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Vertu Aster Review: A Watch Collector’s Perspective

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The new Vertu Aster brings smartphones into the storied world of the watch collector

The Vertu Aster here with the stunning platinum MB&F Legacy Machine 2. A perfect match for the watch collector? You tell us.

The Vertu Aster here with the stunning platinum MB&F Legacy Machine 2. A perfect match for the watch collector? You tell us.

 

This won’t be a review of whether or not the Vertu Aster represents good value. It is, after all, a mobile phone that costs almost 10x that of an iPhone. Then again, this is a site that covers watches hundreds if not thousands of times the cost of a supermarket quartz – they both tell the time.

In any case, nobody starts as a watch collector putting down hundreds of thousands of dollars for their first watch (at least not for the majority of us). You kind of grow into it – appreciating at every heightened value level the different intricacies and feats of human ingenuity that go into making that small piece of gold on your wrist. And over time, this appreciation and honing of what one can call haute consciousness permeates the other, non-horological aspects of a collector’s lifestyle. From handmade shoes and sartorial items; to mechanical wonders like music boxes and automatons.

Why is there a need for Berluti and their hand-engraved scritto leathers when perfectly good Doc Marten’s can be gotten at 1/10th of the price and probably lasts longer; then again why a Doc Mart’s when there are Bata shoes again at 1/10th of the price.

As the world becomes increasingly industrialised, the everyday products that surround us are becoming more and more ubiquitous and less unique – faceless items that is but one of the millions that everyone else has – and as Bozell puts it: “…there is a backlash against consumer culture, people are demanding products as unique as they are. In a world of mass-produced sameness, more and more people are craving the unique.”

But I think it’s more than that, more than just being unique. Many watch collectors are also driven by the romantic notion that their watch on hand took hundreds if not thousands of man hours to design and craft from blocks of metal; and another hundred more to be hand finished and hand assembled. Of course the degree of this is dependent on the price, and on where the watch comes from: perhaps more so from the independents and less so from the oligarchs.

Handmade in England

Enter Vertu and their ‘Handmade in England’ claim that every Vertu is, and always has been, handmade by a single craftsman at their small factory in Church Crookham, England.

My Aster, for example, was made from start to finish by a K. Usher – with his signature engraved beneath the titanium sim-card door at the back of the phone.

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Handmade by K. Usher in England; signed into the hand-brushed titanium sim-card plate at the back of the phone

 

Whether it’s a watch, or a belt buckle or a phone – it’s always nice to know that a single craftsman has created that unique something just for you. Of course doing so virtually assures an extremely high cost of production – and even more so in the watch world where honestly having just one watchmaker see production from start to finish is today quite rare.

The titanium sound bar, sides and backplates are hand brushed. The ruby key by the side which brings up the concierge service is hand polished. Even the screws are hand turned.

 

vertu-back

 

Design, Fit and Finish

The Aster is stunning in a not-too-overt manner – sophisticated lines bordered by flourishes of polished and brushed titanium amidst a generous dollop of premium leather. Personally – when compared to the Signature Touch – i think it comes across as more sophisticated looking and I do prefer the textured calf leather grain of the Aster’s vs the smooth leathers of the Signature Touch.

Hardened titanium has been used in Aster’s side rails, back plate, pillow and sound bar. Usually found in spacecraft and sports cars, titanium is more than twice as strong as stainless steel and almost half the weight. It’s not a light phone however, even with the generous use of titanium in its facade and substructure, and is extremely rigid with zero flex no matter how hard I try to bend it.

 

hand-brushed concentric ‘race-track’ lines around the side rails create a stunning counterpoint to polished areas; and the hand polished ruby just glows in the light

Hand-brushed concentric ‘race-track’ lines around the side rails create a stunning counterpoint to polished areas; and the hand polished ruby just glows in the light

 

For a machine that is handmade, the Vertu impresses with very tight tolerances to fit with no gaps across its major parts – all held together firmly with the same screws used in high-end watches. I am rather tempted to take them apart and ‘blue’ them using my bunson burner though.

