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    EE Harrier and Harrier Mini review

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    EE's Kestrel was its first own-brand 4G smartphone, meant for those wanting breakneck mobile data speeds without breaking the bank. One year on, the Kestrel is coming to the end of its life, and when remaining stock is depleted, it'll disappear from the network's handset roster. The market for affordable 4G smartphones isn't vanishing anytime soon, however, which is why EE's readied a replacement for the Kestrel prior to its retirement. Actually, make that two: the new EE Harrier and Harrier Mini.

    Gallery: EE Harrier / Harrier Mini review | 22 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Lovely full HD display
    • Adequate performance
    • Great battery life
    • Reasonably priced
    Cons
    • Slightly cumbersome
    • Bloatware-burdened
    • Mediocre camera

    Summary

    The EE Harrier provides a solid user experience for an affordable price. It's not without its issues, like bloated dimensions and middling 13-megapixel camera. But, with a nice full HD display, all the performance one needs and good battery life, it's a solid option for anyone after a free phone on a cheap contract.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Crisp 720p display
    • Good battery life
    Cons
    • Bloatware-burdened
    • Lacking in memory
    • Poor camera
    • Sluggish performance

    Summary

    EE's Harrier Mini falls short of expectations. A pleasant display and good battery life don't excuse its lethargic performance, shoddy camera and small storage capacity. With plenty of compelling alternatives in the same price range or cheaper (including its predecessor, the EE Kestrel), it's probably best to steer clear.

    The Harrier Mini is what you'd consider the true spiritual successor to the Kestrel, with the more modest spec sheet and monetary requirements (it's £100 on pay-as-you-go). In this sense, the larger Harrier (£200 on pay-as-you-go) is a small step into new territory for EE, intended to satisfy the more exacting consumer with an eye for bigger and better numbers. Regardless of their differences, however, affordability is of paramount importance to both, and by design, they are among the cheapest devices available on EE's network. Compared with peers in roughly the same price range, however, the Harrier stands out as offering good value for your money, whereas the Mini feels like something of a devolution from EE's previous form.

    Hardware

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    Last year, EE sought the manufacturing grunt of Huawei to deliver its first own-brand device. This time around, however, EE drafted in an old friend from the Orange and T-Mobile days, BenQ, to produce the Harrier and its smaller sibling. The result is a pair of bespoke devices developed for EE alone, as opposed to a retooled and rebranded version of an existing device as is the Kestrel. Despite being made specifically for the carrier, though, neither Harrier manages to shake that OEM-made aura all own-brand handsets seem to bear.

    That's not to say either is particularly unseemly, just that they have a generic quality to them. Rectangles with rounded corners, slightly curved backs -- not too thin and not too fat: basic, functional design. Due to its larger display, the Harrier is significantly taller and wider than the Mini, but otherwise they're identical in appearance. The only real defining feature of the pair is the brushed metal-effect back they share, which looks like it was lifted off an HTC One M8 or M9. It's just a removable plastic cover shielding the micro-SIM and microSD card slots, but somehow it doesn't come off as tacky despite it being an obvious imitation of more premium materials. The gold ring around the main camera lens and mirrored EE logo aren't gaudy either, even if they sound like EE trying hard to make the Harriers look like something they're not.

    They certainly don't feel excessively cheap, anyway. Build quality is robust and consistent across both Harriers, although being all-plastic affairs means you can twist and flex them (especially on the larger model) to a greater extent than if there were metal or extra glass incorporated into the design. There aren't any squeaky seams, ill-fitting backplates or loose buttons, though, which are typical indicators of crude builds.

    In use, both handsets are comfortable enough, with curves in the appropriate places that allow them to rest snugly in your palm. If I had to pick a side, however, I'd have to say I prefer the Harrier Mini to its bigger brother. It's smaller, lighter, cuter and slips into your trouser pocket that much easier. The Harrier proper, in comparison, is much more difficult to use one-handed; awkward, almost. Yes, it has a significantly bigger, 5.2-inch display, but it doesn't seem like much attention has been paid to ergonomics. The 5.2-inch LG G2 feels downright small in comparison. Still, you might not mind giving your hand a bit of a workout in exchange for the extra screen real estate.

