Introduction and features
Phones have become faster, their cameras have got better, and a slim phone of a few years ago would seem like a porker today. However, one thing that hasn’t improved much is real-life phone stamina – most of us still find that we have to charge our phones each and every day.
The mission statement of the Mlais MX Base is to change that. It packs a radically huge 4300mAh battery – the sort of size you might usually find in a tablet.
Haven’t heard of Mlais? You’re not alone, because this is one of those tiny Chinese brands producing phones you’ll never, ever see on the high street in the US or UK, outside of a dodgy second-hand electronics store, anyway.
This raises concerns about the Mlais MX Base’s longevity, which are absolutely worth considering in our opinion. But it also makes the Mlais MX Base extremely price-competitive. It sells for £89 (around US$135, AU$185), and – spoiler alert – it does have much better stamina than any other Western phone in this class.
Would we advise buying one over a Moto G 3rd-gen and, say, a 10,000mAh OnePlus or Xiaomi battery pack? Probably not. However, Mlais has proven, once and for all, that it is absolutely possible for a company to make a phone that lasts, well, ages.
The well of no-brand Chinese phones is deep, and its contents multifarious. Stick a hand in and you might find a good one, or burn a finger on a dodgy melting battery. The Mlais MX Base seemed a case of the latter when I initially got the phone: for the first couple of days on charge, the phone refused to turn on at all.
I was about to bury the little guy in his cardboard coffin for good when he sprung to life as if I hadn’t been pressing his power button dozens of times in the days previous.
This just serves to reinforce the notion that buying a low-price Chinese phone can be a gamble, because quality assurance standards are going to be so much lower than if you buy a phone from, say, Sony or Samsung.
If you see a phone on sale from one of the big manufacturers or networks, you can figure that it’s been through approximately a billion tests. This phone? Rather fewer.
That said, in the week-plus since waking up, the Mlais MX Base has worked just fine. Not a single restart or major blip. And, given its gigantic battery, it’s actually tremendously easy to live with.
The MX Base is 9.9mm thick and weighs 168g. That’s not slim, and it’s not light; but it’s also not the pocket-bulger you might imagine of a phone whose sole purpose is to pack in the biggest battery you’ve ever seen in a 5-inch handset.
There’s nothing too clever behind this feat either, and you can take the Mlais MX Base’s back cover off and get a good look at the 4300mAh battery cell. It’s the standard brick you’d have encountered before every phone maker started locking their batteries in like high-security prisoners; it’s just a bit bigger.
The Mlais MX Base has a bit of reassuring heft to it, but much of that comes from the weight of the battery. This is otherwise a pretty cheap-feeling phone, with all the sense of style of a white bread cheese sandwich. It’s plain, with only the fake brushed-metal plastic strip along the phone’s edge to jazz things up a little.
Elements like the non-illuminated metallic soft keys look a bit cheap too. The question is: does this matter? If you want a phone that lasts for approximately forever off a charge, and are only willing to pay £89 (around US$135, AU$185) for it, then asking you to trade away premium build and style doesn’t seem like too great an ask.
I also prefer the Mlais MX Base’s plain look to something that tries to stand out, but succeeds only in making you wince.
One element you may want to think a bit more seriously about is the screen covering. It’s glass, and toughened glass at that, but it flexes a little more readily than the Gorilla Glass 3 you get in the Moto G 3rd-gen, and countless other reasonably affordable mobile phones.
I’ve been using the phone for more than a week, though, it hasn’t picked up any major scratches. I’ve seen much worse supposedly toughened glass before.
The Mlais MX Base offers much more than better-known rivals in other areas too. For example, it has 16GB storage when at this price you’d normally only get 8GB, max. It also has an IR blaster, a useful little gadgety extra that even top-end phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 started leaving out this year.
Samsung did this because basically no-one used the IR transmitter in the Galaxy S5, but it’s still pretty neat. An IR blaster can mimic the signals sent by the old-fashioned remotes used by your TV, home cinema receiver and so on, enabling the Mlais MX Base to act as a universal remote.
