In recent times, Samsung has shifted a lot of its focus to the Indian market. The company launched its first Tizen phone in India, made its Galaxy E series (read our review) exclusive to the country, and then followed up with the Galaxy J1. The Galaxy J1 is the first device in the Galaxy J lineup, and is slightly higher in price than the Samsung Z1 and also comes with slightly better – yet decidedly low-end – hardware.

The Galaxy J1 comes at a time when the budget market in countries like India has been taken over by Xiaomi, Motorola, and other Chinese and local manufacturers, which are offering some pretty stellar hardware for low prices. Even Google is playing in this segment through its Android One initiative, and when you look at the Galaxy J1′s specs sheet, it’s clear to see that Samsung isn’t really trying hard to make sure the device stand out.

I spent a week with the Galaxy J1 as my main smartphone, so here’s our review of what is one of the most talked about (read leaked) budget Android phones from Samsung in a long time.

au_SM-J100YZWAXSA_000274448_dynamic_whiteDesign

Samsung hasn’t really experimented with its smartphones’ design in the past couple of years, and so it isn’t surprising the Galaxy J1 looks like a lot of other phones from the company. However, there’s a small design aspect that makes the J1 look different – the top and bottom of the phone have this slightly raised edge at each side, making it look like it has a rugged covering on top. That’s not actually the case, but it certainly helps in adding a touch of flair to what is otherwise as basic a design as can be expected from Samsung.

What’s also good is the build quality. The sides and back of the Galaxy J1 are made of soft touch plastic (both the sides and back, along with the volume and power buttons, are of the same color), making the phone feel pretty good in the hand. It’s not at all slippery, and overall, the J1 feels very well made.

Display

The Galaxy J1 comes with a 4.3-inch PLS LCD display with a resolution of 800×480 pixels. There’s nothing special about the viewing experience on offer here. Being an LCD unit, the colors aren’t at all vibrant, and the display feels a tad drab in terms of colors and contrast. The viewing angles are also average – you will be able to make out what’s on the screen when viewing it an angle, but you won’t find it to be as clear as it would be on more high-end handsets (which isn’t unexpected given the price range.)

The Z1, Samsung’s first Tizen phone, had quite an attractive display despite being such a lowly priced phone, so it’s sad to see the same love hasn’t been extended to the display on the Galaxy J1. The only thing the J1 is great at is the brightness levels. The display can get quite bright, and the phone also offers an Outdoor mode to further increase the legibility of the display under bright sunlight.

Camera

Samsung was clearly focusing entirely on the camera experience when developing the Galaxy J1, as the cameras on this thing easily outmatch the rest of the hardware. Now, these aren’t great cameras by any means, but when you consider how average an experience the phone provides in other areas, the cameras certainly stand out.

The phone comes with a 5-megapixel sensor on the back that takes photos that are, well, good enough. Photos come out a bit too soft, but details are a tad above average (for a 5MP sensor) and noise is kept under control as to not be a problem. Under low-light it’s a complete failure, but like the Galaxy E5 and E7, Samsung offers Night and HDR modes in the camera to somewhat improve performance under dim lighting conditions.

The front camera is a 2-megapixel unit, and it’s pretty good. The photos it takes tend to have some noise, but they also capture an attractive amount of detail and colors. Samsung hasn’t skimped on features that let you take selfies with ease – you get the Palm Gesture feature for capturing pictures by waving your palm in front of the device, and you also get a beauty mode to soften/remove blemishes from faces. The only big issue with the front camera is that it takes a few seconds to save a photo. It’s not world-ending, but it’s odd to see a Processing screen each time you take a photo.

Software

The Galaxy J1 runs a pretty bare bones version of TouchWiz, Samsung’s proprietary UX. It’s probably because of the meager hardware that’s powering this thing, though as you will see in the performance section below, it doesn’t exactly help the J1 offer a smooth experience. Samsung’s phones are popular (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for having a lot of additional functionality over what Android offers by default, but most of it is missing on the Galaxy J1. In fact, the J1 doesn’t even come with Samsung’s music app – it only has Google Play Music, and it’s probably because the TouchWiz Music app was a bit too heavy for the phone to handle.

