If you’re brand-aware but on a budget, consider the new Starmobile UP Neo. Virtual twins, the new Starmobile UP Neo and Panasonic P55 Novo were launched simultaneously last July 2 in the Philippines and in India, respectively.UP-Neo-ID-Gold

Panasonic-P55-Novo-ChampagnThe phones are identical in all respects except for the firmware and/or hardware components for 3G mobile connectivity. The Starmobile has the 850/2100MHz UMTS/WCDMA supported by Philippine carriers, the Panasonic the 900/2100MHz HSDPA used by Indian telcos. And, while the Starmobile weighs in at 165g and measures (Height x Width x Depth) 148 x 74 x 8.25mm and the Panasonic 164g and 147.9 x 73.8 x 8.15mm, the minute differences in dimensions and weight could be put down as rounding off errors—just paper differences really.

The Panasonic connection

Panasonic smartphones are now sold only in India. Panasonic Japan pulled out of the handsets business in 2013, selling off their brand to subsidiary Panasonic India for continuation of the line through production contractors. And, in the emerging India market where smartphones have become veritable PC replacements, consumers using these to leapfrog over legacy uses for laptops and desktops, the Panasonic name has enjoyed a resurgence, earning them Rs 7 billion (equivalent to PhP 5 billion) in 2014 and giving them reason to aim for Rs 20 billion (PhP 14 billion) this year in a market segment that promises a lion’s share of the growth in their consumer electronics lines.

Panasonic India doesn’t have license to export their smartphones under their parent company’s brand, the rest of the Panasonic network is not set up to distribute nor service these products in other countries. But that doesn’t stop them from striking up deals with brands in other emerging markets, the products put under local brands that have already made headway in the market and set up after-sales support networks. Such deals would boost sales, yes, but more importantly would let them expand production volumes and hit economies of scale that would lower the cost of manufacturing each smartphone unit.IMG20150803110626

The product

IMG20150803085222While the head office has relegated their smartphone line to Panasonic India, they still intend a return to the market with products along the line of their ruggedized ToughBook laptops and Toughpad tablets. Defending the brand is still very much a priority for them in all markets and should translate to stringent requirements on the value-proposition of each and every Panasonic smartphone they now put out in India. At least, that seems to be the case with the Panasonic P55 Novo that we know here as the Starmobile UP Neo.

Operating system: Though it isn’t a major fork from stock Android 4.4, the operating system on the UP Neo (and the on the P55 Novo) does make the most of the hardware and firmware. The most obvious refinement offered by this software-hardware fit-out is the soft navigation bar that lets you arrange the three front screen buttons (home, options and back) in all their possible permutations, thus making it easy to transition from any former Android smartphone.

IMG20150803112912Build: Build quality is decent. I would’ve given it a higher mark if the bezel was actually aluminum. But, as it turns out, it’s just metal powder finish applied to the sides of the phone’s body frame. Nevertheless, a look at the inside shows the components tightly put together with the telltale quality touches of sprung ball bearings that firm up plugging into the USB and 3.5mm stereo jacks, and side buttons that feel like they have good silicon rubber bushings. The textured cross-weave pattern on the rear cover is smudge proof (or, at least, obscures finger marks) and offers good grip. And while everything structural appears to be plastic, included in the box is a rigid protective case that snaps on to put bumpers on all the corners, making the phone quite survivable when it’s eventually dropped (no need to wait for aftermarket producers to mold third party sleeves).IMG20150809135511

IMG20150803111612Cameras: The cameras with their fast f/2.2 aperture perform well even in low-light conditions, particularly with backside illumination (BSI) on the sharp 13mp rear sensor and the adequate 5mp front sensor. BSI delivers on its promise, outputting viewfinder and captured images that are 1 to 2 stops brighter than what the naked eye sees in dark lighting conditions. The camera app on the Android 4.4.2 phone adds a gradient meter mode to the conventional grid view—very useful for shots you need composed in relation to a level, absolutely horizontal attitude.  The main 13mp camera focuses well and quickly on contrasted objects either at the center or towards the edges of the frame. The secondary 5mp front camera has a fixed focus point intended for selfies and other close work. Given these, the LED flashes are appropriate and adequate. There’s the triple LED cluster for the main camera with the potential to light up all subjects in a fairly large room, and there’s the notable inclusion of a single LED flash for the secondary front camera. Do note that if you use the powerful triple LED flash, remember to remove the transparent frosted protective casing which catches some of the light wash and would dazzle the camera lens.

