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When I first learned about the Meizu MX, I admit my knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss it as yet another cheap iPhone knockoff. Boy was I wrong. This is one sophisticated device, which while no doubt would be banned immediately if it came stateside, offers plenty for old Android hands and smartphone newbies alike to appreciate.
When you first see the Meizu MX, don't be alarmed if you do a double take--I certainly did. Really, this trim and polished handset could be a splitting image of an iPhone 3G or perhaps an iPod music player. The phone's front face is all-black and is sculpted in the familiar rounded curves that Apple loves to employ. Also similar to Apple's uberphone is the MX's big 960x640-pixel resolution screen that boasts the same pixel count as the iPhone's hallowed Retina Display. The Meizu's larger 4-inch real estate, though, compared with 3.7 inches, means its pixel density is lower. That said, I found the MX's screen sharp and pleasing to view with text, pictures, and wallpapers crisply rendered. Contrast was high but nowhere as saturated as AMOLED phones I've used. Plus, like typical LCDs, viewing angles deteriorate quickly when the display is tilted off-center.
Despite its blatant mimicry of a late-model iPhone, the Meizu MX's design is subtle, dare I say elegant. Above the screen is a minute VGA (0.3-megapixel) camera. Next door is a faint Meizu nameplate written in old-style Chinese characters, and underneath the display are two of the slickest capacitive buttons I've seen on a smartphone. Consisting of clusters of LED lights, or "Light Keys" as Meizu calls them, the buttons change configuration depending on what's happening on the phone's screen. For instance, within applications, the left key becomes a triangle of three dots, essentially a Back button. The right key is usually arranged in three dots in a line indicating its Menu function, but when you flip the MX between landscape and portrait modes, the keys intelligently and somewhat magically adjust their orientation accordingly. The keys also double as notification lights, pulsing gently when new e-mails or texts arrive. A more traditional raised circular Home button sits in between the MX's distinctive Light Keys.
The only other controls are a thin volume bar on the left side, Micro-USB port on the bottom, and a 3.5mm headphone jack plus tiny power button running across the top edge.
Breaking from the iPhone's design theme, the Meizu MX sports a thin metal bezel around the display along with white plastic edges and back, not the iconic chrome or glass construction. Even so, the 4.9-ounce handset has a solid heft to it and premium-feeling build quality. Measuring 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches deep and just 0.4 inch thick, the MX is easy to slip into pockets, too.
Of course, the unit I tested was an engineering sample and not the final run of the product. In fact Meizu told me that later devices will sport a less glossy surface and will better resist greasy fingerprints, especially the lens cover for the phone's 8-megapixel camera.
Running Gingerbread version 2.3.5, the Meizu MX on paper could be mistaken for a typical Android smartphone. That is, until you turn it on. My MX's lock screen by default featured a suspiciously OS X-like starry night sky wallpaper. A digital clock floats above cleanly drawn icons for phone and messages. And in a unique twist, tapping the phone or message icons launches these functions. Corresponding alerts, like missed calls or unread texts, will appear there, too, which is a nice touch. Dragging the padlock symbol up to the center of the screen whisks you straight to the home screen.
From here I immediately thought, "Wow, if this phone goes on sale anywhere outside of China, Meizu should brace for an instant Apple lawsuit." The interface is a hybrid of standard Android with three main home screens, which slide horizontally in iPhone fashion. There's no separate application tray, either, a staple Android feature. Instead apps are added to the home screen when installed. While this layout is uncluttered, I had issues finding key apps I knew were installed such as Gmail. In fact I had to open it from the Android Market before a shortcut would finally appear--that's disconcerting. Meizu did tell me this quirk is likely due to my MX sample being an early engineering unit. Also, Integration with social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter could be better, too. The phone book, for example, doesn't pull in pictures or other data from these services. Again a Meizu representative urged that full Facebook syncing works just fine in final runs of the device. One neat trick, though, is the ability to create folders iOS-style for storing away shortcuts.
Underneath this skin, tagged Flyme by Meizu, is tried-and-true Android. With it come all the performance and communication features fanatics have come to love. The MX supports both personal e-mail and corporate exchange, plus Google accounts out of the box. There's also access to the Android Market, which is second only to Apple's App Store in terms of selection. Though just the stock Android apps come preloaded, the phone comes with a sizable 16GB helping of internal memory you can fill up yourself. Sadly there's no expansion slot for extra storage but I guess that's forgivable because of the MX's small size. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios are onboard, too.
