Last Monday I walked into a Big W store here in Canberra and paid $188AU ($196US) for an Android smartphone, no network lock and no contract. I’ve had it for nearly a week now. What do I think? I think, with minor qualifications, that it’s almost unbelievably good.

Packaging

The Sonic comes in a fairly standard box. It contains the phone, battery, USB charger, USB to MicroUSB charge/sync cable, and a handsfree kit. There is a 2Gb MicroSD card already inserted in the SD slot.

The handsfree uses the common extended-3.5mm-stereo-plug pinout, same as the iPhone, which is convenient given the range of existing accessories (maybe this is a defacto standard now?)

Build Quality

The phone is a plastic “candybar”, and it feels very sturdy. I was pleasantly surprised after playing with the $99 Eken M001 and $149 M003 tablets last year, which each felt like flimsy rubbish.

The only remaining question is how the Sonic will age. The touchscreen doesn’t seem more susceptible to scratches than any other phone, but time will tell for sure. I anticipate it will hold up well, though.

Performance

The Sonic has a 600Mhz ARM11 processor (the Qualcomm MSM7227), and 256Mb of RAM.

Compared to the current crop of dual-core 1Gb superphones, you can almost hear the gadget fanbois scoffing and calling the Sonic underpowered and therefore useless. Still, the real proof is in how the phone runs.

The Sonic runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread extremely well – performance is snappy, apps open quickly. I haven’t tried enabling bells and whistles like live background animations on the home screen, but in out-of-the-box use the HTC Sonic runs perfectly without compromise.

Before using it, I felt dubious about the Sonic’s 256Mb of RAM. More or less every Android phone since 2010 has at least 512Mb, and Android is known to be a bit of a RAM-hog. For the most part though, I’ve found the Sonic’s low RAM1 to not be a serious factor. The built-in memory management in 2.3 seems to be good at keeping RAM free for use, while allowing apps to run in the background where possible. I installed “Advanced Task Killer”, but I haven’t needed to use it yet.

There’s a slight delay when re-launching something that’s been closed while in the background, but for the most part it’s pretty seamless. I was able to keep several web pages open at once in the browser without a hint of page reloads or slowdowns, while other apps kept running in the background.

Screen

The Sonic has a 3.5″ HVGA (320×480) 262-thousand-colour capacitive touchscreen. Again, although it isn’t on par with the amazing “super-ultra-OANULTIMOLED” screens in the Desire HD or the Galaxy S2, it is still a competent screen. On paper it’s comparable to phones like the HTC Magic, or pre-iPhone 4 iPhones.

The screen surface is very shiny, which made it a bit of a pain to read in bright sunlight (not unreadable.) Otherwise I find it very readable.

However, using Android 2.3 on the Sonic I did get the impression that 320×480 is now the minimum resolution that the Android designers are working with. In some situations there isn’t enough screen space for the keyboard, the status indicators, and context for whatever is going on. Although this can be a bit fiddly, it’s only in a few places and never totally unusable.

However, I wouldn’t want to use 2.3 on a lower-resolution phone, and I suspect future Android versions may not fit comfortably on the Sonic’s screen.

Similarly, even though a 3.5 inch screen is realistically quite big, the default Android keyboard can be a bit small and fiddly when typing. I installed the free Swype keyboard beta and although I’m still getting the hang of it, it seems more forgiving.

As a Phone

The Sonic has a good loud speaker, good earpiece audio quality and volume. It does the “basic phone thing”2 very well.

Vendor Customisations

Huawei, thankfully, has resisted the urge to heavily customise the Sonic. The phone ships with the default Android launcher running a custom colour theme, plus a somewhat neat “cube” effect when switching launcher screens and an Expose-like “quick home screens view” that you can pull up by pressing Back on the home screen. The latter effects are particularly nifty.

The crummiest bit of “vendorware” is “Hi Space”, which as best as I can tell is Huawei’s “me too” App Store with some bonus features, but without any apps I actually wanted to install.

