Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL review

In February of this year, Huawei took to the stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to highlight its most ambitious smartphone strategy to date. Its plan: to establish a new classification system by dividing the bulk of its handsets into four core groups starting with the high-end D-series at the top and working its way down to the bargain bin Y-series. Hogging Accepting the bulk of the spotlight, however, was the Ascend D Quad XL, a "superphone" containing a homegrown quad-core CPU. For a manufacturer that hadn't even put a dual-core phone on the market (the Ascend P1 wasn't on sale yet), a launch in the second quarter of this year felt incredibly aggressive. This was Huawei's first real chance to make a legitimate name for itself outside of Asia; pushing out an impressive device in a timely fashion was imperative.

Fast-forward eight months, and we've witnessed the 2012 equivalent of the Motorola Droid Bionic: the unfortunate device has been the subject of uncertainty and countless delays. Fear not, it's finally been released. However, it faces an incredibly competitive market coming into the holiday season, with quad-core heavyweights like the Samsung Galaxy Note II, LG Optimus G and HTC One X+ ready to duke it out. We had this question when it was originally announced, and it's become even more relevant now: can the Huawei D Quad XL (and its freshly made SoC) hold up respectably amongst its new peers? Delay no further and join us after the break to get the full scoop.

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Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL review

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Huawei

Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL

Pros

  • Solid performance
  • (Mostly) vanilla Android UI
  • High-definition IPS display

Cons

  • Video capture is choppy
  • Limited onboard storage
  • Thick for its form factor
Summary

Huawei's first quad-core device is sufficiently fast and powerful, but will likely be quickly forgotten amidst a sea of strong competition.

Hardware

What's the best way to kill the buzz circling around a forthcoming flagship product? Delay it for four or five months and then release it with lower specs than you originally promised. That's the story of the Ascend D1 Quad XL, which is expected to be available in Germany, Hong Kong, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, Norway and Denmark before the end of the quarter. At the time of its announcement, the XL version -- given the unfortunate name of the D Quad XL until Huawei thankfully corrected it -- was considered to be the D1 Quad with a larger battery and thicker frame, in the same way the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx was to its thinner counterpart. Richard Yu, chairman of devices at Huawei, essentially pitched it as the "world's fastest quad-core smartphone," thanks to its homegrown HiSilicon quad-core processor. With relatively few quad-core devices on the market at the time, that claim may have been at least more believable.

What's the best way to kill product buzz? Delay it and lower the specs.

This doesn't mean the XL is doomed before from the outset, but it does make the path to success much more difficult. Not only does Huawei face a greater amount of competition with similar components, the final product has also seen a few adjustments -- and most of them aren't for the better. In the span of time since Mobile World Congress, the processor responsible for the "world's fastest" claim has been slightly downclocked and the chassis is even thicker. Fortunately the battery saw a slight increase to 2,600mAh (from 2,500), but that's the only positive change. Regardless of the device's rocky history, it still serves to benefit the future of a company that, until this year, had never manufactured a dual-core phone, let alone anything more powerful. To put it another way, the single-core Honor -- which at best could be considered mid-range at the time -- was Huawei's flagship device until February of this year. Indeed, budget-friendly handsets were what the company did best, so it's certainly branching out into new territory here.

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The very first thing that came to our attention after taking it out of its box was the size; as we mentioned earlier, this won't win any contests for "world's thinnest phone," nor will it get anywhere close to the podium. Huawei's official spec sheet lists the Quad XL's thickness as 11.5mm (0.45 inches), and we even measured it ourselves in the hopes that the company's declaration was somehow false. It was indeed true. This baffles us for several reasons. First, we know that Huawei is capable of building slim phones, as evidenced by the Ascend P1 and P1S, and the XL looks as though the designers didn't even try to reduce its size. Second, it was originally supposed to be 10.9mm thick, and likely ballooned as a result of the larger battery. Lastly, the aforementioned battery is non-removable, which means the phone would have likely been even thicker if Huawei had made it accessible. Huawei does its darndest to make the device look stylish despite its size, and it fortunately feels a little more comfortable in our hands than we'd expect from an 11.5mm-thick phone; it still doesn't justify the bulk, but it makes it at least somewhat bearable. At 5.11 ounces (145g), it falls roughly in the median for smartphone weight. It has a flat back, aside from a very slight bump on the back for the camera, and the edges curve steeply downward to meet the sides, much the same way a loaf of baked bread peeks out above its tray. On the front, you'll notice the 4.5-inch panel flanked by a front-facing camera and LED notification light (RGB) on the top and three capacitive buttons (Back, Home and Menu) on the bottom. The whole thing is covered with Gorilla Glass 2, which doesn't make it shatterproof but at least helps it hold out a little better against car keys and other scratch magnets. The bezel isn't massive, but don't expect an edge-to-edge display on the Quad XL either.

