Introduction and design
With its £99 price tag and sub-5-inch display, the EE Harrier Mini is clearly the direct successor to last year’s EE Kestrel. But has the market for affordable, respectably built 4G phones moved on too much for the UK network’s new phone to wow in the same way?
If you cast your mind back to early 2014, access to the UK’s emerging 4G networks was reserved for high-end phones with premium specs and price points. EE changed all of that with the EE Kestrel.
Here was a phone that provided blistering broadband-like data speeds over your mobile network (if you lived in a major town or city, at least) for a fifth of the price of an iPhone 5S.
The subsequent launch of the second generation Moto G and Moto E, plus a whole bunch of cheap Lumias, has all but obliterated the Kestrel’s unique selling point – and these rivals offer superior hardware to boot.
The EE Harrier Mini looks to restore the UK network’s advantage with some notably improved specs, all for the same low price.
The EE Harrier is a completely different machine to the EE Kestrel, something that’s evident from the moment you first open that bright yellow box and hold the device in your hand.
At 138 x 67.9 x 9.5mm, it sits in the hand nicely, and it’s not too heavy at 124g. Coming straight from a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, which has a similar-sized screen, it felt flabbier yet flimsier and a lot less solid. But then, that’s no disgrace against one of the best-built phones out there – and one that costs three or four times the money.
From the front, the Harrier Mini is a pleasingly blank slate of almost Nexus proportions, with plain black bezels and an all-glass frontage. There are no capacitive buttons this time, with the three main Android controls handled in the OS itself.
This serves to reduce the size of the Harrier Mini’s bezels compared to the EE Kestrel, but it’s a shame the manufacturer, Ben-Q, didn’t go further. Such are the constraints of building a modern phone to an extreme budget, I suppose.
From the back it’s a very different story, with a slightly shiny, brushed metal effect cover that puts me in mind of the HTC One M9. That’s dispelled as soon as you touch it, of course, as it’s pure plastic.
This slightly chintzy feel continues with the mirrored EE symbol and a slightly gaudy yellowy-gold camera surround.
A final point to make on the rear of the Harrier Mini is its speaker placement. Sitting on the back of the phone is hardly ideal for clarity as it is, but its position towards the bottom also makes it all too easy to cover the speaker with your hand.
The physical side buttons are simple plastic affairs that are a little too spongy and wobbly, but the main issue with them is that they’re oddly positioned. We’ve all grown accustomed to having both power and volume controls on the right edge of our phones, but here the power button has been relocated to the left edge.
It’s perfectly reachable, but it might require a surprisingly lengthy relearning process before reaching for the power becomes instinctual. I found that this irritation was exacerbated by the lack of a double-tap to wake function in the Harrier Mini’s software.
All in all, the Harrier Mini lacks the restrained classiness and premium feel of Motorola’s budget handsets, but at least it’s distinctive.
Arguably the biggest and most obvious improvement over the EE Kestrel is the EE Harrier Mini’s display. It’s both bigger and sharper, with the older phone’s 4.5-inch qHD (that’s quarter high definition, or 960 x 540) screen replaced by a 4.7-inch 1,280 x 720 example.
No, it’s not the Full HD display of the larger EE Harrier, but 720p is more than adequate for screens of this size. The aforementioned Sony Xperia Z3 Compact has the same resolution, while even the iPhone 6 isn’t far off.
Basically, the EE Harrier Mini’s screen is plenty sharp enough, and we’re glad to see such a resolution appearing in the entry-level market.
Unfortunately, though, resolution isn’t the whole story when it comes to producing crisp images. The picture appears washed out and even a little murky and grainy, while colours lack the pop and contrast of handsets just slightly further up the cost chain (such as the Moto G).
Still, as budget smartphones go, the EE Harrier Mini’s display is pretty decent.
Clearly the main attraction of the EE Harrier Mini will be its £99 price tag which, when combined with the assurance of being an official product of the UK’s biggest mobile network, will inspire many an impromptu purchase.
But EE’s name on the back of the device counts for far more than just a seal of approval. It means that the Harrier Mini provides access to the most advanced network in the country.
