Huawei may not yet be famous in the USA, but we’ve been keeping an eye on their Android phones, and they have been steadily making progress, so we were very curious to see what the Huawei Honor, aka Huawei U8860, could do in the real world. This smartphone has a very “plain” look to it, and nothing in its design language is a “power statement”, so most people would assume that it is an average to below-average phone when looking at it. In fact the Huawei Honor proves to be a responsive phone with a user interface that is well thought-out and surprisingly convenient. The unlock screen, or the virtual keyboard have a few trick that others will find “inspiration” from – I am sure of that. In this review, I’ll cover the strengths and weaknesses of the Huawei Honor/U8860. You may not be able to buy it now, but keep an eye on this company.
We all use our smartphones differently, that’s why I tell you what I do with them: I check my email (Microsoft Exchange), and I reply very moderately because virtual keyboards are slow to type with. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and stocks (mainly on mobile sites), but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, and I rarely play games on the go. In the evenings, I may use my phone as a TV remote from time to time. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.
1.4GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor
4” FWVGA (854×480) display
8 Megapixel rear camera, VGA front camera
720p video recording
External design (clean and simple)
On the outside, the Huawei Honor looks like a classic Android phone. Its design is clean and uncluttered. There are very few buttons on the side and top: just the Power and volume control, and that’s great because this avoid accidental key-presses when holding it. There’s a silver enclosure around the display, but I can’t tell if it is aluminum. It doesn’t feel like it.
On the back, the plastic cover is white with what looks like some speckles, which is nice. The cover feels a bit plastic (because it is), and it is thicker than what can be found on phones like the Galaxy S2 which have an extremely thin back cover.
Overall, the Huawei Honor build quality is good, but a few clues do send the message that it is not one of those super high-end phones. The screen enclosure looks plastic and could be improved. Secondly, the LCD display contour is very visible and that’s something that high-end phones try to avoid as much as possible as it sends the subtle message that contrast may not be the highest.
The phone is well-built and is solid, but Huawei can improve aesthetics and use better materials, if their pricing structure allows.
Display (great on a sunny day)
The Huawei Honor’s display is very interesting is a very decent LCD that can display bight images and colors that are fairly accurate. It won’t break any records in terms of contrast, which is its weakness, but it works really well outdoors. I compared it with the iPhone 4S LCD IPS display, and the Huawei Honor did much better on a sunny day. It looks like LG’s NOVA technology but I don’t know what it actually is. In any case, this is a good one to have for outdoor use.
Of course, the hardware is only as good as the soft were behind it, and I came into this review not expecting anything special. After all, it’s Android 2.3 so… what’s new? Well, I was in for a surprise: what’s new is that this is a phone that is surprisingly snappy, and one of the reasons is that it came without much bloatware.
Many Android phones come loaded with a ton of apps (usually forced upon by the wireless carrier) that are not only installed, but loaded in memory and in the background at all times. People may try to use “task killers” to get rid of those, but it may makes things worse because the OS will re-launch them periodically. Not having bloatware to start with is the way to go.
Lockscreen: Huawei is using a lock screen that has a built-in quick launch to the Camera, SMS and Phone apps. There’s a 4th icon to just unlock, without launching an app. I use the camera app on a regular basis, so this is a big time saver. I love it, and although some handset makers are doing something similar, many still are not — and they should!
Fluid user interface: People often complain about Android’s choppiness when it comes to scrolling, but the Huawei Honor is surprisingly smooth. In fact it feels smoother than many “high-end” devices, despite using a “3D” effect on the user interface, which is projected on a cube. The framerate itself is not insanely high, but there is rarely jitters in the scrolling, which makes it appear as smoother. The phone is also fast to react to user input and only slows down when there is data download going on.
Virtual keyboard: The virtual keyboard is one of the best customization that I have seen on any Android virtual keyboard. Until now, the “fast way” to access special characters like numbers or punctuation was to press and hold for a second or two. I don’t know for you, but I find this very slow. Huawei has a solution to this that I have never seen on Android before (although someone else may be using it):
If you swipe “up” on a keyboard key, you get the capital version (‘a’ becomes ‘A’), if you swipe down on a key, you get the special character (‘h’ becomes ‘!’). This is awesome as it is so much faster than anything else that I have seen so far. The best part is that the keyboard is no more visually “noisy” than existing keyboards. I’m loving this, and I hope that everyone will start to offer something like this.
Task Manager: I don’t want to fuel the debate about closing apps or leaving them in the background, but sometime, closing an app that you don’t need isn’t such a bad thing, especially if you use the integrated task manager that makes sure that system processes or apps that will re-spawn don’t get killed. You can close the apps in two taps, which is great and frankly much better than the iPhone (double-click to open the menu, then one tap per app). It would be cool if the task manager was displaying how many apps are active directly from a widget.
