(Pocket-lint) - Cut out the middle man – it's one of the best ways to save money. That's the idea behind the EE Harrier budget 4G smatphone: by getting rid of that Sony, Samsung, or whatever label, carrier-tied phones such as this can get you the most features for the fairest sums of cash.
After all, it's not as if we're going to see Iron Man pick up one of these budget mobiles on his next billion dollar movie (there's Kevin Bacon for that). EE is not spending millions marketing this handset.
Cutting out the big brand and the marketing guff means you can get a 5.2-inch 1080p screen on a decent £16.99 per month contract. That's not much more than you pay per month for a similar SIM-free deal.
So is the Harrier a sweet deal or is it soured by not quite having the day-to-day performance you might hope for from a phone with pretty amazing core specs for the price?
The EE Harrier is not quite a perfect budget phone, but it's not far from it. Some of you will probably dislike the style; some of its finishing touches feel a bit, well, unfinished; and day-to-day performance isn't 100 per cent perfect.
However, the great price point and sheer spec wealth in some important areas mean it easily outperforms compared to the bigger name competitors you can get for the cash. For what works out at just a few pounds a month, you get a phone with a pretty great screen, 4G connectivity, and really quite remarkable scope as a games and apps jukebox.
- Bright and sharp screen for the price
- Decent storage
- Excellent value for a 4G phone
- Its take on Lollipop isnât 100 per cent speedy
- Locked to EE
- Design may turn some off
We've made some noise about how EE has cut out the middle man, but EE itself doesn't make this phone. Qisda does. We don't blame you if you have no idea who that it, but it's the parent company of BenQ – a Chinese giant that has been making phones for years now. And it's no-doubt a good deal cheaper to get Qisda to make you a phone than, say, Sony.
EE has done its best to avoid the grey rectangle effect we normally get with these sort of no-brand devices by giving the Harrier a more distinct style. It shares this with its littler brother the Harrier Mini, even though that phone is made by yet another manufacturing partner.
The EE Harrier tries desperately to look more expensive than it is, using a brushed metal effect on its plastic back and a gold ring around the camera lens. It has all the class of an Argos wedding ring, but does the job, avoiding the narcolepsy-inducing design its Vodafone rival the grey-tastic Smart Prime 6 is kind-of subject to.
The Harrier carries the sort of design you can imagine LG using in a much more expensive phone. The one bit we really don't like, though, is that ultra-shiny mirror effect on the EE logo on the back will be scratched to death within days, revealing the EE Harrier's budget-ness before you even set your hawk eyes on the weirdly green-looking gold camera ring above.
EE does seem to have put a bit more attention on the look than the day-to-day ergonomics too. With a 5.2-inch screen the EE isn't huge (it's certainly large though), but we'd have preferred to see the power button sit on the right hand-side rather than the left where, for righties at least, it'd be handier.
When it comes to the specs the EE Harrier pushes things up a notch. Two important points stick out before you even look at the phone.
First, it has 4G. Being a budget flag-bearer for EE's 4G service is a big part of why the Harrier exists. Second, there's storage. As well as having a microSD card slot, the Harrier has 16GB on-board storage. No phones from the big brands at this price point offer this much storage space, and it makes dealing with the phone a lot easier, especially if you like your fancy-looking 3D games.
The EE Harrier has the screen for such games too, which is its real bragging point. You get a 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 resolution screen – the kind of spec that's close to what's on offer in phones four times the price, like the HTC One M9 or Sony Xperia Z3+.
It's not as vibrant as Sony's (supposed) flagship phone's screen, but for the price the Harrier is terrific. Sharpness in particular is great, while colours are perfectly fine. They're not turbo-charged as the trend seems to favour these days, but there's no obvious tone blunders.
Side-by-side with the Motorola Moto G 4G 2nd gen it's also a bit brighter, helped by white balance that leans towards the cool/blue end of the spectrum. For games and video, even outdoors in the sun, it tramples the sorts of phones you can get at the price from Samsung, Sony and LG.
Not every single part of the EE Harrier is quite as strong, though. The single rear speaker is one of the bits clearly neglected. It's very, very quiet compared with something like the Motorola Moto G (which itself isn't standard-setting).
Software and performance
Brilliance combined with a side order or disappointment comes with the software too, but not in the way you might assume. The good part is that the EE Harrier uses a pretty-much-vanilla version of the Android Lollipop operating system. This looks and feels great, loosening-up the joints of the system and making it feel more like the equivalent of someone "doing the robot" rather than, well, a robot.
