The adjectives "affordable" and "budget" often allude to something of inferior quality -- a questionable substitute for something more premium. Something out of financial reach. A few years ago, I would've assumed the same, having set up enough low-end Samsungs for family members to want only high-end handsets, extortionate contracts attached. Thanks to devices like Google's Nexus range and, most recently, the OnePlus One, we've never been more aware of value for money. The Moto G, in particular, proved that a solid smartphone could be an absolute bargain.
It's this newfound, positive connotation of affordable that EE's aiming for with its first own-brand smartphone, the Kestrel. Launched earlier this month for £99 on pay-as-you-go, or free from £14 per month on contracts, it's EE's play for the 4G-curious, money-conscious consumer. The Kestrel's LTE radio and inviting price tag aren't the sum of its selling points, either; there's also expandable storage and a very capable processor. Components such as the display and cameras are understandably more modest, but on paper, the Kestrel still ticks the value box. In the increasingly competitive area of low-cost handsets, however, the question isn't just whether the Kestrel is a worthwhile purchase, but whether you'll see it the same way a month later.
Gallery: EE Kestrel review | 20 Photos
Gallery: EE Kestrel review | 20 Photos
- Superb performance
- Expandable storage
- Cat 4 LTE
- Good value for money
- Uninspiring design
- Camera lacks versatility
- qHD display resolution may put some off
EE doesn't manufacture the Kestrel directly, of course. Chinese handset maker Huawei has been drafted in for this job, and if for some reason you're particularly knowledgeable about that company's own range, you might see the Kestrel bears a resemblance to Huawei's Ascend G6. The Kestrel isn't a straight rebrand, though: It suffers from a downgraded camera and softer detailing around the rear lens. Otherwise, it's the same phone inside and out.
The handset fits the square-with-rounded-corners stereotype well, but not without a little flair thanks to its curved bottom edge. Three standard Android soft keys and the primary mic sit below the 4.5-inch display, with the front-facing camera, earpiece and multicolour notification LED above it. The flat back panel, which pops off to reveal the micro-SIM and microSD slots (but no removable battery), is host to a small loudspeaker grille in the bottom-left corner and the camera lens, LED flash and secondary mic along the top. The power key and volume rocker sit on the right edge, with the micro-USB data/charging port on the top perimeter. You get the picture: pretty standard layout.
But wait, the headphone jack appears to be on the left edge? And right at the bottom by the soft keys, no less. I've no idea why this component in particular was exiled from its usual home, but I do know that the design decision isn't quirky; just annoying. I shouldn't have to think about reorienting my phone every time I take it in and out of my pocket. It doesn't slide in there either, with the headphone plug sticking out the side, constantly looking for something to snag.
Unlike the Ascend G6, EE's Kestrel comes in just one colour: "Graphite," which is dark grey in human speak. The matt plastic that makes up the back panel and the thin frame around the glass has a pleasant look and slightly tacky texture. Thankfully, ignoring its normal palette of yellows and green, EE's logo is instead humbly stenciled in silver on the rear cover. The understated colour scheme gels with the handset's simple design, but the combo is let down somewhat by a plastic band that runs along the Kestrel's three flat edges. It's made of slicker, shinier stuff that frankly looks a little cheap, something an all-matt design could've avoided.
The Kestrel doesn't feel particularly cheap, though. You can squeeze a few creaks out of the back panel, but it fits snugly in the hand, and feels sturdy at 145g. It's also on the thin side at 7.85mm, but being 131mm tall and 65mm across, there's plenty of bezel flanking the 4.5-inch display. Space for the phone's guts has to be found somewhere, and if I had to choose, I'd prefer a phone have a slightly bigger footprint as opposed to a thinner profile. The Kestrel's still small by today's standards, after all, so I don't imagine many people will have issues here. Mind you, EE's smartphone isn't something you'll be buying to show off in the pub, but it's unassuming enough to be widely acceptable, especially considering the double-digit price tag.
Numbers don't lie, but they don't always tell the whole story either. The Kestrel has a 4.5-inch IPS LCD display running at a qHD resolution of 960 x 540, which translates to a pixel density of 245 pixels per inch. It's easy to declare those specs irrelevant when 2,560 x 1,440 displays are verging on commonplace. We'll get to the pixel issue, but the quality of the panel itself deserves a mention. General colour temperature, as well as blacks and whites, are good to the point of surprising. Minus a small amount of unwanted glare, sunlight readability is adequate, as are the viewing angles. I seem to be in perpetual disagreement with the auto-brightness setting on most phones, flagships included, but somehow not the Kestrel.
In real life, my personal device has a 5.2-inch 1080p display, and yes, games and media look better on that than on the Kestrel. Maybe it's because I don't have a fetish for high pixel counts, and that I spend the majority of time browsing, checking email, sending IMs and the like, but I hardly register or care about the difference. Video is perfectly watchable, particularly if you stick to 480p content that fills the screen (any higher and you'll start to see letterboxing). Motorola gets infinite brownie points for cramming a splendid 720p panel into the Moto G, but the Kestrel has 4G and expandable storage, with qHD being part of the trade-off. Obviously it depends on your priorities, and resolution is a valid one, but for me, at least, a good-quality panel is more important than having a higher resolution simply for the sake of specs.
