Huawei Blaze £99
8th Nov 2011 | 13:19
An Android 2.3.4 smartphone, unsubsidised, for £99. Bargain?
Overview, design and feel
The Huawei Blaze is known by several names, with Huawei calling the smartphone the U8510 in some regions and the IDEOS X3 in others.
In the UK, it's called Huawei Blaze, with the Chinese manufacturer managing to sell it unlocked and unsubsidised for an aggressive cost of £99.
There are compromises to get it down to that low price, though. The screen is a modest 3.2 inches in size, plus there's no flash attached to the Huawei Blaze's 3.2MP camera.
But on the positive side, there's a front-facing second camera for video chat support, and you get Android 2.3.4 as your operating system, with Huawei generously enabling users to deactivate its user interface tweaks and run the phone as a relatively untouched Google device if they prefer.
For a budget phone, the hardware itself is rather smooth and sleek. The front of the Huawei Blaze is a seamless glass (or at least a very shiny plastic) construction, with the top edge of the screen bending around the face of the phone. It makes the Huawei Blaze feel like it cost at least an extra fifty quid.
Beneath the screen you get an unusual button array, with capacitive touch buttons for Back, Menu and Search, accompanied by a large, rough, metal button beneath them that functions as your standard Android Home button.
The metal band that surrounds the Home button stretches up and around the edge of the Huawei Blaze, again making it look like quite a swish little thing. It's also a very thin chassis that's much more stylish than most super-budget Android smartphones.
The top edge houses the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack, plus you can see the Huawei Blaze's front-facing camera sensor along the top of the face of the phone – and there's a hidden proximity sensor that locks the touchscreen when it thinks you're making a phone call.
The right-hand side just houses the volume up/down toggle, which manages to feel sturdy enough despite being a black plastic button.
The back of the Huawei Blaze is very minimalist, with just a metal-trimmed camera sensor and your logos, on top of a matt black rubberised coating. It's pretty bland, but we can't help but quite enjoy Huawei's simple approach.
The Huawei Blaze feels pretty nice in the hand, with its grippy back and curved, slimline body lifting it above the bulky plastic competition. It's thin and light, with just enough style to lift it above other competing budget Android phones such as the LG Optimus One and HTC Wildfire S.
The 320 x 480 resolution screen is bright and easy enough to use outdoors. Sadly, the capacitive buttons aren't hugely sensitive, plus the Huawei Blaze can get a bit laggy, forcing you to press things several times to get a response. But in terms of overall look and feel, it's quite a stylish phone.
Huawei has layered its own user interface on top of the usual Android operating system for the Blaze, adding quite a few custom widgets and options all of its own.
Happily, though, selfless Huawei has given users the option to turn off its customisations, which returns the icons - but not the widgets - back to their Android default settings.
You might not want to do that, though, as Huawei's UI adds quite a few neat little touches. You can select how many Home screens you want and specify which one the phone should default to when exiting apps and the lock screen, plus there's a variety of scrolling transition effects to choose from.
That's page turn effect, which is a rather nice way to scroll between Home screens. The effects work on both the Android and Huawei themes.
Even with the custom Huawei Launcher enabled, the lock screen is the Android default. This means no fancy shortcuts, no media player toggles or anything here - just the option to mute the phone and unlock it with a slide.
You're able to edit the functionality of the two software buttons that sit either side of the apps button in the dock that sits at the bottom of the screen, although this isn't totally customisable - only five of the most common phone and messaging options can be put down there.
With the Huawei launcher in action, the phone puts the app drawer listing icon to the very left, adding an overview toggle to the right, which pops up a satellite view of all your available Home screens.
The pull-down Android Notifications window has been left relatively simple, with the only addition being a collection of power strip shortcuts that enable you to toggle the major power-eating data and radio features.
In terms of widgets, Huawei has added a few of its own. There's one called Friend Stream that HTC may be interested in looking at, which is your usual social network aggregator, capable of pulling in Facebook, Twitter and Flickr account updates.
It's a bit slow, but does a decent enough job of it, enabling you to slowly page through status updates from the widget itself. Clicking on the body of a message takes you to a custom reply window, where you can "like" comments and share messages.
It won't replace the standalone Facebook and Twitter apps, though.
Huawei has pre-loaded an absolutely huge weather widget on the Blaze's main home screen, which isn't particularly pretty.
Meanwhile, its music player and FM radio widgets are also acceptable and inoffensive options.
