Saturday, 7 July 2018

HUAWEI MATE 10 PRO

As I write, the price of the Mate 10 Pro has dropped from £699 to £529 in a couple of mainstream UK outlets, AmazonUK and CPW, so it's worth shopping around as usual. Before I start, it's worth saying that I would never have paid the higher price and only have it in hand because of that drop. It's also worth saying that it's a terrific flagship device (now) at an upper-mid-tier price.

Physically, the device is surprisingly 'small' for the 6 inch screen size. It has the 18:9 screen 'tall' ratio and barely any bezel left and right, also minimised at chin and forehead. The 'tall' works really well for one-handed use (generally, though up-top is still a stretch) and the HDR10 (think Dolby Vision) AMOLED 6H (whatever that means) tempered glass is bright, crisp and clean. It's flat, too, which I really do prefer over this curved-edge fancy-pants stuff. Sure those curves look great, but invariably they just add to the grip problem when bezels are getting smaller.

Top and centre is a notification light, selfie camera (I'll come to cameras later) and the earpiece speaker, which doubles up as the high-end frequencies for the 'stereo' sound, accompanied by the speaker at the base pushing out the low-end sound. We've seen this before, of course, and to me, it doesn't really matter if it's stereo or 'split frequency' dual-sound (or whatever you call it) but rather the overall sound of the unit's output when it's sat in front of the listener/viewer.

I find that the sound is good and loud, but next to the Razer Phone and other 'specialist' audio-centric devices, it's not got the depth and richness that others have. Having said that, it depends on what you're listening to. For spoken word, it's faultless, so serial podcast listeners will be delighted. For jazz/classical it's pretty good but for anything rock/bass high, it just doesn't cut the mustard. Having said that, it's an awful lot better than many others.

The stereo separation seems to work well when viewing video as there's a switch in software to ensure that when the device is held in landscape it changes from 'high quality mode to stereo', though in reality, I can't tell much difference! Going back to the screen in use with video, it produces a fine picture without even having to crank up the brightness. Hurrah for AMOLED. You can even switch the resolution from 1080p to 720p to save battery - and my eyes can't tell the difference, so I guess I might as well!

There's a metal band which circles the device with the appropriate cut-outs for antenna and microphones. A slightly textured Power button sits on the right side with volume rocker above. These are slim but perfectly usable. On the bottom is the aforementioned speaker and USB-C port, which services data exchange and Huawei SuperCharge battery charging. The battery is a huge 4,000mAh unit, which according to Huawei, negates the need to Qi charging! In my tests so far, the battery life is phenomenal. Staggering SoT of 8+ hours and 2 days of 'normal' (for me) use.

So we come to another elephant in the room, being no 3.5mm earphone socket. It's getting a bit boring now to keep bangin' on about it. They're going to do this! We might as well get used to it! Phones will soon have no sockets and no buttons. End of. But for now, yes, it would be convenient of course but I'm not losing any sleep over the exclusion. There's a 3.5mm to USB-C dongle in the box, which is really very small and would fit inside the smallest of wallets!

You get a pair of USB-C earphones in the box with in-line volume control. They're very Apple! The sound through decent headphones is really very good. OK - it’s not going to satisfy those who have got used to the likes of the LG V30 and 32-bit DAC, for example, but it’s perfectly good for the rest of us for daily use. What’s not good, however, is that this is the only way you can get to any equalisation settings.

The equaliser settings, even in Google Play Music, have been removed and (not) replaced with Huawei’s ‘solution’ - er, which isn’t one! The only way to get to any equalisation is via the Histen Settings, right back in Settings (though there is a fast link to it in their own Music Player App.) where you can control the sound over headphones. There’s an equaliser or what they call 3D Sound adjustment with spatial adjustment for soundstage effects. Actually, the 3D sounds better than any equalisation settings. But then my ears are knackered! YMMV. Use a 3rd party Music player, like Equalizer+Pro, and you can obviously use the equalisation settings in their App. where present. Seems a bit odd that Google let phone manufacturers strip out their Stock arrangement. But I guess that’s what Open Android is about!

Call me old fashioned (and inconsistent), but I like to see a supplied Music and Video App. on a phone. Even Sony has started moving away from this these days, ditching the Video App. for video held in Google Photos. When you’re offline and wanting to minimise battery etc. I think it’s a nice addition. And they tend to be well thought out Apps. As they are here. Yeah, I know, you can just use Google Play Music for Downloaded tracks, but it doesn’t feel quite the same.

