The Huawei Ascend Mate 7 is a semi-affordable big screen smartphone that offers top-end performance, above average battery life and decent camera quality. However, detrimental software additions make it slightly unintuitive to use.
Pros: Great design, powerful processor, above average battery
Cons: Emotion UI makes needless changes that hamper performance and make the phone less user friendly
Price: €500 (expected) Manufacturer: Huawei
Processor: eight-core HiSilicon Kirin 925
Display: 6in, 1080x1920 pixels, 368ppi IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen
Memory: 2GB or 3GB
Storage: 16GB or 32GB, microSD slot for expansion
Camera: 13MP rear, 5MP front
Connectivity: Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G, 4G
Operating system: Android 4.4 Kitkat with Emotion UI
Chinese firm Huawei has always had some pretty aspirational goals, regularly pronouncing that it eventually wants to dethrone Samsung and Apple as kings of the smartphone market, for example.
While some scoffed at these claims a few years ago, it's undeniable that Huawei has had some success in this endeavour, and is currently listed by some market researchers as the third largest smartphone maker in the world.
However, in the past we've found that Huawei's success in the handset market is due largely to the firm's ability to undercut its competitors on price, as opposed to design qulaity or hardware innovation.
As a result, we expected Huawei's latest phablet, the Ascend Mate 7, to be yet another budget handset that repackages rather than redefines the smartphone market. To our surprise, hwever, we found there is plenty to like about it.
At the time of writing, the device was not yet on sale in the UK, and so an official price in pounds had not been specified.
Design and build
Visually the Ascend Mate 7 has a very understated design. It features a slightly curved metal back plate and flat metal sides and flat Gorilla Glass-coated front that make it look somewhat like a cross between an iPhone 6 and HTC One M8. In fact, the only immediately notable design feature on the Ascend Mate 7 is the custom fingerprint sensor on the back.
While the Ascend Mate 7 may not have the most ostentatious or unique looks, we have to say we're big fans of the design. This is due largely to the wealth of novel but subtle design features that make it very comfortable to use compared with most other phablets.
For example, Huawei has chosen to place the physical power and volume buttons slightly lower down the right hand side than most other handset makers. While small, this change ensures that you don't need outsized hands to reach the controls, even when using the device one handed.
The fingerprint scanner is equally well located, placed exactly where our index finger fell when gripping the phone one handed and making it quick and easy to access the phone securely.
The fingerprint scanner offers the same functionality as that seen on Apple's iPhone 5S, 6 and 6 Plus handsets and Samsung's Galaxy S5, and lets users set the Ascend Mate 7 to unlock only when its user proves their identity.
The Ascend Mate 7's comfortable feel is aided by the thin 157x81x7.9mm dimensions and slightly curved rear, which ensures that the device sits neatly in the palm of your hand.
The use of metal also ensures that the Ascend is reasonably tough. While the metal finish did prove slightly prone to picking up scratches, it is fairly dent resistant and survived an encounter with our office floor free of chips and marks.
The only slight problem we had with the design was the weight. While 185g isn't back breaking, especially by phablet standards, it does make the Ascend Mate 7 feel noticeably heavier than an average smartphone, though to be fair to Huawei this is a problem with all phablets.
Screen technology is an increasingly competitive area in the smartphone space, with every technology firm kitting out their respective handsets with very sharp displays.
Not wanting to lose out, Huawei has equipped the Ascend Mate 7 with a sizeable 6in, 1080x1920 pixel, 368ppi IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen.
While the screen's pixel-per-inch density isn't as high as some other top-end Android handsets, which usually break the 400ppi mark, we were impressed with the Mate 7's display.
The display offers good viewing angles, and decent brightness levels. Text and icons were suitably sharp and colours were wonderfully rich and vibrant thanks to its use of IPS (in-plane switching) technology.
The Ascend Mate 7 is powered by a heavily customised version of Android 4.4 Kitkat. Overlaid with the latest version of Huawei's Emotion UI, the Ascend Mate 7's interface feels like cross between Android and Apple's iOS and makes a number of needless changes that hamper rather than aid the user experience.
For example, Emotion UI removes the Android app tray and instead places all installed applications on the phone's main menu screens. While this will make moving from iOS initially feel more comfortable, the benefits of the cleaner user experience are outweighed by the sea of bloatware applications Huawei has added.