As for general speed and ease of use, it's just about bearable. Ask it to do too much multitasking – such as playing music while you fiddle with the social widget - and you'll notice things start to slow down. But it's never disastrously broken.
For a £100 phone it's about what you'd expect.
Contacts and calling
The Contacts section on the Huawei Blaze uses the standard Android system. The Facebook and Twitter integration will instantly pull in all your social network contacts and display them in one massive list, with pictures and all.
You'll probably want to immediately filter out the chaff from your phonebook, which is easily done through the Display Options menu, which enables you to choose to display only contacts with phone numbers, filter out everyone sucked in through Twitter and Facebook and even hide those old, unfashionable people who've been sitting on your SIM card for the last decade.
One extra that Huawei has added to the Contacts section is a separate Streams tab, which is where the accounts added to its Friend Stream social widget end up. It's one amalgamated list of Twitter and Facebook status updates, which doesn't serve a great purpose.
Of more use are the standard Android features that all Google phones have, such as the ability to star names and have them added to an easy access Favourites list, with each person having their own bespoke details page with a dedicated call log tab, plus loads of empty text boxes for notes, email addresses, messenger handles and more.
You can also add contacts to Groups, making it easier to mass-message people all at once. It takes the tedium out of "Happy New Year" texting.
We couldn't find an option to automatically divert a number to voicemail, though. So you'll have to deal with stalkers and aggressive salesmen manually.
The touchscreen dialler is what you'd expect - the numbers 1-9, with a convenient 0 as well. Start dialling a number you've bothered to remember and the phone will pop up suggestions above the keypad as you go, which is often an easier way to access peoples' numbers than trawling through the Contacts section - as long as you know someone's first two or three digits.
Calling quality is pretty good. It's loud and not too harsh. Perhaps a little muffled, but good enough to live with. Mobile signal connectivity was reliable - we didn't suffer any dropped calls or coverage issues.
Huawei gives you two keyboard options in the Blaze - the standard Android QWERTY, plus the enhanced third-party offering from Touchpal.
The Touchpal is activated and set as the default when you boot the phone up for the first time, and it's a good one to stick with. You get alternate characters accessed through long-pressing on a key, plus it's all quick and enables you to type away without lag.
The problem is it's a pretty tight squeeze on the Huawei Blaze's 3.2-inch screen. You have to be very accurate, because it's pretty unforgiving with errors. However, there's a useful on-screen cursor keyboard and selection of rarer editing and page control options hidden behind the keyboard's Edit button.
The app can also attempt to guess your next word, just like popular alternate keyboard SwiftKey, so it's possible to type quite a few stock phrases automatically. So it does have its merits.
And to help cope with space restrictions, Touchpal's setting screen enables users to select a different keyboard depending on your screen orientation, so you could opt for the QWERTY when typing in landscape mode, then stick with the more spacious phone keypad when in portrait.
SMS messaging is handled by a simple app that adds coloured speech bubbles to the usual Android tool. It supports audio and visual attachments, even containing a shortcut to the camera app that automatically sets file sizes to minimum settings to ensure they can actually be sent.
Email has again been left to the usual Android POP3/IMAP option, which manages to connect to most popular email accounts with just a username and password. Multiple accounts are handled easily, with a combined inbox pulling everything into one place.
You also get plenty of options for controlling email access. Checking frequency can be set to anything from every five minutes to never, plus web-based email options enable you to set a mail size limit to stop your phone automatically downloading any huge attachments.
The Huawei Blaze contains a 600MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 processor, which puts it on a par with other affordable Android phones such as the HTC Wildfire S.
Sadly, this means it falls beneath the specifications bar for running Adobe's Flash Player, so there's no iPlayer support or Flash gaming available on the Huawei Blaze.
Web use is pretty good. It manages to load the TechRadar home page quite quickly, with multi-touch support for zooming into pages. Double-tapping also automatically pulls the view tight into text boxes, reflowing words to fit the space - after a second or two of waiting.
The browser interface hasn't been touched by Huawei, so what you get here is the amazingly simple standard Android webkit web window. Some might say it's boring, but there's some pretty sweet advanced functionality in it.
Long-pressing on a link enables you to send a link to the Home screens, so you can have an icon sitting on your screen acting as a hotlink to a favourite site.
