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Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked) review: Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked)

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The Huawei Ascend P1 turned a few heads when it first debuted at CES. We CNET editors nodded in approval at the high-contrast black-and-white design; the sharp angles and stylized curves; andthe Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich software, which was seen less than expected at the January electronics show. Huawei also imbued its P-for-Platinum-level smartphone with enviable specs that include a speedy dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and support for HSPA+ speeds.

Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked)
7.3

Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked)

The Good

The snappily designed <b>Huawei Ascend P1</b> has Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and full HD video support.

The Bad

The Ascend P1's camera and call quality fail to live up to their promise.

The Bottom Line

Huawei's Ascend P1 takes a step in the premium direction with great specs and a striking design, but it ultimately falls short of its potential.

While the Ascend P1 certainly has the check boxes marked, not everything lived up to expectations, like the camera. For between $500 and $800 and zero optimization for a U.S. carrier, the Ascend P1 is an unrealistic choice for most U.S. consumers; however, I love seeing Huawei take design risks -- and succeed in that respect.

Huawei Ascend P1 has a striking silhouette, iffy camera (pictures)

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Design
Sharp edges. Stark black-on-white contrast. A deep, unexpected curve. Looking at the Ascend P1 reminds me of a celebrity's very designer, very minimalist tuxedo. There's the glossy black front that stretches across the phone's face and plunges over the top and bottom in a plastic waterfall. The Ascend P1's spines and back are equally shiny white plastic with interesting contours that are designed to keep it to a seriously slim 0.3-inch waistline while still giving the camera module space.

The P1's 5-inch height and 2.6-inch width make it a larger phone, which accommodates a 4.3-inch screen. At 3.9 ounces, it's on the lighter side for such a big phone. While I'm used to a bit more heft, the Ascend P1 didn't feel too wispy. The corners and edges make it protrude more when slipped into a pocket, but it was fine rattling around in my purse.

Huawei Ascend P1
The Huawei Ascend P1 runs Android Ice Cream Sandwich. Josh Miller/CNET

Huawei made a good decision using a Super AMOLED display, protected by Gorilla Glass. The 540x960-pixel resolution makes Web sites easy to read, though in a side-by-side screen comparison, it doesn't look quite as sharp or as high-contrast as other phones' screens, like the iPhone 4's Retina Display, for instance. The Ascend P1 coasts along on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), one of the first of its type when we saw the handset back in January. Huawei mostly keeps ICS standard, but does add a few extras, including a circular lock-screen motif that you can pull and drag to unlock to the home screen, the call log, the messaging inbox, or the camera.

Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for self-portraits and video chats. Below it are three touch-sensitive navigation buttons for the menu, home screen, and back. All its ports live along the phone's exterior. The SIM card slot, Micro-USB charging port, and 3.5-millimeter headset jack are all up top, while the right spine hosts the power button and a microSD card slot that can take up to 32GB in external storage. Hauwei kept the left spine simple with just the volume rocker. Flip it on its face and you'll see the P1's raised camera module with an 8-megpaixel lens and dual-LED flash.

A unibody device, it has no removable back cover, and no removable battery, which keeps the phone slim. The glossy back is a little slippery, but the edges make it grippable.

Features
As an Android 4.0 phone, the Ascend P1 comes with the latest ICS extras, including a brand-new look and features like a camera panorama and detailed data usage. Since there's no NFC on board, you won't be able to use Android Beam.

Huawei Ascend P1
The P1's unibody design means that ports like this microSD card slot are all external. Josh Miller/CNET

As far as connections go, the Ascend P1 has GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, and hot-spot support. There's also sharing through the DLNA protocol. There are also productivity apps, like a calculator, a calendar, a clock, notes, and a file manager, plus FM radio and a flashlight. For more advanced options, you'll find a music player and Movie Studio.

My review unit oddly didn't come with Google's standard set of apps, such as Google Play (formerly known as the Android Market,) Google Maps and turn-by-turn navigation, Gmail, Google Place, and YouTube, to name my favorites. Huawei assured me that an update to the final software version would instate these regulars.

Huawei of course adds its own suite of homegrown, licensed, and partner apps. My review unit (a global version that hasn't been optimized for the U.S.) contains Hispace, Huawei's online store front, backup app, and a couple of Chinese-language apps. You'll also find Polaris Office for productivity, Security Guard for, ahem, security, and the full version of the Riptide GP jet ski racing game.

