Huawei Ascend Mate
9th May 2013 | 05:40
At 6 inches, can we really class this as a smartphone?
Huawei is the epitome of the challenger brand. With a brand name that no one ever pronounces correctly (even a receptionist at the Mate's launch event reffered to the company as 'highway'), the Ascend Mate isn't going to be on the tips of the tongues of many in the market for a new phone.
To counter this, Huawei is resorting to headline-grabbing specs and features. There's the 6.1-inch screen, for starters, plus a custom quad-core processor which Huawei is claiming to be fastest in the world. Has we got your attention yet?
With a screen this size, the Ascend Mate truly is a 'phablet', however much you may hate that word. It is more than a centimetre taller than the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, and half of a a centimetre wider.
It is also a touch heavier, at 198-grams, though for better perspective, compare this to the 130-gram weight of the Galaxy S4. In short: this feels like a big phone to hold and carry around.
Happily, the quality of the 6.1-inch screen makes it feel like the size and weight are a worthwhile trade-off. Huawei opts for a bright IPS LCD display which shows excellent colours and blacks, and has a fantastic viewing angle. Even with the phone titled at acute angles away from your eyes, the images on screen as still clear and colourful.
Huawei positions the power and volume buttons halfway down the side of the handset, and while this might seem unusual at a glance, it is actually the best place for them for when you are holding the phone one handed and hoping to find the buttons easily.
There are no hard or soft navigation keys on the handset itself. Instead, Huawei make use of the soft-keys included in the design of the Android Jelly Bean, with Back, Home and Multitasking buttons along the button of the visible screen space.
There is a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top of the handset, across from a micro-SIM slot. There's also a microSD card slot on the side to expand the handset's 8GB internal storage.
The back of the phone is covered in a soft-touch black plastic, which feels nice to hold, even though it shows fingerprints over time.
In what may be considered an unpopular move, the Ascend Mate is a sealed handset, meaning you won't have access to the battery.
Towards the end of last year we began to hear about the Huawei Emotion UI, a user experience which Huawei hoped would help define it as a unique smartphone maker -- the way the Sense UI has for HTC.
The Ascend Mate is our first time playing with the Emotion UI, and the experience is pretty underwhelming. There is a single Huawei-designed widget which can be customised to show the time, weather, music and favourite contacts, and a selection of themes which can be applied to the phone, but this is about all there is.
To be fair, the themes are pretty comprehensive. Each gives the user experience an overhauled appearance, including wallpapers, ringtones and customised application icons.
Interestingly, Huawei's UI does away with the application drawer that is common on almost all versions of Android. Instead, Huawei takes an iOS-like approach, with all application icons living on the numerous homescreens, mixed in among the widgets
To spare you from having a dozen screens of app icons when you first turn the phone on, Huawei bundles a bunch of them into folders, like a Google folder with all of your Google-made apps in one place, for example.
Dipping into the system menu reveals a few other interesting tidbits in the Emotion UI interface. There is an option ofr one-handed operation tucked towards the bottom of the list, which gives you alternate ways to unlock the phone and type messages without needing to take a seat and use both hands.
There is also something that Huawei calls "Suspend Button" which, when on, places a semi-transparent grey ball on the screen that hovers over any apps you might be using. Pressing this ball opens a circular menu with four apps that can sit on the top of any screen. There is a note-taking app, an SMS app, quick access to the camera and a calculator.
Contacts and calling
While there is a lot of colourful and fancy design in the numerous Huawei UI themes, the calling and Contacts apps are both very minimal in design. As in, there is almost no design here to speak of.
Both apps are white screens with black text and numbers, punctuated by thumbnail photos if you have any assocaited with your contacts.
The dialling app is especially bare, with a keypad below a log of recent calls. If you have made no calls, this is just a half-screen of white space.
The app does feature speed dialling though, which is a common feature on most phones these days. Basically, this gives you the option to enter a phone number, or type in the name of a contact using the T9 dial-pad.
In the Contacts app, you can select which source you wish to view contacts from; be that your SIM card, Google Account, work email account or a combination of all the accounts you have synced on the device. Frustratingly, there is no way to filter out contacts with no phone number associated (like Twitter contacts) so we've found our list to be quite an unruly mess.
Actually placing and receiving calls was fine during our review. The earpiece speaker was loud enough and the people we spoke with commented that we sounded clear. Not extraordinarily loud or clear, but good enough.
Messaging and keyboard
Keeping with the theme of minimal core app design, Huawei's messaging tool opens as a blank, white screen with a thin row of icons along the bottom. Despite so much of the user experience being customisable, there is no option in the Settings for this app to change the way it looks.
Perhaps this is a good thing, as it will keep you focused on the job at hand -- reading and writing text messages. Perhaps we are silly to want a little colour in one of the apps we will spend so much of time?
