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A Sharp-Looking Smartphone Dulled by Lackluster Performance

Sharp returns with a fine-looking device. But there's one thing holding it back.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The last time Sharp released a smartphone in the U.S., “Game of Thrones” had just premiered on TV, Prince William and Kate Middleton were saying “I do,” and Oprah signed off after 25 years on the air. In other words, it’s been a while.

The company makes its return this month with the launch of the midrange Sharp Aquos Crystal smartphone for Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. It joins an already crowded field of Android devices, but the Aquos Crystal has a feature that helps it stand out from the competition: A five-inch, edge-to-edge display.

By edge-to-edge display, I mean that the screen practically meets the edge of the phone. Whereas most handsets have a bezel that frames the display, the one on the Aquos Crystal is so thin that it’s hardly noticeable. It makes for a very cool-looking handset, and it has an attractive price at $240 off contract. (It’s also available through Sprint’s Easy Pay program for zero down and 24 equal installments of $10 per month, or through Boost or Virgin for $150.)

Of course, to reach that price point, there are going to be some trade-offs. In this case, that includes a slower processor and less internal memory compared to today’s high-end devices. That’s par for the course for midrange phones. But issues like mixed audio quality and sluggish performance make the Aquos Crystal just an okay budget phone, rather than a great budget phone.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Sharp deserves credit for coming up with an eye-catching design. While I was reviewing the phone this past week, several people stopped me in the office and at social gatherings to comment on how nice the screen looked, and I had to agree. The near-absence of a bezel makes the contents of the screen jump out at you more, and everything just looked neater, whether it was Instagram photos, games or email. Even though the screen only has a 720-pixel resolution, it was still sharp and sufficiently bright.

The company says that another benefit to the virtually edge-to-edge screen is that you can see more at a glance. But I didn’t notice a huge difference when comparing it to the Nexus 5. It does give the Aquos Crystal a slightly smaller footprint, though, at 5.16 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.4-inch thick, compared to the Nexus 5, at 5.43 inches tall by 2.72 inches wide by 0.34-inch thick.

That said, there are a couple of drawbacks to the design.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

First, the Aquos Crystal doesn’t have a traditional earpiece for phone calls. Instead, the phone uses technology that creates vibrations on the surface of the screen to produce sound for phone calls. (There’s a speaker on back for other audio.) Sharp says that this feature, which it calls a Direct Wave Receiver, makes phone conversations clearer, especially in loud environments, and allows you to place your ear anywhere on the screen. But I didn’t find the first claim to be true in every situation.

I made a few phone calls throughout the week in Los Angeles and San Francisco, using Sprint service. Some sounded fine, but others had a hollow tone to them, as if the other caller was in an empty room. I tried moving the phone around on my ear, and while I could still hear my friends, the distracting, hollow sound remained. A couple of people also mentioned that I sounded muffled to them.

Second, because the display runs all the way to the top edge of the phone, the front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera has been relocated to the bottom edge of the device. This means that if you want to take a selfie, you’ll have to rotate the phone 180 degrees. When I first switched on the front-facing camera, I was not prepared to see such an unflattering angle of myself (hello, double chins!). The phone does display a warning message saying that you should hold the phone upside down for better selfies. I wouldn’t say this is a deal-breaker, but it’s still annoying.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

There is also an eight-megapixel camera on the back of the device, with flash. But picture quality wasn’t great. Even when taking shots in bright outdoor environments, photos came out looking a little soft.

The Aquos Crystal ships running Android KitKat 4.4.2. The user experience is largely stock Android, which I find to be cleaner and easier to use than the custom overlays added by manufacturers and carriers. However, you will find numerous apps preloaded on the device like Sprint TV and Sprint Money Express. You can uninstall many of them if you don’t find them useful.

As I mentioned earlier, the smartphone doesn’t have as much internal memory as other devices. At eight gigabytes, the Aquos Crystal offers half the storage of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 base models. But there is a microSD expansion slot behind the back cover.

Powering the device is a Qualcomm quad-core processor, but it’s not quite as fast as those found in higher-end models. Throughout my testing, I experienced periods of sluggishness. For example, it took a couple of seconds to launch the camera, and there was a delay when capturing a picture using the onscreen controls. Also, when trying to scroll down a Web page, the phone would sometimes hang for a second. This didn’t occur all the time, but it happened enough to be frustrating.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The phone supports Sprint’s 4G LTE network, including its enhanced Spark 4G network. Using Ookla’s Speedtest app, I recorded average download speeds of 7.33 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3.27 Mbps in San Francisco — nothing to write home about. The Aquos Crystal can also make calls over Wi-Fi.

Battery life was on par with many of today’s smartphones. While I didn’t conduct a formal battery test, the phone lasted a full day with moderate usage.

Sharp deserves kudos for creating a smartphone that stands out in a sea of sameness with its near-edgeless display. But looks can only get you so far, as the phone is held back by performance issues.

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