag with anything else, the N1 would often freeze up for a second or so inside Google Maps, making it rather frustrating to use. Granted, this app is notorious for bringing most phones (even many flagships) to their knees, but the slowdown for the N1 was rather extreme, and surprising too, considering how well it performed elsewhere – perhaps it has something to do with the optimisation of the MediaTek chipset.

The phone runs NFUI 7.0, a skinned version of Android 7.1.1. Most of the changes are focused on the visuals, although it does include some smart features. It’s a good experience, featuring a simple and intuitive design philosophy, and the features added are actually rather useful (like double tap to wake). However, it’s a little disappointing that the phone didn’t release with Android 8.0, especially since phones with skinned Android tend not to get updated to new OS versions after they are released. There is still a chance that the N1 will see Android 8.0 sometime down the road, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Camera

The N1 is Neffos’ first foray into the dual camera setup, and they did it well. Pairing a 12MP colour (RGB) sensor with an identical monochrome one, it offers good low light performance and a live preview for portrait mode.

UI

The camera interface is easily understood, with the important controls all laid out in the main screen. Swiping left and right gives you access to the different modes and filters. It’s worth noting that the N1 allows full manual control as one of its modes (with shutter speeds of up to 64 seconds!).

There is a slight shutter lag. It’s about half a second or less – nothing major – but it’s noticeable.

Image Quality

The pictures taken were rather good. Sharpness is on par with the best out there, and low light quality is above average (though not the best out there). However, the photos tend to look rather unnatural, especially for landscapes. Perhaps because the photos seem to be over-processed – over-sharpened and over-saturated, and (for low light) heavy-handed noise reduction. Also, colours and exposure aren’t perfect, but that’s a problem that most phones, even those twice its price, struggle with. It’s only the highest end that don’t fall prey to these issues.

Portrait mode is implemented quite well, taking photos with minimal lag and isolating the subject from the background rather proficiently. It does get confused here and there, say for example with spectacles and some hair, but that’s a problem inherent to all phones with portrait mode.

Portrait mode on the N1

An interesting point to note is that close-up photos came out slightly blur. It isn’t noticeably blur, but I observed this difference when comparing a close up photo with that taken by the N1’s cheaper cousin, the C7. This is perhaps due to the perspective difference between the two cameras on the N1. The software probably tries to merge the slightly different perspectives into one shot, resulting in a slight blur. (This is actually the basis of how the camera figures out what to blur in portrait mode, but the problem is that now the blur is unintended.)

A crop of a macro shot. The unintentional blurring is visible at the nose of the space shuttle

Battery Life

Battery life is class leading; the 3260mAh battery lasts about a day and a half with moderate usage and can give you 2 days with light usage. That means you can leave your portable charger at home, unless you plan to binge watch videos.

Moreover, the battery charges quickly. I found that Neffos’ claim of 50% charge in 30 minutes was true. I tended not to worry about the battery, just giving it a quick top up every time I had to go out and it never failed on me.

Price and Availability

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the N1 is its price. At S$369, the N1 is amazing value for money. In fact, its value is unmatched, save for one phone – the Xiaomi A1. The only differences between the two are; a marginally larger battery (180mAh more), the interesting camera ‘visor’ strip and a mute switch on the N1, while the Mi A1 sports the (similarly spec’d) Snapdragon 625, an IR blaster and stock Android. Everything else is the same, including the sleek metal chassis, dual 12MP camera, and yes, the same fat bezels.

As of now, TP-Link doesn’t plan to offer the N1 under any of the major telcos, but it will be available for sale from various Challenger and Best Denki outlets around Singapore:

Challenger

  • Bugis Flagship store
  • Jurong Point
  • JEM
  • NEX
  • Vivo city
  • Tampines 1

Best Denki

  • Bedok Mall
  • Great World City
  • IMM
  • Ngee Ann City
  • Vivo City
  • Waterway Point

Conclusions

Great looks paired with practical features make this phone one of the best value handsets around.

Save for the fat bezels, I really like this phone. It’s one of those phones where you just know that the designers thought about what people really need in a phone before considering the features that are trending in the industry. If you’re looking for a phone without too many of the bells and whistles – but one that has all the features that really matter, I can’t recommend this phone more. It would do you good to check out the Mi 1A too, though – the main difference would boil down to stock Android on the Mi A1 and the mute switch on the Neffos N1.

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