OS: Android 9 Pie
Display: 6-inch LCD (1440x720)
CPU: MediaTek Helio P22
RAM: 3GB, 4GB
Storage: 32GB, 64GB; expandable
Rear camera: 13MP
Front camera: 5MP
Battery: 3,850 mAh
Size: 6.42 x 3.06 x 0.37 inches
Weight: 5.64 ounces
It’s easy to forget how far cheap phones have come in the last several years. Today, we’re fortunate enough to have budget handsets with multi-camera modules, full-screen designs, in-display fingerprint sensors, respectable performance and long battery life available for a lot less than $300.
However, if you need a painful reminder of how good we have it, I wholeheartedly recommend the $199 Hot Pepper Ghost. Because I reckon that once you’ve spent a few minutes with this handset, you’ll never take the best cheap phones for granted ever again.
The puzzingly-named Ghost feels like a relic from 2017 at the absolute latest, between its boxy, thick design, enormous bezels, chintzy plastics, weak chipset, disappointing camera and low-resolution display. There’s nothing glamorous or desirable about it. And even though the Ghost is indeed inexpensive, it’s hard to argue why anyone should buy one when much more attractive options exist for the same amount of scratch.
Hot Pepper Ghost review: Price and availability
The Hot Pepper Ghost costs $199 unlocked from Hot Pepper Mobile’s website, or $179 through the Visible wireless service. Interestingly, the Visible model comes with 4GB to the pricier version’s 3GB, and double the storage — 64GB, compared to 32GB in the unlocked variant. Both configurations pack microSD slots for up to 2TB of expandable storage. For this review, we’re using the 4GB/64GB Visible-exclusive iteration.
Hot Pepper Ghost review: What we like
Long battery life: The Hot Pepper Ghost’s only legitimate advantage is how long it lasts on a charge. The phone’s 3,850-mAh battery isn’t the largest in the world, but it’s more than enough juice for a low-power chipset like the Helio P22. And so, the Ghost will last you a while between plugging in.
In Tom’s Guide’s custom battery test, where phones endlessly load webpages over an LTE connection while set to 150 nits of screen brightness, the Ghost lasted an average of 12 hours and 47 minutes across two tests. That’s exactly 30 minutes longer than the Moto G Fast, and 48 minutes longer than the Google Pixel 3a.
Just don’t expect the Hot Pepper Ghost to charge quickly. The Ghost comes with a measly 5-watt charger, meaning getting from empty to 100% will take an eternity. Case in point: in a half hour, the phone only reached 29% in our testing while connected to the stock adapter.
Support for all carriers: It’s rare to find a cheap unlocked phone equipped to run on both GSM-based networks, like AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as CDMA ones, like Verizon and Sprint. The Hot Pepper Ghost is one of them, meaning you can take this device to virtually any carrier, from those major service providers to a discount alternative like Metro by T-Mobile, Cricket or Mint Mobile. And as we noted, the phone is available through Visible, which uses the network of parent company Verizon.
Hot Pepper Ghost review: What we don’t like
What design? It’s hard to talk about the design of the Hot Pepper Ghost, because the phone really doesn’t have any. This is about the most generic-looking smartphone I’ve laid eyes on in recent years, as a consequence of its excessive bezels and glossy navy plastic cladding all around.
Sure, handsets this cheap rarely look distinctive, but at least HMD Global’s Nokia devices are able to surprise with unique textures and bold colors. The Hot Pepper Ghost could have come from any one of a number of budget phone makers — from Alcatel to ZTE — and three or four years ago, and it would’ve looked right at home.
I’ll hand it to Hot Pepper Mobile for fitting the Ghost with a headphone jack and capacitive fingerprint sensor on the back, as well as a USB Type-C port for charging. Given how cheap this phone feels (and, well, is), I would’ve expected a Micro USB port. Thus, the inclusion of USB-C is at least one positive giveaway that this phone actually released in this decade.
The Ghost also feels like a big phone. That’s because even though the screen technically measures just 6 inches from corner to corner, it’s got an 18:9 aspect ratio, plus there are those gigantic bezels to consider. As a result, you’re not really getting a whole lot of screen real estate despite the device’s footprint.
Anemic performance: Armed with MediaTek’s Helio P22 chipset and either 3GB or 4GB of RAM depending on where you buy the phone, the Hot Pepper Ghost is not a swift or even serviceably fast phone. Swiping through home screen pages to the Google feed is often marked with a palpable delay, and scrolling up and down webpages feels stilted as the device is forced to reload portions of websites multiple times to make up for what it can’t store in memory.
