Although most Android handset manufacturers have finally wised up and reduced the number of devices they produce compared to even a year ago, others have stepped in to fill that void. Among them is Huawei, the Chinese creator of entry-level smartphones like T-Mobile's Prism.
Unlike household names such as Samsung or HTC, the name Huawei (pronounced "Wah-way") appears nowhere on the Prism, which is branded front and back with the T-Mobile logo. That's probably just as well for the Shenzhen-based manufacturer, because they should be able to do much better this.
At first glance, the Prism shows promise. Weighing in at a scant 4.4 ounces and measuring a modest 4.58 x 2.31 x 0.48 inches, the handset is certainly pleasant to hold, and plenty light enough to keep up to your ear for lengthy conversations.
It's also a model of simplicity: Aside from power/lock at top right and a volume rocker on the left edge, the handset is devoid of hardware buttons. A row of capacitive buttons along the bottom includes traditional pre-Jelly Bean options for Home, Menu, Back and Search.
The top edge is also home to a centered 3.5mm headphone jack, while a micro-USB 2.0 port at bottom serves double-duty for charging and tethering to a computer. Beneath the back cover is a battery, micro-SD card (2GB included) and SIM card slots. The Prism also includes a green indicator light tucked under the left side of the earpiece.
With T-Mobile's new "UNcarrier" pricing, the Prism can be had for $139.99, which can be doled out at $5 per month for 24 months with a qualifying rate plan after $19.99 down payment.
Display and interface
There's a very good reason why T-Mobile's own website excludes key Prism specs. The 3.5-inch touchscreen display ranks near the bottom of the barrel, as shown in several photos we took where the touch panel was clearly visible.
That's hardly a surprise for a modest 320 x 480 pixel display capable of displaying 256,000 colors. With a pixel density equivalent to 165 ppi, no one will mistake the Prism for a cutting-edge, first-class Android smartphone.
Despite being released in mid-2012, the Prism is like going back in time thanks to arriving out of the box with Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread installed. The good news? You won't have to fret over an eventual update to Jelly Bean (or even Ice Cream Sandwich), because it's never coming.
On the positive side, display contrast was better than expected, especially when switched to manual brightness; the screen looked fairly dull and lifeless with auto-brightness enabled. Considering the limited color palette, the saturation and reproduction is acceptable.
Scrolling on the TFT LCD capacitive touchscreen, however, is something else entirely. Vertical and horizontal scrolling is a janky, blurry mess, particularly with text, although the accelerometer is a bit more responsive than you might expect for the price.
The good news for Android purists is the user interface on the Prism is largely free of third party skinning. Sure, there's the usual assortment of bloatware you can't remove, but this is as close to stock Android as you're likely to get from a major U.S. carrier.
T-Mobile also includes predictive text input by way of pre-installed Swype 3, a method we've never particularly warmed up to. The otherwise stock Gingerbread-era keyboard works just fine, although the keys are a bit cramped when held in portrait mode.
Calling and internet
If the poor display quality on the T-Mobile Prism doesn't completely scare you off, the news gets better when it comes to voice calls. Here, the hardware does an admirable job – calls were loud and clear and only a bit on the digitized side, even on the built-in speaker, in all but the noisiest outdoor settings.
The Prism also includes T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling, a free feature baked into the handset, which uses an available Wi-Fi connection to save voice minutes or to improve on poor coverage. Aside from connecting to an available network and enabling the feature, there's zero setup and it worked quite well in our tests.
Huawei has also built in some worthwhile noise cancellation for an otherwise unremarkable handset, with microphones at both top and bottom. All in all, the T-Mobile Prism is best suited for frequent talk and texters who require only occasional internet access.
Speaking of internet, that's something of a mixed bag here. The stock Android browser comes pre-installed, but Google Chrome is not compatible with this handset; thankfully, other mobile browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox can be installed from Google Play instead.
Otherwise, T-Mobile has included the same basic Gingerbread Mail and Messaging apps, which all work exactly as you'd expect. The Dialer app is also pretty much stock, but we consider this a good thing compared to other manufacturers' customizations in this area.
Camera and video
The T-Mobile Prism isn't exactly intended for archiving life's most precious moments, with a single 3.2MP rear-facing camera capable of producing 2048 x 1536 pixel images. The carrier claims there are enough pixels to make prints or even enlargements from, but is the picture quality up to the task?
In our tests, indoor and outdoor images were soft and a bit on the grainy side, with JPEG compression readily apparent. The Prism has no LED flash, so you'll need a good deal of available light to make any use of it indoors.