Vertu has chosen a contrast between polished and brushed surfaces for its titanium parts – rather well done although nothing close to the mirror polish titanium maestros like De Bethune do for their casework. Costs, however, have been cut down by replacing what used to be ceramic pillows on the hearing and talking pieces to laser-blasted, hardened black PVD titanium. I would have preferred them to use a more lasting DLC coating here.

And even in the really hard to machine aircraft titanium bits, there are no sharp angles. everything is rounded and where necessary polished. It’s not so much the same anglage you find in higher end watches, but it’s good enough.

The leathers are gorgeous, perfect, and with absolutely no give, stretch or ‘bubbles’ in between the base layers. According to Vertu, the leathers are further rigorously ‘wet and dry’ tested with 11 different chemicals, that they remain as resilient as possible.

Vertu has done well in design department indeed.

The Screen

The Aster has a perfectly sized 4.7 inch LCD screen featuring a massive 117 carat sapphire crystal at 1080P resolution. And you have to see it in real life to really appreciate it. The sapphire gives a rich, optically perfect, and larger than life look to whatever is displayed on the screen. And the fact that I no longer need to use a screen protector (admit it, everyone uses one today, even you) improves optics tremendously.

 

117 carats of a single piece of 5th-gen sapphire crystal. I have no idea what 5th gen means though

117 carats of a single piece of 5th-gen sapphire crystal. I have no idea what 5th gen means though

 

The Sound

To me, this is the key defining differentiator of a Vertu. It’s just absolutely mind blowing – the speakers and sound quality of the Aster are that good to the point of incredulity: “how in the world can two tinny speakers sound so big?” Nothing comes close – the HTC One is world apart – and the matchup with high resolution recordings by he London Symphonic Orchestra as ringtones by Vertu is a smart move. Because honestly, only a Vertu is able to bring to life the LSO’s genius as a ringtone out-of-the-box.

With the iconic LSO Sandpiper ringtone, just about everybody around you will ‘hear’ your Vertu and even if they don’t know what it is, almost all will ask: ‘how does your phone sound so good?’

Playing games and movies, especially with the Aster’s Dolby Surround accentuate the experience and the sound envelopes you. My only issue with the Dolby implementation is that for audiophile-level recordings (I recommend Neutron Music Player) the Dolby muddles things up and I would rather disable it.

The packaged earbuds – while so much better than what any other manufacturer bundles – are still commercial grade and no where close to what audiophiles are used to. But when the unit is paired with the legendary SE846, i must say that sound quality is very very good – as close as you can get to an Astell & Kern AK100. I have no idea what DAC Vertu uses in the Aster, but my ears are loving it.

Call Quality

The Aster touts noise cancellation from two microphones that cut ‘noise’ from the microphone and earpiece, with high-definition voice certification for crystal-clear calls. And by jove it totally works. Calls have never been clearer from either side of the line, and while this isn’t VoLTE, I dare say it performs a great many notches up when compared to my iPhone 6 plus.

It Has a Moonphase!

One thing that makes a Vertu a Vertu is its custom in-built apps. And a key piece is its 3D clock widget that literally pops out on the main screen. It has a 3D moon phase, and being an active app rotates slightly whenever you move your phone, and has indicators in blue that show how busy you are – perfectly synced to your Exchange calendar. As you can see below, I’m having a full day of conference calls and reminders.

 

3D moon phase clock widget and wallpaper that move to where you move the phone

3D moon phase clock widget and wallpaper that move to where you move the phone

 

Vertu’s Android launcher – called Launcher3 – is black themed, simple to operate with no fuss, fast and rather lightweight. I like it very much and prefer it to whatever Samsung or Sony has come up with. It’s nicely integrated with Vertu’s unique Vertu Life and Vertu Concierge app, which completes the Vertu experience by showing you the exclusive, curated lifestyle events that an owner might be interested in participating, and a concierge app that allows you to book it or any other request directly from the phone. Vertu’s concierge service is honestly not any better than what we get with the Centurion, but the deep on-screen integration removes any guesswork and makes it easy to track your requests.

 

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The Aster comes with the ‘Classic’ Vertu Concierge service for 6 months, versus the ‘Dedicated’ service for a year. Apart from the tenure of service, the key difference is that you won’t get one dedicated concierge throughout the lifetime of your service but get thrown into a call centre pool for the next available agent to pickup. It isn’t that bad honestly – the agents are polite and knowledgeable, but again, they are no where close to Centurion’s. But this is Vertu’s first implementation of a basic service and I have no doubt things will get better.