In the composition window, you can easily add a contact to the message using a link to the Contacts app from within the message. You can select multiple contacts this way and send our a group message.
Once you have settled on who will receive the missive, you bring up the Huawei Keyboard to write out your thoughts.
This keyboard isn't among the best OEM designed virtual keyboards we've used lately, with poor auto-correction for spelling errors, and way too many keystrokes to manually fix up typos.
We do love that one of the option in the keyboard settings is an option to make the keyboard much bigger than the default onscreen height. There are four sizes to choose from, but we just went straight for the largest size and suggest you do too.
You can also switch easily between a full-QWERTY keyboard layout and a simpler T9 keypad map by swiping from one side of the keyboard to the other.
Internet and connectivity
A 6.1-inch screen is crying out to be used online. Web pages look great spread across this display, especially photo rich sites like Facebook and Instagram.
To make sure you can always get online, Huawei pack the Mate with penta-band HSPA+ network connectivity, with support for 850/900/1700/1900/2100Mhz networks. This means you should be able to roam on 3G networks in most part of the world that have these networks setup.
There is no 4G, though. So if you are looking for the fastest mobile internet, you'll have to give the Huawei Mate a miss. Which is strange, considering that Huawei probably built the 4G network you are trying to access.
The web browsing experience is solid, but not exception in any way. The default browser is fast enough, and features a design similar to Google's Chrome browser.
Beyond mobile network connections, the Mate has support for dual-band WiFi connections on a/b/g/n network structures. It also supports Bluetooth, including the latest version 4.0 protocols, and there is the ubiquitous GPS satellite communication too.
Huawei certainly isn't a company that has made a name for itself with photography features in its smartphones, in fact cameras have always seemed like an afterthought for the company rather than an essential component.
The 8-megapixel camera in the Mate is a bit of a surprise then, with a few neat features , a fast shutter speed and better than average results -- under optimal lighting conditions.
The camera interface is pretty simple; there are no long menus of options to sift through, just the basics. Beyond this, Huawei includes a few Instagram-like colour filters and a few goofy distortion effects.
The photos we've taken are pretty good. The focus is often sharp, auto-white balance is ok, colour reproduction is good, and the finish proiduct is something you can (often) post proudly to your social network of choice.
Of course, this is the only good place for these photos. When we examined the photos close-up on a PC, there is obvious problems with them. The edges around many of the objects in photos are scuffed with digital artefacts, and the colour tone has an obviously digital look - the way images from a webcam do.
Performance and battery life
The tale of this phone's performance and battery life is one you could comfortably call Beauty and the Beast.
The bad news is that the performance of the Acend Mate doesn't live up to the sum of its parts. The Huawi K2V3 quad-core processor just doesn't cut it, and the user experience is frequently marred by extended pauses and general lagginess.
This lag is most obvious when opening and closing apps, and is also noticable when switching between homescreens. Even tasks like loading images in the Gallery takes much longer on the Huawei than it does on other phones with similar specs.
After running a number of benchmark tests, the problem seems to be in the way the phone deals with graphics processing. It performs well in tests that focus on number crunching and web-based processes, but once complex 3D graphics are involved, the performance dips.
On the flip side, the battery life in the Ascend Mate is outstanding. One of our tests involves loading web pages continuously on a Wi-Fi connection. Most phones last for between 4 - 5 hours, but the Mate lasted for an impressive 7 hours and 6 minutes.
Anecdotally, this equates to two full business days use, though your milage may vary depending on how you use it.
The Ascend Mate is one of those phones that pushes the imaginary boundaries of what we define consumer technology devices. It's a phone at its core, but it is built like a little tablet; a mini iPad mini, if you will.
What we liked
If you are going to make a phone with a 6.1-inch screen, you're going to want to make sure it is a good screen. Huawei does this, delivering solid IPS LCD technology with great viewing angles and good colour. It could be at a higher resolution, but we didn't find any problems with the current pixel count.
The battery life is also a big boon for the industry, it's been a long time since we seen phones last as long as the Mate does. If you need a phone like the Energizer Bunny, this could be the handset for you.
What we didn't like
We really wanted to love the Mate. It has all the right-sounding specs, we love big screens and we can't help rooting for the underdog. But the performance problems are a big downside for us. All of the major Android phone makers have ironed out the laggy bugs in their systems now, and people expect a silky-smooth user experience. The Mate does not deliver this.
And, as much as we are loathed to say it, we think the Mate is too big and heavy to be lugged about all day long. We do love big phones, we have a real soft spot for the Galaxy Note, but the Mate is just a step too far towards tablet territory.
There is definitely a market for the Ascend Mate, but we don't belong to it. If you are someone who doesn't mind using two hands to hold a phone, someone who carries their handset in a bag anyway, then it could be the phone for you. You'll be rewarded with amazing battery life if you decided to choose a Mate.