Huawei's latest Oreo-powered flagship phones combine AI smarts with dual f/1.6 cameras and, of course, enormous batteries.
If you look at the heritage of the Huawei Mate series, going all the way back to 2013's Ascend Mate one thing stands out: These are big, beastly, sturdy phones. Unapologetically gigantic screens are paired with equally hefty batteries, signifying a phone that means business. It's a formula that's served Huawei fairly well over the years, even if recent models like the Mate 9 haven't broken into Western markets as much as the company may have hoped.
With the latest Mate phones comes a pivot away from the tank-like aesthetic of Mates 7, 8 and 9. Along with all the generational improvements that come in any new flagship, the Mate 10 packs the technology we'd expect from the series into two of Huawei's sleekest and most beautiful devices to date. Glass, not metal. Slim and light, not big and bulky. And a focus on the smaller model of the two, at least in the West.
Meet the Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro.
Like last year, Huawei is launching two new Mate phones for 2017. There's the 5.9-inch Mate 10, with a normal-ish 16:9 aspect ratio — the same screen proportion as in years past. And there's also the 6-inch Mate 10 Pro, which has a taller 18:9 display. (Because we're dealing with two different aspect ratios here, the normal Mate 10 actually has the larger screen area. Geometry is weird like that.)
Aside from the regular Mate 10 looking a little short and squat compared to the Pro — a side effect of trimming down the bezels in all directions, while sticking at that 16:9 aspect ratio — both phones are very similar in what they do and how they look. So before we get stuck into the meat of this preview, let's get the major differences out of the way.
The Mate 10 Pro gets you a maximum 6GB of RAM, up from 4GB, and 128GB of storage up from 64GB. The Pro uses an OLED panel instead of the regular Mate 10's LCD, but at a lower resolution — Full HD+ (2160x1080) versus Quad HD (2560x1440). That means the Mate 10 Pro actually gets an on-paper downgrade in resolution compared to last year's Quad HD Mate 9 Pro. Nevertheless, both displays look great, and it's hard to complain when Samsung's 6.2- and 6.3-inch panels default to Full HD+ in software.
The Mate 10 Pro, with a 6-inch 18:9 screen and water resistance, is the only model coming to the UK and U.S.
The Pro has IP67 water resistance, while the standard Mate 10 comes with the increasingly rare 3.5mm headphone jack — most likely cut from the Pro to save space. Finally, the regular Mate 10 puts its fingerprint scanner on the front, whereas the Pro has its sensor around the back. As such, the standard Mate has the option use gesture input for "back," "home," and recent apps, freeing up even more of that giant display for your apps and content.
And here's the big one: The U.S. and UK will only get the Mate 10 Pro initially, not the regular model. Given the Pro's more mainstream size, higher-end specs and water-resistant qualities, the decision to pass on the standard Mate 10 in these countries is understandable. The Pro stands a better chance of competing against the LG V30, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Google Pixel 2 XL.
More: Huawei Mate 10 vs. Mate 10 Pro specs
In any case, the core experience of using these two phones is basically identical. The tried-and-true glass-plus-metal sandwich isn't revolutionary, but it makes for a sturdy, polished handset. Minimal, curved bezels flank the flat displays of both phones, while the back panel features a subtle striped that catches the light at certain angles.
I'm also a fan of the shaded bar around the camera module, which adds a little retro charm, while adding a clear visual differentiator for this series of phones.
In the hand, the Mate 10 Pro, in particular, feels more substantial than the extremely lightweight LG V30, and is about on par with the added heft of the metal-bodied Google Pixel 2 — though Google's phone, with its dual speakers, is taller. The only real negatives here are the tendency for glass — even reinforced glass of the kind Huawei is using — to scratch more easily than a metal backplate, as well as the general slipperiness of the this year's Mates compared to their immediate forebears.
Even though both the Mate 10 and the Pro are relatively large, the new models feel way more compact than previous years' — at the same time, packing the enormous 4,000mAh battery capacity we've come to appreciate in previous Mates, along with Huawei's proven "Super Charge" technology.
The new Mates are more compact than ever, while still packing in 4,000mAh batteries.
The big marketing shtick for the Mate 10 is AI. That's because of the new Kirin 970 CPU, which has a built-in neural processing unit for faster machine learning. It's tough to show exactly how much quicker that specialized silicon makes everyday tasks — the Mate 10 seems perfectly fast, but then so did the Mate 9. In any case, Huawei says it's up to 20 times faster than a CPU at things like image recognition and natural language translation.
All of this neural networking and artificial intelligence is wasted without third-party developer support though, and while Huawei isn't getting too specific on individual dev partnerships, the Mate 10 will come with an NPU-optimized version of Microsoft Translator. Huawei software president Dr. Wang Chenglu tells us the company is working with other leading developers to help them make the most of the chip's AI chops. In addition to its own Kirin neural networking API, Huawei's phones will support Android's neural APIs, as well as the Tensorflow Lite and Caffe2 platforms.
