Review: Huawei Ascend Mate 7

MT7-01

Huawei is a company that I’d like to believe was at the forefront of Chinese phone manufacturers at one point. They helped to show that not all Chinese phones were cheap knockoffs of their rivals, but rather individual forces to be reckoned with. Over the years, they’ve released quite a few phones into the market, with each iteration looking to take the top spots from players like Samsung and HTC.

Thing is, that hasn’t exactly been easy as said companies haven’t really been slacking off. Rather, they have been hard at work with their new releases like the Galaxy A7 and the upcoming Xiaomi Mi Note and Mi Note Pro. So with that, when the Ascend Mate 7 landed to me for review, one main question popped up in my mind: With a price point of RM 1799 (519 USD), how does it stack up with the competition, and does it stay relevant to the market?

Unboxing


MT7-02

There isn’t any details on packaging this time around as the unit that I received isn’t the retail unit, hence didn’t come with the final retail packaging. I received the following:

  • Huawei Ascend Mate 7
  • White USB Wall Charger rated at 5v, 2A
  • White Micro USB to USB Cable

Taking a look at the wall charger, I can’t say that I’m a fan of its appearance as it looks quite big and bulky. It has got a squarish body with curved edges, but at least it feels solid and is rated at 2A.

Moving on to the USB cable, its build quality is really good, and it has a nice solid feel to it, with very reassuring clicks when plugging into the wall charger, and into the phone. The overall design reminds me of the Apple lightning cables and their designs, except for the smoothed out corners on this cable.

Specifications


  • OS: Emotion UI 3.0, based on Android 4.4.2 KitKat
  • Processor: Huawei HiSilicon Kirin 925 w/ 4x Cortex A7 cores @ 1.3 GHz & 4x Cortex A15 Cores @1.8Ghz in big.LITTLE configuration
  • GPU: ARM Mali-T628 MP4 (Quad Core)
  • RAM: 2GB LPDDR3
  • Internal Memory: 16GB Expandable via MicroSD
  • Camera: 13MP Sony IMX214 F/2.0 28mm Rear Camera w/ LED Flash, 5MP Front Camera
  • Display:0” JDI IPS-NEO LCD Display @ 1920×1080 (368ppi)
  • Connectivity:
    • 2G – GSM 850/900/1800/1900
    • 3G – HSDPA 850/900/1700/1900/2100
    • 4G – LTE 700/800/850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600
    • LTE Cat6 300/50 Mbps
    • WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual band, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Others:
    • Tensilica HiFi 3 Auto Core
    • Fingerprint Sensor
    • Dual Antenna Switching
  • Battery: 4100mAh Non-Removable
  • Dimensions: 157mm x 81mm x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 185g

Walk around the device


MT7-03Taking up a massive portion of the front is the massive 6.0” IPS-NEO LCD Display that has a 1920×1080 resolution and is made by Japan Display Incorporated. This version of IPS panel reduces the amount of light shining through from the backlighting, allowing for deeper, darker blacks and better contrast ratios. True to that claim, the screen is really vivid with punchy colours, contrast and viewing angles, though I did notice that the display has a yellowish/ orange-ish tint that made everything look a lot warmer. While the display doesn’t exactly start where the white frame borders are, they are still quite minimal, and hence a pleasure to look at.

No capacitive buttons here as the Ascend Mate 7 depends on on-screen keys for navigating around the phone. Above the display you’ll find the 5MP front facing camera, the earpiece and the sensors, and below, just the Huawei branding.

MT7-04Wrapping the left and right edges is a machined aluminium body that is really smooth to the touch, and feels great to hold onto. However, due to the size of the phone and the smoothness of this body, even for someone who uses phablets all the time, I found myself constantly feeling insecure when holding the phone, as it always felt like it could easily slip out of my hand and fall.

The phone is also not unibody (not cut from a single block of aluminium), as the top and bottom of the phone is made out of plastic, probably to accommodate the internal antennas. This normally wouldn’t have been an issue for me, however I found that the aluminium back didn’t quite sit properly with the whole frame of the phone itself, causing an issue where the top left was more recessed into the phone than the top right, and the bottom right was noticeably more recessed than the bottom right. It’s not game breaking per se, but it’s these little details that I wish Huawei would iron out should they choose to compete with the other big players out there, as it’s just representative of their quality control levels at the moment.

