Over the last decade, Lenovo have risen to become the leading personal computer manufacturer in the world. I know this. It’s not a secret. It’s also not news that they make smartphones. It just so happens that they haven’t really focused on this sector yet in the west.
When Lenovo’s bought Motorola Mobility from Google, it was clear this was going to change. Moto phones are now in Lenovo boxes, although the ‘Moto’ brand is more prominent. It seems Lenovo want recognition for their own brand in the western market. This requires a specific product line.
- Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop)
- Octa-core 1.4 GHz Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 415
- 2GB RAM / 16 GB storage / up to 32GB external storage
- 5″ HD IPS LCD screen
- 13 MP main camera / 5 MP front facing camera
- Dolby Atmos enabled speakers
- Dual SIM (2x micro)
- Removable 2,750 mAh battery
This pretty much puts the K5 on a par with the 3rd generation Moto G. The new G4 has a larger screen and faster processor, however costs a few notes more.
On paper there’s little to set the K5 apart from the competition (from the same company!). The larger battery, speakers and design are the only features that may sway buyers towards the Lenovo machine.
This specification will see the majority of casual users through a full day, without slowdown or problems with the latest apps and games.
The overall design is clean and simple. The only ‘flourish’ are the horizontal lines on the back plate. This splits the rear into a large central panel, flanked by two slimmer panels. The top has the camera and the bottom the speakers, with the Lenovo logo in the middle. Very iPhone.
I think the centre is supposed to be a different colour. The light reflects slightly differently off it, so a subtle two-tone effect is produced.
This back plate is completely removable. Taking it off exposes the large battery and micro SD slot. Lenovo also join an increasing number of manufacturers providing dual SIM slots on cheaper phones. These still aren’t common in the UK and are always welcome.
Power and volume are on the right side in the expected position. The standard 3.5mm jack is on the top edge in the left corner. But what’s that also on the top edge? The USB port?
It’s not the first phone I’ve seen with this placement but it does feel odd. The overriding expectation is for this to be on the base. It’s a minor quirk, not a deal breaker, although does take some getting used to.
Lenovo have also used capacitive buttons on the bezel, which I’ve always preferred to Android’s software buttons. They look more ‘professional’ and provide a little extra screen space.
The Samsung layout is used for the buttons; back on the right and multitasking on the left. No LEDs light them up, instead the symbols are painted on.
There’s nothing to dislike about Lenovo’s choices. There’s nothing spectacular either. Overall it’s a clean, inoffensive design suitable for all.
Software / Launcher
What sets the Lenovo line apart from the Moto line is the software installation. Moto phones continue to have a very ‘clean’ Android approach. Not completely ‘stock’ but visually close enough to seem it.
The K5 has a fully skinned Lenovo launcher. Say what you like about heavy, customised launchers, personally I think the days of hating on them solely for existing have long passed.
Mobile processing power and memory has progressed, so even highly modified launchers like this run smoothly. I expect Lenovo also put in a lot of work to make sure bugs were squished.
Continuing the iPhone-esque styling of the back plate, the launcher takes a few cues from Cupertino too. The biggest change from stock Android is the lack of an app drawer. All apps are installed to the home screens so they can’t be missed. We also saw this approach on the Alcatel Idol 4 – another phone manufactured by a large Chinese company.
The second Apple homage is the abundance of rounded corners and ‘flat’ iconography. System apps and folders all follow this design language, with a pastel colour palette. It’s the current fashion – you could though say Lenovo are following it closely rather than trying anything new.
A touch I like with folders is upon opening one, the contents are displayed on a new screen with a transparent background. I prefer this to standard Android’s method of ‘overlaying’ the contents, which I think can look a little messy.
The notification shade is also a separate screen transition, rather than an overlay. Lenovo have included a Theme app to change the launcher’s design. Some of these go for a more boxy look, far away from the default.
Extra options control not just screen brightness but also hue & temperature. Casual users could also miss deeper controls for managing background apps and permissions. Considering this is an Android 5.1 release and not 6.0, a user-accessible permissions model is a bonus.
Out of the box you’ll find about 9.75 of 16 GB available. Some is taken up by 3rd party apps. Those marked as ‘downloaded’ and removable are Evernote, Gamestore, McAfee, Navigate, Skype, Tap the Frog, Twitter and UC Browser. Some you may want to keep. Uninstalling them and extraneous media only bumps you up to 9.86 GB.
All of Google’s apps and services including Chrome, Play Music etc. cannot be removed. Alongside these, system apps such as Calculator, Contacts, Dialler and Messaging have all been consistently skinned.
A few other built in extras are installed. Dolby Atmos is integrated to enhance audio and media playback. I also found reference to a Lenovo ID and Companion app.
The Companion is actually fairly useful. It provides a bunch of diagnostic tests and also lets you search the Lenovo database for how-to videos and support tips. It’s a well integrated feature that could really help novice users learn about the phone.
As a product category, smartphones are strolling into the space of laptops a few years ago. Almost everyone has one and they’re the primary vector for many of us to access news and social media.
Lenovo’s experience in shaping the PC industry may help win smartphone market share. Differentiating with apps, launchers and features could score sales in an increasingly crowded market.
Mobile camera tech has almost become a microcosm of the whole smartphone category. Basic specifications (megapixels) and software (image processing) have both developed massively in a short space of time.
The result is that even basic phone cameras can take a half-decent shot in the right environment. Much like how super cheap smartphones are now passable tools if you understand their limitations.
The K5 has a 13 megapixel sensor on the back and a 5 megapixel eye on the front. A lot of manufacturers are upping their selfie game to 5 MP and higher. The K5 keeps things at the lower end with fixed focus with no flash.
As for the main camera – remove the little plastic film off the lens after taking the phone out of the box… I missed this at first and was wondering why there was a faint blue hue to all my pictures!
The camera app is cleanly built, with the settings options easy to understand. You can quickly switch between auto and 11 preset scenes, panorama, and several effects filters. Toggles for HDR, ISO, white balance and metering are present, plus post-processing sliders for contrast, saturation, sharpness and exposure.
Results are definitely passable for a £150 phone. As always at this price tier, low-light and dark indoor environments can be difficult. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with what the 55’s camera can achieve in the right setting.
Lenovo have masses of experience shaping the laptop sector when the same thing happened there a few years ago. Turning their hand to smartphones should be easy. However they will need to massively invest to dethrone the major powers of Apple and Samsung in the west.
If the K5 is an indication of their intentions then they’re on the right track. It works well, looks good and is at about the right price. I’m sure it will sell in decent enough numbers but it doesn’t really do anything to stand out, even from the Moto brand that Lenovo now also control. The question is what will they do next?
Will we see a scatter gun of Lenovo phones across several price points? Samsung did this a few years ago to cement their Android position. Will we see an attempt at a high price premium phone? Or will Lenovo chip away at the lower tiers and let the Moto brand fight the bigger boys?
Whatever happens it’s always pleasing to have another reputable brand to choose from. Lenovo produce reliable products with a familiar, if rather simple appeal.
I can’t outright say the K5 is significantly better or worse than other budget phones in the same tier. I can though say that it should definitely make your shortlist.