EE’s 4G reach is unmatched by the other three major networks, providing high data speeds across a good proportion of the country. Even in areas where you can’t get EE coverage, the company is aggressively expanding its reach like no other.
In my part of the country, I have decent 4G coverage through Three when out and about, but this doesn’t extend inside my flat. With the EE Harrier Mini it does – albeit fairly weakly.
The other key EE-related feature here – and one that’s now far more unique than cheap 4G – is Wi-Fi calling. The EE Harrier Mini is the cheapest way to access this handy feature.
So what is Wi-Fi calling? It really is as simple as it sounds, meaning that the EE Harrier Mini will use an available Wi-Fi connection to make voice calls and send texts where necessary.
You might think that this is nothing special, and that we’ve had VoIP calling for years. That’s true, but true Wi-Fi calling is special because it integrates the feature seamlessly into your everyday usage, with no separate apps or settings.
You won’t even notice that it’s in operation – it just goes about its business vastly expanding your phone’s connectivity without any fuss. It’ll be particularly useful for those who suffer from troublesome indoors black spots.
The final key feature of the EE Harrier Mini is also incredibly simple – but sadly all too rare. As before, EE has packed its phone with stock Android, and in this case that means Android 5.0 Lollipop.
We’re big fans of Google’s latest mobile OS version. It’s crisp, stylish, intuitive, and it handles notifications better than any of its rivals.
There’s more detail about this interface in the next section, but for now suffice to say that its inclusion in a non-Nexus device still feels bizarrely special. EE deserves praise for leaving well alone – something that Samsung, HTC, and LG in particular seem frustratingly unwilling to do.
Performance and battery life
Even if you warm to the EE Harrier Mini’s design flourishes and overlook the limitations of its display, you’ll realise it’s a budget phone the moment you log in to your Google account and start the usual app update process.
This initial procedure instantly highlights the EE Harrier Mini’s performance shortcomings. Its 1.2GHz quad-core processor backed by 1GB of RAM will see you through the phone’s home screens and single, simple, isolated tasks just fine.
But the moment there’s something intensive going on in the background – such as a bunch of apps updating – you’ll encounter noticeable stutters and pauses.
If we were to point a finger, it would probably be at that 1GB of RAM, which increasingly seems insufficient for a modern Android-powered phone – though it’s still par for the course at this price point.
Indeed, the Harrier Mini holds its own next to similarly priced phones like the Moto E in our standard Geekbench 3 benchmark test. An average multi-core score of 1,499 puts it ever so slightly ahead of the Moto E at 1421, and well ahead of its predecessor, the EE Kestrel, at 1,190.
Going back to that topic of limited memory for a second, now would perhaps be a good time to mention the EE Harrier Mini’s severe lack of internal storage. 4GB is simply too small an amount of default storage, budget handset or no – and there’s actually only 3.69GB available once the Android OS has taken its slice.
Yes, there’s a microSD slot for expansion purposes, but Android 5.0’s management of such additional storage remains fiddly and limited. You’re completely unable to shift across the core apps that come pre-installed, which leaves you critically short of space for additional apps from the off. I found myself bumping up against the limits and juggling installed apps alarmingly quickly.
In particular, trying to download some of the richer games on the Google Play Store in order to test the phone’s performance proved an impossibility without hefty app and media pruning.
Again, this isn’t uncommon among cheaper phones, but it’s a problem that needs pointing out.
Hardware issues aside, the EE Harrier Mini is a pleasant and fairly slick device to use, and that’s largely thanks to the stock Android 5.0 Lollipop OS.
When you consider some of the cheap and nasty smartphones with their ugly custom UIs that you used to get for £100 not so long ago, this really is a massive step forward.
The notification system alone is worth the meagre price of entry, with tactile lock screen and drop-down banners that enable you to reply and interact there and then.
I’m also pleased to see that Google’s Ambient Display feature has been included, which provides a low-power black and white preview of new notifications, along with the time. Tap this and you’ll be taken to the full-colour lock screen, and from there you can respond to the notification.