The other problem is the incredibly slow shutter – it takes more than full second for an image to be captured, which was enough time for us to completely miss subjects moving too quickly through the frame. The camera also lacks auto-focus, so sharp results were frequently hit or miss.
Although photos taken in bright sunlight had a distinct lack of color saturation, those taken in lower light fared much better in our tests. Regardless, just about every image we shot lacked detail, and were heavy on noise.
The Prism also shoots video, but the results are even less impressive than still images. Videos are shot in standard-definition, 800 x 480 resolution, with frame rates that varied wildly depending on the scene. One such video reported 11.28 fps on the low end, with another nearly 19 fps on the high end – far below smooth motion capture rates from higher-end smartphones capable of true 24 or 30 frames per second.
We had equally poor luck trying to play existing MP4 files on the handset, which cannot exceed the same 800 x 480 resolution – and even then, the processor struggled to play them back at standard frame rates.
Battery life and connectivity
The T-Mobile Prism includes a removable 1400mAh Li-ion battery tucked underneath the gray plastic back, which slides off with relative ease. The carrier promises battery standby just shy of 17 days and talk time up to six and a half hours, but our own tests shaved about 40 minutes off that estimate.
The Prism includes built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and the handset is capable of being used as a mobile hotspot in addition to the aforementioned Wi-Fi Calling. Unfortunately, the Prism is only equipped to access T-Mobile's EDGE or 3G networks, so fast 4G data speeds are off the table.
In our part of the country, T-Mobile 3G produced speeds less than 4Mbps down and a consistently poky 0.34Mbps up – definitely no speed demon, but just enough juice for occasional hotspot use, especially now that the carrier includes 500MB of data with all new plans.
We had no problem connecting to our MacBook Pro via USB 2.0 to offload photos and videos, and Bluetooth 2.1 is also built-in for connectivity to headsets, speaker docks and other accessories.
Our biggest lament with the T-Mobile Prism is storage, or rather lack thereof. It's a good thing the carrier includes a 2GB micro-SD card, because the internal storage is extremely limited, with less than 20MB available to users.
As a result, we were forced to uninstall updates to some of the pre-installed apps just to install the requisite screenshot and benchmark apps needed for this review. Thankfully, photos, videos and supported apps can reside on up to 32GB of micro-SD storage, should you need the breathing room.
The operating system included with the Prism may be dated, but Android users still get all the Google basics, including FM Radio, Maps, Search and Navigation (complete with free turn-by-turn navigation) as well as Facebook pre-installed.
There's also a generous helping of T-Mobile bloatware installed, split evenly between useful (Visual Voicemail, My Account) and not so much. You'll need a subscription to enjoy services like T-Mobile TV or Name ID, which identifies incoming calls for "only" $3.99 per month; there's also a bundled app for 411 information, but each call costs $1.99, which is hardly a bargain.
While the carrier includes a hub called Game Base, the Prism is ill equipped to play most mobile games. The handset scored an unimpressive 2945 using the AnTuTu Benchmark app, which barely ranks the Prism at half a star. Powered by a Qualcomm MSM7627 processor clocked at a mere 600MHz, gamers are likely to find themselves thoroughly frustrated by all but the most basic titles – assuming they can install many of them to begin with.
It goes without saying that T-Mobile offers any number of handsets far superior to the Prism, so the real question becomes: Exactly whom is this handset intended for? It could have some merit as an on-contract freebie, but the carrier's new subsidy-free approach makes this a dubious buy at best.
The Prism feels solid in the hand, with easy access to battery, SD card and SIM slots. If heavy talk or text is more your speed, the Prism offers a reasonable battery life, complete with respectable noise cancellation.
T-Mobile's built-in Wi-Fi Calling offers relief from spotty connections or limited voice plans. The slim profile and feather-light weight balances out some of our dislikes, but only for casual smartphone needs.
There's no point in buying the T-Mobile Prism to use as even an occasional shooter – you'll likely miss all the best shots thanks to the slow shutter response times. Image quality, color saturation and video frame rates are all on the low end of the spectrum.
Gingerbread is definitely a stale flavor of Android in 2013, especially when the under-powered processor and limited internal storage can barely handle it.
If any other carrier offered the Prism, we'd have written it off based purely on specs alone. While T-Mobile doesn't infuse the handset with anything truly noteworthy, it does make a suitable starter device for those finally making the leap from feature phone to smartphone.
While power users and gamers will want to stay far, far away from the T-Mobile Prism, it's also a decent handset for teenagers to keep in touch with parents and friends – or even for less-discriminating users on a budget.