4G has been out of reach for anyone on a tight smartphone budget. Until now.
Meet EE’s Kestrel, a tweaked, rebadged Huawei Ascend G6 that the network’s selling for just shy of £100 or £14 a month on contract. At those prices, it’s promising to bring superfast downloads and smooth on-the-go streaming to the people.
But while the Kestrel ticks one box usually reserved for phones two or three times the price, it makes a few compromises in the name of low budget connectivity.
4G under £100
The Kestrel is a bit of a rare bird in these parts thanks to that LTE/£99 combination. It’s CAT4, too, which is capable of higher speeds (technically up to 150Mbps) than plenty of more expensive CAT3 LTE smartphones.
With an EE micro sim in place, the Kestrel performs noticeably faster than budget rivals stuck on 3G: from nippy browsing to streaming Netflix and downloading big Android game files. Coverage will mean speeds vary around the UK but we can vouch for south Central and SW London, at least.
The Kestrel has one problem, though. The £150 Moto G with 4G (and microSD slot) is due to land very soon and it’s a better buy in almost every way. If your budget can stretch, this will definitely be worth the wait.
A battery life to boast about
We said the EE Kestrel isn’t the best all-rounder - we’re getting to that - but one thing we can’t fault it on is battery life. Which is brilliant.
With a big (for the price) 2000mAh battery and without an insane number of pixels to push, the Kestrel can get on with letting you really take advantage of the 4G. It’ll last an awesome 12 hours of regular usage - that’s three hours round commute of web, music, games and messaging plus sporadic use throughout the day. And light users will find it easily lasts a day and a half.
The battery isn’t swappable - despite being able to crack open the Kestrel’s rear casing - but you shouldn’t need it to be.
Stick to snapping in good light
The EE's 5MP rear camera has a couple of things going for it - an LED flash, for one and a simple camera app - but even considering the bargain £100 price, it's only so-so in use. The flash is a bonus since rivals such as the Moto E and Nokia Lumia 630 go without but generally in low light, the Kestrel struggles.
This is less a party cam, then, and more suited to daytime shots when you're out and about.
Because in good light, the Kestrel takes nicely balanced, fairly detailed shots with accurate colours. Start sharing images beyond Facebook or viewing them on a big monitor and you'll start to see the lack of detail but generally, Instagram addicts will get on just fine.
It's very quick to flit between modes such as its Smart Auto and HDR modes and if you hold down the volume button you get a burst mode too. Digital zoom (up to 4x) matches the Moto G in that it's OK and just about usable if necessary. Plus there's gimmicks such as Sound and Shot as well as the usual filters if you want oddball features to play with. We don't but we're not here to judge.
The front camera is also a bonus as it's also missing on the Kestrel's rivals. It's only a 1MP affair and you might need to sit by a window for a decent Skype call but hey, it's better than nothing.
So while we're not bowled over by the Kestrel's camera skills and rivals such as the Lumia 630 are capable of taking better snaps, it's not as terrible as some sub-£150 smartphone snappers either.
READ MORE: Nokia Lumia 630 tested
A nice, natural screen but not HD
Here’s where we start to get into budget phone territory.
The Kestrel’s 4.5in 540x960 screen is bright and fairly easy to read outdoors. Plus it’s a good bet for fans of crisp whites and natural colours. Contrast is top notch, especially compared to lesser rivals. And hues - particularly skintones in movies - look impressively accurate with colours leaning towards the cooler end of the spectrum compared to warmer, punchier screens like Nokia’s Lumia 630.
Still, it’s not HD and it shows. Even the £90 Moto E is slightly sharper as it squeezes the same resolution into a smaller 4.3in screen. Everything from images to web articles to HD Google Play movie downloads benefits from the extra pixels of a 720p screen like the Moto G’s.
It’s not that the Kestrel’s screen is any worse than its low budget rivals, more that they’re all outshined by the incredible value on offer from Motorola’s star £100(ish) phone.
Screen: 4.5in 540x960
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core
OS: Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
Camera: 5MP rear, 720p video @30fps, 1MP (front)
Storage: 8GB (+ microSD)
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G/4G
Dimensions: 65.3 x 131 x 7.85mm
Looks and feels like a budget phone
This is budget Huawei hardware and it looks and feels the part..
The good news: the Kestrel is sturdily built, light at 145g and seriously slim - at 7.85mm it makes handsets like the Moto E and Lumia 630 look very, very chunky.
The bad? Other than a yellow EE logo on the back, the grey (or white) plastic design looks pretty cheap and uninspired. And even though it doesn’t have a huge handprint - this is a 4.5in phone - its straight edges mean it’s not as palm-friendly as a curvy, comfortable Moto. The three capacitive Android buttons look retro and aren’t always responsive too - we found ourselves hitting home a few more times than we’d like.
And to make way for the curved bottom edge, the headphone jack is on a side edge of the phone. That odd placement quickly gets annoying if the Kestrel is pocketed while listening to music on the go.
Why, Huawei, why?
A bit too much Emotion (UI)
Just as retro-looking as the Kestrel’s outward design is its Emotion UI, courtesy of Huawei.
EE has tried to spruce it up with colourful icons pointing to MY EE, to manage accounts, and its EE Film offers app. There’s also friendly touches for anyone new to Android - Amazon widgets with e-books, Cloud Player and app suggestions, a Wild Tangent widget for gamers and pre-installed apps such as Deezer. And there’s nice bonus features such as gestures like flipping to mute and raising to make calls.
Still, seasoned gadgeteers are probably better off with the almost-stock Android on the Moto E and Moto G. Irritatingly there’s no app drawer on the EE Kestrel for a start - just homescreens to fill - and performance when moving around the OS is slicker on Motorola devices. The interface has skeumorphic touches everywhere (there's a bit of a 70s colour scheme on default though themes can be changed) plus it’s running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean which is now out of date.
READ MORE: Moto E review
Quad-core performance - minus a little lag
Power on paper has trickled down to sub-£100 smartphones as both the EE Kestrel and its Windows Phone nemesis, the Nokia Lumia 630 boast quad-core processors.
Here, we have Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 clocked at 1.2GHz with 1GB of RAM and that means you can get away with playing intensive Android games like Real Racing 3 without throwing the Kestrel across the room. With a decent, Moto G-matching score of 17125 on AnTuTu, it makes sense too.
The Kestrel might have had a little crash when someone rang us in the middle of a gaming session but this should only happen occasionally. That said, it can be quite slow to open apps and generally move around the OS - Emotion UI may be to blame here. While it's not enough to put us off the Kestrel completely, the Moto G is a safer bet.
EE Kestrel Verdict
4G for this price is incredible value. It's not just the SIM only price that we're impressed with either. At £14 a month, 4G is no longer a luxury - in the UK at least.
The good battery life, expandable storage and front camera/flash will appeal to anyone looking for a practical smartphone on a budget. But it's not the full package we thought it might be.
It's just not as easy to love as an almost stock Android 4.3in Moto E or particularly its bigger brother, the Moto G, with its lovely HD screen and smooth performance.
If 4G is a must, the £150 Moto G with LTE is on its way too and is much more likely to stay put in pockets for the next 12 months than the EE Kestrel.