Not so long ago you had to shell out a few hundred quid to get a decent smart phone. Google's Android operating system has slowly been driving prices south, and now Chinese mobile maker Huawei has put its foot on the gas to accelerate the trend.
Meet the Huawei Ascend G300 -- yours for £100 on pay as you go (plus £10 top up). It's exclusive to Vodafone for the next three months, after which it opens up to other mobile networks. On a two-year Vodafone contract, you can get the G300 for £15.50 per month.
This budget Android-packing slab is Huawei's second own-brand smart phone in the UK, but does a cheap price inevitably mean compromises in usability, build and features?
Should I buy the Huawei Ascend G300?
If you're on a tight budget but still want a decent smart phone then the G300 won't disappoint. It's not the rock-bottom cheapest smart phone out there, but the tiny premium you pay over some other budget Android devices doesn't go to waste -- it nets you a large 4-inch display and a 1GHz chip.
Other contenders for your money such as the Orange San Francisco 2, the T-Mobile Vivacity and the Samsung Galaxy Ace, have slower processors and smaller screens. If you can spare the extra tenner or so, the G300 is worth the stretch.
Huawei's Gingerbread-flavoured operating system brings all the goodness of Android with a simple, relatively no-frills overlay that has a few neat touches of its own. It won't drown you in a tsunami of unnecessary apps and bloatware, like a lot of phones.
The G300 runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, lightly skinned with Huawei's own software interface. The result is similar to Samsung's TouchWiz, or a pared-back HTC Sense. There's a launcher bar at the bottom and a carousel of home screens to swipe through. It's simple and straightforward to use. Best of all, it's fairly fast.
If you buy now, before the phone becomes available on other networks, you will have to put up with a few Vodafone additions. They are mostly limited to a handful of apps so it doesn't detract too much from the Android experience.
Huawei says an Ice Cream Sandwich update will be available to download this summer but reckons folk who buy the G300 are unlikely to want to update the operating system -- especially if they're new to smart phones.
Huawei's Android skin gives you five home screens -- a number that can't be expanded or reduced. Adding widgets, shortcuts and folders is done by long-pressing the home screen and selecting the item you want to add from a list. This system is nowhere near as fancy as HTC's Sense widget preview interface, but it's simple and straightforward to use.
One distinctive and nifty Huawei addition is a directional lock screen. This allows you to swipe in one of four directions -- to either unlock the phone or dive straight into an app such as the camera or your messages. The default apps are camera, call log, text messages or basic unlock. Currently the apps that appear on the lock screen can't be customised but Huawei says this feature will be added when the G300 gets Ice Cream Sandwich this summer.
On the launcher bar that sits at the bottom of your home screens is a button to get to all your apps, and three more icons that can be customised to apps (but not folders) of your choice.
In the apps menu view, there are two big buttons at the bottom. One takes you back to the home screen, and the settings mode button allows you to rearrange the order of apps. It's not the most elegant implementation of app rearranging but again it's fairly straightforward.
Other 'no frills' additions to the interface include the app switching system -- long-press the home button and it brings up a grid of recently opened apps, enabling you to tap an app to switch to it. There's also a tabs menu on the native browser, which simply lists your currently open tabs, rather than graphical thumbnails.
The gallery view does have a few frills -- specifically a 3D effect when you reach the end of the thumbnail stack. This tilts the thumbnails towards or away from you to indicate that there are no more to scroll through. You can also quickly zip through your stack of shots using a handy scroll bar at the bottom of the screen.
Huawei has added a music player to the device. And the company reckons it has also tweaked the OS to improve battery performance.
The 4-inch screen has a resolution of 480x800 pixels -- which is the same as the Orange San Francisco 2 and the T-Mobile Vivacity. As the G300 has a slightly larger screen, pixel density is not quite as high as those two, at 233 pixels per inch versus 267ppi. The display is still easy on the eye though, with photos, icons and text all looking colourful and clear.
The viewing angle is not great. When looking at desktop versions of text-heavy webpages, you will need to zoom in to make the text comfortably legible.
The screen can be a tad unresponsive too, especially to taps. Whether that's down to the addition of Gorilla Glass to toughen it up or Huawei shaving a few yuan off the build costs, I'm not sure. Either way, it's not a terribly unresponsive screen by any means but it tends to prefer you to spoon your thumb across the glass, rather than skate lightly over it.
