Huawei came out swinging at CES 2014 and after a brief presentation of the state of the company’s business, by Colin Gilles (EVP, Huawei), Huawei’s Richard Yu (CEO, Consumer Business Group) introduced the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 to the world with a lively, interesting and humorous presentation. It was nice, but make no mistake about it: Huawei is out to compete with the best, and it was clear that the Mate 2 smartphone has been designed to compete with large phones like the Galaxy Note 3, and that Huawei also threw a few punches to Apple, especially when it comes to the tiny battery capacity of the iPhone 5S.
I feel like the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 has not been designed as an “inspirational” device, and it is not trying to make you happy, be your friend, or try improving aspects of your life that you have no need for. This is a no-nonsense phone which brings a powerful Snapdragon 800 chip and a monster 4050mAh battery which is further optimized with a host of software optimizations.
Battery life, battery life, battery life
Since battery life is the big feature of this handset, we might as well start with this. Obviously, the center-piece is the 4050mAh lithium-polymer battery, but this is hardly the end of the story. Battery life depends on three main factor: 1/battery capacity (in mAh), 2/display power usage and 3/application processor (AP) power usage. We’ve covered #1 (battery capacity), but let’s see what Huawei does with #2 and #3:
Target #2: the display is typically the largest battery drain
Huawei has chosen to use a 6.1” 720P low-temperature poly-silicon (LTPS) display. I’ll get back to the image quality later, but LTPS typically allows building thinner displays, provide great image quality and reduces the need for additional hardware to manage the screen, which leads to lower power consumption.
I’m not sure if Huawei builds their own LTPS displays, but I have seen Sharp use this type of technology successfully and I think that some LG Displays have something like this as well. All in all, Huawei claims to be 20%-30% more efficient, although without telling us exactly what they compare it with, it’s hard to form an idea. That said, on paper, LTPS should help battery life.
Additionally, Huawei uses an adaptive brightness control to save more power. The principle works like this: by analyzing the image on the screen, it is possible to increase or reduce the brightness while preserving a good readability. For example, when looking at black text on a white background at the office, you may not need as much screen brightness as if you were looking at a dark photo of last night’s party. This type of optimizations does work, and since it runs all the time, the cumulative effects can be quite important on the battery life.
Target #3: apps and background apps
On Android smartphones, launched apps tend to stay in memory and many run some tasks every once in a while in the background. It may be a sync with a server, or checking for your present location, or anything else. Each app behaves differently and we mostly don’t know what they do. Depending on which apps you have installed, you may see a radically different behavior than someone else who uses the same phone with a different set of apps.
To give you a higher level of control, Huawei allows you to pick which apps can start when the phone boots, and which apps are allowed to perform work when the display is OFF. I think that this is great because while the common wisdom is to “let the OS take care of it”, the truth is that many apps are fairly careless in terms of resources management, and it’s not easy for the average user to figure out which ones are bad.
For example, Android does a great job of showing you which app consumes more power, but that picture is incomplete since a lot of network requests from apps end up appearing in the “Android OS” section. Huawei’s idea works on a whitelist: you are the one who knows which apps you want to see loaded at boot time, and which apps you want to see run in the background bases on your usage. This is simple and robust.
Now we can come back to the usual run of information. You have seen plenty of photos of the Huawei Mate 2, so the question that comes to mind is: how does it feel in the real world? I got to play with it shortly, and here are my first impressions:
The industrial design is clean and minimalist. The materials is plastic, and while it feels MUCH better than the original mate, I think that it still lags Samsung, LG or Motorola just to name a few – but this is very close. It may be that the lighting didn’t make it justice or something, but that’s my impression on the show floor. Overall, I think that Huawei’s design is moving fast and their competitors should not even blink at this point.
I like how Huawei has designed it to have a better screen-to-body ratio. The phone feels more or less like a Galaxy Note on your hand, and isn’t anywhere as big as the Galaxy Mega 6.3. Huawei has done a good job of making a 6.1” comfortable to hold and use, so props to them. This kind of design is unavoidable if screens are to grow larger, so expect others to use that same metric going forward. Huawei has also built in some software features like a one-handed small keyboard etc, but I think that the industrial design is the best way to address this. If you are REALLY bent on using a phone with one hand, just get a small phone.
