Hands-on with the Huawei Mate 10 Pro

Huawei is aiming big with the Mate 10 Pro.

Here’s a glass-and-metal sandwich that arrives packing twin Leica cameras, an eye-catching 18:9 screen and skinny bezels – and yet it’s the teeny tiny CPU inside it that’s potentially even more exciting.

The Kirin 970 is a piece of smartphone silicon with a separate AI brain inside, dedicated purely to machine learning, image recognition, and all other kinds of neural network jobs that would usually need a supercomputer to crunch through.

AI assistants are here, whether you like it or not, and it’s tech like this that’s making them smarter. In the Mate 10, these smarts could make you a better photographer, give you a heads-up on features you’re not using (but should) and even translate other languages in real-time.

That’s pretty neat – and when that tech is squeezed into a gorgeous slab of glass like this, with a giant battery, quality cameras and the latest version of Android, there’s plenty to like.

DESIGN & BUILD

From the front, it’s tough to miss the switch to an 18:9 screen: there are barely any bezels on this thing, and the smallest of Huawei logos crammed in at the very bottom.

With such skinny sides, Huawei is effectively cramming a 6in screen into a phone the same physical size as last year’s 5.5in models. More for less is always good in our book, and the whole thing sits comfortably in your hand.

Flipping it over reveals the other big switch. The entire back panel is made from glass, which is bonded to an aluminium frame. So pretty much like every other big-name phone doing the rounds right now. Huawei has gone for curved glass to better fit the curve of your palm, though, which both looks and feels slick.

At the right angle, the whole back glints with colour and depth, thanks to the multiple layers of glass that reflect light in different ways. A small strip of darker colour highlights the twin Leica-branded cameras, and the fingerprint sensor floats on its lonesome just below, but otherwise the panel is uninterrupted. Just watch out for fingerprints – this thing is a magnet for ‘em.

The midnight blue colour is more than a bit tasty, but we’re partial to the mocha brown version too – those copper hues are very in right now, don’tcha know. A much more restrained titanium grey is also available (if you’re boring), and a fourth pink gold model completes the line-up.

IP67 water- and dust-resistance mean you can comfortably take it to the beach, pool or even just near the kitchen sink without worrying a bit of butterfingers will result in a dead phone. This finally puts Huawei on par with Samsung, which has had a waterproof option for a year or two now.

You won’t find a headphone jack anywhere around the sides – Huawei has ditched it in favour of USB-C or wireless headphones. With Google, Motorola and HTC all doing a similar thing, this move was almost inevitable, but it’s still annoying if you’ve got a quality pair of cans you want to listen to.

SCREEN & SOUND

The Mate 10 is the latest phone to make the jump to 18:9, with a 6in, 2160×1080 OLED display that slims down the bezels on all sides.

Huawei calls it Fullview, which is appropriate – the top and bottom bezels really are tiny, which we think makes it look far sleeker than the chunky Pixel 2 XL.

OK, it doesn’t have front-firing stereo speakers like Google’s phone, but the Mate 10 still does a great job with the main speaker at the bottom next to the USB-C port. It works in tandem with the earpiece speaker and gets surprisingly loud. Podcasts and YouTube videos shouldn’t pose a problem.

The side bezels don’t make quite as much of an impact as the Galaxy S8’s curved Infinity Display, but the whole thing still looks ultra-modern. The panel is beyond decent, too: expect vibrant colours, incredible contrast and decent brightness. It’ll even play HDR10 video.

That resolution is a bit of an odd one, though, falling behind the similarly-sized LG V30 and Galaxy S8+. There are still plenty of pixels here, so images and videos show lots of detail, and text doesn’t look at all blocky, but a part of us was expecting a little more from this flagship phone.

CAMERA: A SMARTER SNAPPER

This year’s P10 and P10 Plus already had great camera hardware, so it makes sense that Huawei has stuck with the same 12MP RGB and 20MP monochrome dual sensor setup for the Mate 10.

It’s the glass that has seen the biggest upgrade, with f/1.6 aperture lenses for both cameras. Only LG’s V30 can match that for wide-open, let-in-as-much-life-as-possible glass, and could make all the difference in low light.

Only the 12MP snapper has optical image stabilisation, but the 4-in-one hybrid zoom should mean you’re never left waiting for the phone to lock onto your subject. You get contrast, depth, phase-detect and laser autofocus all working together, and it certainly felt speedy during the brief hands-on.

Speed is the name of the game here, really. Everything is lightning-fast – including the AI-assisted scene detection. Machine learning algorithms are constantly running in the background, recognising whatever you’re pointing the camera at and adjusting the automatic preset accordingly.

Point at some flowers? It’ll boost greens, yellows and reds to make the petals really pop. It recognises faces and knows when not to blur the background, so group shots don’t leave the people at the back with smeared faces.

