Safaricom Neon Kicka 4: Exploring Kenya’s most affordable Android Go smartphone

If you were to come up with a very basic smartphone whose aim is to be as attractive to as many Kenyans as possible both in terms of what it offers and, what really matters the most to Kenyans, price, what would it look like?

For Safaricom, that challenge is personified by its Neon series of devices (that even included a tablet at some point).

Better yet, today, it is embodied by the Neon Kicka 4 smartphone that went on sale early last month.

Background

The Neon Kicka 4 is a continuation of a long-running tradition by Safaricom to get one device that it can rally around and propose to the almost 30 million subscribers it has today.

To get everyone to just use a mobile phone, there was the Sendo phone back in the day (early 2000s) that went for about Kshs 5,000. That device was my first gateway to mobile internet, never mind that it connected via GPRS or in other words, you’ll for just as long as it takes to boil beans to load a web page.

That was followed later by the famous Kabambe phones. When Safaricom’s 3G network rolled out, a Huawei feature phone, the U3100 under the moniker Kabambe 3G, was also unveiled in the market. It was an affordable sub-Kshs 5,000 feature phone that, at the time, was the cheapest way to get a phone that could fully enjoy the 3G network connectivity Safaricom had introduced. The U3100 was assisted by the U2800 in the market.

As the age of the smartphone knocked, naturally, these Huawei smartphones took the market by storm.

If you have been keen, this is pretty much the same model that Safaricom’s rivals like Telkom Kenya (then Orange Kenya) have previously taken. In the latter’s case there was the ZTE Blade (San Francisco) from back in the day and, in recent years, the Kaduda and Kaduda Smart.

Recently, in order to promote uptake of 4G smartphones, the company (Safaricom) has done something almost similar with other devices in the Neon series: the Neon Sky and the Neon Pulse.

You get the drift, right? Devices like the Safaricom Neon Kicka 4, the subject of this overview, usually have a mission statement that’s much bigger than just being the latest and shiniest cool thing to have. They are about providing access to the masses. Given how important the mobile phone has become courtesy of things like mobile money services, this cannot be emphasised enough.

Neon Kicka 4

The Safaricom Neon Smart Kicka 4, by all means, is not a stranger to anyone who keenly follows the Kenyan smartphone industry. Bar a few tweaks here and there in both the physical look and feel as well as the software that users get to interact with, it is still pretty much the device that users of its predecessor, the third generation Neon Kicka smartphone, got to interact with.

Like past iterations, it retains a small and a rather compact body and frame. This, as I have found out in the past week taking the device for a spin, makes handling with one hand a breeze. Even better, for our brothers and sisters with large hands, the device can be completely wrapped around and almost hidden from view by one hand. In this day and age of the normalization of the 6-inch smartphone, that can’t be taken for granted. Did I talk about the textured back that adds to the firmness of the grip as well as the textured power button? It’s the little things.

However, that the device looks (the display is just 4 inches, for instance), feels and really is, small, is by design: in order to cut costs.

The reason the Neon Kicka 4 exists is not to excite those of us who religiously follow mobile technology and love their gadgetry enough to constantly follow  channels like this one that are always after the shiniest new thing. No, that’s not where the Neon Kicka 4’s focus is at. Nor is it where the focus of the people making a case for it, Safaricom, is at, as hinted in the background above.

If the Safaricom Neon Kicka 4 was meant for the global market just like the Android One of old was and the Android Go of today, which it coincidentally runs, is, its name would be the buzzword we attach to another common one at Google and other tech-centred events organized by mostly Western companies looking to break into the hearts and minds of people living in developing countries like ours: “the next billion”.

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The Neon Kicka 4, however, is focused on Kenya and the Kenyan mobile phone user. While you may be mistaken to think of our beloved country as being a smartphone country because of all the attention we give our little droids (and the constant noise-making by our brothers totting half a decade-old iPhones), we are on our way there, just not yet there. So, instead of that “next billion” buzz, Safaricom says that, with it, it aims to reach millions of Kenyans who are still stuck on their feature phones.

The greatest barrier to the switch to smartphones is, of course, price.

The price factor

As such, the Safaricom Neon Kicka 4 is priced at just Kshs 3,500 making it one of the most affordable, if not indeed the most affordable, smartphones in the country. Even better for us who eat, drink and dream about our favourite platform, Android, it is the cheapest Android Go smartphone in Kenya. The latter statement is important for one other major reason after price has been considered.

