Trickle-down economics is alive and well, especially when it comes to the prepaid market, where no-contract carriers like Cricket can offer phones like the Huawei Mercury. The Mercury first wheeled into our CNET offices as the Huawei Honor, and the Mercury keeps most of the Honor's attributes, like the 4-inch display, 1.4GHz processor, and 8-megapixel camera with HD video capture.
The Mercury is a quite decent Android phone in its own right, perhaps with a few issues here and there, but on Cricket, it knocks out the rest of the lineup to become the carrier's most advanced smartphone. The Mercury costs $249.99 at full retail, but at the time of this review, you can buy it online $179.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate and a $20 Web discount.
Unlike the Honor we tested in white, the Mercury is like many of today's smartphones: black and glossy. From the rounded corners and straight edges to the curved back, its surfaces are smudge banks for sure--the shiny black plastic build material picks up finger grease in ways that'll make you want to invest in a tub of Purell. The phone's build looks solid enough, but the plasticky character and seams don't make you feel like you're holding a premium device.
The Mercury stands 4.8 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and weighs 4.9 ounces. All these measurements add up to a phone with comfortably familiar proportions that feels nice and solid in the hand and on the ear, yet is slim enough to easily carry around in a pocket, a purse, a utility belt, and so on.
A phone's screen is its main event, and at 4 inches, this one won't disappoint. The FWVGA resolution puts it at a 480x854-pixel count. To the naked eye, colors will look bright enough and icons will appear sharp for the most part. There were one or two home screen icons for games that could use a little tightening up, but no real inconsistencies to distract or confuse the eye.
The Mercury serves up the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, but flavored with Huawei's visual adaptations. These include a theme called Magic Light, and animation that presents swiping through your five customizable home screens as if you're turning a cube. There's also a pull-down menu with one-touch access to system settings like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and screen rotation. In addition, the skin includes stylized home screen navigation controls and a stylized app tray view that resembles Samsung's TouchWiz iconography, with horizontal scrolling through your pages of apps, and blocky visuals surrounding each app icon.
If you'd rather apply some Android standards, you can switch the onscreen controls to the Gingerbread default, choose two other animation actions, and dip into other settings to set the home screens.
I should mention that although the Mercury won't get an official Ice Cream Sandwich update until Cricket is ready to push that out, Huawei is offering Android 4.0 for the Huawei Honor (again, Mercury is a rebrand), but only from its Web site, and it probably works best if the phone is unlocked rather than tied to a carrier. You've been warned.
So now we move on to the other externals. Above the screen are the VGA front-facing camera and message indicator light, and below it are the four touch-sensitive navigation buttons that have now become standard on most Android phones. The Micro-USB charging port is on the bottom, the volume rocker is on the left spine, and the power button and 3.5mm headset jack are up top.
Flip to the back to see the 8-megapixel camera lens and accompanying flash. It's below the back cover that you'll find the microSD card slot. Unfortunately, you'll have to pop out the battery every time you want to remove or exchange the card. The Mercury takes up to 64GB in external memory.
By now it should be pretty apparent what you get with an Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone, but I'll summarize just in case. First, there are all the internal radios for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
A relatively new hot-spot plan lets the Mercury channel mobile data to other devices as well.
Then, there are all the communication features like speakerphone, support for multiple e-mail inboxes, and multimedia messaging. Next, Google layers on its own services and apps, like Gmail, search, Google Maps, Navigation with turn-by-turn voice readouts, YouTube, the works.
On top of that, Cricket and Huawei have their own apps to preload. Huawei Music is one example. It's Android's basic music player with a Huawei skin. You'll see a host of Cricket apps for managing your account and backups, most of them practical and useful.
In addition, third-party titles come preinstalled, like the Documents To Go document viewer, the Let's Golf 2 and Asphalt 5 game demos, and Richpad, a notepad. You'll also find an FM radio onboard.
The Mercury comes with two cameras, both controlled by the default Android camera software. There are multiple scene and white-balance settings, plus the usual adjustments you can make for flash and zoom. The Mercury has an HDR (high-definition range) option, which is a very nice touch.
Photo quality was pretty good when viewed on the Mercury's screen and on a desktop screen, especially for shots taken outdoors in bright or even lighting. I took all shots using the phone's automatic settings. Edges were fairly defined, and colors looked sharp and true to life. Indoor shots, on the other hand, suffered. While skin tones were fine, photos looked duller and much less detailed. The experience was pretty consistent with my findings from the Huawei Honor (see the Honor photo gallery here and the Mercury gallery here.)
Self-portraits taken with the front-facing camera were pretty poor--grainy, off, and hard to look at--but if you must use it, it'll work. The Mercury has room for 2GB internal memory and, again, holds up to 64GB in expandable storage.
I tested the Huawei Mercury on Cricket's roaming network. Call quality was very good overall. According to the caller, my voice was loud (maybe too loud), clear, natural, and distortion-free. The sound was reportedly better than typical cell phone quality.
On my end of the line things were nearly as rosy. The volume and voice quality were beyond reproach on the Mercury, but I did detect an ongoing haze of white noise that persisted even when my caller and I both fell silent. It was light enough not to pose a distraction when outdoors, but inside a quiet space, it was more noticeable and distracting. Occasionally there were also blips that interrupted the audio, and voices on the other end would sometimes cut in and out.
Huawei Mercury call quality sample Listen now:
Speakerphone was pretty impressive on the Mercury. Volume was strong when I held the phone at waist level, voices sounded pretty natural, and I was confident I could hear my caller in a louder setting. There was a bit of crackle and reverberation, so speakerphone wasn't flawless, but it's one of the best I've heard on a smartphone. My caller found the speakerphone call perhaps a little quiet, but extremely clear and natural, without any clipping or a whole lot of echo. We both agreed that we could have a long, fruitful conversation on the Mercury.
Nobody wants a phone that will slow you down. The Mercury's 1.4GHz processor is definitely adequate in this way. On the other hand, 3G data speeds in my tests didn't impress compared with phones on other networks. Again, this is Cricket's roaming network here in San Francisco, so results could vary for you. While data-intensive tasks like loading Web pages and installing apps did lag, they got there in the end.
To give you a better sense of the numbers, I tested the Mercury's speeds at various locations in the San Francisco Bay Area using Ookla's Speedtest.net diagnostic app. I never saw numbers faster than 0.3Mbps down and 0.21Mbps up. In the real world, this may not be a problem for sites optimized for mobile viewing. For instance, the New York Times mobile site loaded in 12 seconds, with the desktop site loading its last element in 36 seconds. CNET's mobile site finished in a pokier 35 seconds. The full desktop version of the Web site dragged behind at more than a minute.
The Mercury has an impressively large 1,900mAH battery and a rated battery life of up to 6.5 hours of talk time and up to almost 16 days of standby time. Unfortunately, however, the battery life was nothing out of the ordinary, and in fact, the charge barely seemed to last a day during my testing period. According to FCC radiation tests, the Mercury has a digital SAR of 0.77 watt per kilogram.
If you're looking for a higher-end smartphone on Cricket, the Huawei Mercury is about as fancy as you can get right now. While not all promises for the battery and camera pan out quite to the expected degree, the Mercury is nevertheless a nice package for Cricket's off-contract customers, and the price is comparable to what you'll find on other similar carriers. This isn't the phone (or network) that avid Web surfers should latch onto, and be forewarned that the Mercury isn't eligible for Cricket's Muve Music plan. If unlimited music downloads are what you're after, the Samsung Vitality is going to be more your type. Still, with fine call quality, a 4-inch screen, and nice outdoor photo quality, Cricket's Android options are looking up.