Marketed as a great phone with an excellent battery life, at an affordable price (a recurring Huawei theme), the Huawei Ascend Mate 7 ($600) is one of the most desirable phone in China right now, and has been out of stock for some time, while Huawei is scrambling to ramp up production to meet demand (2M sold thus far). As of last week, Huawei employees in China kept being asked by their friends: “can you help me get a Mate 7?”. In fact, most can’t even get one for themselves.
The success of the phone is bigger than anyone at Huawei anticipated, even for President Kevin Ho, the leader of the handset business. He told me in Shanghai that he wished he had foreseen the demand in order to be able to meet it (it’s always a perilous exercise and he stayed on the cautious side). So what makes the Huawei Mate 7 tick, and is it really as good as it sounds, or just a success based on preferences specific to Chinese users? I’ve had one for a few months now, so here’s what I think you should know about it… read on.
Before I dive into the review, I’ll tell you how I use my phones, since mu usage conditions my point of view, experience and ultimately… conclusion on what they are worth. I try to keep my mind open to the fact that YOU will not use it the same way, but there’s an undeniable bias that comes with each unique usage model, so we’d better recognize it and put it out there.
I mostly use my phone to keep in touch with text communication (emails/chat/SNS), news (apps, sites) and mobile photography. Occasionally, I’d listen to music during a flight, but I rarely watch full movies or play games.
Regarding this device, it is important to keep in mind that it was launched at a price of $600 (no contract), which is a bit less than the Note 4 and the iPhone 6+ ($749), but more than the Galaxy S5. I’ll compare the Mate 7 with these two phones, not because they occupy the exact same market, but because they do share some commonalities, and because most readers are more likely to have been exposed to them.
Design (very good)
The Huawei Mate 7 is a direct descendant of the Mate 2, which was built around the same long-battery life theme. Huawei has however made significant improvements with a much nicer design, which feels surprisingly light for its size.
At 7.9 mm, its thickness is somewhere between the Galaxy Note 4 (8.5mm) and the iPhone 6+ (7.1mm). The overall surface is slightly larger than the Note 4, and because the weight is spread across a larger surface, the phone “feels” lighter, even if it is not. At 185g, it is a bit heavier than the Note 4 (176g) and the iPhone 6+ (172g)
The front of the Huawei Mate 7 is clean and relatively plain. Since it is an unlocked phone, there is no carrier markings and the strict minimum is visible – minus the Huawei logo, which could have been absent, since it is also in the back…
Talking about the backside, things are getting a little busier there. The most prominent feature is the rear camera which is an obvious black square (likely a design language to show how “powerful” it is). Secondly, there’s the fingerprint reader, which is placed strategically to be where your index finger naturally lands.
The placement of the fingerprint reader is critically important because it allows Huawei to offer this functionality with a high degree of reliability (more so than the Note 4), and without negatively affecting the display-to-body ratio (like the iPhone 6+). Well played.
The sides of the phones are very clean, sturdy and classic. There are a couple of trays for the micro-SIM and micro-SD cards, but the rest is just like what one would expect: power and volume controls, micro-USB to charge/sync and a 3.5mm audio connector at the top.
Display (very good)
The Display of the Huawei Mate 7 is surprisingly nice. It is big, and very legible. Since it is 1080p, it’s not “crazy sharp” like the LG G3 display is, but given the price point that Huawei is hitting, I don’t think that one can hold it against them.
The colors and saturation are very decent, but not quite as nice as the more expensive phones out there. The good news is that at first glance, most people wouldn’t notice, but it’s more obvious in a side-by-side examination. The display is one of the more expensive elements in a phone, there had to be some tough choices made. An additional factor is that Huawei says it is also trying to clamp down on the power consumption of the display as well, so it is possible that this was a factor too.
But the overall quality and the sheer size still make it a very good display to enjoy and use on a daily basis.
Taking photos is something that nearly everyone cares about while using a smartphone. The Huawei Mate 7 is pretty good when it comes to photography, but it doesn’t compete with the Galaxy S5, Note 4, or the last couple of generations of iPhones. So yes, it’s very decent and will work fine for Social Media, but I can’t call it “high-end” worthy. Check for yourself with our samples on Flickr.
I’m adding the Galaxy S5 in the list because the S5 can be found for slightly less than the Mate 7, so in terms of mobile photography, the S5 would actually represent a better value. In absolute quality terms, the Huawei Mate 7 is closer to Google’s Nexus 5, which is priced below $400. In that price range, the LG G3 beat them both easily.
- 13 Megapixel main camera
- 5 Megapixel front camera
- Sony sensor
But while the optical capabilities of the handset are the “meat”, the software should not be underestimated. The general user interface is simple and nice, and the options (and their access) make sense. Features like a panorama selfie (or “groufie” as Huawei likes to call it) are interesting and work best in broad daylight.
The Huawei Mate 7 is powered by the Hisilicon Kirin 925 8-core using the big.LITTLE architecture from ARM. If you are curious, follow the previous link, but the idea is that there are two kinds of cores inside the Kirin 925: a set of large cores for high-performance, and a set of small ones for low-intensity tasks. When necessary, they can all work at the same time to push the number of active cores to 8.
While it may sound very exciting, the Kirin 925 chip isn’t quite ready to compete at the very high-end yet. In some benchmarks such as Geekbench 3, it does get very decent scores, especially in the multi-core tests, thanks to the presence of all 8 cores. However, chips like Snapdragon 810 will far outpace its score, using 8 cores as well.
