Review: Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees

While I wasn’t overly keen to review an Android tablet, I have been impressed by the Huawei devices I’ve used to date, so I was happy to give the new 7 inch Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees a blast.

Bottom line: It’s an good device. It’s around half the price of a 3G iPad ($549 bundled with 2GB of data from 2degrees), with most of he same features apart from the screen size. If you’ve never used an iPad you’d be quite happy with it. You can watch movies, browse the internet, play famous games like Angry Birds, and read e-books using the Amazon Kindle app.

It runs Android 3.2, which is a thoroughly modern and pretty interface for tablets. There’s heaps of screen space to lay out your multiple home screens just as you like, making this device a great option for info-warriors. You could have Facebook, Twitter, calendar, email,weather, etc. all as widgets on your home screens, providing everything you need to see at a glance.

The Android Marketplace is packed with apps that are built for Android 2.x phones. Most of these will run fine on the MediaPad. It is less easy to find apps dedicated to the 3.x tablet version of Android, but they do exist. There’s no word on whether the MediaPad will be upgradeable to later versions of Android (including the new 4.0 version).

The hardware is robust. It looks very similar to a miniature iPad, with the same glossy black bezel and aluminium rear enclosure. The SIM card and MicroSD slots are hidden behind a plastic panel on the back of the case. The one weird thing I found with the hardware was that the micro-USB plug does not charge the device. There’s a separate charge port. This is a bit annoying given the number of micro-USB chargers that most people have floating around.

Here’s the technical details:

  • Screen: 7 inch IPS, 1280×800 pixel
  • CPU: Dual core 1.2GHz
  • Camera: 5MP autofocus
  • Storage: 8GB internal + MicroSD slot
  • WiFi: 802.1 b/g/n
  • 3G: HSPA+
  • Locations: GPS/AGPS
  • Other: Accelerometer, 4100mAh battery
  • Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, Charging plug

There are a huge number of Android tablets attempting to encroach on the market that the iPad created. To be honest, they’re not doing well at all. I don’t see 2degrees’ new entry into the market changing this, but it’s still a good device for the niche. If you want something a bit smaller, a lot cheaper, but almost as capable as an iPad, definitely take a look at it.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS X5 Review

2Degrees Huawei X5

2Degrees Huawei X5I’m confused. On the one hand we have Vodafone pimping the Samsung Galaxy S, an Android 2.1 phone hobbled with Samsung’s custom interface. On the other hand (in my actual hand), I have the IDEOS X5 from 2Degrees. It runs the all-but-latest Android 2.2, with almost identical specs to the Samsung. The Samsung is a thousand dollars. The X5 is $549.

To be fair, the Galaxy S has a faster processor and larger screen, but in complete honesty I prefer the feel, performance, and price of the X5 by a long way. This cements my opinion that Google’s Android OS is properly suited to phones around that $500 mark. If you’re spending $1000, just get an iPhone (or wait till later this year and get a Nokia WP7).

I’ve had the X5 in my pocket for the last few days, giving it a real workout. The bottom line is that this is one of the best Android devices I’ve used. It feels a lot better in the hand than many other phones. It has a better “heft”, and feels a lot more solid than the Galaxy. The build quality is up there with the Nexus One – there’s no wobbles, creaks, or alignment problems. The back has a nice soft-feeling matte finish, and the front is the fairly traditional monolithic glass screen with soft-buttons below the screen.

The X5 flips through all the regular expected smartphone shenanigans with speed and aplomb. Android users will know they need to install a bunch of apps, and dig around in the settings to turn on things like transitions and live wallpaper, but once you’ve got the phone set up to your liking, it really flies.

2Degrees have done a very good thing, in my opinion, by rejecting Huawei’s custom interface baubles. The customisation of the phone out of the box extends only to a few installed applications. Swype keyboard is there by default – I personally prefer the default Android keyboard, but some people swear by Swype. You also get Documents To Go (for editing office documents), Aldiko (for e-books), and Layar (for showing off). Other than that, this default Android build gets out of your way and leaves the user to make decisions about what they want the interface to look like.

All the great Google apps are built into the phone, including the voice commands and voice navigation feature. I have to say the voice commands didn’t really like my kiwi accent, but the navigation was very accurate when driving across Auckland. Initially I couldn’t find the settings for Android 2.2’s much publicised WiFi hotspot function, so I put in a call to the PR company to ask about it. They politely informed me that within the PR material (that I never read, but really should), was a note saying that hotspot functionality will be coming in a software update by the end of May 2011.

Upgrades?

It’s the question every Android user has to ask: will I get the new versions of Android? I can only say that I have no idea. I could imagine Huawei releasing 2.3 for this device, but then again at the price they may not want to pour much post-release support into it. Watch this space.