There’s an app to enable you use it too – it’s a bit ropey, but there are plenty of better alternatives available from Google Play, and that you get the feature at all in a phone this cheap is an eye-opener. It has 4G too, and all the primary Western bands are supported. There’s no NFC, though.
The screen is a little more ordinary, but still competes pretty well with the best at this price. The Mlais MX Base has a 5-inch 1280 x 720 pixel IPS LCD display, which has become the gold standard for budget phones.
It’s not a bad screen at all. The colours look fairly natural, only showing a slightly cool temperature, and lacking some of the subtlety of the best.
You can customise all this, though. In the Settings menu there’s a very in-depth screen tweaker tool that enables you to alter image contrast, temperature and the dynamic contrast system, which aims to increase the punchiness of images.
As with the Moto G and other 5-inch 720p phones, sharpness isn’t quite Retina-grade. But it’s still pretty good.
The one issue with the display is that my Mlais MX Base has some backlight bleed, which is where areas of the display look brighter than others – in this case it’s a touch of classic edge-of-screen bleed.
It’s no surprise in a low-budget phone from a maker with, most likely, less rigorous QA standards than some – there’s a level of ‘accepted’ compromise at this price range, and plenty of cheaper phones from big names suffer from this effect too.
Here the bleed is pretty minor stuff, though, and if I’d bought this phone I wouldn’t be looking for a refund.
Performance and camera
The Mlais MX Base runs Android 5.1 and, as I’d hoped, doesn’t have a thick, gloopy custom UI over the top. There are some slight customisations, not all of which are great, but it feels as though the phone’s software is simple and not overloaded.
What’s the difference? Well, the apps menu doesn’t use the traditional Android Lollipop ‘blank sheet’ style for a start. Its background image is whatever’s used on your home screen, mirroring what Samsung does with TouchWiz.
It’s a fine alternative to the vanilla Google Now look. What’s a bit stranger is how the soft keys work. The button that usually brings up the multitasking menu is in fact a context-sensitive ‘menu’ key, while you have to long-press on the ‘home’ button to use multitasking.
So where does the Now assistant end up when a long press usually fires up Android’s Siri-alternative? No idea. There’s no Google Now access from either the home screens or the soft keys.
The Mlais MX Base fiddles with Android a bit and makes it feel ever-so-slightly alien, but I got used to it pretty quickly.
For example, it doesn’t come with the usual default Chrome browser, but a dated ‘stock’ Android one that I haven’t touched much in years. Unlike some weirder Chinese phones, the Mlais MX Base does have Google Play installed, though, so rectifying such omissions is easy.
You can’t expect a 100% perfect experience from a low cost phone, but the one on offer here is pretty good. The killer part is that there’s very little lag, which has been a pretty big issue in a lot of cheaper Android Lollipop phones of the last year or so.
Given how little close attention seems to have been paid to the software, fine as it is, this is a bit of a surprise. It likely boils down to the Mlais MX Base’s use of 2GB RAM; a lot of the phones that struggle to make Android Lollipop run perfectly have just 1GB.
The CPU isn’t too shabby either, although these days RAM seems to have much more of a bearing on performance. The Mlais MX Base uses a MediaTek MT6735 CPU, which is roughly equivalent to a Snapdragon 410, but uses a different GPU and seems to come out way ahead of that more popular chipset in benchmarks.
For example, feed the Moto G 3rd-gen to Geekbench 3 and it’ll come out with about 1410 points. I’ve seen the Mlais MX Base score as much as 1845. It’s in the lead, by some margin.
Given that the main CPU part uses a very familiar quartet of Cortex-A53 cores at 1.3GHz, it must be the GPU boosting this performance to a large extent – the phone has a Mali T720 GPU.
Sure enough, the Mlais has no trouble running higher-end games like Dead Effect 2 with the visuals turned up. For a 720p phone, the amount of power on tap seems just dandy.
Don’t get too excited, though. If you’re into things that suck up CPU power as if it tastes of chocolate, like N64 game emulation, you’ll likely hit the Mlais MX Base’s limits fairly quickly. It still has an entry-level CPU.
The phone also feels a bit less sprightly than some because its display’s touch layer isn’t nearly as sensitive as those on other handsets. There are no flat-out dead zones – it just doesn’t feel quite as responsive as some.