Much as a lower price point is desired, a mediocre smartphone experience is not. From our understanding of Android as a platform, it is as resource-intensive as they come. Want better performance? Get a processor that matches the operating system’s demands. It’s why we’ve been treated to the spectacle of marketing campaigns by device makers centred around the number of processor cores that a smartphone’s system on a chip (SoC) packs never mind that the operating system itself is probably not optimized to get the most out of all that implied power and users hardly care. Want the smoothest of experiences? Get a device with more memory.

The problem with such approaches is that the prices of the said devices end up being cranked up to meet the internal hardware features demanded. And we haven’t even gotten to fan favourites like the camera and whatnot.

Android Go, as a platform, provides a much-needed balance that comes in very handy for devices like the Neon Kicka 4. The Neon Kicka has only 512 megabytes of memory. On an ordinary day, that is nothing. In 2018 when Android Go is a thing, having such little RAM is not a death sentence. This is because Go is built from the ground up with devices like these in mind.

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From my experience using the Neon Kicka 4 over the last 7 days, it does try to live up to the potential Google, a partner in this venture, promises.

By sticking to the basics, like I did, one is able to get as good an experience, at least performance-wise, as one can expect on a sub-Kshs 5,000 smartphone.

It pays that Safaricom, like HMD Global, and unlike other players like Tecno, Infinix and itel, opted not to have the Neon Kicka 4’s software modified to include its own look, feel and software vision, despite Google not raising a hand to anyone who has attempted to do that in the past. In fact, the only additions to the usual stock Android experience are two applications that come pre-installed on the Neon Kicka 4: the indefatigable Facebook Lite and the mySafaricom app, as would be expected of a device bearing the Safaricom logo on its retail packaging, information booklets, its back cover and heck, it even carries the logo of Safaricom’s majority shareholder, Vodafone.

Such an approach helps to make a good case for a situation that would already be worse if the opposite was the case. This is because not only is the memory so low, the internal storage is just enough for a few extra apps (or, to be honest, just WhatsApp) from the user since the device arrives with it already halfway full with just over a gigabyte of breathing space to spare. This is where the beauty of the Android 8.1, Oreo (Go Edition) that powers it comes into play. The pre-installed Go apps, which do the basics – from YouTube to email (Gmail) to photos and file management – occupy as little space as is possible and don’t balloon to the same levels that their standard counterparts do in order to accomodate user data.

I also like that there’s a gallery app and users aren’t treated to the dilemma that faces many who get to use devices running stock or near-stock Android builds.

Even without 4G internet, the Neon Kicka 4’s battery should drain real quick when constantly used on a 3G network to browse the internet. I am using the word “should” here because my testing has been limited to Wi-Fi where, surprisingly, it manages to hold up well. More than well, in fact.

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While calls (yes, there’s phone in smartphone, remember?) are very clear, the multi-tasking, more so after a call, is woeful, to say the least. As are the cameras and much of the feature-set.

Something worth noting is that this is a Safaricom smartphone through and through. As such, it is locked to the Safaricom network i.e. it cannot be used with SIMs other than those from Safaricom.

The lowdown

The good, or maybe bad, thing here is that the Neon Kicka 4 pretty much has its target market figured out: the Kenyan switching from a no-name feature phone to their first smartphone experience and not us who have been spoilt by superior smartphone experiences for years. Think of it this way: by virtue of its affordable pricing, this may be the device that provides millions of Kenyans who are yet to get on the internet, their first online experience. Think of all the endless possibilities in terms of opportunities that one gets opened up to by just getting online.

Want more features? A better experience? Upgrade.

The Neon Kicka 4 is here to whet the smartphone appetites of the masses that haven’t joined the smartphone bandwagon and it does so in a simple, easy-to-follow way that, just like the pioneer devices of 2009-2011 did to some of us, those starting their Android or internet journeys in 2018 courtesy of devices like it will probably have similarly interesting tales to tell almost a decade from now on devices 30 times more expensive (and, thus, advanced) because to me, that’s progress. But it has to start somewhere. The Neon Kicka 4 is that somewhere.

How to get it

The Safaricom Neon Kicka 4 is available for purchase in Safaricom shops across the country. It can also be ordered online through Safaricom’s own e-commerce platform, Masoko.

For every purchase of the Neon Kicka 4, buyers get 500MB data to get them started. From my own use of the Neon Kicka 4, this is a lot! A further 500 megabytes of data are available every month for 5 months, granted the user buys a data bundle of at least Kshs 50 for every one of those 5 months.

It gets even more interesting: in case one is not able to afford the Kshs 3,500 required to buy the Neon Kicka 4 outright, they can pay for it in installments over a 3-month period and then pick up the device at a Safaricom shop after clearing the last installment. This is the kind of arrangement that money people call “layby”.

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Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com