The only visible sign of EE meddling with the stock Android 5.0 OS is an ugly ad widget and one for Amazon, both of which can be removed with minimal hassle. EE has packed in its own camera app as well, which isn’t the best I’ve ever encountered – but I’ll deal with that in the appropriate section.
Peel off the EE Harrier Mini’s disconcertingly flimsy back plate and you’ll spot its 2,000mAh battery. Like the Kestrel before it, you can’t remove this power pack, which is a bit of a shame given the easy access.
However, that’s about the biggest complaint I have when it comes to the Harrier Mini’s battery. There are no issues with the amount of time it lasts in between charges.
The usual TechRadar battery test involves playing a 90 minute, 720p video with the screen brightness turned right up, and seeing how much battery life it leaves you with.
The average score I got with the EE Harrier Mini was 75%, which is pretty standard for a modern smartphone of this size and nature. More importantly, perhaps, it represents a 5% improvement over the EE Kestrel. Considering that phone had a lower resolution display, that’s quite an achievement.
It’s also pretty much even stevens with the 2014 Moto G.
Of course, few EE Harrier Mini owners will be watching full-length movies on it day-to-day, I suspect. Fortunately, where the phone’s stamina really shows through is in general day to day usage.
I found that I could sail through a day of moderate usage, including taking a whole bunch of photos, watching some brief videos, some light web browsing, making a five minute phone call, and dealing with the usual stream of notifications, with plenty of power to spare.
In fact, switch the phone onto airplane mode or off altogether overnight, and you’ll be able to last through a good portion of the following day too.
Thanks to the inclusion of stock Android 5.0, the EE Harrier Mini is a pleasant phone to use for the everyday essentials.
Android Lollipop’s regular dialler is much improved over previous versions, with a clean design and a smart dialler that will provide smart contact predictions as you type out the number.
When you hit the call button and connect to those contacts, you’ll find that call quality is clear enough – though not as strong as more expensive handsets. You don’t seem to get quite the same level of ambient noise reduction as you would if you had spent another £100 or so on a phone, but I didn’t experience any dropped calls.
On the messaging front, EE has gone with the slightly old fashioned Messaging app from Android versions past. This relic of the Android 4.X era looks and feels a little clunky and out of place on stock Android 5.0 – especially surrounded by the rest of Google’s Material Design-inflected apps.
You also get Google’s Hangouts pre-installed as standard, which gives you the option of running your SMS messages through it. This is a much more faithful Android 5.0 experience, but it might be a little fiddly and convoluted for some, particularly if you have no interest in using Hangouts’ IM and video calling elements.
Either way, you might want to consider downloading Google’s new Messenger app from the Google Play Store, which basically provides the simple functionality of the default one with the fresh Material Design flourishes of Hangouts.
Whichever messaging app you choose to go with, you’ll be using Google’s own keyboard as standard. This is a good thing, as it’s quick, accurate, reliable, easy on the eye, and flexible. You can tap out messages or swipe-to-type without having to change anything in the settings, there’s a powerful word prediction system that learns from your inputs, and there are even several themes to choose from.
Naturally there are plenty of third party alternatives to choose from on the Google Play Store if you don’t get on with this stock keyboard, but most people won’t need them.
Web browsing on the EE Harrier Mini is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, Chrome is clearly presented as the default browser. The other, generic Android browser is also present, but at least it’s kept tucked away in the app menu.
Actually viewing websites here is generally sound, but I encountered a couple of anomalies. At times it almost feels like you’re doing so on a much less sharp display.
I noticed an ugly grid-like effect that was particularly visible on certain websites with heavy blocks of colour – particularly reds and greys. The issue wasn’t apparent on other devices with displays of a similar size and resolution.
In most situations this doesn’t seem to be a problem, I should note, but it appears enough to be a distraction.
I’ve mentioned how the EE Harrier Mini’s single rear-mounted speaker is far from ideally placed, and even unobstructed its output is fairly weedy. It’s perfectly loud and clear enough for casual video watching, but we wouldn’t recommend consuming anything deeper like movies or music without a set of headphones or speakers.
