- Pleasant-enough design
- Fair screen quality
- Low price
- Very poor performance
- Weak camera processing
- Thin-sounding speaker
- Patchy auto screen brightness
- Ultra-slow storage
- Not enough RAM
- 5-inch, 720p display
- 1.3Ghz MediaTek CPU
- 1GB RAM
- Dual-sim and microSD
- 8MP front and rear camera
- CyanogenOS 13
- Manufacturer: Wileyfox
- Review Price: £89.99/$134.985
WHAT IS THE WILEYFOX SPARK?
The Wileyfox Spark is a very low-cost phone, designed for the sort of buyer who’s willing to shop around online, rather than just heading to the high street and picking the cheapest Samsung device off the shelf.
Costing £89.99/$134.985, the 4G Wileyfox Spark is only available SIM-free, and it runs on CyanogenMod software rather than standard Android.
Unlike budget handsets from the bigger brands, which have no glaring omissions – the Motorola Moto G4, for example – there are a few compromises here. However, the Wileyfox Spark does offer value comparable with a network-branded Vodafone device, for example, without the ties or contracts.
Make no mistake, though: you’ll require some patience, since performance-wise the Spark is left wanting.
WILEYFOX SPARK – DESIGN
The Wileyfox Spark shares many design traits with other Wileyfox handsets – all of which have been affordable, but not quite as cheap as this device. The outer shell of the phone is mostly plastic, but an unusual textured rear sets it apart from the usual plastic battery covers.
In the past, I’ve compared the finish to the feel of soft cartridge paper, or a softer version of the Sandstone finish on the rear of the OnePlus 2. It doesn’t give the Wileyfox Spark an expensive feel, but is a cheap way to avoid it feeling like one of those bargain-basement £40/$60 phones.
Like other Wileyfox devices, the Spark also features an embossed fox head logo on the back. In my opinion, the Spark looks fairly good for its price. Front-on, the look is simple and the curves pleasant; from the back, it balances out a plain design with the characteristic Wileyfox flourishes.
The Spark also comes with a screen protector applied, but since it doesn’t extend to the border of the display glass, you may want to take it off.
As a bottom-rung phone, the Wileyfox Spark doesn’t include many extra features. There’s no NFC or fingerprint scanner; it features Dragontrail display glass rather than Gorilla Glass; and there’s only 8GB of storage. Of this 8GB, only 2.2GB is actually available, so those with even a remote interest in playing games or using the phone to play music or video will need to invest in a microSD card.
The memory card slot sits beneath the battery cover and, as is the case with other Wileyfox devices, there are two SIM slots instead of the usual one. They’re of the micro-SIM variety, however, rather than the nano-SIM slots you’ll find in more expensive phones.
WILEYFOX SPARK – SCREEN
Wileyfox appears, from a distance at least, to share design values with OnePlus and the Motorola Moto G. You appear to be getting solid specs for the cash.
The Spark features a 5-inch 720p resolution screen, a similar display to that used in the second- and third-generation Motorola Moto G phones.
This kind of screen has become a baseline standard for many phone-makers, and with good reason. 5-inch LCD screens come cheap, but a 720p one is sharp enough to make games fun, and it’s big enough to make typing comfortable.
Not all 5-inch screens are made equal, though, and the Spark’s limited pixel density is obvious here. It isn’t only pixellation that you can see; even the pixel structure is more clearly visible than on other, similar displays.
The Spark also seems to suffer from slightly undersaturated colour – although, to my eyes at least, this is much less jarring than a significantly oversaturated screen.
Thanks to the CyanogenMod software, you can alter the colour composition using RGB sliders, although the extreme amount of control on offer means you’d need to spend a good while tweaking. I think the Spark display looks fine as it is.
There are signs that Wileyfox hasn’t put in all the finishing touches, though. While the phone has an auto brightness setting that alters the backlight intensity to suit any lighting, the Spark screen tends to end up way too bright indoors. This is even after playing with the brightness slider.
