FNB's ConeXis Phones Continue The Bank's Charge Into 21st Century Banking
South African bank FNB has announced that it will be offering its clients two
Android based handsets that are branded as FNB devices. Here's more about the smartphones, as well as some first impressions of both the initiative and one of the phones, to help you decide on whether you should get one.
This week FNB announced that it is launching two FNB-branded Android
smartphones that both new and existing customers will be able to purchase.
The flagship is the FNB ConeXis X1, a mid-range 5.2-inch device running Android 6
, which journalists received at the launch to evaluate, while the FNB ConeXis A1 is an entry level device that's designed to help lower income customers move on to smartphones.
Both devices have FNB's banking app installed and clients are being encouraged to use it to take control of their financial matters.
Above: A quick unboxing of the FNB ConeXis X1.
You can get a quick look at what's inside the box when you purchase an FNB ConeXis X1 by watching the video above. The phones have very different specifications, the highlights of which are as follows:
FNB ConeXis X1 (A506-P809F52)
5.2-inch 720x1080 display
1.3 GHz quad-core Qualcomm processor
8 GB internal storage
1 GB DDR3 RAM
microSD card slot (plus free 16 GB microSD card)
8 megapixel back camera; 5 megapixel front camera
Locked to FNB Connect (Cell C): GSM; UTMS; HSPA+; LTE Cat4
Bluetooth 4.1; Wi-Fi 802.11/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, GPS
2540 mAh battery
FNB ConeXis A1 (FNB L111)
4.0-inch 480x800 display
1.3 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A7 processor
8 GB internal storage
1 GB DDR3 RAM
microSD card slot
5 megapixel back camera; 2 megapixel front camera
Locked to FNB Connect (Cell C): GSM; WCDMA; Cat 14/Cat 6
Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR; Wi-Fi 802.11/b/g/n; GPS
1400 mAh battery (plus free 2600 mAh power bank)
The handsets are manufactured by ZTE in China, a partnership that was forged after FNB spent months looking for the right manufacturer. "We spent a lot of time looking at different suppliers and factories, walked many
factory floors to find the right supplier," says Kartik Mistry, FNB's head of smart devices.
ZTE is a tier one supplier to brands such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Virgin Mobile, as well as one of the biggest phone producers in China under its own brand and has years of experience producing at volume so there's no issue for FNB if the demand for the ConeXis phones exceeds expectations. "There's no constraint on production so if we have to ramp up production that's not a problem at all," says Jan Kleynhans, the CEO of the FNB consumer segment.
Both phones have decent specifications for the market segments they are targetting, bar one area: the internal storage. I know 8 GB is still a standard inclusion for entry level and some mid-range phones (case in point: the Alcatel One Touch Go Play, which I'm in the process of evaluating) but it's a headache. The operating system usually takes up nearly 4 GB, plus system apps and vendor apps take up more space, so you're left with less than 4 GB for your apps and files.
You can extend as much as you want with a microSD card, which is primarily useful for media files from the camera (photos and videos), but the fact remains that Android
constantly wants to stuff part - or sometimes all - of an app in its root partition, which is sitting within that 8 GB allocation. With 8 GB you run out of space. Quickly.
With Android 6
, which is on the FNB ConeXis X1, you can have the system reformat the microSD card to incorporate its capacity as part of the system storage but when I went through the setup process with the phone for the first time it didn't offer this as an option. Instead it popped up as a notification in the system bar afterwards. For people who don't know much about technology it's also not clear that if you choose to incorporate the card as part of the system it then becomes dangerous to remove the card, which is no longer treated as external storage for your media files. This is more an issue I have with Android
not managing people's understanding better, rather than these phones, but the BlackBerry PRIV that I tested recently offered the card setup as part of the phone's setup process, which hinted that it might be a good idea but seemed clearer about the differences.
Eligibility And Costs
In order to quality for a phone you have to be an FNB client with a banking transactional account, in which case you can get a handset directly from one of the 380 main branches that will initially have stock in the next week. (The plan is to make stock available at all the branches by the end of the year.)
If you are not a client you can sign up for an Easy Account, which has a R4.95 pay-as-you-use charge or R49 monthly bundle charge for a selection of services, such as four free FNB ATM withdrawals per month, or a Gold Cheque Account, which costs R100 a month and which also includes a selection of free services.