MT7-05Aside from that, you’ll find the rear Sony Exmor IMX214 F/2.0 28mm 13.0 MP Camera, the LED flash beside it, below that, the fingerprint scanner, and finally below all that, the Huawei branding and logo together with certification markings.

MT7-07It seems common now for me to find phones where all the buttons are placed onto one side of the phone, in this case, once again both the power button and the volume rocker are placed on the right of this device, which isn’t to say a bad thing as it makes for an easy reach with my thumb. Both buttons seem to be machined out of aluminium just like the body, though their patterns does differ. The power button adopts a machined spiral while the volume rocker looks like it has a rough, sand blasted look. Both buttons protrude from the phone quite nicely making them easy to locate, with a good ‘clicky’ tactile feedback.

I do wish the volume rocker and power button were brought down lower however, as while it’s easy to reach the power button, I had difficulties stretching my thumb to reach the volume rocker.

MT7-08You may not find any buttons on the left, but you will find two pinholes to eject two different trays; The highest tray holds your Micro SIM card, and the second tray holds a MicroSD card. Note that this is the MT7-L09 and not the MT7-L10 that is Dual SIM capable.

MT7-09Up top you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack that is really solid, that has a very reassuring click when headphones are plugged in.

You’ll also find one of the pinholes that has a noise cancelling microphone inside it.

MT7-10Finally, moving to the bottom, you’ll find the primary microphone alongside the MicroUSB port. The port itself has a very good solid feedback when cables are hooked in.

It’s interesting to note that the alignment of the port itself isn’t centered to the phone, and this bothers me slightly though it’s purely aesthetic.

To close things off, I’m not sure how I feel about the design; it’s alright. It’s inoffensive, looks pretty modern, has a metal build which helps give it a solid feel, though to me the little things like the metal backing popping up just a little bit on some edges and the screen having a yellowish tint, colour my opinion (pun intended) of the phone. Those aside, the display is vivid and sharp, the black levels are great and close to AMOLED levels and the bezels are quite thin.

I’m also someone who’s very used to using phablets, as I use 5.5” and 5.7” phones all the time, but I don’t know how comfortable I feel using the Ascend Mate 7. In many ways, I feel that it’s just narrowly crossed that border of being a comfortable size (at least for me), though perhaps this has more to do with the shape of the phone itself, that in my opinion while looking nice, doesn’t quite facilitate for very comfortable ergonomics, coupled with the smooth aluminium back, that while feels great, does very little in assuring you of a solid, firm grip.

Let’s move on to the insides to check out the other half.

Hands on and Benchmarks



Turning on the phone, the Huawei logo swooshes in with a bit of animation, and has the “Powered by Android” text below it. It has a short chime sound, and was really fast on booting up, clocking in at 21 seconds.

MT7-Lockscreen

The lockscreen on the Ascend Mate 7 is an interesting one. Huawei calls it Magazine Unlock and each time you turn on the display, the background image changes. The images are beautiful in themselves, and actually helps to show off the brilliant display on the Mate 7, with great contrast levels and colour reproduction.

MT7-LockscreenWallpaper

Swiping up from the bottom of the display gives you access to controls that let you pause the cycling of the wallpaper, skip to the next one, and to save or share it. You also get access to and lockscreen settings and also quick shortcuts to applications like the Calendar, Calculator, Torch and Mirror. I would have liked to see direct music controls instead as I feel these implementations are just a bit gimmicky and something that you wouldn’t touch after a while, perhaps save for the Calculator and the Torch.

MT7-LockscreenCamera

There’s the option to jump straight into the camera as well by swiping up on the camera icon to reveal the camera controls, though the one thing I did notice, was that this wasn’t the actual camera controls per se but an image of the UI from the looks of it. It’s not until you fully access it that it launches the camera and you’re greeted with the actual Camera UI.

Speaking of camera, you can also double press the volume button and that will quickly take a photo of you, alongside a graphic that tells you how fast the photo was taken as soon as the button was pressed. A bit of showboating in my opinion; interesting but ultimately not crucial.