Camera Performance

The Vertu Aster touts a 13MP camera ‘certified’ by Hasselblad but honestly I find the camera merely ‘bearable’ when compared to that of my iPhone 6 plus or Note 4. While it takes good outdoor shots or anywhere there is good daylight, it fails to impress indoors or at low light levels. Sharpness, accuracy and detail is lost somewhat. It does a little better with macro shots but just barely.

The hardware is sound, but Vertu needs to work more on the software and come up with a firmware that fixes camera and other issues.

 

Indoor fluorescent shot of the Vertu Singapore store manager

Indoor fluorescent shot of the Vertu Singapore store manager

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Outdoor shot in Southampton at sunset

Indoor closeups at the Vertu Old Bond Street boutique

Indoor closeups at the Vertu Old Bond Street boutique

 

Battery Life & Performance

Battery life and performance is fine if you’re using basic, everyday items like Exchange emails, a little bit of surfing and social media. Battery life with moderate usage here is probably about 10% per hour – about the same as an iPhone 5.

But slap on a game or two, or aggressive camera usage with photo-editing apps and the story changes. The titanium backplate heats up quite a bit (no thanks to its titanium substructure which conducts heat) and battery life can get consumed up really really fast, at about twice to 3x that of standard use. And apps that need quite a bit of processing power (or when using multiple apps) do make the unit laggy. Again, while the technical specs of the Aster are up to par, there is still much much more that Vertu can do in optimising its firmware to take advantage of the power of the Qualcomm chipset.

The Vertu spokesperson has assured me that yes, more performance updates are on the way and pretty soon too. Fingers crossed.

Conclusion

While I promised not to compare it’s value to other mobile phones, but within the Vertu family, it is one of the most rational Vertus yet from a value standpoint. The same innards as a Signature Touch (RRP: S$14,300) but much more affordable by almost 40% at RRP: S$9,100. The sound quality, unique apps, finish and attention to detail come together in a perfect package that spells unique luxury like no other communications device. I never really understood a Vertu till I owned one. It is the human touch surrounding a Vertu that makes it so unique (and so pricey).

From the handmade and hand-finished angles of the phone, to the human service at the boutique and concierge. This seems to be less a communications device and more of an enabling device that surrounds how you can extend our accentuate your lifestyle whether through work, family or play. The fact that it makes calls can at times seem as an afterthought, but when it does, the quality of calls made are exemplary.A lot of the cost seems to go into the Vertu Concierge service, and honestly no other company comes close in seamlessly integrating in-your-hand services technology with the human concierge at the other end of the line.

It’s failing is a firmware that has failed to optimise the phone’s camera, performance and battery around the potential its hardware specifications suggest. It is my hope that Vertu delivers on its promises in this respect fast.

Would I recommend this? Well I did buy and pay for one. If you are looking for a Vertu or a phone in this category – I think this is the one to get – the Aster is simply hard to beat at this stage. But if you are looking for a general recommendation, then it really depends on what you are looking for. Would one recommend a Greubel Forsey to someone that just needs to tell the time?

Buying Tips

It’s always cheaper to buy a Vertu from its country of manufacture – England – and if you’re a Harrods Black Tier cardholder, the rebates and prices you can get are quite compelling. And if you’re there for  a week or two, you might be able to customise your Aster with your monogram and colors within 5 days since the factory is just a couple of hours away from London.

As with anything handmade, nothing is perfect so if you’re a stickler for flawlessness like myself, make sure you check every micro-inch of the phone before you sign the slip. You have every right to reject a set that you think is less than ideal, and the wonderful staff at the boutiques will cater to your every whim and fancy.

Get a case. One thing about owning a Vertu – especially if it’s your first one – is that you’ll start babying it and start suffering ‘drop dread’. For peace of mind, get a case. Or get Hughes to make one for you :P.

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  1. I own a vertu Aster and in fact I’m leaving this comment with it right now, it’s an awesome phone all hail vertu