Huawei Ascend P1 Review

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The world of wireless is no longer a wild frontier. The pace of innovation is still rapid, the products still intriguing, but nowadays there’s a predictability to the landscape. Each year, we can expect a new flagship product from the heavy hitters: Apple, Samsung, HTC, etc. The intervals between are spiced up by gap fillers: those second- and third-tier manufacturers that bring us occasional greatness, and also frequent mediocrity.

It’s nice, then, to watch a new player come onto the scene every so often. One of the latest such entrants is Chinese manufacturer Huawei. Though the company is by no means new or small -it was founded in 1987 and reports profits in the billions- its focus on mobile handset sales to customers outside of China is a somewhat recent development. In addition to announcing development of its own in-house chipset at last February’s Mobile World Congress, the company unveiled a slew of high-end smartphones – among them the Ascend P1.

Huawei was kind enough to provide us with a review unit, and we’ve been taking it for a stateside spin for the last week or so. Is it impressive enough to secure Huawei’s future as a legitimate contender in the global smartphone market? Read on to find out.

Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored for Me

Video Review

Specs

The “P” in “P1” is supposed to stand for “Platinum,” but a glance at the spec sheet reveals that that precious metal may have a somewhat different connotation in China. The Ascend P1’s specs aren’t embarrassing by any means, but they’re also not exactly headliners.

At the heart of the P1 sits a dual-core TI OMAP 4460 processor. That’s the same CPU as the one found in the Galaxy Nexus, except the P1 ups the clock speed from 1.2 to 1.5GHz. It’s backed up by a PowerVR SGX540 GPU for graphics, as well as 1GB of RAM. In less random-access news, there’s 4GB of onboard storage, with a MicroSD card slot capable of supporting an additional 32GB of memory.

Those fairly standard guts sit just beneath a 4.3″ Super AMOLED display sporting qHD (540 x 960) resolution and a pixel density of 256ppi. Yes, S-AMOLED means this device’s display uses the PenTile sub-pixel configuration, but it’s not as apparent here as on other devices; we prefer this display to that of the Galaxy Nexus, which doesn’t render whites as accurately as the Ascend’s panel. Your mileage, of course, will vary according to your eyesight and your hunger for the perfect display. We found it perfectly adequate, though we really needed to crank the brightness to be able to see anything in direct sunlight.

Elsewhere, we’ve got a fairly standard assortment of features: the typical sensor package of compass, accelerometer, and gyroscope is here, as well as the usual WiFi b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0, though support for NFC is missing. Pentaband 3G and quad-band GSM support means the P1 will function on almost any GSM network worldwide, with the added bonus of AWS compatibility for rarer configurations like T-Mobile USA’s 1700MHz 3G network.

That’s assuming you aren’t married to the idea of a Micro-SIM or LTE; you’ll find support for neither onboard the P1. The latter might be a blessing in disguise, however; with only a 1670 mAh battery sitting under the (nonremovable) back cover, LTE would likely drain the phone in very little time.

Lastly, shutterbugs won’t be disappointed in the P1’s optical specs: an 8MP camera with autofocus and dual LED flash resides under the bump on the back, complemented by a smaller 1.3MP video-calling/self-portrait shooter up front. More on this in a bit.

Hardware

Not much more than a year ago, the Ascend P1 would have notched in on the mid-to-large side of the phone scale. In a testament to how much has changed over that small span of time, the device now feels almost tiny in the hand, especially after a few weeks spent with the Galaxy S III. It’s actually refreshing to hold the P1 after so much time spent among the “jumbophones” of the world; compared to those beasts, the P1 feels almost more advanced due to its shoehorning of so many features into such a comparatively small, eminently pocketable footprint.

Accounting for much of that smaller in-hand feel is the Ascend’s exceedingly narrow profile, the differentiator Huawei is relying on to make headlines. At 7.7mm thick, the P1 doesn’t quite get down into the Droid RAZR’s 7.1mm territory, but it’s still exceedingly slim; even though its conventional design doesn’t earn the phone too many comments from onlookers, its thinness does.

Unfortunately, the uniqueness factor pretty much stops there. The rest of the P1 fails to stand out from the crowd; its boxy silhouette and sharp corners are reminiscent of the Lumia 900, but without the accompanying bold design or material choices to make it something special. A faux-carbon-fiber pattern on the back helps break up the monotony of the device’s casing, but the glossy plastic feels cheap, and picks up skin oil and finger prints quite readily.

Adding to that midrange feeling are the protective covers over the SIM and MicroSD card slots, which are made of low-quality plastic and which frequently get in the way in the midst of card swaps. Also, it would have been nice if the volume and power keys were finished in metal.

Thankfully, Huawei seems not to have skimped on the integration process: despite its low weight (110g) the device feels sturdy in the hand, with the plastic back and Gorilla Glass front bonded tightly enough to ensure very few creaks or pops when giving the device the squeeze test. Also, the company has followed in the footsteps of many other OEMs and taken advantage of Android’s support for a notification light: here, as on HTC handsets, it’s hidden beneath the earpiece grille.

