When it comes to budget Android handsets, or any Android device, there are many options with few real differences. Generally speaking, we see a lot of the same from every manufacturer.
In North America, the marketplace is flooded with the usual suspects: Samsung, HTC and Motorola. The name Huawei is fairly uncommon, and can be seen as an alternative, if its available from a service provider in your neck of the woods. Currently, US Cellular is offering the Ascend 2 as an option.
Sadly, it's an option we would ultimately say no to. Even though the Ascend 2 goes for just one penny with a two-year contract, it doesn't offer much more than that low price point.
On the plus side, the Ascend 2 is up to par in the look and feel department, more so than the Ascend 1.
For those of you not familiar with the first Ascend, it came off as rather clunky and cheap.
The Ascend 2 manages to resolve many of its predecessor's aesthetic issues. Unlike many follow-ups that hew too closely to the original's design, the Ascend 2 is noticeably redesigned and considerably smaller.
At 4.5 x 2.4 x .55 inches, it's a compact package in line with budget offerings from other manufacturers. Additionally, it's almost the same size as an iPhone 4S. At 4.7 oz, it weighs just a little less than Apple's phone.
At the very top of the device sits a 2.5mm headset jack and an on/off/sleep switch to the right. On the left is the volume rocker, while the right is completely barren. At the bottom there's a microphone and a micro USB port.
One of the biggest complaints about the original Ascend was the flimsy plastic back. The Ascend 2 improves on that with a very smooth, rubberized backing that feels fantastic in the hand. Coupled with its balanced weight, the Ascend 2 is a pleasure to handle.
We also appreciated the durability and elegant texturing of the back. Despite some "aggressive" handling, it did not retain any noticeable blemishes and scratches, whatsoever.
It's worth noting how easy it is to open the back of the Ascend 2. With some phones it's a struggle to pop it open and take a look inside. There's also the fear that the pressure you're applying might cause it to snap. No such worries here!
Huawei's industrial design in this category should be recognized. Once open you'll also find a 1500 mA Lithium-ion battery and a 2GB micro SD card, which are all fairly standard.
On the outside of the back there's a rather large (compared to other smartphones) 5.0 megapixel lens and a sizable speaker grill. The grill is so big that it gives the impression of considerable sound output, which is indeed the case. The Ascend 2 is a loud device. We'll get to the camera later in our review.
The front of the phone is nothing to get excited about, unless you owned the first Ascend. If that's the case, it'll wow you by comparison. The Ascend 2 sports a clean and modern look, far less gaudy looking than its predecessor. As a purely touchscreen driven device, it ditches the rather unreliable trackball of the original Ascend.
Also, the Ascend 2 has a more traditional set of hardware buttons, which are functional, and will be familiar to experienced Android users.
Unfortunately, we were rather disappointed with the Ascend 2's screen. The display is a 3.5" HVGA touchscreen, with a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels, and only supports 260,000 colors. This subpar screen is Ascend 2's first major miss.
While we appreciated the sturdiness of the Ascend 2's design and the nice-to-hold aesthetic of the phone, that low-color, low-resolution display really drags down the overall package.
Software and Interface
Inside the Ascend 2 there's a 600 MHz Qualcomm processor and a sparse 256 MB of RAM. That should establish the device's technical limitations. The Ascend 2 is slow, almost painfully so, and it drags the whole package.
The device ships with Gingerbread 2.3.5, but don't expect the option to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich . This is a budget device after all, but such a reality is still disappointing.
So the rules that govern other budget Android devices apply here: don't expect access to the latest and greatest apps.
And this is a problem that will only increase as time marches forward. If you have any inkling of being a serious Android user, this is a good reason to avoid the Ascend 2, but users who don't crave the latest apps likely won't be bothered.
Speaking of software, there's your usual collection of pre-installed apps from the carrier. There are a lot of them, even more so than one has come to expect, or tolerate. Since the Ascend 2 is supposed to be a cost conscious device, maybe that's why it's loaded with bargain-hunting shopping apps.
There are two separate Amazon apps to be found; one that directly hooks into the main store and another that curates its own set of Android apps. You also have Daily Perks, which pulls up discounts and deals for businesses based on your location.
You also have Tone Room Deluxe, the obligatory ringtone aggregator (at cost, naturally) and an Audible app, to purchase audio books and have them download directly to the phone.
The apps folder is where you'll find even more - you guessed it - apps. Some of them are rather superfluous, like Streams. It's a social network aggregator, but considering that it only handles Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr - which all have their own dedicated apps pre-installed - it seems rather pointless.