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IMG20150804141541Display: The 5.3” display with in-plane switching (IPS) performs as advertised, with images remaining sharp and well illuminated even from acute viewing angles. Although this may not be good news in terms of privacy and security, the IPS feature makes for a screen that can be viewed cozily, and comfortably, by two or three people. The screen is rigid but it does have some give, the displayed images distorting a bit under your finger if you press hard on the touchscreen.  Both Panasonic and Starmobile literature are silent on whether the P55 Novo or the UP Neo feature Corning’s Gorilla Glass or Asahi’s Dragontrail.  About screen resolution, though the phone’s camera can capture 1080p videos, playback is only up to 720p on the 720×1280 pixel screen. This shouldn’t mean much on a display that’s on the small end of the phablet-sized spectrum. If not for anything else, just enough screen resolution on what is still a diminutive 5.3” screen means that both processing and battery power are spared the extra load of a higher resolution display. And, of course, there’s the forced rationality of not putting 1080p movies on the phone’s ample but finite storage options (16GB fixed with a micro SD slot for up to 32GB of removable storage). For what it is intended to do, and in the form factor it does it in, the 5.3” 720p screen is fast and sharp enough.IMG20150804130255

Battery life: The UP Neo’s 2500mAh removable battery doesn’t offer mutli-day reserves, not when the phone is used under new normal conditions with WiFi or the mobile broadband connectivity activated most of the day, the screen hardly left in standby. But it will get you through a 9 to 5 workday, alerting you to low charge only when you’re back home among your mainstay charging options—and that’s even with a movie thrown in. With WiFi connectivity enabled and the screen at full brightness, expect to deplete the battery 15% for every hour of movie viewing on the small but intimate screen.

CF-Bench-screenshotProcessing power: A benchmarking test (using CF Bench) shows the UP Neo with its ARM Cortex-A7 1.4GHz octa-core processor as having more than the proportionate doubling of throughput over popular quad-core models from Samsung and HTC. Contributing to this performance is the ARM Mali-450 MP4 600MHz quad core video processor and the ample 1GB of RAM (the bigger the memory, the less will be the read-writes to flash memory made to emulate main memory pages). With the phone just coming off a Facebook browse (that heavy app still running in the background) and synchronization enabled over a live WiFi connection, the UP Neo played a 720p movie without any hiccups, the motion so sharp and consistent that there’s that familiar yet strange sensation of watching on-screen action with little if any motion blur.

The bottom line

With build quality and a features set that are intended to win market share against stiff competition from both local and international brands in India, the Starmobile UP Neo’s value proposition seems pretty high for the low mid-range bracket its price puts it in. Build and features you’d expect on higher priced products would of course make you look nervously for where they might’ve cut corners. But in the case of the Starmobile/Panasonic phone, there should be no surprises in store. Unit production costs have likely been brought down by volumes scaled up to meet demand not only from our own substantial market but also from India, the country that’s going to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by the next decade.

With their new UP Neo, Starmobile has definitely struck a sweet deal getting Panasonic India into their supply chain. Right now, with the Starmobile UP Neo priced at P6,490 as a new release (slightly lower than the price of the Panasonic P55 Novo for the India market), I’d give it a score of 8.5 out of 10. Will enough units be left over after a few months, enough for Starmobile to clear these out at reduced prices? If they have enough stock later on to reduce prices, I’d update the score, make it even higher. But with the country’s market being as sophisticated as the world’s best, I wouldn’t put odds on many units staying on the shelves long enough to make it to the clearance sale.

SPECS Starmobile UP NeoStarmobile-UP-Neo Panasonic P55 NovoPanasonic-P55-Novo
OS Android 4.4 KitKat
Chipset MediaTek MT6592M
Processor ARM Cortex-A7 1.4GHz octa core
Video chip ARM Mali-450 MP4 600MHz quad core
Memory 1GB RAM
Fixed 16GB internal storage
Removable Micro SD external storage up to 32GB
Display 5.3 inch in-plane switching (IPS) multi-touch capacitive screen, 720×1280 pixels (277ppi)
Rear 13MP auto-focus with backside illumination (BSI), f/2.2 aperture, triple LED flash
Front 5MP fixed-focus with BSI, single LED flash
Video capture 1080p @ 30fps
SIM1 Regular SIM, GSM and 3G network connection
SIM2 Regular SIM, GSM and 3G network connection
2G GSM: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
3G UMTS/WCDMA: 850/2100MHz HSDPA: 900/2100MHz
Other connectivity
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n transceiver with hotspot and direct connect features
Bluetooth Bluetooth v4.0
GPS GPS receiver with A-GPS
Infrared infrared transceiver with IR blaster feature
Radio FM radio
Battery 2500mAh Li-Ion, removable
Sensors accelerometer, light sensor, proximity sensor
height 148mm 147.9mm
width 74mm 73.8mm
thickness 8.25mm 8.15mm
Weight 165g 164g
Colors gold and gray blue, gold and gray
List price PhP6,490 Rs9,290 (equiv. to PhP6,596)
Launched 02 July 2015