Review: The Le Pro3 phone -- low price, great hardware, pushy UI

Review: The Le Pro3 phone -- low price, great hardware, pushy UI

If you've heard of LeEco at all, it's probably because it bought the budget TV maker Vizio earlier this year. LeEco is a Chinese media company that has been expanding into cloud computing, mobile hardware and even driverless cars. In many ways, it sounds like a baby Google or Amazon.

There's a lot to like about the company's new Le Pro3 phone, but the most impressive feature is the price tag. The Le Pro3 feels, and acts, like an $800 premium phone -- and costs $399 unlocked. (It is a GSM phone, which means it will work with most carriers except those that use CDMA, such as Verizon, Sprint or Boost Mobile.) Actually, it costs even less than that, because you can get an additional $100 off if you sign up for LeEco's LeRewards program (and the company's sales site -- LeMall.com -- makes it hard to avoid).

That's a terrific bargain. Like the similarly priced OnePlus 3 phone, LeEco can probably keep the price low because it doesn't have a big marketing budget and because it sells only through its own site. More than that, LeEco wants to get the phone into your hands because it wants you to use its cloud infrastructure.

LeEco makes no bones about its desire to bring its customers into its ecosystem. Executives held a big press conference and webcast in October to introduce the phone and a 7-foot-wide TV, also at a bargain price. They discussed at great length their plans to use their infrastructure to push content to both TV and phone buyers. The business model currently appears to be to make money by charging only a little for the razor while still giving away the blades -- so how they plan to profit by this is still unclear.

As razors go, this is a good one. The Le Pro3 is a rocking piece of technology. It's a plus-sized phone -- 6 x 2.9 in., the same size as a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and a little smaller than an iPhone 7 Plus. It uses a top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad core processor. The 5.5-in. IPS LCD screen shows 1080 x 1920 pixels.

When I ran the AnTuTu Benchmark, it came up with a number of 155190; in comparison, the LG V20 scored 143861, and the Google Pixel XL (which also uses the high-performance Snapdragon 821) hit 140747. The iPhone 7 Plus still rules the roost at 172644, but this phone is no slouch.

The body is polished metal, pleasing to the touch, with two antenna bands around the back. The battery is a huge 4070mAh unit; using Qualcomm's QuickCharge 3, it charges in two hours. When I ran the battery drain test, something interesting developed -- even with all power-saving settings off, the battery went from 100% to 20% in four hours, then shut down the test and plateaued there. I couldn't get a full battery drain. (This could have been a problem just with the review unit, but buyers should be aware, just in case.)

The power and volume switches are along the right edge, the SIM drawer is on the left, and there's a fingerprint sensor on the back, which was frequently a little slow to respond. Stereo speakers and the USB-C port are on the bottom. There is no headphone jack, but the phone comes with both a set of USB-C earbuds and a USB-C-to-3.5mm headphone jack dongle.

There's an NFC chip, but no wireless charging.

The Le Pro3 is equipped with a 12MP main camera on the back that can shoot up to 2160p at 30 fps, and an 8MP selfie cam. The main camera creates a small bump at the back of the phone near the top edge.

The camera's controls and capabilities are a step or two up from basic. It's got still, slow-mo, panorama and video modes. In still mode, there's simple but effective control over exposures, white balance and ISO; you can pick the focus point by tapping on the display or set a different exposure point by holding down that tap and dragging. It's simple, unobtrusive and effective. I've seen much worse.

In your interface

Many of the cloud functions of the Le Pro3 duplicate Google's in a way that's sometimes intrusive -- especially if you're accustomed to the way Android usually works. The base of the Le Pro3's user interface is Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), but it's been customized extensively to guide you to LeEco's content.

In classic Android, there are usually five icons along the bottom of the screen; the center icon, the App Tray, leads to a list of installed apps. In place of the App Tray icon, LeEco's interface has a button labelled "Live," which opens a landscape-oriented app of video clips and live broadcasts. Audio autostarts by default, and several thumbnails are in motion, several of those labelled premium content. In other words, in place of the list of installed applications, LeEco has placed material produced by itself or by content partners such as the Travel Channel and Food Network. There does not seem to be any way to set preferences for this content.

le pro3 live screen.jpg2

Instead of the App Tray, pressing the phone's middle button brings up a landscape-oriented app containing video clips and life broadcasts.

On the phone's chin, there are three capacitive buttons. In most Android phones (the ones that still have capacitive buttons), they are (from left to right) Back, Home and Recent. The Le Pro3 reverses that, and the Home button is repurposed with an LE logo, though it performs the same function as Home. Functionality of the Recent button, though, is very different from what you may expect.

