The Cold Hard Truth About Buying An $80 Smartphone

The worst week of my life.

Much is to be said about the current smartphone landscape. For the most part, it’s a duopoly, with smartphone users assigning (or as the case may be, resigning) themselves to either Apple or Samsung camps. There are, of course, other manufacturers such as Google, OnePlus, LG, Alcatel et al. all of whom rely on Google’s Android smartphone operating systems, occasionally tweaking them to provide a unique user experience.

Once you have decided which cult camp you want to join – Android or iOS – the smartphone you actually end up buying could well be determined by your budget. It’s no secret that Apple charges a premium for its devices, and Samsung, too, can command in excess of $2,000 for its latest and greatest devices. Here at DMARGE we’ve been hands-on with a $199 smartphone with good results, proving if you don’t need the absolute best features from a phone – but rather just the ability to send messages, update your Instagram feed and take some passable photos – you don’t need to spend big bucks.

We wanted to test that theory even further, and while we were browsing Wish in search of a fake Richard Mille, we also noticed a smartphone being advertised for $80. Curious as to how well (or poorly) an $80 phone would perform, we clicked ‘buy’. Just over a week later our device arrived. We’ve now spent enough time with it to bring to you a comprehensive analysis as to why you really shouldn’t ever spend $80 on a smartphone. Ever. Seriously.

We’ll start with some good news. This unbranded phone – called the Note30 (homage to, or taking inspiration from, Samsung and Huawei, you decide) – doesn’t look that bad (although, it looks nothing like the picture on the listing, which shows it to have virtually no bezel whatsoever around the display. The phone we received is decidedly more chunky).

It does, however, follow the current smartphone trend for notches in the top middle of the screen for the front-facing camera, a large display to dominate the front (which doesn’t sit tidy and flush with the casing) and a triple-lens camera around the back (which can also be considered chunky). The two-tone black and blue colour scheme is, dare we say, handsome. On looks alone, you wouldn’t assume this smartphone costs less than a case of Stone & Wood.

As soon as you use it, however, you can immediately tell where money hasn’t been spent.

As a disclaimer, we’ll admit that we’ve become so used to more high-spec smartphones of late, that anything that doesn’t match their quality will be seen as bad. But, we think most people will be in agreement with our judgement of the ‘Unbranded Note30’.

The screen provides an immediate gateway into the low quality of this device. It’s not sharp, it’s not colourful and if you tilt the phone so much as a few degrees, the viewing angles are so terrible that you legitimately cannot see what’s being displayed. Granted, you’re going to spend much of your time looking straight at the thing, and when you do, it’s not the most awful experience ever, the (claimed) HD resolution of the 6.1-inch doing its best to return an image that can just about be classed as ‘viewable’. But if you ever have to adjust the angle to account for lighting conditions, you may as well start donating to blindness charities, since you’ve now experienced life in their shoes.

Another word on the display, and potential insight into how Unbranded has managed to make their phone so cheap. There are adverts on the home screen and we also experienced pop-up ads appear when we messing around with the settings, something we can’t say we’ve ever experienced on any other phone. It was with this in mind that we decided it best to not sign into any social media accounts or add any card details. You know, just in case.

As for the general user experience. Again, we’re not going to give the Unbranded a glowing review. It’s no Usain Bolt. The product listing claims it runs on Android 10, the latest version of Google’s operating system. And, while menus and navigation will be familiar to members of the Android Army, we’d wager even cadets would have a hard time maintaining patience when flicking between menus, screens and apps. We know, we’re accustomed to superfast multitasking from our phones nowadays, but the Note30 kind of takes the piss. It’s frustratingly slow, to the point we quite literally couldn’t stand to use it for a few days. But, for review purposes, we returned to it and heroically persevered.

To put this all into context, we tried loading up a generic movie trailer on YouTube, selected full-screen mode, which didn’t cause the trailer to fill the entire screen, instead, adopting a more 4:3 ratio with large black (in this case very washed out black) bars either side. The trailer never ran smoothly, instead choosing to stutter along to a point where we gave up trying after attempting 10-seconds worth of playtime, despite being connected to a solid Wi-Fi connection. And as for sound, well, the less said the better.

One of the biggest features that differentiate phones today is the camera. Some devices come with as many as four camera lenses in the pursuit of picture-perfect photography, and advanced image processing that allows flagship devices to rival dedicated handheld cameras. The fact the Note30 arrived with three lenses piqued our interest. Could this be a redeeming feature?


“Adopt dual-core sensor, and introduce AI artificial intelligence, post-quick double-shot, add image Rubik’s cube technology, and then cooperate with AI scene camera. AI backlight photo, AI portrait composition let the mobile phone become your professional imaging team [sic].” The listing relates.


Unless you’re someone who actually prefers washed-out photos with no life, depth or detail of any kind, you’ll want to look elsewhere next time you’re shopping for a new device. A mental image of a landscape, a dog you see in the street, or a night out with friends will be more rewarding.

Speaking of rewarding, after playing around with the settings (and getting past adverts) we stumbled upon the setup screen for the built-in fingerprint scanner. However, unlike some other devices that have baked a scanner into a physical button on the front, back or side of their devices, this Unbranded Note30 has its scanner built into the screen. When we were presented with the prompt to place our finger on the screen for registering, we’ll admit, we looked confused.

“There’s no way the scanner is integrated with the screen”, we cried. “Other, larger companies have been trying and failing to implement such technology for years”. But, sure enough, the scanner is there and it works. It doesn’t respond immediately when you place your finger on it to unlock, but this is one area we can happily forgive it. It’s like when a puppy destroys your home but then gives you the puppy dog eyes you simply can’t get mad at. The fingerprint scanner is the equivalent of those eyes.

What’s more, you’re also given the option of unlocking the thing with your face. Once again we were pretty surprised that this phone had such a feature. The listing, however, claims it’s able to “accurately recognise faces all the time, bringing a science fiction unlocking experience”, going as far to say it will recognise your face in considerably dark conditions.

We beg to differ.

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It’s possibly the only redeeming feature (along with dual SIM-card slots and a spot for expanding the onboard storage), however, and with previous reviews, such as those for cars or tropical getaways, we usually find ourselves sad to give the loan vehicle back or to have to jump on a plane and head home. In the case of the Unbranded Note30, we’ll be burying it to the bottom of our man-drawer for the rest of eternity. We wouldn’t even gift it to someone else, not even our worst enemy.

We do understand, however, that people in less-developed countries need to rely on phones like these in order to stay connected to the world. A 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research found a median of 53% of adults in third-world countries has access to a smartphone, with nearly all users claiming the “internet has had a positive impact on education.”

So no, the Unbranded Note30 is unlikely to find love in the developed world, but for those less fortunate, it could prove to be invaluable.

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