Introduction and design
EE launched its first own-brand smartphone last year named the EE Kestrel. Also bearing an avian name, this handset was a rebrand of the Huawei Ascend G6, and was very much a contender at the low end of the market, baring little other than 4G connectivity.
This year, EE has debuted two new handsets that keep the bird-theme alive: the Harrier and Harrier Mini. I’ve been having a look at the larger of the two handsets to see whether it can find a foothold in the middle market.
The Harrier from EE may not be perceived as a rival to top flight handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S6, but don’t let the lack of familiar branding fool you.
Pegged at the pay-as-you-go price of £199, the Harrier packs a pin-sharp 5.2-inch full HD screen, 16GB of storage (10.3GB of which is usable), a 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm processor backed by 2GB of RAM, 13MP rear camera and Android 5.0 Lollipop, which thankfully is not spoilt by any unnecessary third-party launchers.
On first inspection of the EE Harrier, you might be fooled into thinking that this handset shares some of the same aluminium construction as pricier phones such as the HTC One M9, but take a closer look and you’ll realise that as nice as the brushed metal effect rear looks, it is just that – an effect.
Overall build quality isn’t class-leading, but the phone feels reasonably solid and is devoid of some of the worrying plasticky creaks found on other budget phones.
Measuring 138 x 67.9 x 9.5mm, it’s a little chunkier than the Sony Xperia Z3, but is not quite as tall or wide, making it slightly easier to operate one-handed.
The smoothed edges also make it feel good in the hand, and give the impression that it’s slimmer than the 9.5mm thickness might suggest. Weighing in at 145g, it’s a little heavier than the low-end Huawei Honor 3C.
The Harrier’s screen is a surprisingly good 5.2-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 resolution screen – that equates to 435ppi. IPS technology means colours are punchy, although the standard brightness setting feels a little conservative compared to other handsets I’ve used.
It’s not as good as the AMOLED panel on the Moto X 2014, but is far superior to any other sub-£200 smartphone I’ve used.
Apart from the screen there’s little else to report upfront, with only the 2MP front-facing camera, thin earpiece grille and an inconspicuous set of auto brightness and presence sensors all positioned above the screen.
EE has chosen to ditch the capacitive buttons of the Kestrel in favour of Android Lollipop’s stock on-screen icons, which does use up some real estate in some apps, but ultimately means they are much more versatile and can rotate with the screen when necessary.
Returning to the rear of the phone, there’s a 13MP camera centred near the top of the handset, with LED flash directly beneath it. Smack-bang in the middle is a shiny EE logo, and towards the bottom of the handset is a thin grille hiding the diminutive speaker, unfortunately placed exactly where it’s most likely to get covered.
Almost half way down the right edge of the Harrier is the volume bar, which to me felt a little bit low to be comfortable when held in the right hand, but almost perfectly positioned for left-handed use.
The power/wake button is located a quarter of the way down the left edge, and is easily accessible, no matter which hand you hold it in.
Up top there’s a 3.5mm headphone socket, whilst the micro USB charging socket is centred on the bottom edge.
Unlike many new handsets, the insides of the Harrier are accessible once you remove the plastic back plate. This affords access to a micro-SD card slot as well as the micro-SIM slot, but curiously the 2,500mAh battery has been covered in a sticker that stops it being easily removed.
Features and interface
Whilst the core specifications are far from disappointing, there’s no single “wow” factor that sets the EE Harrier apart.
The speaker is lacklustre, there are no special camera functions to note comparable to the laser focus found on the LG G3, and you aren’t treated to novel features such as the fingerprint scanning found on many top smartphones including the Apple iPhone 6.
Call quality was good, and the inclusion of 4G connectivity up to 150mb/s alongside the standard 3G and HSDPA options is a welcome addition.
EE also includes Wi-Fi calling capability, meaning you can receive calls even if you’re on the Underground, in a basement or simply out of range of conventional signal range. Whilst it’s a neat feature, Three’s own Three in Touch app provides exactly the same functionality on almost any Android phone.
