China-based Huawei may not be a well-known brand in the U.S., but that could change with the Huawei Ascend, an Android 2.1 phone now selling at Cricket Wireless. Though its $150 price tag (or $130 with a limited-time online discount) is no match for T-Mobile's $30 LG Optimus T, keep in mind that Cricket won't make you sign a contract. By contrast, Cricket's Sanyo Zio comes with a $180 price tag and the outdated Android 1.6 operating system.
The Ascend is quite a package, too. It brings a 3.5-inch HVGA touch screen, support, and 3G and Wi-Fi. Build quality is nice, and the handset is sleek and attractive. Yet there are a few gaps in the feature set that you'll have to overlook. Huawei has chosen a 2.5-millimeter headset jack instead of the standard 3.5-millimeter port, and Cricket has choked the home screen and app tray with over a dozen preloaded apps that aren't removable in the Settings application manager. Call quality in our tests left much to be desired on Cricket's roaming network. Despite these faults, the Ascend is easily Cricket's best phone in terms of hardware.
For a budget smartphone, the Huawei Ascend has its charms. It features rounded corners and a sloping chin. Its glossy black plastic face and back are dressed up with a dark gray bezel and polished chrome sides. While we wouldn't recommend dropping it, the Ascend looks like it could take a few licks and keep on ticking. At 4.5 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.55 inch deep, it's on par with other smartphones in terms of pocketability. Weighing in at 4.7 ounces, the Ascend has a very solid feel in the hand; it likewise feels fine on the ear.
We prefer touch screens measuring 3.5 inches or more for optimal visibility and touch usability, and the Ascend fits the bill. Its 3.5-inch HGVA display has a 480x320-pixel resolution and supports 262,000 colors. Sure, it's not the most advanced screen on the market, but for the phone's price and feature set, it doesn't need to be. We had no complaints all around. Though it's plenty bright in power save mode, you can adjust the Ascend's display if you prefer a more radiant screen. The virtual keyboard has large buttons that are easy to press. It comes with Swype loaded up by default, which lets you trace the letters of the word you'd like to type. You can change back to the standard touch keyboard by pressing and holding within a text field and then selecting "input method."
The display, of course, takes up the majority of the Ascend's real estate, with a trackball and four hard key buttons below--Menu, Back, and heavily stylized Talk and End keys. Like all hardware buttons they take a firmer press than most touch-sensitive controls, but they also lead to far fewer mispresses. The trackball is an admirable addition for those who prefer to keep finger smudges off their phone's screen.
Huawei has done a nice job of tucking the camera button, volume rocker, power button, and microSD card slot into the right and left spines. Even better is the hatch that uncovers the Micro-USB charging port and the 2.5-millimeter headset jack, although we'd have called for a standard 3.5-millimeter jack. On the rather plasticky back cover is a chrome-plated module housing the 3.2-megapixel camera lens.
One result of Android's openness is that phone manufacturers and carriers can stock the OS' start screen with their own flair. Huawei's take is a mix of playfulness and clutter. The rectangular onscreen navigation bar contains large, almost cartoonish, finger-friendly icons that open the app tray, the phone book, the contact list, the text composition window, and a view of the home screens.
Huawei has stamped another mark on the Ascend by giving the smartphone a nine-panel home screen in a grid design. That means you can swipe through three home screens from east to west, and three for each screen from north to south, while filling up each with widgets, shortcuts, and bookmarks. Typically for the Android operating system, pulling down the notification drawer at the top of the screen provides access to messages, open apps, and so forth.
The Ascend sports several icons that differ from the Android standard, including new icons for the dialer, gallery, and calculator. Despite the visual noise of the interface right out of the box, the Ascend is mostly easy to navigate. We took umbrage, however, at the dialer interface, which forces you to open the Menu to end a call onscreen (you can still use the End button) and turn on speakerphone. A dedicated call end button like we see on almost every other smartphone would have been better.
The Huawei Ascend comes equipped with a satisfying set of hardware and software features. You'll find voice dialing, a speakerphone, threaded text and multimedia messaging, and the full range of wireless options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. The phone book is limited only by the available memory, and there's room in each entry for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, group IDs, photo caller IDs, and so on. You can merge contact information from various accounts, such as Gmail and Outlook--as with every Android phone, some of our contact information was out of sync.