In any other company's smartphone lineup, the $230 unlocked Black Pearl would be the budget option. For San Diego-based manufacturer Verykool, it's the premium model.
At its price, the Black Pearl is a great value for what you get. It has a crisp screen, fast processor, dual-SIM capability, and a few software extras that make it more than just another budget Android handset.
The Black Pearl beats thein every way. Though it's the company's most expensive model, at $280, and has a water-resistant, rugged exterior, the Vortex is plagued by an out-of-date operating system and an inferior screen.
Despite its name, nothing about the design of the Black Pearl reminds me of an actual pearl. It has a slightly curved rounded body and slick matte back cover, and comes in two colors, black and white. I tested the black model.
Sizewise, it's nearly identical to the Samsung Galaxy S4, just thicker. Officially, the phone measures 5.4 inches tall, 2.7 inches wide, and 0.4 inch deep. It weighs 5.6 ounces, which makes it feel hefty and solid in my hands.
The smooth polycarbonate back cover wraps around the sides of the phone and there's a speaker grille near the bottom. Remove the cover to reveal the battery, two SIM slots, and a microSD card slot. You need to pull out the battery to access either card slot, which is a pain. The dual SIM slots are stacked one on top of the other, with SIM 1 behind SIM 2. The Black Pearl uses full-size SIM cards, which, compared with today's standard micro-SIM, is outdated.
Though overall the phone feels solid, the back cover feels flimsy in places. Occasionally, it would lift up when I plugged in Micro-USB cable. Aside from that, the phone is sturdy. Though there's no official documentation on what kinds of falls it can sustain, I can say that it showed no damage when I accidentally let it fall about 2 feet onto a hard carpeted floor.
The power button is up top, and is built into the back cover. Next to that is the headphone jack. On the bottom, there is a Micro-USB port for charging.
The volume rocker is on the left side and has two raised nubs for volume up and down, making it easy to press without looking at the phone. However, it's a bit too high up on the left side for me to comfortably reach it when I hold the phone up to my ear while on a call.
The Black Pearl sports a 4.7-inch diagonal HD IPS 1,280x720-pixel-resolution (312 ppi) screen, which is on par with other smartphones with similarly sized displays. I was really impressed by the screen; it looks sharp, crisp, and bright.
Additionally, colors look natural and vibrant. My only criticism is that the display can look a little dim on automatic brightness under normal office lighting conditions, but it's remarkably readable in direct sunlight, which is a plus.
OS and features
Though it looks as though the Black Pearl is running a vanilla version of Android Jelly Bean 4.2, there are a few modifications. Verykool included a handful of apps, such as a file manager, a notepad app called NoteBook, a setup guide, and an app called OOBE (short for out-of-box experience).
OOBE helps you tweak a few system settings and toggle between SIM cards if you're using more than one. You can even change the color of each SIM's signal bars, so you can tell them apart. OOBE is not to be confused with the Quick Start Guide, which gives you an onscreen demo of how to use the phone.
There's also a persistent search bar at the top of each home screen that looks just like the standard Google search bar from Ice Cream Sandwich, but when you tap it, it brings up a bare-bones search app that's reminiscent of the Google search widget in Android 2.2 Froyo. This is puzzling, because the phone comes with the most recent version of Google search, which includes Google Now, but you can't get to it from that home screen widget. You also can't get rid of that search bar unless you install a different launcher or flash a new ROM.
In settings, you can quickly change the phone's sound settings by choosing a preset audio profile from General, Silent, Meeting, and Outdoor. You can tweak the settings of General, but the rest have predetermined settings. For instance, Meeting is vibrate-only, while Outdoor has the loudest ring volume level and also vibrates. You can also add your own profiles and set the volume level, key press sounds, and notification tones. Also switch profiles in the Quick Settings drop-down menu.
In that same audio profile section, there's option to enhance the audio on the earpiece for better sound quality during a phone call, though the differences in call quality with it on and off were negligible.
Lastly, there's a stock Android browser preinstalled which has an extra feature; you can pop out a Web page into a smaller window that hangs out on top of the home screen or other apps. You can't resize the window, which is a bummer, but you can move the view around to see every part of the page. This a neat feature that you can find on Samsung and LG phones as well. It's useful for when you need to reference a tidbit of information from Web site -- say a product name or business number -- to use elsewhere, such as while sending an e-mail or entering an address into Google Maps.
Camera and video
There's an 8-megapixel main camera on the back of the phone, which protrudes slightly above the back cover. There's also an LED flash right below the lens. Overall, it takes decent photos, with a few caveats.
In most of my test photos, the Black Pearl's camera struggled to take clear, well-lit shots. Though the camera has an autofocus, with an option to tap the screen to manually focus, close-up shots didn't always turn out sharp. That led to photos with very small focus areas with anything not in focus looking blurry. Also, the camera had a hard time capturing color variations in close-ups as well.