Huawei Ascend W1 review: the company's first WP8 device is promising, yet flawed

When Microsoft announced its hardware partners for Windows Phone 8, we were surprised that there was no mention of Huawei. You see, in the lead-up to the event, we'd seen enough evidence to be sure that the Chinese outfit would become the fourth phone maker to join Nokia, Samsung and HTC. When the Ascend W1 debuted later at CES, Huawei made no great effort to explain the delay, but with the vehement political opposition it's currently facing in the US, perhaps it had cold feet. Now, several months down the line, we have our first chance to put the Ascend W1, its first Windows Phone 8 device, through its paces.

With a £130 off-contract price on O2 UK (or $230 at Walmart in the US) and a spec sheet that screams "2011," it's clear that Huawei's aiming this at the same audience as Nokia's lowest-priced Lumias, the 520 and 620. That puts it squarely in the reach of smartphone virgins, the "price sensitive" and those looking to dip a toe into Windows Phone's hot tub with more of a secondary handset. But should the W1 be the device new users pick to be their entry point into Microsoft's mobile world, or will we once again say that it's the Lumia 620 that deserves your hard-earned cash? The answer resides below the fold.

Gallery | 28 Photos

Huawei Ascend W1 Review

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Huawei

Huawei Ascend W1

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Attractive, well-built hardware
  • Excellent performance
  • Big battery

Cons

  • 1.88GB of usable storage
  • Inconsistent camera
Summary

This very good Windows Phone 8 device is hampered by a lack of storage and a lackluster camera, but good performance may tempt speed freaks.

Hardware

There's a fine line between light and insubstantial, and despite being eight grams heavier than the iPhone 5, it's the Ascend W1 that feels lighter in the hand. Bargain-basement handsets are invariably going to make you worry about poor build quality, but Huawei seems to have sidestepped those issues with relative ease. In fact, the W1 is solidly built and resisted our attempts to contort it out of shape with our meaty digits. All told, it should withstand the dangers of a jeans pocket quite well.

The company's been taking a page out of Nokia's and HTC's playbooks, covering the handset in a matte cyan (or pink) polycarbonate shell that can take the odd key scratch. Those of you who remember HTC's early Android devices will also note the hint of a chin here, but because the display is mounted atop the shell like a pedestal, it's a rather nice look. At 2.5 inches wide and 0.4 inch thick, you may expect it not to sit well with your fleshy palm, but fortunately the edges and corners have all been rounded off. So while the phone may appear stark and boxy, it's very comfortable in the hand.

Huawei Ascend W1 review

Above the 4-inch WVGA display, which we'll discuss more later, are the earpiece, proximity sensor, battery indicator light and a forward-facing VGA camera. Beneath the screen, you've got the usual three capacitive buttons, with the microphone notched into the edge of the bezel just to the left of the Windows key. Along the frame, you'll find a 3.5mm headphone port and the power / sleep button up top, two-stage camera key on the right-hand side, a volume rocker on the left and a micro-USB port on the base.

The company could have taken some notes on where to place the handset's loudspeaker. Rather than on the rim or the front of the frame, the speaker grille runs beneath the Windows Phone logo on the back of the case. That means if you're making hands-free calls, or annoying your fellow subway passengers, you'll have to hold the phone away from your palm or else mute the sound -- a problem we've also spotted on the low- and medium-end Lumias like the 520, 620 and 720.

Huawei Ascend W1 review

The rear cover snaps off to reveal the removable 1,950mAh battery, microSD card and SIM slot -- so keep a micro-SIM adapter nearby, folks. While the phone boasts 4GB of storage, Windows Phone occupies more than half of that allocation, leaving us with a meager 1.88GB of usable memory. Don't be fooled, then, by that bargain price if you're intending to load media onto the device, as your first job will be to buy a microSD card (up to 32GB) separately.