Being a Huawei creation, the Kestrel runs its manufacturer's Emotion UI 2.0 Lite on top of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. EE tells me an update to KitKat or beyond is under consideration, but far from guaranteed. Probably the biggest customisation of Huawei's Android skin is that there's no separation between the app drawer and home screen. It's a simple tweak, but one that highlights the redundancy of the app drawer in other builds. Having everything on one carousel suits me fine. Most of the stock icons and the insistence on framing other app icons do make the UI a tad cartoony, but I like the minimalist notification drawer and its comprehensive selection of settings toggles.
EE's done its part to keep in-house bloatware to a minimum, pre-installing only My EE, through which you can view your bill and data usage, and access various other services. There's also EE Film, a movie-rental portal where you claim discounts on cinema tickets. Music-streaming service Deezer also comes pre-loaded to complement the free subscription EE customers get. These are all deletable, which can't be said for everything else that's been crammed onto the Kestrel. Both Google's and Amazon's app suites are present, joining a few utilities and social networking apps you might actually use. Then there are apps like the generic, duplicate browser, "Voice Dialler" and Lookout security that'll likely go untouched; and even worse is the app with a sketchy icon called "Free Games," which you'll purposefully avoid.
The Kestrel's front and rear cameras are the only components on the handset that don't match the Ascend G6's spec sheet. Instead of eight megapixels round the back and five up front, EE's variant drops down to 5MP and 1MP, respectively. As with display resolution, the quality of the camera is more important to me than raw specs, and there are plenty of smartphone shooters that aren't as capable as their sensor size might suggest. The cheap Moto G, for example, has a pretty versatile camera that's only 5-megapixels strong. Unfortunately, the Kestrel's camera doesn't have anywhere near the same range.
Gallery: EE Kestrel sample shots | 19 Photos
Gallery: EE Kestrel sample shots | 19 Photos
Getting the most of the 5MP sensor is as simple as taking pictures in glorious, sunny conditions, but in most other scenarios, results fall off fast. I've never been one for toying with the manual camera settings on smartphones. If I'm using a proper camera (or maybe something like a Lumia 1020), then I pay close attention, but I want to be able to pull my phone out, snap a quick shot and not worry about white balance or scene selection. The camera app on the Kestrel has a Smart mode that automates those kinds of things, but it struggles outside of the perfect parameters I mentioned earlier.
Artificial lighting and even an orange sunset can make the white balance setting quite unreliable, and although the auto-exposure compensation is more consistent, it's set too high in both Smart and normal modes by default. HDR mode is similarly hit-and-miss, and everything gets worse in low light. Most snaps taken in twilight and beyond are grainy, overexposed versions of what would otherwise be just a dark picture. The LED flash is pretty powerful and, as you'd expect, it washes out the colour of anything within its blast radius.
The decline in image quality outside of ideal conditions is joined by a drop in shutter response time, which often results in significantly blurred shots. It literally takes Panorama mode minutes to render a picture after you've the done the necessary twirl. Last but not least, the autofocus is a bit jittery, but it does have decent macro range. Video recording at 720p (30 fps) is much the same story. Image quality is proportional to the situation in which it's filmed, going from good to noisy rapidly in failing light. Audio quality on recorded clips stood out as abnormally crisp.
The 1MP front-facing camera doesn't need too much explanation. It's good enough that you'll be able to tell it's you in selfies, as long as it's not dark. The Kestrel's 5MP camera isn't very good, and I did expect more despite the handset's price point. Again, it's about priorities, and if you're happy with something that'll take a picture you can slap a filter on and throw up on Instagram, then you might even learn to like the white balance freak-outs.
Performance and battery life
Performance is, for me, the main area where newer budget handsets have really excelled. I'm happy to accept that corner-cutting is necessary to keep costs down, so long as phone makers don't skimp on the user experience. The Moto G had me questioning the need for ever-increasing clock speeds when it was practically as quick as my top-tier flagship, so it's good news, then, that EE's Kestrel shares exactly the same internals. That's a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 chip, paired with 1GB of RAM and eight gigs of onboard storage -- only 5.5GB of that is available to you, but it doesn't matter much when there's a (much-appreciated) microSD slot supporting cards as large as 32GB.
Emotion UI is not a graphically intensive or feature-loaded skin so, much like the Moto G's near-stock Android, you can fly through the one carousel as fast as your finger will take you. App-loading times range from instant to around 15 seconds for serious games. My go-to test title is NBA Jam and, as expected, the Snapdragon 400 handles it with ease. When I'm not smashing backboards, I also like a spin on Asphalt 8: Airborne. An eight-player online multiplayer match running at max graphics wasn't a problem for the Kestrel, and having thrown other resource-hungry games at the Moto G, I knew I wasn't going to find anything to complain about. In this respect, the Kestrel is a fantastic phone that shows once again that you don't need the highest-tier components to ensure a quality user experience.
