LeEco Le S3 Review: Stylish & Speedy, But Lacks Battery Life

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LeEco hopes to make a splash in the U.S. with a portfolio of phones that are big on value and low on price. And while its budget Le S3 initially dazzles with a sleek, sophisticated design, big 5.5-inch full-HD screen and sub-$200 price tag (after a $50 rebate through LeEco’s online store), that impression fades once you spend some time with the device. A clunky UI, lack of a headphone jack and maddeningly short battery life make it hard to embrace the Le S3.

Design: A Good-Looking Phone with a Missing Jack

While a bit boxy, the Le S3's mostly glass-and-metal exterior (available in gray, gold and rose gold) easily belies its budget price. The Le S3's front is perfectly symmetrical, and also a bit humble, as it's devoid of any logos that might take away from its minimalist design. And if you're like me, you'll appreciate how LeEco hid three touch capacitive buttons on the Le S3's bottom bezel, which light up only when you need them or hit the lock button on the phone’s side.

Around back, the Le S3 features a handy fingerprint reader and a mostly metal back, although a closer look reveals plastic caps on top and bottom. That said, LeEco does a better job disguising this than what Huawei managed on the Honor 6X, mostly due to a better job color matching the silver paint on the metal and plastic pieces.

There's one potential deal-breaker to the Le S3’s design: It’s missing a headphone jack. Instead, you’re supposed to plug an included set of USB-C headphones into the phone’s USB Type-C port, or use your own headphones with an included dongle.

At 5.95 x 2.92 x 0.3inches and weighing 5.4 ounces, the Le S3 is almost exactly the same size as the Honor 6X. But because of LeEco phone’s more boxy, rectangular shape, it doesn't feel quite as thin as the Huawei when you actually hold it.

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Display: Bright on a Budget

Getting a good display on a budget phone used to be an exercise in futility, but that's not the case anymore. The Le S3's 5.5-inch screen is bright, packs a full-HD resolution and is even more colorful than most of its competitors. Colors pop, especially yellows and blues. Although when I watched a trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I noticed that Baby Groot's comical big brown eyes and earthy bark didn't look quite as rich as they did on  more expensive phones.

Registering a brightness of 440 nits, the Le S3 practically matched the Honor 6X's 444-nit screen and edged out the smartphone average of 431 nits. However, the Moto G4 Plus' display was even brighter, as it hit 530 nits during our tests.

The Le S3's color range was also quite good, especially for a phone using an LCD screen. The Le S3 covered 137 percent of the sRGB color space versus 114 percent for the Honor 6X and 108 percent for the Moto G4 Plus. The only way to get a significantly more colorful screen would be to upgrade to a more expensive phone with an OLED display, like the $300 ZTE Axon 7 Mini, which covers 177 percent of the sRGB spectrum.

The Le S3's 5.5-inch screen is bright, packs a full HD resolution and is even more colorful than most of its competitors.

Finally, with a Delta-E rating of 4.99, the Le S3's color accuracy was just OK. (Numbers closer to zero are better.) The average smartphone fares slightly better, with a rating of 4.1, while the Honor 6X and the Moto G4 Plus have the Le S3 solidly beat, with ratings of 2.33 and 3.28, respectively.

Performance: Solid at Most Tasks, Especially Gaming

For everyday tasks or the occasional mobile game, the Le S3 offers pretty potent performance. For $200, you get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage. Unlike a number of rival phones, though, you don't get expandable storage via a microSD card slot.

During typical use, the Le S3 felt pretty snappy, especially when it came to web browsing. The Le S3 scored 45.56 on the JetStream 1.1 Javascript test. That's almost twice as high as the Honor 6X's score of 27.01 and  better than the smartphone average of 37.16.

