Before OnePlus and even Xiaomi came into the spotlight, there was Meizu. Since early 2011, the company’s been making quality, affordable Android phones which are available in Asia, India, and Europe, but not North America (yet). So when the folks at Meizu offered to send me the recently launched M3 Note, an affordable mid-range handset targeting a younger demographic, I was intrigued enough to take it for a spin. This is my review.
Let’s cut to the case here: the M3 Note looks a lot like the iPhone 6/6s Plus. There’s a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS display front and center with a single home button / fingerprint reader below, plus a few openings above for an earpiece, a few sensors, and a 5MP f/2.0 selfie camera. In the back the iPhone-like design gives way to something more generic, with a hint of HTC and Huawei. Here, you’ll find a 13MP f/2.2 camera with phase-detect AF, along with a dual-color dual LED flash and the company’s logo.
The power / lock key and volume rocker live on the right side, and the headphone jack and secondary mic are located on top. At the bottom, there’s another design nod to the iPhone, with a micro-USB port flanked by two screws and two arrays of holes covering the mono speaker and primary mic. The SIM tray is mounted flush on the left side, and supports two nano SIMs, one of which can be replaced with a microSD card.
Overall, the M3 Note looks and feels premium. It’s made primarily of machined aluminum and glass, with plastic endcaps painted to match the anodized shell, just like the Honor 5x. You’ll also find beveled edges around the rear camera and flash, along the endcaps, and around the side buttons, which add a touch of flair. This is a solid handset, but ultimately, I find the design rather generic.
That 5.5-inch 1080p IPS panel is pretty decent. It’s reasonably bright and crisp, colors pop , and the viewing angles are adequate. But contrast is this screen’s Achilles heel: it often looks washed out, especially in direct sunlight.
As for the 13MP f/2.2 rear shooter, it’s quite fast and takes nice pictures overall, with sufficient amounts of detail in the daytime and manageable noise levels in low light. But the images it produces are low in contrast and often overexposed, resulting in washed out colors. These faults are easily remedied by switching to manual mode or firing up the built-in photo editor, but I’d like to see Meizu fine tune the software and fix this.
Video recording tops off at 1080p and inherits the still camera’s flaws — it’s nothing to write home about but gets the job done. If selfies are your thing, you’ll enjoy that 5MP f/2.0 front-facing shooter. It’s suffers from reduced contrast just like the main camera, but it captures video at 1080p, and that faster lens helps in low light.
Reception and sound quality
Call and reception quality were perfectly fine on AT&T HSPA+ network in San Francisco and other cities in the US. While the M3 Note is an LTE-capable phone, it lacks the bands required for North America, so you’ll be stuck with 3G speeds if you import this handset. The speaker sounds exactly like what I expected: loud but tinny. Basically it’s a decent for calls, but poor for music. Audio over headphones is reasonably good, but then again, few devices mess this up anymore.
Processor Mediatek Helio P10 (MT6755), 1.8/1.0GHz octa-core
Internal storage 16/32GB
External storage microSD
Screen type IPS
Screen size (inches) 5.5
Screen resolution 1080×1920 pixels
Rear camera 13-megapixel, f/2.2, phase-detection AF
Flash dual LED, dual color
Front camera 5-megapixel, f/2.0
Dimensions (mm) 153.6 x 75.5 x 8.2
Battery capacity (mAh) 4100
Removable battery No
Fingerprint sensor Yes
Operating system Android 5.1, Flyme 5.1
Colours Gray, White, Gold
Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
GPS Yes, A-GPS
Bluetooth Yes, v4.0
USB OTG No
SIM nano SIM, dual SIM, dual standby
Radios 2G/GSM/EDGE, 3G/WCDMA/HSPA, 4G/LTE
Hardware and performance
Under the hood, the M3 Note features a Mediatek Helio P10 octa-core processor (MT6755) with Mali-T860MP2 graphics and a choice of either 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, or 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. I’m reviewing the basic model and performance is perfectly adequate for a mid-range phone. The benchmarks confirm this with AnTuTu clocking in at 44094 and 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited scoring a respectable 9040.
When it comes to radios, the M3 Note includes Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi b/g/n (2.4GHz only), and A-GPS. I’ve already mentioned the lack of LTE support for North America. but NFC is also missing here, so you can forget about Android Pay. This is a common trend among handsets in this price range, and it’s puzzling considering NFC hardware is dirt cheap — not to mention this device already offers a pretty reliable (if somewhat slow) fingerprint reader.
I’ve been quite impressed with battery life. The M3 Note easily lasts two days of normal use on a full charge, which is really no surprise considering it packs a massive 4100mAh battery and only features a mid-range processor and 1080p screen. Still, if stamina’s what you’re looking for, this phone’s got you covered.
On the software front, the M3 Note is running Meizu’s Flyme 5.1 UI on top of Android 5.1 (Lollipop). Yes, you read it right, with Nougat around the corner, this handset is two versions of Android behind, and shows no signs of getting updated to Marshmallow anytime soon. It’s probably the M3 Note’s biggest flaw considering it just launched in April.
So what’s Flyme like, anyway? Painful, basically. It’s typical of the heavily customized skins coming out of China. There’s no app tray, so the apps are spread across multiple home screens — hello iPhone! — and while you can create folders and manually rearrange the icons, you can’t easily sort them alphabetically. Of course, this is easily remedied by installing another launcher like Nova or Google Now.
What’s more difficult to fix or get used to is the M3 Note’s single home button. Here’s how it works: press it (until it clicks) for home, tap it (without pressing) for back, and slide a finger up from anywhere below the screen for recent apps. It’s far from intuitive, but eventually you’ll get hang of it. Still, was it really necessary for Meizu to go this far to imitate the iPhone?
Another extremely annoying Meizu customization is the behavior of the volume rocker. It’s always mapped to the media volume, regardless of whether you’re playing back audio or not. There’s simply no way to use the volume rocker to change the ringer volume. I have no idea why, and it’s not something that’s easy to change.
Ultimately though, if you can get over the frustrating software, the M3 Note offers pretty decent hardware for an incredibly low price — approximately US $120 for the 2GB/16GB version and US $150 for the 3GB/32GB version. That’s really quite amazing considering the phone’s specs, materials, and build quality.
So, is the M3 Note worth buying? It’s probably worth considering if you’re on a budget and live outside of North America, especially if you can find a way to flash another ROM with a better UI and newer version of Android. But it’s a difficult handset to recommend if you can’t use LTE or upgrade the software. Lollipop’s just not cutting it in 2016 anymore and Flyme is a mess.
Meizu clearly knows how to make great hardware, but if the company wants to seriously compete with major players like Samsung or even Huawei, it really needs to focus on improving its user experience.