So there are plus sides to the hardware: our favorites are the slim form factor, the almost brutally masculine industrial design, the carbon-fiber paint job, and the well-placed bulge that helps with cradling the device. But none are pronounced enough to make the Ascend P1 really special. We’re left with a device that feels almost afraid to stand out in any sense but its thinness. In phones, as with people, slimness by itself just isn’t enough.

UI

Where other manufacturers have had to make the journey to too-far and back again with their skins, Huawei seems to have needed less trial-and-error to learn that “less is more.” Indeed, the skin Huawei has implemented on the P1 is one of the lightest we’ve encountered. Most of the time, it sits on the sidelines, content to let the simple beauty of stock Ice Cream Sandwich -version 4.0.3 on our test unit- shine through. When it does appear, the skin brings with it some handy features: the stock lock screen, in both its “2D” and “3D” incarnations, offers quick shortcuts to the phone, messaging, and camera applications. And, possibly in a tip of the hat to Samsung’s TouchWiz skin, a row of five persistent toggles reside in the notification drawer, giving users quick access to WiFi, Bluetooth, and other settings.

There are a few speed bumps here as well; like Samsung did with the Galaxy S III, Huawei has chosen to ignore the trend Google started with the Galaxy Nexus-style ICS softkeys. Instead, three persistent capacitive buttons sit below the display, whose iconography -and even mere existence- harken back to an earlier iteration of Android. There’s nothing wrong with that, really; indeed, HTC did something similar on its One line. The difference here is that Huawei -again, like Samsung- has swapped out the dedicated multitasking key for a menu button. Some might hail this as a victory, in that it doesn’t force Huawei to add a pixel-wasting black bar to the display when an app calls for a menu button. But that comes at a cost: Android’s multitasking functionality, one of the hallmark features of Ice Cream Sandwich, is now accessible only via a press-and-hold action on the home button. Such a time-wasting input is a real impediment to the user experience for those who choose to make use of Android’s multitasking interface. Those who seldom use the multitasking list won’t miss it, of course … but we do. Accordingly, we can’t call this one a win for the P1.

Then, of course, there’s the keyboard.

Here at Pocketnow, we continue to jinx ourselves in our Android reviews; we said the stock Sense keyboard on the One X was one of the worst we’d used; then said we wished we could have that keyboard back after trying the even-less-useful keyboard on Samsung’s Galaxy S III. Well, we’re eating our words again: either of the above would be preferable to the P1’s keyboard, which is the newest to hold the “worst Android keyboard we’ve ever come across” crown.

The keyboard looks inviting enough; it’s got these big, tall keys whose size is adjustable, and a couple different themes to choose from if you don’t like the stock colors. There’s even a pretty innovative gesture that allows you to swipe left or right to toggle between the QWERTY and numeric keypads.

It’s not until you actually start typing on it that the problem comes to light. The user dictionary isn’t calibrated for English out of the box, despite being set that way by default on our unit, and the autocorrect is so bad that you’re better off disabling it. Shortcuts and punctuation keys are stuck in inconvenient corners, and if you really start typing fast, the keyboard constantly misses keystrokes. Sadly, not even switching to the stock ICS keyboard fixes these issues, which to us says this is a problem that runs deeper than just the skin. Whether it’s a hardware issue with the screen’s multitouch sensors or a software glitch isn’t clear. If it’s the latter, a simple OTA update might help matters. As it stands today, though, if you’re a messaging or email hound, we can’t recommend this device based on keyboard performance; the autocorrect problems combined with the smaller real estate of the narrow screen make it a very frustrating device to compose messages with.

Core apps like Messaging and Email are typical Android; their look and feel is very similar, if not identical, to the stock ICS experience. In fact, barring the handful of unremarkable apps Huawei has bundled with the P1 -a file manager and voice recorder are the headliners- most of the software load exists unaltered from its Ice Cream Sandwich incarnation. That’s a good thing.

Camera

The 8MP shooter is one of the highest-specced items on the P1’s feature list, and we’ve found its performance to be on par with what you’d expect from a mid-range smartphone camera. Given enough light, images come out sharp and crisp, with good color saturation (though as with all S-AMOLED devices, saturation will appear higher on the phone than it does on a computer monitor or another device’s LCD screen).

Lower the light, though, and a lot of noise starts to creep in, with the camera’s focus ability suffering as well. We were also frustrated to discover a bit of shutter lag that will cause some blur if you’re not keeping your hands steady. This isn’t uncommon, but the P1 suffered from this problem more so than other devices we’ve recently tested.

