From humble beginnings with the HTC Dream / T-Mobile G1, Android is starting to gain traction in the marketplace. A steady growth in the number of devices from HTC together with more and more manufacturers coming on board means Google's entry into the mobile space is really making inroads. The next year is going to be exciting for Android fans, with Motorola launching the CLIQ / DEXT and the Sholes, Samsung following up their i7500 with the i5700 and Behold 2, Acer shifting focus from Windows Mobile to Android not to mention LG and Sony Ericsson shipping their first Android devices.
In amongst the larger players aiming for the higher end of the market comes Huawei, best known for its mobile broadband dongles, with the Pulse for T-Mobile Europe - a rebrand of the U8220 handset. What makes the Pulse particularly interesting is it's price point. As well as being available free of charge on virtually any contract (as is frequently the case in Europe), the Pulse costs only £176 ($280) on a pre-pay plan. This represents a significant move downmarket for Android with the only other low-end handset being the forthcoming HTC Tattoo, which is expected to ship SIM free for £299 ($475). Interestingly our review unit was even SIM unlocked, although it remains to be seen whether this will remain the case as handsets hit retail.
We've spent some time with a production specification T-Mobile Pulse to see whether Huawei's first attempt at Android stands up to scrutiny. Read on to find out!
Design and build
While the Pulse doesn't feature the Teflon coating or soft touch surfaces of the HTC Hero, the build quality impresses. Despite shiny plastic in abundance, the Pulse manages to carry off a solidity that belies it's budget price point. The front of the device is pure shiny black plastic, with a lighter coloured edge, black sides and a faux-carbon fiber effect back. This device IS a fingerprint magnet! The device wears T-Mobile branding front and back but you'll have to look under the battery covery to see any evidence of it's maker, Huawei. Notable by it's absence is any 'with Google' branding.
Tipping the scales at 130 grams (or about 4.6 ounces), the Pulse feels solid but not heavy in the hand and the device is free of any creaks or loose fittings. The buttons respond with a reassuring click, the trackball is comparable to that found on HTC's Hero, and the battery cover snaps into the back of the device with a firm snap. The device manages to hold it's own from a build perspective when compared with the HTC Hero or the HTC Magic and thankfully feels light years ahead of the T-Mobile G1 in construction. The Pulse is very similar in design - shiny black plastic - to the Samsung Galaxy, the Samsung just managing to exude a higher sense of style with it's black brushed effect keypad.
The left hand side of the device is home to the power button and externally accessible microSD slot, the right hand side of the device has the volume and camera keys and the top of the device has a small flap behind which lie the micro-USB sync / charge port and the 2.5mm headset jack. A 3.5mm adapter is included in the box.
On the front of the device are the usual send and end buttons, together with a trackball, a menu key and, unusually, a combined home / back key. A short press goes back, a long press goes to the home screen. The red key functionality can be remapped in software - we've mapped ours to function as a home button.
We've all got used to seeing Qualcomm MSM7200 in just about everything "smart," and the Pulse is no exception. It packs the usual 528MHz processor previously seen on every other Android device. Limited ROM and RAM means that after a fresh boot 96MB of RAM is available for use and only 60MB on the data partition -- potentially an issue given Android's continuing lack of ability to store downloaded applications on the SD card.
The Pulse features a 3.5-inch HVGA screen -- the first we've seen on an Android phone -- and noticeably larger in use than the 3.2-inch unit seen on its peers. Unlike the forthcoming Tattoo, the Pulse has a capacitive screen which really does prove a joy to use -- it responds to the lightest of touches. Reports posted elsewhere suggest it is resistive, however we can confirm that it does not respond to stylus input and is clearly capacitive. Screen clarity is excellent -- certainly clearer than the HTC Hero and bettered only by the AMOLED-equipped Galaxy. GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth are included on the device together with a digital compass. ROM / RAM limitations aside, it doesn't feel like Huawei has skimped on the specifications. Quad band EDGE and dual band 3G connectivity means US 3G is out of the question on the shipping European handset.
The Pulse sits atop the (from top) HTC Hero, Samsung i7500, HTC Magic and T-Mobile G1
The Pulse's primary camera is a 3.2 megapixel autofocus unit paired with a forward-facing VGA camera. The inclusion of a dedicated camera button (missing on the HTC Magic and Hero) is useful and while the included camera software is pretty basic, it does allow you to select the front camera for self portrait photos. Video capture resolution is a weak (as on most MSM7200-based handsets) 352 x 288.
