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! []