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The right side of the D1 Quad XL features a volume rocker, the top houses the power / standby button and a standard headphone jack, and you'll find the micro-USB / MHL port on the left side while the bottom remains bare. The textured back, which adds some friction for a better grip, offers the 8MP camera and LED flash near the very top, with a mic just below them and a speaker grille tucked down near the bottom-left. Prying off the cover reveals the massive battery locked up in its cage -- not to be accessed without proper tools -- as well as slots for a full-sized SIM card (no micro-SIM here, folks) and a microSD for external storage. You'll want the extra space, too, since the device only includes 8GB by itself, of which a mere 5.29GB is user-accessible. That isn't much if you're planning to cram movies, music, games and high-res photos and videos onto your new smartphone. Huawei has confirmed to us that polycarbonate and metal are the primary build materials used on the phone, which makes us feel a little more at ease, but the former is much more prevalent on the outside. Finally, the D1 Quad XL lacks support for NFC and wireless charging, which certainly puts it at a competitive disadvantage against the other flagship phones currently on the market, but it offers DLNA and MHL. We have the spec sheet in its entirety below, so feel free to take a look before we move onto the handset's display.

Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL
Dimensions 5.08 x 2.52 x 0.43 inches (129.9 x 64.9 x 11.5mm)
Weight 5.11 oz. (145g)
Screen size 4.5 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 720 pixels (330ppi)
Screen type IPS+ (made by Toshiba)
Battery 2,600mAh
Internal storage 8GB (5.29GB available to users)
External storage microSD (up to 32GB)
Rear camera 8MP, BSI, AF
Front-facing cam 1.3MP
Video capture 1080p rear (720p front)
NFC No
Radios HSPA+ / UMTS: 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 (max 21 Mbps down / 5.76 Mbps up)
Bluetooth Version 3.0 HS
SoC 1.4GHz quad-core Huawei HiSilicon K3V2; 40nm, 16-core GPU, 64-bit memory
RAM 1GB
MHL / DLNA Yes / Yes
WiFi 802.11b/g/n, 2.4GHz only
Operating system Android 4.0.4

Display

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The D1 Quad XL uses a 4.5-inch 1,280 x 720 HD Toshiba IPS+ display with a pixel density of 330ppi. Thanks to its use of in-plane switching, it offers great viewing angles and a bright screen. Its high resolution and non-PenTile BGR matrix prevented us from seeing even the tiniest of pixels, giving us the opportunity to better enjoy what we were viewing; on the other hand, however, colors on the display were slightly undersaturated, especially when compared with the One X and Galaxy S III side by side. The darks weren't as dark as what you'll find on an AMOLED panel, the whites weren't as bright as a Super LCD 2 and the colors didn't appear as vibrant as either. Fortunately, direct sunlight wasn't a bother (provided we had the brightness turned almost all the way up). Movies still proved to be an enjoyable experience nonetheless, and we doubt anyone aside from the devout display aficionado will take issue with it.

Software

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When it comes to Android firmware, Huawei seems to go by one of two general rules: it either sticks to its custom Emotion UI skin or it goes as close to vanilla as you can expect from a respectable manufacturer. Purists are going to love the fact that the company chose the latter path for its flagship model, but it's not a perfect duplicate of the stock Ice Cream Sandwich we came to know and appreciate on devices like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The app launcher, most of the core apps and the home pages are virtually identical, but Huawei made a few tweaks to the lock screen and threw in its traditional 3D Home launcher and icon themes. Let's discuss a few of Huawei's changes. The usual lock screen (provided you don't choose a security lock option) offers a circle of quick access shortcuts that point you to the camera, phone logs and messages in addition to the standard swipe-to-unlock gesture found on most Android devices. This interface will look slightly different if you switch from 2D unlock to 3D unlock, but the buttons remain the same -- and unfortunately we haven't found a way to change them to match our preferences.

