Despite Balmuda’s history, the company is probably best known for its products such as its relatively expensive toaster and kettle. So what happens when a modern design company wants to dip its toe into the smartphone market? It creates its smartphone, of course. The Balmuda phone was launched in Japan towards the end of 2021 and due to poor reception, it was reportedly discontinued just a few months after launch.
Despite this, the smartphone is still sold in stores and can be easily purchased with or without a contract. So how does a phone that wasn’t well received get a second chance? It is reused by those who sell it. Rather than being marketed as a high-end Balmuda, it is marketed as an affordable and compact smartphone that is great for beginners. Best of all, the phone costs next to nothing when bought under contract. You can see how it can get attractive at this point. For most, this is enough to sell. But is a compact smartphone called Balmuda any good? Let’s find out.
Balmuda Phone: Specifications
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Balmuda Phone: Design
The Balmuda Phone is a unique piece of technology, not because it contains interesting features, but because it is a smartphone made by a non-smartphone company. It shows what’s coming to the market when a company isn’t used to the landscape it’s entering and really believes in its vision. While this approach has been successful for a limited number of people in the past, the chances of it leading to success are really rare.
The Balmuda Phone quickly stands out from the crowd by having a design that at first glance is nothing like anything currently on the market. But if we go back, maybe ten years ago, when there were more experimental devices, we can see where the Balmuda Phone might get its inspiration. The phone has glimpses of the Palm Pre, Microsoft Kin One and others. While Palm took design inspiration from an ostrich egg, Balmuda was more concerned with avoiding harsh lines and went to great lengths to include undulating curves in every corner of his phone.
On the front we get a small but usable 4.9-inch Full HD display with a perforated hole in the top right corner for a front camera. The screen is bright (449 PPI) and works well in most conditions, but the panel is an LCD, so don’t expect deep blacks or popping colors. Another thing to note is that there are two different color options for the Balmuda Phone, black and white. If you have the black model, the bezels around the screen aren’t as noticeable, but with the white model, you’ll probably see some extra space at the top and bottom of the screen.
The back of the device has a distinct look, with the circular power button/fingerprint sensor on the left and a camera lens on the right. There’s a speaker grill and flash between the power button and the camera, with a small LED indicator light sitting right next to the camera. Imagine my surprise when I first received a message and saw it flash: it was lovely because it’s not something you see often these days. Unfortunately, looking through the settings menu there’s no way to adjust the color or pattern, so you’re stuck with a soft white lighting for all the alerts.
Thanks to its smaller footprint, gentle curves and a weight of 138g, the Balmuda Phone should feel pretty good in the hand. The device cradles your palm and to be honest it feels like the opposite of what you’re used to handling a smartphone. The phone is made of plastic, which feels a bit cheap in 2022, and the textured surface on the back offers just enough grip to feel comfortable. Oddly enough, Balmuda’s meticulously crafted design is something I couldn’t appreciate, perhaps due to years of use of square plates constantly etching themselves into my palm.
In terms of environmental protection, the Balmuda Phone offers an official IPX4 rating. The device is certified for use near water and may occasionally splash, but it cannot be submerged and is not considered waterproof. The rating also means that it can most likely protect against sweat.
Balmuda Phone: The Software
The Balmuda phone comes with Android 11 and has received the June 2022 security update from July 2022. Since this is a carrier-branded device, there are a few carrier-specific apps included that aren’t part of Android, but nothing intrusive. The Android 11 experience is clean with little extras from Balmuda here and there. These “touches” are one of the most surprising aspects of the phone’s software, as they are thoughtful additions.
The “Stripe” features are an interesting part of the home screen, allowing users to quickly access shortcuts by swiping the stripes in the background. You can set the stripe feature to perform a predetermined action or set it to launch your favorite app. Best of all, it’s customizable. You can adjust the stripes on a right-hand or left-hand grip, or you can turn it off altogether. You can also change the colors to suit your mood.
Balmuda has tools and associated widgets such as schedule, clock, notes and calculator. This is nothing new as these apps are installed on most phones, but Balmuda’s take on them is pretty good. For example, in the Scheduler app, the layout is beautiful and intuitive. You can pinch to zoom in and out on your schedule so you can see your daily, weekly, or even monthly schedule. There’s also integrated weather, which shows what the weather will be like in the calendar view up to a week in advance.
