It takes a brave company to attempt to gain a serious foothold in the U.S. smartphone market given that the dominant players are so massive and entrenched but that apparently wasn't a concern of LeEco when the company launched its products at the end of 2016. And rather than just selling smartphones, LeEco’s market approach is to become a lifestyle brand and claims that:
LeEco seamlessly blends devices, content, applications and distribution in a first-of-its kind ecosystem. This innovative approach puts extraordinary experiences in the hands of millions of people all over the world.
Pretty ambitious stuff but perhaps not surprising as LeEco is notable for being aggressively innovative and their product lines include televisions (the company acquired U.S. television manufacturer Vizio last year), headphones, speakers, chargers, phone covers, and there’s the LeEco Super Bike (with built-in fingerprint sensor ID and a waterproof touchscreen Android display). But wait! There’s more! They’ve even showcased a high-tech, self-driving concept car.
Curious to check out their products I got in touch and the company recently sent me their top-end smartphone, the LeEco Le Pro 3 Ecophone, for review. The Le Pro 3 is an unlocked GSM Android smartphone running “Marshmallow” with:
- a 2.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC
- 4GB RAM and 64GB ROM
- a 5.5” LCD 1080p, 403ppi display
- a 4070 mAh battery
- 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC support
- GPS and GLONASS support
- a 16MP back camera with 4K video capture and an 8MP front camera
- dual LED flash
- stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos
- infrared transmitter for remote control
- one USB-C port (for charging and data)
The case is aluminum and color choices are gold or gray. The overall design is conventional (not that that’s a bad thing) and at 0.29” thick and weighing in a little on the heavy side at 6.24 ounces it’s not exactly pocket-friendly. But note that battery capacity … that’s good for around two days of normal use which has to be a key selling point for many buyers.
The phone’s performance running apps is excellent which perhaps, given that the device runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC, one of the most powerful SoCs available, isn’t surprising. On the other hand, the phone’s LCD display, which is 1080p full HD, is solid but not outstanding; color rendition and brightness are good but compared to OLED screens, LCD screens don’t deliver quite as much visual “oomph.”
The Le Pro 3 uses LeEco’s own Ecosystem User Interface or “eui” which does away with the app drawer you’ll find in most Android implementations. It’s in this user interface that LeEco pushes its bigger ecosystem agenda with the LeView panel available by a right swipe and the Live button at bottom center that takes you to the EcoPass service. Note that the Live button can’t be moved or deleted without installing a different launcher. If you prefer a more conventional Android user interface than eui you can, at least for now, download Google’s Now launcher (Google has announced it will be killing GNL off over the course of 2017).
Currently in beta, the EcoPass service is subscription-based and “grants you access to a variety of entertainment options (really just a big dollop of random pop culture choices), cloud services, eco warranty, and exclusive discounts on LeEco products and services.” The Le Pro 3 comes with a free, 3-month subscription both EcoPass and DirecTV Now.
The LeView panel provides a bunch links to video content that you can’t customize and that also seem to be randomly chosen. Without customizability I frankly don’t see the point. The good news is that you can pinch the LeView panel and then click the eye icon at the top of the screen and never have to see it again.
I found daytime photos using the 16MP back camera to be a little washed-out while low light images showed noise, and if you move the camera at all while taking a photo you’ll get blur. All in all, stills and videos are good enough if you’re not too fussy but they’re not great.
In addition to PIN access control, the Le Pro 3 has fingerprint recognition to unlock the phone and the reader is on the back of the phone, below the camera lens. In practice this actually works very well as your index finger is usually more or less over fingerprint reader when holding the phone. When you unlock the phone via the fingerprint reader, the default is to launch the camera app (this can be changed in Settings). This is a neat feature if you take lots of photos and another press on the fingerprint reader takes a picture. On the other hand, leave your finger on the fingerprint reader for a millisecond too long and the phone will interpret that as a second press and immediately take a picture so I now have many random shots of my desk.
You might have noticed that the feature list above doesn’t mention an audio jack and that’s because the Le Pro 3 doesn’t have one but comes with a USB-C to 3.5mm audio jack converter dongle as well as a pair of USB-C earbuds.
As noted at the beginning of this review, the Le Pro 3 is an unlocked GSM phone so it’s not compatible with CDMA networks which includes Verizon and Sprint. I tested the phone using a SIM from Mint SIM, a no-contract, T-Mobile mobile virtual network operator that provides full-featured voice, text, and data plans with very good pricing.
Mint offers unlimited voice and texting and start with 2GB data per month with a one month plan priced at $35. That prices reduces to $26 per month ($80 upfront) for a 3-month plan, $25 per month ($150 upfront) for a 6-month plan, and $21 per month ($250 upfront) for a 12-month plan. Mint offers similar plans for 5GB and 10GB of data. I was impressed with the slick and more-or-less painless process of registering my SIM and getting the Le Pro 3 up and running. If you’re looking for an alternative to the mainstream wireless carriers, Mint SIM is definitely worth checking out.
So, bottom line: This is a very good smartphone with a somewhat conventional design, outstanding battery life, an adequate camera, and decent software. I’m not so sure that the whole ecosystem strategy is going to get LeEco a lot of traction but that’s not a key issue in either buying or not buying the Le Pro 3. What is a key issue is price: $349 for the 64GB model and $249 for the 32 GB version (currently there’s also an instant rebate of $50). This is a solid, well-engineered product at a great price and an impressive, bold entry into the highly competitive U.S. smartphone market. The LeEco Le Pro 3 Ecophone gets a Gearhead rating of 4.75 out of 5.
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