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EE Kestrel review: A super-cheap 4G-ready phone for the basics

EE's Kestrel is a 4.5-inch Android phone with 4G, a 5-megapixel camera, Android Jelly Bean and a dirt-cheap price tag.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon
Andrew Lanxon headshot

Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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7 min read

Think having access to super-fast 4G data means spending hundreds on the latest, greatest super-phones? Think again. The Kestrel is a 4.5-inch, 4G-ready Android phone that's exclusive to EE and can be yours for only £99 on pay as you go.

ee-kestrel-product.jpg
7.5

EE Kestrel

The Good

4G-ready for your super-fast data needs, EE's Kestrel comes with an extremely reasonable price tag. It has enough power for the everyday essentials, has a reasonable, albeit a little low-resolution display, expandable storage and did I mention the low price?

The Bad

It's running on the now outdated Android Jelly Bean, which has been loaded up with various bits of non-removable bloatware that could confuse, not to mention irritate, new Android converts.

The Bottom Line

If ultra-fast data speeds are of the utmost importance to you, but you don't really care about having the biggest, brightest screen or fastest processor, the EE Kestrel is worth checking out. It won't impress anyone with its specs and the bundled software is annoying, but it's the cheapest way to get on 4G.

That's extremely cheap, so naturally you'll be making some sacrifices on the phone's specifications. It has only a 960x540-pixel resolution display, a 5-megapixel camera and runs the older Android Jelly Bean software. Still, that's enough to tackle your essential social networking, and tweeting will be faster than ever with 4G.

The Kestrel is available now, exclusively on EE. You can get it for free on contracts starting at £14 per month, which will net you 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 500MB of data. Get it on one of EE's pay as you go contracts for £99.

Design and display

If you're looking for an ultra-stylish phone to flaunt in the poshest of cocktail bars, look away -- the Kestrel isn't one of the most beautiful phones around. Its plain grey colour and lightweight, plasticky body certainly aren't luxurious. Considering the price however, I'm willing to forgive this. It has a functional look at least -- the rounded bottom helps -- and its slim size makes it fairly easy to use in one hand.

While far from the solid build of metal phones like the HTC One M8 or the iPhone 5S , the Kestrel at least feels like it could take a knock or two in your pocket and the matte back does a decent job of avoiding scratches.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Around the sides of the phone you'll find the volume and power buttons, with the micro-USB port on top. The headphone jack has been stuck on the bottom left hand side, which I'm not at all keen on. It makes it awkward to cram into your jeans when you have headphones sticking out.

The phone comes with 8GB of built in storage, but there's a microSD card slot under the back panel, so you can pop in a card to store all your music and videos on. You're not able to store apps on an external card though, so you should keep an eye on the space if you download big apps like Nova 3 or Asphalt 8.

The 4.5-inch screen is clearly one of the main areas of cost-cutting, due to the fact that it has a relatively low 960x540-pixel resolution. That's less even than the Moto G 's 720p display and it shows -- icons, text and images don't have the same clarity that higher resolution panels offer. Still, it's far from blurry and if you're upgrading from an older budget smartphone -- or even an ancient feature phone -- you won't notice anything wrong. It's more than adequate for calls, texting and Facebook.

Android software and bundled bloatware

The Kestrel uses the now rather old Android Jelly Bean. That's disappointing, even on a budget phone, particularly as the Moto G comes with the latest Android software. The interface has been heavily skinned however, so you may not immediately notice you're on older software.

It uses the same Emotion UI software that you'll find on Huawei phones. It's visually very different from most Android interfaces, largely due to the fact that there's no dedicated apps tray. Instead, you keep all your apps and widgets scattered across the multiple homescreens. I'm personally not keen on this as it can get very cluttered and you need to keep a close eye on where you're putting everything if you don't want it to become a confusing mess.

On the upside, there's a simplified homescreen version, which displays the essential tools as large, easy to see tiles and there are a host of themes available for you to customise the interface to your heart's content.

You will also find a whole bunch of pre-installed apps. EE has popped in a couple of its own -- an app that lets you track your usage and one that tells you where to see upcoming films as well as rent films to watch -- prices for top films are around £4. There's also an app on board called "Free Games," which cannot be uninstalled and, worryingly, states that you need to change your phone's settings to allow apps to be installed from unknown sources -- something that I don't recommend unless you really know what you're doing. Stick to apps from the Google Play store.

