What exactly is a flagship? For some companies, it’s about cramming as many features into a device as physics allows. For Huawei, it means something else entirely: Though it creates smartphones for the power-hungry crowd, its most eye-catching devices typically favor mass appeal over brawn. Exhibit A: the Mate 7, a phablet that emphasizes design and user-friendliness over a dishevelled spec sheet. From what I hear among industry friends, its predecessor, the P7 of last year, was found to be a gorgeous phone that struggled due to an under-powered engine. The company promises it’s learned from its mistakes, though. So is the Mate 7 the high-end, premium smartphone you’ll actually be proud to show off?
Before we begin, we have to address the 500kg gorilla in the room, and we’re not just talking about the type of glass that coats the face of the device. The Mate 7 looks like the result of gene splicing between the iPhone 6 and one of HTC’s many One-M8 handsets. That’s not meant to be a criticism, but the lens placement and machining scream HTC.
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Similarities aside, it’s a beautiful piece of equipment and you’ll have total confidence in the solidity of this device when it’s in your hand. Huawei’s got a knack for putting smartphones together and there’s no worry that this kit will creak or bend. It’s also tremendously easy on the pocket, since it’s only 7.9mm thick and weighs a light 184 grams. Rest assured that despite being more than R3000 cheaper than the Galaxy Note 4 here in the SA, it’s also a good-looking phone, so you needn’t be worried that the posher kids at school/the office/the club will sneer at your cheaper device. In fact, this would happily sit beside flagships from Samsung and HTC without appearing like the dowdy friend who you only sit with under duress.
If minimalism is your bag, then you’ll find the understated lines of the Mate 7 right up your street. Up front are the speaker, light sensor and the 5-megapixel forward-facing camera (why-oh-why they downgraded this from the 8-megapixel found on the P7 amazes me), all of which linger above the display. On the bottom, there’s a micro-USB port for charging, with the 3.5mm headphone jack located up top. The left-hand side plays host to the micro-SIM and microSD trays, while the right has the center-mounted power button and volume up/down rocker. All three are metal, and there’s some beautiful machining on the center button — a high-quality detail from a company you wouldn’t always associate with small, design-centric flourishes.
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The 6-inch, in-cell LCD from Japan Display really doesn’t look as big as it is, thanks to bezels that have been shrunk down to just 3mm. With a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 (that’s FHD, acronym fans) and a pixel density of 445 ppi, it sits in the same league as the Nexus 5, which means we have little to complain about. Pictures and video are crisp; the viewing angles are almost universally good; and it’ll hold its own in the noonday sun, even when not on full brightness. Colour accuracy is acceptable, although in side-by-side tests with another device, everything looked a little over-saturated. Not enough to annoy most users, though. The company has also retained its so-called gloves mode, which ups the sensitivity on the screen making it possible to use when you’re out in the cold.
One particular bugbear of mine is when smartphone manufacturers place the speaker close to where you hold the device. It’s been more than a year since HTC demonstrated front-facing speakers are the way forward, so why do companies insist upon this retrograde step? Unfortunately for me, Huawei has stuck the speaker right in the path of my palm, though it’s at least made the placement work to its advantage. Thanks to the vertical orientation of the speaker, the curve of your hand may actually make a funnel to amplify the sound, no matter which one you hold it with. The volume is strong up close, but won’t fill a room if you’re hosting an impromptu dance party. That’s not a criticism either, really, a compliment.
The Mate 7 runs Android 4.4.2, but you wouldn’t know it just by glancing at the screen. As ever, Huawei included its proprietary Emotion UI skin, with this particular device running version 2.3 of the software. The first thing die-hard Droid fans are going to notice is that there’s no app tray. Huawei and I share the same annoyance with Android’s two-stage launcher, so all apps now reside on the multiple pages of the home screen — yep, just like on iOS. In order to prevent the phone from becoming unnecessarily cluttered, the company crams several of the smaller utilities into folders. That’s fine, but don’t be surprised if you have to do a little shunting around to get things the way you like it.
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Imaging is one area where Huawei has, at least on paper, splashed the cash. Rather than attempting to craft a solution on its own, the company sought out Sony to provide the 13-megapixel sensor previously used in the P7, it features here as well. Not so better, the forward-facing camera boasts an 5-megapixel sensor, besting the Galaxy Note 4 (3MP). The primary unit is much improved. There’s a pleasing depth to the images now, and I was happily snapping stills and landscapes in the early fall sun. In the late-evening gloom, however, photos got a little too murky to be useful, and at night, the images were decent, but tremendously noisy. As the company works on the inevitable Ascend Mate 8, we hope that instead of just throwing in more megapixels, Huawei improves the hardware as well.
As I benchmarked the Mate 7 and tried to assess its performance, I thought about which phones I should be comparing this device with. On one hand, Huawei, would position this as a significantly cheaper alternative to the Nokia 1320 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
In a money-is-no-object world, every smartphone would come with a Snapdragon 805, a 41-megapixel camera, a beautiful body and a 4K display. Huawei’s aim here was to build a device that could be spoken of in the same breath as the Galaxy Note 4 and Microsoft’s Lumia 1520 at a significantly reduced cost. And it succeeded with a handset that is more than the sum of its parts. Huawei wins points for the rock-solid build quality, the materials used and the overall aesthetic. The imaging prowess of both the forward- and rear-facing cameras is better than you may expect from a handset that’s priced well within the second tier. That’s another merit, since at around R9299 (R489 on a Vodacom Smart S, or from R399 at Altech-Autopage contracts) , the Ascend Mate 7 is about R3000 cheaper than the Galaxy Note 4 – enough money to buy a first-generation Android Wear device and still have enough money left over for a meal. If you’re prepared to accept a few rough edges here and there, the Ascend Mate 7 is a worthy recipient of your hard-earned cash.