Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Android for the Prepaid Set

Huawei's Mercury is the best device offered on Cricket's monthly prepaid smartphone plan. Photo by Maurizio Pesce/Wired
If you already have an iPhone, a Galaxy Nexus or some other head-of-the-class smartphone in your pocket, the Huawei Mercury isn’t the phone for you. But if you’re upgrading from a feature phone, or if you’re loathe to sign a two-year contract and would prefer a pay-as-you-go plan, it’s likely the perfectphone for you.
Huawei’s handset — available on Cricket’s smartphone plans, which start at $55 per month with no contract — is a mid-level Android device that makes a great first smartphone, and it performs solidly enough even though it lacks the specs and polish of the latest top-tier hardware.
The Mercury (also known as the Huawei Honor and Huawei Glory elsewhere) is a little bit wider and slightly thicker than the average Android. The build is mostly plastic and the quality of the case is kind of cheap-feeling. The touchscreen is nice, though — a 4-inch Gorilla Glass panel that’s durable and scratch-resistant. The display is also bright and relatively clear, with a FWVGA 854×480 pixel resolution screen that can display 16 million colors.
Battery life is better than expected, thanks to a 1900 mAh battery that allows 380 standby hours and up to 8 hours of talk time. In my tests, it survived a full day between one charge and another. The back of the phone pops off, so you can easily replace the battery. This is where you put the SD card in as well.
The processor and memory — single-core 1400 MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S2 with 512MB of SDRAM — supply more than enough brawn for the average user. Actually, I didn’t expect the Mercury to equal the performance of fancier, more expensive phones, so I was surprised by how well it handled under load. I was multitasking, running a handful of apps in the background while browsing the web with no problem at all. Jumping from one app to another doesn’t seem to slow down the phone, even while playing music in background.
Data speeds were also admirable. I tested the tri-band GSM/UMTS/HSPA features, getting impressive speed results: 5.1 Mbps for downloads and 762 kbps for uploads. The phone operates on Cricket’s network, which covers more than 90 percent of the U.S. Outside of the carrier’s coverage area, it runs on Sprint’s network.
You won’t find the latest Android version on-board. The Mercury runs version 2.3.6 Gingerbread, though Huawei says the phone will receive an update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich by the end of the month. The basic Android experience is enhanced with Huawei’s own interface that provides a few proprietary apps, an optional text input method, and a unique lock screen.
The unlock screen has four shortcuts, and you can choose which one you want by swiping your finger in one of four directions. One heads straight to camera, one goes to the call log, one goes to text messages, and the last goes to whatever was last open, defaulting to the home screen. If you were wondering, you cannot customize these shortcuts by picking your own applications (which is odd), or tweak the launcher’s behavior in any way. But the software does automatically recognize the last app you opened for each category, so if you were scrolling your Instagram timeline before locking the phone, it will switch to Instagram instead of the camera when you swipe the unlock control toward the camera. I actually didn’t like this as much — what if I want to quickly shoot a picture using the phone’s native camera app? Other than that quibble, the phone is generally pretty customizable, dock bar apps included.
When it comes time to write something, you can choose between a standard Android QWERTY keyboard and the TouchPal input. This softkey suite provides you three differently shaped virtual keyboards, and you can choose between them by swiping left or right on the keyboard itself. You get a T9-ish keyboard made of ten numbers-and-letters keys, a 14-button keyboard with two letters and one number or symbol on each key, allowing you to enjoy buttons big enough for thumb-tapping, and finally, an enhanced full QWERTY with dual-use keys — swipe up for a capital letter, swipe down for numbers and symbols. Once I found how to reach the other symbols I needed (switch to symbols/punctuation and scroll down) I decided this keyboard was even faster and easier to use than the iPhone’s keyboard.
The phone comes pre-loaded with some useful apps, and of course, some junk as well. Photo by Maurizio Pesce/Wired

Some of the other pre-loaded applications are useful. Aside from the usual Google and social client apps, there’s a traffic manager that lets you set a monthly usage limit, a “security guard” app for managing a contacts blacklist that blocks calls or texts from certain people, a backup app that saves or restores data from the SD card, and “Streams,” an app which aggregates all the updates from your social network feeds in one place.
There are other smart enhancements throughout the rest of the OS. One favorite is in the Photo Gallery — tapping the “Share” button lets you send your photo via e-mail and text, or to any social service app you’ve downloaded to your phone, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Dropbox, Box, or Picasa. Additionally, you get options to send a photo to another display via DLNA or Bluetooth.
The camera is disappointing. The 8-megapixel sensor performed properly in bright ambient light, or while using the LED flash. But when shooting in low-light conditions, I experienced shutter lag and incorrect white balance — and oddly, you can’t set the white balance for taking photos, but you can set it for shooting videos. Also weird: you can’t pinch-to-zoom while taking a picture. Rather, you need to tap on the zoom icon and swipe it (it has a 4x zoom). Also strange, you can only snap 4:3 images, but if you’re in video mode, you shoot 720p clips in 16:9. The VGA front-facing camera is only good enough for blurry self-portraits.
The Mercury is one of those phones that isn’t going to wow you with its specs or win you over with its build quality. Actually, the shelves are stuffed with such phones right now, but almost all of them are tied to pricey 2-year contracts. In that regard, the shortcomings of Huawei’s handset are easily overlooked if you’re in the pay-as-you-go club and craving a modern Android experience.
WIRED A “good enough” starter phone, especially for first-timers or those who hate long-term contracts. Good call quality. 2.03GB of internal storage with room to expand to 64GB via microSD. Muve Musicservices included. Light, just 4.9 ounces.
TIRED Plastic battery cover feels cheap. Limited video codec support: no AVI, DVIX, XVID. Camera is confounding.


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