Is a $60 phone too cheap to be good? And is it so cheap that you won't care?
That's what I wanted to know about the ad-supported Amazon Prime version of Blu's R1 HD phone, which knocks down the original retail price -- originally $110 for the 16GB model and $100 for 8GB version -- by showing you advertisements on the phone's lock screen. It'd be a tempting price for Prime members who cast a blind eye to ads with one exception: the R1 HD isn't very good. Its camera is mediocre, its performance is inconsistent, and call volume on audio speaker is too low to listen to comfortably.
Sixty dollars (or $50 for the 8GB version with ads), however, is cheap enough to justify buying the phone for a kid, or an overseas guest or maybe even as an emergency backup. You seriously can't find that low a price on any modern smartphone. But for a little more, you have better, more reliable budget options, like the Samsung Galaxy J3 ($110 to $180, depending on the carrier), the $150 Motorola Moto G4 Play (which is also splash resistant -- and there's a $100 Amazon Prime version of this, too) and the $100 ZTE ZMax Pro. So go ahead and get the R1 HD if you have a specific purpose for it, or you're looking for a throwaway phone -- just don't expect much.
Ad not-so nauseam
What do Amazon's ads look like? They appear one at a time on the lock screen and can be as small as a notification banner (which you can swipe away) or as large as the whole screen. The ads change every time you wake up the display and can range from Amazon's own Prime services to other products like Fitbit.
In general, I can't stand ads -- I even apply an ad-blocker (though never to news sites that I enjoy reading, of course, like CNET). But Amazon handles these phone ads well. They don't intrude on the interface, and I like that it's limited to just the lock screen. If you can live with the ads, you can use that $50 savings on so many other things.
No fuss design, but audio needs work
The R1 HD has a solid, pocket-friendly design that's comfortable to hold. Though its 5-inch display doesn't have the sharpest resolution at 720 pixels, text and icons are still easily readable. I'm also a sucker for display bezels that smoothly curve into the edges, and along with the device's metal trimmings it has an overall polished look.
The back cover is made of a plastic with a matte finish. It collects smudges and fingerprints, so prepare to spend time wiping those away if those are an eyesore to you. The back houses a small, circular audio speaker, too. One drawback is the handset's volume. The audio speaker is simply too low, especially for phone calls. I can barely hear the other party whenever I extend the device an arm's length away. And although hearing music and video is a bit easier, there's not enough backup volume for loud environments. The two software "sound enhancement" settings Blu offers to enhance volume barely make a difference.
Camera and photo quality
The handset's 8-megapixel shooter was passable, but not great. While objects were easy to make out, they also showed blurred outlines. White hues often had a subtle blue hue, and lighting was tricky to pin down too. If I wanted to avoid snapping blown-out, overexposed pictures with tap-focus, I then usually had to settle for a dim image with notable amounts of graininess. The camera had trouble focusing on anything remotely close to it too, so capturing closeup images took several tries. For more about photo quality, check out the images below and click on them to view them at their full resolution.