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Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL screenshots

3D Home has been a Huawei staple for quite some time, so it didn't come as much of a surprise to see it featured here -- in fact, there's very little difference with this particular version than those we've seen on the Honor and Ascend P1. Essentially, 3D Home is a separate launcher that gives your Android interface a different look and style from the stock experience. On the home pages, you'll find a set of special Huawei widgets that attempt to appear as though they're jutting out from off the screen -- if you've ever tried drawing three-dimensional cubes on a regular notepad when bored at school, you'll know what we mean -- but they don't necessarily bring any new functionality to the phone. Going into the app menu you'll immediately notice a difference between this and the vanilla ICS style: each page is arranged into a 4x4 grid, rather than 5x4, and you cannot access widgets here (you'll need to long-press the home screen to look through them). At the bottom of each panel you can find two buttons: settings on the right and home on the left (an unnecessary feature, since a capacitive home key is ever-present just underneath the display). While we applaud Huawei's efforts to offer choice in its UX, we don't see any advantage in using 3D Home. At least it's easy to switch back and forth if you want to compare the two launchers. If you like to switch up the look of your icons and home screen every once in a while, the ability to choose themes is another way to do so. Three are available: the stock Android theme is used by default, whereas Breeze and Dawn are offered to give your home pages and app launcher more of a Huawei-esque look, complete with blocky and cartoonish icons. Oddly, the phone doesn't save your wallpaper preference when you switch themes.

Camera

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The 8MP camera encased within the D1 Quad XL is Huawei's best effort to date, but we're not sure that's a very difficult achievement to reach, given that it has excelled in the budget phone category for years. It's a decent performer in some areas while severely lacking in others, which will make it hard for us to recommend it over Android imaging giants like the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC One X.

It's the best camera we've seen from Huawei to date, but that isn't a difficult achievement to reach.

Even though the majority of the core Android apps are stock, the D1 Quad XL's camera app is not. The shutter button, gallery access and camcorder toggle switch are on the right sidebar, while the front-facing cam toggle and flash options are on the top-left. The left sidebar is hidden from view until you need it -- it slides out and offers shooting modes, effects and settings. There are plenty of settings to please the amateur mobile photog: it features a low-light mode, HDR, burst and smile shots, panorama, effects, ISO, white balance, red eye reduction and a set of adjustments for exposure, contrast, saturation and brightness. Most of them work exactly the way you would expect, but there are a couple that leave much to be desired. The first of which is the low-light capability, which we had high expectations for given the XL's inclusion of a BSI (backside-illuminated) sensor. We compared several low-light images from the XL with those we took side by side on the Galaxy S III, and we were taken aback by the difference: the GSIII did a much better job scooping up errant light, eliminating unnecessary noise and enhancing nighttime shots than the XL. We've highlighted one example below, and have included plenty of comparison shots between the two devices in our sample galleries. LED flash, on the other hand, is sufficiently bright and helped the camera do a good job of capturing color.

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Like the Ascend P1, a true macro mode is nonexistent here. We don't think you'll miss it too much, however, since we were able to keep a solid focus on objects up to 5cm, which is pretty close to what the Galaxy S III can do in a dedicated macro focus. While we're on the subject of specific settings, panorama shots were perfectly fine, but they're restricted to a radius of roughly 90 degrees. If you're looking to capture an entire vista, this means you'll need to take multiple panoramic photos to achieve that effect. HDR performance depended on various scenarios. We noticed that the images tended to favor less exposure, which resulted in great shots in cloudy weather and lower-light conditions (they turned out better than the same shots on a Galaxy S III) but conversely made daylight pictures look darker than they should be. In terms of everyday situations, the XL camera almost lives up to the standards set by the Galaxy S III and the One X, but we can't say that it beats either device in any specific scenario. Images are sufficiently detailed and the camera does a pretty good job of capturing natural light and the dynamic range, but we noticed that some colors appeared washed out in direct sunlight. Resulting pictures are less saturated in color than those taken by the GS3, and they're not quite as crisp as what we saw on the One X. File sizes appear to be the same as what we'd expect, so compression won't be a concern here. Don't get us wrong -- pictures in normal scenarios still turn out nicely and will be completely satisfactory for most, but they aren't as good as or better than the best 8MP modules you can find.