    Harrier Harrier Mini
    Dimensions 147 x 74.5 x 8.9mm 138 x 67.9 x 9.5mm
    Weight 145g 124g
    Display 5.2-inch IPS LCD (1,920 x 1,080) 4.7-inch IPS LCD (1,280 x 720)
    Pixel Density 424 ppi 312 ppi
    Processor 1.5GHz octa-core Snapdragon 615 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410
    RAM 2GB 1GB
    Storage 16GB (expandable) 8GB (expandable)
    Primary camera 13-megapixel BSI 8-megapixel BSI
    Secondary camera 2-megapixel 2-megapixel
    Battery 2,500mAh 2,000mAh
    OS Android 5.0 Lollipop Android 5.0 Lollipop
    Cellular Cat 4 LTE Cat 4 LTE
    WiFi 802.11b/g/n 802.11b/g/n
    Bluetooth 4.0 4.0
    NFC Yes No

    Display

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    EE didn't cut any corners when it came to the devices' screens. The Harrier has a 5.2-inch, full HD display (1,920 x 1,080) and the Mini, a 4.7-inch, 720p panel (1,280 x 720), both of which are respectable for their respective price points and sizes. And, despite a gap in pixel density between the two -- 424 ppi for the Harrier and 312 ppi for the Mini -- I can't see any noticeable difference in acuity. Both are IPS LCD panels, meaning deep blacks aren't their strong suit. Whites, on the other hand, are accurate, and colours are as vibrant as they should be. The Harrier's display seems to have a little extra pop when bright colours are at play, but only when both handsets are next to each other showing the same image can you tell there's a slight disparity.

    Viewing angles aren't the best, but they are by no means terrible, and sunlight readability is an area in which both shine. There's plenty of power available to those LCD displays, especially the Harrier; enough to cut through the majority of glare on especially bright days. Android Lollipop's adaptive-brightness setting judges situations admirably, but manual tweaks are sometimes necessary if you're trying to frame a picture when the sun's on your back, for instance.

    Software

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    Both Harriers come with Android 5.0 Lollipop out of the box. The latest version of Google's mobile OS is a significant upgrade from the last, so if you want to catch up on everything that's changed, from the new "Material Design" language to added features, check out our full review here. EE hasn't taken it upon itself to create any kind of branded skin for the Harriers, so you're getting more or less the stock Lollipop experience. I say "more or less" because the carrier has decided to preinstall a lip-curling amount of bloatware, none of which can be uninstalled to free up space or declutter the app tray.

    Some of this is pretty irritating, particularly the "Free Games & Apps" store I wouldn't peruse if you paid me. Others, like Lookout Security & Antivirus and MailWise (an email client), some might find useful, but definitely didn't need to be baked in. It's a similar story for all of Amazon's services: Kindle, Local, Music and its Appstore. I often take advantage of Amazon's free app promotions and I'm invested in the Kindle ecosystem, but I'd prefer to make my own decisions and not be force-fed apps and services. It's worth mentioning here that all of Google's services are present on the handsets, too, so you've got access to the Play store (et cetera) as well as Amazon's equivalent.

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    The Harriers were announced shortly after EE launched its seamless WiFi calling feature, and the Mini was pitched as the "most affordable 4G smartphone with WiFi calling." This isn't actually live on either Harriers at the moment, though, and is coming "this summer" as part of a software update. So, if WiFi calling is of particular importance to you, know that neither device is currently compatible.

    Camera

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    Another area in which the two Harriers differ is their camera chops. Both sport 2-megapixel front-facing cameras for selfies and video calling, but the Harrier has a 13MP main camera compared with the Mini's 8MP primary shooter. Surprisingly, you won't find the stock Android camera app on either device; instead, there's an app of unknown origin in its place. It takes a split-second longer to load than I'd like, and makes for a slightly more cluttered viewfinder. But it has a similarly basic interface. By this I mean you're not overwhelmed with options: White balance, exposure compensation and ISO settings are all taken care of automatically. The menus aren't for fine tweaking, but they're where you find the panorama photo and slow-motion video modes, image quality settings -- that sort of thing.