This is placed front-and-centre on the default home screen, and when I first used it my heart sank. Thankfully, though, Google’s Android Market is also installed (although not on any launcher home screen), and works fine.

I think Huawei really made a big mistake featuring Hi Space over the Android Market. Novice users are going to fire it up and look for things like “twitter” & “facebook”, and they won’t find them. If they don’t know they can dig around for the Market, this has the potential to cripple their use of the phone. It’s pretty much textbook “bad user experience”, and for what? So Huawei can pretend to be Apple?

Music Player

Huawei have also put in their own customised “Huawei Music” player. It is um, heavily, um, cough inspired by the iOS music player.

Even down to a very familiar “cover flow” type view if you turn the phone sideways:

Where did they get that 'unknown album' icon from, anyhow?

… however, amusing “inspirations” aside, the Huawei Music Player app actually seems pretty good.

EDIT: The next time I used this player I noticed a pretty major bug – all albums are played in alphabetical order by song name, even when the songs have track number tags & track numbers in the file names. Annoying. Have installed the PowerAMP trial.

What lets the Sonic down as a music player, unfortunately, is the sound quality. There is a significant background hiss any time the internal amplifier is on, loud enough in headphones that it eclipses even moderately quiet details in music. I’m not a card-carrying audiophile, and I’d expect some hiss in any consumer music player, but the Sonic is loud enough to ruin the experience for me. It was audible through the cheap-and-chearful earbuds that came with the Sonic, downright grating with my Sennheiser MM50 in-ear headphones.

Given that music was one of the reasons I went back to a smartphone, it’s safe to say that if I ditch the Sonic for any reason, it will probably be audio quality.

Battery Life

On my first full charge I got 2d 11h 27m before battery dropped below 3% and I decided it was time to charge.

That was with Wifi on about 35% of the time, GPS and mobile data on approximately 10% of the time, and only used lightly. Email, facebook, twitter were all checking for updates in the background.

Writing this now, the phone has been on battery for 50 hours with plenty of use and although the lock screen advises to “connect your charger”, I still have plenty of juice.

So I’m pretty happy with that. I think if you turned absolutely everything off and didn’t use the phone then you’d have a shot at the 72 hours that Huawei claims it will stay on standby for.

Camera

Unsurprisingly, the 3.2MP camera in the Sonic is pretty “camera phone like”. It’s good enough that in good light you can use it as a “visual notetaker”. You won’t want to hang the pictures on your wall, though.

For the pixel peepers, here are 3 quick unretouched sample snapshots from the Sonic. One taken at dusk, one on an overcast afternoon, and one indoors at night (poorly lit room.)

NFC

The Sonic also features NFC (Near Field Communication), which from what I can tell seems like a more complex version of RFID. The promise is that you’ll be able to do things like banking transfers by waving your phone near a reader. If you live in Europe or Japan then I expect this is very exciting, but I’m not holding my breath for the banks in Australia to roll it out.

Of course, I guess NFC support does mean I could get an RFID tag embedded in my arm and use it instead of an unlock code! :P

“Rooting” & “Custom ROMs”

When I first bought this phone, I expected it’d take some “customisation” before it was really any good to use. I figured at the time it was a compromise, the low cost in dollars means a cost in time spent tinkering. I like tinkering, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Imagine my surprise when the phone is very good out of the box. I don’t really feel like I will want to load a “Custom ROM”, except maybe just to experiment.

That said, at this stage my simple investigations into serious customising haven’t gone well. “z4root”, apparently the easiest way to unlock root access on Android 2.3, doesn’t seem to work (exits suddenly but cleanly after the status message “obtaining root shell”, seemingly without having actually done so.) I haven’t done any more investigating yet.

The Sonic is a newly released phone though, so I expect more information and tools will appear in time.