The Ascend Mate 2 has a 5 Megapixel front camera and a 13 Megapixel main camera that uses a Sony BSI Sensor. If you are not familiar with BSI, it means back-side illuminated and it is a sensor design that is basically more sensitive to light. Sony has created some great sensor designs and are the current leader in this field. As a component supplier, Sony is not allowed to talk about their sensor customers, but Huawei has chosen to mention them, which is nice. Apple is a quiet Sony customer for example.
Without performing a thorough test of the camera I can’t vouch for it, but from what I have seen on the show floor, it seemed quite good and I think that a review would confirm that the Mate 2 performs well as a camera. Huawei has added some interesting front-camera features like a preview window that is tuned for Selfies. It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference since you are essentially looking at the lens, and the self-portraits are much better because of that. I love the idea. The Panorama Selfie feature seems good as well, but it was frankly impossible to try it with the security cable on the phone. I suspect that it is not so easy since it involves panning the phone from left to right, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt until I can spend more time with my Mate 2
Software and User Interface
The user interface has been customized, but it still feels very much like a regular Android phone – it’s nothing like what Meizu does for example. I have to say that I’m not a big fan of changing the icons for the sake of “design” since it’s very confusing for users who come from another Android handset. In an ideal world, I would like all handset makers to use the default stock icons whenever possible. That said, if you change handsets once every couple of years, it’s not that big of a deal.
I really like how big the virtual keyboard is: the size of the keys is just great, and it is very comfortable to type on. However, I would recommend Huawei to optimize the responsiveness of the keyboard. Out of the box, it is quite slow (laggy), and even after disabling the vibration and other things that can introduce lag, I wasn’t convinced. Fast keyboards in my book would include the iPhone, Windows Phones or LG Phones for example. Interestingly, the keyboard lag could be the thing that would make me shy away from the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 because I’m a heavy email user.
Finally, I want to point out that Huawei has a “Simple UI”, which reminds me of what Samsung created for their own phones with their “Easy UI”. The concept is simple: there are a lot of customers who buy these phones for the large screens because they don’t want to wear glasses (for example). However, they don’t care much about harnessing the full power of Android etc. For them, the Simple UI is great since it boils things down to the most basic functions: SMS, Phone, Emails, Maps, Web. This is a good move and it has been proven to work
Since this is a huge screen, Huawei made sure that it has a multi-window functionality. This is handy from time to time, but I have personally never been compelled to use it more than that. Your usage may be different, but if you’re not dying to get multi-windows, you probably won’t use it much either.
The Huawei Mate 2 has a line of accessories built for it. The window case is fun since it is basically a derivative of what Samsung introduced with the S4, which was followed by LG and now Huawei. I have to admit that if you are going to have a screen cover case, the Windows feature is pretty awesome to look at notification or answer the phone. Huawei’s twist on the concept is that they made the window location lower and optimized it for a vertical swipe, which is actually a pretty good idea since it’s a natural thumb motion.
There is also a driving dock that you can put in your car. Upon connecting to the dock, the Mate 2 switches to a special user interface which is more adapted to in-car use. I really like the concept and this should work well for many users. Unfortunately, I live in San Francisco and having such a dock in my car would mean that my window would get broken and the dock would be stolen in less than one week. If someone out there tries it, drop a comment and let me know how it works in your life. I’m jealous.
The Huawei Ascend Mate 2 is a battery-life Titan with a laser-focus on solving pragmatic use cases. It is designed to make a large 6.1 display manageable in size and although it does make some tradeoffs to get the job done (like using a 720p display), I feel like it responds well to a power-user demand for a fast phone that has an extended battery life.
As a cherry on the cake, you can even use the Mate 2 as a battery pack and help out your iPhone-wielding friends when they are in a pinch. I’m not sure how useful that is in the real world (maybe to charge a smart watch?), but that’s the one feature that everybody applauded at the Mate 2 launch. Nice event, cool phone, good progress on its business – Huawei did its job at CES 2014.