China does smartphones well; we know that much is the case from our quick peeks into the world of Xiaomi and Oppo. There's another big player that has been around in Australia for longer, though, and it has a brand new flagship phablet. Huawei's Mate7 packs in a giant 6-inch display, but it does that in a body smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus. It's just as powerful and as up-to-date as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, too.
The Mate7 was announced back at IFA 2014 in Germany, but it's only just reaching Australian shores. It's Huawei's latest and greatest homegrown handset, with its own non-Qualcomm processor, a nifty new screen technology, and all of the Chinese telecommunications giant's mobile networking know-how inside. Here's what you need to know -- 6-inch IPS-NEO display, 7.9mm-thick chassis, dual SIM, octa-core processor, next-gen 4G support, all in a sleek black or shiny gold body (depending on which variant you buy).
Straight up, the first thing that you notice is its size, but also how that size is used. The Mate7 is a large handset, despite the effort that has gone into slimming down that bezel and curving the rear -- it's attention-grabbing not only because of its gold finish, but thanks to that massive black expanse of LCD touchscreen. (I was walking to the train station this morning and had a tradie call out "f**k, that's a huge phone" across the road.)
One homogenous milled slab of metal makes up the Ascend Mate7's body, so you can't take the back panel off and replace the battery. Not that you'll probably need to, with the Mate7's massive 4100mAh cell providing a solid two days of regular screen-on usage according to Huawei's estimates. There's also the usual swathe of power-saving software tweaks, and the interesting application of Huawei's in-house-developed octa-core processor.
The HiSilicon Kirin 825, developed by Huawei on the back of ARM's big.LITTLE architecture, uses four low-power 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 cores and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 cores. General low-power tasks use as many of the A7 cores as they need, the A15 cores can be switched on for more intensive tasks, and all eight can be used in times of extreme requirement. An additional core handles other functions -- one of which is the Mate7's hidden ace.
Around the front of the Huawei is talking up the phablet's impressive 89 per cent screen-to-body ratio, which eclipses both the iPhone 6 Plus and Note 4 with which the Ascend Mate7 is competing, but it's the back of the phone that is just as interesting. That little rounded square is a fingerprint sensor, and it's simultaneously the quickest and most versatile that I've used. I haven't given the iPhone 6's TouchID much of a test-drive, but versus the Note 4's swipe and the iPhone 5S' double tap to unlock, it's a hell a lot better at getting that crucial first-time unlock when you press your finger against it.
The camera on the Mate7 is that 13-megapixel Sony IMX214 we've seen before on the Oppo Find 7 and the OnePlus One. The Mate7's 28mm f2.0 lens is a good compromise between bright and wide-angle, taking pretty competitive although not world-beating shots in the few snaps we've captured so far. Around the front, you get a Full HD-capable 5-megapixel with aspherical wide-angle glass -- supposedly less distortion and better edge definition.
Of course, when you're talking smartphones the biggest factor is the display -- both its size and its resolution. The Mate7's 6-inch screen is one of the biggest you'll be able to buy when it's out on the market, of course, eclipsing the new Nexus 6 and Note 4 alike. With a 1920x1080 pixel resolution, it lags behind these two competitors, but Huawei is pushing the display's new IPS-NEO tech which touts a 1500:1 contrast ratio and some seriously impressive maximum brightness. In practice, the screen doesn't quite have the same pop as the Note 4's more pixel-dense AMOLED, but it's not to the huge detriment of the handset.
The Mate7 is a dual-SIM phone, but don't write it off because of that. I know, I groaned when I heard it mentioned too, but the Ascend Mate7's dual SIM slots are actually a pretty amazing feat of engineering. Between the top slot and the bottom, you have a choice of two microSIM slots, one microSIM and one nanoSIM, one microSD card and one nanoSIM, one microSD card and one microSIM, or two nanoSIMs. Confused yet? The point is, it's versatile. And on top of that, both of the SIM slots are 4G and LTE-Advanced Category 6 compatible, and you can pick and choose which you want to use by default for data and for text and phone calls. As dual-SIM go, that's an achievement.
That Category 6 LTE support is worth mentioning again -- this is only the second handset to be released in Australia with support for Telstra's and Optus' next-generation 4G data networks, which support download speeds reaching 150Mbps in the real world. It also supports Vodafone's imminent low-band 4G.
The Ascend Mate7 runs Huawei's bespoke EmotionUI interface, sitting on top of Android 4.4.2 Kit-Kat. Where stock Android is about greys and blacks the Mate7 is bright and white, with simple iconography and a few useful tweaks -- like a time-sensitive notification bar and lockable apps that survive a 'clear all' cull -- although the gold variant is littered with champagne accents on the system apps -- a gold-rimmed camera lens, a gold cog for settings, you get the idea. We're hoping a 5.0 Lollipop overhaul is imminent, of course, since that's starting to roll out across Nexus devices include the Mate7's natural-born Nexus 6 nemesis.
Huawei is shipping the Ascend Mate7 in two variants -- a 16GB Obsidian Black model with 2GB of RAM, sold exclusively through Dick Smith on Vodafone plans, with concrete pricing and on-sale dates to be confirmed. More concrete is the 32GB, 3GB RAM Amber Gold, through JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman for a really-actually-quite-reasonable $699 outright cost starting on November 17. That's at least a $100 saving over other, bigger brands' flaghships like the Note 4, Galaxy S5, especially the iPhone 6 Plus, and even the Nexus 6.
Time will tell how the Ascend Mate7's chassis stands up to everyday punishment, and how that battery performs pushing pixels to that super-bright and contrasty display, but on initial impressions this is a very -- surprisingly so. If Huawei stays on top of the regular Android updates, the Mate7 may solidify its position as the Chinese Android phone of the year -- and maybe the best of any Android phone outright.