Open Source Situation

Huawei themselves make Linux kernel source available for their devices, and the releases seem timely and are (apparently) complete. This makes me happy, and bodes well for community developments in the future.

Compared to the Huawei Ideos U8150

I came to the Sonic U8650 after looking at the Ideos U8150, which is now available for less than $100AU through some carriers. The Sonic is very similar to the Ideos, although there are some noteworthy differences:

The Ideos’ screen is smaller at 2.8″, and half the resolution at 320×240. I haven’t used the Ideos, but considering that the Sonic’s screen feels somewhat cramped I think this is the number one reason to choose the Sonic.

The Ideos’ chipset is MSM7225, very similar to the Sonic’s MSM7227 although slightly slower (528Mhz vs. 600Mhz.) Also the MSM7227 has a 256kb L2 cache, which the older sibling apparently lacks. All told, performance should be marginally better on the Sonic.

The Ideos ships with Android 2.2, although there is a “Custom ROM” with 2.3. 2.3 in the Sonic works very well out of the box, and this probably makes it a better option for most people. However, the availability of custom ROMS can be seen as something of a positive for the Ideos, because there are people actively working on source-based Android builds and kernel versions. I’m hoping that in time the Sonic will prove similarly popular with tinkerers, given its good ratio of cost to functionality.

Other Alternatives

What other budget Android options are out there? From what I’ve seen, in the same price bracket there are some similar phone models from major manufacturers. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy Mini or the HTC Wildfire. But they mostly have lower-resolution 320×240 graphics, and many (like the Wildfire) don’t officially support Android 2.3 yet.

Telstra sell the ZTE Racer as the Smarttouch for $99 but it’s both a small screen, resistive touchscreen (eck) and comes locked to Telstra. The ZTE Blade is apparently a good option (more RAM than the Sonic and a higher res screen) but it’s not available in Australia yet, you’d have to import it yourself.

Finally, there are secondhand smartphones. The HTC Desire & Samsung Galaxy S both seem to sell used on ebay for only marginally more than the Sonic costs new, so that could be a good alternative.

Bottom Line

Four years ago a 4Gb iPhone cost $499US, a year later the HTC Dream (Google G1) with Android cost $399US. The Huawei Sonic is several times more useful and usable than either of those phones, and costs less than half as much. I can see it being huge in markets like China and Indonesia, where many people want smartphones but most do not have the buying power.

I guess the Sonic’s affordability isn’t surprising given the unending march of technology towards lower costs with more features. However, it still daunts me that four years ago smartphones were boutique nerd curiosities, and now they are practically commodities, with no tradeoff in quality.

In other words, I’m amazed at how happy I am with this phone. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it works well and does everything I would want from a smartphone.

Apart from headphone audio quality, the dislikes I do have are all niggles with Android rather than problems with the Sonic itself. And I suspect a lot of them are just the experience of a former iPhone user getting used to “the Android way”. Not the fault of the Sonic.

And did I mention that the Sonic costs $188AU?! Bought from a bricks-and-mortar store with a “change of mind” returns policy, and a walk-in return to claim the one year warranty. Without any network lockin or contract. That blows me away.

If you want a competent Android smartphone on a budget, and you’re not interested in “alpha geek” pissing contents over features and specs, then I totally recommend the Huawei Sonic.

EDIT: I’ve written a follow-up post about the Huawei Sonic, 10 months on.



  1. Being an embedded systems programmer during the day, I honestly find the very notion that 256Mb RAM is considered “low” to be cringeworthy. That’s Android for you, I suppose. []
  2. I know, people still make phone calls. WTF! []

70 thoughts on “Huawei Sonic U8650 Review

  1. Thank you for this well written and in-depth review of the Sonic. I almost bought one in Woden yesterday, but neither DSE or Big W staff would let me actually physically look at it before buying. “If we open the box its no longer fit for sale”. One salesman warned me off it, but the comments on Whirlpool are encouraging.

