review Four years after he first promised to deliver a smartphone under his own brand, maverick Australian consumer electronics entrepreneur Kogan has finally gotten one out the door – and it’s cheap as chips at $149 despite boasting some pretty high-end specifications. But can the Kogan Agora kick it with the big boys? Read on to find out.
Note: Sections of this article are largely identical to our previous preview of the Kogan Agora. If you’ve read that article and are only interested in how the iPad mini performs in the wild, we recommend you skip the ‘Design’ and ‘Features’ sections and skip to ‘Performance’.
In terms of its design ethos, the Kogan Agora appears to draw more from Samsung’s product history than from the lines of other smartphone manufacturers, with the Agora reminding us a great deal of the Samsung Galaxy S I and II in terms of its overall look and feel. The Agora has the metallic rim and overall black aesthetic which the original Galaxy S boasted, along with a similar dimpled soft plastic backing, but it’s also a bit curvier, flatter and larger, a bit like the Galaxy Note II. This is a good thing, as these Samsung smartphones have been some of the best-designed models we’ve tested over the past few years.
Most of the buttons and interfaces on the Agora are to be found where you expect. On the left-hand side sits the usual volume rocker, while the top has the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and the right-hand side houses the model’s power button. The main camera and flash are on the back as normal, and the unit’s micro-USB port is on the bottom. There’s a small front-facing camera and speaker grille above the unit’s screen, and another small speaker grill on the back of the phone at the bottom. Below the screen sits a physical home button and capacitive menu and return buttons to either side.
Unfortunately the weight of the Agora, at 180g, lets it down somewhat. The Samsung Galaxy S III, for comparison, weighs only 133g, and the iPhone 5 comes in even lighter at 112. The Agora is not a light phone and it doesn’t feel that light in your pocket. Of course, there are other similar models out there – Nokia’s current flagship, the Lumia 920, for example, comes in even heavier at 185g, although of course the 920 offers many features the Agora doesn’t. In terms of its size, the Agora is also fairly chunky, at 142.8 by 80 by 9.8 mm. Yup – that’s almost a centimetre thick. Again, not a huge issue, but the Agora is on the larger and heavier scale of modern smartphones.
Overall, if we had to make a judgement call about the Agora’s design, we’d say that it is pretty solid. You definitely won’t find the build quality on the Agora that you find on smartphones from manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung or HTC. However, the Agora is more than good enough to pass muster at a casual glance alongside those models, and it feels pretty nice in the hand. In terms of its design, the Agora definitely punches above its weight, and if this phone was released several years ago, it would have been pretty high up in the pack.
We were pleasantly surprised with most of the Agora’s specifications on paper, with the smartphone actually doing fairly well compared with some of the best models on the market.
Firstly, let’s go over what the Agora does right. It has a large screen at 5”, its processor is a dual-core 1GHz Coretex-A9 model, and it comes with 512MB of RAM. Its battery is a decently sized 2000mAh model which Kogan says will let you speak on a 3G connection for almost five hours, and the Agora comes with 4G of on-board storage and the option to add another 32GB via its microSD card slot. There’s a moderately specced 5 megapixel camera, and the Agora supports most of Australia’s 3G networks at speeds of up to 7.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up. The front-facing camera is a 0.3 megapixel model and of course there’s 802.11 b/g/n support. All of these specifications are quite solid, and in fact we consider them pretty amazing in a $149 smartphone, but they’re not at the high end, unless you count the Agora’s speedy CPU.
One stand-out feature of the Agora is it support for two SIM cards simultaneously, although only one supports 2G networks. This is a feature popular in Asia which we wish would come to more smartphones.
And now for the bad news.