Of course, being that there is a fingerprint sensor, you also have the option to unlock the phone using the finger print sensor, and after testing it, I was quite pleased with the results, as it seemed to work from almost every angle. More importantly though is that it was quick and hassle free.

Now that we have that covered, to unlock the phone to where you left off, you just swipe either left or right on the display, and it transitions smoothly into your last screen.

MT7-LockscreenMusic

There are music controls when you start playing music on your phone, where you get the Previous Track, Pause/ Play and Next Track buttons right on the center. You get scrolling text showing your track name and artist, and the background image changes to a blurred version of the cover art, with the actual cover art shown in a circle at the center of the display.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about changing into music mode was the same motion written above of swiping up from the bottom of the display. While the application shortcuts are still present, the wallpaper controls that were there before have now changed to weather conditions and forecasts for the current and next 3 days.

I wished that this was perhaps the default setting as it does feel more useful than wallpaper controls.

MT7-About

The Ascend Mate 7 runs on Huawei’s home grown software, Emotion UI or EMUI  v3.0 and that’s based on Android 4.4.2. Perhaps this is just a common thing with Chinese manufacturers, but just like Xiaomi, the default launcher doesn’t have an app drawer, and everything can be found on the home screen. Some people like this, some people don’t so I won’t chime into it too much as I feel it’s more down to personal preference.

MT7-Homescreen

The default theme is perhaps something that I can’t really say that I like as the icons look a bit too busy for me, and I’m not a fan of the gold and black colour palette. Of course, you can change this by going into themes and changing it into something else and they do have a theme called “Bloom” that looks quite nice. Bear in mind that changing out the default theme on the phone does change the lockscreen on the phone, as it is something I found to be the case when I changed it to bloom; The wallpaper controls were replaced with weather information and the unlocking effect changed into a lens flare kind of effect.

Getting around the phone is actually very similar to MIUI, so if you’ve used that before, you’re probably right at home with EMUI. You can of course group apps into folders by dragging them on top of another, and dragging them up to the top of the screen allows you to either share them or uninstall them.

Long holding on an empty spot on the home screen or pinching the display allows you to change the default home page, add or remove pages, change the wallpaper, add widgets, change screen transitions and define the grid layout on the phone. Shaking your phone on this mode will align your icons nicely on the screen, though there’s no sorting of folders first.

Navigation is done courtesy of on screen keys, and I found this quite interesting as they seem to be themed in the same way the Lollipop navigation keys are done. Holding on either the back or home button then dragging upwards opens Google Now, while holding onto the App Switcher button brings you back to your last app.

Tapping on the App Switcher shows you a list of all running apps, along with the current amount of free RAM, and the total amount of RAM. Tapping on any of the apps switches you back to that app, while swiping upwards on the bottom of screen clears all running apps.

There aren’t a lot of preinstalled 3rd party applications on the phone, and that’s not really where the issue is in my opinion. There’s the default plethora of Google apps like Youtube, Maps and Chome, then you have actual third party preinstalled applications like Polaris Office and Twitter.

There are some default Huawei apps that I found to be lacking in usefulness, and one of these is the Mirror app, that gives you an “Icy Effect” when you blow into the microphone. I mean, really? There’s also Magnifier that I guess has its usefulness though, especially if you’re an older person trying to read text. Another thing that I’d like to add is that using the timer functionality in the clock only works in minutes and a manual setting in seconds isn’t allowed.

Despite being an octa core, and perhaps this is not so much of the fault of hardware in itself, I found that in certain UI elements like clearing of the running applications or even switching out from some applications, the UI seems to have very noticeable stutters. There’s also the issue of RAM management on the phone, as running my slew of benchmarks, there were points where I actually ran out of memory while running these applications, and had to manually shut the other processes off before being able to continue with the benchmarks. I’m pretty sure that they’re software related slowdowns that can be ironed out with coming updates though.

