Review: Huawei Activa 4G for MetroPCS
MetroPCS scores another 4G LTE smartphone from Huawei. The Activa 4G boasts an entry-level price, entry-level specs, and entry-level performance to match.
The Activa 4G is the first 4G smartphone for the U.S. market from Huawei, and lands at MetroPCS. The Activa earns the notable stature of being the least expensive 4G Android smartphone sold by MetroPCS. Does its ultra-low cost — and 2009-era specs — pave a tough road ahead for the Activa 4G, or will it be smooth sailing for this entry-level smartphone for MetroPCS?
Huawei didn't shoot for the moon with the Activa. In fact, I'm not even sure Huawei shot for any lofty goal — at least with respect to design and overall appeal of the Activa. The Huawei Activa 4G is a chunky 'lil thing, and uses the tried-and-tired black-on-chrome design language that we've seen on scores of smartphones over the years. It's somewhat nondescript, and could easily be confused with any number of other devices.
Though it may be bland in appearance, the Activa has a solid feel to it. The materials and manufacture feel good and don't come off as cheap. It's a dense phone and appears to be well put together. There's no creakiness to it and all the parts fit together snugly. Its flat edges give it a puck-ish feel, but it's still comfortable to hold and use with a single hand. The Activa won't give you any trouble when it comes time to stuff it in your pocket, but its thickness and weight will remind you with each step that it is there.
A chrome frame rings the front surface of the Activa and breaks up what would otherwise be way too much black. The user-facing camera is visible next to the MetroPCS logo above the 3.5-inch display. There are four capacitive keys below the display for controlling the Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread operating system. Each of these buttons worked perfectly, and offered a nice bit of haptic feedback when pressed. The amount of bezel surrounding the screen is a bit much. The small-ish display is practically swimming in an ocean of phone.
The volume toggle is on the left side of the Activa, perched close to the top of the phone. There aren't any nubs indicating which end of the toggle you're touching. The toggle has a decent feel to it, but it's not perfect. The up volume side of the toggle has better travel and feedback than the down volume does.
Believe it or not, Huawei sprang for a dedicated camera button on the Activa. It's the only control located on the right edge of the phone. It's even a two-stage button that allows for focusing and shooting. Bummer, though, that the action of the button is so miserable. Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell the two stages apart. You can feel the subtle stages only with the most gentle of presses.
The top of the Activa is packed with the microUSB port, 3.5mm headset jack, and lock button. I prefer the USB port to be on the side or bottom of a phone. I find the top is awkward positioning when, for example, you need to make a phone call. The lock button is not very good. It's absolutely flush with the surface and needs to be pressed too far into the phone to be activated. Given the importance of the power/lock button, the Activa's is particularly bad.
The battery cover has a carbon-fiber look to it, but it feels like regular old plastic to me. It takes two thumbs to remove without breaking it in half. Once removed, you can access both the microSD card and the SIM card. The microSD card can be removed without taking the battery out, the SIM card cannot.
It's not going to win any international design awards, and there are a few problems with the buttons, but the pros of the hardware easily outweigh the minuses.
In order to achieve its $149 price point, Huawei needed to cut costs somewhere. The display is one area Huawei looked to minimize those costs. Think 2007-era specs, and you'll be right. It measures 3.5-inches across the diagonal and has 320 x 480 pixels. It is by no means awful, but can't hold a nit to the displays of today's leading smartphones. Pixels are easy to pick out and leave on-screen elements such as text and icons with slightly jagged edges. The Activa uses LCD technology, and I found it was bright enough for indoor use, but the Activa's display became useless when out under direct sunlight.
MetroPCS offers both 1X and LTE coverage in my neck of the woods. The Activa 4G performed about on par with other MetroPCS devices tested in the metro NYC area. Compared to the recently-tested LG Connect 4G, for example, the Activa was good at connecting to the 1X network and a little bit better at connecting to the 4G LTE network. It still managed to miss and drop calls here and there, but it always connected to the network and offered data throughput — even if that throughput was painfully slow.
The phone calls that I was able to connect with the Activa were no great shakes. In fact, they were rather crummy. For starters, there was a lot of noise, crackling, and echoes present during phone calls. Human voices took on robotic tones from time to time. These were made worse by the poor volume powers of the earpiece. It's not nearly as loud as it needs to be. Phone calls sent through the speakerphone were also of poor quality and of low volume. The ringers and alert tones are OK, but not great. It would be easy to miss a call were the Activa in a backpack, purse, or anywhere else but on a table or desk next to your hand. The vibrate alert is good.
