- Crazy cheap
- Decent second handset
- Poor screen for media
- Very basic camera
EE Rook review: We review the latest EE own-brand 4G mobile phone, the stunningly affordable EE Rook. But is this £49.99 phone (a mere £39.99 for existing customers) a solid budget choice/secondary handset, or a disappointing case of cheap and nasty?
Yeah, the Rook is a chunky phone. Yeah, it’s got less chance of winning a beauty contest than Boris Johnson. But for fifty quid, what did you expect? A gorgeous slab of sexy brushed metal?
The EE Rook’s biggest advantage is its size. Rocking a tiny 4-inch screen like the last-gen iPhone, the Rook is one of the dinkiest phones we’ve played with in recent times, meaning it’s well suited to younger users and anyone sick of modern 5-inch behemoths. It’s still quite chunky of course, so you’ll feel it when it’s sat in your pocket, but the Rook slips easily into even tiny handbags and shouldn’t cause any unsightly bulges when it’s stashed in your shorts.
The boxy build and thick bezels are pretty much standard for a phone at this price point, but at least EE has added a touch of decoration in the form of a silver streak down each side and a colourful ring around the camera lens. You can prise off the back plate to expose the removable battery, SIM card slot and microSD memory card slot, and haters of on-screen home, back and menu buttons will be pleased to see hard versions stuck just beneath the display.
Good news if you’re after a rugged handset to take to festivals too, as the EE Rook is sturdy enough to survive a decent drop.
EE has impressively shoehorned Android Lollipop 5.1 onto the Rook, giving you all of Google’s latest features such as Smart Lock and multiple accounts handling. Check out our big ol’ Android Lollipop review/features guide for more info.
We’re pleased to see that EE has done very little fiddling with Android, keeping it in a mostly vanilla form. The only real changes are the addition of some EE-branded apps for tracking your usage and spends, plus some Amazon bits. That’s especially good news as it means that future Android updates such as the all-new Android M will hopefully come to the Rook in a timely fashion, via an over-the-air upgrade.
And of course, this wouldn’t be an EE phone without built-in 4G, making this one of the cheapest 4G mobiles you can buy right now. Hell, it’s half the price of EE’s previous cheapy 4G phone, the Harrier Mini, and £30 cheaper than Voda’s cut-price Smart Prime 6.
Screen and media
So far, so decent. But the first real indication that EE’s Rook is a seriously budget blower comes when you gaze at the tiny screen.
That dinky 4-inch panel packs a 480×800 resolution, giving just 233 pixels-per-inch – no HD visuals here. Look closer and you’ll spot individual pixels, while tiny text is generally too blocky to read and movies are understandably grainy.
However, that’s not the Rook’s worst visual sin. The screen’s viewing angles are absolutely dire, to the point that images look a little dark even when you’re viewing the display head-on. You have to actually tilt the phone slightly away from your face to get a clear view, with no serious colour distortion.
Stick the screen on top brightness and it does at least shine brightly enough to be clearly visible outdoors, even when the sun’s peeking out. However, everything looks rather washed-out, with colors appearing particularly flaccid and lifeless. We’d say, if visuals are more important to you than 4G networking, check out the Lumia 435 instead.
The good news is that the display is perfectly responsive and surprisingly I had no trouble at all typing on the teeny virtual keyboard, despite being used to much bigger screens these days.
If you’re going to be watching video or even enjoying some music at your desk, I highly recommend using headphones. The Rook has a tiny speaker built into the rear, but it’s little more than a tinny assault on the ears. Add to that the fact that it’s easily smothered when holding the phone, and you might as well not bother.
Storage-wise, you get a bog-standard 8GB of built-in space for your apps and media, but only 4.36GB of that shows as usable and less than 4GB can actually be used for your stuff. Good thing EE added in that microSD memory card slot then, so you can expand to your heart’s content.
Performance and battery life
At this price point, you also have to expect pretty basic performance. True to form, the Rook rumbles along on a budget 1GHz MediaTek processor, backed by 1GB of RAM, although everyday running is actually reasonably smooth all things considered. To be completely fair, the Rook isn’t any slower than the likes of the LG G4c, which is about four times the price.
That said, if the odd app crash and pause while you wait for something to load up is something that might really grind your gears, you might want to bump up your budget a bit. Gamers are also limited to casual titles, rather than the latest action-packed blasters, although the likes of Monument Valley run absolutely fine. If that puts you off, take a look at the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 (£125) instead.
Battery life isn’t too shabby, with the EE Rook just about lasting a full 24 hours if you don’t go overboard. We used it for regular email checks, occasional web browsing, plenty of social media and snapping the odd photo, and the phone was still going at the end of the day.
If you bump up usage to non-stop video streaming or piddling about with apps constantly, you can expect the Rook to die much faster. In our tests, the phone always died within four hours with constant YouTube streaming or gaming. That’s less than the average of five hours for modern handsets.
A 5-megapixel snapper is the weapon of choice for everyday photos, and of course it’s a very basic camera, not well suited to capturing long-lasting memories. In fact, if it wasn’t so poor in low light conditions, I’d say it’s best used only for shooting your antics in the pub on a boozy night out, so you can at least remember what happened the following morning.
Photos taken in clear daylight lack detail and look hazy when viewed on a larger screen. The lens can’t deal well with contrast and the surprise addition of an HDR mode does very little to help. And forget trying to take shots at night or in dimly-lit rooms, as there’s no flash to help out.
Oh, and there’s also no tap-to-focus functionality, so up-close macro shots are particularly tough to carry off.
So yeah, the EE Rook’s camera feels like a ‘better have some kind of snapper as everyone kind of expects it’ effort, but remember again that this is a sub-£50 handset. If you want a phone that can take decent shots, either double your budget and get something like the Microsoft Lumia 640 or Motorola Moto E, or manage your expectations.
On the front of the Rook, just above the screen, you’ll find a 0.3-megapixel camera for Skype chats and selfie shots. Photos taken with it are tiny and low-res, as you’d expect, and only really okay for sharing on Twitter and other social media.
If you need a super-cheap phone for a younger relative or to replace your usual handset, and your priority is nippy web browsing, then the EE Rook is a solid choice. The basic processor handles everyday running without too much of a struggle and the dinky screen is pleasingly responsive. You’ll need to manage your expectations, however, as the Rook isn’t well suited to watching movies, playing fast-paced games or photography.