What is the EE Kestrel?

The EE Kestrel is the cheapest 4G _phone_ to come to the UK so far. You can get it for £100 with a small credit top-up, making it around half the price of most other entry-level 4G phones. This makes the Kestrel a great buy if 4G is a must and you only have £100 to spend, even if in several respects it’s not quite as good as the Moto G, our current budget Android _phone_ favourite.

EE Kestrel 7

EE Kestrel – Design

The EE Kestrel is very similar to the Huawei Ascend G6. The reason why is simple – this is basically a rebranded Ascend G6, but with a few spec tweaks to get the phone down to its current alluring price.

Like every phone this cheap, the Kestrel is made of plastic.

At 7.85mm thick, the Kestrel makes the Moto G and Galaxy Fame look like fat phones. This is a phone that’s very easy to use in one hand too, and slips into all pockets with no issues. It’s not quite as good-looking as the Moto G, though.

Things like the all-too-clear painted on soft keys don’t look all that stylish, and are common to most of Huawei’s cheaper phones. The grey-on-black body is not an outright beauty either, but for a sub-£100 phone it’s not too bad at all. The bottom of the phone is curved, which is one of the consistent traits of Huawei’s P and G phones, giving a hint of design missing from anonymous entry-level Androids.

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EE Kestrel 3


There is one more annoying design trait, though. The 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the bottom-left edge of the EE Kestrel, which means any straight headphone jack will likely point into your pocket should you listen to music with the phone. It’s not the most sensible move, even if it does look neat next to the phone’s curvy bottom.

EE Kestrel 11


The microUSB port is on the top – another trade-off for that curved bottom – but aside from ruling-out being able to dock the phone the right way up, there are not major downsides to this choice.

The Kestrel is also a very practical phone for day-to-day use. Small enough to handle easily in one hand yet big enough to web browse, play games and watch videos on comfortably, the EE Kestrel is definitely a phone that deserves to be hawked out to a large, mainstream crowd.
EE Kestrel 9


EE Kestrel – Screen

A big part of the EE Kestrel’s great accessibility is the screen's size. It is 4.5 inches across, the same size as the Moto G. It is also a good deal better than some of the Huawei phone screens we saw last year: while the Kestrel is EE branded, the phone is actually made by Huawei.

With a 960 x 540 pixel resolution, the EE Kestrel display is not super-sharp, but it’s not bad either. It’s far sharper than, for example, the Samsung Galaxy Fame – a phone that still sells for around £100.

The exact screen type is an IPS LCD. It ensures better viewing angles than many very cheap phones, and provides a pretty good all-round screen experience.

There are some compromises in contrast, black level and colour, which make the EE Kestrel look slightly anaemic compared with more expensive phones. But this is a screen we’d be more than happy to live with.

EE Kestrel

Happy, that is, if we hadn’t already experienced the Moto G. The Motorola Moto G offers a much better screen and sells for the same price. It brings sharper images, better colour, and significantly better contrast for a picture that pops that bit more.

If we hadn’t already met the Moto G we’d be pretty happy with the EE Kestrel’s screen, but it’s too late for us now. And the difference isn’t just aesthetic – the Moto G display is much better for browsing, playing games and – of course – watching films/TV episodes.

Looking at other competition, though, the EE Kestrel comes off much better. Other cheap 4G phones, like the HTC Desire 610 and Sony Xperia M2, cost upwards of £200 and have larger screens of the same somewhat-limited resolution.

As an extra value-add, the EE Kestrel comes with a screen protector attached, and having one applied in the factory means you don’t have to worry about air bubbles: it’s far too easy to end up with a bubbly screen if you add one yourself.

One possible reason for the protector is that the phone uses a Schott toughened glass layer rather than the better-known Gorilla Glass 3. This is likely a cost issue, but the Scott glass seems pretty hardy regardless - we're yet to pick up a scratch.

As handy and thoughtful as this protection is, you do need to remove the protector to get the best image quality from your EE Kestrel. A layer of plastic introduces a slight mottling effect to areas of block white in particular – which doesn’t show off this generally good screen in the best light.

EE Kestrel –  Software

It is in the EE Kestrel’s software that we see the most obvious influence of the company that made this phone – Huawei. The Kestrel runs a slightly out-of-date version of Android, 4.3, and on top there is a custom interface known as the Emotion UI.

This is used in Huawei’s own phones, to set them apart from the scores of other Androids.

It has a few of its own ideas, some of which take a bit of getting used to. Its most important change is in getting rid of the home screens-apps menu divide of ‘normal’ Android.

Instead, everything happens on the EE Kestrel’s home screens. If you have an app installed, it has to live somewhere on a home screen.
 

This offers-up potential for making your Kestrel a confusing mess, but you can use folders to sort out your apps, and you can have up to nine home screens.