    I’m surprised at how well the lake photograph has turned out given the comments regarding Huawei camera modules. There’s enough detail there that I recognised the small white blob as the Lovett Tower (before I realised that you are a Canberra resident).

  2. Very informative ,i have been looking for my first android for a while ,this one seems perfectly priced and has all the bells and whisltes i would want .

    I’m off the get one at $188 with a yr warranty, I would have to be nuts not too..

  3. Great write up, I just got the Sonic the other day- it is all good as you say – still trying to figure it out- can’t seem to get any music on it – can you give any advice on this matter? Cheers

  4. Thanks all. There wasn’t much info out there before I got mine, so I tried to write the review I’d have wanted to find. :)

    1000pinz – In my case the music “just worked.” I plugged my phone in via USB, said yes when it asked me about “Enable USB Storage”, and then copied the music to it. In my case, I put the music underneath a folder called “music” (all in subfolders), I don’t know if that’s necessary or not. You may need to “eject” the phone from the computer and disable USB storage again before the phone can see it.

  5. I have just purchased this phone. I have got it working beautifully, but, the blue tooth is a problem. I can’t get the sound/ calls to come through the car speakers. I can get my husbands phone which is a telstra phone to work but this one won’t. Any ideas

  6. Hey Angus, nice write up. I’m really interested in using these cheap android phones + Arduino ADK as a replacement for Wifi and GPRS shields. With the announcement of the $80 IDEOS, this looks like a very economical solution.

    Have you rooted your phone yet?

  7. Hi,
    Quick note, LOVE LOVE LOVE my Huawei Sonic heaps. Can do pretty much everything i want it too besides find the internet. I don’t know if this is to do with the pre-paid mob i am with and it’s annoying to ring them or somewhere i have the incorrect settings. Can post on Stream app thingy so it’s alittle strange i can’t find even Google. Any ideas would be great

    Colleen

  8. Mate, thanks so much for this review, i was gonna get a Samsung s5570, just because it was a recognised brand but from the specs I knew I wouldn’t have been happy with it. Becasue of the price of the Huawai I almost dismissed it out of hand but your review is very informative.

    FYI I live in Barcelona, SPain and the cost was 79 Euros on pre-pay, probably comparable to Aussie dollars?

    Thanks and regards,

    JP

  9. Great review – thanks Angus. I am an ‘oldie’ who just heard about this phone yesterday; had a look at it today. May now buy it tomorrow! Thanks again!

  10. Do you know what version of Android it has?

    I don’t suppose you know if it works with the ADK? That requires 2.3.4, but even then, many phones don’t seem to work (including mine). I’m looking for a cheap phone to use with the ADK, would love to know if this could work (I saw it today at Woolworths and was surprised by the price!).

  11. Hi, it is very good review, especially for showing photos made with this cellphone. Very informational! By the way i have more questions is there tv out function? And as I understand it can work as wifi router?

  12. Jason – mine has 2.3.3, not sure about 2.3.4. I’m a bit disappointed, I hadn’t looked into ADK yet but was hoping it would be available out of the box.

    Bybius – No TV out function that I’m aware of. I haven’t used the “portable wifi hotspot” functionality myself, but I understand it’s supported.

  13. Great review, thanks! I will buy one. Fascinating to read yr other articles about switching from an iPhone. Would love to hear about what things on each OS annoy you and what you miss/love. I for one love developing for Android. It’s a dream after iOS!

  14. Hi Angus – Great write up. Question: the Woolworths mobile 29 Cap has 5Gb Data, sounds great – BUT fineprint says no tethering. So have you or others hooked up your laptop via USB or wifi to use that plentiful data plan, ignoring this plan restriction – does it work?

    • Hi Jed,

      I’ve tethered mine via wifi now, works great, under Settings -> Wireless & Networks -> Tethering & Portable Hotspot. I’m on Amaysim Unlimited ($40/month, Optus network.)

