Huawei Ascend P1 review

Drastic product strategy adjustments appear to be a hot trend for smartphone manufacturers in 2012, and Huawei is one such example of a company doing its best to hang out with the cool kids. It's hard to blame it, of course: the OEM's previous success has been in its ability to crank out budget-friendly smartphones, feature phones and USB sticks like nobody's business and pushing them out to emerging markets. The story's even more dire within the US, as most carriers have kept Huawei out of the spotlight by choosing very few of its devices, white-labeling each one and selling them as prepaid. In an effort to gain awareness and improve its market share, Huawei's turned to establishing brand recognition and improving device selection as its focal points for 2012.

Barely a week into the new year, Huawei took to the stage at the Consumer Electronics Show to showcase the Ascend P1 and P1 S. These two smartphones, nearly identical twins with the exception of the P1 S' thinner profile and (oddly enough) larger battery, represented the first phase in the company's new product strategy. The pair were to be powerful new devices with a classy, stylish look and feel. This was a welcome move since Huawei's best product prior to CES was the Honor, a 1.4GHz single-core device with a 4-inch FWVGA display.

Until Huawei launches its top-tier Diamond series of smartphones (including the ultra-powerful D Quad), the Ascend P1 -- which is expected to arrive in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia by the end of the month at an unknown price -- will be the company's best offering. Naturally, we were eager to take this Platinum series (second tier) device for a spin. Is the P1 truly a sign of Huawei turning a new leaf? Does it hold its own against similarly specced competition? Follow us past the break to find out.

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Huawei Ascend P1 overview

Hardware

On the outside, the Ascend P1 shares a somewhat interesting kinship with the Motorola Droid RAZR: it boasts an extremely svelte profile, has a hump on one end and offers the same display size and technology. That's not to say these two devices are twinners, of course -- the camera placement, materials used and Moto's bent corners are just a few ways they differ -- but the two smartphones do share a hefty helping of commonalities.

Like the RAZR, the P1 and P1 S have attempted to create a buzz around their slender build. With a width of 7.7mm at its thinnest point, our test unit is the beefier of the pair on the spec sheet (the RAZR hits 7.1mm at its most svelte spot). A phone's claims of slimness are only as good as its thickest point, however -- and using an old-fashioned ruler, we discovered that the camera's hump is an extremity that gives the P1 the same maximum thickness as the RAZR (roughly 10.5mm).

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The P1 takes advantage of an incredibly lightweight construction, barely gracing the scales at a mere 3.88 ounces (110 g). Sure, we've seen plenty of other devices that weigh less than this, but generally the selection is much lower-end than what you'll find here. While we're not too fond of brick-heavy handsets, there's something about feather-light phones that exudes an aura of cheapness. The Ascend P1 is made of the typical inexpensive, glossy plastic we've come to expect on budget-friendly handsets, which leaves us a little concerned in this case -- a "Platinum series" phone shouldn't offer the same materials as many of Huawei's lower-end devices. Speaking of glossy, the phone does a better job picking up fingerprints than a Hoover vacuum picks up crumbs -- even with an all-white test model, they weren't difficult to spot. As with a litany of other ultra-thin devices, Huawei's latest darling doesn't offer a removable battery in order to conserve space and shed precious millimeters. But to the casual observer gazing upon the Ascend P1 for the first time, it looks like the back of the phone doubles as a battery cover, since it just appears to have been snapped onto the frame like a set of Legos. Efforts to take off the back in order to find the battery cover will be fruitless. In fact, opening up the tab protecting the microSD port reveals one of the screws holding the back in place. As tacky as it sounds, at least it's hidden well enough to not be much of a concern for most parties -- unless, of course, the plastic hinge wears out its welcome after enough time. While the phone is durable enough for consistent everyday use, we would have appreciated a unibody design choice here. Despite its build, the smooth, curved edges that lead from the side of the phone to its back make for a comfortable hand-holding experience. We can't make the same claim for most devices this thin, as the large majority of handsets less than 8mm tend to be a somewhat awkward fit in our average-sized palms. Our only gripe with the in-hand experience may or may not be a deal-breaker, depending on how you prefer to hold your phones: the top and bottom edges of the P1 are slightly pointed and may end up protruding into your hand like a sharp rock.

