In 2010, does a phone need to have a 4.3-inch display, a gigahertz (or greater) processor, and a one-bazillion megapixel camera with xenon flash and continuous autofocus to be relevant? How about important? Or even -- dare we say it -- awesome? Is that even remotely possible? At a glance, T-Mobile's Comet from Huawei is a totally forgettable phone, just another anonymous ultra-low end handset that isn't going to impress anyone (except maybe your accountant). But let's consider the facts: at $9.99 on contract, it's an insane deal for a newly-introduced smartphone, and it's by far the lowest subsidized price for any Android device ever released in the US. In fact, it's within shouting distance of free. It runs stock Android 2.2. A regional variation of the Huawei Ideos, it was designed with help from Google. Oh, and yeah, it's one of the first T-Mobile devices to feature WiFi hotspot support. Is your interest sufficiently piqued? Read on.

T-Mobile Comet review

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Hardware

It'd be deceptive to say that the Comet has a premium appearance to it, but in the same breath, calling it "cheap-looking" would probably be doing it a disservice. It generally looks like Huawei has done everything it can to use ultra-cheap materials and make them look (and feel) higher-end, starting with matte black plastic on the back cover and front bezel trimmed with small strips of soft-touch material in between. The company mercifully limited its use of chrome to the d-pad's ring and the volume rocker, and the plate surrounding the d-pad has concentric ridges that produce a nice optical effect. We can definitely picture the Comet looking great in a variety of colors (in fact, Huawei showed a bunch of Ideos colors at IFA), but for now, black's the only option.

At roughly 104 x 56 x 13mm, make no mistake that the Comet is a very small phone -- as well it should be considering the tiny 2.8-inch screen. After spending the better part of the past couple years carrying phones with displays 3.5 inches or larger, there's something refreshing about handling such a small phone and knowing that it's more than a dumbphone -- in fact, realistically, it's got 85 or 90 percent of the capability and functionality of the highest-end devices on the market today when you think about it. It's not particularly thin, but the thickness feels appropriate for the size -- not chubby in the least.

As for ports and controls, they're simple: micro-USB in the center of the bottom, 3.5mm headphone jack and power button up top, and the aforementioned volume rocker is on the left side. The power button is a little too small and too flush, making it tricky to tell whether you've pushed it at times... but this is one button that we'd much rather have too hard to push than too easy. On back, you've got the 3.2 megapixel camera next to two holes that look like a dual LED flash, but they're actually for the speakerphone -- there is no flash on this one.

Moving back to the front, you've got the standard four Android buttons as touch-sensitive icons below the capacitive display, and below that, vertically-oriented Send and End buttons on either side of the circular d-pad. This area of the phone is really the only part that we take specific issue with: at a glance, it seems wasteful. As we mentioned before, the concentric ring design is kind of cool, but it doesn't serve any function, so you end up with this relatively huge expanse of dead space that could've been either used for more screen real estate or killed off entirely to make the phone smaller. In reality, we suspect Huawei was backed into a corner on this one -- making the display any bigger would've increased costs, and there are probably electronic guts behind this area that couldn't have been easily moved elsewhere without making the phone thicker or more expensive (or without sacrificing battery life). And we don't want to blow it out of proportion, either -- it really looks fine, it's just a styling element that simply wouldn't exist on a pricier device. Heck, most Android devices don't have physical Send and End buttons at all, though it's pretty nice to have one-touch access to the phone app.

On a related note, the circular d-pad is huge, and its design is a little confusing on a couple levels. First off, the recent trend toward optical pads -- particularly on Android devices -- has you immediately assuming that the big black area in the middle is an optical pad... but it's not. Rather, it's just a simple pushbutton for selection. Secondly, the raised chrome edge is a bit thin and flush, making it just a little bit trickier to push than it probably should be. Then again, if this huge space below the screen really is necessary at this price point (see the preceding paragraph), going with something like a trackball would've looked silly, so this is probably another case of Huawei doing the best it could with the hand it had been dealt. And we're seriously nitpicking, anyway -- you never need to use the d-pad in Android, and if you decide to, you'll be able to use this one just fine.

The display is definitely the weakest link in the Comet's arsenal -- and considering that displays are one of the priciest components on any phone's bill of materials, that comes as little surprise. It's got a 2.8-inch QVGA TFT screen, which is kind of a trifecta of suck: it's smaller, lower-resolution, and less contrasty than today's Android trendsetters. But can it get the job done? The actual display is far enough beneath the capacitive layer (we'd say by 1mm or so) that viewing angles are kind of irrelevant, because as you tilt it, the display ends up being obscured by reflection off that layer rather than by any negative LCD effects. The good news is that, as we mentioned, the screen is capacitive, and it pays off: we had no issues with sensitivity, it felt fine, and we were surprised by what an easy time we had with the on-screen keyboards (more on that later). Strangely, it doesn't seem to support multitouch at all -- though then again, on a screen this small, the usefulness of it is debatable. We didn't really miss it.

Above the display you'll find the earpiece (of course) surrounded by a proximity sensor to the left and a notification light to the right that can be configured in the standard Android ways. The sensor is pretty weird -- it works just fine as far as we can tell, but it very noticeably flashes red every half second or so when you're in a room without much light. Interestingly, we weren't able to get the display to go out simply by covering it, we had to hold our hand over pretty much the entire face of the phone. Magic!