Android 2.3.4 also features some useful text editing tools that work on all web pages, with a long-press on a chunk of text bringing up the start and end markers. Drag these around to highlight the words you want to steal, then press on the coloured bar to save it to the clipboard.
The Huawei Blaze captures its images at 3.2MP, which results in shots coming off the phone at 2048 x 1536 resolution.
The camera app is the rather bland, grey Android default, and, as well as looking pretty terrible, it also only has a meagre collection of tools and toys to play with.
You get five colour filters – None, the boring old standards Sepia and Mono, the always useless Negative and the unusual Aqua. Huawei really shouldn't have bothered.
The ability to geo-tag shots with location data for sharing is the only decent feature in here.
SEPIA TINGED:This sepia image actually does an OK job of masking the camera's poor performance
LANDSCAPE:You can just about identify the land in this landscape. The grass has been laughably blurred into a vague, watercolour mess
READ: There's also a 2.8x digital zoom
CLOSE: The zoom does a good job, but mainly because standard photos are so poor you don't really notice any additional loss of quality caused by zooming in
FRONT-FACING: What is nice, at least on paper, is the Huawei Blaze's addition of a secondary front-facing camera for web chatting. Sadly the picture quality and 480 x 640 resolution are abysmal
LOW LIGHT:Indoors it does a good enough job if there's plenty of light, but the lack of a flash in this day and age is another big omission that sees it placed behind some of its competitors, especially for outdoor shots
The Huawei Blaze manages to capture video at a maximum resolution of 800 x 480, and the results aren't actually that terrible.
The camcorder app itself is every bit as basic as the still camera system, giving users only a small selection of five scenes and some manual white balance control.
According to the desktop VLC Player, the Huawei Blaze records clips at around 19fps at its High 800 x 480 setting, with accompanying sound captured in mono.
Results are a bit weird. It's pretty glitchy when it comes to capturing colours outdoors, veering from bright modes to washed out greys.
It does a good enough job of moving between light and dark areas, and will do for sharing clips to social networks. But the footage isn't anything to be proud of.
Huawei's music player customisation for the Blaze is actually rather nice. It's only a simple visual update of the Android standard, but there's a nice colourful background that pulsates as you listen.
You get everything you'd expect from a modern music player. Your music collection can be sorted by album name, song title, artist name, composer and genre, plus the Huawei Blaze will automatically generate simple playlists based on your most-played tracks or any recent additions to your media bunker.
There's also the option of a standard folder view, which is useful if your MP3 collection spans the last 15 years and has been painstakingly arranged just how you like it. Making a new playlist on the phone is as easy as long-pressing on a track from the main library, then creating and naming a new list.
There's also a Share option in the long-press menu, which enables you to ping tracks out via Bluetooth or whatever you have set up as the phone's default email app.
Also, tilting the phone into landscape orientation while listening to music pops up a flipbook of album art, giving you an easy way to lazily page through your SD card's content.
There's also an FM radio in here, which lets you manually input FM frequencies and save stations to memory.
Sadly, the built-in speaker is rather woeful. There's hardly any bass at all, so listening to music through the external speaker is not a great idea. Through headphones it does a better job, but again, turn up the volume too much and it all goes rather raspy.
A big weak area with the Huawei Blaze is its video codec support. There basically isn't very much at all. All of our standard AVI, WMV and MP4 format videos failed to play, with the Huawei Blaze seemingly only supporting a specific type of MPEG-4 file.
It clearly has the ability to play media well enough if you can convert it into the right format, mind, as the pre-loaded movie trailers saved as 320 x 480 resolution MP4s worked just fine.
If you want to stick your own media on the Huawei Blaze, it's very straightforward. Plug it into a PC via USB and the phone will ask you if you'd like to mount the SD card - say "Yes" to that and it'll pop up as an external drive, onto which you can shove all your music and videos.
The Gallery app is standard Android - a very pretty list of icons of all the pictures and videos you've captured. If you have a shady internet past you might want to be careful, though, because Android will pull in any photos you've previously shared through Google's image uploading sites and display them here, if you're using the same Gmail address.
Battery life and connectivity
The Huawei Blaze is good for mobile connectivity up to the 3G HSDPA standard, also containing Bluetooth 2.1 with a2DP support for linking it to Bluetooth headsets and headphones.
Battery life on the Huawei Blaze was a bit of a disappointment. Coming with Android 2.3 and a modest 3.2-inch screen, we were hoping the Huawei Blaze might have been a long-laster, but the phone's small 1200mAh battery means you'll struggle to make it last a full day.