There’s no 4G support on the Agora. There’s no Jelly Bean, with the handset running the previous Ice Cream Sandwich version of Google’s Android platform. And perhaps most importantly, its screen resolution is relatively poor – just 480×800, which delivers a pixel density of around 186 pixels per inch (the iPhone 5 weighs in at 326 ppi, the Galaxy S III at 306 ppi). And another downer is that the Agora doesn’t support the 3G 900MHz networks used by Optus and Vodafone to supplement their networks using other spectrum bands (although it does support 900MHz in 2G).
To sum up, most of the features which the Kogan Agora boasts are moderate, with some tending towards the high-end, and some tending towards the low-end. There’s some surprising additions not found in other models, such as dual-SIM support, and some areas which should be able to be easily improved, such as the addition of a more modern version of Android. In general you get a lot for your $149 from Kogan, and we were quite surprised with the strength of the features here.
Up until now, this review has been broadly pretty positive about the Agora. Sure, it’s missing some key features such as 4G speeds, and sure, its build quality isn’t the best on the market, but you have to expect some compromises for a smartphone which costs only $149. However, it’s in the performance section of this review that you can really see where the Agora falls short.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Agora when you start using it is that its screen quality is pretty poor. For starters there’s a grainy quality to the screen which reminds us of the old-style of resistive touch screens found on really awful tablet models such as Telstra’s ill-fated T-Touch Tab. This graininess appears to be embedded in the clear substance (not sure if it’s plastic or glass) which covers the Agora’s screen, rather than being an artifact of the actual screen below. And it’s not a nice effect. Secondly, of course the Agora’s pixel density is pretty poor by today’s standards, meaning you can really see pixels on the screen.
When you couple these factors with the fact that the colors on the Agora’s screen are a little washed out, what you get is one of the worst touchscreens we’ve seen on a smartphone for a while. There’s no doubt that the screen is usuable, bright and responsive. Don’t get us wrong: Everything functions fine and it’s very usable. But compared with other smartphones on the market, it doesn’t stack up well.
Secondly, there’s one annoying hardware flaw with the Agora. On the model we got, the physical home button below the screen (ie, the button you touch most) didn’t always respond when we pressed it. Sometimes we had to press it again to get it to function. This is an indication of poor build quality in the Agora and we found this quite annoying.
Thirdly, to be frank, the Agora’s battery is pretty shocking. To illustrate how bad it is, we fully charged the unit yesterday and left it on our desk overnight. This morning, the unit’s battery is down to 60 percent — without using it at all! In real-world scenarios where you’re pulling down data over a 3G network and making calls, the battery depreciates even further. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a battery this bad on a smartphone, and we’re quite disappointed by it. On the upside, at least the battery is quite easily replaceable, which we know quite a few readers will be happy with.
To give you an indication of how bad the battery on the Agora can be, we streamed a video from YouTube over Wi-Fi on the handset, and over a three minute period the battery dropped from 60 percent to 53 percent. If you’re watching video on the Agora, be prepared: You won’t be watching video for long. And, while we’re on the subject of video, also beware of the unit’s speakers: The audio quality is not crash hot, and can feel quite jarring.
Perhaps as a result of this poor battery life, the Agora will by default switch its screen off at the drop of a hat. It’s a setting designed to save battery life; but we feel the phone turns its screen off a little too quickly compared with most other smartphones we’ve used.
There are also other things which we didn’t like about the Agora.
The version of Android installed on the handset is actually pretty modern — it’s 4.04 (Ice Cream Sandwich). And we liked the fact that Kogan has kept its Android install quite bare bones here — there’s not much in the way of vendor-specific overlay on top of the basic Android experience, and no annoying third-party apps to get in your way.
However, what there is a set of really annoying alerts related to the Agora’s two SIM cards. If you use the Agora with only one SIM card, as we envisage most people who buy this handset will do, the Agora will post alerts on its lock screen, home screen and the mini-menu you get when you swipe down from the top of the screen, asking you to “Please insert SIM card (Slot2). And try as we might, we couldn’t find a way to get rid of these alerts.
