review With its Ascend P1 model earlier this year, Huawei took its first step into competing in Australia’s high-end smartphone market. Now the Chinese manufacturer has stepped its game up a notch with the quad-core Ascend D1. On paper this model can play with the big boys, but how does it handle in practice? Read on to find out.
If you’ve been following smartphone news for a while, you’ll be aware that Huawei has predominantly in the past been known for being a low-end manufacturer, competing with cheap Android handsets sold through retailers like Woolworths. The Ascend P1, released in Australia earlier this year, was the company’s first local step into changing that perception, and to our mind, that handset was the first Huawei model we’ve played with that didn’t feel low-budget.
However, the P1 still wasn’t the sort of handset which felt totally awesome in the hand. Although it felt really good in the hand, its plastic was a little bit low-quality, and while its overall build quality was high, it wasn’t high enough to compete on a style basis with the likes of Samsung and HTC. The Ascend D1 changes all that. As soon as you pick up this handset, it forces you to re-appraise what you think about Huawei. It’s not low-end at all. This is the real deal.
The first thing you’ll notice about the handset is its quality plastic backing, which is quite grippy and overall very comfortable. It makes you want to hold and stroke the back of the D1. The front of the D1 is fairly Android-standard — with Huawei’s logo and a speaker and front-facing BSI camera at the top of the screen and capacitive buttons beneath — but it all feels just so nice; everything fitted together nicely and in the right places.
The rest of the handset is quite minimalistic. The microSD card and SIM card sit beneath its back case, so you only get a few ports to clutter its sides: A microUSB port on the left-hand side, power button and headphone jack on top, a volume rocker on the right. It’s all there, but it’s understated. The phone is a moderate weight at 132g and it’s 129 x 64 x 8.9 mm.
It’s hard to sum up, but what the Ascend D1 really evinces in its design is a concept we like to call ‘Android standard’. It’s incredibly minimalistic but in a beautiful way, a lot like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Anyone who’s at all familiar with Android will see most of their previous phones embodied here with the D1 — but cut down to the bare essentials, and beautifully delivered. The D1 isn’t flashy like a HTC or Samsung model, but its devotion to getting to the core of Android design and its attention to build quality is stellar. We really like this design.
The D1’s hero feature is its quad-core processor, which runs at a speed of 1.4GHz. We’re fare from convinced that smartphones really need quad-core processors, and we didn’t notice a speed difference from the D1 in everyday usage compared to other high-specced models such as the HTC One XL or Samsung Galaxy S III, but it’s there — in terms of raw horsepower, the D1 is close to the top of the charts.
Its screen is a 4.5″ IPS+ model with a pixel density of 330 pixels per inch — almost exactly the same density as the iPhone 5’s 326PPI. Huawei says it features 32-bit colour for 16 million-odd colours, compared to the 16-bit colour it says is found on many other models The resolution is 1280×720 Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound is included (the D1 has two obvious speakers that we could see) and an eight megapixel main camera with dual LED flash, with a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera. It can record 1080p HD video.
Its battery is an 1800mAh model, which Huawei says lasts one to two days with “normal usage”, and the company has included proprietary power management technology which it says extends battery life by up to 30 percent compared with the industry average. Memory is 1GB and storage space 8GB — plus microSD card support up to 32GB.
Unfortunately, given the strength of the newer Jelly Bean version of Google’s Android platform, the D1 runs the previous version – Ice Cream Sandwich. This is a pity, given that there are already quite a few models in Australia with Jelly Bean supported. However, we’re sure the company will eventually push an update to Jelly Bean — the D1 is more than capable of handling it. In addition, unfortunately the D1 does not support the 4G networks of Telstra and Optus in Australia — it’s 3G only.
So what do all these features mean? Basically, on almost every measure, the Ascend D1 on paper is the equal of top-end handsets such as the Galaxy S III, the HTC One series and the Motorola RAZR HD and M smartphones which have recently been released in Australia — as well as broadly on par with the likes of the iPhone 5 and the new Windows Phone 8-based models from HTC and Nokia. With the exception of 4G support, this is truly a model from Huawei which socks it to the big guys. Well, in China and throughout Asia Huawei already is a big guy — so it’s not surprising — but what is awesome is seeing this kind of features from this kind of manufacturer.
Broadly, there’s probably three main areas you will want to consider when it comes to the Ascend D1’s performance: Camera, battery life and and overall handling (user interface and so on).
In terms of the D1’s camera, in our opinion it’s not as nuanced and fine-grained a model as you will find with the likes of Nokia and Apple, but it’s more than decent enough to handle anything you can throw at it. As we said yesterday with our review of the Motorola RAZR M, when every smartphone and its dog ships with an eight megapixel monster, there’s usually not a lot of difference between models.
We had no problems taking nice shots with the Ascend D1, and video came out well with good sound. When you get up really close, there’s a little bit of furriness about the shots, and the camera isn’t the fastest in the world, but these are minor quibbles about what is really a solid camera.
We shot the below shots (click for the larger versions) on an overcast day in Sydney. The shots have been cropped and saved in Photoshop Elements at a JPG level of ‘6’, but otherwise unaltered.