Let’s review our short list of “killer apps” that many people can’t life without and see how they run on this phone.
Email: email support, including with MS Exchange is very decent. The interface is clean, and multi-item actions are available. It is possible to flag items (but the flags won’t sync back to the Exchange server). The only thing that I would like to change is the black background in the main inbox view as it is hard to read in direct sunlight. Individual emails are shown on a white background.
Skype works great, including video calls, but don’t expect the image-quality to be great. It’s certainly good enough to see who you are talking to, but even over WiFi, the receipient told me that the video was relatively blurry. It would work OK in a 320×240 window however. If you don’t use Skype often I strongly recommend disabling the audio or vibration notifications because it will go off like crazy while Skype is downloading older conversations.
Maps, Web browsing… : Google maps work great, there’s nothing special to report. I really like the map pre-load from the Google Maps Labs, I highly recommend it. The web browser offers a very typical Android experience, it works and Flash 11 is supported at the moment. All in all, the basics are very well covered.
In terms of measured performance, the Huawei Honor has a hard time keeping up with dual-core phones. The CPU and graphics benchmarks show that clearly. It can certainly run casual games and your casual 2D gamer has nothing to fear. However, the most edgy 3D polygonal titles may suffer low frame-rates.
Entertainment (below average)
1080p video playback: Unfortunately, our usual 1080p videos didn’t play properly, and although we had audio going on, the video did not show, and the phone appeared too have a hard time coping with the quantity of data to process. A second attempt did
Android Market video rental: I didn’t have any issues with renting a movie on the Android Market, or play YouTube streams. In both cases, the stream was decent, but the compression was visible, especially on fast-moving scenes.
Interestingly, outside of gaming and other heavy-duty tasks, Huawei has managed to make the phone fast and responsive, which is great. That said, with quad-core handsets coming out within weeks, it is clear that those looking for a “high-specs” handset will seek happiness elsewhere.
Photos: like most smartphone cameras, the Huawei Honor does surprisingly well on a nice sunny day: the photos are nice, and noise-free and things do look very good overall. In low-light, things get much tougher. To compensate for the lack of light, the Huawei Honor uses gain (amplification) to make the image brighter. That introduces a lot of noise. The Huawei Honor is hardly the only phone to have that issue and even heavy hitters like the iPhone 4 suffers from that, although to a lesser extent. Also, this is not very visible when images are reduced in size (like the one below), so it’s mostly OK for web usage.
You can expect the video recording to reflect the same properties. Overall, the Huawei Honor is a fairly good camera phone, but vampires would probably opt for the iPhone 4S. If you want to see the original photos, I have uploaded them to our Ubergizmo Flickr account.
Gallery App: this is pretty much the plain vanilla Android gallery, but after installing the Facebook app, it started to syncs my Facebook albums as well, which is nice.
Battery life (good)
Because this is an International phone, I was using the Huawei Honor on an EDGE network which is typically less demanding on the battery but overall, I found the battery life to be very decent. Typically, I can forget to charge it, and mostly be OK on the day after. You mileage may vary, but for me, it’s not a phone that I need to charge every night. I also found the battery to charge relatively fast. I’ll have to run more tests, but it went from 0% to 30% very quickly.
Slow USB file copy: for some reason, I found the USB file copy to be very slow. I tried to copy 421MB worth of media files for this test, and the copy speed was only 1.35MB/sec. It felt noticeably slower than with other smartphones or tablets.
Although the Huawei Honor is not a “specifications monster”, it is a nonetheless a good smartphone, if you don’t mind much about games and video playback. The user experience is fluid, and it never slowed down on me, except when I started to push the graphics or the CPU in benchmarks. For the rest (email, browser, user interface…) it has done well.
Still, as good as it is, there is a lot of tough competition for any Android phone, and with a street price of $599 or so, it does in direct competition with the iPhone 4S, or the Samsung Galaxy S2. For $100 more, you can even get a Galaxy Nexus, so this is not a done deal. Right now, and that the same price, I would lean towards the Galaxy S2 because it has AMOLED, a dual-core and a slightly better camera.
Still, I’m pretty impressed by what I consider to be a newcomer. Keep an eye on Huawei because they understand the value of having a clean interface and in the virtues of not pre-loading the phone with bloatware. Can they do with when dealing with wireless carriers? I don’t know, but for now, I like what I see.
Next Story: Haptic code entry to replace PIN codes at ATMs?
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