      Some threads on Whirlpool seem to indicate that Android tethering works on the Woolworths plan, even though it’s a violation of their ToS. I don’t know if there’s anything, technically, that a carrier can do to block it.

      Cheers,

      Angus

  15. Another question from a new user …. I cannot figure out how to change the city (opening screen) from New York. The data is provided by AccuWeather.com but I cannot find the APP on the phone.

    Your screen shots show the temperature in Canberra, so it must be possible.

    I can manually key in a new location, but every time the phone is turned-off, the new location is lost. It seems as though it needs the equivalent of an ‘enter’ key to set the change permanently.

    Another dumb question … I have purchased a pre-paid SIM card and at the moment there is no available credit. So what I like to understand is how I can read the local NZ news, Google, etc without credit? Who is paying for internet access? Is the data being accessed via 3G or my WiFi router?

    Slowly learning

    John

  16. Hi John,

    If you tap the “weather clock” widget then it’ll open a full-screen view of the weather, then tap the Menu button (four horizontal bars) and there’s a “Change City” option there.

    For my part, I found the “weather clock”/Accuweather to actually be totally useless for Canberra. I wound up installing an app from Market that used Australia’s BoM service. Then I removed the “weather clock” widget and replaced it with that app’s widget. You might want to find the NZ equivalent.

    As for data, if you’re connected to your wifi router then data will come via the wifi. You can tell by looking for the little green wifi indicator at the top of your screen, it’s the leftmost green one in this picture: http://projectgus.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/IMG_8437.jpg .

    Otherwise, for SIM/3G data you’ll see a little “3G” or a “H” in that spot at the top of your screen. If you’re getting 3G data without having any credit then I suspect it’s some kind of bug with your mobile carrier…

    Cheers,

    Angus

  17. Hi Angus

    Thanks for providing clear instructions and getting my phone customised.

    Can you suggest a book that I can read to assist me?

    The documentation for the Huawei Sonic is very basic. No real instructions on how to load your own ‘ringtone’ or how and where to download music MP3 files, how to remove an APP, etc.

    Again many thanks.

    John

  18. Thanks for your review. It helped me make my decision to get the Sonic.

    I have owned both an iphone and a Samsung Galaxy. Loved the Galaxy (which I dropped into a water and had to replace with this. But boy am I enjoying un-installing Kies software right now.

    This phone requires no ugly fat elephant software in your system tray. How come they got it right and Apple and Samsung can’t?

  19. Hello Angus

    In an earlier message you said that you had replaced AccuWeather with an Aussie BOM app.

    Question: Does your new app provide data for locations in New Zealand?

    There are only 2 NZ apps that I can find and only one has any information about it, even then it says that it’s designed for trampers.

  20. How do you move data between Sonic and Windows based PC, please? (Does My Phone Explorer work, perhaps?)
    Thanks in advance,
    Pavel

  21. Hi. Great review!
    Hoping someone can help; I’ve had my Huawei Sonic u8650 for a few months and its been really good, but two days ago i reset the phone and it didnt turn back on, now when i turn the phone on it vibrates,fireworks display comes on and the Huawei logo appears and stays on the screen for a few seconds then the fireworks and just keeps on doing this, I cant turn the phone, I have to remove the battery.
    Hope someone can help – love this phone !!

  22. Hi,
    Great review.
    I think the Sonic has GPS capabilities – have you tried the GPS on your phone yet? I’ve read reviews of the Huawei Ideos lauding its GPS navigator, and I was wondering if the Sonic has an equally good one…

    Cheers!

  23. Hi, about this part: Thankfully, though, Google’s Android Market is also installed (although not on any launcher home screen), and works fine.

    I can’t find Google Android Market on my Sonic from China Unicom, I’ve tried to reset the Huawei Launcher but still no market. When I tried to install apps from browser android market, it said installed but i can’t find the icon anywhere…

    How to reveal Google Android Market? Thank you for your kind help.