Another feature worth noting is NFC capability, meaning the Harrier is compatible with smart tags and future NFC-based payment systems that may be introduced.
It’s really pleasing to see that EE haven’t unnecessarily fiddled with the Android 5.0 Lollipop experience.
Apart from a couple of additional wallpapers, EE’s own account-checking app and a couple of pre-installed Amazon apps, the experience is about as close to that which you would find on one of Google’s own devices such as the Nexus 6.
This up-to-date OS means you get the full Google experience, and compatibility with any of the newer features such as Android Wear, Google Fit and any of their other official applications.
Applications can be accessed easily from the app drawer, which opens and closes with a pleasing animation, while notifications and settings can be accessed by swiping down once or twice from the top of the screen.
There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of home screens you can have on the Harrier: I added widgets to 11 home screens and still didn’t notice any slow-down.
As mentioned before, there are a couple of pre-installed apps, and while you can’t remove any of the Amazon versions, you can disable them – should you wish. Deezer, Lookout security, a games app and the handy Mailwize app are also installed and can’t be disabled, but there’s nothing too offensive and the app drawer doesn’t feel overly crowded.
Other handy apps worth noting are the FM radio and a voice recorder. EE’s own app allows you to check billing and other account details, and would be a necessary addition for any EE customer.
Performance and battery life
While many lower-priced smartphones source Mediatek processors, EE doesn’t cut corners with the Harrier, which packs a 64-bit octa-core Qualcomm 615 processor that runs at up to 1.5GHz (four 1.5GHz and four 1GHz cores).
Paired with 2GB of RAM, the Harrier doesn’t ever feel sluggish and happily runs modern games thanks to the Adreno 405 GPU. It’s the same processor found in the HTC Desire 820 and Oppo R5, though both handsets are around £100 more expensive than the Harrier.
This newer octa-core processor will help the Harrier squeeze out extra battery life compared to older quad-core models, and certainly means that the 2,500mAh should easily last a day’s use.
To give an indication of how the Harrier compares to other handsets, I installed Futuremark’s 3D Mark Ice Storm Extreme benchmark, which completed with an admirable score of 5,389, which actually comes out lower than older phones based on the Cortex A7 architecture.
Next I ran the all-encompassing GeekBench 3 benchmark, which awarded the Harrier a single-core score of 633 and a multi-core score of 2,255. Again, these results are not as high as some older phones, which I suspect is due to the lower clock speeds of the 615’s eight Cortex-A53 cores.
Despite the average benchmark scores, overall I was very impressed with the Harrier’s performance and stability in all of the apps I tried, it’s certainly the most powerful phone around for under £200 and even seems good value alongside the highly praised OnePlus One.
Although it may not be the largest capacity on the market, the 2,500mAh non-removable lithium-ion cell inside the Harrier from EE is actually only 500mAh less than the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is currently considered cream of the smartphone crop.
To give the battery a proper workout, I ran TechRadar’s tried-and-tested HD video for 90 minutes with the brightness turned up to full.
Over the course of the test, the battery dropped from 100% down to 78%. This 22% drop was actually quite impressive and shows that the lower-clocked cores of the Qualcomm’s 64-bit CPU are doing an admirable job of power-saving.
Battery life easily surpassed 24 hours, even with regular use of the camera, social apps and the odd bit of light gaming. When streaming a HD movie, over six hours of playback is easily achievable – better than some considerably pricier phones can provide.
Should you want to stretch out the battery life even further, there are options to fiddle with in the Smart Connectivity settings menu. This menu allows you to set off-peak times when data connections are disabled, or an even more aggressive power saving mode that disables data when the screen is turned off.
The essentials and camera
When it comes to texting and calling, the EE Harrier does all that you’d expect from a stock Android smartphone – but very little else. Contacts can be accessed directly from the lockscreen for quick calling, and the messaging app is basic, but functional.
