Handset maker Huawei has long been known for its budget phones, many of which manage to pack in plenty of features for under the hundred dollar mark.
So what is a $500 phone like for the company, and can it compete with the top-tier devices put out by the likes of HTC and Samsung?
With a $499 price tag, the Huawei Ascend P1 is a phone that occupies a spot in the middle of the range, and yet is loaded with the sort of features one would normally associate with a reasonably high priced phone.
Let’s start with the screen, and with a 4.3 inch Super AMOLED screen covered in Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, Huawei has made sure to avoid the low-end gear it normally throws into the sub-$200 handsets we see from the company.
The resolution isn’t as high as some of the premium phones we’re seeing this year, sporting the quarterHD resolution of 960×540 and a value of 256 pixels per inch, not quite the same 329ppi value known as “Retina” seen on the iPhone 4S, but still nothing to sneeze at.
Huawei has built the phone out of an all plastic chassis, with a minimum thickness of 7.7mm and a weight of 110 grams.
Under the hood, there’s a dual-core 1.5GHz processor, PowerVR dedicated graphics chip, 1GB RAM, and roughly 2GB of usable on-board storage, with room to move in the microSD expansion slot on the side of the handset.
Android is the operating system of choice, an while it’s not the very latest release, it is this year’s version of choice for manufacturers – 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich.
Multimedia is taken care of in the form of an 8 megapixel camera with autofocus, dual-LED flash, and 1080p full HD video capture. A front camera is also here with a 1.3 megapixel module, useful if you plan on snapping some self portraits or enjoying a video chat.
Connectivity is pretty standard here, with 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, GPS, Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP, and a microUSB port at the top of the phone for charging and moving data to and from the handset.
As is pretty much the norm these days, there are few physical buttons to speak of, with a power button on the right and a volume rocker on the left. Three soft buttons sit on the front, offering access to menu options, Android’s home screen, and a back button.
A 3.5mm headset jack can be found on the top left of the device, next to the microUSB port and SIM card slot.
The 1670mAh battery is built into the phone and isn’t replaceable.
What can just short of half a grand outright get you in the world of mobile phones? That’s the question Huawei has posed with the Ascend P1, a premium phone sporting a dual-core processor, 4.3 inch screen, and a thickness normally left for devices in the high-end.
Aesthetically, we’re reminded of the Samsung Galaxy S2 with a slightly curved back and a small chin on the rear in pretty much the same place as Samsung’s older handset.
Switching it on, the Ascend P1 is a sprightly little thing, going from off to ready and working in ten to fifteen seconds.
The benchmarks tells us that it’s not as fast as the dual-core HTC handsets from this year, the One XL and One S, but it still manages to prove itself to be a speedy little phone when using apps, browsing the menus, and sliding between homescreens.
In fact, we encountered very little lag when using the device altogether, and even found Huawei’s Android overlay to be a nice and simple 3D rotating cube system that also lets you switch to Google’s stock Ice Cream Sandwich layout, identical to what can be seen in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone from late last year.
Huawei’s on-screen keyboard could do with a bit of work, as it lacks responsiveness and some of the keys feel like they’re in the wrong places, including a disappearing spacebar replaced with a “.com” when you’re typing searches in the browser URL bar.
That said, you can get around this quickly by switching to the default Android keyboard, or by downloading one of the many keyboard replacements from the Google Play Store.
There isn’t much built-in memory for you to work with here, with just under 2GB of space to install things to. At least there’s a microSD slot for you to upgrade your phone easily.
Battery life is a lot like the performance: surprisingly decent. We managed around a day and a half from the 1670mAh battery inside with making calls, social networking, browsing the web, and downloading apps from Google’s Play Store.
As good a value as the $499 price tag is, there are some problems with Huawei’s mid-range miracle worker.
One of these is the 3G connection speed. We tried our regular speed tests throughout the Sydney CBD and the Inner West on the Telstra network and received a maximum of 2.8Mbps, a distance from the minimum speeds of 4 and 5Mbps we find on other handsets in the same places.
Another is the camera quality, and while the label on the casing says “8 megapixel,” it’s certainly not the best eight megapixel camera in a phone we’ve come across. Image quality on the whole seems less than what we saw in last year’s Samsung Galaxy S2, another phone that featured an eight megapixel camera.
Photos appear either overly sharp or very blurry, with the images usually a strange combination of the two. Our experiments with the panorama feature on the handset even yielded ghosts of buildings, and HDR images came out looking like three poorly layered images.
It’s nice that Huawei has at least customised the native camera app and thrown in some retro style effects, but the camera on this handset probably won’t replace your compact any time soon, and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the eight megapixel module on the Samsung Galaxy S3 handset, but it should suffice for social networking uses.
Huawei’s build quality is also something we took issue with, as the all-plastic design feels very cheap. We are talking about a $499 phone, but Huawei has used aluminium and rubber in some of its handsets in the past, so we had hoped for something with a little more sturdiness than the light plastic on offer.
What we have is a phone with the same sort of greasy plastic we experienced in the Galaxy S3, but with less emphasis on build. The phone body creaks in places as you hold it and can come off feeling cheap.
The SIM card slot on the top of the phone echoes this lack of quality, with a door cover that rarely fits in place properly over the slot and manages to pop itself out frequently.
Heaven forbid you ever have to switch to a different phone, the Ascend’s SIM card slot is one of the tightest we’ve ever felt. It’s a spring-loaded slot like many of them are, but the SIM just doesn’t come out far enough, and you’ll probably need to grab something sticky like Blu-tac to dislodge it from its slot.
Huawei’s $499 Ascend P1 manages to prove that the company can make a splash in the mid-range models of smartphones, with an entry that features good performance and strong value. There are some quibbles, but on the whole, it’s not a bad little handset.
If you’re considering a high-end phone and don’t necessarily want to fork out the extra dollar signs, you may want to look at the Ascend P1 first.