Hands-on: Huawei Ascend P6 review

The Huawei Ascend P6 is a strange beast. Many will disregard it without a moment's hesitation, handling it with the same approach many car drivers did Skoda in the 1980s. But to do so would be unfair: Huawei is trying to change, just as Skoda did, trying to expand beyond the boundaries of its home turf, and stand-out from the crowd. But can the the P6 help Huawei ascend above the "average" handsets many have accused it of making in the past? Pocket-lint has been living with a pre-production Huawei Ascend P6 to find out.

Design

Like so many phones released today, the Huawei Ascend P6 is a slab of black glass encased in metal. In this case it's a 4.7-inch 1280 x 720 in-cell LCD Gorilla Glass 2-topped touchscreen display and the metal is a brushed aluminium alloy metal chassis that measures just 6.18mm thick.

That thickness makes it one of the thinnest, if not the thinnest phone on the market and to give you an idea just how thin the Huawei Ascend P6 really is, the iPhone 5 is a rather fat 7.6mm in comparison. Huawei has managed this with a rather clever design where two "c"-shaped pieces of metal that slot together. One "c" is the front, back and main casing, while the other "c" is the sides that bind it all together.

The iPhone has clearly been an inspiration. At a glance the sides are almost identical, even down to the antenna break at the top of the left and right sides. In fairness to Huawei, it has opted for its SIM tray, microSD, power and volume button all down one side and from other angles, the bottom especially, it's completely different.

A Micro-USB power socket is located at the top, a headphone socket on the left-hand side at the bottom. You'll probably be confused at first as to where the headphones socket is as, in another neat trick, Huawei has filled in the hole with the SIM card ejector tool. You'll probably lose said tool in the first 20 minutes playing with it in your pocket, but before you do, you'll love it and be keen to show all your mates. We thought it was some poisonous dart or something to begin with (joking of course).

At 120g the phone is light for its size, however the metal and glass form factor sway you from believing it is a cheap plastic knock-off. It feels solid and there is very little flex. It makes a good first impression, feeling nice to hold and being great to look at. If you covered the logos you wouldn't put Huawei as the manufacturer; this is certainly the most stylish looking Ascend to date.

The P6 tech specs

Specs are mid-level, or sub-premium, rather than flagship, but certainly worth considering. In many cases they match the LG-made Nexus 4. Powering the device a Huawei-made 1.5GHz quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM. There's 3G connectivity - 4G isn't that important at the moment the company anecdotally tell us (it has the Ascend P2 for that) - Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As you can guess based on its opinion of 4G, there is no NFC either so don't expect to be tapping this phone to a NFC speaker or your Sony television any time soon.

In China there will be a dual-SIM option, while in the UK the second SIM tray is replaced with a far more useful hot-swappable microSD card slot - if you haven't lost that tool. That means you can expand the 8GB of storage by a further 32GB bringing it up to a respectable tally.

With light use the 2000mAh battery has so far performed okay, getting us to the end of the day without a problem. We've yet to have any time to really hammer it hard, to see how it stands up to the daily rigours of a couple of hundred emails, checking Facebook and Twitter every 15 minutes, and moving around the capital using location data. We suspect that it wouldn't do as well, but that it would at least get us on the train home at the end of the night. It's worth noting, of course, that this is a pre-production model and battery optimisation is often one of the last things to fall into place.

The Ascend P6 cameras

The Huawei Ascend P6 has two cameras: a rear-facing 8-megapixel f/2.0 camera with back side illumination and an LED flash, and a front-facing 5-megapixel camera ideal for taking "selfies". The camera software - enhanced by Huawei - doesn't go as far as HTC, Samsung, or Sony, but does bring some tricks to the party above and beyond what Google offers in stock Android.

 

Here the crux of the imaging offering is via something Huawei calls Smart, based on the IMAGESmart engine. It guess it tries to select the best mode for the shot at hand, like any regular auto scene selection. We say guess because it doesn't seem to tell us what it does, aside from taking a little longer to let you take the next picture. Incidentally, we've so far noticed that it does take HDR pictures when the light isn't ideal.

Other modes available include Single, Beauty, HDR, Panorama, and Effect (think Instagram). Beyond the presets you can add extra options like object tracking, capture smiles, touch to capture, and GPS tag (on or off).

When it comes to using the front-facing camera, the software automatically switches into Beauty mode with the ability to set how "beautiful" you want to be on a scale of one to 10. Of course in reality it is just about how much smoothing you want to apply when you take the picture. It wiped years off us and those that we tried it on, with the risk that your features may become a smudge. It's not unique by any stretch, but it does work better than many rival options.

In our tests we are so far pleased with the performance of the camera, although felt that at times it could be quicker to boot into action and quicker to take - especially when in Smart mode. It's also notably missing Burst mode, a feature that HTC and Samsung promote heavily.

We aren't going to focus too much on the final quality of the shots, we've noticed some discrepancies with our samples, and as we've been using a pre-production rather than final version of the phone we are going to hold off giving a final verdict until we get a final device for a full review. Early suggestions are that it is good, certainly better than the Nexus 4 this device seemingly goes up against. 

Android 4.2.2 and the Emotion UI

Huawei, like Sony, like Samsung, like HTC, has decided to offer its own take on the Android operating system, layering on its Emotion UI user interface. Huawei has used a light touch here, especially when you look at the things HTC and Samsung do, but we can't help feeling that they shouldn't have touched it at all and gone for the Google Nexus approach with the P6.

The changes are so sparse that they are almost not worth bothering about. The icons have been tweaked, the notification panel massaged, and a profiles option that quickly but clumsily lets you change the phone into meeting mode added, but many of these things feel unnecessary. Sure, it's great that companies can add options that empower the hardware fitted on the device, like the cameras for example, but for many, moving away from the already great Android Jelly Bean experience on this type of device might be questionable.

With the Nexus experience so easily enabled these days with Google Gmail, Calendar, even Keyboard apps, it's not hard to remove it, but it would have been nice to have a stock option rather than worry about installing a launcher. Ultimately it is all rather disjointed at times, and slows the whole system down - although this could also be another byproduct of the pre-production handsets we've been testing.

First impressions

We've been impressed with what we've seen so far, however everyone we've shown outside of the phone industry has given us the response we sadly expected: "Who are Huawei? The phone looks nice, not sure about the software interface, I'm not sure I am ready to give up my Samsung or HTC, but wow, isn't it thin?"

As a company trying to crack the consumer market in Europe, it seems it has some way to go yet, based on our very non-scientific straw poll, but you have to start somewhere. Huawei is very much the new HTC waiting for its "Hero" moment. We aren't sure the company is there just yet, but as HTC learnt at the time, the next big blockbuster (in its case the HTC Desire) was just a handset away.

This is the nicest looking Huawei device we've seen and much better looking than the Ascend P2, a few tweaks to the software, even just opting for a stock Android option, could make this a great Nexus 4 alternative that delivers a thinner design and seemingly better camera performance. 

The new phone is expected to hit O2 and Carphone Warehouse in July with an expected contract rate of around £25 a month pricing it well under the flagship Android models from the likes of HTC, Sony and Samsung.

Pocket-lint will be publishing a full review once final retail versions of the new handset become available. 



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