MX3 has Apple-like Android, style (hands-on)

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/ Updated: February 14, 2014 11:17 AM PST

If you live in America and have heard of smartphone maker Meizu, frankly, I'd be very surprised. That's because the Beijing-based company historically has only sold its devices in mainland China and Hong Kong. With its third-generation handset the MX3, however, Meizu feels it has what it takes to go global. Indeed the MX3 is sleekly designed, equipped with a respectable list of components, and flaunts a unique user interface all its own.

That said, even when you factor in its ambitious attempts to re-tool Android and nimble camera, with an unlocked price of approximately $465 the MX3 will be a tough sell at least here in the States. This is especially true considering its lack of 4G LTE support, a skill US consumers have come to expect from a premium device.

Design
The Meizu MX3 has an almost identical look and feel to that of its predecessors the MX2 and MX 4-core. All three phones sport an all-black front, gently curved edges, and a smooth back molded from white plastic. They, MX3 included, remind me of the classic iPhone 3G and perhaps a Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC Evo 4G LTE (complete with chrome trim around the edges).

Meizu MX3
The Meizu MX3 uses an almost Apple-like interface. Sarah Tew/CNET

Size-wise, the MX3 is just a hair wider than the Nexus 5 and noticeably bigger than the Motorola Moto X when placed side-by-side. Even the thicker chassis of the Moto X is more compact. Despite that, the MX3 shares practically the same weight of these other devices, about 5 ounces. Oddly enough I found that the MX3 feels lighter in the hand, perhaps because its mass is flatter and spread out over a greater surface area.

Part of the reason the MX3 has a wider stance is its large 5.1-inch LCD screen. It uses an odd resolution (1,800x1,080) but pumps out an adequate amount of light and doesn't distort greatly when viewed off angle. Even so, the MX3 can't match the brightness of the Nexus 5 which is on the dark side as modern phone screens go.

Meizu MX3
The back of the MX3 is smooth and slippery. Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm also not a big fan of the MX3's back plate which like the Samsung Galaxy S4 is slippery and attracts grease and fingerprints easily. I much prefer soft-touch coatings or metallic materials flaunted by, say, the Nexus 5, Moto X, and HTC One. You won't find any hidden treasures under the back panel either, just a SIM card slot and 2,400mAh embedded battery.

Features and interface
The only physical buttons on the Meizu MX3 are a trim volume bar on the phone's left edge, power button up top, and circular capacitive key right below the screen. The typical Android software symbols for back, home, and recent apps aren't here either.

Instead the MX3 leverages a circular capacitive key that sits below the screen to enhance device operation and to interact with the phone's heavily tweaked version of Android Jelly Bean. Called Flyme OS, the custom skin the MX3 runs looks suspiciously similar to Apple's iOS complete with side-scrolling home screens which double as the app tray. In fact there's no standard Android app drawer at all and even the device's settings are placed (a la iPhone) on the main home screen.

So what interesting UI tricks are possible with the MX3's home key? Quite a lot actually. Specifically you can long press it to put the phone to sleep and hold then drag it upward to unlock the phone.

Meizu MX3
The Meizu MX3's UI looks similar to iOS but is controlled in unique ways. Brian Bennett/CNET

Additionally, sliding up from the bottom of the screen (on either side of the button) pulls up which apps are running in the background. Sliding an app icon upward here closes its associated application. Dragging an icon down closes out of everything currently running. Also, touching the key then sliding up serves as an alternative to a back button.

I can say these are interesting, and admittedly useful, abilities but as a veteran Android user I find the Flyme UI takes some time getting used to. It's so different from its stock Jelly Bean (Android 4.2) software it's almost like learning another OS completely.

Core components
Running the show behind the scenes is what Meizu calls a Smart 8-core CPU. Essentially it's based around Samsung's Exynos Octo solution that combines four 1.6GHz Cortex A15 processors with that of four Cortex A7 processors on a single chip. That's backed up by 2GB of RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage.

Despite all its cores the MX3 has to lean on though I didn't find the handset especially fast. As a matter of fact, it felt decidedly sluggish, with noticeable delays when jumping through settings menus and launching apps. A quick run of the Quadrant benchmark seemed to confirm my impression of the MX3's pokey handling. The device scored 8,341 on the mobile benchmark, lower than the HTC One (12,194) and Galaxy S4 (11,381), both of which are due to be replaced by newer models soon.

Meizu MX3
The MX3's camera app has plenty of settings to tweak. Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera
One aspect of the Meizu MX3 I like is its 8-megapixel camera. While I haven't fully taken the phone's picture-taking abilities for a definitive spin, I can report that it nabs images quickly. Shot-to-shot time is practically non-existent with the MX3 moving from image to image almost instantly.

The camera app is also stuffed with options, shooting modes, and filters to tweak your photos. For instance there's an HDR mode, Panorama, manual controls for White Balance and ISO, plus an Exposure Compensation setting.

Outlook
Meizu representatives I spoke to recently confessed the company's strong desire to break into the US mobile phone market. But while the capabilities of the Meizu MX3 have left me with a positive impression, many of its quirks are off-putting. Specifically these are its sluggish handling and glossy, grease-prone design. The phone's distinctly iOS-style Android skin isn't my cup of tea either.

The gadget's $465 unlocked price is tough to swallow as well, especially with excellent (and cheaper) alternatives such as the Nexus 5 (starting at $349) and the Moto G ($179).

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Weight 5.04 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5.1 in