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The aforementioned microSD port resides on the right edge of the Ascend P1, just barely below the power / wake button. On top you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, micro-USB port and full-sized SIM slot. The left side of the phone only houses the volume rocker. The front is outfitted with the 4.3-inch qHD display, flanked by a row of three capacitive buttons (menu, home and back) below and a front-facing 1.3MP video chat camera and speaker above. Now we turn our attention, once again, to the back of the Ascend. This is where you'll discover a small bump housing an 8-megapixel, rear-facing camera and dual-LED flash, set up in a vertical arrangement on the top center of the phone (not dissimilar to the Samsung Epic 4G Touch and T-Mobile Galaxy S II). At roughly 10.6mm, the camera is actually the thickest part of the P1, which translates into a larger sensor size and, in theory, better images. A tiny noise-cancelling mic rests to its right, and the speaker grille can be found on the 9.4mm-thick hump at the bottom.

We were disappointed to find a meager amount of onboard storage: 4GB, to be exact, and the amount of user-accessible memory is even smaller. You won't be able to take advantage of the device's 8MP camera or its 1080p video recording prowess for very long, so you'll definitely need to grab a microSD card and throw it in to satisfy whatever memory requirements you may have. We were also saddened by the P1's lack of NFC, which means Android Beam and Google Wallet can't be used. But, to the happiness of AWS users everywhere, the Ascend P1 houses a pentaband 3G radio (850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100) in addition to quadband GSM / EDGE -- great news for T-Mobile US subscribers as well as anyone interested in complete global roaming. As for the rest of the internals, we've compiled a handy spec sheet to peruse below.

Huawei Ascend P1
Dimensions 5.02 x 2.55 x 0.30 inches (127.4 x 64.8 x 7.7mm)
Weight 3.88 oz. (110g)
Screen size 4.3 inches
Screen resolution qHD 960 x 540 (256ppi)
Screen type Super AMOLED (PenTile)
Battery 1,670mAh
Internal storage 4GB
External storage None included, MicroSD compatible
Rear camera 8MP, dual LED flash
Front-facing camera 1.3MP, 720p video
Video capture 1080p HD, 30fps
NFC No
Radios Quadband GSM / EDGE; Pentaband HSPA+ 850 / 900 / AWS / 1900 / 2100
Network speeds HSPA+ 21Mbps
Bluetooth 4.0
CPU 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4460
GPU PowerVR SGX540
RAM 1GB
MHL Yes
WiFi b/g/n

Display

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What you're looking at with the Ascend P1 is your run-of-the-mill 4.3-inch qHD display with a resolution of 960 x 540 (shining forth at a pixel density of 256ppi). It's super AMOLED, which will run cold shivers down the spines of PenTile haters everywhere. And to pre-emptively answer any question you might have about the RGBG matrix: yes, at that level of density, the pixels are visible. It likely isn't enough to bother anyone besides the aficionado; going from an HD display on today's flagship phones, it's easy enough to see the difference the lower pixel count makes. It's yet another commonality the phone shares with the RAZR, and you'll see absolutely no difference in resolution between the two. As an aside, the viewing angles on the Ascend P1 aren't quite as good as the HTC One X, but we were still able to get close to edge-on before the screen disappeared from our view.

Software

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Huawei Ascend P1 screenshots

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Huawei 3D Home UI

Huawei may be planning to release a special custom Android skin dubbed "Emotion," but there's currently no trace of it on the Ascend P1. That doesn't mean the Chinese manufacturer hasn't placed its own stamp of love on the thing. While the default skin of choice happens to be nearly all stock (with the exception of the camera UI, themes and notification bar), you're also offered the opportunity to hit the menu button from the home screen and quickly switch over to a custom skin called "3D Home." If you're familiar with the user interface found on the Honor and other older Huawei devices, you'll notice that the 3D Home experience closely resembles it. So much, in fact, that we felt as though we were transporting from Ice Cream Sandwich to Gingerbread in the space of mere seconds. First, let's tackle the name: the 3D moniker appears to refer mainly to the types of transitions and widgets that can be enabled within this particular skin. The animations aren't unique or new to the Android world, as we've seen enough cube-style UIs over the years to keep us from doing a double take at what Huawei has put together here.