  24. hi Gus,

    how does it go with storing google map tiles for the GPS? do you know how much data it can hold for this purpose? i am thinking of buying one and want to use it in areas where there isnt phone reception (which i understand the maps need to be manually pre-downloaded so i can find out where i am when i dont have phone signal)

  25. Hi Gus, great review! I was going to buy the X3 but decided to go ahead and buy the Sonic instead. By the way, I am Dutch and living in Germany so the question arises if I can change the language of a Chinese Smartphone, bought in Germany to my native language Dutch…. :-) And ofcourse buying it after reading an Aussi review, tells someting about how small our world gets, ey?

    I was reading about the possibility to install the Swype keyboard on the Sonic, could you please shine some light on that and tell me how that goes? This is my first smartphone after sticking to my Samsung SGH-G600 for a long time…..

    Kind regards and hope to hear from you!

    Victor

  26. Victor,
    Swype works great on my Sonic, installing it is the same as any other Android phone. I can’t tell you for sure about Dutch because you probably have a slightly different image to the one on my Aussie phone, better to talk to the vendor in Germany.

    aaron,
    The Sonic should be the same as any other Android phone in this regard. There’s a smallish amount of free space on the phone but you also have the SD card. It really depends on how many you want to cache though. If you search for general information about using maps offline on Android, you should get a good idea. If the built-in Maps can’t do it, I bet there’s an app in the Market that can.

    Cheers,

    Angus

  27. hey angus
    i cn c uve been using ur phone for ovr 4 months nw…im plannin to buy one next week and i wanna know how its holdin up
    ny lags?? nd hows the touchscreen??..
    btw m frm india n dis is one helluva review…cheers bro

  28. Thanks for your reply Angus, I received my phone today and language is English or German. Gues it takes a new installation of Android to get additional languages? Victor

  29. angus u hav givn a nice description about the sonic.Id like to kno how its workn?is it wrkn well?Im wilin to buy a huawei vision.do you think huawei phones would last without trouble for years.pls answer me.thanks!

  30. I have this phone -$188 from Woolworths.

    Im really happy with it,.

    I also had a good ole’ laugh at ‘Hispace’, then I deleted it.

    Great review.

  31. Can someone point me towards a website or other advice , with instructions for total dummies for Sonic. Been given one for Christmas and have no idea about any aspect of it. I need the kindergarten instruction manual.

  32. Chuck: try Googling ‘android 2.3 user manual’ – this should bring up the official Google user manual for android 2.3, which is the operating system that the Sonic runs. This manual covers the basics as well as slightly more advanced stuff, so it should suit your level.

  33. Hi, I just bought this phone but am having trouble getting any sound when I have recorded something on video. Even though the people being recorded are speaking loudly as they are being recorded when you play the video back there is almost no sound. Even if the video is downloaded to the computer there is mininal sound.
    I returned the phone to the store this morning (department store not phone specialist) and when I explained they happily exchanged for a new one. Have tried the new one but it is the same.
    I have the media volume on max and am not covering the speaker/ microphone when the recording is being done.
    Someone told me it may not be a sonic problem but an android problem.
    Would be so grateful for your opinion or ways to fix this!
    Thanks.

  34. Quick question for Dan or who else may know. How do you delete Hi Space? Tried holding it down till it vibrates & dragging it into bin but this doesn’t work. Any help would be great.
    Fantastic reveiw BTW, bought the phone from Big W after reading this page.

  35. I’m from France and I bought the Sonic on the Net ( on a french site) yesterday. At the the moment there’s a €30 discount on this phone. At the end I paid €100 (AUS122)!! Fairly cheap here.. i’l sure it’s a great bargain.

    thanks for the review Angus. (My wife is from Canberra…..)

  36. I just bought my Sonic today and have plugged it in to charge it. Initially I got a battery filling screen, and then the screen went blank, with tiny green light near power cord. My question is, how long does it need to initially charge for? And when can I turn it on?

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