If it looks like a premium smartphone, acts like a premium smartphone but is the same price as a 'budget' smartphone, is it still a premium smartphone? Not really, no.
But that doesn't mean it's all bad news for the Agora 8 Plus.
What Is It?
The Agora 8 Plus is the latest flagship smartphone from Australian online retail powerhouse Kogan. It is positioned as an affordable alternative to smartphones on the high-end of the scale – your Apples and Samsungs – retailing for only $239. Yet it touts the internal specifications that, at least partly, take on the big manufacturers latest and greatest.
Outwardly, it’s a simple black phone with large bezels at its top and bottom, resembling the Huawei Y series. Yes, it still contains a 3.5mm headphone jack, positioned along the top edge of the phone and a USB-C port sits centrally along the bottom edge. The volume controls are, frustratingly, positioned above the power button, along the right hand edge of the phone and the sim/microSD card slot sits along the left edge.
The specifications list reads like the variety of mid-range phones that have popped up in the last year or so: 5.5-inch, 1080p multi-touch IPS screen, 32GB of storage, 4GB of RAM. 13MP rear and 8MP front-facing cameras. Fingerprint scanner. All operating on a 1.5GHz Octa-Core processor and Android 7.0.
What’s It Good At?
It’s definitely hard to look at a $239 smartphone and think it’ll be able to compete with the major brands but the Agora 8 Plus abated my scepticism somewhat by just doing what it says it will do on the box. Using a smartphone is all about interaction, it’s about making the experience as convenient and as smooth as possible and the Agora 8 works with the tools bestowed upon it.
It’s not overly quick – it’s less Fast and Furious and more Disney Pixar’s Cars, but it isn’t weighed down with bloatware (Kogan app aside) or any extraneous software that hogs all of the Octa-core’s processing power. Thus, standard web browsing, video playback and photo capturing all run with little slowdown. It doesn't fair quite so well when you're flicking between them, but it's not unbearably slow, either.
On the list of extra features it’s nice to have at this price range? Dual sim support and the fingerprint scanner.
The dual sim support is certainly a welcome feature with the Agora range – considering the top tier brands still haven’t fully embraced it. From personal experience, it’s great knowing I can operate off two distinct numbers if I so choose, but speaking from retail experience, one of the big selling points for travellers is to be able to grab a cheap dual sim phone that looks and feels like a high end smartphone. The Agora 8 Plus sits nicely in that pocket.
The location of the fingerprint scanner is something that I took time to adapt to but grew to appreciate over the five days I had the phone. I've never really took notice of where my hands fall when I pick up my phone, yet as soon as I moved back from the Agora to my S7, I felt like there was a weird, fingerprint-scanner-shaped hole in my life. It helps that the scanner rarely chucked a hissy fit and forced me to put in a PIN instead.
What’s It Not Good At?
That dual sim slot, which doubles as a microSD card slot, is positioned on the left-hand side of the phone and this still frustrates me. Yes, I consider it a minor blemish, but with the volume controls on the right hand side of the phone, above the power button, I was always locking my screen when I simply wanted to turn down a YouTube video late at night. It just feels unnatural.
The charge time was where the Agora 8 Plus really fell down for me. It’s 2950mAh battery is big enough – size-wise it compares to some of Apple and Samsung’s best – but it took too long to charge. I drained the battery to zero throughout the course of my first day with the phone and then began charging at around 6:30 at night. By 8:30 it had reached only 80%. When fully charged, the phone pulled through a whole day of photo taking and light video recording duties with battery to spare, but waiting for that charge was dismal.
Let’s talk about the camera. The Agora 8 Plus touts a 13MP rear camera and a 8MP front-facing camera. When I took it for a spin over the weekend against a Galaxy S7, the difference between ‘budget’ and ‘premium’ became more and more apparent.
The details on the Persian fairy-floss are lost in the Agora 8 Plus (left) whereas the Galaxy S7 (right) captures more 'true colours' without leaving them washed out
You can see when you compare the delicious Belgian Waffles above, how the Agora’s camera can’t quite replicate the rich, vibrant colours of a high-end smartphone camera (in this case, my Samsung Galaxy S7). Especially noticeable is the colour of the wooden table and the difference in clarity between the pink fairy-floss clouds draped over the top of the plate. The way the light bounces off individual strands of the Persian pariya isn’t discernible from the Agora’s rear camera.
Vibrant colours get washed out on the Agora 8 Plus (left) compared to the Galaxy S7 (right)
Of course, that comparison is slightly lopsided – you can still find the S7 retailing for more than $600 so it’s not quite a fair fight. However, if you’re routinely using your phone to capture images, you’ll have to take that consideration on board. The 8 Plus’ rear camera is capable of good quality images, but lacks the contrast, shadow and detail to really compete with the best of them.
I won’t subject you to the differences in the front-facing camera, but I found that it performed okay, considering. It doesn’t quite have the same level of processing power that high-end smartphones do, so it couldn’t turn my potato-esque facial features into a work of art, but there were some ‘instagram-worthy’ shots it pulled off. However, the colours do remain a little washed out, which certainly doesn't help when you're complexion is a ghostly white, like mine is.
Should You Buy It?
Owning a smartphone is about convenience. It’s about being able to access whatever you want in the world by simply pulling a chunk of metal out of your pocket. For those that aren’t concerned about how quickly they can do that, brand names or having the latest and greatest tech on them at all times, the Agora 8 Plus will give you what you need.
It does have to contend with some very competent rivals – the similarly-designed Huawei Y7, the Moto G5 Plus and Oppo A57 come to mind - and if you're looking for something a little more pricey but another step up then you should look at the excellent OnePlus 5, though if photos are your thing, you're better off spending big (or just buying a camera separately, to be honest).
Still, the Agora 8 Plus certainly packs as much power as it can behind that 5.5-inch screen and it's cheap, but not nasty. It's just held back by some nagging issues that really separate it from being the Must Buy budget smartphone.