It isn't easy being an Android smartphone maker these days. Your flagship handsets are scrutinised for cutting-edge features, yet they're criticised if these features seem to be unnecessary, or are unnecessarily complicated.
Ever faster multicore processors are sometimes deemed by reviewers to be faster than needed, with the trade-off between power consumption and responsiveness often cited. Higher-resolution screens can be dismissed, as there comes a point where pixel count goes beyond being a factor in smooth text and graphics rendition. What's a manufacturer to do in the face of such criticism?
One area where Android handset makers can make a mark — for better or worse — is in user interface design. Huawei's latest attempt to make Android more user-friendly is an option on its new entry-level smartphone, the Ascend Y530.
With a list price of £149.95 (inc. VAT) SIM-free (now available from Argos at £119.99 inc. VAT), the Ascend Y530 will appeal to first-time Android users, who Huawei suspects may be put off by the complexity of the standard Android user interface. So, alongside Huawei's standard skin for Android 4.3, the company offers what it calls a Simple Android Interface (SAI) on the Ascend Y530.
The multi-screened standard Android skin is easily swapped with a much simpler trio of screens offering large shortcut icons. You can personalise many of these icons to link to a frequently used app, or your most contacted friends or colleagues.
It is not a bad idea in itself, but it does fall down in some key respects.
The default UI is the standard Huawei-skinned version of Android. To access the SAI you have to go into Settings — and in so doing you'll prove that you can navigate the standard UI.
The large icons on the SAI can't all be customised. You don't have the option to remove the weather app, phone, messaging, people or camera links from the first screen, or the calendar from the second screen. You can, however, remove the link that takes you back to the standard view from the third home screen, and the link to settings. Do this and you can still get to settings and the standard UI via the notifications area, but you'll need to know that's possible. Most likely, by the time you've found all this out, you'll be expert enough not to require the SAI any more.
If you tap one of the SAI options, you go into a fully-fledged Android app rather than a 'simple' version, so you'll have to make the best of getting to grips with it.
These may sound like churlish criticisms of an attempt to make Android accessible to novice users. They're not meant to be. However, it's difficult to see how the act of making large icons is enough on its own to constitute a 'simple' user interface.
Similar large-icon-based screens are employed as an alternative to the more complex Android UI for in-car use, and there I can fully see the point. I can also see a place for a simplified user interface for the visually impaired.
But for such users Huawei's current offering doesn't go far enough. One icon tap and you're into standard Android apps with their small text, icons and menu options. Until Android itself gets a 'simple' UI option, efforts like Huawei's on the Ascend Y530 can only ever be skin deep.