    Gallery: EE Harrier camera samples | 24 Photos

    Neither device boasts a particularly spectacular example of a smartphone camera, but the Harrier's is the better of the two, and not just because of its higher resolution. The automatic white balance setting seems to be more accurately tuned on the Harrier, though only in natural lighting. The Mini does a superior job of colour correction when artificial light sources are involved. It's pretty rare for either handset to spit out the exact image you want, whether that's because the colours aren't quite as saturated as they should be, or the exposure setting is off. I'm also disappointed in the HDR mode on both devices, as the extra level of contrast it's supposed to bring is barely noticeable. It can be useful for brightening up photos when the light begins to fade, but only on the Harrier since the Mini takes significantly longer to process the HDR image, so they often come out blurry.

    Gallery: EE Harrier Mini camera samples | 21 Photos

    Both Harriers have backside-illuminated sensors. The big brother handles low-lit situations slightly better than the Mini, but only marginally so. Focal range is a problem for both devices. Neither can be trusted to lock on to objects close to the lens and you're lucky if the Harrier Mini manages to focus on anything regardless of distance. Quite often it doesn't focus at all, resulting in a blurry mess of an image. Video quality (1080p) is comparable across the pair. Both have slightly fidgety autofocus and exposure settings, which I find is true with most smartphones, but the image and audio quality of clips is just fine otherwise.

    As I said, the Harrier's camera is without a doubt the better of the two, but keen smartphone photographers will probably want to steer clear of both devices, even if they edit their snaps with Instagram most of the time.

    Performance and battery life

    You've probably guessed already that of the two EE handsets, the Harrier is packing the bigger engine under the hood. A 1.5GHz octa-core Snapdragon 615, to be exact, compared with the Mini's 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410. Before I get into specifics, I want to vent a particular frustration I have with Android 5.0 Lollipop: It's slow. There's a lot to like, but it's lost that snap I so enjoyed on KitKat. Even on devices running some of the best mobile processors around, it feels slightly heavy and resource-intensive -- the contrast in responsiveness between KitKat and Lollipop on the YotaPhone 2, for instance, is marked. Now, that's not as much of an issue when you're running seriously expensive hardware, but more affordable phones suffer.

    The Harrier is powerful enough that this is more an observation, not a major gripe. In fact, whiz through a couple of tracks on Asphalt 8: Airborne, one of my go-to resource-hogging 3D games, and all will appear well. It loads relatively quickly and playing on the highest graphics setting is no trouble for the Harrier. But, why then do core experiences like Chrome, Google Maps and even the stock dialer take a second to boot up? Flicking through your home screen or the app drawer is as slick as ever, but the transitions between "desktop" and apps are no longer smooth and immediate. Browsing performance, too, has an extra, thin layer of lag in Lollipop, and whether using the Harrier or Mini, I found the duplicate "Browser" app to be quicker on the draw than Chrome.

    The Harrier Mini actually suffers considerably at the hands of Lollipop. Ever since I reviewed the original Moto G, I've been a champion of budget smartphones -- my argument being, why pay the best part of your monthly wage for a feature-obese, top-tier smartphone when you can get something for a fraction of the price that has an excellent user experience? Lollipop has basically thrown this back in my face, and the Harrier Mini is proof. I'd honestly much rather have a Kestrel, with KitKat running dreamily on the lesser Snapdragon 400.

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    Every slowdown on the Harrier feels exaggerated on its smaller sibling. Those core experiences take that little bit longer to load, and browsing is just a bit clunkier. I wrestled with crashes and extremely slow menu navigation when testing out Asphalt 8 on the device, even if it played well at the medium graphics setting when I was actually on the track. Multitasking is pretty much out of the question, too. If you're downloading an app, for example, forget about doing anything else without the whole phone grinding to a halt. This isn't going to be a problem for mum or dad, but it's a far cry from what I usually expect out of affordable devices these days. I thought we were past this. Perhaps the Mini only having 1GB of RAM compared to the Harrier's 2GB is partly to blame too, even if it shouldn't be.

    Another problem I have with the Mini is lack of storage. It's advertised as having 8GB of internal memory, but the reality is you get less than 4GB to work with while Lollipop takes up the rest. There's a microSD slot to supplement that, but if I can't download large apps in the first place, how can I move them over to the SD card (if indeed, that app supports it)? I've even had to format the phone once after corrupting the memory with downloads and updates that didn't complete, but clogged up available storage space all the same. You're a little better off with the Harrier, which affords you just over 10GB of its 16GB total.