While some elements of the Mlais MX Base stick out as being pretty great for the money, the camera setup is as problematic as you might expect of a no-name £89 (around US$135, AU$185) phone.
Specs-wise it’s all fine; great, even. On the back is an 8 megapixel camera with a flash, and on the front a 5 megapixel one. We’re not dealing with bottom-of-the-ladder stuff.
It’s also not too hard to get shots from afar that look pretty good. I’ve found the Mlais MX Base’s exposure metering to be surprisingly solid. Even the colour performance of the rear camera is respectable, when usually dodgy-looking reds are a tell-tale sign that you’re dealing with low-end hardware.
The problem is that the Mlais MX Base’s images are almost universally very noisy. Even when shooting in daylight, the poor processing can leave shots looking grainy.
Let’s step back for a minute, though. It’s far from all bad. While I’d much rather use a Moto G 3rd-gen camera any day of the week, the Mlais MX Base’s shots are often punchy, with lots of contrast and, as I mentioned before, remarkably good colour for a phone of this class.
Even the bafflingly slow f/2.8 lens seems fairly good, only introducing a bit of lens flare at times. It doesn’t cause the ugly purple fringing and smudging of light sources you get with some super-budget phones.
The HDR mode is pretty effective as well, often yielding great results without trading away all sense of realism. The Mlais MX Base certainly isn’t a camera for pixel peepers. Those kinds of shooters would be much better off with the Moto G or, y’know, a phone that costs a lot more.
However, after almost dismissing the pictures as fizzy garbage from just looking at them on the Mlais MX Base’s display, I found them far more tolerable on the big screen, where things like contrast and colour have a greater cumulative effect than how well the noise reduction works.
The front camera loses the colour punchiness of the rear one, and keeps the crackly noisiness. It’s not great, but does tend to smudge-out a bit less detail than some selfie shooters as a result of its neglectful approach to noise reduction.
In terms of shooting performance and the quality of the camera, the Mlais MX Base is nothing more than passable. There’s some shutter lag, so shooting doesn’t exactly seem instantaneous, and the app feels like a bad impersonation of much better ones.
What I mean is that while the app appears to have a ‘modern’ UI like, say, the Samsung Galaxy S6, with the most important controls sitting on the top layer, it’s actually just a visual refresh of an old app infrastructure.
So, when you press the HDR toggle at the top of the display, it doesn’t quickly flick between on/off/auto, it takes you into an HDR mode that blocks off some of the other on-screen controls.
Overall, though, the only real issue is that the Mlais MX Base camera feels slow, more so than the rest of the phone. Video capture tops out at a pretty poor 720p too, and doesn’t use any software stabilisation either.
Now we come to the real meat of the Mlais MX Base, in quite a literal sense given that the battery takes up 67g of the phone’s total 164g (my own measurements; Mlais’s official weight is 168g).
It’s a 4300mAh unit, but having tried many a battery that doesn’t match up to its supposed milliampere count, I was initially a bit sceptical.
While the MX Base may not last double the length of all budget rivals with 2xxxmAh units, it does last a very long time indeed. This is a phone you don’t have to try incredibly hard to squeeze two days’ use out of – indeed, unless you’re streaming video or doing a fair bit of browsing, it’s easy.
One little anecdote shows you the real benefit of a phone like this. One night during testing, I was going out to see a band. I was using the Mlais MX Base as my regular phone, and thought the dingy venue would be a good test for the camera. So not only did I need it to last until 11.30pm in case of any public transport disasters, I’d be using the camera throughout the evening too.
Thanks to that giant battery, I was able to leave the house with 50-odd per cent battery remaining, with the confidence that I’d be fine. And I was. A night of WhatsApp’ing, taking loads of a photos and bit of browsing only shaved 20% or so off the battery.
To give you a less anecdotal take on the Mlais MX Base’s stamina, I put it through some more rigid tests. The first was the usual techradar video playback test, wherein we whack the brightness up to the max and play a 90-minute 720p MP4 file.