If you’re not prepared to wait for updates to fix minor quibbles such as this – or, potentially, are prepared to put up with them for good – then the Spark isn’t the handset for you.
WILEYFOX SPARK – SOFTWARE
The Wileyfox Spark isn’t a typical budget phone in all respects, but its software does provide the opportunity to customise many of the elements that would usually be rigid in an Android device. This is because it has the CyanogenMod UI layered on top of Android Marshmallow.
CyanogenMod began life as an indie dev scene piece of software, but it’s in the big leagues now. Microsoft has invested in it heavily and Google even reportedly tried to buy it back in 2014.
It’s essentially a vision of Android as it might be if Google had continued with an open system and customisable rather than clean and pretty, as it largely is in Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
The Wileyfox Spark’s software has a nerdier, more interface-heavy look than the Motorola Moto G4, for example, but for Android enthusiasts in particular there’s plenty to like.
For example, the apps menu design is very clever. Like Marshmallow’s apps area, it’s arranged vertically but in alphabetic sections, which makes finding apps an absolute doddle.
However, this means it doesn’t look quite as simple as the standard “white page” apps menu – but that it doesn’t look cluttered either is testament to the sound design of CyanogenMod. You can even choose a classic “page”-based apps menu if you wish.
Other interface tweaks include the ability to alter how many apps fit on a homescreen (up to an absolutely packed 7×7 grid), the size of fonts, and whether or not app icons are labelled with text.
Like several other third-party custom UIs, CyanogenMod also has themes that let you reskin the Wileyfox Spark entirely with only a few taps. Some are free, others paid-for, but there’s a decent selection.
Another positive of the Wileyfox Spark software is that it’s virtually bloat-free. There are no superfluous apps, no tie-ins with Amazon, Gameloft or other app-makers to earn Wileyfox a few extra pennies. In this regard, it’s oddly equivalent to a Nexus device.
WILEYFOX SPARK – PERFORMANCE
The software is good, particularly if you are up for some manual customisation. However, performance is far less promising.
Issues arise with day-to-day performance, with much of this a result of the meagre 1GB of RAM as opposed to any deficiencies with the MediaTek MT6735 processor. Apps are relatively slow to load: I’ve experienced multiple instances of apps crashing, and there’s an obvious slowdown when it comes to multi-tasking on the Wileyfox Spark.
The most common instance is when a download is taking place in the background; a simple task but one that makes the Spark flat-out frustrating to use. Slow storage is partly to blame here, too.
The Spark’s 8GB ROM performance is utterly dismal, with write speeds of 4MB/sec and reads of 17MB/sec. For a bit of context, the Moto G4 storage writes at 47MB/s and reads at 158MB/s. Wileyfox has clearly skimped hugely with its storage hardware, and that’s a shame.
The hardware problems make Asphalt 8 frustrating to play, but not for the reasons you might expect.
During a race, the Spark shows some clear frame rate hitches at “high” graphics settings, but it’s still fun and looks good. However, the menus – where presumably more data is being juggled – are horribly slow.
Almost all of the Wileyfox Spark’s performance problems can be attributed to the dismally slow onboard storage and the small amount of RAM. Ironic when Wileyfox actually acknowledged the importance of having at least 2GB of RAM in its £129/$193.5 Swift phone.
By comparison the phone’s CPU is rather capable, at least on paper. The MediaTek MT6735 is a quad-core CPU with 1.3GHz Cortex-A53 cores, making it very similar to the Snapdragon 410 seen in the third-gen Moto G.
In Geekbench 3 it scored 1,885 points, which is significantly better than the expected result from a Snapdragon 410 (around the 1,600 mark). It’s just a pity that the reality is worse.
The sluggish performance is something that should make you think twice about forking out for this phone – it would be enough to make me want to spend a little more. Right now, the third-gen Moto G sells for around £120, the Wileyfox Swift around £125/$187.5. The LG K8 and Samsung Galaxy J5 are also worth considering.
