There are few mobile devices that ever hold the promise of completely changing the mobile landscape. In 2007 it was the iPhone that heralded the shift towards the touchscreen, data and app-centric smartphones. In 2012 Samsung released the Galaxy S III, which was the first Android smartphone to become a legitimate contender to the iPhone’s crown.
Even though it’s these high-end smartphones that drive the massive profits for their respective manufacturers, the next big thing in mobile phones in South Africa may just have arrived in the form of a R500 smartphone from MTN called the Steppa.
If you thought that a R500 smartphone couldn’t possibly be have decent build quality and aesthetics, then you’ve obviously never seen the Steppa. While the obvious price constraints have limited the materials used in the Steppa’s construction to plastics, the phone manages to avoid coming off as cheap.
The black plastic front housing and back cover fit neatly into a silver plastic band which runs the circumference of the Steppa. The battery and back cover fit snugly together eliminating any creaks or bends and instilling a sense of confident rigidity that we did not expect.
Below the small 3.5-inch display is a set of four, touch-activated buttons for the home, search, menu and back functions. Starting on the top working clockwise finds a microUSB port, headphone jack, power and volume buttons with a 2 megapixel camera joining Qualcomm branding and the speaker at the back of the Steppa.
Although the design fails to elicit the same feeling of appreciation for industrial design wizardry as an iPhone does, it nevertheless manages to leave us in awe of how something that costs only R500 could feel this good to hold.
If the design of the Steppa failed to stir the soul then looking for that spark in the hardware specifications would be a mistake.
The 3.5-inch display has a paltry 320X480 resolution driven by a single core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM. Of the 1GB of on board storage only 350 MB is user accessible but a microSD card slot will accept up to 32GB of extra storage space.
3G, WiFi and Bluetooth are all available as is the most important feature for any low-cost handset in South Africa, the FM radio.
The Steppa runs a heavily customised version of the nearly four-year old Gingerbread 2.3.5 flavour of Google’s Android operating system.
The phone interface is split into is split into three different areas. The first is the default home panel where folders and quick launch shortcuts can be personalised and rearranged. To the left lies the widgets panel and to the right a list of all installed apps.
At the top of all three screens is a permanent banner advert which rotates between eight pre-installed adverts. It takes up around 20% of the total display making for a rather intrusive experience especially for a display as diminutive as the Steppa’s.
Getting rid of MTN’s heavy handed custom user interface and returning to Android proper proved a rather simple affair. Heading through to the Google Play store and downloading any third-party launcher like Go Launcher EX or ADW Launcher will allow you to bring up the default application selector by hitting the home button. You can then choose the standard Android launcher as your default and delete the newly installed launcher if you choose leaving you with the familiar Android setup.
At a R500 price point the display was never going to wow us but for what it is, it performs admirably. Swiping between home screen and other inputs are all handled efficiently with almost no lag present. Even multi-touch gestures like zooming in and out of photos was worry free.
With adaptive brightness the 3.5-inch display was able to counteract some of the effects of bright sunlight by powering up the display.
The 2 megapixel camera keeps up with its contemporaries in the budget smartphone bracket but fails to inspire much with the pictures it produces. However, considering the fact that it has the same camera resolution as the popular, and around three times more expensive, BlackBerry 8520 the Steppa is actually rather well equipped in the imaging area it would seem.
At 1 300mAh the battery is half of the size of the Samsung Galaxy S4. However with a much smaller display, no LTE or HSPA radios and far less features running in the background, the Steppa is able to outlast the flagship smartphone rather well.
Even with our constant attention while reviewing the Steppa and fiddling with settings and using it far more liberally than we would normally, the battery lasted us almost a full working day. Charging it back up was also rather snappy considering the battery’s small size.
If you’re looking for an Android smartphone at less than R1 000 then you have two prominent choices. The Vodafone Smart Mini from Vodacom comes with the added benefit of running a much newer version of Android in the form of Jelly Bean (4.1) but comes at a R300 price premium to the Steppa.
For the price, the Steppa is simply in a class of its own. Whether it has to do with the advertising banners subsidising the phone or not, if you only have R500 to spend on a smartphone then this is the one to buy.
Battery life: 4/5
Value for Money: 5/5
Display: 3.5-inch 320X480 resolution
Operating System: Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread
Processor: 1GHz single core Qualcomm Snapdragon
Storage: 1GB expandable by up to 32GB microSD
Camera: 2 megapixel rear
Networking: 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0
Other: FM Radio, GPS