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Last year saw Aussie e-tailer Kogan release its quad-core Agora phone, the first in Australia to retail for under AU$200, with equally low price tags in other markets: $189 in the US and £149 in the UK.
This year the new Agora still packs in the quad-core processor but slims the device down and adds 4G functionality, all while keeping the bargain-basement price.
The Agora 4G sports a BenQ logo on the back -- the Taiwanese company actually approached Kogan and offered to be the hardware partner on the phone as a way of bringing its smartphone range to the Australian market. The co-branding is a different model for Kogan, but may prove to be a smart move for BenQ.
Of course, the key selling point for the Agora is the price: in Australia you'll pay AU$229, while the US and the UK can grab it for $219 and £149 respectively. At that price it, undercuts most other 4G phones by a significant amount. Motorola's 4G version of the Moto G, which has just launched locally, retails for AU$299. (In the US and the UK the Moto G sells for the same price at the Kogan.)
While the Agora 4G is plastic, there's a good solidity to the overall build -- it feels quite like an older Nexus, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The touches of red on the front and rear speakers and around the camera lens are quite subtle, but very pleasant. They add a needed splash of colour, helping the Agora stand out from the other budget models. The back plate comes off for easy access to the SIM card and microSD slots, but the battery, sadly, cannot be removed.
The screen size and resolution are the same as the earlier Kogan -- a 5-inch IPS panel at 1,280x720 pixels -- but the 4G unit is a slim 135g (4.8 ounces, down from 153g, or 5.4 ounces) and measures 143 by 73 by 8.5mm (5.6 by 2.9 by 0.3 inches).
The quad-core CPU runs at 1.2GHz, the GPU is an Adreno 305, and there's 1GB of RAM. Memory is just 8GB, but the microSD slot can be expanded up to 64GB and the phone runs on Android KitKat. The rear camera is 8 megapixels, with the front camera coming in at 2 megapixels.
The Kogan offers about the most stock Android experience you'll see this side of a Google Play edition. The Android 4.4 OS has pretty much no overlay, with just some custom imaging and video editing software, along with an FM radio app.
Oddly, because most manufacturers do offer a customised Android experience, the Kogan's interface might seem initially unfamiliar to some users. Personally, I've started to become less and less enamoured of the likes of HTC Sense and TouchWiz. I found the Kogan refreshing in its lack of bloatware, even if I did miss some of the features I've become used too, such as my smart alarm.
The Kogan's 8 megapixel camera rear camera may offer Full HD video recording, but it's not the high point of the phone.
If all you're usually snapping is some quick pics for social media, then the Kogan will probably be just fine. Slap a filter over it to disguise the noise and pretend that it's meant to be artistic.
The camera isn't great at handling low lighting or with good colour representation, but this is definitely one area where your consumer expectation comes into play. If you're hoping that your AU$229 phone has a flagship-quality camera then you're missing the point, not only of the Agora 4G, but also Kogan's whole business model. It's a budget phone and it has a budget camera.
Sadly, the budget screen is a little harder to justify. While the specs look good on paper, I found that the IPS panel was very hard to read in sunlight. Colours felt a little dull, although I must admit that when indoors, video was quite watchable.
Happily, there were no such problems when it came to the phones overall speed. The quad-core performed admirably, with overall use feeling quick. Browsing was solid and apps loaded in good time. However the boot up sequences seemed interminably long by modern smartphone standards -- luckily, that's not something most users will be putting themselves through on a regular basis.
The battery is 2,500mAh -- non-replaceable as we mentioned before. Battery life was pretty adequate, with the Agora getting roughly a day on a charge, depending on how heavy the use was.
In terms of network, the phone offers Category 4 LTE on the 700, 900 and 1,800MHz spectra, meaning it works on all the current Australian 4G networks. The speeds we saw were as expected for all networks we tested on in the Sydney CBD. Download speeds were comfortably averaging in the 20-30Mbps range, with uploads in the mid-teens. No surprises there.
As with so many of Kogan's products, the question isn't just how the Agora 4G performs -- it's about how the Agora 4G performs given its price.
For my money, Kogan and BenQ have created a surprisingly stylish phone, with solid performance that -- despite a few less-than-perfect touches -- offers a great experience for the price.
Australian carriers are pushing 4G connectivity on pre-paid at the moment and this feels like a great phone to take advantage of those deals.
In short, while there are undeniably better 4G phones on the market, there are none that offer what the Kogan Agora 4G can at this price point.