Huawei Ascend W1
Dimensions 124.5mm x 63.7mm x 10.15mm (4.9 x 2.5 x 0.4 in)
Weight 4.2 oz. (120 grams)
Screen size 4.0 inches
Resolution 800 x 480 (233 ppi)
Screen type IPS LCD with OGS
Battery 1,950mAh (removable)
Internal storage 4GB (1.88GB user accessible)
External storage microSD (up to 32GB)
Rear camera 5 MP AF
Forward camera 0.3 MP
Video capture 720p (rear only)
NFC No (Ed. note: PR confirmed optional NFC is a typo)
Radios

GSM: 850/900/1800/1900
UMTS: 900/2100, 850/1900/AWS
HSPA+: 21 Mbps d/l, 5.76 Mbps u/l

Bluetooth 2.1 HS
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Play (MSM8230)
CPU 1.2GHz dual-core
GPU Adreno 305 300MHz
RAM 512MB
WiFi 802.11b/g/n
Wireless charging No
Operating system Windows Phone 8
Details correct as of May 2013

Display

DNP Huawei Ascend W1 review, it's good, but it's not right

We regularly labor the point that Windows Phone's block-color aesthetic negates some of the need for a pixel-rich display. As such, you shouldn't be surprised to read that the W1's 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) screen doesn't exactly light our candle, however it does do a decent job considering the handset's price. Granted, it's not going to beat a flagship, but those upgrading from a feature phone won't find too many reasons to gripe. When it comes to replaying video, that 233-ppi display does a manful job, and we could quite happily use it to catch up on 30-minute TV shows during a commute without fuss.

In the plus column, the W1's IPS LCD itself has great viewing angles and is evenly lit. Huawei may have pinched pennies elsewhere, but at least here it used OGS (One Glass Solution) to eliminate the air gap between the screen and the protective glass for a crisper, sharper display. In fact, we'll say that color reproduction is good, but there's a catch.

The catch, of course, is that the W1's backlight should have been a lot stronger, as we had to set the display to maximum brightness even when indoors. As soon as we ventured out, we probably damaged our spine as we craned over the handset, trying to shade it from the midday sun. Granted, it's not a unique problem for any LCD, but trying to take pictures and video in June resulted in a lot of pointing and hoping that we'd captured a decent image.

Software

Huawei Ascend W1 review

If you've read any of our Windows Phone reviews before, then please feel free to skip to the next section. It's very easy to summarize what follows as "blah blah, limited app selection, blah blah, not as diverse as Android or iOS, blah blah."

Those whose Windows Phone 8 experience has been limited to Nokia's smartphones (and we wouldn't blame you if that were the case) should be prepared for a culture shock. While other manufacturers have tried to prop up the operating system's underdeveloped features, Huawei isn't offering anything beyond the stock build of the OS. As such, your first step is going to be seeking out apps like Nokia Here Drive and Itsdagram (now known as Instance), to smooth out the software's rough edges.

So, to those who've already bought into Android, iOS or BB10: defecting to WP8 presents something of a risk. Admittedly, Microsoft is doing its best to fill out its app catalog, but if you aren't prepared to wait for a first-party Instagram or Vine client (for instance), then you'd best steer clear.

If, however, you're considering the W1 to replace a feature phone, then Windows Phone will provide all of the features and functionality that you're looking for at a knockdown price. The only issue you'll have is that with just 512MB of RAM, some of the apps you've been eyeing up won't work, so be careful.

Camera

Huawei Ascend W1 review

During our time with the phone, we found that taking pictures with the 5-megapixel, rear-facing, autofocus lens was something of a gamble. That's because the results were far too inconsistent, with weak focusing and a color balance that wildly varied from image to image. The presence of an LED flash compensated for the W1's poor low-light efforts, but overall we wouldn't rely upon this device as our primary snapper. On the upside, the company bundles Bing Vision (Microsoft's Google Goggles equivalent) and other Lenses are available from the Windows Store.

Gallery | 42 Photos

Huawei W1 Sample Shots

Huawei Ascend W1 review

The 0.3-megapixel (VGA) forward-facing camera isn't anything to write home about, but it's not the worst low-res webcam we've ever encountered. The odd overexposed self-portrait may take a few of the years (and wrinkles) off, but we doubt we'd share those pictures online if it wasn't our job. That said, it's a perfectly acceptable camera for a short Skype session.

As you can see in the above clip, taking video is as inconsistent as snapping stills. Colors were either badly washed out or as egregiously oversaturated as an early '80s Bowie video, not to mention the fuzzy detailing. The one positive thing we can say is that no matter how violently we panned around, we couldn't force an interlacing issue, but we'd have taken some blocky transitions and frame dropouts in exchange for higher-quality footage.