Both phones are available on a 24 month contract from FNB and neither requires a credit check. Instead customers have to put down a deposit (R500 and R1500, respectively), which is kept in an interest bearing Linked Savings Account until the phone has been paid off. The phones come with an FNB Connect SIM and the FNB ConeXis A1 costs R59 a month, for which you get 50 MB of data and 15 minutes of call time per month during the contract period, while the FNB ConeXis X1 costs R150 a month, for which you get 100 MB of data and 25 minutes of call time per month during the contract period.
If you are an eBucks customer then certain actions will give you rebates on the monthly cost for the FNB ConeXis X1 but the explanation for that gets even more complicated so you can look it up on FNB's site if you're really interested.
FNB has also announced a deal that you can use with an FNB Connect SIM (in any unlocked phone by any brand) that offers unlimited calls to any network for R399 per month, however it must be noted that "unlimited" really means staying within the fair-usage policy of 2000 minutes a month. However this is not electronically enforced; instead FNB will review customers on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, the package provides 200 MB and 20 SMSs a month.
FNB Connect customers benefit from zero rated calls to FNB's Banking Call Centre and free data costs when they use the FNB banking app, which is preloaded onto the phones. Customers will also be able to buy airtime even when they don't have any airtime left. Finally, the phones contain education videos to help customers understand FNB's banking products and services better (although, to be honest, they're not very good).
Are They Worth It?
If we set the potential rebates aside you'll be paying R3600 for the FNB ConeXis X1 and R1416 for the ConeXis A1. (With rebates you could, in some cases, end up with the FNB ConeXis X1 for free.)
Above: The phones run ZTE's MiFavor Desktop user interface. The home screens on the FNB ConeXis X1, on first boot (above), are quite clean but the FNB app replaces the usual Android launcher button that gives you quick access to all your installed apps. I couldn't find a way to get it back. This is an interface annoyance as it means I'll have to have all the app icons on the home screens.
Both phones require the FNB Connect SIM as they are SIM locked so you won't be able to use another network's cards in the devices. FNB considers this a pro, as a locked phone is a deterrent to thieves who can't use their own SIMS. The FNB branding on the phones is also quite prominent. Nevertheless, should your phone get stolen, FNB has tested a blacklisting process and Kartik Mistry says that the capability is there - but it remains to be seen whether FNB will use it as there have been issues with the cellular networks not blacklisting stolen phones in the past, which has left consumers frustrated and jaded.
Others may consider a locked phone to be a con, especially since it means becoming locked into a network (FNB has an agreement with Cell C to use its infrastructure) that has problematic - to no - coverage in some areas. (I say this as a paying Cell C data customer with first-hand experience.) You are also stuck having to use FNB's top-up products for data and minutes, which may not be the most competitively priced.
However, according to Kartik Mistry, you can switch to pre paid by settling your device (paying off the remaining cost) "and then the phone is unlocked and you can do whatever you want to".
I tried this by inserting one of my Cell C data SIMS into my FNB ConeXis X1, which I assumed was "paid off" as it's a review unit, and the phone wanted a "SIM network unlock PIN" to be entered, which I do not have. Instead, when I later inserted the FNB Connect SIM, I received 200 MB data (half a megabyte of which was immediately used by background processes), 10 SMSs, and 50 minutes of calling time, which all expires on 22 September. I presume, then, that after that I'll either have to pay for FNB-locked top ups or I'll have a brick. Perhaps the SIM will remain valid so I can use the Wi-Fi for a few more months.
(As an aside, 200 MB of data is not enough for testing a phone. 3DMark
, alone, downloads over 300 MB of test files to run its benchmarks and that's just one of the benchmarking applications that I use.)
Above: It took me about two minutes to set the cellular-data usage warning to 95 MB (left) because it's such a low amount that trying to get the slider there is very fiddly. I didn't even attempt trying to get it below 50 MB. FNB does send notifications to the phone when you are nearing the end of a bundle but it would be great to be able to monitor it more easily with the system tools. The Gallery app (right), which is used to view your pictures, photos, and screenshots, doesn't work at all unless you give it location access, which it really doesn't need.
The data allocation on the packages, and infrastructure lock in, become an issue when you're trying to determine value. Purely looking at features versus price, I did a quick scan online. You could get the Acer Liquid Z220
, which is roughly equivalent to the FNB ConeXis A1, from Raru for R1230 if it was still in stock (I'm not sure if or when it will be restocked), or, more notably, the 16 GB Xiaomi Redmi Note 2
, which has much better specifications than the FNB ConeXis X1, from Takealot.com for R800 less than the FNB ConeXis X1.
