Everyone knows there’s an AI apocalypse on the way – after all, no less an authority than Stephen Hawking says so. And when it does occur, we’ll have smartphones to blame.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro isn’t the first phone packed with seriously clever AI tech inside it, but it may be the smartest yet: a mobile that’s capable of recognising what you’re pointing your camera at and predicting which app you’re about to open. Add in the fact that it also has a classy glass design, eye-caressing 18:9 screen and mighty battery and you have a smartphone fit to stand with any released this year.
Turns out that whole apocalypse thing was a sacrifice worth making.
DESIGN & BUILD: SHINY PRETTY THING
For starters, it’s got the now de rigueur near-bezel-less front and 18:9 display. The screen doesn’t curve round the sides as on the stunning Samsung Galaxy S8, but those bezels really are impressively slim.
Want proof? Well the Mate 10 Pro’s screen-to-body ratio is around 80%, which puts it ahead of the likes of the Google Pixel 2 XL and LG G6 on that front, and not far behind Samsung’s finest. And yes, we did get those stats from elsewhere.
There’s no notch cutting into the screen as on the Apple iPhone X, either – just a thin strip above it holding the front camera, flash and top speaker, and an equally minuscule one at the bottom with the Huawei logo on it. It really does look suitably futuristic from the front, and is the equal of any 2017 phone other than the S8 and, possibly, the iPhone X.
The rear is even more sumptuous: a single slab of glass sitting on top of coloured aluminium. You can get it in silver, blue or a rather fetching pinky/goldy/browny colour, and all three look superb, like particularly shiny sports cars. Of course the major drawback with all that glass is that, well, it tends to smash. The Mate 10 Pro uses specially heat-treated Gorilla Glass, which should make it more resistant to mistreatment, but after a week’s use ours had already picked up a couple of minor scratches.
That said, it’s clearly tougher than your average wine glass, given that it did survive a two-foot drop on to a hard floor. No, that wasn’t a deliberate part of the testing process – rather the result of our main complaint about the Mate 10 Pro’s design: because the glass rear is curved, it has a tendency to slide around when placed on anything other than an absolutely flat surface. Stick it casually on top of a pile of books or something and more often than not it’ll slowly slip off as if possessed by a particularly lazy poltergeist.
Still, those curves do make it easier to hold, especially when coupled with its taller-but-narrower dimensions. You’ll need to do some finger-gymnastics to reach up to the top, but the fingerprint sensor – which is placed on the rear, below the camera modules – is exactly where you’d want it to be.
The dual cameras are themselves set on a stylish strip of a slightly different colour to the rest of the phone. They protrude slightly from the body, but that just means you won’t end up pressing one when you’re feeling around for the fingerprint sensor.
Volume and power are on the right-hand side, up top there’s an IR blaster (remember them?) and mic, and down the bottom there’s another speaker, another mic and a USB-C port. But (drum roll please…) there’s no headphone socket – so you’ll need to go wireless or use an adaptor, which Huawei supplies in the box.
You also get a pair of USB-C headphones with the handset, but they sound cheap and tinny and don’t fit nicely either. None out of three ain’t bad, eh? Oh.
All told, it’s something of a stunner: sleek, stylish and suitably premium given the R18,000 price tag. It’s all fully waterproof too, which is a first for Huawei. Our one real criticism, aside from the slippy-slidey thing, is that there’s no home button at all on the front. Still, that does make more room for the screen. Speaking of which…
DISPLAY AND SPEAKERS: LOVELY, LOVELY OLED
The Mate 10 Pro’s screen is its defining characteristic. It’s what sets it apart from the standard Mate 10, which sticks with the traditional 16:9 panel, and it’s what you’ll spend most of your time looking at.
The good news is that it’s fantastic – if not the absolute best.
What you get here is a 6in, 2160 x 1080 OLED, with a pixel density of 402ppi and an 18:9 aspect ratio. You might think that resolution sounds a little low these days, and you’d be right – once you factor in the extra height, it’s merely full HD, whereas the standard Mate 10 has a 2K panel. But don’t worry too much about that, because in real-world use it’s plenty sharp enough. And besides, once you look at it you won’t be worrying about detail, because you’ll be too busy marvelling at the rich colours.
The Mate 10 Pro’s not-so-secret weapon is its OLED display tech. It really just leaves LCD for dead here: the standard Mate 10 may have the higher resolution, but the extra contrast and punchier colours you get with OLED gives the Pro the advantage. It doesn’t go nearly as bright as LCD, though, and won’t fare so well in direct sunlight either – not that you’ll need to worry about that for another nine months now.
