Wednesday

Huawei Activa 4G review


MetroPCS is slowly growing its LTE network, and the Huawei Activa 4G is the latest smartphone to advance its 4G agenda. In fact, the handset is also a first for Huawei; it represents the Chinese phone-maker's first LTE phone in the U.S. It may be shaped like a brick (and feels like it weighs as much), but there is a case for Metro customers to buy this phone, LTE aside. The 5-megapixel camera takes some decent outdoor shots, and the handset has a front-facing camera for video chats. In addition, the $149 price tag (after a $50 mail-in rebate) is half of what you'd expect to pay this carrier for its top prepaid Android phone, and is fair for what you get.

Unfortunately, the Activa 4G has plenty of warts, including poor battery life, disappointing video capture, and a smaller screen. It'll also remain at Android 2.3 Gingerbread for perpetuity. Still, the Activa 4G is a good Android option for those looking for an affordable prepaid LTE smartphone.



Design

Visually, the Huawei Activa 4G is a throwback to the days when a smartphone's brains were proportional to its bulk. I can't keep my eyes off its thick, heavy slab of a body. At a hefty 4.9 ounces and 0.4 inch thick for a handset that's only 4.8 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide, it's a beast whose weight I immediately notice when I drop it into my purse, and whose size fits uncomfortably into my front jeans pocket (but hey, pockets come in all shapes and sizes.) On the positive side, this is no glass slipper of a cell phone that will crack at the shortest drop. No, I'd expect a fair amount of durability from the Activa.

Apart from its bricklike resemblance, the accents on the black-and-gray Activa do offer some visual appeal. There's the shiny metallic gray rim that hugs the Activa's rounded corners and that makes up the spine buttons. Gray makes another appearance in the phone's striped back cover. I like the brushed metal around the camera housing.

The Activa's screen is a modest 3.5-inch LCD number with an HVGA resolution of 320x480 pixels. That's the right size screen for the resolution -- any larger and it would look grainy. However, the downside is some pretty cramped typing on the virtual keyboard. Swype certainly helps keep aggravating mispresses to a minimum, but there were still problems with typing accuracy, even for my relatively small fingers, compared with typing on larger screens. The screen is bright and colorful on the full brightness setting, but drop it to half the wattage and it's significantly duller, especially when you try to take it outdoors into some sunlight.

Android 2.3 Gingerbread is the OS of choice on the Activa, and it's as close to stock Android as most manufacturers get. There are the five customizable home screens and some simple navigation buttons. Huawei has barely made its mark on the phone's OS, so if you generally steer clear of manufacturers' custom interfaces, you'll love this. One thing that you will notice, though, is that Huawei has carved out a separate camcorder icon that you can use to launch the video recorder if you don't want to go through the camera app first.

It's pretty much business as usual for the Activa's external buttons and controls, with one exception that makes me very happy -- a dedicated camera shutter button on the right spine. You can launch the camera app with this, as well as shoot a photo. On the left spine there's the volume rocker, and up top you'll find the Micro-USB charging port, the 3.5-millimeter headset jack, and the power button. The back houses the 5-megapixel camera and flash, and on the front there's a 0.3-megapixel VGA lens.

Pop off the huge back cover to find the microSD card slot. It can take up to 32GB of extra memory, but comes preinstalled with a 4GB card branded for and preinstalled with a copy of DreamWorks' "Kung Fu Panda 2."

Features

Android and LTE help bring the Huawei Activa 4G a fair amount of features. As a smartphone, it comes equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and VPN support. However, there's no support for Android's mobile hot-spot feature, which is common among prepaid carriers like MetroPCS.

Human connection is what cell phones are about, and the Activa 4G comes with Android's customary multiple accounts for e-mail and integrated social networks. MetroPCS has included a separate IM and social networking app in addition to what's built in. Like other Android phones, the Activa can send and receive text and multimedia messages.

You'll have access to Google's online services with this phone, like Google Maps with turn-by-turn voice navigation, Places, the Google Play store, and YouTube. MetroPCS has its own branded apps, like an online app store, Metro's e-mail, Metro 411, the carrier's Wi-Fi sniffer, and an app to help manage your account.


There are also a number of third-party apps preloaded onto the device as well. Some I personally find compelling; others I'd consider bloatware; it just depends on what you'd like and use. You'll find Yahoo Answers and Yahoo Movies, Rhapsody music, Pocket Express, a sound recorder, and Sportacular (another Yahoo property). And then there are the essentials, like the clock, calculator, and calendar, plus a shortcut to see your downloads.