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Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL sample images

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Samsung Galaxy S III sample images

Beware if you don't have a microSD card, because more often than not you'll be confronted with a warning message when you boot up the app that tells you all of your captured treasures will simply be stored on the phone. It's a small nitpick, and the message goes away after a few seconds, but we typically want to start taking pictures immediately upon entering the app, and we quickly grew tired of this message in the middle of our viewfinder. There's also no way to turn the shutter sound off, regardless of your volume settings.

The camcorder capabilities on the Quad XL are a bit lacking. The maximum resolution is 1080p, and videos are captured in MPEG-4 format with a frame rate of 24.8 fps -- a bit lower than the 30 fps footage that we're used to seeing on competing phones like the Galaxy S III and One X. This ultimately results in movies that look less detailed, noisier and a bit choppy (regardless of whether we're staying still or even slowly panning back and forth). We preferred 720p footage over 1080p in this situation, as it was much more smooth and less headache-inducing, but we still have a hard time imagining either resolution as HD. Fortunately, audio turned out great in all of our samples. Another downer is the fact that you aren't able to take video and stills simultaneously, nor can you even snap pictures from those videos later on. Autofocus is available (and ends up being used a little too much for our liking, to be honest), but you're not given any manual focus options like tap-to-focus.

Performance and battery life

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Quad-core phones simply didn't exist at this time last year, but the scope of the smartphone market has changed significantly over the last few months. Even as recently as April and May, seeing such a powerful CPU built into a smartphone was reason enough to turn heads and open wallets -- now, it's the only way a brand new flagship device is launched without getting laughed out of the building. And the competition between chipsets is just as fierce: Exynos, Tegra 3 and Snapdragon S4 Pro are currently amassing a hefty presence in the industry. Huawei isn't going for any of those options. Instead, it has chosen the in-house HiSilicon K3V2 as the main driver behind the company's flagship device. The 40nm Cortex-A9 chipset sports a quad-core CPU clocked at 1.4GHz, a 16-core GPU and a 64-bit memory system. Deciding to go head to head against vicious competition with an unproven SoC is a rather gutsy move; many competing chipsets are already established brands that have already made names for themselves. After months of speculation, we've finally had the opportunity to see how it holds up against the mighty pillars of silicon prowess. First, let's go over the obligatory stack of benchmarks in the table below.

Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL (K3V2) HTC One X (Tegra 3) Samsung Galaxy S III (Exynos) LG Optimus G (Snapdragon S4 Pro)
Quadrant (v2.0) 5,210 4,906 (Sense 4.0); 6,369 (Sense 4.1) 5,189 7,628
Vellamo (v2.0) 1,530 1,617 (Sense 4.1) N/A N/A
AnTuTu 12,114 11,030 (Sense 4.0); 11,517 (Sense 4.1) 11,960 11,230
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,528 1,773 (Sense 4.0); 1,741 (Sense 4.1) 1,460 1,312
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt Offscreen (fps) 14 9.7 (Sense 4.1) N/A N/A
CF-Bench 13,298 13,233 (Sense 4.0); 13,750 (Sense 4.1) 13,110 14,398
SunSpider: lower scores are better. All phones tested on Android 4.0.

A quick look at the benchmarks seems to indicate that the K3V2 is on par with the Tegra 3-equipped HTC One X. However, here's what we weren't able to add to the table due to lack of space: the Quad XL's scores are also right up there with the Meizu MX 4-core, and it even beat out the LG Optimus 4X HD. Our point in bringing this up? Had the Quad XL launched when it was originally supposed to, it would've fared much better against the competition at the time. The K3V2 does very well against its fellow 40nm silicon mates, but it can't go toe to toe with the Optimus G's 28nm Snapdragon S4 Pro. (Update: the scores are on par with the One X on Sense 4.0, but the phone's recent update to Sense 4.1 improved some of its scores, which fares worse for the Quad XL in some raw benchmark comparisons.)