Out of the box, Huawei has made it so that all Android's native apps, including Chrome, messaging and email, are pushed to the background and replaced with Huawei-made equivalents that are generally inferior.
We're also not big fans of Emotion UI's theme and customisation options. The theme options are fairly pointless and do little more than change the UI's colour palette and application shortcut icons, making certain key menus or services even more difficult to locate.
On top of this, as well as making the Ascend Mate 7 less intuitive to use than unskinned Android handsets, Emotion UI will undoubtedly delay how quickly the phone can receive updates to future Android versions. This is because Huawei will have to tweak Emotion UI's code to work with updates from Google, a practice that can take weeks if not months.
Considering the imminent arrival of Google's next-generation Android L at the time of writing, we can't help but feel concerned about how future proof the Ascend Mate 7 is.
The Ascend Mate 7 is powered by Huawei's own eight-core HiSilicon Kirin 925 chip and features 2GB or 3GB of RAM. We looked at the 2GB version.
Although touted as eight-core, the processor actually has four high performance Cortex-A15 cores and four low-power Cortex-A7 cores paired up in ARM's big.LITTLE architecture. These are complemented by an ARM Mali-T628 GPU.
Benchmarking the Ascend Mate 7 we found the handset impressive. Tested on Antutu, the Ascend Mate 7 scored an astounding 40,100, making it one of the fastest phones available. By comparison most other 2014 handsets benchmark at around the 30,000 mark.
In general the Ascend Mate 7's real-world performance matched its impressive Antutu score, and the phone opened applications and web pages almost instantly and ran even the most demanding of 3D games hassle free.
However, with prolonged testing we did notice some niggling performance issues. For example, on occasion the Ascend Mate 7 could prove slow when navigating between menu pages, or inexplicably freeze when attempting to switch between open applications.
We're guessing this is due to bugs in Emotion UI rather than flaws with the hardware itself, and is another reason we wish Huawei had loaded the device with an unskinned version of Android.
The Huawei Ascend Mate 7 features a reat camera with 13MP, 4128x3096 pixels with autofocus, and LED flash plus a 5MP front camera. This puts it on a par with most other top-end Android handsets.
Testing the rear camera in regular lighting conditions we were fairly impressed and found the Ascend Mate 7 matches the imaging performance of most current high-spec Android phones.
Images taken in regular light generally came out crisp and featured great contrast levels. The Ascend Mate 7's shutter speed is also fairly good, and we didn't notice any lag between the moment we hit the on-screen capture button and the image being taken.
Our only problem with the cameras is the confusing selection of shot modes. The Ascend Mate 7 features all the standard HDR, panorama and burst options you'd expect plus a few more esoteric entries, like Huawei's beauty mode.
Beauty mode is a bizarre addition designed to make people look prettier. Putting aside the potential pitfall of telling your subject that they're not pretty enough to be photographed normally, the beauty mode's concept of aesthetics seemed slightly odd to us.
Luckily it is easy to ignore the beauty mode and shoot in regular modes.
Battery and storage
Battery life is the chief shortcoming for smartphones, and most struggle to make it more than one to two days between charges. Looking to fix this, Huawei has fitted the Ascend Mate 7 with a non-removable 4100 mAh lithium polymer battery.
Testing the battery endurance by looping a video file stored on the handset and the screen brightness set to automatic, we were reasonably impressed with the phone's performance.
The Ascend Mate 7 lasted seven hours on our first burn and eight on our second and third. The scores are slightly above average compared with competing phablets, which generally last around seven hours before dying.
The Ascend Mate 7's score matched our real-world use of the device, and we generally got between one and a half to two and a half days from one charge.
As an added bonus the Ascend Mate 7 has a battery management push update feature that alerts you to applications regularly draining the phone's battery, making it easy to optimise the phone to last longer when away from a power point.
In internal storage, the Ascend Mate 7 comes with 16GB or 32GB of flash memory. Both versions can have a further 64GB added using the microSD card slot.
With prices expected to start at €500 (about £395) the Ascend Mate 7 is good value for money compared with other top-end phablets. Featuring one of the best designs we've seen, a powerful eight-core processor, above average battery life and decent rear camera, the Ascend Mate 7 is a great device.