Transsion Holdings owns and operates a portfolio of smartphone and accessory brands including Itel, Tecno, Infinix, Spice, and Oraimo. Each one has its own unique positioning and target audience, but the company uses them collectively to cover emerging markets. Itel is an offline-only brand aimed at urban customers as well as people in emerging towns and cities, which is why people might not have seen much of it when searching for deals online, even though it's already the second biggest player in India's feature phone market.
The company is hoping that a lot of people are still wary of e-commerce, and would prefer not only to try phones out themselves before buying, but also have the reassurance of a shopkeeper telling them what's good and what isn't. Itel's portfolio includes over 30 smartphones and feature phones for entry-level buyers, and the company boasts of its pan-India service networks as a huge advantage.
The new Itel S42 is the brand's current flagship smartphone, and with a price tag of Rs. 8,499, it's going to get quite a lot of interest. Its obvious competitor is the Xiaomi Redmi 5 (Review), so we're eager to see whether Itel can take it on, and whether both can carve out their own spaces.
Itel S42 design
Itel is going to use 18:9 screens across its lineup in order to stand out, and that might work for a while, but everyone's going to be doing the same thing before long. We noticed that the picture of the S42 on its retail box makes it look slicker than it actually is - the borders around the screen are much thicker on the phone in real life than they are on the box. Itel also claims an "ultra-slim bezel design" in its promotional materials, which really isn't the case, even subjectively. There are disclaimers on the back of the box stating "Pictures shown are for illustration purposes only" and "Actual product may vary" but offline buyers who don't have the benefit of multiple product shots deserve better than this.
That aside, the phone doesn't look bad at all. The front is fairly attractive, with the minimalistic black face broken only by the front camera, flash, and earpiece above the screen. There's also 2.5D curved-edge glass, giving it a sophisticated look. The screen might appear to have rounded corners in keeping with today's more expensive models, but that's a simple visual trick using specially prepared wallpaper images. All you have to do is launch an app to see the rectangular corners light up as usual.
At the back, the first thing we noticed was the iPhone X-style camera bump. There's only one camera, but Itel has placed the flash below it to achieve the same effect. We find this unnecessary, but it's inevitable that Android manufacturers will copy this distinct design touch - just like they did with visible antenna lines, bevelled edges, and Rose Gold. The fingerprint sensor is easily accessible in the centre.
The rear panel curves around the sides of the phone and is made of metal, while the top and bottom are capped with plastic. Unfortunately, both the front and rear pick up fingerprints and smudges very easily, and they're very noticeable. The camera bump also makes the phone rock a little if you try to use it when it's lying on a table.
We found the power and volume buttons on the right of the Itel S42 easy to reach. The tray on the left has two Nano-SIM cutouts and a dedicated space for a microSD card. There are speaker holes on either side of the Micro-USB port on the bottom, but there's only one speaker, on the right. A 3.5mm audio socket is the only thing on the top. Unfortunately, they all have rough edges and felt uncomfortable against our fingers.
The Itel S42 is pretty light, and weight is distributed evenly. We had no problem carrying this phone around or using it for long stretches. You get a two-tone partially translucent case in the box, which obviously makes the phone a little thicker, but fits very well and solves the fingerprint issue nicely.
Itel S42 specifications and software
Itel will be competing with giants including Xiaomi, Lenovo and Samsung, and it will have to be very generous with specifications to come out looking good against them. In addition to the 5.65-inch 720x1440-pixel 18:9 screen, there's a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. This is a dual-SIM phone with a dedicated microSD card slot, and potential storage expansion goes up to 128GB.
The battery has a capacity of 3000mAh. Both the front and rear cameras have 13-megapixel sensors, but the one at the front has a fixed focus and a soft illuminating flash, while the rear one supports phase detection autofocus and has a standard dual-LED flash.
We were pleased to see Android 8.0, and our review unit's security was up to date as of March 2018. You get Oreo's useful contextual notifications and actions when you long-press an app icon, plus split-screen multitasking. There are a number of modifications though, including a customisable quick settings panel in the notifications shade, and an app drawer with much more space between icons than usual, for whatever reason.
Itel boasts that the S42 supports face recognition, but unlike with other phones, there's no sign of this in the initial Android setup process. On first boot, we saw an icon labelled "Biological ID" on the home screen, which is just a shortcut to the security section of the Settings app. Here, we were able to enrol our face as well as fingerprints, and also enable fingerprint shortcuts for taking photos, accepting, and recording calls, and dismissing alarms.