MT7-NotificationPulldown

The notifications panel is interesting as it shows the time at which certain notifications pop in, alongside the date, day and time above it. Tapping on the bin icon clears notifications. Swiping left or tapping on “Shortcuts” brings you to the toggles page in which you can quickly enable or disable things. There’s also a bar below that to set the brightness and to turn on Auto Brightness, and tapping on the Down arrow expands to show more toggles.

I find the inclusion of the expand and collapse arrows redundant as it doesn’t quite hurt to just show all the toggles, as it’s not long enough to need to scroll through anyway, so again, this is a design choice that I don’t quite get.

MT7-Storage

The Ascend Mate 7 comes with 16GB of internal storage, though out of the box only 11.30 GB is available for user storage. I’m a bit disappointed that it’s not at least 32GB given the price, but that should be just about enough for most people. Should you need more though, you could always insert a MicroSD to expand your storage even further.

MT7-Antutu

In Antutu, the Kirin 925 SoC pulled out in front of phones running the Snapdragon 800 SoC and slightly behind the Snapdragon 801. In terms of raw processing power then it’s safe to say that it’s a very capable chip.

MT7-AntutuWarning

I should note however, that during my testing process, I encountered a few error warnings telling me to take a break from benchmarking as the processor was heating up and could cause the phone to reboot.

MT7-3dMark

While things on the CPU end proves that the Kirin 925 is a powerful chip, its GPU doesn’t quite sit on the same level as the Adreno 330. The ARM Mali T624MP4 while is a respectable chip, consistently comes out second to the Adreno 330.

MT7-EpicCitadel

Under High Quality settings, the phone scored and average of 55.5 fps and under Ultra High Quality, an average of 33.2 fps. They’re average scores when you pit them up against the competition, but either way it the performance hit in games shouldn’t be that big.

MT7-GFXBench

GFX Bench results show how the Mali T624 MP4 is consistently about 10fps or more slower than the Adreno 330, which is a big difference.

I was able to register 10 touches simultaneously without any issues.

Sound, Speakers and Media Playback


MT7-Dialer

The earpiece for receiving calls was loud enough to be heard, in fact a lot louder than average smartphones, which is a good thing, though I did find that the microphone was a bit on the softer side of things, which was a bit strange.

The loud speaker is above average in terms of volume when blasted at full. While it doesn’t sound tinny, it doesn’t have a lot of bass nor treble. You shouldn’t have problems hearing it however.

The good news as well is that the vibration motor for the phone is quite strong, enough to rotate the phone on a table, and to be easily felt if say your phone was in silent mode in your pocket.

MT7-Music

For my subjective music listening tests, I hooked the Mate 7 to my new pair of cans, the Denon AH-D1100. I compare the audio output to the Cowon J3, a music player that I consider to be at the pinnacle of audio output quality. For all tests, equalisers and effects are disabled unless otherwise stated. Volume for both players are estimated to be at about the same level as well.

I usually start with a vocal trance track for my tests, and as such, I started with Kyau & Albert’s Down. Bass response during the drops was solid and great, sound separation while was slightly lacking was good, and trebles in the vocal cues were nice and clear.

So far so good, so up next is Hystereo by Armin van Buuren. Initially the audio output was very comparable to my J3, though when the beat kicked in, I could tell that the clarity, while close, didn’t quite match up. Aside from that, the bass output didn’t seem to be as punchy either, though I would be nitpicking details at this point.

The final track is high on acoustics, White Sand (Chill Out Mix) by Sunlounger. Clarity again is great, but perhaps just a little bit short of audiophile quality. Aside from that, sound separation was good, and overall a pleasure to listen to.

Turning on DTS, the output sound grew a lot sharper and crisper, and while bass came off a lot more controller and pronounced, it didn’t seem to be as low anymore.

Certainly while I’ve had my fair say about the audio output quality, there’s nothing to complain about at where it stands. If I ever ran out of battery on my J3 I would have no qualms with listening to music on the Mate 7.

MT7-VideoPlayback

Using the default player, I managed to playback The Thing (2011) that was encoded in H264 with an average bitrate of 2,032 kbps in 1080p with an AAC encoded audio In an MKV container. No issues with playback whatsoever, and the phone kept its temperatures cool the whole time.

