Wednesday, 16 July 2014

EE Kestrel Mini-Review

As usual, this loan device came courtesy of Steve and Ted from Phones Show Chat, and is a curious one, something a little different to the flagship devices which get most of the attention of the technology press. I hesitated to title this as a mini-review, it's certainly not a full review, the reasons will become apparent. In the end it's more of a comparison to its nearest competitor and my current day-to-day phone, the Moto G.

The EE Kestrel has a 1.2Ghz quad-core SnapDragon 400 CPU, 1GB RAM, 4G connectivity, a micro SD card slot, 4.5” qHD screen, and a 5MP camera. The obvious comparison is against the Moto G, which now has a 4G model which also has a micro SD card slot. The Kestrel and Moto G share matching CPU, RAM, connectivity and micro SD specs. Their cameras are on par with each other, both pretty poor. Their speakers are similar, both distort at around 50-60% volume. They both have a notification light! Whilst being very similar, here is how they are different...

Kestrel Positives
  • Price: At £99 the Kestrel wins by between £20-£60 depending on where you buy your Moto G, and if you buy the 3G or 4G model.
  • First impressions: The Kestrel feels snappy on first use, it doesn't feel like it weighs much either when you first pick it up.
  • Capacitive buttons: Gives more screen space versus on-screen buttons.
  • Connectivity: SIM unlocked it works with Three 4G perfectly, which is great given Three is most mobile geeks’ network of choice!
  • Some genuinely very interesting OS additions on top of a base Android build, including:
    • “Networked apps" - you can control access to wifi and mobile data per app.
    • “Startup manager" - control which apps can or can't launch on device boot.
    • “Notification manager" - control which apps can send push messages to the notification panel.
    • "Do not disturb" - on a schedule, per contact restriction of ringing/vibrating.
    • “Power saving" - including ability to select protected apps which are kept running no matter what, an analyser to let you know any power-intensive background apps, and another analyser telling you settings that may be adversely affecting battery life (GPS, screen brightness, etc).
    • “App operations" - show how often each app calls APIs such as location services, personal data, messaging, and device hardware.
    • Audio profiles (a la S60/S40 in the old Nokia days) and a nice easy way to change between them form the notification shade.
    • Split screen for settings - with the "all" pane with the usual Android settings menu, and the "general" pane which has just commonly-used settings, not cluttered up by all the other million and one settings in the "all" pane.
  • Two built-in launchers, although they’re called "home screen styles"...
    • One for normal not tech-savvy folk, which has no app drawer, all icons are on the home screens (a la iOS).
    • One for even less tech-savvy folk, with big easy tiles (a la Windows Phone) for apps and commonly used functions. This would be truly great for those with no interest in learning to use a smartphone, but who want a little more than a feature phone can offer. This home screen style also bumps up the system font, a giveaway that maybe this is aimed at the older person?!
Left: Choose your home screen style.
Middle: "Standard" style. No app drawer, just lots of icons like iOS.
Right: "Simple" style. Probably aimed at smartphone novices.

Kestrel Negatives
  • The capacitive buttons aren't very responsive, and their lights turn-off too quickly (the only setting is auto-off and permanently off).
  • The screen is pretty dull, and only qHD (even the Moto G has 720p).
  • The charger (top) and headphone (bottom of left edge) ports are in unorthodox places, a little annoying.
  • Whilst the built-in launchers have their use-cases, anyone reading this blog post would HAVE to install an alternative.
  • In the capacitive buttons row the Kestrel has an old school menu button instead of a recent apps button.
  • The OS is v4.3 and unlikely to be updated in a timely schedule, if at all... (a side effect from all the customisations which have been added?)
  • And the deal breaker... 8GB internal storage. Not so bad given the presence of a micro SD card slot, but this 8GB is partitioned such that apps have less then 1GB. I couldn't even finish installing half of my usual apps. This is exacerbated by the presence of built-in apps like Facebook, Kindle, EE Film and more which you can’t uninstall.
Left: I didn't get to install even half of my usual apps when this happened.
Right: There's loads of space left, just not for apps.

I'd conclude that the storage partitioning is a complete deal breaker for me, so much so that I couldn’t use it as my full-time device to test it properly, and find out how good the battery life was for example.

Huawei/EE have put some very nice touches on top of Android. Some of these are available on other operating systems of course; on Android they may be available via a big bunch of third party apps, plus the need for root in some cases, but they are all here by default on the Kestrel. Whilst the built-in non-removable apps are a pain, the extras on top of a standard Android OS build are mostly commendable, usable, and designed fairly well. I think a lot of normal (non-geek) users would find them useful. To go a step further, the "simple” home screen and launcher could be the basis of the perfect smartphone for an older person or a complete smartphone novice. This is a great Android smartphone for a novice, as Android is still too complex for the average non-geek, and this device with all its customisations makes it much easier for the inexperienced user.

For the money, you would never expect a great camera, high-end CPU or great quality screen. It's great that the Kestrel does 4G at a cheaper price than the Moto G, but the Moto G has a better screen, doesn't suffer the app space partitioning, and is hugely more likely to be kept up-to-date. I would pick the Moto G over the Kestrel any day, though the Kestrel is a very, very interesting device with some very nice touches.

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