Huawei has never been a high-profile maker of flagship smartphones and tablets in Australia, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some excellent devices -- you just have to do a little research to find them. The Ascend Mate7 is a 6.1-inch monster running a Huawei-built eight-core chipset, with a fingerprint sensor on the back, and the latest in 4G networking. Oh, and it comes in gold. But the first thing you notice is its imposing size -- this is a big phone.
What Is It?
- Processor: HiSilicon Kirin 925, 4x1.8GHz + 4x1.3GHz + 230MHz
- RAM: 3GB
- Screen: 6.0-inch IPS-NEO LCD, 1920x1080 pixels (368ppi)
- Storage: 32GB, microSD up to 128GB
- Camera: 13-megapixel (4:3 ratio), 4K video recording
- Connectivity: Category 6 4G/LTE, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
The $599-plus Ascend Mate7 is a big phone, but I'd wager that since the September 2014 launch of the iPhone 6 Plus big phones are becoming a lot more commonplace. There's no denying that the Samsung Galaxy Note kick-started the trend, but it's 2015 now and it's not weird to carry around a very large smartphone any more.
That said, it is quite big. Huawei has jammed a 6-inch, 1920x1080pixel, 368ppi display into a 157x81x7.9mm chassis, with the phone weighing in at 185 grams. To put that in perspective, though, that's barely heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 with smaller or equal dimensions, and all that with a significantly larger screen area and higher screen-to-body ratio.
The chassis of the Huawei Ascend Mate7 is simple and straightforward, too -- gratifyingly so. The front panel is a single sheet of glass -- broken only by the stereo speaker at the top, with a camera and ambient brightness sensor to its left. The lower front bezel is slightly thicker and includes a small, simple Huawei logo; the edge strip around the phone's die is a mirror-finish gold, and from there to the back is a satin-anodised aluminium. Volume and power buttons are on the right, within range of both forefinger and thumb, and the microUSB 2.0 port is centred at the lower base.
On the right bezel, you'll find not one but two microSIM slots. You can use both slots for microSIM, you can use one for a nanoSIM instead, or use one for a microSD card -- suffice to say that the Mate7 is one of the most interesting Android flagships you can buy in 2015 if you want a dual-SIM phone. Around the back, though, is an equally interesting accoutrement: Huawei's fingerprint sensor, which can be registered with five different fingers and used to unlock the phone or specific apps. It works very quickly and is very accurate and works when your finger is dry or damp -- it's definitely the best scanner I've used on a smartphone yet.
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. 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.
What Is It Good At?
The Ascend Mate7's camera is pretty good. An image-stabilised 13-megapixel shooter on the rear is joined by a 5 megapixel one on the front -- one of the highest resolution 'selfie' cameras on any smartphone yet. Similarly, Huawei's bundled camera app is straightforward and powerful and quick to operate and the sum total of these features is a phone that captures great photos in good light and good photos in bad light alike. It's not at its best in completely dark settings, but that's no different to any other Android phone.
Huawei has gone to a lot of effort with the Mate7, and it shows most in the smartphone's 6-inch screen. It's a 1920x1080pixel panel with an effective 368ppi, and is one of the biggest you’ll be able to buy when it’s out on the market, eclipsing the new Nexus 6 and Note 4 alike. Its resolution and panel tech lags behind these two competitors, but Huawei is pushing the display’s new IPS-NEO tech -- meaning 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 too glossy and is very usable outdoors.
The Mate7 is only the second handset to be released in Australia with support for Telstra, Vodafone and Optus’ next-generation 4G data networks, which support download speeds reaching 150Mbps in the real world. It also supports Vodafone’s 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.
The default Huawei Emotion UI 3.0 skin for the Ascend Mate7 is pretty good. It is, for the most part, straightforward Android with no huge changes, but a few pervasive small additions -- mostly to the notifications bar -- that actually make the operating system easier to understand and operate for first-time users. That comes from Huawei's longtime aim at the entry-level Android market, with phones like the $99 Ascend Y550 that target users that have never used a smartphone at all. You can change almost any aspect of the Mate7's interface, too, with the onboard theming and adjustment tools, so it's not just for newbies.
Despite that super-bright, super-sized screen, the screen-on time of the Huawei Ascend Mate7 is pretty damn good. That's because it has a 4100mAh battery hidden away inside that cavernous body, and some pretty smart power management going on. You can, of course, disable that power management and get slightly better performance out of the phone, but when everyday usage doesn't require it it makes sense to leave it set to Smart. With regular, everyday use I've seen a full two days of work-day life from the Mate7, and even a full and busy day of tweeting and Facebook and Web browsing will see you from early morning to late night with a solid 20 per cent remaining.
What Is It Not Good At?
The champagne gold finish on the Mate7, which I've been test-driving since the November launch, is a polarising design choice. People either like it -- there's no denying it's eye-catching, in the same way that a gold iPhone is -- or they hate it, usually because it isn't completely gold and has a bit of rose red in it.
Similarly, the bundled flip cover with a transparent and fingerprint-sensitive front display is both great and gross -- it has a customised date and notification view through the two-third-transparent front panel, but it has a very slightly pink faux-leather finish and adds more than a little bulk to the entire phone. It works well, but doesn't really have that broad appeal that you'd want a bundled phone case to. Still, it's very nice of Huawei to bundle it in the first place.
You'll want to use the case wherever possible, though, because the non-glass elements of the Huawei Ascend Mate7 are a little bit fragile and prone to damage. I've put my particular review unit through a fair bit of punishment in the last couple of months, including dropping it onto concrete on a corner from waist height, and it definitely has its fair share of cuts and scrapes. The chrome finish on the front edge seems especially prone to taking damage, and seeing the black plastic peeking out from underneath is a little offputting. If you buy this phone, make sure you take care of it.
Huawei's Emotion UI 3.0 is, for the most part, a very nice Android skin, save for one thing -- those icons. Why? The vast majority of the Huawei system icons, for the camera and settings and clock and gallery -- are faux-circular, gold-toned, and stylised, and the overall look is not attractive. Thankfully, you can change most of those icons with an Android skin like Action Launcher and an icon pack like Click UI, although some of them persist.
Should You Buy It?
The Huawei Ascend Mate7 makes its 6-inch screen more than usable with a gently worked-over version of Android 4.4, and backs up that user experience with good hardware. An eight-core processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage make for a phone that is more than powerful enough to play Hearthstone, view 1080p video or complete just about any mobile task you might need it to.
I would suggest that if you're thinking of buying this phone, make sure you buy a case for it as well. It's a good-looking handset, but in my experience it has proven a little fragile -- easily picking up a few dings and scratches over its time. The gold finish, too, will be polarising, although you can buy the grey version for $100 less as long as you're willing to settle for 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM.
Huawei's Ascend Mate7 is a big phone, but that's just about the only legitimate complaint you can make about it. It's otherwise so affable and friendly and generally easy to use apart from the large size of its screen, and that's a huge achievement given that Huawei hasn't had the years in the limelight that Samsung and Apple have had. To pull off things like a very usable fingerprint sensor and Australia's second LTE-Advanced mobile chipset is impressive; I personally can't wait to see what Huawei does this year.