High performance at a reasonable cost, but can it ever be considered over the more popular manufacturers' offerings?
There's a pretty decent chance you've used a Huawei phone without even knowing it. A longtime seller of spec devices, Huawei has started to step into the competitive arena that is the high-end smartphone market. For 2012, Huawei offers this, the Ascend D Quad XL.
When the Ascend D Quad XL was first shown off by Huawei at Mobile World Congress back in February, it was touted as “the fastest smartphone in the world.” We hear a lot of claims about specs, but “fastest” isn’t exactly something you can measure accurately. By today’s standards, it’s likely that it isn’t going to best the top of the top -- but what really matters is the real-world user experience. Does the Ascend D Quad XL have what it takes to pull users away from the likes of Samsung, HTC and LG? Read on and find out.
The hardware and build quality put the Ascend right up next to high-end devices from the major manufacturers. Battery life is superb, and the screen is of higher quality than the price tag would lead you to expect.
Although the software is nearly stock, the small bits that have been changed aren't necessarily for the better. It's hard to believe that Huawei wouldn't have been better off just loading stock Jelly Bean onto the device.
Inside this review
On paper, the Ascend D Quad lines up with all of the other high-end smartphones on the market -- quite a remarkable feat considering its price tag, about $450 unlocked. Huawei made a big deal about designing the CPU for the phone in-house, a 1.4GHz quad-core (cortex A9) unit. Accompanying that processor is 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (expandable by SDcard), an 8MP camera and a 4.5-inch 720x1280 IPS+ LCD display.
The Ascend D Quad XL is an unapologetically dense, heavy, black, slab. When you hold the phone in your hand, you would easily guess that it costs much more than the $450 street price. With a 4.5-inch display, it fits nicely in the hand and although it’s a bit thick by today’s standards at 11.5mm, the ergonomics are just fine. The overall fit and finish of the device will make you question why other manufacturers charge a premium of $200 or more over what this device sells for. It feels substantial.
The entire front of the phone is a flat pane of glass, accented at the bottom with three capacitive keys -- back, home, menu -- and at the top with a Huawei logo, camera, notification LED and red speaker grille. The bezel around the screen is of standard size, and the plastic casing surrounding the glass is a clean continuous ring of black plastic. The back casing is a single piece, and is much more than just a battery door. Similar to some HTC devices from 2011, the entire back and sides of the device come off in one big piece. The back cover is well made, with smooth hard plastic on the sides and a finely textured pattern on the back. The camera pod is raised above the back surface at the top of the device, the speaker is recessed in the bottom. Both are accented with the same deep red metal as the speaker grille on the front. Miniscule camera, Huawei and Dolby Digital branding is silkscreened on the back case.
As for the button and port layout, it’s a bit different than what we’re used to. The power button is located on the top right of the phone -- across from the headphone jack -- and has a satisfying “click” to it when you turn on the screen. The placement of the button on the top isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the Ascend D Quad XL is approaching the size where I’d prefer it on the side of the device. Along the right side is a volume rocker, which works as intended. The entire bottom and left side are completely blank -- the primary microphone can instead be found at the edge of the bottom screen bezel, directly in the center. Following the tradition of most modern smartphones, there is no physical camera button.
The only bad things I can say about the hardware are the capacitive keys and the device’s vibration. The three capacitive keys are laid out in a pseudo-standard back/home/menu configuration. That’s all well and good, but I’d greatly prefer to see a multitasking key in place of the menu key, following Google’s design guidelines. The keys are easy enough to operate, but I found myself missing the actual key’s touch targets quite often, as if the sensors were smaller than usual. Nothing that a couple weeks with the device wouldn’t likely fix, but it was noticeable.
The system vibration is the one part of the hardware that reminded me of the device’s price point. Vibrations for notifications and calls were weak, but not the worst. My biggest complaint has to be with the vibration for system functions. I found myself turning off system vibrations -- something I have enabled on the Galaxy Nexus -- and the capacitive keys simply because the vibration motor was far from satisfying in every day use. It brought me back to the days of my original HTC Evo 4G, and that’s not a good thing.
Overall the phone feels great, and looks quite handsome if you’re into the simple, understated design. It may be a bit heavy and thick for some, but there certainly is a benefit of quality that you get from that extra size in a device. From a hardware standpoint, I would have no problem using this device daily for an extended period of time. The Ascend D Quad XL is a device that should change a few people’s minds about the quality of Huawei phones.