Can’t go above £100/$150? I find the £75/$112.5 Vodafone Smart Prime 7’s performance issues less obvious. There’s also a higher-end version of the Spark – the “Spark Plus” – at £114.99/$172.485, which includes more storage (likely also much faster) and more RAM; this should prove enough to resolve all the Spark’s performance niggles.
WILEYFOX SPARK – CAMERA
The Wileyfox Spark is an entry-level phone, and as such, the camera is unlikely to be amazing. There’s an 8-megapixel sensor on the back and an unexpectedly high-res 8-megapixel camera on the front.
There are positives and negatives when it comes to the camera here, but while the Wileyfox Spark’s camera isn’t capable of producing shots anywhere near as good as those of the third-gen Moto G or Moto G4, it is fun to use.
What this camera nails better than most phones at the price is speed. There’s almost zero shutter lag even in lesser conditions, and this is one of the most important factors in making a phone camera enjoyable to shoot with.
Although not great, low-light performance is surprisingly adept for a camera with fairly low ambitions. The sensor is reportedly an OmniVision OV8865, a 1/3.2-inch sensor whose size results in sensor pixels of a very respectable 1.4 microns.
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail maintained in lower lighting, given the so-so starting point that an entry-level sensor offers.
There are plenty of complaints too, however, with poor processing largely to blame. Photos taken outdoors tend to end up with a fairly obvious blue cast that makes your pics look glum and depressing. To compound that, metering tends towards the conservative, resulting in frequent dark-looking images.
Even daylight shots have a fine grain to them. The results aren’t ugly, but they do highlight how little the Spark actually uses processing to improve the quality of its images.
On first taking some shots off the phone, I was pretty disappointed. However, if you’re willing to tweak images yourself then it is possible to end up with some usable shots.
Not everything can be edited out, though. On occasion, the Wileyfox Spark struggles with green tones – convincing reds are usually the Achilles heel of budget handsets – and there’s a lack of contrast in high light contrast scenes.
Here are some shots I took with the camera:
The front camera lags behind the slightly more expensive competition much less obviously. While not quite as good as the rear camera in technical terms, the 8-megapixel 1/4-inch sensor produces detailed, if not always flattering, selfies. Unlike some other phones, there’s no easy-access Beauty mode to smooth out your crinkles.
The front camera has less of an issue with colour skew, basing its colour temperature and exposure solely on the faces in the scene. It’s capable of producing some of the best selfies around at the price.
One snag that affects both cameras is the app. It’s the standard CyanogenMod one – which, frankly, uses an annoying mode selection mechanic where you have to flick up and down the screen to switch modes. I find it slow, clunky, and too likely to lead to you changing modes accidentally.
WILEYFOX SPARK – SOUND QUALITY
The Spark also has a pretty dismal speaker – a single driver that sits on the back and fires out of a grille just under the Wileyfox logo. It’s a real “bee in a jam jar” speaker, sounding thin, tinny and not very loud.
WILEYFOX SPARK – BATTERY LIFE
I was expecting poor performance from the 2,200mAh battery, but it is actually passable. You can get a full day’s use between charges without using any restrictive battery-saving modes.
However, half an hour of Asphalt 8 took 18% off the battery, which suggests you’d be lucky to get three hours of gaming from the phone.
SHOULD YOU BUY THE WILEYFOX SPARK?
The Wileyfox Spark reaffirms that there’s much more to acceptable modern-day phone performance than what a decent CPU can provide. A lack of RAM and very slow internal storage make this phone crawl along when it tries to do anything remotely complicated.
These issues alone turn the Spark from a great buy into a phone that requires patience, a phone that at times you’ll at best tolerate.
It’s a shame, because in many other areas the Wileyfox Spark is decent for the price. Until the more capable Spark Plus arrives, though, we’d recommend checking out the Wileyfox Swift or looking for a good deal on a Moto G – even if it isn’t a current-gen one. Spending the extra £30 is worth it.
The Spark has plenty of promise, but it fizzles out due to poor performance.