This layout makes the EE Kestrel seem a bit like an iPhone at first glance, but the Emotion UI is a bit less accessible than iOS. You can’t, for example, automatically re-organise your homescreens’ layouts. And having to consider widgets alongside all your apps requires that bit more thought when setting up your phone.

It’s this extra bit of effort required that makes Emotion UI a bit of an iffy custom interface – many people don’t want to have to work to get their phone feeling as it should.
 


Themes, the one other key feature of Emotion UI, create a similar problem. The EE Kestrel’s themes let you dramatically reskin your phone with different looks, including new app icons, wallpapers, lock screens and so on.

You get four themes pre-installed from the start, but we’ve seen better Emotion UI themes out there than the ones that come included. None have quite the simple and clear style other mobile software systems are striving for at the moment.

While it’s not well advertised, you can download other themes for the EE Kestrel online. But the vast majority are only found on the Chinese Emotion UI portal. Where everything is written in Chinese. Nice work, Huawei.

If an iOS-like look is what you’re after, though, you can get it. Check out the ‘Flat style’ theme at this website. For non-Chinese speakers, here's a direct link to the Theme seen in some of these photos.

See what we mean? Huawei has not made it easy to like Emotion UI, and EE has done nothing to help.
Kestrel photos 1


However, there’s less of a performance drain than we’ve seen in some other Huawei phones. Flicking through the EE Kestrel’s interface is mostly quick and smooth, and much of our testing was blessedly bug-free. We can’t say the same of all of Huawei’s older phones.

There are some performance trade-offs that come with the £99.99 price, though. Some games seem to take an awful long time to load, for example, even if the actual performance during play is quite good.

Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 is the top example. It runs remarkably well during races on the EE Kestrel, but loading the game, and loading races during play, takes a while: longer than you’d expect in a pricier phone.

This largely comes with the territory of a phone with 1GB of RAM, though.

The EE Kestrel’s CPU is a Snapdragon 400, a quad-core 1.2GHz chipset seen in lower-end and some mid-range phones. It’s the best we could hope for in a sub-£100 phone, and is shared by the superb Motorola Moto G. Several £200-odd phones use it too – the £200 HTC Desire 500 uses an even slower version of the same chipset.

EE Kestrel – Apps

There are few apps and games compromises here – the EE Kestrel can run most things. It is, like most network-branded phones, loaded with some bloatware, though.

As well as the full Google suite it has a pair of EE apps, the full Amazon app suite, a half-dozen ‘recommended’ apps, a dozen utilities and a few other Huawei bits. The EE Kestrel is packed with apps, many of which you may never use. And most are a bit ‘jumble sale’ in their presentation.

What annoys us the most is how much this cuts into your internal memory. There’s 8GB of storage, but you only get access to 3GB of it (granted, it could be a lot worse).
Kestrel photos

One of the few interesting app extras is phone Manager. This is a way to clean up your phone without having to delve too deep into the EE Kestrel’s Settings menu.

It lets you alter power settings, get rid of unnecessary data, close down apps and setup a black list. Getting harassed by unwanted admirers? The EE Kestrel will sort you out.

EE Kestrel – Camera

The EE Kestrel has a pretty basic camera setup. There’s a 5-megapixel sensor on the back and a 1-megapixel one on the front. You get a rear flash too, finishing off what is a complete – if basic – camera array.

Performance is fairly similar to what you get with a Moto G. We wouldn’t be surprised if the two cameras used the same sensor. We’ll take a closer look at image quality in a moment.



First, a look at the interface. The EE Kestrel has a simple but extremely easy and intuitive camera app. You shoot with your right thumb and change settings with your left.

The phone puts the right settings at your fingertips too. Core modes like HDR, Smart and Panorama can be switched to in a second, while others are kept further under the surface. After complaining about the custom Emotion UI interface, we’re impressed by the no-nonsense approach to the camera app.

If you don’t want to use the virtual shutter button you can also touch-to-shoot or use the volume up button.

Kestrel camera


Back to image quality, the EE Kestrel provides the sort of detail we expect of a 5-megapixel camera. You wouldn’t want to blow up and print out these shots but they’ll do the job for the less serious Instagram’ers out there. Photos tend to look a bit brighter and more colourful than those you get from a Moto G, too, even if colour accuracy is not too great.

The EE Kestrel trades away some natural-ness in order to get sharper, more vibrant-looking shots.



The most apparent issues include that the focus is at times a little unreliable – we had to take multiple shots of the same subject just to be sure. Shots are also frequently riddled with purple fringing, where the edges of high light contrast objects turn purple. Check it out:


There's loads of purple fringing in evidence here

Like most cheaper phones, the EE Kestrel struggles when trying to capture scenes of tricky lighting, but a pretty a solid HDR mode is there to help out. HDR reduces overexposure and increases shadow detail, and is very handy when shooting scenes where the sun is just out of view.

