Talk about a pleasant surprise. The best prepaid smartphone in the U.S. comes from Huawei and Cricket, a manufacturer and a carrier that haven’t been bywords for quality in the past. But it’s true: the $249.99 Huawei Mercury, paired with Cricket’s terrific $55 contract-free monthly plan, beats other cell phones on Cricket, MetroPCS, Virgin, and Boost.
A gigantic Chinese manufacturer, Huawei has been slowly improving with time. It’s turned out a middling smartphone, the Impulse 4G for AT&T ($29.99, 3 stars), and a decent tablet, the Springboard 4G for T-Mobile ($249.99, 3.5 stars). The Mercury is a quantum leap for the company: a good looking Android smartphone, with great call quality, a sharp display, and a solid camera. It’s an easy pick for our Editors’ Choice.
Design, Call Quality, and Pricing The Huawei Mercury is the sharpest looking phone we’ve seen from Huawei to date. It measures 4.8 by 2.4 by .4 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.9 ounces. Though light and comfortable to hold, it feels like a substantial, quality device. Made entirely of shiny black plastic with a glass front panel, the Mercury has an appealing, minimalist-chic flair. That back panel is a bit smudge-prone, but it wipes clean whenever you put the phone in your pocket.
The Mercury’s 4-inch glass capacitive touch LCD screen has 854-by-480-pixel resolution, a notch above the more common 800-by-480. It looks sharp and bright, and I had no problem typing on the on-screen keyboard. Since this resolution is also used by Motorola’s super-popular Droid line, it didn’t seem to affect app compatibility. Four haptic feedback-enabled touch keys sit below the display. The Mercury is a tri-band EV-DO Rev. A (850/1900/AWS) device, with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. Outside Cricket’s native coverage area (about a third of the U.S. population), it runs on Sprint’s nationwide network. The phone connected to my WPA2-encrypted Wi-Fi network quickly and easily.
Reception on Sprint’s network was average, and voice quality was very good overall. Voices sound clear, full, and natural in the phone’s earpiece. On the other end, calls sound clear and easy to understand, with good noise cancellation. My only complaint is that voices can sound a touch muffled. Calls were clear through an Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars), and voice dialing worked well without training. The speakerphone also sounds good, but it’s far too low to hear outdoors. Battery life was excellent at 8 hours, 16 minutes of talk time. There’s no Wi-Fi hotspot mode, but that isn’t to be expected with this cheap a service plan.
Cricket offers smartphone plans with unlimited talk, text, and 1GB of data for $55/month, at least $5/month less than all the major carriers. Boost and Virgin both match that price, and Boost’s ‘shrinkage’ option can actually reduce your cost to $40/month as you pay your bills on time. MetroPCS has a $50/month plan with roughly the same terms as well. The Mercury is a better phone than all those carriers currently have, though.
OS, Performance, and Apps The Huawei Mercury runs Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread). There’s no word yet on an update to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Huawei has modified the UI, which will annoy lovers of stock Android, but I found most of the changes to be pleasant. In general, things look brighter and friendlier than stock Android; think back to TouchWiz 3.0 on the original Samsung Galaxy S and you’ll get the idea.
There’s some non-deletable bloatware from Cricket, but less than you’ll find on many other Android phones, which is nice. The phone syncs email, calendars, and contacts for Gmail and Microsoft Exchange accounts, and works with many other popular email accounts. The Android Market offers access to over 250,000 third-party apps, nearly all of which should work fine on this device. There’s also an FM radio, which worked well.
Powered by a 1.4GHz Qualcomm MSM 8655T processor, the Mercury isn’t designed to compete with top of the line, dual-core superphones, but you’re not going to find any of those kinds of phones at this prepaid price point. Still, the Mercury benchmarks at the top of its single-core class, and should provide more than enough power for casual usage, Web browsing, and gaming.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions The Mercury comes with 2.03GB of free internal memory. There’s also a microSD card slot beneath the battery cover, which is difficult to pry off. The phone had no trouble with my 32GB and 64GB SanDisk cards. Music tracks sounded perfectly clear through a set of Altec Lansing Backbeat Bluetooth headphones ($99.99, 3.5 stars) as well as a pair of wired earbuds. The music player has been given a flashy upgrade from stock Android; it was fast and responsive, and displayed album art when it was available. I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA files, but not FLAC.
Video playback isn’t as strong. The Huawei Mercury has somewhat limited video codec support. Videos play back at resolutions up to 720p, but I was only able to watch H.264 and MP4 files, not AVI, DivX, or XVID. Encode your videos appropriately (or use DoubleTwist to sync them) and you won’t have a problem.
The Mercury’s 8-megapixel camera is great. It snapped photos quickly, in about .3 second in my tests. Photos look sharp, with rich colors and accurate detail. The video camera is able to shoot 720p videos at a smooth 26 frames per both indoors and out. There’s also a VGA front-facing camera for self portraits and video chat.
If you’re a Cricket Wireless user looking for a great smartphone, the Huawei Mercury is a no-brainer. Your other best bet would be the Samsung Indulge, which we reviewed over on MetroPCS (3.5 stars). It has a nice physical QWERTY keyboard, but at $309.99, it’s more expensive than the Mercury, and lags behind it in every category.
Then there’s the Motorola Triumph ($299.99, 4 stars) on Virgin Mobile. It has a slightly larger display, but the Mercury is more powerful, has a nicer camera, and gets better reception. The Mercury’s other closest competitors would be the Samsung Galaxy Prevail ($149.99, 4 stars) and the Samsung Transform Ultra ($229.99) over on Boost Mobile. Both of those phones feature Boost’s $55 contract-free monthly rates, which can reduce to $40 per month over time. But neither feature specs nearly as advanced as those on the Mercury.
You can get advanced Android phones by going to T-Mobile’s Monthly 4G plans (or T-Mobile’s compadre Simple Mobile), but you’ll end up paying much more than the Mercury’s $249 price for similar hardware.
So if you’re looking for the latest, greatest contract-free smartphone, the Huawei Mercury is simply out of this world. We’re happy to give it our Editors’ Choice.