Camera, Photo Quality & Video Recordings


MT7-Camera

The camera app draws a lot of inspiration from iOS design wise. Top left you’ll find the flash settings, top centre there’s the option to flip to the front facing camera, and top right is the options button. Bottom left is the quick access to the gallery, bottom center the shutter button and bottom right the filters button. Swiping left and right on the display switches you in between the other two modes which include video and All-Focus, a mode that takes 4 different photos at 6MP when pressed at different focus points, allowing for you to change the focus point at a later time.

The gallery icon is static and doesn’t change to show the last image taken, and swiping upwards on the camera quickly launched to the gallery as well. One other cool interesting feature is long pressing your finger on the screen. This then splits the exposure controls and the focus ring into two elements, making it possible to focus on something while making sure that another elements is well exposed, which is useful for daylight photography.

MT7-CameraAdvanced

Tapping on the options button, You can enable Beauty mode, Panorama, HDR, create Audio Notes, Best Photo that takes 10 photos in quick succession for you to then pick the best one, and watermark that overlays your photos with graphics and taglines should you decide you’d like to send or upload your photos with those.

Going further into settings, there’s an option to change your photo resolution (13M 4:3, 10M 16:9, 9M 1:1, 8M 4:3 and 6M 16:9), GPS tagging, save location for your photos, muting the camera shutter, taking photos with the fingerprint sensor, the ability to take photos with audio cues (Pai Zhao or Qie Zi; there’s no English equivalents here sadly), Timer, Touch to capture, Smile Capture, Object focus and tracking, changing functionality of the shutter button when you hold it and the volume button. There’s the option to change the double pressing of the volume button too from quickly taking a photo to just launching the camera. Finally, there’s the option to change the ISO, and the white balance along with Image Adjustment that lets you manually tweak the exposure compensation, saturation, contrast and brightness.

Moving into Video mode these options change as well, with notable changes being of course the resolution (FHD 1080p, HD 720p, VGA, QVGA and MMS), beauty mode in video, Stabilizer that uses the accelerometer to compensate for hand movement and enabling HDR video, though this option only works when not shooting in 1080p.

Photos taken with the camera are really well exposed most times while being mildly underexposed in others, white balancing is handled really well without looking too cold or warm, detail to look a bit soft but otherwise good, and noise levels to be very well controlled, though you are still able to see some signs of denoise processing if you look close enough. Bokeh is present as well and looks quite nice as well, without looking too messy and garbled.

Strangely, all of this seems to go down the drain with HDR enabled. Colours instantly look a lot more washed out, photos were a lot more overly exposed and white balancing was a lot colder than without. Save for low light mode, where the over exposure came in useful by exposing the photos a lot more neutral colour balance rather than being too warm, I didn’t find HDR mode to be useful at all.

It’s only natural then that I move on to low light photography. As mentioned above, having HDR enabled helped, as without it, photos were underexposed and were a lot warmer than they should be as well. Noise levels were a bit higher at this point, though still on acceptable levels. As noise levels go up, so does the noise processing levels, and on high contrast points, this is clearly visible by the amount of artifacts on the edges. Tuning on flash wasn’t helpful at all as well as it was just too strong in this situation, and just blew my subject away into over exposure. The optimal distance is a lot further and as such shouldn’t be used with subjects that are close.

Moving to actual night photography the Mate 7 actually did quite well. Seeing as there’s no dedicated night mode, I took the photo as I normally would and was surprised to find the photo very well exposed. Noise levels although still ever present was surprisingly under control, though sharpness seemed to suffer a little as images came out looking quite soft. It’s here that HDR just didn’t help at all as photos just came out extremely dimly lit with not much detail at all, which is of course an oddity seeing as photos have all been over exposed right up until the low light environments

All-Focus is a mode where it takes 4 photos in quick succession at different focus points from near to far so that you can switch them later. In practice, I didn’t particularly find this mode very useful as most of the times when you take photos they’re usually always in focus, and the amount of stepping that the photos take meant that even if you did end up with a photo that was slightly out of focus, you wouldn’t be able to remedy this as the next stepping either before or after is just too extreme to be of any use.

Swiping to the left on the display brings you into video recording mode, and tapping the shutter button starts the video recording. There doesn’t seem to be any option to take photos while doing a video recording.