Next up I tried browsing the web, using a simulation designed to mimic near-constant Chrome-flicking. With the brightness again set at 100%, three hours of browsing ate away 41% of the battery.
Again, this is a terrific result, suggesting you’ll get a minimum seven hours 20 minutes browsing over Wi-Fi with the display burning the charge away.
Kicking things up a notch further, I tried a gaming test. Ninety minutes of Real Racing 3 depleted the battery by 28%, implying that the Mlais MX Base would be good for over five hours of gameplay on a full charge.
The Mlais MX Base may not be fancy, but like an 80s action movie baddie you have a throw a load of crap at it to take it out.
Even on standby the battery performs well, which is likely helped by having a fairly recent CPU. After loading the phone up with apps, running everyday favourites like Facebook and a half-dozen others, then leaving it on a shelf for a whopping 53 hours, the Mlais MX Base only lost three per cent battery.
I also kept an eye on it after the test to make sure the battery reporting wasn’t just lagging behind the reality. It’s still kinda of hard to believe, though – I doubt whether the MX Base would still be alive after 73 days on standby, as that result might suggest.
You get the idea, though: it’s good stuff.
As with the rest of the Mlais MX Base’s hardware, there is a slight concern about the quality of the battery. Is this actually a decent-quality power pack? Poor-quality batteries tend to hold charge for less long and see a stamina hit sooner than good batteries.
I can’t guarantee that this battery will hold charge as well in six months’ time, but the fact that the MX Base’s standby result is so good suggests it can’t be dreadful unit.
Mlais has put precisely zero effort into making the MX Base quick to charge, mind. As well as not being compatible with any of the fast-charging standards, which is perfectly acceptable for a phone of this price, it comes with a dismal 1A charger. For this kind of battery, a 2A one is the minimum you’re after.
As a result it takes five hours to charge the Mlais MX Base from empty. Some phones can be almost fully charged in 40 minutes: ouch. You really need to charge the phone overnight to get a full juice-up, which is the dark side of having such a huge battery in a fairly no-frills phone.
The Mlais MX Base is a notable pick among the vast sea of China-brand phones that aren’t generally solid in the US/UK other than by importers. Its huge battery provides convenience worth taking seriously, especially if you’re tired of having to top up your phone at 5pm.
As promised, the Mlais MX Base’s stamina is superb. It trashes rival Androids in every test we submitted the phone to, including the most important one: real life.
This stamina doesn’t come with a huge bulkiness tax either. It’s only about 15g heavier than the Moto G, for example, and almost 2mm thinner.
Its screen is perfectly good too. There’s a bit of backlight bleed, but in all other respects the MX Base has a respectable display that can go toe-to-toe with better-known budget 5-inch handsets.
The Mlais MX Base isn’t going to impress anyone with its build. The bland look and dated soft keys are one thing; but when a phone uses un-named front screen glass and refuses to turn on for no apparent reason to start with, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.
Mlais also makes some funny moves on the software side. While the MX Base’s UI is extremely clean, it alters some of the basic ways you interact with the system, which can initially be a bit disorienting.
And while performance in general is good, a low-sensitivity touchscreen makes the MX Base seem less responsive than it could be. The camera is patchy too. While images are surprisingly punchy, they also tend to be very noisy thanks to lax noise reduction processing.
The Mlais MX Base is not a mainstream phone. It has rough edges, things that these days would not be tolerated in the best phones from the bigger names. We’re talking about a sub-Gorilla Glass top screen layer, and a touchscreen that’s not as reliable and responsive as that on the Motorola Moto G (2015).
However, in other respects it’s a surprise hit. Battery life is, as hoped, great, the display is both solid and highly customisable, and the processor has more power than some more expensive phones, let alone £89 (around US$135, AU$185) ones.
That said, the Mlais MX Base should only be seriously considered if you’re gagging for better battery life. While some of the camera hardware is capable, a lot of shots end up very noisy. The Moto G offers a far more consistent camera experience. And even the battery isn’t perfect, thanks to super-slow charging.
So yes, there are problems. But the Mlais MX Base gives you a glimpse of what phones might be like if flashy features weren’t all that the manufacturers cared about.
First reviewed: November 2015
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