Both Google Chrome and Android’s stock browser are installed and ready to use, but Chrome is still definitely the better of the two. Both include tabbed browsing, incognito mode, bookmarks that can be synched with your Google account and the other standard features of an Android browser.
Music playback is handled by Google’s own Play Music app, while photos can be accessed through the cloud-friendly Google Photos app – not the old-hat stock Gallery application found on older devices.
With 13 megapixels on the rear side of the Harrier and two upfront, this handset certainly isn’t short of pixels, but as certain brands have been trying to persuade us, it’s not the amount of pixels, but the quality that really counts.
Daylight shots come out fine with adequate amounts of detail on show, but as soon as conditions start to deteriorate, so does the quality of the snaps.
Sometimes when photographing bright white objects in daylight, I found there is obvious “bloom,” which gives subjects the appearance of a halo – usually a sign of a poor quality lens. Indoor shots under artificial lights often appear quite grainy, but fortunately the LED flash does compensate somewhat.
The 2 megapixel front-facing camera isn’t bad for social sharing of selfies but don’t expect too much when the shots are blown up and viewed on a larger screen, you’ll quickly notice the soft image processing and lack of contrast.
The camera app itself is one of the few aspects that deviates from Google’s own version, and although it’s still easy to use, features are pretty limited. Only automatic, HDR, night and panorama modes are available, with no manual settings to tweak.
The Harrier records video at up to 1,080p resolution, and has a 120FPS slow-motion mode and time-lapse mode for a bit of variation. As you might expect, video quality is crisp and can actually be rather impressive, while autofocus is also quite fast, meaning your subjects don’t get lost in a blur.
Whilst the camera quality isn’t up with the pack leaders, you’d have to be pretty picky to be too upset at the camera quality when compared to any other sub-£200 handset.
With the Harrier, EE has managed to get the combination of specifications, build quality and price pretty much spot on. Stock Android is very much welcome, especially compared to some of the frustrating homescreen replacements found on other budget handsets. And thanks to the octa-core processor, there’s not a hint of slowdown.
I would have liked to find a louder speaker in a better position, and the lack of notable features means it won’t stand out from the crowd, but there’s genuinely a lot to like about this own-brand handset, especially with the alluring sub-£200 price tag.
If you’re looking for a handset that won’t cost the earth on a monthly contract, the EE Harrier is most definitely a capable 4G phone for full HD gaming and movies. There’s also the EE Harrier Mini with a slightly slower processor and lower resolution screen, but at just £50 less, I’d recommend holding out for the fully fledged handset.
Overall the performance of the Harrier is very good, while the high-resolution screen is pretty impressive, making videos and photos look clear and crisp.
Despite not being removable, the battery has a good capacity and can easily last a full day without having to be conservative. MicroSD storage is a welcome addition, too.
Stock Android is very welcome indeed, and I’m glad EE didn’t choose to employ any kind of cheap overlays or themes to spice up Android Lollipop – an aesthetically pleasing OS that feels very fluid thanks to the octa-core processor.
The speaker is a bit of a disappointment. It sounds hollow, lacks any real punch, and is in a poor position, so you’ll need headphones to make the most of movies or music.
Camera quality is not ground-breaking, and indoor shots suffer from graininess unless you leave the LED flash on continuously.
Also, despite the favourable stock Android experience, it’s a little marred by the non-removable apps from Amazon and others, although you can disable any you don’t intend to use.
EE has squeezed all that is currently possible into a £200 smartphone, and the Harrier doesn’t have any major downfalls as a result. The performance is comparable to phones at least £100 more expensive, and overall the feature list doesn’t miss out anything you would expect from any handset below a flagship.
If you’re looking for a speedy 4G handset with good battery life, crisp screen and expandable storage for plenty of media, then the Harrier might just be worth a punt. Gone are the days where choosing a carrier-branded phone meant accepting second best. This bird does EE’s brand proud and is ready to leave the nest.
First reviewed: April 2015
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