Coming from a Galaxy Nexus -- not exactly the pinnacle of display quality -- I was truly enjoying my time with the Ascend D Quad’s screen. The 4.5-inch 720x1280 IPS+ LCD display (a Toshiba panel) is bright, crisp and has very respectable viewing angles. As is usually the case with even moderate quality LCD panels, color representation is a bit more “true” than on their AMOLED counterparts. Beyond that, the brightness is acceptable -- but not amazing -- and is plenty fine even in outdoor use. It’s a bit gray and gloomy nowadays in Washington, but given the rare chance that I saw a patch of sun, I had no issues seeing the screen (that’s more than I can say about the Galaxy Nexus most times).
In everyday use, the screen exceeded my expectations, again considering the price of the device. All of my usual apps look great, and I saw no inconsistencies, banding, blotches or issues. With a density of 330ppi (pixels per inch), you’ll be hard pressed to see individual dots with anything less than a microscope, and it shows when you’re using it. Even after using a Galaxy Nexus as my daily device and loving the vivid colors and great black levels, using the Ascend D Quad XL made me want a device with an LCD panel again.
This model of the Ascend D Quad XL is unlocked and has the standard set of frequencies (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100MHz to be exact) to operate on pretty much every carrier in the world at HSPA+ 21mbps. Over the course of the review, I used it with a Straight Talk (an AT&T prepaid carrier) SIM. I also tested it with a T-Mobile SIM, and received a full HSPA+ signal, which is a huge plus for the device. Being able to buy an unlocked phone and use it on any GSM carrier you please is important. Mobile data performance was just on par with what I’ve experienced with other AT&T devices in the area, and WiFi speeds were adequate as well. Calls were crisp and clear. No complaints to be had with radio performance.
The Ascend D Quad XL is equipped with the standard array of supplementary radios: GPS, Bluetooth 3.0, accelerometer and gyroscope. NFC is a notable omission here. GPS locked on quickly in Google Maps, Foursquare, Google+ and any other apps that requested it. Bluetooth connected and paired as would be expected, holding a tethering connection to my laptop without issue.
The “XL” at the end of the Ascend D Quad’s nameplate refers to the increase in battery size over the standard D Quad, which as an 1800mAh cell. The battery is a 2600mAh non-removable unit, which is beyond what we usually see in top-end devices (save for the Droid RAZR HD MAXX). You’re going to pay for that battery with a bit of thickness and weight, but I’m willing to say that the increase in battery life is a worthwhile tradeoff.
I came away from my time with the Ascend D Quad XL pleasantly surprised by the battery life. Under very heavy usage of taking and uploading pictures, using Google Maps and Navigation, spending time at a Seattle Sounders soccer match (where the radio works extremely hard to hold a signal) and walking around downtown Seattle, all while keeping all accounts syncing and the brightness at either 50 or 100-percent, the battery held up fantastically. At the end of a very hard day of usage with over 3 hours of screen on time, I was still at 25% battery.
Under more regular usage, the battery lasts for days. With my own usage pattern, which is mostly just pulling down email and using social network apps while on Wi-Fi -- and some casual games, of course -- I won't even see the 50-percent level at the end of the day. In this regard the 2600mAh battery almost seems like a bit of overkill on a device without LTE, but not having any battery anxiety when leaving the house is a really good feeling -- I stopped worrying about having a USB cable or charger nearby.
The first thing you’ll notice when the Ascend D Quad boots up is a software layout that’s very reminiscent of stock Android 4.0. Huawei has definitely done some tinkering in the software, but nothing even approaching the level of Samsung, HTC and LG. What you’re getting here is about 90% of a stock Android experience, 5% changed in design and the last 5% changed in functionality. I wouldn’t call this a “Huawei UI” by any stretch. This is simply Android Ice Cream Sandwich with a couple modifications.
Launcher and interface
Huawei offers two different launchers on the device, neither of which are set as a default. You’re greeted with the option to choose either “2D home” or “3D home” on boot. The “2D” variant is effectively the stock Ice Cream Sandwich launcher, and “3D” is a garishly over-designed and ugly piece of software. You’ll likely be sticking with the “2D” launcher, or downloading one of the many great ones from the Play Store. This is something I really wish more manufacturers would offer. Even if they made the “fancy” custom launcher the default, simply having the stock launcher available is a big plus to many users.
