- Excellent battery life
- Highly customisable UI
- Low cost 4G
- Dull design
- Mediocre screen
- Tiny internal storage
If there's one trend we can't help but notice with Huawei, it's that it's helping to put incredibly powerful technology in the hands of a greater range of people.
4G-toting smartphones were once the reserve of those with deep pockets, confined to the flagship handset in each manufacturer's product portfolio, but we've reached the point where Huawei (along with a few other notable players) is pushing down the price of handsets without shaving off too many of those premium elements.
Motorola's Moto G 4G was arguably the poster child of affordable 4G at the start of 2014, but as the year's gone on we've been graced with even more options that hold the same values at increasingly modest prices. That brings us to Huawei's latest offering, the Ascend Y550.
Design: All the colours of the rainbow, in greyscale
To say the design of the Y550 is a little bland is like calling the Queen 'a bit posh'. From the chromed hardware buttons, to the smooth graphite-coloured bodywork, to the glossy black frontage, the near featureless aesthetic is immediately forgetful.
That said, ergonomically the size and weight of the Huawei makes for a comfortable handheld experience, although such broad bezels push the display to the limits of what can be considered within easy reach during one-handed use.
There's a removable plastic back that offers a surprising level of rigidity, used to conceal the battery, SIM and microSD card slot. Alongside its featureless exterior, its lack of any real texture or patterning does mean that there's very little friction, increasing the likelihood of it slipping from your fingers if you're not careful.
Screen: Surprisingly colourful.
You can tell that the panel on the Y550’s front isn’t anything special, but we were impressed with the relatively accurate colours it pushes out and the lack of distortion they underwent at more extreme angles. At 4.5-inches it’s big enough that you can read text without having to zoom in, but that also comes as a result of the display’s low WVGA (854x480) resolution, which is particularly apparent when looking at homescreen iconography.
Maximum brightness paired to a reflective top layer of glass makes outdoor legibility difficult too, but on the whole this phone boasts a responsive display and we’ve certainly seen worse for a lot more money.
OS: A phone of many faces
Unfortunately the default user interface of the Ascend Y550 looks about five iterations older than the OS it’s actually running on. It’s as if you’re swiping through an Android 2.3 Gingerbread device, not one of the newest smartphones to boast Android 4.4 KitKat.
Whilst you can’t remove the dated Skeuomorphic aesthetic completely, the Themes application serves as the perfect tonic to this problem. You can pick from nine pre-loaded themes of distinctly different style and customise elements of each to an impressive level of depth. The Balance theme won our vote and made a dated user experience feel far more timely. There's also the Simple Home, which like Samsung's Easy Mode, simplifies the main user interface to Windows Phone-esq panels for simple operation.
Huawei has also made some significant tweaks to default KitKat experience, with no apps drawer to speak of giving your home screens a decidedly iPhone-like layout and more premium tools than you might expect for such a device with gestures like ‘flip to mute’ and ‘shake to rearrange’ your icons, although we’re not sure why you’d want to actively lose every app’s location.
Fine-grain control over notifications, app affected by startup and more is also a nice addition. To sweeten the deal even further, some of the pre-loaded app offerings are mighty powerful, like the Cast app to stream media, an FM Radio and even a somewhat creepy Remote Camera application.
Performance: Responsive but not fluid
Although the brains of the operation is a modest 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 410 paired to 1GB of RAM, it still punches above what you’d expect from such an affordable handset. The user experience is responsive to the touch and although it might drop frames when swiping and opening or closing apps, it gets you where you need to be without too much hanging around.
Storage is the biggest sacrifice of the Y550, with only 1.4GB of the 4GB of onboard storage actually accessible. Instead, you need to rely on the microSD card slot, which takes cards up to 32GB in capacity.
The whole focus of the Y550 is around providing an affordable 4G offering and as such it handles speedy web browsing on-the-go well. The 2000mAh doesn’t take too much of a hit either and we pushed around a solid five hours of video streaming through the Huawei before a battery warning appeared; a mighty respectable length of time and again an impressive feat for a sub-£100 smartphone.
Camera: Some fancy features
It’s amazing how much bang for your buck can be had in the smartphone space nowadays. The Ascend Y550 packs a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera; neither of which is particularly impressive, but they’re not completely useless either.
You can choose to shoot at full resolution in 4:3 or push the viewfinder into a 16:9 aspect ratio at a lower resolution. Pictures are usable for the most part with hit-and-miss autofocus (particularly when shooting video) but good clarity in macro shots. The included HDR mode is a write-off, as after several attempts the camera refused to do anything but overexpose shots to a ridiculous level, hopefully an issue that can be ironed out in a future update.
Object tracking is an interesting tools that forces the camera to try and hold focus on an object of your choosing and it works with both stills and videos, like general auto-focus it only works so well, but it feels like a more premium feature than we’d expect from a phone like this.
Video quality falls behind stills with flat-looking footage that maxes out at 720p HD. It’s again usable, but just not great.
Verdict: Buy it for the right reasons
Despite some pretty uninspiring first impressions, the Huawei Ascend Y550 actually packs a lot of nice and even some distinctive power-user features into a low-to-mid range specced device. There’s obvious work that could be done to improve it but it nails the goals is set out to do well.
With this you get a competent everyday 4G smartphone that won’t die on you, shouldn’t crash all that often and for the price, feels like a genuine steal, it looks and feels considerably cheaper than the mighty Motorola Moto G, but we’re OK with that.
- WVGA (854x480)
- 153 grams
- Android 4.4 KitKat
- 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 410
- 1GB RAM
- 4GB (1.4GB user accessible). Expandable via microSD up to 32GB
- Remote Camera application, Simple home UI, Cast app