1080p Video recordings weren’t particularly that sharp, in fact just like the photos they looked a little bit on the softer side of things. The colours were alright, and generally would have been alright were it not for the abysmal audio recording quality on the videos. The audio was just generally too loud and overblown, and not only that, sounded muffled, even at very quiet and serene locations, where you could even hear the audio peaking out in many situations. In short, it was a disaster, and even playing back the video for reviewing was difficult.

Disappointing.

Connectivity


MT7-Connectivity

Coming short of a full sized tablet, Huawei’s dual antenna system seems to actually pay off, as WiFi connectivity wise, it came second in the 5m test, and first in the 25m test.

MT7-GPS

Perhaps this is where the dual antennas helped as well, as I got a lock in a very fast 2 seconds, and it went down to an accuracy of 4 meters after a while.

Battery Life


MT7-Battery

Playback battery life is estimated using the amount of battery drain from a single movie, while pure gsm standby is calculated after the phone is left untouched for 24 hours, then the results are extrapolated to run the whole battery. Together they are calculated together to give the normal daily usage battery life.

– 10 hours 12 minutes of video playback
– 8 days 2 hours 40 minutes pure standby (GSM, WiFi)
– 23 hours 8 minutes of normal usage

Note: I updated the calculation for normal usage to give a better true to life indication of battery usage.

The standby times while not the highest, aren’t anything to scoff at. They’re still a very respectable score by any means, but perhaps if Huawei worked to perfect and tighten their kernel just a little bit more, they could have gotten much better scores and times. At this point in time, I feel that they’re hitching on the size of the 4,100 mAh battery instead. Either way, it still means that the phone should bring you through a day of usage without any problems whatsoever.

Conclusion


There is a saying that goes something along the lines of “A for effort”. The Ascend Mate 7 is exactly that. It’s a phone that tries to get a lot of things right, but falls short on delivery. There are things that just break the bubble of it being a premium phone, and they are things like the attention to detail in the machining and assembly of the body, the display that just comes out just a little bit yellowish, the gimmicky features of the UI, and the lacklustre HDR and Video mode.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the direction at which Huawei is going, but I feel that there’s still plenty of room of improvements as far as things go. For starters, I think it would be good if Huawei tightened their QC process, making sure that things like the yellowish display and the unevenness in the assembly of the back plate didn’t exist. Also, the omission of gimmicky features in the UI, in exchange for perhaps things that we’re more likely to use on a daily basis.

I can tell that they’re trying though, and that they’re trying hard. While ergonomics could be improved, the body feels great in the hand, the screen’s clarity and contrast ratios are wonderful despite the yellowish tinge, the performance is great overall save for the few hiccups here and there, and the UI features, I’m pretty sure are issues that can be fixed with OTA updates.

I could have been a bit more lenient about its issues if the price tag wasn’t so high. While it’s not the most expensive phone I’ve reviewed, at this price range, I expect to see exactly what I’m paying for: A polished product. While the Ascend Mate 7 comes close to earning that title, it’s still short of it in my opinion. That said, I could still recommend it if you’re looking for a 6” phone, though I would also advice you that there are probably other options around the corner as it doesn’t particularly have any features that explicitly stands out.

MT7-Scoring

Pros

  • Users of MIUI will find EMUI familiar
  • CPU performance is modest
  • Display is nice and sharp, with good contrast ratios
  • Very little third party applications
  • MicroSD allows you to further expand on internal storage
  • Photos taken under auto are quite nice
  • Audio output quality is wonderful
  • Connectivity is one of the best out there
  • Aluminium finish gives the phone a solid, sturdy feel

Cons

  • Phone’s body isn’t assembled to perfection
  • Ergonomics leave more to be desired for a 6” device
  • Internal storage small for price point
  • Display has a slightly yellow tinge
  • GPU performance is Average
  • CPU overheats under load
  • Default UI theme looks too busy and messy
  • Some unnecessary default Huawei apps leave more to be desired
  • Camera’s HDR is one point short of being useless
  • Video lacks sharpness and audio is a mess.
  • Price tag leaves expectations high

I give this device a 6.5/10.

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