The 1GHz chip inside the G300 brings more oomph than you'd usually expect at this price. It'll handle all the basic stuff fine -- from navigating around menus to browsing the web, downloading and using lightweight apps and viewing maps.
While the G300 is generally pretty quick, there is typically a slight lag. Scrolling can be a smidge juddery, but for a £100 handset, what do you expect?
Some of the things that tax the phone's engine the most include loading and processing of photos you've just taken, which can take several seconds per photo, and loading thumbnails in your gallery.
Browsing very rich HTML 5 websites or playing graphically intensive 3D games will push the G300 to its limits. The device ran the GL Benchmark's standard Egypt test at a mere 19 frames per second. So if it's high-end 3D gaming you're after, don't buy from the smart phone bargain basement.
On the AnTuTu benchmark, the G300 scored 2,909 -- putting it in the performance ball park of the Samsung Galaxy S.
Design and build quality
The G300 has a slabbish shape, softened by rounded edges and a gently curved back. This means it can be made to rock slightly when you lay it on a flat surface. The handset easily fits in the hand, even if you have dainty mitts, and is about a centimetre thick, lending it a pleasing amount of substance.
The casing appears to be made of aluminium, with a silver bezel and backplate, but this is actually just coloured plastic that's smooth and warm to the touch. It's not silver all over -- there is also a two-tone effect at the top and bottom of the handset, with pearlised white plastic patches adding a few design splashes. The overall look is easy on the eye.
The curvaceous case and smooth plastic finish of the G300 also make it a fairly slippery customer -- it can leap out of your grasp just as you're trying to pick it up.
Although cased in plastic, it feels heavy enough to be made of metal, which gives it a sturdy feel. The screen includes Gorilla Glass so if the handset does slip from your fingers, it should be able to take a few light knocks without acquiring permanent scars.
The G300's camera lens protrudes from the back of the case but there is a slightly raised plastic and metal collar wrapped around it to give it some protection from being banged on the table.
There are only two physical buttons on the phone -- a volume rocker on the left side and a power key up top. The power key can be a touch spongy and doesn't protrude very much so it can demand a second, more fulsome press if you don't lock on hard first time.
On the front are three touch-keys -- menu, home and back. Again, these keys are quite responsive but you do need to tap them in the right place to trigger them.
On top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and there's a micro-USB port on the base for charging and moving media. The phone has 2.5GB of built-in storage, which can be expanded up to 32GB using the microSD card slot that's squirreled away under the backplate, next to the removable battery.
Camera and audio
The G300's 5-megapixel camera isn't going to give premium smart phone snappers -- such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 or the HTC One X -- a run for their money but you wouldn't expect it to. For the money you're spending, the camera is pretty decent. It can take a snap in less than a second.
Colours do tend to be slightly washed out and it doesn't excel in dingier or shady conditions. But if the light is right, the G300 can turn out a nice shot and will happily double as your everyday point-and-shoot.
Video was not as good, with very poor audio quality and lots of artefacting producing visual distortion in the footage. It'll serve for making the odd YouTube clip but nothing more fancy than that.
Audio playback on the G300 isn't amazing. It's not unlistenable but nor is it anything special. Call quality was average -- sounding slightly muffled rather than clear as a bell -- but so long as you're not calling from a really noisy environment, you shouldn't have problems being heard. I didn't experience any dropped calls or other connectivity issues during testing.
Huawei says one of the tweaks to Android as part of its software overlay beefs up the battery performance -- an area it reckons Android is a little weak on.The G300 has a 1,500mAh battery that's good for up to 300 minutes of 3G talk time, according to Huawei, or 350 hours of 3G standby.
In my experience, after 7 hours of testing, with the display on automatic brightness and power saving mode off, the phone still had about half its battery capacity left. It should easily last you a day's moderate-to-heavy use. Light use might even eke a couple of days' life out of it before needing a recharge.
The G300 is the new kid on the bargain block and the first of Huawei's Ascend series -- so expect to see and hear a lot more from the company. Don't be deceived by the price -- it's the new star of the Android bargain basement. You'll be hard-pressed to make your money go further.
Huawei's slab of Gingerbread shows budget Androids don't have to compromise on basic usability. It's not super-speedy, super-stylish or super-endowed in the camera lens department, but for £100, you wouldn't expect it to be. If you want a cheap but capable smart phone for apps, Internet, email and more, the G300 is a winner.
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