While flagship smartphones have become more powerful and, erm, thinner, over recent years, budget and mid-range handsets have become really rather good. The likes of OnePlus, Huawei and Motorola keep raising the bar, and it's great to see. However, with the Moto G, OnePlus 2 and Huawei Ascend G7 picking up accolades left, right and centre, it's becoming tougher and tougher for others to get their names noticed.
BQ knows what the crack is. The Spanish outfit has created the Aquaris X5, a mid-range 4G handset with a difference. It's available for £19.50 a month on contract from O2 and runs Cyanogen OS, an Android overlay with loads of frilly bits. We'll talk about those later. First, let me take you on a walk down Chassis Avenue.
Design and Build
BQ's done a solid job, though the Aquaris lacks some of the va-va-voom you'll find in the likes of the HTC One A9 and Samsung Galaxy S6. I like the dark colour scheme of our review model, and the aluminium shell is smooth and robust. The Aquaris' grey frame sits flush with the front panel, though it doesn’t align with the back -- deliberately, I might add -- and the resulting ridge is a little rough on the fingertips.
That’s a shame, because it’s a great-sized handset. The Aquaris measures 144.4 x 70.5 x 7.5mm, which means even small-handed people can use it without difficulty. All areas of the 5-inch display are easy to reach with your thumb, so you can live (relatively) free of the fear of fumbling it while struggling to email-warn your boss that you're going to be late, while swinging around on a godforsaken pole on a godforsaken bus.
The volume rocker lies on the right-hand edge, just above the power button. Both stick out nicely, making them easy to find through the power of touch alone. This is eyes-free stuff. They also make a pleasantly loud clicking sound when you press them. Delightful. Above the volume keys are the microSD card slot, and on the opposite edge is the dual-SIM tray.
It’s a good thing that microSD slot is there, as the Aquaris comes with just 16GB of internal storage as standard. You can boost that by up to 32GB for less than a tenner, which is pretty handy. Under the hood, there’s a Snapdragon 412 processor, paired with 2GB of RAM. It’s a basic combination that will get you through everyday tasks, and I’ve thankfully experienced very little lag with the Aquaris. Video clips, TV shows and even processor-intensive games, including Real Racing 3, Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2, play without glitches. It's an impressive return for such an affordable phone.
Screen and Speakers
It’s just a shame that the 5-inch, 720p display is a bit too grainy to love. A pixel density of 294ppi is by no means terrible -- the iPhone 6S isn't far ahead, with 326ppi, after all -- but Full HD would have been dreamy. That YouTube video of the kid vomiting after eating so-called 'skunk spray' flavoured sweets just doesn't have the same impact.
Brightness and viewing angles are, on the other hand, excellent. We've got no complaints with the speaker either. It's both surprisingly loud and not tinny, allowing you to prance around to Shakira while showering away last night's regrets.
Software, however, is the real talking point. Like the Wileyfox Swift and the OnePlus One, the Aquaris runs Cyanogen OS. You can download the software onto other Android phones too, but there's a chance of voiding your warranty. In this case, Cyanogen OS version 12.1 sits over Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, but it's not in your face, unlike many Android overlays, such as TouchWiz. Cyanogen, like the cool guy at a bar (usually me), is low-key, laid-back and clean. Once you've created an account -- the one downside -- you're ready to rock and roll.
Themes are a key draw of Cyanogen, and we're not just talking backgrounds and screensavers. The wide range of free and paid-for themes available completely re-skin your phone, tinkering with your fonts, lock screen styles, notification sounds and even app icons. Zombie's my personal favourite. It turns your scrolly brightness meter thing into a skull, your menu icon into a brain and your apps into gravestones. I'm never going back.
Another feature called LiveDisplay invites you to fiddle with your screen calibration. You can experiment with things like colour temperature and day and night modes. Reducing the amount of blue light you're exposed to in the evening, for instance, should help you get a good night's sleep.
However, Cyanogen's not just about the cosmetic stuff. The security features are really useful too. You can locate and remotely wipe the Aquaris directly from the Cyanogen website, and there's also the option to scramble up your keypad, so the creepy guy looking over your shoulder won't know your unlock PIN.
Camera and Battery
Battery life makes for far happier reading. Through a mix of browsing the internet, making calls and watching hilarious YouTube videos, the Aquaris will comfortably see you through the day.
Impressive design and build, Cyanogen, reliable performance and stamina.
Disappointing camera, average screen.
Should You Buy It?
If you're after a souped-up Android experience on a budget, yes. The BQ Aquaris X5 is available from O2 for £19.50 a month after an initial £9.99 fee, and for that, you get 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 500MB of 4G data, though you can also find it for £179.90 directly from BQ. It's a reliable, well-built smartphone with lots of lovely extras and if you can live without a top-drawer display and camera, this is all the smartphone you need.