There's also not absolutely loads of the usual predictable bloat installed. Or, to be more precise, there's not loads of annoying EE-branded stuff installed. EE's own app guff is limited to a single My EE app that allows you to check out things about your mobile phone plan. Which is actually useful.
However, EE has also done a deal with numerous content partners that can clog the app drawer a bit, though. Amazon's four-strong app roster is here, and while we wish it wasn't by default, they are at least fairly useful apps: Amazon's Appstore is great for snagging regular freebies.
Deezer is found in the app drawer too, in a desperate attempt to convince normal people that Apple and Spotify aren't the only two music streaming services in the world. Again, we'd rather it wasn't default, but Deezer is at least a good service.
In a similar vein, MailWise and Lookout offer a superfluous mail provider app and mobile security. There's only one steaming turd, a Games & Apps portal so bad our knee-jerk reaction was that it felt like malware. But EE wouldn't do that to us.
So the EE Harrier has some bloatware. But as there's that impressive 16GB storage, it's not a deal-breaker. You still have 8GB of spare space to actually use and fill with your own apps, music, photos and so forth.
The area of the software that could be a little better, though, is general performance. Given the specs we'd have hoped for a slightly more responsive feel that we get. While the Harrier has enough power to handle relatively top-tier downloadable games, there's often a slightly-too-long gap when loading apps, and at times some slight lag when browsing using Chrome. It's minor, and does not remotely outweigh the sheer bargain factor of the EE Harrier's hardware – plus it's mostly Google's fault.
Google's Lollipop operating system simply isn't as fast as previous-generation Android KitKat, and the same effect occurs in the Moto G, although the Harrier is more glitch-prone than that budget favourite. Now that most budget phones are launching with Lollipop, it's clear Google has dropped the ball a bit here. Although the Harrier's memory management may not help either.
That said, its insides aren't to be sniffed at. The EE Harrier has a Snapdragon 615 CPU, an octa-core 1.5GHz chipset that's significantly more powerful than the Snapdragon 410 we see in phones a good deal pricier than this. It has 2GB RAM too. This is the sort of spec Samsung and Sony might charge £300 for: the Galaxy A7 has very similar specs and costs just that.
The question is: does a 50 per cent (or greater) price reduction help you to forgive the slightly trying bits?
Camera and battery life
It does get pretty hard to criticise the EE Harrier when you marvel at what it fits in for the price. Just look at the cameras: while loads of cheaper phones are starting to use the 13-megapixel rear, 5-megapixel front array of sensors (as you get here), they generally don't come in a phone quite this cheap.
As with any budget phone camera, actual performance is a patchwork of good and bad, but with a bit of patience and know-how you can get some sharp, punchy-looking photos.
The custom (likely manufacturer-derived) camera app is pretty good too, giving the impression of being highly responsive and fun to shoot with – even if, in reality, there is a bit of shutter lag going on. That's one of the bad bits.
Having used an opportunity to take the EE Harrier out shooting at the F1, we found the camera app gives the impression of lightning-fast response, but the actual moment of capture is not when the shutter sound is heard. It's not too much of an issue unless you're shooting action or HDR (high dynamic range) shots, though.
HDR has become an issue because they can end up blurry if you don't hold very still for the duration of capture. It's an odd one, as the Harrier actually crops into the image a little to let it perform what's effectively software stabilisation to avoid handshake and get the best possible results without ghosting.
In a similar fashion, the Harrier is also willing to use very long exposures of up to 1/6 of a second in low-light conditions, even though there's no proper image stabilisation. As a result, they're bright enough but certain to be at least a bit blurry unless you have the hands of brain surgeon.
It struggles with low-light conditions, though, producing ultra-soft shots when the ISO sensitivity rises, while its dynamic range performance is limited too. The HDR mode just isn't good enough to let it remotely deal with shots featuring high light contrast. Shots are also prone to purple fringing, and those featuring lots of fine detail can end up looking stressed, likely a result of software sharpening.
There needs to be some consideration of price here, of course. And the EE Harrier compares quite well with some big-name mid-range phones. For example, it's much less problematic than the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua camera in exposure and contrast terms, even though that phone is a good deal more expensive.
As with other areas, there are some elements you just have to deal with or get used to. But, thankfully, battery life isn't one of them. The EE Harrier's 2500mAh battery isn't a milliampere-maxing bruiser, but lasts commendably well. If you don't get at least into the early afternoon of the second day when away from the plug, you must be using the phone a considerable amount. It'll last for around 8.5 hours playing video non-stop: decent but not standard-setting. But then better performers at the price only get ahead by using lesser screens.
If you’re happy signing up with EE and can stomach the sort-of bling vibe, then the EE Harrier offers amazing value for a 4G smartphone.