Huawei's social networking widget seems to be the culprit, which appears to almost continually search for status updates. Kill this off on day one and the phone will last a bit longer, but it's no star performer.
We also found the smartphone had a rather weak Wi-Fi connection. Where we'd usually expect to see a two or three bar signal around the house, we often only had one bar on the Huawei Blaze.
The connection never died or dropped as a result, though, so maybe this is just a peculiarity of how Huawei calculates signal strength.
You do get Wi-Fi support for b/g/n wireless networks, so if you need 802.11n there's one small patch of weak good news.
Coming with a recent version of Android means you get excellent tethering options, with the Huawei Blaze able to act as both a wired modem via USB and a Wi-Fi hotspot for hooking a laptop up to the mobile network.
Maps and apps
Given that the Huawei Blaze is based around Google's 2.3 version of its Android operating system, the Google suite of apps are pre-loaded on it.
Google Maps is always the most enjoyable of the toys to play with, and the Huawei Blaze manages to render maps and scroll about them pretty well. What's missing are some of the advanced gesture controls. You do get the two-fingered perspective-tilting effect, but you can't rotate the map, although support for 3D street-level building views in the few cities Google has mapped in 3D, is in.
You also get GPS and Google's full sat nav tool, with the Huawei Blaze doing a quick job of hooking up to the satellite network and enabling us to calculate a route in less than 30 seconds.
Elsewhere from Google is Gmail, of course, plus the very bland News & Weather widget and app, the Google Talk messaging app, YouTube, Latitude and Places.
As for third-party features, Huawei has put on the popular Documents to Go suite, which is a compatible reader for MS Office files. You'll need to pay money to upgrade that if you need doc creation powers on your phone.
There's also a standard File Manager in here, which is something a lot of Android phones simply don't include, plus Huawei's Smart Traffic app, which enables you to keep track of your mobile data use, should you be on a data limit.
Memory may become a bit of a problem. With only the basics installed, we're showing 73MB of internal app memory free. That's soon going to fill up, especially if you're into mobile gaming in any way.
Hands on gallery
The Huawei Blaze comes in a surprisingly stylish little chassis, but there's clearly not quite enough power in here to make it a serious contender for anyone other than undemanding new smartphone users.
It's still nice to get a quality capacitive touchscreen at this sub-£100 price point, and Huawei's own user interface adds some nice extra features, which make it a passable choice for those after a cheap Android phone. But using it's a constant compromise.
The curved glass front, which wraps around the top of the phone, is a nice design touch. The screen itself is also responsive to the touch, making it one budget phone that feels pleasant in the hand.
The body of the phone is also pleasantly slim, giving it a look and feel significantly above its super-budget station.
It's generous of Huawei to enable us to toggle its own user interface on or off, so you can have the Chinese manufacturer's take on Android customisations or a clean version of Android 2.3.4. Although with the latter, you still see Huawei's custom widgets, so it's not 100% the "pure" Android experience.
Performance is a bit slow. It never crashed or broke in any catastrophic way, but widgets can take a while to respond, as can the phone in general if you're multitasking to any significant degree.
The 3.2MP camera is poor. Still shots gloss over detail, with grassy scenes and trees blended down into weird, impressionist mush. Video is better, but it's vague on colour reproduction.
The curved screen seems easy to scratch. After only a few days there were already several deep blemishes from our usual careful use.
Battery life was poorer than we expected from a modern Android phone - and we don't expect much. Getting less than a day of life from a modest 3.2-inch phone is quite a disappointment.
Initially, it's an impressive thing. Curved screen, slim case and plenty of weird little customisations from Huawei make the Blaze a fun smartphone to play with for the first few hours.
But the slowness of it gradually wears you down. Widgets are clunky, web use has you waiting for things to happen, the capacitive touchscreen buttons often lag and fail to respond to your first touch.
Compared to the budget Android phones of 2010 such as the ZTE Racer and the Galaxy Europa, the Huawei Blaze is quite a bit better in terms of style, but you're still not getting anything like the same slick Android experience as found on the high-end handsets.
We were expecting a lot more from the budget-busting Huawei, but with a poor camera that lacks a flash and a slow processor inside, the Huawei Blaze is just a slightly prettier than usual, rock-bottom priced smartphone, with all the performance caveats this end of the scale tends to come with.