A trip into the settings menu reveals a very short list of options. Apart from a page for managing the dual SIM cards and the Ultra Power Saving Mode feature, there’s nothing that stands out here. You might take that as a sign that Samsung is cutting down on bloatware, but it’s pretty much the low-end nature of the phone that’s the reason for the lack of too many additional features.

Performance

Performance on the Galaxy J1 is bad. There is no other word for it – you’re better off buying Samsung’s Tizen-powered Z1 and living without any apps than getting the J1. From the first boot of the phone, things were constantly slow to happen. There were stutters throughout the interface, with animations not at all smooth most of the time. Apps were slow to launch as well, though this was more an issue on some of Samsung’s inbuilt apps rather than third-party ones. The phone got two software updates after the first boot, but neither was able to do anything to fix the performance issues.

The lack of RAM (there’s only 512MB RAM on the model we’re testing) is clearly the biggest problem here – Android KitKat might be designed to run on phones as low as 512MB of RAM, but Samsung has clearly not understood that that fact is only true when you’re talking about stock Android, not a version of Android that has been customized and bloated up by manufacturers. 1GB of RAM is absolutely necessary on smartphones these days, and it’s just shameful that the Galaxy J1 offers such a slow experience, at a time when budget smartphones have reached such a high level of quality.

Gaming performance is thankfully above average on the J1. Temple Run 2 ran without any lag or stutter, though Minion Rush – another game where you have to run endlessly – wasn’t very smooth. The phone should let you play basic games with ease, but just don’t throw any title that has a lot of graphics and things happening on the screen at the phone.

Call Quality/Audio

Call quality on the Galaxy J1 is below average. The sound from the other side comes out with quite a bit of compression, which made understanding the other person hard at times. Call volume on the earpiece wasn’t very loud either, though thankfully my own voice was pretty clear at the other end.

As for network performance, I didn’t really notice anything out of the ordinary. Calls never dropped, but like most low-end phones, the J1 did struggle to find as good a signal in areas with low network strength as costlier devices. Overall, call quality isn’t a strong suit for the Galaxy J1.

The audio quality on this thing is also nothing to write home about. The loudspeaker is a bit too light on bass and a bit too light on the treble, but the sound coming out of it sounds pretty good. On the flip side, the speaker can’t get very loud. Oddly, playing audio tracks in the music player was louder than playing audio on YouTube, which suggests the phone isn’t that good at files with lower bitrates.

On headphones, it’s a similar story. The provided earphones just do their job and nothing more, though they get considerably louder than the loudspeaker, which is a given. You can’t really expect high audio performance on a phone in the budget segment, and the Galaxy J1 does nothing to buck that trend.

Battery Life

The Galaxy J1 has a 1,850 mAh battery under the hood. That’s just 10 mAh less than the battery on the high-end Galaxy Alpha, but is naturally able to last longer as it doesn’t have too many powerful internals to handle. I easily got a full day of battery life on the J1 with average usage, including using two SIM cards at the same time. Samsung has also built in its Ultra Power Saving Mode, so you can certainly rest assured that the J1 will not be letting you down as far as battery endurance is concerned.

Wrap Up

The Galaxy J1 might have been a good device if it had launched back in 2013, but at this point in time, there isn’t really a sufficient reason for why you would want to spend your money on it. Except for the cameras and battery life, the J1 doesn’t really offer anything worthy of its $120 price tag. For lesser cash, you can buy smartphones like the Redmi 1S, Moto E, various Android One phones, a few offerings from Lenovo, and a few other devices.

Okay, so some of these might not be available outside of India or China (and a couple of other emerging markets), but still, buying the Galaxy J1 doesn’t make any sense unless all you want is a phone that you will use for calls. But then, if that’s going to be your use case, then even the Samsung Z1 is a better option. It might lack the app selection and support of Android, but it’s priced considerably lower while offering a similar user experience.

The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge represent a new Samsung, one that’s ready to do all it can to reclaim the glory it has lost in the past year or so. But the Galaxy J1 is a sign that the company still hasn’t changed enough. Maybe some day the Korean manufacturer will come up with budget smartphones that are actually modern and current and not something that would have been okay a year or so ago, but for now, you’re better off looking elsewhere for your budget smartphone fix.

Pros:

• Better than average cameras
• Long battery life
• Good build and feel

Cons:

• Horrible software performance
• Poor call quality
• Quiet loudspeaker
• Average display