The benchmarks tell you precisely how little the Ghost is working with. In the system-wide Geekbench 5 performance test, Hot Pepper’s device notched a multicore score of 834 points — nearly 600 points fewer than the $200 Moto G Fast. And the less said about the Ghost’s graphics performance, the better: it achieved just 461 in 3DMark’s Sling Shot Extreme OpenGL test, to the Moto G Fast’s 1,119. That’s nearly a third as quick, and remember — if you’re buying unlocked, these two phones cost exactly the same.
Dreary display: The Hot Pepper Ghost’s 6-inch, 1440x720 resolution LCD panel isn’t sharp, nor colorful, nor bright. Stretching 720p content over a screen this large inevitably leads to blurry videos, apps and games, and the panel’s poor viewing angles result in slight color casts and a reduction in luminosity as you shift the phone around in your hand.
Watching the trailer for No Time To Die on the Ghost, there was nothing I could do to overcome the screen’s washed out colors and muddy details marred by artifacts, even on the highest resolution option. While the phone’s Delta-E color accuracy score was respectable, at 0.27 (numbers closer to zero are more accurate), it topped out at a pitiful 87.6% of the sRGB color space, indicating muted hues.
The Ghost’s display couldn’t even crack 400 nits of full-screen brightness in our testing, reaching its limit at 395 nits under our light meter — making on-screen content hard to read on a sunny day.
Lackluster camera: You never expect phenomenal photography from a $200 smartphone, and yet, even here, the Hot Pepper Ghost falls short.
At least the spec sheet tempers your expectations. The Ghost has a 13-megapixel lens on the back — and that’s it. No ultrawide shooter or macro optic on this puppy; one camera is all you’re getting. On the front, there’s a 5-MP camera for selfies for your troubles.
Now, I’m hardly a proponent of elaborate multi-lens arrays, especially on cheap phones. But in the Ghost’s case, this isn’t emblematic of a focus on quality over quantity. Hot Pepper Mobile evidently didn’t spend much time refining its imaging hardware, which becomes painfully obvious when you start snapping away. (It’s also obvious in the camera software, as you’re asked “Are you sure to delete it?” every time you want to get rid of a picture.)
Take, for example, these shots of my backyard, captured with the Ghost and Moto G Fast. It’s true that the Motorola handset’s result is a bit bland and washed out, though at least it looks as if it was captured in nature, on this planet. The Ghost ratcheted the saturation and contrast up to absurd heights, producing an image that seems unintentionally gritty and dramatic — hilariously at odds with the fact that, again, this is a backyard we’re looking at, not Chernobyl.
The obnoxiously punchy color is an issue that repeatedly popped up in testing the Ghost. Behold the way the phone’s camera boosts the red in the flower in the foreground to such a degree that you lose the ability to make out the texture of the petals. The leaves below are also shrouded in darkness as a result.
I pulled in even closer with the Ghost’s lens on another orange flower, where, this time, the device inexplicably decided the color temperature needed to slant overly cool. The Nokia C2 Tava — a device which costs $109 from Cricket — produced a much more balanced result, with everything properly in focus and less eye-searing contrast. The Ghost’s rendition would have you believe I snapped these photos at 8 p.m., but I promise you, it was noon.
Outdated software: Much like the Hot Pepper Ghost’s exterior, the software that powers this device is woefully outdated. The Ghost launches with Android 9 Pie onboard, and though it’s an admittedly light installation with zero bloat or unnecessary software, the OS is already a year behind at the device’s launch. And that doesn’t instill confidence that Hot Pepper will supply this device with new software, features or security patches in a timely manner.
Now, you might think that’s an unfair ask given how cheap the Ghost is, but remember: all of HMD Global’s Nokia-branded handsets feature Android One software for near-seamless updates and all of Google’s latest and greatest features optimized for low-power handsets. Android One phones are guaranteed to receive two years of software upgrades. The Ghost is slated to get at least one, but it’ll be little consolation if owners get Android 10 only after the rest of the Android world has moved onto Android 11.
Hot Pepper Ghost review: Verdict
No $200 smartphone is going to be perfect, but even with that cynical bit of advice fresh in your mind, the Hot Pepper Ghost is nowhere near good enough. For what you’d spend here, the Moto G Fast is several orders of magnitude better in just about every respect, and it also costs $199 unlocked. The Nokia 4.2 isn’t an excellent cheap phone, but it’s still much better than the Ghost, and it starts at just $189.
If you can part with another $50, the Moto G Power remains our bona fide budget phone recommendation, as it pairs the Moto G Fast’s solid performance with the best battery life we’ve ever observed from any phone, at any price.
No matter how little you have to spend on a smartphone, everyone deserves better than the Hot Pepper Ghost. Three or four years ago, you would have had to accept that and buy it anyway. Today, there’s no need to settle.