If there's one thing that U.S .Cellular does very well as a carrier, it's offer smartphones at very affordable prices. The Huawei Ascend Y Android handset costs only a penny in 3G areas, and $29.99 in markets with 4G.
And yes, you can consider price this Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone's most compelling feature. Beyond the outdated version of Android, the Ascend Y is 3G-only, and comes with basic hardware features, including a mediocre camera without a flash, a slower processor, and a smaller battery. The low-end feature set is intentional; smartphones cost a lot to make, and budget models like this lower the barrier for entry that faces those on tight budgets.
However, that doesn't mean the Ascend Y beats out its fellows. For instance, the much more developed LG Splendor costs the same up-front price on a Web special at the time of this review. Samsung's Galaxy Axiom is also a good deal, and is 4G-enabled.
Design and build
To Huawei's credit, their designers do put thought into their products, and as a result, the Ascend Y is pretty easy on the eye. It's black with rounded corners, some contouring on the face, and a dark gray, metallic strip on the back panel. At just 4.6 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide and 0.46-inch thick, it's a compact phone that's both palmable and pocketable. A soft-touch finish on the back cover makes it comfortable to hold and adds a little class to an otherwise plain backing.
The 4.4-ounce weight isn't as light as some phones, but in this case, the added gravity keeps the Ascend Y from looking and feeling too cheap.
There's a 3.5-inch HVGA touch screen with a pixel resolution of 480x320. The screen is extremely small by today's standards, but even a few months ago, top phones like the iPhone 4S, sported this size. A third-party app like SwiftKey or Swype might help out those who find the virtual keyboard too small to type on. I have relatively smaller fingertips, and was able to compose e-mail and texts with the normal number of errors. The screen quality itself is totally adequate, but colors may not look as bright and edges may not look as sharp as on more premium phone models.
Below the screen, you'll navigate with three touch-sensitive buttons. The power button and standard 3.5-millimeter headset jack are on top. On the left sits a rather short volume rocker; you'll plug your Micro-USB charger into the port on the bottom. The flash-less camera lens on the Ascend Y's B-side and micro-SD card slot beneath the back cover round out the simple hardware features.
Unfortunately, you have to pop the battery to swap in a larger card than the 2GB one that Huawei includes. The Ascend Y can hold up to 32GB in external storage.
OS and apps
Android 2.3 Gingerbread brings with it support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, plus all the tried-and-true Android features, including support for multiple social and e-mail accounts, multiple home pages, and access to a slew of Google services from the phone, voice navigation included.
Huawei adds its own custom layer on top of Gingerbread, enabling useful features like a lock screen that can snap open the camera, text messages, or the phone log. There's also access to quick settings from the notifications window, and the Huawei look and feel in the app tray.
Speaking of apps, you'll find some preloads when you first boot up the phone -- including a backup app, a slew of Amazon apps, a notebook app, a voice recorder, and a storefront for ringtones. I like that the Ascend Y comes with a voice dialer to complement its voice search app, though it's really just a shortcut to tasks you can already perform with Android.
An FM radio, a calculator, a calendar, a clock, a music player, and the WebKit browser all come standard with Android, and you can download any other apps, music, movies, and TV that you'd like from the updated Google Play store.
Don't expect much from the Ascend Y's 3.2-megapixel camera and you may not be disappointed. It'll capture license plate numbers and help you remember where you parked, but you won't be turning a photo into a mug or an 8x10 wall print.
For starters, there's no flash, which means that night shots and indoor photos won't come out their best, if they come out at all. There's also no auto-focus, which means that you'll have to possess steady hands and a good eye for focus.