Since the introduction of the Galaxy Note released by Samsung toward the end of 2011, the world has accustomed itself to much larger sized smartphones, branching off into its category as it were, and known as the phablet. Even OEMs such as the likes of Apple, who had steadfastly held onto its convictions on large screen devices, eventually succumbed to the growing market that is the phablet. The original Note started off at 5.3”, relatively small by today’s standards, and, over the years, moved its way up to the 5.7” Note 4 we have today. The crown of being the largest sized phablet was never been Samsung’s to keep, with contenders from LG, HTC, Nokia, and Huawei all in the mix.
A few days back FoS featured the Huawei Ascend G7 review; a mid-range, 5.5” smartphone with a lot to offer at just R4,700. Today, we review the Huawei Ascend Mate7, a device represented on the opposite scale in price. The question is whether Huawei can deliver the same value for money on the Mate7 it did so well on the G7, and whether the “premium” package is, indeed, premium.
Display and Design
In the introduction we touched on the battle of the OEMs to produce the largest sized phablet, often times the lines become blurred when approaching the 7” tablet starting point. Be that as it may, the Mate7’s 6” screen is large…huge in fact. On paper, it would seem that a mere .3” between the Mate7 and Note 4 shouldn’t be that noticeable, but, to the contrary, it is very much at the fore when holding the unit for the first time. In accurate dimensions, which account for even more of the size than just the screen, measures in at 157mm in height, and 81mm wide. It could have all been that much worse when you consider the size of the side bezel, almost non-existent, with an overall 77.6% screen-to-body ratio (with earlier claims of more than an 80% ratio). Not a lot of wasted space in the end. Huawei have paid attention to the small details, saving space by including soft buttons as part of the UI, and speakers left on the rear (despite the urge to move to the front, actually saves screen space). The unit has a further saving grace in that it isn’t as thick, measuring 7.9mm against the Note 4’s 8.5mm. The Note 4, however, has the upper hand when it comes to weight, managing to pack its product into a 176g package, the Mate7 managing 9g heavier at 185g. Comfort and one-handed use is, thus, out the window here, but isn’t necessary a bad thing, with many smartphone users unable to successfully use a 5” device in one hand. The biggest drawback on the Mate7’s 6” screen is that it has a 1080p resolution, which means it has a reduced amount of pixels over the Note 4 by some margin (still more than the iPhone 6). Still, in the end, the quality and colour reproduction is quite good.
There are many that criticise Huawei for its design, it’s earlier reminiscent of Apple’s iPhone. While there are still some traces of this influence, especially in terms of its available colour options, Huawei have moved away, just slightly, with each progressive year. Instead, if you can recall the HTC One Max launched in early 2014, you’ll find more of a resemblance there. Irrespective, the design and build quality isn’t bad, and with a majority metal (and glass) frame certainly has a quality feel to it. We may have hinted that the 6” screen size leaned toward the obscure size making one handed use rather improbable, but the Mate7 is quite easy to hold and use for that matter. Although using two hands, it never felt that the unit would become too heavy over excessive use, or that it may slip out of your hand for that matter. Other design elements include a marginally curved rear with a 13MP rear-facing camera on the top centre, and a fingerprint sensor directly beneath it.
The performance on the Mate7 is admirable, thanks to the Octa-Core, 64-bit chipset lying behind the screen. This is split into two Quad-Core CPUs, the lower of the two (1.3GHz Cortex-A7) used to power background tasks that often require less processing power. Switching to more power-hungry applications requires more processing, which is where the 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 seamlessly kicks in. Furthermore, the Mate7 includes a 230MHz CPU to keep track of minute system tasks. The unit had no difficulties in running applications with resource heavy games also handled quite easily. While there may have been some lag in response from the UI, this is more as a result of the OS, and discussed in the section below.
Since it became standard practice for flagship and other premium devices to sport a fingerprint scanner, a new battle has arisen as to which is the best. As with the debate on which smartphone is best, this isn’t as straight-forward as a simple swipe test, with a few units doubling-up their offerings with built-in heart rate monitors. As for the Mate7’s scanner, it actually worked well…more so than I’ve become accustomed to with many other trial-and-error sensors out there. As with Samsung’s recently released Galaxy S6 fingerprint scanner, that fitted to the back of the Mate7 doesn’t require the swipe action to trigger, but rather just a simple press of the finger. The biggest difference between it and many others, is its acknowledgement of a failed scan. Rather than prompt the user to lift their finger and try again, essentially starting the process again, sometimes in an unending loop, the Mate7 rescans until it matches it to the saved fingerprint, saving massively on time, and frustration.
If the size is a concern for you, note that the additional space in the back allows Huawei to fit a massive 4,100mAh battery. This moves into tablet territory in terms of its battery capacity, most of which will be consumed while powering the 6” display. Camera performance on the rear-fitted 13MP unit delivered a mixed bag of snaps. While photos are clear, with even exposure between lights and darks of a scene, colours aren’t always as bright as you’d have hoped. This is more of a hindrance when taking landscape photos, with close-ups and single shots appearing with a lot more rich tones than the wider shots. Huawei has also included the HDR option with the camera software, which allows for images with a lot more light and detail.
As with the Huawei Ascend G7, the Mate7 comes pre-installed with Android 4.4.2 KitKat and Emotion UI 3.0 (EMUI 3.0), but, curiously, the OS versions don’t match up side-by-side as you would think. Instead, the theme used on the Mate7 changes the feel quite a lot, so much so that it feels clumsy to use. The upside to this, however, is that EMUI 3.0 is remarkably customisable, with users being able to almost everything, even the theme itself. And, unlike many previously released models that offered theme management, it’s a lot more user-friendly to westerners (if I may put it that way), offering a more English-based portal. Despite the seemingly endless amounts of possible themes to choose from, they all lack the capability of switching back to the standard Android-style menu structure, Huawei again opting to emit the ‘homescreen’ option. The OS shows some progress to a more integrated and smoother user experience, but still lacking something truly convincing.
Whereas our experience with the G7 was almost faultless, the Mate7 seems to trip over itself at every hurdle at the start. As mentioned previously, the OS is quite customisable, which is almost a necessity. Users will often experience a few lags and jitters traversing the menus. Diving into the settings, and tinkering with the defaults, users will be able to, eventually, setup a much more user-friendly device. There’s also a small issue in many apps becoming inactive when the screen is turned off, this includes Wi-Fi. These are merely battery saving options kicking in. To change this, simply go to the Settings>Power Saving>Protected Apps and tick the ones you would like to keep active. Additionally, you can also use the Notification Manager under Settings to opt in to receiving notifications for apps you wish to receive messages from.
The unit doesn’t have a set RRP in the South African market, with prices ranging anywhere between R7,000 and R10,000 depending on the retailer. The middle ground here is almost double the price of the G7, which impressed, not just on FoS, but globally as well.
Overall, the Huawei Ascend Mate7 performed very well in certain stages of testing, but wasn’t able to integrate well as a complete package. A lot of this lies in the delivery of the OS, which only makes me wonder how much of the device’s potential is lost to EMUI. The only way to tell for sure would be to flash a version of CyanogenMod or another custom ROM to compare, but we don’t often have the luxury, or authorisation, to run these types of tests on review units. In my opinion, it’s the telling factor here, as I can’t shake the suspicion that a much more put together OS could have eked out quite a lot more from what lies beneath.