    In terms of connectivity, both phones have all the basics: 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and, of course, Cat 4 LTE. The Harrier has NFC, too, which is welcome given that EE has its own Cash on Tap contactless payments app for small transactions. Battery life is formidable on both handsets. The Harrier carries a 2,500mAh nonremovable battery, while the Mini makes do with a 2,000mAh cell. Nevertheless, in our standard 720p looping-video battery-rundown test, the Harrier lasted nine hours, while the Harrier Mini squeezed out an extra 28 minutes on top of that.

    Those results aren't close to, say, the LG G4 and its 11-hour stint, but you've got plenty of juice to work with all the same. On one particular day of light usage, where the Harrier sat on my desk and I checked the odd notification, picked up a few calls and took a few pictures in the evening, I only used around 25 percent of battery life from dawn 'til dusk. Increase your screen time, though, and you're still gonna get at least a full day of heavy usage out of either handset. Probably a full two days if you're not trying to drain it for the sake of it.

    The competition

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    Since both the Harrier and Harrier Mini are only available on EE's network, it's best to start with other options the carrier has. And it's no real surprise that in terms of EE's handset roster, they work out to be pretty competitive. The larger Harrier is available for free on contracts from £22 per month, or for £200 on pay-as-you-go (in-store only). It's by far the most expensive pay-as-you-go handset EE offers, but then it's the best-specced, too. The only device on contract worth mentioning that has an identical monthly spend is the HTC One mini 2. It's fair to say the Harrier bests it on paper, but I do have a soft spot for the One mini 2, as its premium metal exterior is much easier on the eye.

    The Harrier Mini is free on contracts from £17 per month, or £100 on pay-as-you-go. There isn't much in terms of notable competition in the same price range, apart from EE's own Kestrel. It, too, is £17 per month on contract, and only £50 on pay-as-you-go while stocks last. It might be older hardware, but given the performance issues I've experienced with the Harrier Mini, I'd argue the Kestrel is the more attractive option, especially on a pay-as-you-go tariff where it's half the price.

    O2, being the "premium" provider it is, doesn't have much in the way of direct competition to either handset, apart from the HTC Desire 620, which is free on contracts from £16.50 per month. It's better specced than the Harrier Mini in a couple of areas, has a funkier design and carries a well-known brand name that some consumers might take comfort in. Vodafone's got a couple of handsets free on contracts from £22 per month that might give the Harrier something to worry about. Granted, they are getting on a bit, but Samsung's Galaxy S4 and LG's G2 were flagships of their time, and are both excellent phones despite their age.

    Vodafone also has an own-brand handset that goes toe to toe with the Harrier Mini. The recently released Smart prime 6 is almost identical to the Harrier Mini apart from having a larger, 5-inch screen, and it's also free on contracts from £17 per month. It's only £79 on pay-as-you-go, however, so even if it does have the same performance issues as the Mini, you'll be £20 better off.

    Finally, Three doesn't have any particularly compelling competitors in its pay-as-you-go lineup. On contract, though, it has the LG Spirit 4G free from £13 per month, and the Desire 620 free from £17 per month, both of which are eye-catching alternatives to the Harrier Mini. For £21 per month, you can also get a free, colourful iPhone 5c if you think you might prefer iOS over Android Lollipop.

    Wrap-up

    With last year's Kestrel, EE delivered a phone with a great user experience and 4G connectivity at a reasonable price. The Harrier Mini might be the spiritual successor to the Kestrel, but it's the bigger, higher-spec Harrier that's better placed to carry on the Kestrel's legacy. Its 13MP camera might not be the best around; it's more laden with bloatware than it should be; and small hands might struggle with its... healthy dimensions. But, it's packing a great full HD display, all the processing power you realistically need, and long battery life to get you through those busy days. More importantly, it's competitively priced.

    The Harrier Mini shares a few of these traits. It, too, sports a solid panel (with a slightly lower 720p resolution), and is no slouch in terms of battery endurance. Its 8MP camera is verging on terrible, however; you don't have a great deal of storage to work with; and performance can be frustratingly sluggish. Furthermore, there are plenty of viable alternatives in the same price range or below. I'd even consider the Kestrel a better option at this point, which is pretty much all you need to know about the Harrier Mini.

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