When you settle into the standard launcher, everything works as you’d expect. As I said, this is more or less the stock Ice Cream Sandwich launcher -- and that’s a good thing. Folders work normally, apps and widgets are brought in via the app drawer, and wallpapers are selected with a long press on the homescreen. In typical stock fashion, you can have as many homescreens as you want, as long as it’s 5.
Paired with either launcher is Huawei’s custom lockscreen, which builds upon Android 4.0’s “ring” paradigm giving you four options -- unlock, camera, messaging, or call log (not dialer, interestingly enough). Network name, time, date and charging status are listed up top in the center. Swiping left or right on the time brings up media controls, which curiously only work with the built-in music player (sorry, Google Music users). Three of the lockscreen shortcuts are configurable from the "Security" settings menu (you'll always have the unlock option in the same place), so if you're a Google Voice user like myself you can swap in the Google Voice app in place of the stock Messages app, for example.
Huawei bundled several apps, but I would be quick to assert that they aren’t the usual “crapware” that we see from most manufacturers (and carriers).
- All Backup: lets you backup and restore system settings, apps and schedule complete device backups.
- AppInstaller: helps you install .apk’s that you have on external storage.
- Call log: a direct shortcut to the call log of your dialer.
- DLNA: for streaming content to DLNA devices.
- File Manager
- FM Radio
- Music+: the default music player
- Security Guard: lets you run a blacklist and whitelist of contacts for calls and texts, set up file encryption and have a “password safe” to secure other passwords.
- Sound Recorder
- Weather Clock: a standard weather widget
As is the case with all devices running Ice Cream Sandwich, any of the apps that you don’t want can be disabled. I see most users finding these included apps quite useful, however.
My largest -- and possibly only major -- issue with the Ascend D Quad XL’s software is the keyboard. Well, not just the keyboard but also the dictionaries required to make the keyboard actually useful to the average user. Out of the box, the device would not auto-correct words or offer suggestions to correct spelling errors. Diving through the settings, switching between the stock Android keyboard and Huawei’s, nothing brings auto correction to the keyboard. It’s as if the phone doesn’t have an English dictionary on it. The only possible way to download dictionaries, via the Huawei custom keyboard, doesn’t seem to properly download them. My only remedy to the situation was to download SwiftKey -- which comes with its own dictionaries -- and turn off all of Android’s spell checking and auto-correction.
Realizing that this is an international device mainly aimed at the Chinese market, I can give some of this a pass, but there is really no reason that the phone should ship without either standard English dictionaries or a way to download proper dictionaries. I hope that this isn’t a widespread issue with all of the devices, because this is the one glaring issue with the software that brings down an otherwise great, nearly stock Android experience.
Performance and usability
We’re not the biggest fans of benchmark tests here at Android Central (for a number of reasons), but it’s worth noting that the Ascend D Quad XL performs right up there with the top of the line Android phones in the standard suite of benchmark apps. Huawei really deserves a pat on the back for their in-house designed processor. I’m not going to confirm their “fastest phone in the world” claim, but it’s no slouch.
For daily use, it’s hard to complain with the performance of the Ascend D Quad XL. Over my several days with the device, everything worked in the same way any other high end Android device in late 2012 would. Apps loaded quickly and performed smoothly. Scrolling through homescreens, launching the app drawer and manipulating UI elements went without a hiccup. Games were smooth and performed well. I’m not going to call this device a gaming powerhouse (find a Tegra device for that), but it’ll be hard to find a modern game that this can’t handle just fine. The only software issue I faced was a single hot reboot of the device while playing Granny Smith -- something that only happened once and I'm going to blame on recently installing about three dozen apps before playing.
When it comes down to it, Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t the latest version of Android, and it’s about to be two versions behind. While Android 4.0 is a good base, I of course would have preferred to see Jelly Bean here. Given when this device was made and expected to be released -- in the first half of 2012 -- I could have given it a bit of a pass. The reality is that the device wasn’t launched in the first half of the year, it was launched in September, and instead of holding onto the device a bit longer to launch with Jelly Bean, it went out with Ice Cream Sandwich.