The Kirin 925 performance in the Basemark OS 2 test are 20% lower than a phone like the Nexus 5, which is even more affordable (and relatively old). The graphics performance as revealed by both GFXBench and Basemark X demonstrate that this is probably not a top Android gaming system either, even if casual games will run just fine. And because of its $600 price, the performance “per dollar” spent isn’t as remarkable as one may have expected.
So why does Huawei choose the Kirin 925 chip to power this handset? First of all, Hisilicon (the company that designs the 925) is a subsidiary of Huawei, so there are strategic reasons to use it. Secondly, Huawei believes in creating a synergy by using its own chip that could in theory work better with the Huawei 4G LTE infrastructure that covers half the world. How much good this will do is hard to quantify, but that’s the idea.
The performance bottom-line is this: this is not a Formula One, but most of the time, you won’t feel a difference. Sometimes, it is possible to see hiccups: when heavy background network activity (app update) or when multi-tasking apps are putting enough pressure on the system that you will notice a slowdown. That’s really the main difference with a higher-end phone, if you exclude gaming performance. In short, if you mostly use regular apps, you shouldn’t really care about this.
Like many other OEMs producing Android phones, Huawei is using its own user interface (launcher) on top of the Android operating system. This layer is called Emotion UI (or EMUI) and the current version is 3.0.
In general, I would rather not have every OEM do this, but I also understand that 1/ OEMs do feel like they need it to help and retain customers 2/ some additions are sometime welcome and actually useful 3/ real people upgrade only every 12 to 24 months, so they don’t have much of a problem with custom UIs.
The most visible change from a stock Android UI is two fold: first, the app icons are different, and could frankly be better. They’re not really “ugly” (see above), but they do look a bit old and a refresh would not hurt. When I spoke to Huawei’s design lead Joonsuh Kim, he assured me that what’s coming next for EMUI will be very edgy, and that current customers will benefit from it since Huawei supports at least two EMUI upgrade cycles for every product they make.
Secondly, Apps all end up on the home page, just like they would on an iPhone. There is no Apps Area like on most other Android phones. This is not a problem for most people, but if you like to have hundreds of apps on your phone (to do what?), this may be an organizational issue.
There is a host of features such as the one-handed keyboard that appears if you tilt the phone on one side, QR Code contacts, and many more. However, the battery-life utilities are the most interesting of all since they help you stay in control of power usage on the phone. I’ve dedicated a paragraph to that in the battery life section.
Fingerprint reader (very good)
As mentioned earlier, the fingerprint located in the back is actually a pretty good option because it is the best tradeoff between a reliable reader and saving space in the front. The reliability mainly comes from the fact that it is not a “swipe” reader, which is more prone to errors than a full-size fingerprint reader.
The Galaxy Note 4’s reader is one of the best “swipe reader” out there, and it’s pretty decent, but the Mate 7’s is better because you don’t need to swipe. It is not as good as the iPhone 5S/6 one which remains the most reliable smartphone fingerprint reader that I have used to date.
Battery Life (excellent)
Obviously with one of the largest – if not the largest – battery capacity on the sub-6.1” smartphone market, and “mid-range” compute power, it is quite obvious that the Huawei Mate 7 will have an excellent battery life.
In our standard 60mn 1080p MP4 video test, the Huawei Ascend Mate 7 only burned through 8% of the battery, which points to a potential 12.5 hours of local movie video playback (display brightness at 150 NIT, WiFi ON, BT OFF). This is quite remarkable for a handset with a 6.1″ screen.
On a day to day basis, using the phone for a couple of days without charging is pretty much a reality for me. Of course, it will depend on how you use it. The network connectivity is also key to the battery life and that will depend on your location relative to the cell tower. In any case, with such a humongous battery, it is clear that the odds should be in your favor.
Battery life utilities
While RAW battery capacity is the most important factor of battery life, it is not the only one. Battery life will vary terribly depending on one’s usage, and it is something that is typically hard to analyze. Unlike other operating systems, Android provides some clues about what’s going on, but isn’t pro-active about it, so most users don’t know how to use the Android battery utility.
Huawei goes a little further by providing not only a pro-active tool that will warn you about possibly battery-hog apps, but is friendlier and more meaningful than the original Android one. Traditionally, OEMs have tried to keep control of the battery life, I think that it’s a good thing to put users in control, and at least making them aware that some seemingly inconspicuous apps may be using much more power than thought. Only the user knows if the value of the app is worth the power spent.
Typically, OEMs will say that closing apps all the time is a bad thing, and that can be true, but Huawei’s approach seems like a good compromise between blanket app closing and leaving no control to the users.
Conclusion (for “huge battery” lovers)
With the Mate 7, Huawei goes further away from playing the pure “value” game and enters high-end territory. A $600 price puts it less than $100 from the Galaxy Note 4, $150 below the iPhone 6+ and $50 above the Galaxy S5 – this is not always an obvious position for a newcomer in places where the Huawei brand is still nascent.
The real play here is this: if you want a big screen, a humongous battery life, and don’t care for “gaming-performance”, the Mate 7 is an excellent option to consider. The mid-range performance and “regular” 1080p display are actually good things from a battery endurance point of view.
If you want a huge battery and the best “value” for that feature, data show that the Ascend Mate 2 remains the best value in that category, with a price of $299 a 6.1” display and a 3900 mAh battery. The downside is that performance is even lower.
The Mate 7 has a much nicer build quality than the Mate 2, a fingerprint reader that works very well, a good display and can justify its higher price relative to its Mate 2 cousin. You have to figure out where your priorities are because in that $600 price range, the competition is intense. I also have to throw in there that it’s possible to get the excellent LG G3 for less than $400.
The final note is that while you may be able to get this as an import, the Mate 7 isn’t really available in the USA yet because its wireless has not been approved by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) yet.