HTC, Samsung, and... Huawei? I won't get ahead of myself, but if the Ascend P1 is any indication, that's the position Huawei is gunning for. We first saw the P1, and its even slimmer sister the P1 S, back at CES in January. Since then, not a whole lot has changed in the smartphone world. We've seen some wonderful new devices from HTC, in the HTC One S, HTC One X, and the HTC EVO 4G LTE, and Samsung's Galaxy S III. But the door is open for another high-end contender, and the Huawei Ascend P1 is it. Sort of.
Let me make this clear: You probably shouldn't buy the P1. At anywhere from $500 (£320) to $800 (£510), it'll cost you an arm and a leg, and it isn't optimised for use in the U.S. (where it was reviewed). But that doesn't negate the P1's striking design and excellent performance. It's also one of the few devices out there to ship with the latest version of Android, 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). So while you shouldn't get the P1, you also shouldn't count Huawei out, from becoming a top-tier player in the Android world in the near future.
First things first: The P1 test phone we received from Huawei is customised for the Chinese market. That means there are a number of Chinese language apps, and it's missing all of the Google-related apps you'd expect from an Android phone. According to Huawei, there will be an overseas version in English customised for all English-speaking countries, and it will come pre-installed with all of the Google apps. The availability of the phone in the U.S. market is yet to be confirmed. So this review is for the Chinese version of the phone.
That said, the Ascend P1 is beautiful. Made entirely of high-quality, glossy plastic, the P1 sports a super-slim figure, measuring just 7.7mm with a slight bump out at the bottom and at the top, for the camera. The black and white design is classy, but really, the best word to describe this phone is chic. It has a much more understated elegance than most other phones on the market. At 110grams, it's also lightweight, and very comfortable to hold.
The 4.3in, 960 x 540 pixel Super AMOLED display looks bright and vibrant, though the Pentile layout can make images and text look fuzzy to some people. There are three capacitive touch buttons below the display, and typing is easy on the relatively large screen and with a fantastic Android 4.0 on-screen keyboard.
The phone has a non-removable battery, which helps contribute to its slim form factor. That also means the microSD and SIM card slots are housed in ports on the side of the phone. The microSD slot is on the right, underneath the Power button. There are volume controls on the left, and the top edge of the phone houses the 3.5mm headphone jack, charging port, and SIM card slot. The SIM card slot on my review unit was on the flimsy side. It took a minute or two to make sure it was completely closed, and while it never opened up on me, it felt like it could be popped up with just a simple flick.
The P1 is a pentaband (850/900/1700/1900/2100) device with a GSM radio and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. It's unlocked, so you can use it on any network. Data speeds top out at HSPA+ 21, which is fast enough to just barely be considered 4G, but it's not up to the level of LTE. You can also use the phone with an inexpensive, contract-free plan.
For this review we tested it on AT&T. Reception is average on AT&T's network, and voice quality is solid. Voices sound clear and full in the phone's earpiece, with just a hint of static in the background. On the other end, voices sound natural and easy to understand, with decent noise cancellation. Calls were clear through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset, and voice dialling worked well without training. The speakerphone also sounds good, but it's a touch too low to use outdoors. Battery life was excellent at 11 hours and two minutes of talk time. The phone can also be used as a mobile hotspot, with the appropriate data plan.
The Huawei P1 runs the latest version of Android, 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich). That shouldn't be a big deal, but nearly seven months after its release, Ice Cream Sandwich is still only available on a precious few smartphones, so consider that a plus for the P1. Unlike HTC, which has modified Android 4.0 to look a heck of a lot like previous versions, Huawei has left the OS mostly intact. There are few themes you can switch between, which change some of the visuals, like wallpaper and icons. There's also a '3D Home' mode, which gussies up your home screen with some redesigned icons and 3D animations. Think of it as Huawei Sense.
Since the P1 isn't quite optimised for use in the U.S., there's a fair share of apps that aren't in English. Additionally, the phone is missing many standard apps that Android users have grown accustomed to, like Google Maps and YouTube. The Google Play store isn't present, either, so I had to side-load all of our benchmark test apps.
What the phone lacks in accessibility, it makes up for in performance. The Huawei P1 is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4460 Cortex-A9 processor, which makes for some ultra-fast performance. The phone itself feels incredibly responsive, and all basic actions are instantaneous. Graphics-intensive games, such as the preinstalled Riptide GP, look fabulous and run smoothly as well. Our benchmark tests show that P1 is one of the fastest smartphones available, coming in just behind HTC's latest fleet of phones, which are powered by the slightly faster 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. So game on, because you won't be lacking for power with the P1. If you want to move things over to the big screen, there's no HDMI out, but the phone supports DLNA.
The P1 comes with just 2.16GB of free internal memory. Considering the price, that's a pretty paltry amount of storage. Luckily, you can beef things up with a microSD card. The phone had no trouble with my 32GB and 64GB SanDisk cards. Music tracks sounded excellent through a set of Altec Lansing Backbeat Bluetooth headphones as well as a pair of wired ear-buds. Like everything else, the music player is fast and responsive, and displayed album art when it was available. I was able to play back all of our music test file formats. Video playback is equally strong. Videos played flawlessly at resolutions up to 1080p, and again, I was able to watch every file type I tested.
The P1's eight-megapixel camera is slightly disappointing. It's a fine camera, really, and snapped photos relatively quickly, in about .5 of a second. Photos look fine, but details lack sharpness and colours lack vibrancy. Compared to similar cameras, like those in the new HTC phones, the P1 comes up short. On the other hand, the video camera is able to shoot 1080p videos at a smooth 30 frames, both indoors and out. There's also a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for self-portraits and video chat.
The Huawei Ascend P1 is an excellent phone. It's super powerful, beautifully designed, and has all the features you could want from a high-end smartphone. Sure, the camera can be a little bit better, but this is a very solid effort from Huawei.
But that doesn't change what I said at the beginning of this review: Don't buy the P1. Unless you've got a ton of cash, won't miss the standard Android apps, and don't mind side-loading everything else, the P1 is just too much effort to use in the U.S. If you want the absolute best Android smartphone available, the HTC One X, the HTC One S and the Samsung Galaxy S III are tops right now.
For now, look at the Ascend P1 as a happy experiment. Huawei has created an excellent, high-end Android smartphone that isn't really meant for the U.S. With the right apps and the some network support, though, Huawei has something great on its hands, and there's no reason that can happen for its phones in the future.
Pros: Beautiful design; Fast performance; Excellent battery life; Runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
Cons: Not optimised for the U.S.; Average camera; Flimsy SIM card door.
Manufacturer: Huawei Technologies Co Ltd
Operating System: Android OS
Screen Size: 4.3in
Screen Details: 960 x 540 Super AMOLED
Camera Flash: Yes
Web Browser: Yes
Form Factor: Candy Bar
Bands: 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
Storage Capacity (as Tested): 2.16GB
Processor Speed: 1.5GHz
Continuous talk time: 11 hours 2 minutes