For such a small phone, the Activa packs a whopper of a battery at 1830mAh. I found the Activa's battery life to be good no matter where I took it and how I used it (i.e., network conditions didn't appear to detrimentally affect the phone). The phone regularly lasted from 7AM to 11PM with no problem, and often had enough charge left over the following morning to make it to lunch. Hardcore users who live in fully saturated LTE markets will want to charge it every night, but casual users can probably go 36 hours between charges.
The Activa runs Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread with some minor customizations made by MetroPCS.
The Activa offers five home screen panels for customization and content. Four of them are littered with widgets and apps out of the box, but those can all be rearranged/deleted. The main app drawer is a single screen with all the apps displayed in an alphabetic grid. You can also view the main menu in a list, by category, or in a custom grid if you prefer.
The settings are mostly stock for an Android device and allow users to make a wide range of adjustments to the Activa's behavior without too much trouble.
In terms of performance, the Activa is OK but not great. It's pretty obvious that it's running something slower than a dual-core Snapdragon S4. The processor clocks in at 800MHz, and the performance is about what you'd expect from such a chip.
The home screen lags from time to time, apps are sometimes slow to open, and I had to repeat some screen presses thanks to unresponsive apps. It almost gets the job done, but not quite. However, it's important to note (again) that few phones offer 4G and other features found in the Activa for an unsubsidized price of $149.
The Activa uses the stock Android 2.3 calling and contacts applications. One thing I like is that there's a little shortcut to the SMS app from the phone dialer. This means you can type in a new number and then easily start an SMS with that person instead of dialing the number.
The Activa offers haptic feedback when you dial numbers on the touch display. Call features include mute, speakerphone, add a line, etc.
The Activa will import all of your Google or Exchange contacts if you have them. Adding Facebook and Twitter friends is optional. Contacts can hold innumerable phone numbers, email addresses, notes, and so on. The Activa doesn't have any nifty contact widgets for the home screen; only the stock tools are available.
The Activa runs mostly stock Android 2.3 messaging applications, and doesn't offer anything new or unique.
It has the generic email app for POP/IMAP/Exchange email, and the dedicated Gmail application for Google users. Both of these applications are capable and time-tested. The same goes for the stock SMS/MMS app, which offers threaded conversations, as always.
As for IM, the Activa has Google Talk on board, and a MetroPCS-branded IM catch-all app that covers AIM, Windows Live, Yahoo, etc.
On the social networking front, the Activa defaults to the MetroPCS-branded messaging app, which also supports Facebook and Twitter messaging. I'd highly recommend you skip this app entirely and download the native Facebook and Twitter apps. They offer a much richer experience than Metro’s generic app.
The Activa is one of the few devices I've seen ship in recent months without Google+ and/or Google+ Messenger pre-installed. These are Google's own social network and social network-focused IM apps and they have found their way to most new Android devices lately. For whatever reason, they aren't available on the Activa out of the box, but can be downloaded separately from the Google Play Store.
Music options on the Activa are a bit befuddling. It ships with the "Android Market" and not Google Play. The Android Market itself needs to be updated to the Google Play Store first. Only then do the modern Google Play Store and Google Play Music apps become available. Other than that, the basic Android MP3 player app is available, as is Rhapsody.
On the video side of the equation, you'll be pleased to know that the Activa ships with Kung Fu Panda 2 loaded on the microSD card. You can watch the movie via the old, native Android video player app. Other than that, the native YouTube app is the only other real video app offered on the Activa.
There's one red herring on board in the Yahoo! Movies app. Rather than offer movie rentals or streams, it's simply a link to the Yahoo! movie web site for local listings/show times. This falls under the category of pre-installed apps I'd delete (thankfully, you can).
The Activa uses the stock Android 2.3 camera application. This means it has a large viewfinder consuming the left 80% of the display, with the right 20% offering access to all the controls for the camera app.
There are six options floating within the viewfinder that offer access to the more specific camera controls, such as overall settings (focus mode, exposure value, image size/quality, effects, etc.), location, white balance, flash, zoom, and which camera is being used (front/back).
As for performance, the Activa is a bit slow for my tastes. Pressing and holding the dedicated camera button opens the app, but it takes a several seconds. Though the on-screen controls are speedy enough, the actual picture-taking process is far too slow. There's a significant delay between pressing the shutter button and seeing any sort of reaction from the phone itself. Focusing takes a second, then another second to take the shot, and then several seconds to process the shot before it is added to the gallery and you can get back to the business of taking photos.