It gets more redundant than that, though, there are even two stock Twitter clients. One is a very early version, and the other is a more current iteration. The only legitimately useful carrier provided app is U.S. Cellular's Your Navigator Deluxe.
It does many of the functions of the other third party provided apps, but in one simple, concise package, plus it serves up GPS functionality for driving.
We mention all this because, as noted, there's not much room on the Ascend 2 for your own handpicked apps, so such redundancy is aggravating. Long story short, you'll want to get a larger, higher capacity SD card (up to 32GB).
Then again, what good are apps when they can't operate very well? Running more than just one app at once will seriously tax the device, thanks to the aforementioned low RAM and slow processor. The interface itself can be slow and unresponsive. Transitions, even just within the OS, can be very jittery.
While on the topic of the interface, it's worth noting that there's a custom Huawei skin being employed here. At first, everything appears to be a stock Android experience. But when you try to switch between home screens, the difference is immediately apparent.
Instead of sliding between screens, left to right, you'll discover that each screen is the face of a multifaceted virtual cube. The idea is cute, but due to the under hood limitations, it's not as smooth as we'd like. There's also no way to change the number of home screens. Five is all you're going to get – no more, no less.
Camera and Performance
Lackluster system specs made the Ascend 2's on-board apps a shaky experience, but camera performance can be contingent upon a variety of factors. It tends to vary between handsets, even among those with similar specs.
However, we're sorry to report that the Ascend 2's camera is a real dud, on almost every level. It might be the worst in recent memory.
First, the good: there's a stock camera app, so you'll have a plethora of shooting options at your disposal, unlike on other handsets where custom skins get in the way.
But it's all spoiled by poor picture quality. No matter how much fiddling you do with the settings, images are going to be blurry, with muted colors. And that's under optimal conditions, like bright sunshine, which usually produces great pictures, even on a camera with half the megapixel count we had here.
Still, the Ascend 2's camera only has 5-megapixels, which is not very much, but the real problem is the fixed lens, which provides no autofocus. There's also the total lack of flash, meaning indoor, low-light conditions are impossible to deal with. Perhaps one reason why its subpar image capturing performance is such a disappointment is the aforementioned gigantic lens on the back. Due to the speaker grill looking so big, and also sounding big, we had similar expectations for the camera.
Call Quality, Battery life, Verdict
But how does the Ascend 2 work as a phone? When it comes to actually making and receiving calls, the results were mixed, but generally above average. When it came to listening to callers, voice quality was clear. Meanwhile, those we spoke with reported a scratchy sounding voice, but one that was ultimately discernible.
Rounding out the Ascend 2's shortcomings is extremely dismal battery life. After just spending a half an hour making brief, minute long phone calls, surfing the web and downloading apps via US Cellular's 3G network, plus a little gaming, the battery had been reduced by almost 50 percent. That's pretty unacceptable, even for a budget device.
As previously mentioned, budget devices get away with a few snags for coming in at a low price point, but the problems plaguing the Ascend 2 simply go beyond what we'd be willing to accept.
If we had to name some positive notes, the Ascend 2 sports a very clean and modern look, one that is miles beyond its forerunner, and it feels great in the hand, too. We can't overstate how comfortable it is to handle.
Actually using the phone, however, exposes a very pokey processor, even for a budget device, and a stifling amount of RAM. There's a noticeably negative impact when it comes to performance. The interface is sluggish and apps are crippled as a result. Based on this alone it's impossible to recommend the Ascend 2, especially since a device like the Samsung Exhibit II 4G offers twice the memory, and 4G service, for a comparable price.
The biggest annoyance of them all, pertaining to the cramped storage space, is the overabundance of carrier-supplied apps. Most of them are either redundant or flat out unnecessary.
Two big features most smartphone care about would be the ability to take pictures and actually make phone calls. As a camera, the Ascend 2 is a complete disappointment, due to lack of flash, autofocus and low megapixels. As a basic phone, it was adequate, but that's not enough to save the device overall.
Sadly, we cannot recommend the Huawei Ascend 2. We always appreciate having another manufacturer in the smartphone race, breeding choice and variety for the consumer. Major players like Samsung and HTC are quite dominant in the Android space, and it's always good to have some competition. Unfortunately, the Ascend 2 gives them nothing to worry about.
Even though this phone is essentially free with a two-year US Cellular contract, we'd recommend you scrape together the cash for a more functional handset.