In other sections of the Settings app, we found controls for swapping the order of the on-screen Android navigation buttons, and the ability to turn on shortcuts for capturing screenshots, toggling one-handed mode, and launching specific apps directly from standby by tracing gestures on the screen. An Ultra Power Saving Mode only allows calls, text messages and the calendar app to run, which could significantly prolong battery life in a pinch. You can activate this mode manually or schedule it for fixed hours, and you can even choose whether to receive a reminder when the battery level dips below 20 percent.
Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and Whatsapp are preinstalled, and there are more apps that we haven't heard of before. Boomplay is an Africa-centric music and video streaming app promoted by Transsion. It has some Hindi and English content but is bloated with social features and an in-app "coins" system for subscriptions and purchases. Transsion also develops the Palmchat and Palm Store apps. We're told that these are extremely popular across Africa thanks to localised content and promotions, and the company might think of replicating that here in the future.
Font Manager lets you change the systemwide font, though the choices available aren't all very readable. Multi Account lets you run second instances of popular apps, but instead of just having multiple shortcuts on your homescreens, you have to run the second instances from within the Multi Account app, and you might not receive notifications from those accounts when the app is in the background. Finally, the Service app lets you find authorised service locations.
Itel S42 performance, cameras, and battery life
We encountered a few user experience hiccups with the Itel S42, for example, the camera shortcut on the lock screen simply refused to work, and the speaker sometimes popped for no reason when exiting apps or games. There were also some poorly translated English instructions in parts of the UI. Other than those little things that can be fixed with software updates, day-to-day use was no problem at all.
The screen is bright and vibrant, and colours do look good. Text is crisp, and videos are enjoyable. The speaker can get very loud and the sound is harsh, to the extent that even common notifications were jarring. Music wasn't very enjoyable on the loudspeaker but it's fine for dialogue in videos. The bundled headset is decent enough, but the bulky rubber tips on the earbuds can get a little uncomfortable.
We got a score of 45,169 in AnTuTu 7, and Geekbench 4 gave us 679 and 1,847 points respectively in its single- and multi-core tests. The GFXBench T-rex graphics test ran at 13fps, and 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme returned a score of 3,702.
Setting up the face recognition feature was quick and easy, but unfortunately, we found that the Itel S42 was only too eager to unlock itself when we had our eyes closed and even when we had half our face obscured. The UI warns you during the setup process that face recognition isn't very secure, but with this much leeway we have to wonder if there's any point at all to using it.
Interestingly, there's an option that automatically turns the entire screen white if you're in the dark, just like a screen flash for selfies (even though this phone has a front flash). This seemed like a good idea at first, but we soon realised why no other manufacturer does this. Screens are meant to be dim in the dark, and it was pretty unpleasant getting blasted in the face with bright white light every time we tried to wake the phone at night, even if we were just checking the time or notifications. Overall, face recognition on the Itel S42 is more of a novelty than a security feature.
As for general camera performance, we were able to get some fairly good shots, by budget smartphone standards. There isn't a lot of detail and you'll notice a bit of blurriness and some indistinct edges when you look at these photos full-size on a large monitor. However, colours are good, and there's enough detail in close-up shots. The camera doesn't do too well with textures in the dark, but shots are still usable. Video is captured at 720p by default but while both the front and rear cameras can go up to 1080p, video quality is just about passable.
The 13-megapixel front camera and front flash are advantages that this phone has over similarly priced competitors. Selfies are pretty good and you can post to social media without fear. The front flash is more of a fill light. It can be a bit overwhelming but it's still good to have. There's beatification as expected, but there's also a "celebrity" makeup mode that lets you apply dramatic (and comical) transformations to faces.
The Itel S42 delivers good battery life, and we were able to go from morning to night on a single charge, with a bit of gaming and quite a lot of Web browsing and video streaming. We would have liked a little more, but this isn't bad at all for a budget phone. Our HD video loop test lasted for a respectable 10 hours, 10 minutes.
At Rs. 8,499, the Itel S42 is priced exactly between the lower two variants of the Xiaomi Redmi 5, and matches many of its features. The S42 has a less powerful processor and there are no options in terms of storage and RAM. It also doesn't look quite as slick, and its Android customisations aren't as polished as MIUI. However, the S42 offers a more up-to-date version of Android, a dedicated microSD card slot, and a front flash.
If you look at them side by side and compare the spec sheets, the Redmi 5 would seem like the better deal overall. However, these two phones aren't necessarily in competition with each other for the simple reason that Itel is totally committed to offline retail sales, while the Redmi 5 is currently only available at official Mi stores and online. Itel is working very hard to build a large offline retail presence, but we can't help wondering whether this strategy is restricting its audience. The S42 is a strong budget phone, and if Itel can replicate its feature phone success, this will be only the first of many such launches.