However, on Geekbench 4, which measures overall system performance, the Le S3's score of 2,740 fell behind the Honor 6X's mark of 3,366 and the 3,303 average for smartphones. But when it came to gaming, the Le S3's Adreno 510 GPU showed it still has an advantage over Huawei's competing Kirin 655 chipset, scoring 16,954 on 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test, versus 11,897 for the Honor 6x. This was enough to give the Le S3 ever-so-slightly smoother gameplay when I played the new Star Wars Force Arena game, especially when it rendered demanding effects like an X-wing strafing run.

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Camera: Struggles to Keep Up

While the Le S3 doesn't feature a fancy dual-camera setup like the similarly priced Honor 6X, you do you get a higher-res 16-megapixel shooter in back (versus 12-MP for the Honor) and a 8-MP front camera. The Le S3's pics are generally sharp and colorful, although when its photos are compared side-by-side with photos from other phones, LeEco’s phone revealed a bit of a struggle with proper exposure and white balance.

In a photo taken at the Oculus transportation hub in the World Trade Center, you can see that the Le S3's photo is darker and features a cooler, slightly bluish  cast, compared with a photo take by the Honor 6X.

However, in a midafternoon photo session, the Le S3 impressed by properly exposing for objects in the center, and not the light coming in  from the window. This resulted in a brighter, less grainy shot than what the Honor 6X captured.

Unfortunately, at night, the Le S3's troubles returned, when it produced a photo that was noticeably more blotchy than the 6X's shot. The colors were less saturated and there was a yellow tint across the scene.

It was a similar story for selfies, too. Between the Le S3 and the Honor 6X, both phones' photos looked equally sharp, though the Honor 6X's pic is more pleasing, thanks to a bright exposure.

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Software: Not a Good Android Experience

One of the most infuriating things about the LeS3 is LeEco's EUI skin for Android. Not only is it based on an outdated version of Android (Marshmallow 6.0 instead of the current Nougat 7.0), it also takes a number of traditional Android conventions and throws them out the window. There's no app drawer like you get on most Android phones, and instead of putting quick settings in the notifications tray, you need to hit the recent apps button to toggle things like airplane mode and screen rotation on and off.

Swiping left from the home screen brings up LeEco's LeView, which is the company’s version of a Flipboard-style news feed. On the bottom, you get a shortcut to LeEco's Live streaming media service front and center in the phone's quick-launch bar, though no matter what you do, you can't remove it. The problem is that neither of these features feel super-well-fleshed-out, especially the Live app, which features a catalog of streaming videos that's light on content and not especially interesting.

You still get your basic tile-based home screen, but regardless, if you are coming from Android or iOS, there's going to be a higher period of adjustment with the LeS3 than with most other phones.

Battery Life: Far Below Average

If the Le S3 could offer better-than-average battery life, you could overlook some of its rough spots. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In our battery test — continuous surfing over AT&T’s LTE network-- the Le S3 lasted 7 hours and 6 minutes. That’s more than 2 hours less than the average smartphone (9:20) and the Moto G4 Plus (9:16). It’s almost 3 hours less than the time turned in by the Honor 6X (9:56).

At least when you want to recharge the phone, the Le S3 supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, which is one of the fastest standards for putting power back in a phone.

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Bottom Line

Like the Le Pro 3, LeEco’s other recent U.S. arrival, the Le S3 is a bit of a disappointment because this budget phone could have been so much better. It has a lot of fantastic elements, including an unexpectedly good screen, a forward-thinking USB-C port and performance that's better than a $200 price tag would suggest. And, despite being a bit boxy, the Le S3 looks great, too. It even features capacitive touch buttons for people who hate cluttering up their display with on-screen navigation icons.

But LeEco's interface is outdated, annoying to use and doesn't come with all the new features you'd get on a device running Android 7. You also don't get a headphone jack or a microSD slot. Most important, the phone’s 7-hour battery life is pretty much unacceptable these days. Stack up the Le S3 against phones in its price range, and the main thing LeEco’s phone has going for it is its price, thanks to instant online rebates. But with Huawei having regular flash sales that bring down the Honor 6X's price, the Le S3 loses its one edge over the competition.

Photo credit: Samuel Rutherford/Tom's Guide

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).