Additionally, I don't know many people who are using phones for a significant amount of calling anymore; really, the requirement is data (and, if they are needing to make lots of calls, they can take advantage of the R399 deal with any phone). 100 MB a month is not enough to manage a smartphone with apps that, even when you restrict them to the best of your ability (assuming you are educated enough to know how to), sometimes manage to draw data costs from the ether. I feel that FNB is looking at this as calling devices with a banking app, whereas most people look at phones as social-media devices and data based communication tools (
, as an example). They want to post photos on Instagram, talk on Twitter (which, lately, has become a huge data hog, even on the mobile version), share their life moments on Facebook, with lots and lots of selfies, and watch inane YouTube videos and Vines.
One might argue that you can use Wi-Fi to save on data costs but not everyone has access to Wi-Fi, especially people being targetted by the entry level FNB ConeXis A1, which, let me remind you, only offers 50 MB a month: in the past I've lost much more than that on Google apps that auto updated via the Google Play store before I was able to track down the setting (that I thought I'd switched off), which is buried in the store - and no one who is new to Android
will even know it exists.
Above: System information (left) and storage information (right) for the FNB ConeXis X1. The storage screenshot was taken right after I switched on the phone - I had only taken a few screenshots at that point that took up a few megabytes. The rest of the 8 GB internal storage is being used by the system (4.01 GB) and the additional software that FNB has installed (approximately 307 MB). That leaves just over 3.6 GB for users. The same is true of the FNB ConeXis A1.
One of my other concerns is that the market segments these phones are targetting are filled with people who aren't tech savvy and don't know how to operate devices properly, don't understand permission management and the dangers posed by smart devices and their ability to leak personal data (around which there is very little education; the permissions overhaul offered with Android 6
goes a long way to address problems but you still need to have a bit of an understanding of what's going on), and have little understanding of background tasks that drain data (including location services and Google's "improve your Android experience" diagnostic information, which are both turned on by default when you set up the phones). I'm particularly concerned that the FNB ConeXis A1 only runs Android 5.1
, which has far less rigorous permission management than Android 6
, which can lead to a very swift loss of your 50 MB if you aren't careful.
It may be unfair to single out FNB with regards to some of these issues, as any store that sells smartphones to the general public is handing people data and security problems without offering proper education, but this is a good chance for
FNB to take a lead. There could be better introductory videos on the phones that teach people about some of these issues and how to work with the settings, as just one example.
Above: Google always checks these setting by default when you set up a phone and you have to uncheck them manually if you don't want to use them, are concerned about privacy, or worried that they will use some of your data.
Mobile and app based banking also comes with its own specific security risks but Kartik Mistry was quick to point out that they believe that "the [FNB Banking] app is quite secure" and from that side they have no concerns. With regards to the handsets, "the amount of customisation we've done from a software perspective to make sure that this product suits our customers' needs and suits the network... [...] from that perspective I think we're pretty confident [that the devices are secure]," he says.
Jan Kleynhans adds that "the security around mobile banking and Internet banking is very high. [For] our team that looks after digital banking [it has] become a 24/7 occupation making sure that banking is totally safe."
On another more positive note, I think what the FNB ConeXis A1 represents is very interesting and possibly a game changer for some market segments, even though the FNB representatives at the launch seemed more enthused by the FNB ConeXis X1. Because there are no credit checks it offers poorer people and those with bad credit ratings access to a smartphone (and all that that offers) where, as a bonus, they - literally - have control over their bank accounts and their financial management in their hands via the app - and much of it is free and, as the representatives have assured us, safe.
At no cost they can immediately see what's coming in and going out and, before they can obtain the phone, they are forced to put R500 away in a Linked Savings Account where it is safe, and accrues interest, for two years. This helps to enforce one of FNB's stated goals to promote "overall healthy banking behaviour". Personally I think reducing bank-account charges and costs, and moving away from credit cards and store cards, would be better initiatives to get the country saving and out of debt, but financial education and control over one's own finances are good starting points.
It remains to be seen whether these phones will gain traction but it's worth noting that FNB likes to innovate - I covered one of its previous endeavours, the high-tech dotFNB bank branches
, in 2014. This forward thinking is unusual for a bank.
As a tech journalist that's what I really like - its efforts are progressive and interesting and it is willing to experiment with the technologies of the 21st century.