In addition, due to what appears to be the combination of the Agora’s poor resolution, the version of Android it uses and these annoying alerts, sometimes there is no easy way to get at options such as updating apps from the top swipe-down menu. You get an app update notification in the top menu bar on the home screen, but when you swipe down to check it out, it can be pushed out of the list in an annoying way by alerts you can’t remove, such as the one about the second SIM card.
The camera is also pretty woeful, and in the shots we took, not really comparable with most of the cameras we’ve tried out recently on other modern smartphones. It doesn’t handle colours that well, it doesn’t handle strong sunlight or shadows that well, and in general you won’t find it that great. On the other hand, the video which the Agora produces isn’t terrible; it’s fine for those shots of the kids crawling around the loungeroom. The recorded sound quality to go with the video again isn’t great, but it does the job.
These shots were all taken on the same day at the same time, and then resized and saved as mid-range quality JPGs in Photoshop, as we do with all our shots. Click for a closer view. You can see that the iPhone 5 clearly takes the best shot, with the Kogan Agora taking the worst, and the Lumia 920 in the middle.
Nokia Lumia 820:
Apple iPhone 5:
Lastly, forget your micro- and nano-SIM cards. The Agora doesn’t play well with those. To use the Agora you’ll need a plain old ‘fat’ SIM card. We used adapters with micro SIM cards to test out the device — our nano SIM adapter didn’t work.
Now for the good stuff.
Frankly, the Agora does do the job it has been advertised to do. This is a very cheap smartphone, but it delivers most of what other high-end smartphones do — the kind which cost four times as much to buy. With the Agora you get a fairly good default Android experience in a large screen phone with a hardware profile that’s actually pretty good, with decent build quality.
It’s a little less responsive, but in general you’ll find using the Agora to be pretty much like using many other Android phones. The same software is there and it works as it usually does. App performance is OK if not stellar, and all the phone’s hardware functions — its dual SIM cards, its camera, its network connectivity and so on — all do work competently. There’s nothing abjectly broken on the Agora, and we can’t believe that you get this many features and this much value for this price. The phone does function competently, which is not something we can say for all models which come through our labs.
By 2013 standards, the Kogan Agora is a pretty shitty smartphone. Its screen quality is terrible, its battery life is terrible, and its camera is sub-par. It’s larger and heavier than most models on the market and it doesn’t have modern features such as 4G speeds or Jelly Bean Android. Plus it has hardware and software bugs. On this basis, it’s hard to recommend that anyone who can afford to spend a few hundred dollars on a smartphone as their primary mobile device should buy the Kogan Agora. Especially when you turn to the second-hand market, there are just better options out there.
However, that’s not to say that the Agora doesn’t deliver on its promises.
If the Agora had launched for this price two years ago, it would have been a pretty awesome model for the money. A modern version of Android set on hardware which mainly does the job it needs to, with dual-SIM capability built-in, is a pretty good deal for $149. If Kogan could see its way clear to upgrading the Agora’s version of Android to 4.1 or 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and fixing some of the more obvious software bugs, the Agora would get a lot better overnight and would be even better value for money.
As it stands, if you need a very cheap, but still relatively full-featured smartphone as a second model to have around the house — perhaps for your kids to play with, the grandparents to learn on, or as a disposable model that you can take to the beach — the Agora does the job. At the price Kogan’s selling it at, the Agora is almost an impulse buy, and it’ll happily do duty as an ancillary smartphone that may be quite useful to have around.
Just don’t buy it as your main smartphone. It really is worth paying a few hundred dollars more for a more competent model with better build quality and better features. The Agora is the first generation of one of the cheapest smartphones around. Frankly, we doubt it will cut the mustard doing heavy duty as anyone’s primary smartphone on a day-in, day-out basis. But it makes for a good cheap second option in certain circumstances.
One last thing we’re really curious about: Does Ruslan Kogan actually use this model personally as his main smartphone? At this stage we’re not sure, but it would sure be interesting to find out.
Image credit: Kogan Technologies