The K3V2 chip delivers decent performance, but the D1 Quad XL can't be considered "the world's fastest smartphone."

Indeed, at this stage of the game, it can't be considered the world's fastest or most powerful smartphone, but that doesn't mean it's a horrible contender. Our real-life experience with the Quad XL was exactly what we'd expect from a first-gen quad-core processor: it's solid, fluid and you'll find few stutters or delays. Power users won't find much in the way of frustration here, unless they venture off into the 3D Home launcher for some reason -- on many occasions, we hit the Home button only to find ourselves sitting for anywhere between five and 10 seconds before all apps and widgets displayed properly. We were happy with how quickly Engadget's front page loaded in the browser, and there was virtually no delay in loading images. Gaming was also a success, as graphics-intensive titles were as smooth and detailed as phones with 16 GPU cores should be.

When we received the device the CPU appeared to be stuck on a maximum clockspeed of 1.2GHz, even in high performance mode. This is a stark contrast to Huawei's 1.4GHz claim, so we seeked guidance from the manufacturer. We learned that the processor somehow was stuck on the same speed, regardless of which performance level we used. After typing in *#*#1400#*#* and rebooting the device, the processor immediately bumped up to 1.4GHz. This could potentially be a concern for unsuspecting consumers who purchase the phone and don't realize it's not performing at its best.

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So with that bug aside, the overall performance seemed to be on par with the One X and GS3 -- but how's the battery life? After all, the XL gets its name from the respectable 2,600mAh battery taking up a fair amount of space in the back. We conducted our intense tests with the phone in its highest performance setting, which lets you enjoy the full 1.4GHz each core has to offer (the standard battery-saving mode will lower that to 1.2GHz). Our rundown test, which consists of running video on an endless loop at 50 percent brightness while connected to HSPA+ and receiving push emails and social media notifications, ran for eight hours and 25 minutes before the battery decided that enough was enough. With regular usage -- i.e. constantly checking emails and social media, surfing the internet, as well as the occasional call, text and photo opp -- we easily made it through a full day with a little extra to spare. The highest performance setting isn't going to help you go into a second day, but non-power users will find more success by going into battery-saver mode and only moderately taking advantage of the goodies found on the D1 Quad XL. The phone is capable of hitting max speeds of 21 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up using its HSPA+ radio, and it covers 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz bands. As you'd expect, your actual speeds will vary on factors like which network you use and your overall signal strength, but our experience teetered just around average for our neck of the woods. In other words, it's not going to blow your minds, but it'll get the job done perfectly well. Call quality also met our expectations, as we consistently had crisp and clear conversations, in large part thanks to Huawei's selection of an Audience EarSmart noise reduction processor. We noticed that the speakerphone was fairly quiet when compared to the Galaxy S III, but you'll be fine using it as long as you're not in a busy area. Speaking of audio, the D1 Quad XL comes with Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Mobile 3.0 built in. We weren't able to test the first feature, but we hooked up our Klipsch Image S4A in-ear headphones and had an enjoyable experience playing around with the various audio settings that Dolby Mobile provides for both music listening and movie watching. The sound was loud and offered plenty of clarity for treble and bass lovers alike. We noticed the usual smattering of EQ options to help tweak the audio to fit your preferences. If you want to connect the phone to your HDTV, you have access to DLNA and MHL options. You won't see any over-the-top additions to the UX here; for instance, plugging the phone into an MHL setup simply offers HDMI mirroring with no extra features -- unless you count seeing the home pages in landscape mode as a feature, that is.

Wrap-up

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Let our words not be minced: when the Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL starts showing up in the majority of global markets this quarter (no US availability has been announced, though we'll likely see it offered by online importers), it'll face some steep competition. What once was billed as the "world's fastest smartphone" is now just another entry on the growing list of quad-core powerhouses available on the market, largely thanks to months of delays. That's not to say it isn't powerful or fast -- on the contrary, it performs exactly the way you'd expect a phone with four CPU cores to, and it's Huawei's best phone to date -- but we unfortunately aren't seeing many features that will help the company's flagship stick out. The saving grace for the XL will be its price; estimated to be around 2,699 yuan ($450), it'll be the only thing that prevents this particular device from getting lost in the crowd.