As much as we love premium smartphones, we're less keen on their inevitable price tags and resulting empty wallet situation. But right now there's a battle going on among the sub-£150 smartphone market - and it's really hotting up. The EE Kestrel enters the fray with a clear message: offering super fast 4G technology for £100. Job done.
We've already seen other capable handsets such as the Motorola Moto G and, more recently, the Moto E model which further drags that asking price down. It's the latter model - in among a mix of Alcatel One Touch Idol S, Lumia 520 models and other models - that gives the EE Kestrel something to chew on.
If you're strapped for cash pick up the phone for free on a £13.99 a month contract instead. Nay bad. The big question is whether a £100 smartphone can be as genuinely exciting as it is billed. We've been living with the EE Kestrel for a couple of weeks to find out if it all adds up.
Affordable, not premium
"Kestrel features a sleek, premium design" reads the EE webpage. Let's not kid ourselves here: this is a £100 phone, so something had to give. And that something is the quality of the build, which is plasticky and uninspired. The grey finish of our review sample looks dull too.
Unlike a giant bird of prey the EE Kestrel measures 7.9mm thick and weighs just 145g, so it's trim and light in the pocket to the point of being barely noticeable. No qualms on that front.
There are some odd design choices though, such as a 3.5mm headphone jack that sits to the side of the body. This makes it almost impossible to plug in normal headphones and slip the phone into your pocket because of the additional sideways protrusion. No idea why the designers thought that was a good idea, although headphone jacks are considerable space-eaters inside of a phone so it might have been for the physical height concession.
Elsewhere the design feels familiar and makes more sense. No surprise, really, as the body is the very same as the Huawei G6. In part this is a branding exercise: EE will be more familiar to UK consumers than the Chinese name and with the network-specific branding there's a strong case to buy into the 4G concept. In context and the Kestrel is a pretty decent phone and it even dons a prominent EE logo to the rear (which began to rub off in our pockets over the course of the review).
To the front the phone's 4.5-inch screen spans the majority of the device's 133mm height, with just a few millimetres of bezel to the left and right sides, and finger-sized spacing above and below the screen. Beneath the display are the usual trio of Android soft keys, but they reside off-screen rather than eating into visual space - which we think is great.
The Kestrel's 4.5-inch screen is a "qHD" resolution. Now anything with "HD" in its terminology might sound like it's going to be ace, but the "q" part stands for "quarter". The result is a 540 x 960 pixel panel which is well behind the top-spec standard. It's a workable resolution, though, and often it's not the pixel density that matters as much as some other elements.
Take the screen brightness as one such element. By default the Kestrel's auto brightness copes well with various lighting conditions and delivers a neutral colour palette. But the more impressive part is the screen type: it's an IPS display which means excellent viewing angles. Indeed you can tilt the phone through pretty much any angle and still have an image with as much colour and contrast as when facing directly on to it - and for £100 that's an epic performance.
From within the menus screen brightness can be adjusted to low, half and full, or using a slider as is typical of Android phones' settings. The Kestrel even offers Profiles - normal, outdoor, meeting, sleep - to provide preset brightness and volume presets to suit your given conditions.
With 4G LTE Cat 4 compatibility the EE Kestrel can theoretically cater for speeds of 150Mbps. In other words it has a bloomin' fast connection. However, you won't get that downrate in all parts of the UK by any means, nor does 4G expand right across the UK just yet. However EE is at the forefront of pushing its high speed network out and has 4G switched on in more UK towns and cities than any other carrier.
When the connection clicks in during use that 4G speed is a great thing to have of course, speeding data to and from the phone. Streaming, browsing, sharing - whatever you throw at the EE Kestrel it's snappy.
The interface, built around Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) but running Huawei's Emotion UI 2.0, tweaks the stock Android approach. It's fast to navigate when swiping between screens and apps, but we find the choice of app icons look a little bit naff. After all this is v2.0, not the latest v2.3 as found in the Huawei Ascend P7. Overall Emotion UI just doesn't have the class of Sony's Android re-skin, nor the cutting simplicity and character of Apple's iOS. A small thing, but having used dozens of phones of late it shows.
READ: Huawei Ascend P7 review
But icons are just icons, and what the Kestrel gets right is providing ample numbers of settings tiles from a swipe down. Dive into Wi-Fi, Airplane mode and the like with minimal effort. Just as we like it.
The Kestrel is paired with a quad core 1.2Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon S400 processor. Given the price point that's an ace up the Kestrel's sleeve. Indeed some tablets and current smartphone thrice the price offer the same setup. The only downside is the Kestrel has 1GB RAM rather than 2GB, but that's still enough to load up a variety of apps at any one time.
The on board battery has a 2,000mAh capacity that lasts out well. We found no issues in getting a full day's use from the phone, even with a 4G connection, which eats away at the juice more than 3G does. Part of its performance comes back to that Huawei UI again as there are three battery modes to help extend life per charge.
"Normal" is there to get the most out of the CPU, which is best for gaming and the like - although we found the pairing with the Snapdragon processor reliable enough for this to be our constant mode of choice. "Endurance" limits the CPU and network usage to save power, but that means no push messages and so it's easy to feel disconnected from mail, social networks and the like for the sake of a couple of hours of battery life. "Smart" is the final option, delivering an apparent balance between the two former modes.
All that really matters is even using normal settings the EE Kestrel can hold its own against its nearest competitor: the Moto G.
READ: Motorola Moto G review
Any phone worth its salt these days needs a decent camera. Although the Kestrel is a phone of compromise: it's capable, but not a device that excels in the photo department, nor one to match the abilities of the Moto G.
On the rear there's a 5-megapixel camera to cater for stills and 720p video capture, while to the front a 1-megapixel offering can cater for those Skype calls and similar. The camera interface is straightforward and easy to use, with the touch-to-focus control feeling natural. There are multiple shooting modes, including HDR (high dynamic range) and Panorama for capturing panoramic scenes through real-time camera rotation - just a shame the stitching of frames is often botched so results typically fail to deliver.
There's an LED flash to inject a bit of light when needed, and you'll need it if shooting in low light. The Kestrel's results aren't up to much if the light source isn't good. But when the sun's out we've been albe to capture decent point-and-shoot snaps - which is really all many will want from a phone camera.
The EE Kestrel does what it says on the box: delivers 4G connectivity at a budget price point. Its plasticky design might not thrill us, and the headphone jack is in a stupid position, but for the £100 asking price the Kestrel is worthy of a salute for driving down the cost and expectation of 4G connectivity. If you're strapped for cash, you can pick up the phone for free on a £13.99 a month contract instead.
In among some fairly average specs - the plastic build, screen resolution and mere 8GB storage (there is microSD expansion) being three examples - the Kestrel manages to throw in some gems too. The IPS display delivers a great viewing angle and screen brightness is more than ample, while the presence of a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S400 processor is not only a grade above its asking price, it runs nice and smooth too.
The only real problem the EE Kestrel will face is the competition. The 4G Moto G might cost a touch more cash, but it's a better built phone and that, for many, will be what sells it. Even so we've got to take our hats off to the Kestrel for opening the 4G door and if you're heading to a festival and need a budget no brainer handset then this is an apt solution. The EE Kestrel might be plastic, but it still manages to be fantastic.