The Mate 10 Pro is HDR10 compliant, but we couldn’t get either Netflix or YouTube to display HDR content. Hopefully they’ll both arrive via a software update. Huawei does pre-install a HDR video on the phone, and we can confirm that it looks very lovely indeed, but really it’s hard to judge until we’ve used it properly in the wilds of the internet.
Overall it’s a great screen. The extra space you get with the 18:9 ratio makes web browsing and game-playing a delight, and while not every app natively displays full-screen in these dimensions, you can force them to adjust; I’ve routinely done so with no ill effects.
Audio-wise it’s a little more mundane. The two speakers do a decent enough job for podcasts and the like, and go fairly loud, but there’s no real bass to the sound and it’s not proper stereo as on the Google Pixel 2.
CAMERA: A SMARTER SNAPPER
Huawei’s stuck with the two-camera set-up it introduced back on 2016’s P9. Whaddya mean you don’t remember that? OK then, for those of you who don’t follow Huawei’s history all that closely, that’s a 20MP monochrome sensor paired with a 12MP colour one. The two work together to accomplish all manner of jiggery-pokery, including near-lossless zoom, blurry backgrounds and extra-sharp snaps.
Both cameras have Leica-made lenses with a large, light-gathering f/1.6 aperture, the colour sensor has optical image stabilisation and there’s also laser autofocus and phase detection on board.
The camera app is where you’ll first meet Huawei’s dedicated neural-network processing unit (NPU), the AI brain sitting inside it ready to take over the world. It doesn’t actually do that yet (as far as we know), instead limiting itself to recognising your subject and automatically adjusting settings to match them.
Let’s say you point your camera at a dog – the NPU will use its massive processing power to recognise that the lolling tongue and halfwit eyes it sees do indeed belong to a dog, and will helpfully put a little pooch icon up on the screen. Your photo will then be optimised for doggy snapshots. It also does cats, people, food, plants and more – about a dozen in total.
While it mostly recognises things swiftly, we found that it struggled if a subject wasn’t straight on or in its standard setting. For instance if you point it at a plate of food, it’s fine, but it won’t generally work if the food is still in a packet, even an open one.
Huawei’s Beauty Mode also reappears here, for good and bad. The good is that if you’re a craggy-faced octogenarian, it’ll effortlessly smooth out all those wrinkles and make you look like someone half your age. The bad is that it’ll also make you look like a Woolies mannequin. Oh, and the other bad is that if you’re already young, it’ll just make you look a bit weird.
We’re probably being too harsh, here. You can dial down the effect and at its lowest settings it can just be mildly flattering rather than downright unreal. But it’s nowhere near as effective as the Portrait modes on the Pixel 2 or iPhone 8.
The Aperture mode is a lot more useful, blurring the background in a subtle and natural way. What’s more, you can change the effect after you’ve taken a shot, which can be handy if you spot a detail you want to bring into focus. Oh, and there’s a Motion Photos mode too, which mostly works well enough but which again isn’t quite as slick as the one on the Pixel 2 – unsurprisingly, all Google’s software smarts do make a difference when it comes to execution.
Special modes aside, it takes excellent photos. There’s plenty of detail and good, lifelike colours, while those f/1.6 Leica lenses help it take really nice portraits even without the Beauty Mode. In fact the NPU also helps out here, telling the camera where the subject – or subjects – are and making sure it blurs the background rather than an ear or hair.
Huawei’s camera app is fairly comprehensive but easy to use, and there’s a full Pro mode if you want to take control over ISO etc. Strangely, though, HDR is hidden inside a menu rather than being on by default as it mostly is elsewhere. We found that it usually improved photos massively, in certain settings such as outdoor scenes with both bright sunlight and shadows. However bear in mind that as with most of the Mate 10 Pro’s camera modes, it does tend to overdo things sometimes, leaving your photos looking a bit unreal. We quite like the effect, but you may prefer something a little more natural.
Video is available in 4K@30fps or 1080p@60fps, and benefits hugely from the optical image stabilisation – when it’s available. Weirdly, you can’t use it with either 4K or 60fps, so full HD at 30fps is the sensible option to go for if you’re moving while shooting.
Round the front, there’s an 8MP snapper with f/2.0 lens which takes excellent selfies. Despite only having the one sensor it blurs the background really nicely, although again you’ll want to dial down on the Beauty settings.