Huawei — and just about everyone else — is anticipating a trend towards AI in phone apps in the coming year. That's something we've already seen with services like Google Lens on the new Pixel phones. With its NPU, Huawei says it's ahead of the curve for the coming wave of AI apps.
The NPU apparently helps with performance tuning in the new EMUI 8, as well. The latest version of Huawei's software skips versions 6 and 7 to keep parity with the Android version. Which means — yes, the Mate 10 runs Android Oreo out of the box — not that you'd necessarily know it, though. From a purely cosmetic perspective, EMUI 8 looks almost identical to the previous version 5.1. And that's mostly fine — EMUI doesn't look horrible. But it also doesn't look as sharp as vanilla Android, nor is it as easy on the eyes as futuristic Samsung Experience from the Galaxy S8.
The way a Huawei phone looks, feels and behaves in software terms is mostly unchanged.
The white and blue hues of EMUI 5 are unchanged, and the same stock icons from that version can be found in the many preloaded themes. The way a Huawei phone looks, feels and behaves in software terms is mostly unchanged. (That's either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal tastes.)
What EMUI does offer in abundance is new features. For instance, EMUI 8 can load messages from notifications in a split view to avoid interrupting full-screen videos. And when viewing photos in some apps, the phone's AI technology can intelligently upscale lower-res images. As for smaller tweaks? Well, the stock launcher now has Google Feed integration, which is nice to see. And "smart tips" can help surface Mate 10 features you might not know about based on your usage patterns.
The Mate line has always targeted business people who need a high-performance phone, and the Mate 10's new desktop mode is a major new feature for the Mate's core audience. Effectively, this is Huawei's version of the Samsung DeX, only without an expensive proprietary dock to buy. It works over USB Type-C, so with the right connector you can just plug your Mate 10 into a monitor and keyboard, and run apps on a bigger screen. The phone screen itself can even be used as a trackpad, which is a nice touch. It's also possible to hook up Bluetooth peripherals while in desktop mode, we're told, and use wireless accessories like microphones, mice and headsets with the larger display.
Huawei doubles down on software with EMUI 8, quick security updates and more
Huawei's software boss has confirmed to AC that the company plans to roll out Oreo for the Mate 9 Oreo four weeks after the Mate 10 goes on sale. Meanwhile, Huawei will target monthly security updates for its new flagships from the end of the year. And the company is already working with Google on Android P.
More: Huawei gets serious about software updates in EMUI 8
Even with its many impressive additions and under-the-hood optimizations, EMUI still looks and feels like EMUI. Most of the apps and icons still have a weird early-2000s desktop OS look to them, regardless of which theme you choose. And if that's not your cup of tea, then there's not a whole lot in this new version to win you over.
Digital imaging is one area where Huawei and its partner Leica have been making huge progress over the past year, and the Mate 10's dual rear cameras represent a further evolution of what we saw from the Mate 9 and P10. Once again, there are two sensors around the back: a color 12MP sensor and a 20MP monochrome shooter with OIS on the main camera and brighter, dual f.1/6 lenses. And that bodes really well for low-light performance, which has been Huawei's greatest area of weakness compared to Samsung, Google and others.
There's a new Dual ISP, which should help improve processing quality across the board, and intelligent scene selection, which uses the phone's AI hardware to identify the top 14 shooting scenarios and adjust settings accordingly. For instance, for a still shot a night, it'd use a longer exposure. For shots of kids and pets, it'd ramp up the ISO and use a quicker shutter speed.
I haven't had the opportunity to test this exhaustively, but the premise is sound. If the NPU can help Huawei identify scenes more accurately and quickly than the competition, then the Mate 10's camera could be a key area where a key partnership (Leica) and a key technology differentiator (AI and the NPU) converge to give the company a competitive edge.
I haven't had much time to test this stuff out just yet, but what I can say is that general image quality from the Mate 10 looks promising. In the early Mate 10 samples I played with, images retained more visible grain in shaded areas — a characteristic of earlier Huawei cameras. Nevertheless, dynamic range even in challenging backlit conditions was excellent. And Huawei's depth effects are better than ever, with live previews right in the camera app.
We'll have more to say on the Mate 10's cameras in our full review in the coming days, along with sample photos.
That's just the tip of the iceberg for the Mate 10 series; we'll have more to say on both phones in our full review. For me, after just a short time playing with the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro, the main takeaway is that getting all the power of a Huawei Mate device no longer means carrying around a giant brick of a phone in your pocket. The Mate 10 — and in particular the Mate 10 Pro, which is the main model aimed at Western users — is both powerful and beautiful. There's no aesthetic compromise this time.
At the same time, Huawei and Leica push forward with necessary camera upgrades that should see the new phone keeping pace with rivals.
And with Oreo onboard, along with a fresh new design and AI-powered future-proofing, the Mate 10 looks like a legitimate competitor to the latest Android phones from Samsung and Google.
We'll soon find out if the Mate 10 can live up to its potential, and whether the Pro can move the needle for Huawei in the U.S. and Europe.
Huawei Mate 10
- Huawei Mate 10 + Mate 10 Pro preview
- Huawei Mate 10 series specs
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- More on 2016's Mate 9