The camera also has a hard time deciding what kind of light level to choose in situations with both brightly and dimly lit areas – normally, HDR mode would be the solution here, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference with the P1, whose automatic ISO setting flits around quite a bit. Also, the P1’s lens has a somewhat narrow field of view, meaning you’ll have to step farther back from your subject than you would using some other phone cameras, like the one found on the Galaxy S III, or even that of the Galaxy Nexus.

The camera doesn’t skimp on extras, though; there’s the usual array of fun features, like burst shot and panorama mode, and they work fairly well. There’s also an extensive suite of available filters. Video performance in 1080p mode is fine, with the 30fps frame rate keeping up with even fairly rapid pans quite well. Audio is loud and clear. Overall, the P1’s camera experience sits on the high side of average.

Performance

Despite what the relatively unimpressive spec sheet might indicate, the Ascend P1 delivered an admirable performance streak during our test period. Especially with the 3D effects turned off, the P1 felt snappy and responsive throughout most of the UI, rarely making us wait and almost never suffering from stutter. The few exceptions to that rule were confined to memory-intensive applications like the browser, where loading the desktop versions of some websites resulted in stutter and lag even a few seconds after the page load was complete. Otherwise, the phone discharged its core duties admirably.

Music playback in the stock player, enhanced by something called “Dolby Mobile 3.0 sound enhancement,” was nothing to write home about. We mainly used streaming applications like Spotify and Pandora during the review period, which didn’t benefit from the Dolby enhancement; we didn’t notice much difference. The kind of enhancements available aren’t going to make or break this phone for any but the most particular audiophiles, and they wouldn’t be shopping for a device like this anyway.

The P1 handled gaming just fine, as any phone built on a Cortex A9 CPU with a gig of RAM should. We didn’t test it to its extremes, though, confining our gaming to low- and medium-intensity apps like Angry Birds Space and X-Plane 9. The lack of a quad-core processor makes the P1 somewhat less future-proof than some of its contemporaries, but the casual user won’t have a problem.

Benchmarks 

Battery Life

Results not typical.

Our testing revealed the P1’s battery life to be slightly better than average for a device in this class. The phone should get average users through a full day, though power users will still want to keep a charger handy. It actually did surprisingly well given the somewhat anemic 1670mAh battery; even after five hours of heavy use, including initial setup and syncing accounts, plus over an hour of Spotify streaming, we didn’t get below 50%. Road warriors will want to remember, though, that the battery isn’t removable, so an external power source is your only choice for on-the-run replenishment.

Call Quality/Network Performance

We tested the Ascend P1 on AT&T’s HSPA and EDGE networks in the Greater Boston area. Voice calls were clear and crisp, with the usual smartphone caveats- speakerphone performance was slightly on the tinny side, and earpiece volume could have a been a bit louder. Callers said they could hear background noise from a busy city street, indicating that the noise-canceling mic wasn’t doing a terribly good job. But in environments with normal noise levels, the P1 performed fine as a phone. Reception was adequate over HSPA, and EDGE performance was reliable, if slow, when we encountered a few coverage holes in Salem.

Pros

+ Thin and light, very pocket-friendly
+ Good battery life
+ Clear, sharp display
+ Responsive UI, lightweight & useful skin
+ Solid 3G performance
+ Adequate camera

Cons

 Unimpressive industrial design
 PenTile display will be irritating to some
 Nonremovable battery
 Slippery, cheap casing materials
 Stock keyboard almost unusable

Pricing and Availability

As the company has announced no plans for a stateside release, the Ascend P1 doesn’t show up on the list of available devices for purchase on Huawei’s US website. It’s easy enough for American consumers to get their hands on one, though it’s not necessarily going to be a cheap endeavor; a quick Google search revealed a bevy of unlocked devices ranging from the $600 to the $800 range. If you’re lucky enough to be in a supported country, availability and pricing will depend on your phone retailer or carrier of choice.

Conclusion

Huawei set some ambitious goals and made some lofty claims at MWC 2012. The company’s numbers are looking up and its brand awareness seems poised to grow further over the next year; we’d say they’re a company worth keeping an eye on. But if Huawei is really angling for a shot at smartphone supremacy, it’s got to do better than the Ascend P1.

We’re not saying it’s not a good phone; it is. In fact, in a few areas -like responsiveness, pocketability, and battery life- it really shines. And of course, we have to give Huawei credit for building one of the slimmest smartphones ever. But that’s not enough to wow audiences far and wide, particularly when negatives like the unremarkable build quality and bad stock keyboard experience are factored in. Of those, it’s the former “ding” against the P1 that we think is the most critical; a bad software keyboard can be replaced, but an uninspired design is tougher to correct.

Huawei’s future path will be determined by its more bombastic devices, but in the meantime, the Ascend P1 will serve as one of the company’s big brand drivers. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will depend on your point of view. From where we’re sitting, it’s neither; the P1 is sort of a wash. Its most exciting attribute might be its status as a preview device: a harbinger of the kind of products Huawei will (hopefully) be bringing us next. But there’s enough good in the P1, we think, to be excited about that future.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!