Google's music player experience is great with the addition of Google Play Music, which also gives you access to some free songs. I listened to music through a pair of high-end headphones. The music played back very loudly and clearly in an ultimately satisfying experience. Your ultimate experience will vary based on the quality of your headset and of the music files.


Let's face it, the camera is probably one of the reasons you'd buy a phone or skip it over. I was pleasantly surprised with some shots of the 5-megapixel camera and its flash on the Activa 4G, but others were mixed or poor.

All cameras take better shots outdoors, and this was no exception. I looked at photos on my computer monitor in their full resolution, and afterward I cropped and resized them to the image you see here. Colors were mostly natural in photos taken in sunshine, and the camera usually did a fine job focusing.

Outdoor shots didn't usually look grainy, and tones were warm. These flowers looked overly bright and some are blown out, but the greens and grays look accurate. While edges are crisp, the image is missing some detail inside the leaves and petals.

While there is auto-focus, the Activa doesn't have continuous auto-focus, so you'll have to either press halfway on the shutter button or tap the screen to refocus before you take your final shot.

The 0.3-megapixel VGA front-facing camera is handy for giving video chatters on the other end something to look at, but the photo quality is so indistinct, you're better off ignoring it the majority of the time.

It only performed so-so in our studio shot. You can compare the Activa 4G with other camera phone shots in our smartphone camera gallery.

Video taken in the high-quality mode (a 30-minute cut-off) looks choppy when played back on the phone screen and on the computer monitor, and audio is both muffled and accompanied by an unpleasant whine. The video outputs in a 3GP format, but you can also shoot in high quality for YouTube and lower quality for MMS clips. The Activa 4G has just 151MB onboard storage, with a microSD card slot for up to 32GB of expandable memory and that 4GB card preinstalled.

Performance
tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Huawei Activa 4G in San Francisco on MetroPCS' network. Neither my usual testing partner nor I enjoyed speaking on the phone, and in fact, my caller asked me, unprompted, if I was speaking on a Huawei handset. We both agreed that the audio sounded flat, scratchy, and hollow. Thankfully the line was otherwise clear and there wasn't any discernible background noise. Volume was louder for my caller than for me. It was fine at maximum, but could be a little too quiet in noisy outdoor environments. On my end, my callers voice quality sounded bumpy, like it was constantly changing frequency. The effect smoothed out a little when I spoke with a female caller with a higher vocal register, but I still detected the in-and-out quality I originally heard.

Huawei Activa 4G call quality sample Listen now: 
Speakerphone was poor, with low volume on both ends and the same rolling voice tone I continuously heard. On their end, callers pointed out that speakerphone was more echoey than usual. At least there wasn't any background noise.

One of the best parts of the Activa 4G is its LTE capability. MetroPCS isn't known for the fastest LTE there is, but it feels far faster than its 2.5G network, and outperformed the Samsung Galaxy S3 on Sprint's 3G network. I used the Speedtest.net diagnostic app for upload and download speeds. Throughout San Francisco, the Activa 4G steadily pulled down a high of 2-2.5Mbps downlink, and a similar (but more variable) peak of 2Mpbs uplink. These aren't fast results compared to Verizon or AT&T's LTE, but it was sufficiently quick when loading mobile Web sites, downloading apps, and opening e-mail. I was able to download and install Angry Birds Seasons in about 35 seconds, an acceptable length of time to wait.

Internal performance was also acceptable, but a bit laggy on the 800MHZ Qualcomm MSM7627T processor. Certain apps, like the camera, took longer to load than they would on handsets with dual-core processors -- but you won't rip out your hair with frustration.

Battery life on the Activa is a sorry state, with only 3.3 hours rated talk time and only 4.4 days of standby time, surprisingly low figures for its large 1,880mAh battery. FCC tests measure a digital SAR of 1.3 watts per kilogram.

Conclusion
There are aspects of the Huawei Activa 4G that I like, and many that I find fitting for a midrange handset, but I'm sad to say this is one phone I haven't warmed up to during my testing period. That's not to say I wouldn't recommend the Activa for the right type of person, but I suggest that interested customers check out the LG Optimus M+ for the same price, or the Samsung Galaxy Attain or LG Connect 4G if their budgets allow.