On the left side there's a SIM Card Tray, which in this unit, has a single SIM Card slot. I understand that some variants have a Dual. Some variants also have 256GB of on-board Storage, too, but not here. This one has 128GB, which I think is just right for most people these days. There's no MicroSD Card Slot, so that's what you get, unless you dabble into USB-OTG of course. I like the move to on-board storage. As I've said elsewhere, I don't trust MicroSD Cards, and am much more likely to have confidence in built-in storage, as inconvenient as that might be switching devices.

Up top, there's nothing but a microphone and IR Blaster. A rare commodity these days, but useful for some, no doubt. The metal does curve into the back, which curves into the sides, so unlike the front, the back glass panel is not flat. That seems to work OK. Let's face it, with all that glass everywhere, nobody with more than 12 brain cells is going to use this device without at least a TPU case. Talking of which, there's one in the box. It's a very simple, transparent thin one, but does the job perfectly with cut-outs perfectly aligned.

On the back are the two camera lenses arranged vertically, flanked by an LED Flash and Laser Focus Sensor and aligned above the circular fingerprint scanner. The word LEICA is boasted by the lenses and 27mm f1.6 the other side. There’s the word HUAWEI 80% of the way down on the back, so not too lairy. The fingerprint scanner works like lightning and is just the right size, being slightly bigger than some others. There’s a nice design touch across the back of the phone, being a strip of contrasting colour left to right taking in the camera cluster but not fingerprint scanner. The body is IP67 rated for water and dust.

The Kirin 970 chipset and 6GB RAM make the M10P fly. Powerful, and gliding between tasks with no effort at all - not a judder anywhere, even with huge workload. I don’t really know where the Kirin sits in relation to Snapdragon, but others seems to be comparing it with the 835/845. Unless you’re an UberSpecSheetGeek, I really don’t think it matters when it drives the phone so efficiently.

Huawei boast a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) for Artificial Intelligence enhancements incorporating machine learning. There’s little evidence of this in action really (perhaps more is coming), beyond the Microsoft Translation App. which comes pre-installed. With this, you can take a shot of some text in one language and get it to translate it, overlaid on the original, in real time. Seems to work fast and well with the couple of languages I tried, if that’s any judge. Huawei says that its “HiAI heterogeneous computing structure maximises the performance of most of the components on its chipset, so it may be assigning AI tasks to more than just the NPU.” Bottom line seems to be that computations can now be done on the phone instead of in the cloud. Which means multi-tasking is more efficient. And it’s more private. And it saves power. Well, actually it all seems to be under the hood - and maybe that’s the point. Don’t bother the user, just do it.

The Dual (so called) Leica Cameras, f/1.6 at 27mm equivalent for both, are 12MP colour with OIS and a 20MP monochrome without. The machine learning spoken about above finds its way into the camera setup and intelligently works out what you’re pointing the lens at, based on millions of datapoints, scenes and photos collected by Huawei. It then pops up an icon, bottom-right, to tell you which one it has decided to select. Seems to work quite well for the point’n’shoot brigade who probably wouldn’t notice what it was doing in any case!

The two lenses allow you to shoot colour or black and white photos within a huge array of modes, options and manual overrides in the Huawei Camera App. They speak of wide-angle but it’s not really wide-angle in the sense of 120/5 degree view as found on the Moto X4/LG G6/V30 etc. It’s just ‘wider’ than the ‘zoom’ setting! The shooter is invited to press a button invoking 2x Zoom but actually it’s a tweak in software between the two lenses that they call Hybrid Zoom - but actually it seems to work pretty well. Anything beyond 2x though is back to digital zoom of course. An equally clever multi-function autofocus system ensures sharp and very fast focus arrangements. There’s a front-facing 8MP f2 camera for selfies.

In day to day use, the camera is a peach to use. It’s full of interesting modes and manual adjustments - there’s very little that can’t be attained by playing around with the plethora of virtual settings, dials and knobs! The portrait wide aperture functions works brilliantly well, blurring backgrounds reducing depth of field amazingly - though actually, close-focusing and employing an f1.6 aperture lens would kind of do that anyway, so how much is the software and how much the lens/aperture is for the testing bench. From what I can see, especially with that Mono lens working alone artistically, the camera alone is almost worth the asking price for the phone.

As always, I’ll leave the nitty-gritty of camera testing to +Steve Litchfield as he has a test unit in at the same time as I have this one here. I’m sure his review will be coming soon and we’ll chat about how it stacks up against the best of the best for him on PSC.

