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Meizu MX hands-on: iPhone style, Android power

CNET editor Brian Bennett spent some quality time with the Meizu MX. Available only in China (for now), this iPhone-inspired smartphone rocks Android Gingerbread with iOS flair.

Brian Bennett/CNET

When I first caught wind of the Meizu MX, I have to say I was skeptical. That's because Meizu is known in gadget circles, and especially to iOS fanboys, as that evil Chinese company that copies Apple designs to create its own Android handsets.

Serious Android adherents, though, the sort who spend time loitering in dark corners of the Internet and seedy tech forums like XDA Developers (a great resource, by the way), have a different view of Meizu.To these bold folk, Meizu is a daring champion of innovation with the mission of proving that what Apple does is nothing special. In fact, Android phones can do much more than iPhones, with just as much flash and polish.

What's the deal with the Meizu MX?
Meizu's M8 was the first device to gain real buzz for mimicking the iPhone's style right down to its clean user interface and app icon layout. Then came the M9, and now enter the Meizu MX, which went on sale in Hong Kong and mainland China on January 1. Equipped with a dual-core 1.4GHz Cortex A9 CPU and 16GB of internal memory, the MX packs a processing wallop. The phone also runs the Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread OS and Meizu has also said Ice Cream Sandwich is definitely on the way.

Other slick features include a 4-inch screen with a sharp 960x640 pixel resolution. That has qHD beat (960x540 pixels) and in fact is the same resolution as the iPhone's vaunted Retina Display. I admit the Meizu MX's screen is bright, though not the brightest I've seen. I've also enjoyed higher contrast on phones using AMOLED displays. To take snapshots, the MX boasts an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash and the onboard camcorder captures video in full 1080p HD, not bad.

More than mere imitation
The real story of the Meizu MX, however, lies in its design and interface. At first glance I could have sworn I was looking at an iPhone 3GS, granted a really thin one. Given the MX's oval shape with its rounded corners and familiar black front facade, it's no wonder this phone is only sold in Chinese markets. One step out of Middle Kingdom territory and bam, we're talking instant lawsuit. The only major departure from Apple's playbook is that the MX has a white plastic backing, instead of the iconic chrome. Weighing 4.9 ounces and measuring 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches deep and just 0.4 of an inch thick, the MX is very pocketable too.

Another interesting touch are two white capacitive buttons that consist of grouped LED dots. Their arrangement will intelligently morph to match the screen's contents. For example, the left button will become a left arrow when inside an app or menu, essentially turning into a Back button.

The MX runs what Meizu calls Flyme OS, really a skin on top of Android. Notably, the whole UI has a distinctive iOS look and feel, including three side-scrolling home screens and Apple-like app icons. In fact, there's no Android app tray to be found. Instead applications are added directly to the home screen. This can be confusing since apps I knew were installed, for instance Gmail, I had trouble finding until I opened them from within the Android Market. Still, you can create folders to place apps and tools inside to cut down on clutter.

Glitches aside, the MX's software is pretty hot, filled with nice eye candy like engaging animations when launching apps or opening the keyboard. And while we're at it, let's talk about the MX's keys. The keyboard is sure to get Apple fanboys steaming since it's a virtual replica of the iPhone's complete with buttons that pop out typewriter-style when tapped. After a little time with the layout, however, I found my typing on the MX to be both accurate and fast. I also found the phone responsive and nimble, navigating Gingerbread with pleasing speed.

The Meizu MX's outlook
I don't usually go gaga over unlocked smartphones, but the MX is different. First, it's a pentaband GSM device, meaning that if I pop in either an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM, the phone will surf on their special flavors of HSPA+ 3G or 4G data networks. Frankly, I can't wait to try it out. Of course, the MX takes only Micro-SIM cards and not the regular-size cards, so be warned. Also, it'll be tricky to track one of these gadgets down outside of China. Still, it gives me a perverse pleasure carrying a phone that looks like an iPhone but does Android like no other. I recommend you try it yourself. Be sure to check back for a full in-depth review.