It’s not all roses

It wouldn’t be a review without finding flaws, but they really are rather minor.

Firstly, you need to know that Huawei don’t ship MicroSD cards with their phones. This is something widely discussed in the comments on my review of 2Degrees’ previous Android phone, so I thought I’d better point it out up front. If you have a lot of music or photos, add $50 to your budget to grab a 16GB MicroSD.

There’s one thing that I’d call a genuine (albeit minor) flaw in the X5:  the soft-buttons are meant to light up in low-light conditions, but I think the threshold needs some serious tweaking, or perhaps my test phone is broken. Most of the time the buttons are not lit up, and they are really quite hard to spot in dim indoor light. I can prove it’s a sensitivity issue by covering the light-sensor area at the top of the phone – the buttons dutifully light up nice and clear when all light is blocked to the phone. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a setting to make the buttons light up in less ambient light. It really is a minor issue, because the buttons work fine in all conditions, and you get used to their location after a few days (although you’ll have to memorise the specific locations when moving from another Android phone 😉 )

Conclusion

I’d seriously doubt if you can get a better non-imported phone in New Zealand for the price. If you want a fully supported phone from a local supplier, and you’re not an iFanboy or Windows Phone 7 weenie, you couldn’t really go wrong grabbing an X5.

Pros

  • The price!
  • Vanilla Android 2.2, no crapware
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Soft-buttons don’t always light up when required.
  • Probably no upgrades to 2.3 or above.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS U8150 Review

ideos The way I read it, 2Degrees’ main target market is the younger pre-pay user. They’re not (yet) looking for corporate accounts or sophisticated high-end smartphone users. In this sense, the IDEOS U8150 is a great fit as their first smartphone: capable, not going to stun the geeks, but priced well for the market.

At $379 outright, you can’t expect the U8150 to compete with the iPhone 4 or top-end android phones, but it performs admirably. I think this is largely down to the unmodified Android 2.2 version that Huawei have loaded on the phone. Even with a 528MHz CPU, the U8150 performs almost snappily. In fact in places it out-performs a full-price Android smartphone running 2.1 with layers of OEM cruft.

It still has that classic Android UI lag, with the screen running a few milliseconds behind your thumb. But the thing is, I’m ok with that for the price. When I pay near-on $1000 for a phone, I want it to feel like an iPhone or Windows Phone under my thumb. But for $379? I’ll accept feature-phone performance and smartphone features.

Features? We got Features!

Another huge plus of vanilla Android 2.2 “with Google” is you’re guaranteed to get all the things you’d expect from Android. Apps, maps, email, contact sync, navigation, active wallpaper. It’s all right there out of the box. Which is frankly amazing for the price. This phone even does some stuff that the iPhone 4 can’t do: it has WiFi tethering and FM Radio.

I like Huawei’s approach with this device. Step away from the forking customisations that HTC, Sony, Samsung, and others seem so enamored by, and just run the device the way Google planned. And Huawei are no slouches either: apparently their network gear is behind the networks that serve more than a billion humans.

So what are you compromising by not spending $500 more? Two key things: screen size and upgrades. The screen is tiny, and the on-screen keyboard is just adequate at the size. If you txt and email a lot, play with one first to make sure you’re comfortable.

The lack of upgrades will be a concern for the geek-set: Huawei have categorically stated that this phone won’t be getting Android 3.0. I don’t know if that also means no other 2.x versions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve dropped the facility for upgrades altogether. Again: no real drama for the target market, because 2.2 doesn’t lack features (like 1.x) or performance (like 2.1).

One-upmanship

Vodafone tried to pull one over 2Degrees by dropping their 845 Android phone to $199. Thing is, the 845 is really at the level of a throwaway phone, or perhaps just barely valid as an emergency backup for smartphone users. A resistive touch screen and Android 2.1 on slow hardware is just a recipe for pain and anguish. Comparing the devices side-by-side, you can see a couple of other places the 845 falls short: no FM radio, no 802.11n (but it does have a headphone plug too).

Do yourself a favour and stretch to the IDEOS if you’re looking for a cheap Android phone.

Conclusion

I can’t believe how good the kids have it these days. When I was a young scallywag I had to pair a Nokia phone with an iPaq (that’s a Q there, not a D) over infrared.

Pros:

  • Did I mention the price?
  • Vanilla Android 2.2
  • Capacitive touch screen
  • Coloured backs for cool kids

Cons:

  • Screen size and resolution (ok for price though)
  • No upgrades to Android 3

2Degrees Huawei E5 WiFi Router

2Degrees Huawei E5Huawei. How do you say that? I go with Hwah-way, but I could be completely wrong. Remember the name though. Apparently they’re involved in some of the bids for the new national broadband network. Huawei make network gear – they made the little white Vodafone Vodem, and they make this new E5 WiFi Router from 2degrees.