Considering the meek processor and small screen, we expected the battery to run forever on the Comet, but it wasn't anything spectacular -- possibly due to the fact that the battery is a relatively light 1200mAh. Then again, it was far from terrible: we got about 24 hours of relatively light use including an hour with the hotspot turned on. With heavy use, we think you could easily make it through a day, but you'll need to be sure to charge it nightly.

Camera

It's a fixed-focus 3.2 megapixel camera here, so we didn't expect much -- and we didn't get much. The pictures aren't half bad -- particularly when scaled down to sizes appropriate for computer screens -- but the video capture was absolutely atrocious. It outputs CIF video (352 x 288) at a low framerate with pretty awful audio... and, well, quite frankly, there's almost nothing positive to say about it. It almost feels like Huawei took a sensor designed solely for still photos and hacked it to do video. In fact, that's probably what they did.

T-Mobile Comet camera samples

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Software

The Comet runs stock Android 2.2 -- a side-effect of Huawei's partnership with Google on the phone, we're sure, evidenced by the large "with Google" logo placed right below the camera on back. That said, there are a couple pack-in apps -- nothing too controversial, and nothing we haven't seen before: the view-only version of Documents To Go, T-Mobile's My Account and My Device apps, Swype, Telenav, and a generic "Note pad" app are all in ROM. We put "Note pad" in quotes because that's how it's actually written, and the poor capitalization is kind of indicative of the whole app -- sloppy with virtually no functionality. We suspect Huawei wrote this themselves and tossed it in as a stopgap to make up for Android's lack of a standard note-taking app, but we would've preferred that they just let us download one of the many free (and good) ones ourselves or let T-Mobile partner up with a decent developer to include one.

We won't lie: the phone can get sluggish. That's obviously attributable to the 528MHz processor that Huawei included -- partly as a battery saver, we're sure, but more as a cost saver. We never got to the point where we were ready to throw the phone against a wall, though -- the speed was bearable, particularly (and importantly) in the browser where scrolling seemed to basically keep up with our demands.

We mentioned the software keyboard briefly before, and on such a small screen, you can imagine that typing could be concern. We were surprised -- nay, shocked -- at how little trouble we had typing away on the stock keyboard with our fat fingers, and frankly, we can't fully explain it. It wasn't even that Android's predictive text system was helping us out, we were just generally nailing the correct letters consistently. Swype's also there if you're into that sort of thing, and it seems to work just as well here as on any other Android device we've tested recently (that is to say, quite well indeed).

One odd misstep comes when you plug the Comet into your computer. The phone initially presents itself on your machine as a CD labeled "Mobile Partner," a branding opportunity on the Ideos that T-Mobile appears to have missed altogether for the Comet. Opening the CD reveals a PDF with some GPL disclaimers for BusyBox among other things, along with an offer from Huawei to receive a CD of all the GPL source code in the Comet for €20 -- yes, that's 20 euro, not 20 US dollars. That's not even the strangest bit, though -- that honor would have to go to the phone's "drivers" folder, which contains both ADB and -- get this -- a link to download Microsoft ActiveSync 4.5 for Windows 2000 and XP. You know, the software you use to hook up your Windows Mobile device to a computer. Don't ask us. Of course, this isn't the first time that we've seen really obvious and preventable software weirdness in a T-Mobile device, so we think this probably speaks to the fact that T-Mobile has one of the less stringent device testing regimens in the industry -- we can't verify that claim, but it certainly seems that way.

Though the Comet is among the first T-Mobile devices to have USB tethering and WiFi hotspot functionality enabled, our early impressions suggest that you shouldn't expect much. With full 3G signal strength, the connection was spotty at best; we were regularly failing to load web pages, and streaming media was a non-starter. It might have been an isolated incident -- and it's also important to note that T-Mobile has yet to officially roll out its tethering plan anyway, so we'll have to revisit this when it's totally official. (On a related note, the Comet doesn't support HSPA+ like some of its higher-end stablemates, but it does scale up to 7.2Mbps.)

Wrap-up

It's easy to read through some of our criticisms here and dismiss the Comet as a mediocre device -- but again, we need to focus just as much on the price and the market significance as we do on the device itself. As of this writing, the Comet is actually free on contract if you buy it off T-Mobile's site... and that's for a brand-new, just announced smartphone running the latest available version of Android direct from a carrier. That's simply unprecedented.

It would've been easy for T-Mobile to screw this up by launching a really miserable device that no one in their right mind would want to own -- a smartphone that made you crave for a better-built dumbphone at the same price point. Instead, the carrier saved a few dollars by reaching out to a manufacturer that hasn't traditionally done a lot of consumer-facing business in the States, and Huawei really seems to have met the challenge; sure, there are some rough edges, but nothing that can't be smoothed out over time -- and nothing that would prevent us from recommending the Comet.
T-Mobile (Huawei)

Comet

Pros

  • Surprisingly well-built
  • Amazing price point
  • 802.11n and HSPA 7.2Mbps capability

Cons

  • Sluggish at times
  • Very poor quality video capture
  • Small, low-res TFT display
Conclusion

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