How far are you willing to go to save money on a phone? That's a question I couldn't stop asking myself while reviewing the Blu R1 HD. This budget Android device can be had for as low as $49 unlocked, but that price is only available for Amazon Prime members who are willing to look at all kinds of Amazon offers and promotions every time they open the lock screen. It could be a minor annoyance or a big nuisance, based on your tolerance for ads. The 8-megapixel camera doesn't wow, but the R1 HD's sleek design and bright 5-inch display make this phone a viable option for kids and bargain hunters.
(Editors' Note: On July 31, 2017, Amazon halted sales of Blu phones like the R1 HD, amid allegations from a security firm that the devices contained spyware. Blu disputes the claim and expects to resolve the situation with Amazon. While sales of Blu phones resumed August 4, the Blu R1 HD remains off the list of Amazon Prime Exclusives as of that date.)
You won't confuse the Blu R1 HD with a fancy flagship phone, but it's fairly sleek for a budget device. Its slim silver edges do a decent impersonation of an iPhone, while its curved-rectangle shape brings the Galaxy Note series to mind (minus that phablet's massive size). I especially like the phone's soft-touch back, which makes it easy to grip.
Speaking of easy to grip, the R1 HD measures a compact 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches and is a comfortably lightweight 3.2 ounces. To put that size in perspective, the R1 is taller and just barely thicker than an iPhone 6s, but also notably lighter than Apple's 5.04-ounce phone.
The R1's back panel snaps off easily, allowing you to add up to 64GB of storage via its microSD slot. There are also dual SIM slots, which make the phone ideal for people who are traveling between countries.
The Prime Experience
Amazon Prime members can get the R1 for just $49, but that low price comes with a high cost: You have to deal with a lot of Amazon ads. This subsidized version of the phone displays a whole bunch of Amazon promotions on its lock screen, from ads urging you to enjoy Prime Music and Prime Video to specific deals on Amazon.com items. If your lock screen is filled with notifications, Amazon will sneak a smaller ad right beneath them. I don't know about you, but an Amazon deal on a cooling towel isn't exactly the first thing I want to see when I go to unlock my phone.
To be fair, a few pesky Amazon ads may be a small price to pay in exchange for a $50 unlocked phone. Some of the ads might even prove useful — I now remember that I still have to check out The Man in the High Castle TV show — and Amazon says it will tailor the deals to your browsing habits over time. But I just can't get over how truly low end the lock-screen ads make the R1 feel. Unless you're on an extra-tight budget, it may be worth it to spring for Blu's $99 unlocked version, which won't beg you to watch movies or buy household products every few minutes.
Software: Hope You Like Amazon
As you might expect, the R1 HD is absolutely stuffed with Amazon apps. Virtually any Amazon service you can think of is accessible out of the box, including Kindle, Amazon Shopping, Amazon Music, Amazon Video and Alexa, the latter of which you can use to control devices such as the Amazon Echo.
This isn't all bad; after logging in with my Amazon Prime account a single time, I was able to jump right into the Amazon Shopping app or stream some music or video without having to enter any more information. But if you're not a big Amazon junkie, you might be annoyed with the amount of bloat here.
Amazon extras aside, the R1 runs on a fairly straightforward version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow. That means cleaner, more colorful navigation icons than what Android offered previously, as well as a handy quick-settings menu that lets you toggle things like brightness, Bluetooth and Airplane Mode with a few quick swipes.
The R1 HD's 5-inch Gorilla Glass 3 display is decently crisp — or at least as crisp as you can get on a 1280 x 720 screen on a budget phone. App icons looked colorful and bright, and I had a mostly good time looking at the battle-weathered faces, orange Rebel jumpsuits and massive Imperial ships of the Star Wars: Rogue One trailer. However, while I noticed plenty of detail during character close-ups, I also found that the video's intense action scenes got a bit muddy.
The R1 registered a strong 452 nits of brightness on our light meter, outshining the ZTE Zmax 2 (380) and the average smartphone (441 nits), while trailing the Motorola Moto G4 (491).
Blu's phone also performed fairly well on our color tests. The handset reproduced 103.2 percent of the sRGB color gamut, with a Delta E accuracy rating of 2.84 (closer to 0 is better). That's about on par with the Moto G4 (110 percent, 2.33). The average smartphone produces more color (132 percent), but it's also less accurate at 4.3.
