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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.