Huawei Ascend II (U.S. Cellular)
It's been a long time since I first laid eyes on the Huawei Ascend II, last spring at CTIA. Compared with the original Huawei Ascend, it's much sleeker and more modern, and, of course, it runs the much more recent Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS.
See this phone for what it is, and it isn't a bad entry-level device. Android brings a standard for communication, Google services, and applications. Yet the 5-megapixel camera is frankly mediocre and the 600MHz processor is pokey. The price is the Ascend II's saving grace, just a penny at the time of this review, when you buy with a two-year service agreement. If you're buying the Ascend II prepaid, it'll ding your bank account $139.99.
The Ascend II is a much sexier model than its predecessor, with a glossy black face, a shiny dark-gray finish along the rim, and a black, matte soft-touch back cover. It's got a rounded top and even more rounded bottom, and it feels nice and grippy in the hand.
At 4.6 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, it's a more petite, pocketable phone than many current smartphones. It's a nice size, but that does mean a smaller screen. The 4.1-ounce weight gives the device a nice, solid feel in the hand.
I mentioned that the screen is slightly smaller than you see on many of its comrades, but I definitely wouldn't call the Ascend II's 3.5-inch screen small in absolute terms. The HVGA resolution (320x480 pixels) supports 260,000 colors. It looks fine on automatic brightness, but perhaps just a tad dull. I kept wanting to pump up the brightness. Graphically rich Web pages like CNET's didn't render perfectly either. I noticed some color bleeding and pixelation around a few graphics.
Huawei's own user interface skin runs on top of the Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The skin does change some things, but for the most part, the visuals don't get in the way. There are some nice system shortcuts in the pull-down notifications menu, so you'll be able to do things like turn on Wi-Fi with a tap. The five customizable home pages rotate in a cubelike animation (you can change this), there's some stylized onscreen navigation, and there are stylized app icons in the app tray.
Below the screen you'll find the touch-sensitive navigation buttons to go home, pull up the menu, go back, and search with Google. You'll find the Micro-USB charger on the bottom of the phone, the volume rocker on the left spine, and the power button and 3.5mm headset jack on the top. On the back cover is the lens for the 5-megapixel camera. Slide up the same cover to reveal the microSD card slot, which comes with a 2GB card to get you started.
Thanks to Android Gingerbread, the Ascend II is well-equipped with support for Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and VPA. It has multimedia messaging, support for multiple inboxes, and essentials like a calculator, calendar, clock, browser, and music player. The address book is virtually limitless, and there are tie-ins to social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr via Huawei's "Social Club" grouping. There's also an FM radio onboard, and support for using the phone as a hot spot.
Google services work well on this phone, as on all other Android phones. You'll find Maps with turn-by-turn voice navigation, Search, Places, YouTube, and Talk. U.S. Cellular and Huawei also preloaded a handful of apps between them. There are utilities like backup apps, Documents to Go, and the Richpad memo pad.
You'll also find several stores like Amazon Appstore for Android and for access to ringtones, podcast streams, and Android games. Twitter, City ID, and Audible are three other apps you'll see. There's just one virtual keyboard, the Android default, so if you're all thumbs with it like I was, you may find yourself downloading alternatives.
On to multimedia: the Ascend II comes with a 5-megapixel camera/camcorder with no flash. The camera software is tied to the accelerometer as you'd expect, so controls adjust when you hold the phone in portrait and landscape modes. It's the typical Android camera app--with no Huawei adornments--so you can change photos size and quality, and choose among five color effects and five white-balance settings. There's also up to 2.8x digital zoom, and you have the option to geotag. Some useful settings are missing, though, like a self-timer and shutter sounds.
Photo quality was mediocre in my indoor and outdoor tests, and that was in part due to the lack of autofocus. It isn't always easy to tell depth of field when shooting with the Ascend II, so some close-up shots that would be perfectly in focus taken with other smartphone cameras came out unfocused here. To its credit, the Ascend II does a pretty good job of keeping colors true to life.
Video controls were more pared-down than those for the still camera, but you still have options for color effects, white balance, and video quality. There's the typical setting for multimedia messages. Performance matched that of the still shots. Indoor colors were a little duller than in real life, and the image, while not jerky or choppy, wasn't crisp either. Audio sounded muffled and a tad shrill. The video camera is still adept at capturing the moment, but I wouldn't rely on it for longer shoots.
System memory is hardly huge on the Ascend II (256 MB RAM/512 MB ROM), but it does come with a 2GB external storage card preinstalled, for a total capacity of 32GB in outside memory.
I tested the Huawei Ascend II (CDMA 800, 1700/2100, 1900) on U.S. Cellular's roaming network here in San Francisco. Call quality was decent, but our callers got the better end of the bargain. Voices sounded clear, volume was high but not too high, and there wasn't any discernible background noise. While the volume was fine and voices were clear to my ears, they did sound fuzzy and uneven, like my callers were jumping up and down and hence cutting in and out. Nothing was bad enough to disrupt the conversation, but these little problems were constant in my test calls.
Huawei Ascend II call quality sample Listen now:
Speakerphone sounded equally clear to my caller as the standard audio, but much more distant. To my ears, the Ascend II gave a typical speakerphone performance with sharp, tinny, echo-prone audio. Volume was strong and there weren't any blips or other interruptions, but I sure was glad to switch back to the standard speaker.
The Ascend II has no pretensions about its features, and that extends to the 3G speeds and the internal performance. 3G indicators appeared to hold steady throughout my testing period, but I did lose the data network connection for a spell. During that time, I wasn't able to sync Gmail or search the Web. I wasn't ever able to get past the error message on Ookla's Speedtest.net app, strangely.
Never fear, I still conducted real-world loading tests of my two favorite Web sites for that purpose. CNET's mobile site loaded in 32 seconds, while the full site finished loading in about 67 seconds. This is pretty slow compared with 4G speeds, but within the range for 3G, though still toward the slower end of the spectrum. The mobile-optimized NYTimes.com site loaded in just under 10 seconds, with the full site finishing up after about 37 seconds. For companies like this that really optimize for mobile, the Ascend II's humbler speeds won't launch too much of a waiting game.
Given that there were so many dual-core phones on the market at the time that the Ascend II initially stepped forward, it's a little disappointing to see the same 600MHz processor as in the original Ascend. The sub-1GHz power shows in the notably slower navigation, application load times, camera shutter speed, and so on. It won't make you pull out your hair, but you will have to wait a beat or two while things finish up behind the scenes.
If only the Ascend II's battery life were more impressive. Like its predecessor, this device has a rated talk time of 3.7 hours and a standby time of 12.5 days on its 1,400mAh battery. The phone has a digital SAR of 1.34 watts per kilogram.
For most consumers, an extremely low price tag excuses a multitude of sins. Sold for just a penny on contract, the Huawei Ascend II needs every pardon it can get. The phone isn't bad, per se, but its performance falls below today's rapidly climbing smartphone standards. That makes it acceptable for a starter smartphone, and the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system is fine. Unfortunately, it's hard to get behind the 600MHz processor, the stumbling camera, and limited battery life. At least the phone is attractive and fairly easy to use. All told, it's a reasonable option in the U.S. Cellular lineup, particularly at the 1-cent price.