Huawei Ascend D1:
Motorola RAZR M:
Google Nexus 4:
Apple iPhone 5:
HTC Windows Phone 8X:
Huawei makes a lot of the Ascend D1’s battery life in its marketing material, but to be honest we more or less found its performance in this regard fairly standard for a high-end 3G phone. You’ll easily get through a day of moderate use with this smartphone and likely quite a bit into the second before you’ll want to recharge. With light use, there’s no reason you can’t go for a few days using it, and you can leave it on a desk for a few days and come back to find it still has some juice. To sum up: This ain’t a 4G phone, so it has decent battery life; but it’s still pretty high-powered, so it needs some charger love more often than many of us would like.
Lastly, user interface and general performance. We wrote this about the previous P1 model and it applies to the D1 as well:
You really don’t notice much slowdown when you’re doing anything on the Ascend P1 — which is not something we can say for every smartphone on the market. This is one of the device’s strongest selling points — it has a very substantial amount of power for the price you pay for it.
Huawei’s minimalist design sense also means that unlike models from most of its rivals, the P1 is not plagued by much bloatware sitting on top of Android — there’s not a whole lot here which isn’t stock Android, and what there is isn’t particularly objectionable, keeping out of the way for the most part and not slowing down the operating system. We really liked this — it means that the P1′s user interface is functional rather than decorative. It works really well and isn’t cluttered. We wish more Android manufacturers would follow Huawei with this philosophy — we’re tired of every Android smartphone we review having each manufacturer’s own (usually quite flawed) interpretation of how an Android smartphone should work.
In short, the D1 gives you a pretty close to stock Android experience, and we like that a lot. The user interface is minimalist, quick and responsive, and most of the right things are in the right places right out of the box. Its screen is lovely and bright and there isn’t a pixel in sight.
There’s one caveat here. Right now, I have a Google Nexus 4, which ships with Android 4.2, and a Ascend D1 on its desk. The difference in hardware between the two isn’t huge, although the Nexus 4 has a larger screen. But there is a huge difference in software because of the Jelly Bean version of Android shipping with the Nexus 4 — and all the Project Butter goodness (see more on that in our Nexus 7 review) that it entails. We’ve said this a lot over the past few months, but let’s say it again: Upgrading an Android smartphone from Ice Cream Sandwich to Jelly Bean will give that smartphone an immediate and visible performance boost, in our experience. We really, really want the Ascend D1 to get Jelly Bean ASAP; it would make it a much better smartphone. If it got a default Android 4.2 … this model would be highly, highly attractive.
In terms of the D1’s quad-core CPU, it’s a nice to have, but there aren’t really any Android apps (including games) that we’ve seen that require that kind of power over a normal dual-core or fast single-core machine. Almost all Android apps are set to run with fairly moderately powered models; in our view the quad-core CPU on the D1 is good, but not a huge differentiator for it.
To sum up: The Ascend D1 performed very well in all aspects we tested. From camera to battery life to how nice it feels in the hand, this is a very solid model with excellent build quality and a high-end features list.
There’s two things we want to say about the Ascend D1 to sum it up.
Firstly, this is an excellent, high-end smartphone which we really liked. We liked the hardware very much, it’s got great build quality, and we liked the software of the D1, which isn’t too far from stock Android. When it gets Jelly Bean it’ll get even better. It doesn’t have 4G, but many people won’t care about that.
So now we come to the question: Who will buy the D1, and why?
The handset launched in late November through JB Hi-Fi for a recommended retail price of $499. Now, given that we’ve seen Samsung and HTC launching similar models for several hundreds dollars more outright, you’d think I would be issuing an unqualified ‘buy’ rating on the D1, given its awesome price and its strong credentials.
However, the fact is that you can actually get similar Samsung and HTC models for much cheaper now than they launched at. Online retailer Mobicity, for example, sells the Galaxy S III at $549 — just $50 more than the D1, and the HTC One XL for cheaper — $479. Given that most people are going to go for a household brand over a lesser-known player like Huawei, this leaves the D1 a little bit out in the cold. If the handset had launched six months ago at $499, it would have kicked ass in Australia. As it stands, it’s lost its price advantage over that time.
Right now, in Australia’s super-saturated smartphone marketplace, the D1 isn’t worth $499. I’d like to see Huawei cut this solid performer down to $399 or even $350. At that price it would constitute an excellent buy compared with the likes of Samsung, HTC, Sony and Motorola; and you’d find people jumping on board the Huawei bandwagon for the first time.
Without this kind of price cut or carrier support (Telstra, Optus, Virgin or Vodafone), the D1 won’t sell well in Australia, in my opinion — most people will be unwilling to take a punt on a brand they don’t know. With it, Huawei could have their hands on a winner. Of course, issuing that kind of price cut would probably cut Huawei’s margins on the device back to zero or even see it making a loss on each handset, but that’s the price of buying market share in a buyer’s market. Australia’s market is absolutely full of great smartphones right now. Even for an excellent handset like the D1, standing out from the crowd isn’t easy ;)
Image credit: Huawei