PERFORMANCE: NEAR-LIMITLESS POWER
Nothing seems to trouble it, and it’s blindingly fast whatever you’re doing. Use the fingerprint sensor, for instance, and it’ll spring into action instantly; fire up the camera app and there’s not a hint of a delay.
How much of this is down to the neural processing unit (NPU) is hard to say. It’ll supposedly learn from your behaviour over time and will adjust to your specific pattern of app usage. So if, for instance, you usually follow a Twitter session by heading into Instagram, it’ll prep the second app ready for launch beforehand. All of which moves us dangerously close to a time when your phone will tell you “No, Dave, I won’t launch Twitter for you, you’ve had too many beers and it’ll only end in tears.”
How much difference the NPU really makes is near-impossible to test, though. All we can say is that this phone is fast, and will likely get faster, rather than slower, over time. Battery life is an even bigger bonus here. The Mate 10 Pro has a massive 4000mAh cell inside it and even with that humongous 6in screen to power it lasts for ages and ages.
We typically got around a day and a half from it, but we hammer phones harder than most, and we’re confident most people will get roughly two days from it. Certainly you won’t need to stress about leaving the house for a few hours with only 30% charge – that’ll still be good for 4-5hrs minimum.
It charges quickly when jacked up to a Huawei supercharger, too, giving you around 60% after a mere 30-minute boost. And given that’ll keep you going for another day or so, you really aren’t likely to ever find yourself holding a completely dead phone.
Storage shouldn’t be a problem, either. There’s no microSD slot (though the standard Mate 10 gets one), but with either 64GB or 128GB of onboard space, you’re unlikely to struggle.
Finally, the Mate 10 Pro is equipped with potentially super-fast download speeds via what it calls ‘4.5G’. Basically, it can handle Cat18 LTE data transfer, which would be great if that tech had reached SA. Unfortunately it hasn’t, so you won’t notice any difference.
SOFTWARE AND OS: HITS AND MISSES
The Mate 10 Pro runs Android 8.0 Oreo, but overlaid with Huawei’s own EMUI 8.0 skin. While EMUI has traditionally been one of the more divisive versions of Android, it’s nowhere near as idiosyncratic these days. Sure, certain things work differently here from what you might be used to, but most settings can easily be changed to bring it closer to vanilla Android.
EMUI 8.0 introduces a fair few new features, among them split-pane apps in landscape mode, and a Samsung DeX-style desktop mode, if you plug it into a monitor and add a wireless mouse or keyboard. I will confess that we didn’t try the latter, and can’t imagine many people will get that much use from it.
You also get plenty of customisation options for navigation. We particularly like the way you can add a button to the nav bar which brings down the notifications pane, without you needing to stretch your fingers up to the top of the screen. It’s a sensible way to address the screen’s height. On the flip side, we don’t like the way you can’t quick-access the torch from the top shortcuts panel when the phone is off. First-world problems and all that.
The lack of a physical home button is also a bit frustrating if you’re used to having one, but it took us all of a week to adjust. Huawei does provide an alternative in the form of a virtual ‘floating’ button, which you can drag anywhere on the screen, but we found it easier to just retrain our brains to do without it.
Finally, there’s also an always-on mode, which isn’t anywhere near as useful as the one on the Google Pixel 2: it displays the time, date and battery life, but not notifications.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is an obvious alternative: it has a massive 6.3in OLED display with 2K resolution, stylish design and excellent camera, plus the clever S-Pen stylus. It’s probably a slightly better phone than the Mate 10 Pro overall, but it doesn’t have quite such an impressive battery and it is a bit more expensive: around R18,500 to the Mate 10 Pro’s R18,000. What’s more, that R18,500 only gets you 64GB of storage, whereas the Mate 10 Pro comes in 6GB/128GB form.
The biggest challenge of all, though, comes from the Samsung Galaxy S8, which is now stupidly cheap: as little as R12,500 if you shop around. It’s got a slightly smaller 5.8in screen but is one of the most beautiful gadgets ever and matches or surpasses the Mate 10 Pro in most areas other than battery life.
HUAWEI MATE 10 PRO VERDICT
In fact there’s really very little wrong with it at all, beyond the fact that it doesn’t really do anything that hasn’t already been done by another top Android this year. Yes, there’s the distinctive whiff of familiarity here, like someone’s grabbed all of their favourite bits from the year’s best phones and smashed them all together into a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster Phone. But that doesn’t really bother us and nor should it concern you.
If you want a big, powerful Android phone with a lovely camera and superb battery life – and most people do – then the Mate 10 Pro should be near the top of your list.