Only software stands in the way of Huawei emerging as a rival to the big names in Android
Huawei might not be a big brand name in the U.S., but the Chinese manufacturer has claimed its place as the world's No. 3 handset maker, and its products are improving all the time. Huawei's latest oversized smartphone, the Ascend Mate 7, shows that while there's much room for improvement on the software side, the company has hardware and performance pretty much nailed down. And should it secure itself a firm foothold in Western markets, it could prove a major challenger to the more established brands.
Read on for a second opinion on the Huawei Ascend Mate 7.
The Ascend P7, released earlier this year, proved what Huawei could build if it really tried. Granted, the P7 borrowed heavily from the look of Apple's iPhone 4 series, but nonetheless it was a solid, well-built phone that outclassed all-plastic rivals. The P7 was undone by its sluggish, ugly software, however — as one AC editor put it in the days following the announcement, "it's nice until you turn it on." The gulf in performance between the P7 and its rivals was vast, and it felt a few years removed from the cutting edge of Android.
Four months on, the Mate 7 underscores this focus on premium materials at the high end, while eliminating some (but not all) of the outstanding issues with Huawei's EMUI software. This is an enourmous metal-backed phone around the size of the iPhone 6 Plus, but with an extra half-inch of screen to its name. It's a 1080p panel, not 2K like some rivals — at IFA Huawei told us the battery cost of doing 1440p on a smartphone isn't worth it just yet. Nevertheless, it's good looking, and sufficiently sharp even at 6 inches.
So here's a phone that's big, bold, and definitely not for everyone. As Samsung and others have proved, though, enormous phones have their benefits. For one, the Mate 7 makes a pretty capable portable tablet, while still being relatively pocketable — especially given its epic battery life, which we'll get to later. Just don't try to use it with one hand.
Premium build quality by any standards...
The Mate 7 doesn't just feel like a premium phone relative to Huawei's earlier efforts, it's an attractive, solidly-built handset in general. The slightly curved, chamfered metal back blends into plastic sections at the top and bottom — present for RF visibility — and gives the impression of an almost seamless chassis. This thing could easily have been built by one of the bigger names in smartphones.
The back panel also houses one of the Mate 7's most surprisingly compelling features — the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. The last major Android phone to ship with a fingerprint reader on the back was the HTC One Max. Its swipe-based implementation was widely panned, but Huawei's take is closer to Apple's Touch ID, and better for it. The sensor is touch-activated, and can recognize fingerprints in any orientation. And while it's not 100 percent reliable, but it's pretty damn close. What's more, because it's touch, not swipe-activated, using it feels like less of an imposition than Samsung's front-mounted finger reader.
You can also use the fingerprint scanner as the world's most awkwardly-placed shutter key. Unless you're taking lots of portrait photos, we wouldn't recommend it.
Speaking of cameras, the Mate 7's 13-megapixel rear shooter is surprisingly decent across the board. There's plenty of detail and dynamic range to be found in daylight shots, and colors are generally bright and appealing, even in very bright scenes. In darker conditions, software sharpening kicks in, capturing more detail over a few seconds. Though imaging performance remains hit-and-miss on many high-end Android phones, Huawei has managed to field a camera that stands up when compared to more expensive flagships.
The Mate 7's internals are also suitably high-end — a custom-made octa-core Kirin CPU (manufactured by the Huawei-owned Hisilicon), consisting of four low-power ARM Cortex A7 cores and four high-power Cortex A15s, backed up by a Mali T628 GPU. That's similar to what we've seen in Samsung Exynos processors of late, and Huawei's implementation seems just as fast — provided the software's set up correctly.
Out of the box, though, on the prerelease firmware we've been using, Huawei's software isn't exactly configured for peak performance. Under Settings > Power Saving, the default power plan is "smart" which adjusts performance for modest battery savings. Switching to "Normal" speeds things up considerably. In fact, with this change made, the Mate 7's speed and fluidity rivals that of most Android flagships. And as for battery life, the phone's enormous 4,100mAh fixed cell provides a ridiculous amount of power anyway. (To put that number in perspective, the Nexus 7 tablet packs a 3,900mAh battery.) You're looking at two or more days of normal usage, and a guaranteed day of use, even with the most strenuous of workloads.
EMUI 3.0 is an improvement, but we're not quite there yet...
Huawei's EMUI 3.0 fixes up a lot of our nagging issues with previous versions, but some unfortunate sticking points remain. First up, the positive: Things are smoother and generally better-looking all round — in a big way. With the new-style triangle, circle and square navigation icons from Android L, and colors to match in other areas, Huawei is (sorta) gearing up for the future of the platform. A focus on lines and circles throughout gives the UI a more geometric look, with areas clearly inspired (though not lifted wholesale) from Apple's iOS.
Elsewhere, though it's the same mess of rounded icons and cartoonish-looking themes we've previously had to deal with. The company insists on making every app icon round, with its own colored background, and this persists throughout the UI, not just in the launcher. Want to get around it? The only real option is to install a custom launcher and use an icon pack. Even then, the problem isn't completely eliminated.
Huawei's white notification panel presents some problems too — icons for media playback controls are obscured, and there's a jarring transition between white and black when archiving emails in Gmail. This seems like the sort of thing additional testing would've cleared up, and given that we're still using a pre-release device there's a chance it could be fixed before the Mate 7 goes on sale. Nevertheless, these are all pretty basic things to be getting wrong.
EMUI 3.0 is a major improvement on earlier Huawei efforts, but software remains the company's Achilles' heel. Beyond the bugs and design gripes we've mentioned, the likes of Samsung have more compelling uses for an oversized handset, including a wealth of multitasking options. That Huawei seems to have overcome the issues with lag and stuttering that affected some earlier devices is promising, however.
If the Ascend Mate 7 is any indication, Huawei is a manufacturer to watch in the coming year. It's always been a big deal in terms of the numbers, but over the past twelve months it's shown its ability to compete on product quality as well. And if the user experience can be brought up to the standard of its external hardware, the high-end space could become even more competitive in 2015.