The Blu R1 HD's 8-megapixel rear camera takes respectable shots for a budget phone, but suffers from the same fuzzy picture quality as low-cost competitors such as the Motorola Moto E and ZTE Zmax 2. After photographing a bunch of food and foliage at a Manhattan farmers market, I came back with shots that were fairly color-accurate, but noticeably pixelated.
For example, the reds and greens of a big batch of apples looked true to life, but the image itself seemed a little grainy. Naturally, when I zoomed in to see more detail, the pixelation only became more apparent.
The R1 dulled out a lively party scene on our office rooftop, turning a pink sunset pale and making my co-workers look fuzzy and faded.
Unfortunately, Blu's phone didn't fare much better under low light. When I snapped a group of friends at a dimly lit press event, their faces all but blended into the dark blue backdrop. The phone's flash made them much easier to see, but didn't fix the pixelation that plagued just about all my photos.
If you're a selfie nut, there's not much to like about the R1 HD. My self-portraits were pale, fuzzy and off-color; not things that my Snapchat followers necessarily want to see. You can adjust your selfies after the fact with the built-in Face Beauty tool, which includes options for removing blemishes and softening and brightening your skin.
For what it's worth, the phone does have a selfie flash, which allowed me to take a decently viewable selfie in a dark theater. But it was still as unappealing as most of the other shots I took — and not just because of my unexcited face.
The videos I shot with the R1 were a similarly mixed bag. My video of a busy Manhattan street looked fine in terms of motion, but it was very grainy — to the point that store logos across the street were just barely visible.
Packing a quad-core, 1.3-GHz MediaTek 6735 ARM Cortex processor with 8GB of RAM, the Blu R1 HD is powerful enough for basic tasks, but not great for resource-intensive apps. It never slowed me down during my day-to-day activities, whether I was checking messages, jumping between apps or watching videos on YouTube or Amazon Video.
However, it's not ideal for the highest-end games in the Play Store. The gory, graphically intense action of Mortal Kombat X was playable but noticeably chuggy on the R1. The game also took quite a while to load, but, to be fair, I wasn't expecting stellar gaming performance from a $50 device.
The R1 scored a 1,579 on the Geekbench 3 overall performance test, which tops the Snapdragon 400-powered ZTE Zmax 2 (1,321), but trails our 3,133 smartphone average and the new, Snapdragon 617-powered Motorola Moto G4 (3,028).
Our graphics test painted a similar picture. The R1 netted a 5,260 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, besting the Zmax 2 (4,369) but trailing the G4 (9,617).
For a budget phone, the R1 HD certainly doesn't skimp on battery life. The device lasted a strong 8 hours and 36 minutes on our battery test (continuous web surfing over 4G), which is enough juice to get through most of a workday on a single charge. While the R1's endurance is right on par with our 8:35 average, it was topped by the ZTE Zmax 2 (9:25).
Value and Carriers
The Blu R1 HD starts at just $49 for Amazon Prime members, so long as you can stand the aforementioned Amazon ad assault. That model gets you 8GB of storage and 1GB of RAM; a $59 version offers 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, which seems like a no-brainer for the extra $10.
If you'd rather not succumb to your Amazon overlords, the ad-free version of the phone starts at $99 for the 8GB/1GB model, and costs $109 for the 16GB/2GB model.
There is one big caveat with the R1 HD: in terms of major carriers, it only works with AT&T and T-Mobile, according to Amazon's website. A Blu representative confirmed that the phone will also work with any MVNO carrier (Mobile Virtual Network Operator), including MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless. Motorola's new Moto G4 starts at a pricier $149 for Prime members ($199 without), but supports all major carriers, including the CDMA-based networks of Verizon and Sprint.
The Blu R1 HD ($49 with Amazon Prime, $99 without) is certainly affordable, but that doesn't necessarily make it a bargain. The phone's design, display and battery life are satisfactory for a low-cost device, but its weak camera and inability to run graphically demanding apps serve as a constant reminder that this is a budget option.
And then there are the Amazon ads, which, ironically, will only be seen by paying Prime members who buy the $49 version of the phone. The ads probably won't bother the young child or elderly relative you might be buying the phone for, but they may prove annoying for folks who depend on their phone at all hours of the day.
You can get the ad-free R1 HD for $100, but there are some strong alternatives in that range. The new Motorola Moto G4 starts at a pricier $149 for Prime members, but it also gets you a 13-MP camera and a bigger and sharper display. There's also the impressive Moto E, which can be found for around $100, with a big refresh potentially on the way. Overall, the Blu R1 HD is still a very good value if those other phones are out of your price range, but be prepared to deal with ads if you're looking to pay as little as possible.