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Music streaming service Deezer is installed as standard too and also can't be uninstalled. It's a paid for service, like Spotify, so it's pointless having it cluttering up your homescreen unless you're planning on signing up for it. A host of Amazon apps including Kindle, Amazon Music and Amazon's own app store are installed too (as well as Amazon widgets) but these can be uninstalled.

With Amazon's own app store installed and the "Free Games" store too, it's confusing to know exactly where you should go to find new apps and games, particularly if you're new to the Android world. If you're buying the phone on behalf of a technophobic acquaintance, I recommend clearing out anything that can be uninstalled and hiding in a folder marked "Ignore" anything that can't be.

You'll also find the Android security service Lookout, although you only get the basic version for free (as you would if you installed it on any other Android phone). To get the useful services like remote wiping, browser scanning and photo backup, you'll need to spring for the premium service. It's worth having some kind of anti-malware service on your phone particularly as it's running the older Jelly Bean software (older software is less likely to receive important security updates as quickly). Indeed, Jelly Bean was said to be particularly exposed to the recent Heartbleed bug, although Google said a patch was pushed out to fix this.

Camera

Tucked into the back of the phone is a 5-megapixel camera. With only 5 megapixels, you'd be right to assume that photography isn't a big focus for the phone. I took it for a whirl and wasn't blown away by the results.

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EE Kestrel camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On my first shot overlooking St Paul's cathedral, the camera achieved an even -- although a little dark -- exposure, but with a slightly pink hue to it thanks to the inconsistent auto white balance. There's not a lot of detail at full screen either.

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EE Kestrel camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

These flowers look fine, with a sharp focus and fair exposure. The colours are cold though.

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EE Kestrel camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Moving indoors, the darker lighting conditions proved more of a struggle for the phone. The colours don't look great and there's a fuzziness to the details that's particularly apparent at full screen. This really isn't a phone with which to achieve photography stardom, but it'll cope adequately for quick Facebook snaps, so long as you're in good light.

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EE Kestrel camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

You'll also find extras like creative filters, a panorama mode and HDR mode.

Processor and battery

The Kestrel runs on a 1.2GHz quad-core processor that, while hardly lightning fast, is more than capable of making navigation smooth and opening apps, menus and the camera without much delay. Video streaming in Netflix is well within its capabilities, as is a spot of gaming -- Asphalt 8 was fairly smooth, although stuttered a little in more intense moments.

The phone comes with a 2,000mAh battery, which EE reckons will give you around 12 hours of talk time. In my battery drain test, I found it was able to keep going for around 11 hours before giving up the ghost, which isn't outstanding, but I've seen worse. By comparison, the Galaxy S5 achieved over 15 hours on the same test, however the HTC One M8 only lasted around 10 hours.

After playing a looped video for 2 hours, the Kestrel's battery had dropped from a full charge to only 65 percent remaining, which is slightly disappointing. If you watch a lot of video throughout the day, don't expect to have battery left when you get home in the evening.

To help squeeze every last drop of life out of the battery, keep your screen brightness down, turn Wi-Fi and GPS off and avoid anything too demanding like gaming or video streaming until you're in dashing distance of a plug. The battery isn't removable so you won't be able to keep a fresh one on hand for emergencies. Instead, take a look at Native Union's new Jump cable -- a micro-USB cable that has a battery pack built in to give an extra boost of charge on the go.

Conclusion

If, for whatever reason, you absolutely need the faster data speeds of 4G, but you really don't want to splash out on a flagship phone, the EE Kestrel is worth a look. Its specs won't impress anyone, its software isn't great and the camera is only adequate, but when you keep its £99 price in mind, it's not a bad buy at all.

If you can squeeze a little more budget however, look at the Motorola Moto G, which has just been upgraded to include 4G. It'll cost you more at £149, but it has a better screen and the latest Android KitKat software that's mercifully free of the bloatware you'll find on the Kestrel.

ee-kestrel-product.jpg
7.5

EE Kestrel

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 7Performance 6
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