The clock app is nice too and offers time, weather integration, a stopwatch, alarms and a countdown timer. It’s hard to describe, but the look and feel makes the experience seem elegant. The same goes for its notes and calculator apps, with small details that give just a little more power than your default apps on other devices. The sound design is charming too, with elegant and fun tones for ringtones, notifications, and even charging. Everyone will have their preference with this sort of thing, but for the first time Balmuda succeeded and gave an engaging and memorable experience.
Balmuda Phone: Camera and Entertainment
The camera is an essential part of any smartphone’s arsenal. Without a good camera, the phone could be pretty much DOA for many discerning consumers. If you are someone who wants excellent photos from your smartphone, the Balmuda Phone is not for you. It has a single 48MP camera, which means you’re limited in the kind of photos and videos you take.
What may be surprising about the phone is that it doesn’t perform well in bright environments. Enabling HDR helps the quality, but to see this kind of quality from a new smartphone is pretty awful. As you can imagine, it doesn’t do as well when the lighting gets dimmer. For those who like the ability to enter camera settings, there are no such choices. In the best case scenario, you can select a mode that consists of movie, photo, dish, portrait and night vision. I have my opinion, but I left some sample photos so you can be the judge.
When watching movies on the Balmuda, the smaller screen doesn’t look too bad. But one area that does need improvement is the audio. The single speaker on the back isn’t enough and will exercise your muscle memory from years past, cupping the back of the phone to channel the sound forward. As if that weren’t enough, the sound isn’t clear and is often distorted when played at higher volumes. It’s not the worst in the world, but those looking to use this as a media consumption device might want to look elsewhere. This device also lacks an audio jack, with Bluetooth and USB-C audio pass-through being the only options.
Balmuda Phone: Battery and Performance
The Balmuda Phone doesn’t have the fastest SoC or even the biggest battery; in everyday use, it turns out. While the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 processor is fine for the most part, you can sometimes feel or even see slight jitters or stutters when browsing web pages, watching YouTube or playing games.
As for the 2,500 mAh battery, it is possible to get through a day of use. Suppose you are an average user like me. In that case, you might be using the phone for a few hours streaming music, surfing the web, some light social media use with apps like Instagram and Twitter, and occasional messaging with apps like WhatsApp, Voice, Slack , etc. If this is how you use your phone, you’ll get through a day without a hitch, but you may feel a little nervous going home with only about a 30 percent battery charge.
If you’re a power user, in addition to the average experience, you’ll move on to navigation, taking photos and videos, watching videos like YouTube, taking calls, and more. With this kind of use, you can expect the battery to push its limits, leaving around 10 percent at the end of the day. Fortunately, you have the option to charge your phone wired via USB-C or wirelessly.
Balmuda is known in Japan for offering designer items such as toasters, vacuum cleaners, kettles and more. While not always the most practically priced, there is a following. Unfortunately, the company stepped out of its orbit with the Balmuda Phone and tried to approach the smartphone business like its other projects, but it didn’t quite work out.
That said, there is a market for smaller smartphones in Japan. The Balmuda Phone is probably the best example of this, with a few others like the Rakuten Mini and the Sharp シンプルスマホ (Simple Smartphone). While these are generally not marketed as compact smartphones, they are marketed with ease of use and new buyers in mind. Despite reports of the extremely high asking price for the Balmuda phone, the price of the phone has dropped quite a bit since then and can be had for less than $200. Plus, the phone is only a penny if you sign a contract with a wireless carrier. .
The Balmuda Phone offers a design like no other.
But I think even at its adjusted pace this is a niche device that won’t pick up much. And if you enter the mid-range market, where the Balmuda should be, there are plenty of better options available. I don’t think there has ever been a company outside the phone industry that has produced a really successful product. The space is just too competitive and things will undoubtedly go wrong without a strong foothold. Hopefully this is a lesson not only for Balmuda, but for others as well, and maybe one day we’ll get an impressive smartphone from a company on the outside that looks inward.
If you want a good little phone, consider picking up the Asus Zenfone 9.