Normally, when you swipe from the top of the phone, the expected Android behavior is to show notifications and to provide an entry to phone settings; a second swipe shows a deeper selection of settings. In the Le Pro3, there is only a single swipe, and that gesture only displays notifications. To see settings and controls, you need to press Recent.

Pressing Recent reveals a scrollable horizontal list of thumbnails of open apps across the bottom third of the screen; you can close apps by swiping them upwards, similar to the way iOS works. Above that is a slider for screen brightness and above that, buttons that toggle Wi-Fi, cellular data use, auto-rotate, airplane mode and mute. The top third of the screen has music and playback controls, and at the screen's very top are buttons that launch an infra-red remote control app, the camera, a calculator app, a flashlight and the full settings menu.

lepro3 screenshots

Left: Pressing the Recent capacitive button normally shows a list of recently-used apps; in the Le Pro3, you get a far different result. Right: Lacking an App Tray, the phone displays all its apps on the home screen.

As opposed to typical Android, swiping down again does not bring up further choices. Swiping left or right on the rows of button reveal more controls; you can adjust the order of the buttons -- and which ones are displayed -- in the Settings menu.

From the phone's main screen, swiping right brings you to another list of recommended YouTube videos. This list, at least, lets you filter to categories including Movies & Trailers, Music, News, Gaming and so on. And blessedly, nothing autostarts.

You can reset a lot of the function to Android standard by downloading the Google Now launcher and setting it as the default. That re-establishes the App Drawer and puts the familiar Google card interface in place when you swipe right from the Home screen. But you still get at quick settings only through the Recent button, so get used to it.

Duplicative and nosy apps

Le Pro3 comes with productivity apps that duplicate Google's: a browser, calendar, contact, e-mail and notes. The browser comes with a few dozen major sites pre-bookmarked. I can't think of any reason for these apps to exist (and you can't delete them)-- especially since the phone also comes with Google's core apps (Google, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Drive, Play Music, Play Movies & TV, Hangouts, Photos and Voice Search) pre-installed.

A Tools folder includes an audio and video player, an audio recorder, and an infrared universal remote control that kind of works but which you probably won't want to rely on. Of greater interest are the LeVidi and My LeEco apps. The former would like you to register -- your Google credentials are good enough -- so it can show you YouTube videos. The latter controls access to your LeEcoPass and LeCloud accounts to sync and back up your phone. (Yes, Google does the same thing natively with Android.) There's also a File Manager app where you can control what to back up. You're not particularly constrained by space; you supposedly get 5TB, but I did not test that limit. And finally, you can manage the LeEco account that you used to buy the phone with.

Many, if not most, of the LeEco apps ask for permissions far beyond what one would expect they need. Why would the music and browser apps, for instance, need to make and manage phone calls, or a video player need access to my calendar, or a remote control want access to my photos? Denying permission means the apps won't function.

If you weren't being nudged toward the company's online services, it would be easier to dismiss those excess requests as sloppy programming. As it is, it creates unease and mistrust. Do they really want all that access? Why?

Bottom line

I'm a native New Yorker, and my whiskers twitch when someone offers me a great price on something I'm used to paying a lot more for. As a result, I'm a bit suspicious of LeEco's intentions. If the true cost of a low price is having to stand at the receiving end of a content pipe, I'm not interested.

I don't much like the interface changes of LeEco's version of Android, and I don't see the point of the included apps. I've got the nagging feeling that if LeEco could have found a way to ship this phone without the Google app stack -- Android with minimal Google -- they'd have done it in a heartbeat.

Software intent aside, Le Pro3 is very good hardware, with a huge long-lasting battery and top-shelf components and construction. At $399, this is an immense bargain. You can steer clear of the native apps and put Google Now on it and get around most of the phone's annoying bits, and you'll be more or less fine.

Although, there's this: The first few times I rebooted the phone, the power-on splash screen carried a small message that read, "I'm not just a phone, I'm an integrated internet ecosystem." The message eventually stopped coming up, replaced by one that said, "Breaking boundaries for freedom." And when you power down the Le Pro3, there's this message: "I'm getting smarter everyday." [sic]

You should also know that LeEco's chairman reportedly sent a letter to employees earlier this week saying the company is financially overextended (singling out its work on autonomous cars) and that it would slow its rate of expansion. It's not clear what, if any, effect this will have on LeEco's phone plans.

So yes, I'd recommend the phone, if only for its price. But LeEco has yet to prove to me its value proposition, and that makes me uncomfortable.

IDG Insider

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