Sadly, the camera is pretty awful. In well lit situations it's adequate at best, but in low light situations it's atrocious. We've included some sample snaps in the gallery below, but they are so poor that we're not entirely sure the camera is working properly. We plan to source another unit, and will update the post if our findings differ.
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T-Mobile Pulse camera shots
On the back of the device near the bottom, the external speaker is loud if not blaring and speakerphone calls are clear at both ends of the conversation. The microphone is on the bottom right of the device and as is often the case, speakerphone calls work best with the phone face downwards.
The Pulse includes a 1500mAh battery and in our testing provides battery life that exceeds all of it's Android cousins. In our normal daily usage pattern we can expect a battery to go a full day with pretty extensive use of WiFi, browsing, download, and so on, with the device needing a charge at the end of the day to ensure it's still going the following morning. We've been experimenting a lot with the Pulse, but we seem to be able to leave it overnight and pick it up again the next morning with battery life to spare -- a definite improvement. The Pulse ROM includes software for monitoring application's battery usage (similar to that found in Android 1.6 / Donut or the add on 'Spare Parts' application), which can help you get the most out of your battery.
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T-Mobile Pulse screenshots
The Pulse features a pretty generic version of Android, in contrast with the deep-rooted overhaul present in the HTC Hero. Your perspective on this might vary depending on how you find the standard Android experience, but we personally find it pretty satisfying -- and crucially, Hauwei / T-Mobile have preloaded a useful mix of third party applications onto the device to overcome any shortcomings.
From a design perspective, the Pulse has a dark theme with a dark grey top bar and a faux-carbon fiber wallpaper (changeable, of course) that cleverly matches the back of the device. In keeping with the T-Mobile branding, the device theme features pink accents. It all fits together well, and feels neither too pink nor too dark.
One of the key changes that existing Android users will notice on the device is the lockscreen and the launcher itself. The lockscreen design has been tweaked with a 'flick upwards to unlock' and, unlike the stock Android build, the main homescreen canvas itself scrolls vertically as well as horizontally. Rather than being 1 x 3 in size, the canvas is 2 x 3 in size by default and can grow or shrink as you add content. Scrolling between the six screens is very smooth and it is possible to zoom out to view the whole canvas at once. On the Pulse the applications list is accessed by pressing a button in the bottom right of the screen (since an upward flick traditionally used in the Launcher scrolls the canvas) and a button on the left hand side provides quick access to favorite people. Flick gestures allow you to switch between different people in your favorites list, while a click on their picture brings up a menu from where you can call, SMS, email etc. In addition to the standard Android widgets, the Pulse features something called "Widcards," which are live widgets for Calendar, Email, Music, Notepad, Pictures and Videos. The Widcards vary in functionality -- the Notepad widcard for example allows you to pin a note on your homescreen and also forward the note to another Pulse owner either instantly or at a scheduled time.
We mentioned previously about how Huawei and T-Mobile have partnered with third party developers to supplement gaps in the Android software and the three key examples of this are the inclusion of a slightly stripped down version of Dataviz's Documents To Go office suite, a full version of the RoadSync Exchange sync solution and a full version of Cootek's excellent TouchPal soft keyboard. Other software over and above the standard Android base includes a Block Breaker game, a custom camera application, tweaked contacts and dialer applications, a file manager, a custom music application, a notepad application and a device wide search application. On the whole the software experience feels well rounded and not lacking in any particular area.
We weren't sure what to expect from the Pulse, but we have to say that we're pleasantly surprised. The hardware feels good -- and with the possible exception of the weak camera, restrictive memory size and arguably the 2.5mm jack, it's up there with the best. The software, while fairly generic, performs smoothly on the Qualcomm hardware, and the whole package seems supremely stable -- no mean feat for what is effectively a first effort from Huawei. It would have been nice to have seen the device shipped with Android 1.6 / Donut (no word as yet on whether that is forthcoming), but that is only a minor niggle -- the changes in 1.6 are small, after all.
If you're looking for an Android handset on a budget, an Android handset with that larger 3.5-inch screen, or you just fancy looking at something from someone a bit different than the major players, we don't think you'll be disappointed with the T-Mobile Pulse.