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Diving deeper into the UI, the resemblance to ICS is minimal, though Huawei has at least stayed true to the five-button shortcut bar layout and the use of Roboto. Long-pressing the home panel brings up the option to add your choice of 2D or 3D widgets as well as folders and shortcuts (all of which were left out of this menu on stock ICS). Wallpapers can still be accessed, but only by pressing the menu key, which -- incidentally enough -- throws together a whole smorgasbord of various options you'd never find available in pure vanilla form, such as app management, settings, transitions and application icon appearance (you can choose between two icon styles). The app tray is a 4x4-icon grid with no option to peruse widgets. You'll also notice two large buttons at the bottom: home on the left and an icon manager on the right. The latter option gives you the ability to quickly uninstall apps you don't want anymore, and it even lets you add folders within the app menu itself (similar to later versions of TouchWiz). That's one feature we'd love to see used more often.

Looking back at the mostly-stock Android build, there are only a few places Huawei lightly salted with its own flavor. One of the most obvious differences is the inclusion of a capacitive menu button (arguably, including any capacitive buttons at all is a glaring differentiator from the virtual keys found on the Galaxy Nexus), which isn't uncommon to legacy devices with the four-key setup. The notification menu is nearly all stock, with one different feature staring you in the face: a set of five toggle switches (WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, Data Switch and Auto-Rotate), in a fashion very similar to what you'll find in most custom skins. The vanilla Android keyboard is available, but you're defaulted to Huawei's IME option, in which the keys are slightly taller than stock and the numbers can be accessed by swiping your finger from right to left (or vice versa).

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The lock screen offers four quick-access points, consisting of home, phone, camera and messages. In addition to the usual suite of styles for opening your device such as Face Unlock, pattern, 2D unlock and PIN, Huawei's also added a "3D unlock" option. Notice a theme here? Again, it's nothing you'd need a pair of special glasses to see -- it's just a version of the standard 2D unlock screen with fancier logos and a circle in the middle that resembles a globe. Fast boot is also included in the settings, and the name definitely fits: it took only six seconds to get from a cold start to the lock screen. To share a bit of contrast, we turned the setting off and the same process lasted 40 seconds before we saw the lock screen.

Within the default ICS skin on the device, three different themes are offered. Essentially, all this does is change the wallpaper and appearance of the icons on the screen. This is a nice customization option if you don't like the look of stock ICS (we're obviously huge fans of it though), but in switching back and forth between themes we discovered -- to our frustration -- that the wallpaper settings on the default theme don't get saved. So when we returned to our original theme, we had to manually switch to our preferred wallpaper once more. When we first received our test model, it was pre-loaded with a Chinese ROM. As such, Google accounts and the Play Store couldn't be used on the device -- even after attempting to sideload the APK files, we couldn't get the apps to work (though we could sideload third-party app stores without incident). It did, however, have Chinese apps and services not found on global versions, such as Mobile QQ, HiSense and Baidu Mobile. Oh, and a user guide, all in Chinese (even though we had changed the language settings to English). Huawei hooked us up with an international ROM, which we downloaded and installed via a microSD card. This treated us to a setup we're more accustomed to using, with full Google account and Play Store access.