Taken with the Huawei Ascend P1
Colors were oversaturated in this shot. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Ascend P1's 8-megapixel camera is an unfortunate example of why having more megapixels isn't always better. Thanks to Android ICS, there are plenty of settings, which include HDR and burst mode, panorama, and low-light mode. There are also lighting and special effects, and adjustments you can make for white balance, saturation, and so on. I couldn't find a way to shut off shutter sound.

Taken with the Huawei Ascend P1
The Ascend P1 couldn't produce sharp edges or vibrant real-life color here. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I shot photo and video in automatic mode in a variety of lighting situations (including a friend's wedding.) Camera quality itself was variable. Some photos were clear and sharp, while others showed flat colors and blockiness, or overexposed or oversaturated color. Most of the time, colors weren't natural and the camera couldn't be counted on to focus, despite an autofocus mode and despite a trio of attempts to get the photo just so. My photo test walks you through the collection, after some shots of the phone itself.

Taken on the Huawei Ascend P1
The camera module cooperated enough to capture this soda dispenser at Lucha Libre, a San Diego restaurant. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

On the other hand, the 1080p HD video I took (especially of a koi pond) turned out well. You can view for yourself in the video sample below.

Huawei Ascend P1 video sample
Watch this: Huawei Ascend P1 video sample

Performance
I tested the unlocked pentaband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; WCDMA 850/900/1900/2100/AWS) Huawei Ascend P1 in San Francisco and San Diego using AT&T's network. The Ascend P1 isn't optimized for the network, but that understanding didn't help the phone sound any better. Not that the audio quality was bad, per se. Volume sounded good to my ears, and voices on the other end of the line sounded natural. However, even as the audio retained its warmth around the edges, the core voice I heard sounded digitized, sometimes breaking up. I'd call it robotic at times, and never fully clear. Sometimes the speaker's voice broke up.

For his part, my main test caller said I sounded distorted and hollow, a combination that made conversation distracting. He heard a hint of echo, but pronounced my overall intelligibility as acceptable, along with the volume. He also heard my voice break up at times.

Huawei Ascend P1 call quality sample Listen now:

I tested speakerphone in my usual spot, and held the phone at waist level. Volume sounded fine at the medium-high setting, and voices still sounded warm, if slightly muffled. My caller agreed that the Ascend P1's speakerphone was "normal for speakerphone," which means echo was present and I sounded distant. There were the same complaints about sounding hollow, but we were able to carry on a conversation.

The Ascend P1 runs on a 1.5GHz Cortex-A9 dual-core processor from Texas Instruments, the OMAP 4460, to be specific. Internal speed wasn't an issue during my testing period, with apps like the camera loading fairly quickly. Data speeds, however, were another story, mostly because of an ongoing data-provisioning SIM card issue that Hauwei, AT&T, and I are sorting out. I'll update this section when I do get to test network data. Speeds cap at HSPA+ 21 as the phone's fastest theoretical Mbps download rate. What I expect for U.S. users is a slightly faster-than-typical real-world rate of about 20 to 30 seconds to load a graphics-heavy Web site like CNET.com.

In the meantime, Wi-Fi fulfilled my data requirements while I was testing out the Ascend P1. For instance, I was still able to test video playback (and not data specifically) by streaming YouTube videos from YouTube's mobile site on the P1. Video playback didn't hang or skip over Wi-Fi, which indicates that the processor can more or less handle the load. There was some blockiness and blurriness, which could have several contributing factors, including the quality of the original video, the screen, and yes, possibly the chipset (since a more powerful processor is better equipped to fill in graphically intense details for smoother graphical rendering.)

Conclusion
The Huawei Ascend P1 that so impressed us at CES isn't quite as shiny or new a few months down the road, when other Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich phones are also trotting out top-of-the-line features. Its design is arresting, but the just-adequate camera and so-so call quality wouldn't inspire me to pay the ballpark $600 unlocked price. Still, it's a handset I'd love to see take root in a carrier portfolio, at the very least for some eye candy and to assess how well the data and voice elements work when tuned to a specific carrier's bands. Moreover, the P1 is a good example of the caliber of phone that Huawei should strive to sell in the U.S., where the brand is still little-known.

Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked)
7.3

Huawei Ascend P1 (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7