The Huawei Blaze offers all the core specs required of any self-respecting Android phone. It has HSDPA mobile internet, GPS, a capacitive touchscreen and - rather impressively - the very latest version of Android for smartphones, Gingerbread 2.3.4.
If producing a smartphone was a mere box-ticking exercise, the Blaze would come out with a glowing report card. It's not, though, and there are a few sacrifices to accept here. The processor is only a 600MHz model, which rules-out Flash support and lag-free navigation.
Here's that custom UI in all its glory
It's not the snappiest 600MHz phone we've used either, outpaced in day-to-day use by the HTC Gratia, and skipping between menus will seem distinctly slow if you've used a 1GHz phone like the HTC Desire in your time. As it's not tied to a network, though, it's refreshingly free of the bloatware that blighted the Orange San Francisco. Network-branded phones rarely avoid the temptation to include apps linking to third-party app store X and music service Y, and such superfluous extras never fail to act as a lead weight to slow down overall performance.
The Blaze hasn't got away completely free of custom software, though. It uses a lightly customised interface designed by Huawei. This introduces its own icons, a shortcut dock on the bottom of your home screens and an optional HTC-style clock/weather widget. Unfortunately, it's not great. The menu transition animations look awkward, the dock and clock widget aren't very attractive, and the interface slows the phone down a bit. Thankfully, you're not tied to this custom user interface and can simply replace it using one of the Android Market's launcher apps.
The Blaze homescreen, now fully Feng Shui'd
We tried out Launcher Pro with the Blaze, which classed-up the look and sped-up general navigation. For a less subjective take on the phone's power, we ran the AnTuTu benchmarking tool too. It scored 1354 points, which is around the level expected of a 600MHz device with 256MB of RAM. It's a bottom-rung processor, but offers enough grunt for a decent Android experience. We'll look into the limits of its gaming skills later.
Minor lag is easy to get used to, but the more irritating navigational niggle of the Blaze is its picky soft keys. The back button in particular often fails to register thumb taps - because its touch sensitive area is just a little bit too small, misleadingly so as the accompanying icon is pretty big. Getting used to it is part of this particular device's learning curve, but even after days of solid use, we still fluffed the odd press. Sometimes we miss the good old days of clicky buttons.
The back button takes some getting used to
The capacitive touchscreen is fairly responsive, but can only sense two points of contact at once. This is enough for just about any multi-touch Android gesture we can think of - but demonstrates that some of the Blaze's components are just good, rather than class-leading. It's sufficient to make browsing comfortable though, enabling pinch zooming, while re-rendering of text is very snappy. Browsing is an activity that would benefit from an extra half-inch of screen, but with 3G on-board, browsing quickly virtually everywhere (if your network holds up its end of the deal) is a reality. Full Flash support is not present though, thanks to the underpowered CPU.
Using the standard keyboard layout, typing can feel slightly cramped and innaccurate in portrait mode, thanks to the fairly small 3.2in display. Just a small tweak was required to fix this. The included Touch Pal keyboard offers a "larger keys" setting, making typing at speed much more comfortable. As ever, other options are available from the Market. Typing on a slightly larger screen, such as the HTC Salsa's 3.4in number or the Orange San Francisco's 3.5in display, remains preferable.
The core OS is as cutting-edge as you could hope for, though. Android 2.3 doesn't offer any huge benefits over its predecessor - primarily adding interface tweaks that are partly lost when a custom UI is used - but it ensures excellent app support. Huawei tells us that updates are planned for the device too, and they will be relayed as automatic OTA (over the air) transmissions.