It all sounds great, and we don’t doubt it’ll deliver great photos, but we’re really hoping Huawei has dialled back its aggressive image sharpening. The effect was really noticeable on the P10 and P10 Plus, making some scenes just look unnatural rather than adding detail and definition.

Without properly testing the cameras we can’t make a final call on image quality just yet – that will have to wait for a full review a little closer to launch.

SOFTWARE & OS

You might not see the AI in action when you’re swiping through the Mate 10’s home screens or menus, but it is there, working in the background ready to make suggestions that’ll help you get the most from the phone.

Say you’re using the phone in the dark – all that blue light might make it harder to sleep when you finally turn in. The AI knows the time, your rough location, and the readings from the ambient light sensor, so can suggest you put on the low light mode.

That’s just small fry, too. Huawei teamed up with Microsoft for a dedicated version of Microsoft’s Translator app, which uses the Kirin’s neural processing brain to its full potential. It means you can use it for live language translation, with next to no delay.

At least, that’s the theory – the demo was unavailable during our hands-on session. We’re hoping to be able to try it a little closer to launch. Google made a big deal about its Babel Fish-style Buds headphones doing something similar, but here the phone will do all the work.

All this runs on top of EMUI 8, the latest version of Huawei’s custom Android skin – which itself runs on Android 8 Oreo. It doesn’t look all that different from the previous version, with slightly tweaked icons, notification tray and settings screen, but there are a few new additions.

The big one is the floating navigation dock, which can replace the onscreen home buttons at the bottom of the screen. The bigger, 18:9 aspect screen is longer and thinner than the old 16:9 regime, so you might need to adjust your grip – with this enabled a small hovering dot lets you get around the UI with a few taps. No finger yoga required.

Certain apps get a new multi-column view to take advantage of the extra space, too. Huawei’s Email app now has one column for your inbox and a second for message previews.

It’s the Samsung DEX-apeing Desktop mode that should appeal to professionals. There’s no dock required – just a USB-C to HDMI cable and a Bluetooth keyboard. Only certain apps work with it now, appearing on a big screen just like a Windows machine with a task bar, icons and windows, but third party support is lacking at launch.

We did like the smart split screen mode, though: incoming notifications only show up on your phone, when using presentation mode, and only appear as a tiny red dot in the Desktop view taskbar. Handy if you don’t want the office reading your WhatsApps.

EMUI still feels different to vanilla Android, but the changes aren’t nearly as aggressive as they used to be – and if you really don’t like the icon pack, it only takes a few minutes to find a more stock-style look and swap it out.

PERFORMANCE & BATTERY

AI aside, the Mate 10 is nothing short of a speed demon.

The Kirin 970 CPU uses its multiple cores to absolutely fly through apps, games and the Android home screen, so you’re never left waiting for something to open or load – at least in our short experience with the phone.

Huawei reckons the Mali G72 graphics chip is 20% quicker than last year’s version, and twice as efficient, so playing more intensive 3D games shouldn’t drain your battery quite as dramatically. We didn’t get the chance to play anything during the demo session, so can’t say how well it handled frame rates, but the slightly lower screen resolution should hopefully give it an edge over the QHD+ Galaxy S8 and LG V30.

Mobile data speeds should be equally impressive, assuming you’re on a compatible network. The Mate 10 supports category 18 LTE bands, which means potential 1.2GBps speeds – that’s enough to download a movie in under ten seconds. Of course, there are no networks here that can go that high – but future you will be very happy with their quick-as-lightning smartphone.

The thing we’re potentially most excited by is the giant 4000mAh battery, which Huawei reckons is good for two days of use between charges. That’s significantly bigger than anything Apple, Google or Samsung offers right now, and should help eliminate any battery anxiety.

When it is time to top up, you’ll get 58% in about 30 minutes using Huawei’s Supercharge tech. There’s no wireless option, though, which is a bit of a shame.

HUAWEI MATE 10 PRO INITIAL VERDICT

Spend five minutes with a Mate 10 and it’s impossible to miss the serious slimming of screen bezels, or the jump from metal to glass. It’s very attractive, and feels every bit the premium handset.

Design is only half the story, though. AI integration has massive potential, and Huawei is really only scratching the surface right now: tweaking the camera when it recognises a particular scene and suggesting screen settings are novelties, but live language translation could be huge.

How well all this works in practice is still a mystery right now, but we’ll be sure to thoroughly test it in the full review.

People don’t buy phones based on potential, though. It’ll be battery life, camera image quality and price that will decide if the Mate 10 can outmuscle the Galaxy S8, LG V30, and the rest. If you’re a fan of shiny glass, Huawei has an edge already.

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2 Comments

  1. When will this be available in South Africa and what is the cost?

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