In low-light scenes, the EE Kestrel also struggles to render much detail without the flash and tends to get the white balance a bit wrong with the flash on. But, hey, this is a £99 phone – let’s keep our expectations realistic. Here are a few more samples:


The HDR mode is OK, and is useful for tricky lighting


Even in great lighting pics are a bit grainy, but when zoomed-out it doesn't matter too much


There's very little blurring out of backgrounds when shooting close-ups (this is a bad thing. p.s. cake)

The other two sides of the EE Kestrel’s camera performance are video capture and the front-facing camera. They’re both basic. But, again, more-than-acceptable in a cheap phone.

Video capture tops out at 720p resolution with both cameras and there’s no video HDR mode to make dynamic range a bit better. You’ll see the same purple fringing that we demonstrated in the Kestrel’s stills, too.

The front-facing camera is a mere 1-megapixel sensor, but it’s fairly good. Colour reproduction is nice and relaxed to avoid giving you red-faced selfies, and 720p video is enough for decent video chat. It won’t give you world-class selfies like the EE Kestrel’s brother from another mother the Ascend P7. But, again, for the price we’re happy.

Huawei Kestel – Connectivity

One of the main attractions of the Huawei Kestrel is something we tend to gloss over in top-end phones these days – 4G. It’s a standard feature in expensive phones, but we’ve never reviewed a sub-£100 one with it.

This is a CAT4 phone, meaning it’s capable of speeds of up to 150Mbps – that’s up to 18.75MB downloaded a second. Unless you live in South Korea, that’s probably much, much faster than your home broadband connection.


You won’t get these sorts of speed from current 4G plans in the UK, but when/if our infrastructure gets good enough (it won’t), the EE Kestrel has the bandwidth to cope. Using an EE SIM in the UK, we got speeds of around 25mbps download and 35mbps upload. It’s not 150mbps, but is still super-fast.

Not all 4G phones get CAT4 LTE, either. Some only have CAT3, which caps at 100mbps.

Kestrel photos 2

A speed test using the Kestrel and a 4G EE SIM (location: London)

Speed is seen as the main benefit of 4G, but for some of you it will also improve your mobile internet coverage. This is thoroughly dependent on where you live, but I can provide a specific example.

There are mobile internet blackspots in my daily wok commute. For half the train ride I'm left without a connection (on O2), but with the EE Kestrel coverage is much more even and reliable. Naturally, this is partly down to network, not just connection type. Still, thumbs up.

When making old-fashioned calls with the Kestrel, the phone puts in a predictably unremarkable performance. It has a secondary mic for active noise cancellation, but the earpiece speaker is a little weak-sounding compared with phones that put a bit more effort into improving call quality.

However, we didn't experience any odd signal drop-outs.


EE Kestel – Battery Life

The EE Kestrel gets a lot of things right. But its slim body did have us seriously worried about its battery. Was stamina being traded away for a slim profile?

Our fears were largely unwarranted. Despite being thin, the EE Kestrel fits in a 2,000mAh battery, a respectable capacity for this size of phone.
 


With light-to-moderate use we were able to squeeze around two days’ use out of the phone, which is roughly on-par with the Moto G. Stamina will be helped by the use of 4G, which is less power-hungry than 3G. The Kestrel also performed extremely well in our video playback test.

It lasts for around 14 hours when playing back a 720p MP4 video file at medium brightness. That’s a remarkable performance, and one that gives us a bit more confidence about the efficiency of Huawei’s take on Android in its current form.

 
Kestrel photos 3


Give the Kestrel more to deal with than light tasks, though, and your chances of two-day battery stamina will go out the window. Its Cortex-A7-based CPU excels at offering good battery efficiency with low-level tasks, but under the strain of, for example, 3D gaming you’ll soon see your battery plummet.

And, despite having a removable back cover, you cannot remove or replace the EE Kestrel’s battery manually. You cannot arm yourself with a spare battery – although an external battery will do the trick.


Should I buy the EE Kestrel?

As well as offering a lot for not much money, one key aspect the EE Kestrel has aced is its timing. It’s among the first super-low-cost 4G phones. And that means there will be more before too long.

However, at present it seems that most will cost a bit more than the Kestrel. The 4G Moto G is set to cost £149, the Sony Xperia M2 around £200 and the HTC Desire 610 potentially a little more still.

Are these phones better than the Kestrel? Yes, probably. Are they 100 per cent better? Absolutely not.

The EE Kestrel is here for people on a tight budget who want to experience 4G, and for that purpose it’s a corker. It is a slight shame, though, that the phone’s software needs a little more tweaking than most rivals to get the most out of. We imagine that many Kestrel buyers may not have the tech knowledge or the inclination to put this groundwork in.

Verdict

It lacks a few finishing touches of phones twice the price but the EE Kestrel is an accomplished 4G phone that offers superb value for money without too many compromises.

Next, read our best cheap mobile phones round-up or our Android 4.4 tips, tricks and secrets guide