Chrome runs as fast as you'd like and only stutters briefly at the tail end of page loading. You can, of course, browse the web over LTE with the Kestrel, that being one of its main selling points and all. And it's not just your run-of-the-mill 4G either: The device has a Cat 4 radio capable of handling 150 Mbps download speeds that are theoretically possible on EE's "double-speed" tariffs. In various parts of London, I got speeds ranging from 15 to 30 Mbps down, and 10 to 15 Mbps up. There was evidently enough money left over to ensure the WiFi/Bluetooth chips and particularly the GPS module were capable of establishing quick and robust connections. Audio quality is fine, if not a little lacking in the bass range and needing an extra notch on the volume dial (Google Play Music; on-device MP3s). Like the majority of smartphones, the loudspeaker is for hands-free calling, not playing music. Please.
The 2,000mAh battery on the Kestrel is nothing special. Indeed, the phone was immediately incorporated into my nightly charging routine to keep it alive throughout the following day. In our standard looping-video rundown test, the Kestrel died in a fairly average time of six hours and 50 minutes. Moderate use throughout the day will slowly chew through battery life, with the display being the primary drain. An obvious point, but I highlight it because processor-intensive games and highjacking the phone's 4G connection for tethering don't guzzle as much juice as I expect them to.
I've compared the Kestrel to the Moto G too many times not to consider it competition. Available through various carriers on pay-as-you-go for £100, it has a more striking design, better display and more useful camera. It's where the G itself is lacking that the Kestrel shines, particularly with the simple addition of a microSD slot. It wouldn't be fair to recommend the Moto G over the Kestrel, because the whole point of the latter is to be a low-cost 4G smartphone, with the emphasis on connection speed.
If we look at what else out there has LTE and goes for a similar price, it's slim pickings. On pay-as-you-go, O2 has the Lumia 625 for £100 and the BlackBerry Q5 for £130, neither of which are really compelling alternatives. Vodafone, too, has the Lumia 625 at a higher price of £115, whereas EE itself has the same Windows Phone for £100, and the Galaxy Ace 3 at £140, which, I'd say, is very much a budget device.
If you're looking to sign up to a pay-monthly plan, the Kestrel is free on EE's frugal £14-per-month contract (500MB data cap), with the Lumia 625 and Galaxy Ace 3 requiring £20 and £50 upfront, respectively. Until recently, EE also ranged the Alcatel One Touch Idol S as its lowest-cost handset, priced at £130 on pay-as-you-go and free from £14 per month. You won't find it on EE's online store any longer, which could well be a shrewd move to push customers toward the Kestrel. I'm not sure this was entirely necessary, though. Yes, the Idol S does come off better on paper in a number of areas (720p display, 8MP camera), but I'd hedge my bets that its 1.2GHz dual-core processor can't hang with the Kestrel's quad-core Snapdragon 400. Vodafone has nothing competitive on its 4G plans, and the only thing on O2 worth considering would be the free Lumia 925 from £19 per month (500MB data). That's a higher monthly commitment, but it's a gorgeous handset and worthy of an honourable mention.
All told, the problem the Kestrel faces isn't about what's available now; it's what Motorola is bringing to the market in a matter of weeks.
EE has achieved with the Kestrel exactly what it wanted to. It offers good value for the money, warts and all. The camera isn't great; the display resolution may leave some wanting; and there's nothing special about its design apart from the poorly placed headphone jack. But, with a good choice of display panel, excellent performance and Cat 4 LTE, £99 is a fair price. There's nothing attractive in the way of alternatives for that kind of money, either, especially if it's an Android phone you're after. So, the Kestrel fits into a comfy niche, for now, but Motorola's recently announced LTE variant of the Moto G with expandable storage is about to spoil the party.
Arriving in the next few weeks, this 4G version will nullify the advantages EE's Kestrel had over the 3G model, albeit for the higher price of £149 unlocked. But, that's before carriers start pumping subsidies into the system. In the same way the £135 unlocked 3G edition was available everywhere on pay-as-you-go for £100 almost immediately, the 4G variant should come in at closer to £120 when locked into a network. I therefore have no choice but to advise you sit on your hands for a couple weeks, save up a little extra pocket money and decide whether you want the black or white model of the new Moto G when it eventually launches.
That doesn't give EE much of a window to work with, and the irony is it's kind of forced to stock the 4G Moto G at a competitive price, or it'll miss out on new custom the other networks will be happy to pick up. This is EE's first venture in own-brand hardware, and we know it's but one of a future flock that'll all be named after birds of prey. The Kestrel is a promising start and I'm interested to see what else Huawei is working on, and whether they make a play for the high end. Not the best timing in the wake of Motorola's announcement this time around, but perhaps EE's next handset won't find the predator-prey dynamic reversed quite so quickly.