We’ve experienced a notable rise in budget smartphone camera quality in recent times, and the EE Harrier Mini would appear to confirm that. It’s an 8-megapixel unit, which is much higher than the 5-megapixel standard we’ve grown used to.
By default, however, you’ll find that it’s set to take 6-megapixel snaps in a 16:9 aspect ratio. Bump it up to full 8MP and you’ll be forced into a squarer 4:3 view, with thick black borders appearing in the app accordingly.
Regardless of aspect ratio, though, you can capture some reasonable images in ideal conditions. It’s certainly capable of far more than we used to expect from sub-£100 smartphones – at least when it comes to evenly lit close-to-medium distance shots.
As soon as you switch to taking anything more challenging, such as a landscape shot with any kind of variance in dynamic range, the Harrier Mini struggles. There’s an HDR mode here, but it doesn’t kick in automatically. This turns out to be a good thing, because it’s not very good at all.
Hit the HDR toggle and you’re in for some weird, unreal shots filled with fuzzy edges and over-exposed mid-ground elements. You’re better off leaving the HDR toggle off most if not all of the time.
The camera app, too, is a bit of a misstep. It appears to be a custom job from EE, and while the controls are intuitive and well laid out, there are a couple of issues.
It can very slow to boot up for one thing – though inconsistently so. Sometimes it was there as soon as I pressed the camera app icon, while sometimes it seemed to take seconds to appear.
Another thing I found irritating was the Motorola-like touch-to-shoot system that EE has employed as its default setting. While you touch the screen to focus, like on any other smartphone, here you’ll also automatically take a snap whenever you do.
That would be tolerable if the focusing system was more reliable. As it is, you’ll often find yourself taking lots of out-of-focus snaps of the same thing, when all you wanted to do was find the right level of focus and then use the shutter button (which still exists here) to take a single accurate shot.
Fortunately you can toggle this off, but how many EE Harrier Mini buyers will even think to fiddle with the menus in this way, I wonder?
Talking of the menu toggles, I also found that the Harrier Mini would take these touch-to-shoot snaps when I was in fact touching the edge area where the settings commands live.
Again, all of these criticisms should be tempered by the fact that this is a budget smartphone. You’re still getting a fair performance for your £100, and you’ll certainly take the odd snap that will surprise you with its quality. Regardless of budget, however, the Harrier Mini’s camera simply isn’t consistent or reliable enough.
The EE Harrier Mini is another strong budget offering and a step forward from last year’s Kestrel in many ways, but stronger competition and raised expectations leave us somewhat less impressed this time around.
The EE Harrier Mini is a neatly designed budget smartphone with a number of stand-out features we’re not used to seeing at this price point.
The 4.7-inch 720p display offers a well-sized and unusually sharp picture for such an affordable phone.
We’ve grown used to seeing 4G in cheaper handsets now, but EE’s Wi-Fi calling is a less common – but no less useful – way to boost coverage.
Almost as rare is the device that runs stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, but the EE Harrier Mini joins this exclusive club, and benefits greatly from the clean, polished experience it provides.
EE has done well to mask the Harrier Mini’s budget underpinnings, but they show through in a number of ways.
From the slightly drab display to some noticeable performance issues when under load, the Harrier Mini can’t quite escape its bottom-of-the-barrel parts list.
Nowhere is that more apparent – or more painful – than in the Harrier Mini’s lack of internal storage, which bites a lot quicker than we would have liked.
While the 8-megapixel camera initially appears to punch above its budget, it’s a little too inconsistent and limited in real world usage.
EE has turned out another strong, pocketable budget phone with a number of stand-out specifications. It’s tough to find a phone that ticks as many boxes for just £100.
Box ticking doesn’t always equate to real world usage however, and when you put the Harrier Mini to work its limitations soon manifest themselves. Inconsistent is the word that springs to mind here, both in terms of general performance and particularly the phone’s photographic capabilities.
Unfortunately for EE, the Harrier Mini finds itself flanked in price terms by the second-generation Moto E and Moto G, and both present slightly more solid, balanced, and appealing packages overall.
First reviewed: April 2015
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