The $279 E5 is a teeny wee thing. About the same size as a credit card and 1cm thick. I’m all about the out-of-box experience, or the “OOB” as it’s known in the business, and the E5 delivers. Pop the back off (to put the supplied 1500mAh battery in), and the WiFi password is right there. Power the device on, wait a minute or so, then connect with that password and you have a fast, secure WiFi connection to all of the interwebs. In fact, it’s cheaper and prettier than Vodafone’s MiFi, and will work just as well on their network.

I managed to crack 4Mbps download speed, which is on-par with similar tests I’ve run with XT and Vodafone 3G gear. The upstream speed was a bit more limited, but still usable. Of course regardless of the speed, you’ll only be downloading inside 2degrees’ “Mobile Broadband Zones“. In fact it states clearly on the box that this device is “for use in 2degrees Mobile Broadband Zones only”.

So, if you want a compact, simple, fast WiFi modem, the E5 is a great device. If I didn’t have built-in 3G on my laptop, I’d keep it. Luckily, one of you guys will get to have it instead. Stay tuned.

Prepaid Mobile Data in New Zealand

Smartphones, iPads, and data sticks are incredibly popular, so what does it take to get a SIM card to connect these devices to the internet? Putting aside the multitude of confusing on-account options, we had a look at the prepaid data options from the major players. On the surface it all looks fairly simple, but once you lift the covers things get quite complex.

The main “gotcha” is that even if you pay for data, you might not be able to use it. If you “buy” 512MB from Vodafone or 2Degrees, for example, and don’t use it all within 30 days, you effectively lose the remainder. Telecom does a little better with their optional capped data plans, but you have to know about these to use them, and your prepaid credit still expires after six months. The overall effect is that I can’t be sure that my device will work when I want to use it.

Secondly, if I have multiple devices that use data (a smartphone, a data stick, and an iPad), there’s no way to share the data allowance between these devices. I either need three sim cards, or I have to swap sims between the devices before I use them.

Gripes aside, what can you get from each of the main mobile networks?

 

Vodafone

Telecom

2Degrees

Prepaid Data Options
  • 100MB for $10
  • 512MB for $30
  • 500MB for $29.95
  • 2GB for $59.95
  • 4GB for $79.95
  • 512MB for $20
  • 2GB for $50
  • 10G for $150
Prepaid Data Conditions – Unused data expires 30 days from purchase.
– You can buy additional packs if you run out, or you pay $1 for the first additional 10MB, then $1 for every additional 1MB.
– Data is charged at 10c/MB up to the price cap you choose.
– If you go over your data allowance then you’ll automatically get the same data allowance again for $29.95 (to use in that same calendar month). And after that’s used up, you’ll pay 10c per MB.
– If you use less than your data allowance you’ll be charged for what you use, and your credit balance will roll over to the next calendar month.See Note 1
Only available in “Broadband Zones” only (most of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown).
– Unused data expires in 30 days (for 512MB), 60 days (for 2GB), or 90 days (for 10GB)
– Outside of Broadband Zones, data is $6 for 50MB.

Note 1: Even Telecom themselves seem to be confused about how and when their data expires. The official response from Telecom PR was:
[quote]Unused prepaid data expires one month after purchase. So for example, if I purchased some prepaid data today, Wednesday 18 August, I would get one month from today to use that data before it expires on the 18th of September.[/quote]
…which is actually referring to their “Smartphone Extra” plans, and clearly different to the expiry method explained on their Prepaid Mobile Broadband page. The confusion possibly arises because Telecom’s prepaid data “bundles” are much more like their monthly account bretheren (capped, charged as you use it), and not in fact a pre-allocated bundle of pre-purchased data. John explains it a bit better than me over here.

I’m reminded of how Theresa Gattung said telcos use “confusion as [a] marketing tool“.

General Gotchas and Questions to Ask

There’s really no way to say which network is “best” for your data device, but there are some questions you should ask before choosing a network.

  • Make sure you ask if your device can use 3G data over the entire network. The Apple iPad, for example, doesn’t get great 3G coverage on Vodafone’s network outside of main centres. It still works, but at a snail’s pace.
  • Can you top-up your data from the device if you’ve run out? Devices like the iPad can’t send SMS messages, but 2Degrees have a nifty method for doing this. Otherwise can you call an 0800 number or similar to top-up?
  • If you also want to use the device for calls and text messaging, you’ll need to look into add-ons and allowances for these, and check if your friends are on the same network to get cheaper txt packs.

In Closing

Look, I could go on for days about the shortcomings of individual networks, plans and protocols, but truthfully it’s fantastic that we can turn on a device pretty much anywhere in New Zealand and connect to the internet. You can check-in to your MyFace and twatterbleep from just about anywhere. We’ve come a long way baby.