The Activa's gallery is the boring old stock Android option. Photo albums float in stacks in the main gallery view and the Activa syncs with your online accounts such as Google+ and Picasa, so you'll see those photos, too.
Unfortunately, the Activa includes only the most basic editing functions (crop and rotate.) There are no other editing tools, nor is there any third-party software for editing photos pre-installed. You have to download one yourself if you're interested in making changes to images. You can, however, easily share photos to the social network of your choice via the standard Android gallery tools.
I found the gallery's performance to be severely lacking. It's far too slow at swiping from image to image, and even slower to open and operate the menus and sharing functions. The camera and gallery both suffer thanks to the meager processor and limited resources under the Activa's hood.
The Activa has a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and an LED flash. I was sorely disappointed with the results. The Activa rarely succeeded at taking a really good picture. Focus was often soft and I had far too many blurry photos. Exposure was almost never correct, with either underexposed or overexposed photos the norm. The Activa was never able to balance out scenes with dark and light regions. White balance was a crap-shoot, and incorrect more often than not. I can't say I was expecting all that much from the Activa's camera, but I wasn't expecting such poor results.
The Activa can only capture video at a max resolution of 640 x 480 (VGA). It's pretty pathetic. Take the entire list of problems noted above in the photo department and apply them here. Focus was inconsistent, white balance was often wrong, and the exposure was wildly uneven depending on the lighting.
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 2.9 MB
The Activa ships with the stock Android browser, as well as the MetroPCS-branded web browser. The stock Android browser is a known entity. It works well, though performance was inconsistent. Pages loaded very slowly over 1x, and only slightly faster over LTE. I had to resort to using Wi-Fi whenever possible, as the 1x coverage doesn't provide an adequate web experience on the Activa. The MetroPCS-branded browser, which is meant to serve as a gateway to purchasable content, is amazingly inferior to the stock Android browser. Avoid it if you can.
The Activa can be customized as much as any other Android smartphone. As mentioned, there are five home screen panels, a fair amount of widgets, and the app menu can be arranged to your liking. Obviously, if there aren't enough tools on board to suit your tastes, plenty are available via the Google Play Store.
The Activa is stuffed full of MetroPCS applications. Some include: M Studio, Metro411, MetroWeb, MyMetro, and MyExtras. Yahoo Answers and Yahoo Sportacular appear to be thrown in for good measures. Some of these apps can be deleted; some cannot. There's still enough space left on the Activa for you to download your own applications.
The Activa supports mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets. I had no trouble pairing with either. Sound quality through mono headphones was awful. Calls routed through my car were only slightly better. If you absolutely must use a headset, find a wired one if you can. The Activa also connects with computers and/or other phones for pushing files around. I was able to play music from the Activa on Bluetooth headphones, but the quality was poor, and the experience miserable thanks to sound that cut in and out consistently.
The Activa offers the standard Android clock on the lock screen, which is visible when the device is first woken from sleep. It’s a nice, large digital clock that's easily visible everywhere except under direct sunlight. It can't be customized, though.
The Activa includes Google Maps, but not MetroNavigation. Google Maps and its Navigation and Places features make for a powerful set of tools when it comes to routing directions and discovering nearby points of interest. Of course, Google Maps' effectiveness is dependent on a strong network connection. The Activa's GPS radio performed very well in most circumstances, and was able to pinpoint my location to within 25 feet most of the time. The poor network performance, however, made real-time navigation a chore for the Activa, which struggled to keep up with my highway driving.
For the price, the Huawei Activa 4G is almost worth it. Almost. Huawei had to dial down the specs to keep the cost low, and it shows.
The hardware isn't the sexiest out there, but the phone is well put together and the hardware is mostly good. The screen's small size and outdated resolution may disappoint some, but first-time smartphone buyers will be pleased with that they see. The signal issues and poor call quality, however, could be showstoppers for many potential customers.
The low-powered processor means that the overall performance of the software is sketchy at times, and it shows across the home screens, menus, and applications. The camera and gallery apps are the most strongly affected by the lack of horsepower, which are far too slow to be of much use. Worse, the results achieved with the Activa 4G's camera are simply not worth the effort much of the time.
First-time smartphone buyers might forgive the Activa 4G for many of these faults — as long as they have access to good, strong 4G signal from MetroPCS. You can't expect much from a $149 smartphone, and the Huawei Activa 4G doesn't deliver much.