Given the price of the device and the launch window, it’s unclear at this point if the Ascend D Quad XL will ever see even a Jelly Bean update. Now that’s not the end of the world, but it’s likely something that potential buyers -- especially readers of this site -- will consider when choosing a device.
The Ascend D Quad XL's rear camera, an 8MP shooter with dual LED flash, isn't going to knock your socks off. That's not to say that the camera is low quality, it can produce respectable pictures, but just like most smartphone cameras it isn't going to fool anyone into thinking you're shooting with a DSLR. One notable feature that the phone brought to the table was consistency. When I pulled out the phone to take a quick snapshot, I knew what I was going to get -- it wasn't a guessing game. For casual shots in good light, the pictures produced are plenty acceptable.
For me, anything worth taking a picture of is worth taking a high quality picture of. I carry around a Micro Four-Thirds camera with me at nearly all times, so it's going to be hard to accept pictures I take with a phone's camera. Picture quality is pretty subjective though, and it really depends on what you're used to. I've got some sample shots from the Ascend D Quad XL below.
The camera app itself isn't the prettiest thing to look at, but it's quite functional and adds many settings over what is normally available in the stock Android 4.0 camera app. You can long press the shutter key to focus and take shots, or tap the screen to focus on a particular part of your subject. Hidden in the left-hand menu are four main settings groups: shooting modes, scene modes, effects and picture settings. Nested in the shooting modes area are options for single, group, HDR, burst, panorama and a few others. Under scene modes, you get your standard hipster filters like "antique," "negative" and "sepia. The effects are similar to what's offered in Android 4.0 by default. In the general camera settings, you can manipulate white balance, ISO, exposure/white balance/contrast/brightness, timers, picture quality and focus values.
The Ascend D Quad XL shoots 1080P video at 30fps, but is set to 720P by default (likely for file size reasons). The video quality is good, but the image stabilization mode isn't going to fix camera shaking as much as you'd like. Prop it up on something stable or use a tripod and the quality increases immensely.
The front camera is ... a front camera. At 1.3MP (and 720P video), it works and isn't completely terrible. Use it for Skype, don't use it for stills.
For some reason, the included Huawei-branded headphones are downright physically painful in my ears. The actual rounded speakers weren’t the main culprit, but rather the rest of the housing that had sharp edges that dug into my ears. Whereas most device bundled headphones are at least comfortable in short durations, I couldn’t stand these for more than 10 minutes. For those three songs I could listen to in that time, the sound was as expected for basic earbuds. On the right earbud cable, there is an inline mic and button -- which oddly didn’t work to play and pause music. Bring your own headphones to this device.
In stark contrast to the quality of the headphones, the USB cable is notably high quality. It has a satisfying “click” into the phone, and has rounded angular edges to the connectors. It’s of standard length -- about 3 feet. The charger is of similar quality and works as you’d expect. It’s a little bulky, but as long as it works, it’s hard to complain. It’s a charger.
After using the Ascend D Quad XL for the last several days, it’s hard to find any serious fault that would lead me to recommend against purchasing the device. That’s not to say that it’s at the top of my list, however. The fact is that while the Ascend D Quad XL is a great value in terms of hardware and build quality for the price, about $450, it’s hard to say it’s a better value than the Galaxy Nexus from the Play Store at $349 (likely less after the next Nexus launches). The raw performance, battery life and (arguably) camera quality are all better on the Ascend, but it falls flat on its face in the software department compared to the Galaxy Nexus. Ice Cream Sandwich is likely the only version of Android the Ascend D Quad XL will ever see, and that’s just not okay with me.
Huawei made a lot of good choices on the Ascend D Quad XL's software. It kept things about 90% stock Android, and just made a few modifications. It’s an approach I really wish more manufacturers would take. Unfortunately that 10% Huawei changed, while it certainly added some functionality, didn’t add enough to justify dealing with some of the little issues that hinder the overall experience with the device. You get the feeling that Huawei could’ve simply shipped bone stock Android 4.1 and the device would have been better off for it. Then again, I basically think that's the case with every phone.
For users that hold hardware performance in a higher regard than stock software -- some prefer custom ROMs -- and are looking for a great unlocked, pentaband GSM device at a seriously good price, it's worth a look. Huawei has proven with the Ascend D Quad XL that it can make a high end device with hardware in the same category as the “top tier” manufacturers, while keeping the price $200 less.