Thought Meizu was done copying Apple? Think again, because launching the MX's virtual keyboard will dispel that illusion. Banging out e-mails and texts caused me to smile for two reasons, first because the layout is a doppelganger for the iPhone's, right down to pop-out typewriter keys. Second, because typing was both quick and accurate, and I particularly liked the handy Gingerbread punctuation bar above the keyboard.
I had high hopes for the Meizu MX's 8-megapixel camera and LED flash, but the test images I snapped were average, not inspiring. Colors were slightly washed out and details not as sharp and clear as I've seen on other phones with advanced cameras, namely the Samsung Galaxy S II and HTC Amaze 4G. This was especially true under low-light conditions where I observed distracting color noise. Still, the Meizu MX does offer a few advanced camera settings such as face detection, plus Smile and Panorama modes. Shot-to-shot time was also quick, snapping pictures in about a second.
The MX's camcorder can capture HD video in full 1080p resolution, a boon to shooting movies at a moment's notice. Quality fared better here, and the HD video clips I recorded with the MX were smooth and relatively clear. The phone also did a good job of automatically adjusting white balance for different lighting conditions, whether outdoors, in a dark club, or under fluorescent light. That said, I did see some background pixelation when watching my videos on a large desktop monitor.
Though it's only officially on sale in mainland China and Hong Kong, the Meizu MX is an unlocked smartphone. Even better, this bad boy is a penta-band GSM device, which means it theoretically is compatible with a wide swath of global cellular frequencies (2G/850/900/1800/1900MHz, 3G/850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz). What does that mean to you? Basically you can pop in an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card into the Meizu MX and enjoy solid 3G/3.5G data access along with voice service. Be advised, though, that the MX only accepts Micro-SIM cards, so if you're coming from an older handset and not an iPhone 4, you'll have to get a new SIM from your carrier.
In my case, I placed a T-Mobile Micro-SIM into the Meizu MX and was up and running on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network in minutes. Out in the hinterlands of Queens, N.Y., with Ookla's Speed Test app, I clocked an average downloads of 4.8Mbps. In the same location, downloads came in at 1.7Mbps. These were the swiftest results I measured with throughput slower even at ideal T-Mobile spots in Manhattan. Overall, though, not too shabby but a far cry from Verizon's true 4G LTE network, which typically offer speeds more than twice as fast.
I found the Meizu MX's call quality to be a mixed bag. Calls I placed on T-Mobile's network in New York sounded clear to me but I had to crank the volume up to its maximum setting since the Meizu MX's earpiece is not particularly loud. Callers on the other end also reported that they could definitely tell I was calling from a cell phone and heard odd digital static surrounding my voice. In addition, they said volume wavered up and down noticeably, perhaps because of the MX's built-in noise canceling being too heavy-handed.
Call quality improved greatly over the MX's speakerphone, and while the handset's speaker isn't booming, voices were clear and easy to hear. People on the other side of the call also noticed the difference and that the previously noted distortions dropped away.
One really great feature is the MX's capability to begin recording phone calls in midstream. I'm not sure if this function is legal here in the U.S., but to journalists who often conduct impromptu interviews, it's catnip.
Equipped with a 1.4GHz dual-core Cortex A9 CPU, the Meizu MX exhibited almost iPhone levels of buttery smooth performance. Menus and apps launched quickly even with Android's graphically demanding animations activated. Of course I did run into occasional hiccups. For example, once while snapping shots with the camera, the phone froze for a good 5 seconds before recovering. I'm also not in love with the MX's Web browser, which didn't render text or zoom in and out of pages as fast as I would like.
For such a thin device, the Meizu MX's battery life was solid as well. In my anecdotal use, which consisted of conducting speed tests, running apps, and making numerous calls, the phone ran a full day (15 hours, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.). Even after that the MX's 1,600mAh lithium polymer battery displayed a charge level of 38 percent before I finally plugged it in for overnight replenishment.
Meizu MX call quality sample Listen now:
Many readers will wonder why they should care about an iPhone clone sold only in China, with good reason. It's extremely doubtful the Meizu MX will ever make it to the U.S., let alone Europe, or heck even outside of the Middle Kingdom's controlled territory. What makes the MX an interesting device and worth your time is that it's a fairly nifty Android smartphone with some truly compelling software and user interface enhancements. Samsung's TouchWiz and Motorola's MotoBlur skins could learn a thing or two from Meizu. As a penta-band GSM phone, the Meizu MX is actually compatible with U.S. cellular networks, a skill that many officially marketed global smartphones can't match. So if you're the type who frequently jet sets to Shenzhen, find yourself on layover in Hong Kong, or has contacts in gray markets, the MX is worth a look.