Now to another elephant and the one which might break the camel’s back for some! EMUI 8.0. The phone ships with Android 8.0.0. incidentally, with November 2017 Google Security Patch but the UI is very Huawei, so I guess we shouldn’t hold our breath for further updates. To be fair, EMUI is a bit better than it used to be (and I read reports about, for example, Huawei doing a deal with Google to use Google Messages as default instead of their own) but it’s still very much about them going their own way and further, making many of the ways in which Settings work geared up for (what they no doubt will be) people coming over from iOS and feeling at home.

After playing around with the built-in launcher and Nova Launcher (and not being able to install Google Now Launcher) I have concluded that the easiest route is really to stick with their own. In fact, that’s an approach I’m finding for default Apps. too. If you try to use a 3rd party launcher you get warnings all over the place - not to do it - or you’ll do all sorts of undesirable things to the phone, which would scare off the average user from doing so!

It just seems like too much hard work to try and use Google Services in terms of main PIM than its worth. For example, inside their own SMS client, you can choose your own ringtone. With any other SMS client, you have to jump through hoops to assign a tone - and that’s then centrally via Settings (like iOS) not inside the App. itself.

Likewise, I’ve been running round in circles trying to assign a different tone to GMail than G+ but the setting inside the App. which is usually there, is gone. Again, you head off back round some long road via their Settings, App. Settings, Notifications, blah, blah, then conclude that certain Apps., if you’re not using the Huawei ones, have to have the same alert sound. Calendar, Messages and Email it says. Don’t they think that people might want a different tone for email than calendar? I don’t get it. Stop press - I uninstalled the ‘updates’ to GMail (which was up to date) in the Play Store, then re-installed GMail and I got a new dialogue inside GMail giving me control over the notification tone in GMail. So out of the factory, set up from new, the ‘proper’ version of GMail was not installed. Don’t they think people are going to be confused!?

Thank goodness that the Navigation keys on the Homescreen can be changed to what the user wants, to place the Back button in the correct place (which it is by default now, to be fair)! Also, you can get the App. Drawer back (from default position being not) and if you really want to be masochistic, employ a floating home key which behaves much like the hardware Moto key on recent devices that allows you to free up even more of the screen and not have Navigation controls at all on it. For goodness sake - how much screen space do people need?! It’s a 6” 18:9 screen! BTW, you’re served up with pre-installed Instagram, Facebook and SwiftKey. Two of which can be uninstalled and the other killed off. So it could be much worse, like an average Honor phone!

There’s a half interesting lock-screen thing going on whereby if you press the power button on the side you get quick controls for Torch, Calculator, Voice Recorder, Timer, BarCode Reader and Music Controls. This is, again, very iOS, but I guess handy. I’d like to have seen some way of waking the screen when on a desk/sofa arm without having to turn it over or press the Power key then Pattern/Code etc. At the top of the Settings Page there’s an ever-present ‘Log in with Huawei ID’ message, unmovable. This is nit-picking, of course, as there’s tons of good stuff, some useful, some bloaty and some confusing.

The Settings are festooned with options and stuff you just wouldn’t find on any other system! Start ploughing your way through them and it’s clear that it’s a two-day job! There’s a smart wifi settings option called wifi+ which I’ve turned off as it keeps switching between routers and cellular and anything it can find. Half the time I find that I’ve been on expensive cellular instead of free (included) wifi. I’m sure one could control that by digging deeper, but it just seems like a bit of an unnecessary addition.

Like a lot of the additions here, though, they’re not really needed but additional features that some would no doubt swear by, once you know and use the device the Huawei way. Some of the battery optimisations are deep and complicated, but I’m sure that once negotiated they can be used to positive effect without aggressive RAM management and inapt. Closing down of Apps.

One of the features that I’ve been trying to exploit with the Razer Phone is sending video/audio out via USB-C to HDMI and sure enough, this handset allows for that, too. It seems to work OK and where it doesn’t, Mirrorcast fills the gap. I can certainly get the content across to a TV and PC Monitor as needed and use the phone for navigation etc.

Well, those are my opening thoughts. More to explore of course but summary so far is that for the (new) price of £529 there’s a huge amount of lovely phone with gorgeous hardware, classy look and feel, fabulous camera, more than adequate ‘stereo’ sound from speakers, amazing battery life, great screen and size ratio in the hand - but you’ve got to really be OK with the EMUI and Huawei’s quirks - as well as hoping that they’ll keep any software updates coming. At this price I can do nothing but recommend it as an Android phone - and the camera stuff alone is almost worth the outlay.

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