Camera

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The 8-megapixel autofocus shooter on the back of the Ascend P1 didn't blow our minds, but it didn't disappoint us either. Why the mixed bag? We found the color to be well-saturated in most cases and we were satisfied with the white balance, but the images didn't seem to turn out as crisp or detailed as those taken with the HTC One X -- especially when comparing shots at 100 percent zoom. It's a perfectly average camera when it comes to performance, but at least it comes fully stocked with features and offers respectable images when taken casually. Even though the Ascend P1's skin is incredibly close to stock Android, Huawei chose to use its own user interface for the camera. The still / video toggle switch is on the top of the right sidebar above the shutter button, and the gallery shortcut is on the bottom. Changing LED flash modes and swapping to the front camera can be done using buttons located on the top left corner, and settings are accessed via an arrow on the left side. If you need to zoom, you can do so using the volume rocker. Pulling out the settings menu, you'll find (from top to bottom) scene mode, filters, effects and miscellaneous settings. If you're looking to switch over to HDR, Panorama, Low light, Smile Shot or Group mode, you can do so in the scene mode section. Other various needs, such as picture resolution, quality, white balance, toggle switches for AF and face detection, brightness / exposure adjustments and ISO (up to 800 is available) can be found in the miscellaneous menu. Sadly, we were unable to find a true macro mode and had difficulty mimicking the feature using any other modes provided to us. We also couldn't hunt down a way to turn off the obnoxiously loud shutter and focus sounds. This may not come as a bother to most, since it's a solid indication to the photographer that the camera's actually doing what it's supposed to do, but we'd appreciate having the choice to shut it off when it gets to be too much. Lastly, the P1's shutter button is capable of locking focus and exposure, which we have found to be incredibly helpful in a whole smattering of situations in which the available light and exposure just aren't quite right for what you're trying to capture.

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Huawei Ascend P1 camera samples

Touch to focus is ever-present in the P1 camera, which comes in handy whenever you want to focus on an object that doesn't happen to be in the middle of the viewfinder. It works well, subtly blurring out close-up items when you're attempting to focus on something in the background -- and vice versa. The P1 also allows you to use the built-in dual LED flash to help you focus on an object at night, prior to actually taking the shot. The flash is reasonably bright, although low-light performance (sans LED) could have been better. To get somewhat decent shots in these circumstances, your best bet is to find the "night" scene in the miscellaneous settings. Candlelight, low-light and HDR modes just won't get it done here. One other minor detail we uncovered in our testing revolves around the responsiveness of the shutter button: on several occasions we pressed the button only to find that nothing happened (we suppose this is one silver lining to its inability to shut off sound), but after a more precise touch of the button, it would begin working without a hitch. Speaking of which, shutter lag is quite reasonable on the P1 -- we had to wait a full 1.5 seconds for the image to get captured.

Recording video on the P1 was a pleasant experience overall. The camcorder offers a max resolution of 1080p, and does a better job at it than most smartphones using the same specs. We didn't spot any motion blur and there weren't any laggy or choppy bits. Color was accurate, and the mics picked up our voice clearly, despite an incessant breeze that was attempting to dominate the conversation.

Performance and battery life

The Huawei Ascend P1 is equipped with a TI OMAP 4460 dual-core CPU clocked at 1.5GHz. It's a heavy hitter, to be sure, and it's already being used in other key devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Indeed, given the steady performance of the original ICS smartphone, that's a heritage we can get behind. Power users won't be disappointed in the Ascend P1, as it hardly skipped a beat during the extent of our testing. We rarely experienced lag when transitioning between Android skins (more on that later), websites loaded quickly without tiling and multitasking went off without a hitch.

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Gaming was also a smooth experience with the PowerVR SGX540 GPU included in the OMAP 4460 chipset. We suffered from very little lag time when playing graphics-heavy titles such as Riptide, and the graphics were fairly well-detailed -- the only major exception to this was the fact that the water wasn't realistic enough. The jetski never appeared to float properly in the water, and when bobbing up and down it seemed as though it was surrounded by a strange grey mass instead of the aquatic goodness we've come to expect with the upper echelons of today's graphic capabilities. It may be enough to take a few hardcore gamers out of their element, to be sure, but most casual players will hardly notice at all. In an effort to discuss comparisons, let's talk numbers. Check out the table below, which outlines how the Ascend P1 fares against a fellow OMAP 4460 device (the Galaxy Nexus) and a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 handset (the One S).

Huawei Ascend P1 Samsung Galaxy Nexus (HSPA+) HTC One S (global)
Quadrant (higher is better) 3,550 1,993 5,053
Vellamo (higher is better) 1,293 1,159 2,452
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower is better) 1,963 1,985 1,742
GLBenchmark Egypt 720p offscreen (fps) 32 28 57
AnTuTu (higher is better) 5,973 6,087 7,067
CF-Bench (Overall; higher is better) 6,192 6,189 9,547
Battery life (video rundown test) 6:40 5:15 8:30

Looking at the table, we notice that the Ascend P1 holds its own against another OMAP 4460 device that happens to run stock ICS. Quadrant scores are slightly skewed in favor of the P1's qHD display when compared to the superior 720p HD panel on the Galaxy Nexus, but the benchmark still far exceeds the margin of error we'd give to the lower-res screen.