Another problem we found is that the W1's microphone just isn't up to the job of recording audio to accompany the video. Even on a still day, it picked up a huge amount of wind noise, which obscured much of what we had to say. When we took the handset out for a jog, the subsequent footage was plagued with a popping noise that would have made it unusable for its intended purpose. We were also surprised to see that, despite the poor quality of the video, clips are recorded at a data rate of 1.6 MB/s, which will rapidly eat away at your meager on-board storage.

Performance and battery life

Huawei Ascend W1 review

The spec sheet makes it clear that Huawei spared plenty of expense when it came to sourcing the internals. We played with the Snapdragon S4 Play MSM8230 that powers the device in late 2011, and the Adreno 305 GPU that partners with it is from a similar vintage. It's to Microsoft's eternal credit that Windows Phone works so well on low-end hardware, and we'd be surprised if casual users even realized they were using 2-year-old gear. Navigating around is stutter free and the Ascend W1 was even able to steal a march on Nokia's low-end Lumias in the benchmarking stakes. It's a similar story in the browser, which is smooth (if not whip-fast) and we could switch between the mobile and desktop versions of Engadget without any stutter or lag. When we tested it with a 3D gaming title like Brutal Chase, there was the odd stutter, but nothing more.

Huawei Ascend W1 Nokia Lumia 520 Nokia Lumia 620 Nokia Lumia 720 HTC 8S HTC 8X
WPBench 212.25 178 180 179 180 221
Battery rundown 2:57 2:41 3:41 4:36 3:30 2:30
SunSpider* 1,127 1,400 1,443 1,440 1,415 914
AnTuTu 9,281 7,350 7,479 7,348 7,333 11,775
*SunSpider: ms, lower scores are better

One place where Huawei did splash the cash was in the battery department, supplying a power pack with a whopping 1,950mAh capacity. During WPBench's intensive rundown test, it survived for two hours and 57 minutes, and we found that the W1 kept on trucking during a day trip without us needing to worry about nursing the power. Considering that we had the display brightness turned up high and were taking pictures all day, we can only assume that the low-res display and low-spec hardware sips, rather than gulps from the electric bar.

If you're one of the few who still uses their smartphone as, you know, a telephone, then be warned. Call quality on this device is going to be a bit jarring to anyone who has been coddled by noise-canceling microphones or HD voice. It's not unbearable, but the call quality is nowhere near what we'd expect from a newly released handset. That said, it does follow the theme that the W1 has been put together from components that other platforms have since moved a long way past.

The competition

Huawei Ascend W1 Nokia Lumia 520 / 521 Nokia Lumia 620
Price £130 ($230) £120 ($149) £150 ($180)
Prices subject to change

When discussing the Ascend W1's closest rivals, we're really only talking about the Lumia 520 (521 in the US) and the Lumia 620. Perhaps surprisingly, Huawei's entrant is able to outperform both devices in nearly every benchmark -- as we suspect the 620's longer battery life is partly down to its smaller, and therefore less-demanding, display. When we reviewed the two Lumias, we found that the 520's lackluster imaging, lack of a front-facing camera and low-end specs made the handset feel like an irrelevance. By comparison, the £30 more expensive 620 gains a host of extra features and a slightly smaller -- yet superior -- display. Both of Nokia's handsets, however, come with 8GB of storage and can take microSD cards up to 64GB, compared to the 32GB you'll be able to insert into the W1.

Wrap-up

Huawei Ascend W1 review

Huawei's Ascend W1 is a well-crafted device that'll impress anyone making their first tentative steps into the world of smartphones. If you're only motivated by price, aren't fussed about the limited storage options and won't be taking a lot of pictures, then this is an eminently sensible purchase. It's only when you consider the unit in a broader context that its flaws begin to show, and we do feel obligated to tell you if there's a better option available.

For instance, if you stack it up against the Lumia 520, the W1's superior looks, better build quality, forward-facing camera, bigger battery and overall performance make it stand out. But, the 520 boasts twice the internal storage (8GB) and twice the microSD card capacity (up to 64GB), which may tempt those who take their music collection with them. Both units have weak primary cameras, and as such, we still think that if you've got the extra cash lying around, your best bet is still to stick with the Lumia 620.