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We don’t get to talk about Windows Phone much around these parts, but perhaps it’s high time that we do. There have been a lot of changes happening in the mobile space as far as Windows is concerned, and Microsoft has also been busy with a lot of desktop related stuff with the recent release of Windows 10. What’s the user experience like with Windows Phone now? Read this review of the Cherry Mobile Alpha Neon to find out.

The Alpha Neon is one of two new non-Android phones launched for this year by local electronics retailer Cherry Mobile, and it runs the very latest version of Windows Phone — version 8.1. It’s available in a handful of different colors, boasts a 5-inch HD screen and 8MP rear camera (among other features), and is being sold at a Php 4k price tag. Looks OK enough so far, right? Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.

A different smartphone package and experience

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Since Windows Phone is a totally different platform from Android, the Cherry Mobile Alpha Neon offers a vastly different smartphone package and experience from what you might be used to. In fact, even the design of the phone itself is kind of a sight for sore eyes. And we’re not complaining. It’s about time something new and refreshing was brought out to the market.

The Alpha Neon’s build quality is not something that we ever worried about during our time spent testing it. That is to say, for a budget phone, it’s actually built quite nicely. The matte plastic battery cover locks securely in place without any issues, the screen didn’t sustain any scratches throughout our tests and not once did we ever encounter any hardware problems at all. Everything about the Alpha Neon worked perfectly from the moment we took it out of the box.

The hardware buttons on the Alpha Neon are comprised of a power button/lock switch and an up/down volume rocker on the right side of the phone, while the menu keys are present below the screen in the form of capacitive touch keys. These keys are laid out in typical Windows Phone fashion as follows: Back, Windows/Home, Search/Cortana. That’s the soft-touch menu key layout you’ll have to memorize or get used to when you start using the Alpha Neon. It took us all of five minutes, tops. And then we got to the software and apps on board.

Windows Phone apps

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Even though it’s a non-Android phone, the Alpha Neon still supported many of the most popular mobile apps that we know of. In fact, one of the first apps that we downloaded onto it was Spotify (which is available as a free download from the Windows Store). Still, the Alpha Neon had a bunch of free apps pre-installed on it, just as you might expect from any other smartphone. The only thing that we could note was missing was a Voice Recorder app (no, OneNote doesn’t count).

So, speaking of the pre-installed software, it had all the provisions to make the most out of the separate hardware components. For navigating things on the 5-inch screen, there’s the Widows Phone Live Tiles which you can edit and rearrange to your heart’s desire. And then there are apps for both the camera and the built-in speaker, as well as options for messaging, calling, note taking, and emailing. In short, the Alpha Neon works quite alright as a smartphone right out of the box (except for that whole not having a voice recorder thing). And it’s user-friendly and intuitive, too.

Camera and audio performance

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When it came to the actual performance of the Alpha Neon based on its hardware, it ended up surprising us more than anything else (in a positive way, actually). The way Cherry Mobile launched this phone (as well as the Alpha View), we thought nothing of its rear and front camera combo. But when we finally used it to take photos and record videos, we were reminded of Cherry Mobile’s first swing at Windows Phone, the Alpha Luxe. The cameras here are just as good, if not better than those in the predecessor. Audio is where things take a little turn for the worse, but we can’t say that we were shocked when we found out.

The Alpha Neon’s audio works great — but in short bursts. The speaker tends to stutter when playing high-quality music tracks, especially when they are being streamed online. We never did manage to pinpoint the cause of the problem. But using Bluetooth speakers did the trick of fixing it. Meanwhile, the 3.5mm audio jack suffered from compatibility issues with our test headphones.

As a matter of fact, we couldn’t test a single one of our pre-owned headphones on the Alpha Neon, besides one time when we managed to get the contact between the 3.5mm plug and socket just right. We just gave up on listening to music with the Alpha Neon using headphones after about an hour of trying. It’s cool if you can live with that kind of thing, but otherwise it’s a huge dealbreaker. Unless you are OK with simply using the bundled earphones for listening to music.

Exclusive Windows software

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But as we said earlier, there’s a lot more to the Alpha Neon beyond aesthetics and simple hardware components. For example, it comes with a number of Windows-exclusive apps that you can probably make use of and benefit from if you would only try them. Some of these include Cortana, Bing Maps, Xbox Music, Weather, and some more that you can download straight to your phone from the Windows Store. We tried them all as part of testing the Alpha Neon, and honestly, we felt like we couldn’t have had a more seamless experience with such apps on any other platform if we tried.

Overall performance

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The point we’re trying to make with all of this is that even though it’s not like the usual smartphone these days, which typically runs Android with some sort of software skin on top, Windows Phone-powered devices like the Alpha Neon do possess some tricks that might just captivate you. It might just change the way you use your smartphone, and depending on your needs that may either be a good thing or a bad thing.

For gaming, the Alpha Neon could only give us a light mobile gaming experience, allowing us to download and install a few casual mobile gaming titles off the Windows Store. We never tried searching for any “real” games to play on the Alpha Neon, and we would warn you against wasting your time like that as well. Instead of playing games, we found ourselves creating, downloading, and opening office documents, or connecting to our different online accounts, doing a bunch of productivity-related stuff. Taking pictures here and there, sending out and responding to messages and calls as well as emails, and browsing the Internet.

At the end of each day we found that the Alpha Neon’s battery barely lost more than half of its charge. We managed to go on for up to three full days before we thought of plugging the Alpha Neon in to recharge its battery. Even using the two SIM card slots in it and running the phone on two networks at once didn’t drain the battery much at all. We think it’s safe to say that the battery is one of the Alpha Neon’s strengths.

Conclusion

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Many people using smartphones today have stuck with Android year in and year out. These are the same people who are most likely to consider making the switch to something like the Alpha Neon in order to get a taste of Windows Phone. And you know what? That’s a switch that we would be willing to make in a heartbeat, despite the phone’s apparent flaws.

Yes, using the Alpha Neon means you will be losing out on certain things — like your favorite mobile games, the ability to listen to music with your preferred wired headphones, and general compatibility with lots of today’s most popular apps — but at the same time, you will also be making gains in certain areas. The Alpha Neon is apparently a good phone to pair with any new Windows computer, and it even has Microsoft Office for mobile pre-installed. It has ample internal storage and microSD card expansion, a good-enough camera for casual photography, and the OS with the tiled UI is just majestic.

It’s new and it works well for what it was designed for, plus it has a price tag that’s just impossible to ignore. Going for the Alpha Neon is certainly a risk in today’s environment, where there are plenty of “safe” familiar choices out on the market at similar price points. But know that once you do take the risk, you’re going to be in for something completely different. And in the end, only you can decide if you actually like it.

David Gonzales is a geek, writer, and athlete all rolled into one. He specializes in articulating about novel and often shiny things that tend to make whirring noises. He also writes at SemiCurrent.com.