Testing GLBenchmark Egypt offscreen, a test specifically designed to run at the same screen resolution in order to eliminate possible misrepresentation, the Ascend barely edged out the Galaxy Nexus in graphics performance. Nearly every other benchmark is neck-and-neck between the two phones, which indicates that the Ascend P1 is a decent alternative for anyone seeking the same kind of performance as Sammy's Nexus. That said, neither device came even close to matching wits with the Snapdragon S4-running HTC One S, a glaring fact that doesn't bode well for TI.

In our standard video rundown test, the phone lasted a full six hours and 40 minutes before needing a new charge. That's right around average, and exactly what we'd expect from a 1,670mAh battery. It also eked out a respectable total of six hours and 20 minutes when we used the P1 as a mobile hotspot (with one device connected and tethering at all times). But how does the phone hold up in more common scenarios such as the regular workday? We managed to get the phone to go for 13 hours and 30 minutes in a real-life, daily use scenario (75 minutes of calling, 30 messages, 15 minutes of gaming, listening to music for an hour, watching 25 minutes of YouTube videos, taking pictures and video and checking email, Twitter and other social services every half-hour). Understandably, your mileage will vary depending on your own phone usage, but we have no reason to believe that the Ascend P1 won't get you through business hours, the commute home and up until bedtime. Moderate and infrequent users should get through at least a full day and a half without needing a juice pick-me-up. It's no RAZR Maxx -- no other phone is, naturally -- but it's surprisingly good for an average-sized battery. The Ascend P1 is equipped with Dolby Mobile 3.0, which essentially is a set of profiles designed to enhance the sound of your multimedia. It reminds us too much of HTC's recent attempts to "improve the listening experience" by integrating Beats audio technology into its handsets -- activating Dolby certainly does result in fuller bass than the default, and it bests Beats simply by offering a litany of equalizer settings to choose from, but its weak point is the treble. Regardless of the EQ profile, we could never find a range of sound fully to our liking. Turning Dolby on was better than leaving it off, to be sure, but we prefer the ability to choose our own preferences instead of deferring to specific pre-loaded sets of equalizer settings. Using the external speaker was a slightly different experience. Dolby was available when listening to music, but individual EQ settings weren't offered. Not that it really would have made an impact -- the only benefit we could determine was the fact that Dolby made each song louder (instead of better-defined), and the music was too soft to enjoy when the setting was turned off. While the speakers were loud enough that we could hear both calls and music from 30 feet away without straining our ears, voices sounded quiet and slightly muffled. Unfortunately, this was indicative of the overall call quality, as we achieved similar results with the internal speaker as well. We could hear the caller on the other end of the line well enough, but we also found ourselves pushing the volume rocker up to its highest setting more often than not.

Wrap-up

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It's a sure sign of how quickly things can change in the mobile industry. The Ascend P1 was a top-notch phone -- in January. Five months later, the landscape has changed drastically: Huawei's "Platinum device" will be released in a world in which the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III are available as alternative options. The P1 is a good phone, but it's not in the same league as those big guns. But was a device like the Ascend P1 meant to be the best of the best? Probably not. Heck, the very same manufacturer that produced this phone will debut the quad-core D Quad as its flagship at some not-too-distant point in the future. Rather, this device seems more practically suited to take on the next tier down -- a place which houses phones like the Galaxy Nexus and Droid RAZR. And at roughly $500 (prices vary by region), Huawei's inaugural dual-core device does exactly that in respectable fashion. It may not be love at first sight, but the P1 is -- at the very least -- a great first impression.

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Huawei

Huawei Ascend P1

Pros

  • Solid performance
  • Light, thin and comfortable to hold
  • Mostly stock ICS skin

Cons

  • qHD display falls short
  • Mediocre call quality
  • Limited onboard storage
Summary

It's not the best of the best, but it's a solid device and an indicator that the company's clearly heading in the right direction.