Android makes all smartphones the same.
Update : notes in parenthesis were added after more than one month of usage
The need to be online while on a trip prompted the search for a smartphone (SM) . I was using the Samsung champ duos which had served me well for more than a year - the only reason to upgrade was it's inability to do everything that a SM or tablet could, like book a ticket on irctc or do online banking.
The thoughts when deciding whether to get a tablet or a phone are listed at phoneortablet.blogspot.com.
What really tilted the scales in favour of the SM was in fact the sight of two of these on the shelves in the local market. The Karbonn A5 and Micromax A73. Both used and costing the same -3600. One of the biggest advantages of buying used is the chance to try the product thoroughly before parting with the cash. I tested both the phones for almost 30 mins each without being rushed by the good guy behind the counter. I dropped in my net enabled SIM and browsed extensively, checking the specs of each phone on each of their screens itself. The double the amount of RAM on the Karbonn (512 MB vs 256 MB - infact Micromax seems to have a 256mania of sorts since most of it's SMs have 256 RAM!) means more of open apps & more open tabs simultaneously without a performance hit. The 20% higher clock speed of the CPU (800 MHz, vs 650 MHz) and 30% higher battery capacity (1400mAH v/s 1100 mAH) were also welcome.
There seems to very little else that separates the two - same screen size and resolution (320X480), same OS (2.3 - Karbonn may be one minor update ahead), wifi, 3g, Bluetooth, GPS, tethering; speakers sounded the same to me, physically also both felt comfortable to hold and carry in the shirt pocket. The ace up Micromax's sleeve is the flash for the rear cam and also a front facing cam. As far as image quality goes both phones produce results that are unsatisfactory, but with the right app the flash can be used as a torch which is an important tool to have. One area where the Micromax disappoints is the presence of hard keys for home, menu, return etc. The Karbonn sports soft keys for these which makes the touch experience complete.
I picked the Karbonn since the RAM and battery were more important than the flash in most situations also I admit to a soft spot for Karbonn which was my first dual sim phone (also mouthshutted). Luckily, I got 2000 for my Samsung in exchange so the effective price of the indulgence was 1600 only.
I have been using the Karbonn for two weeks now, and it has completely fulfilled all parameters. I have booked tickets, shopped online, made a few bank transfers, replied to a few emails, while walking to my destination following Google maps - all, while listening to Pink Floyd. I have experienced Nirvana! (NO I didn't try games on it, if you must know!)
ANDROID THE GREAT LEVELLER
There isn't much left for a manufacturer to do with regard to software since Android offers a complete working interface. One must thank Google for creating and giving this product for free. It is also appropriate to salute the Free Software Foundation and Linus Torvalds and the many developers of the Linux ecosystem for creating the open culture that spawned Android which is technically a Linux offshoot.
With Android inside, all SMs feel the same. So getting a KARBONN or a more fancied brand is about the intangibles like warranty and product support etc. So why spend more if you don't plan to showoff? Unlike other phones a SM is defined by the OS it is running. In this case Android 2.3.6. While the built in apps get the job done, a phone brand can distinguish itself by offering unique apps suited to the device's resources. This is where Karbonn trips because it doesn't do much except put on a Karbonn Logo. It is left to the user to trawl through Google Play store to find relevant apps. Doing this on a small screen is tedious so one never goes really deep down to really try out the hidden gems which may be better than the first on the list for this SM.
And this is where one can see Google's failures; apps need to be downloaded afresh every time, there is no way to keep a copy of the app for later installation. Secondly, the user has no option to try out the earlier versions of an app, only the latest version is available. (I later discovered that this is not true, after "rooting" the phone certain apps can access the downloaded program installation file - apk - which allows offline installation.) Issues
The phone becomes quite unresponsive while charging. Not sure if this is because I am using the Samsung's charger for the job. (This was rectified by using a different charger).
One of the soft keys activates the search function and can't be reconfigured to something more useful.( with the right custom ROM this is achievable)
While the A5 can be used as a USB modem there seems to be no drivers provided to connect it to the pc.(Karbonn doesn't offer it, but there are other sources to do this )
Battery life is poor when compared to my earlier Samsung. I have not felt the need for using 3G or wifi but with a few hours of gprs and a few phone calls, the phone needs to be recharged every day. Charging time is also quite high - 5 hours or so. Significantly, the phone is still good for an hour of browsing even after the low battery indicator comes up.
If used just as a "phone" with very little browsing, and no other services - gps etc, I can squeeze 3 days before a recharge.
(4. The dual standby claim is probably false. When using the net on one SIM calls to the other SIM are not receivable. More importantly, if you are downloading a big file, the other SIM is disabled / goes offline / the icon on the status bar becomes greyed out - as if the second SIM wasn't inserted at all!)
One pleasant surprise was the discovery of the small group of A5 lovers running an active thread at forum.xda-developers.com. It fills some of the lacunae of Karbonn. But, it mainly serves the need of people who prefer to mod the system to suit their needs or at least remove irrelevant stuff that Google bundles with Android. I shall be updating this review after I have suitably modded the A5....which I intend to do once I am back home from my trip... you see I am typing this out on my A5 on the train as I return.
The Karbonn A5 is game when it comes to rooting. I have described my adventures in modding and rooting the A5 in detail at karbonna5.blogspot.com. Briefly, I was able to root the phone, install root access programs (which are critical to gaining real control over the phone), remove useless programs like Youtube, take a complete backup of the system once I'd customised it to my liking, flash a few custom ROMs, and in the end restore the previous backup, without much hiccup. All this was possible thanks to the good folks at forums.xda-developers.com. As the edited text within paranthesis above proves, the rooting experience taught me a few tricks also.)
Inspite of the major dual standby SNAFU, I must say the Karbonn A5 has thoroughly exceeded my expectations. If Karbonn had a better customer service - even the local authorised service center didn't have the original accessories like charger and headphone - it would have been ideal. But, it is simply inane to expect the same level of service given by larger brands. I don't see me replacing the Karbonn A5, except probably to get it's bigger brother with the 480X800 screen... and even then the A5 will be a keeper.