Huawei Ascend Mate review

Big phones are coming back into fashion. In the 80s and 90s no one had a choice about handset size -you either had flipping massive, or you didn't have a phone at all. As the years progressed, the post-2000 era was all about miniaturisation and phones became tiny. These days though, there's something brilliant about a big touchscreen phone you can take out and about with you. It's like having a 3G tablet, but more manageable.

The Huawei Mate is one of the largest phones we've seen. Coming it at a barnstorming 6.1 inches, it's really quite the most massive phone we've seen in many years. It's designed for people who want a big screen, and an involving and enjoyable viewing experience. The question is, can this affordable mega-phone deliver to the performance nuts most likely to want to buy this phone?

Design

Let's get this out of the way early on. The Mate is sodding massive. If you're going to buy one, you're going to have to appreciate that you need big hands to really hold it, and while Huawei has a "one-handed" mode built into the OS, it's still likely that you're going to end up using two hands for most things.

You certainly can balance it on your hand though, and use it the same as you'd use any large phone. Indeed, there doesn't feel like much of a difference in operation between this and the smaller Samsung Galaxy Note II. Sometimes you worry you'll drop it, but we honestly haven't in the time we've been using it.

What that big screen gives you though, is a nice multimedia phone that's ideal if you've got an addiction to video and want something that's your day-to-day phone, as well as a sort of mini-tablet for using at home.

Something that's not to be taken for granted on Huawei phones is the type of SIM socket used. Huawei is one of only a few companies that has stuck to the original SIM card socket - not the original credit card-sized ones, the smaller ones that dominated once phones got smaller. Here though, the company has included a micro-SIM, which is good if you're coming from another handset with a small SIM socket. Larger cards can either be trimmed manually or replaced by your operator with minimal hassle.

Along with the micro-SIM socket, which is at the top of the phone, there's also a microSD card slot on the left-hand side of the device. The top has a headphone socket, the bottom USB charging and the right-hand side has the power button and volume rocker. It's logical enough, and we thought the layout was quite nice, the headphone jack placement works for us, because we hate bottom-mounted outputs.

The battery isn't removable, and users can't access the pack at all. It's big though, so from a power perspective that's unlikely to be a problem.

There are no hardware buttons on the front of the device either. The Mate uses the on-screen controls to navigate around. Interestingly, unlike most manufacturers, Huawei allows you to hide these at the touch of a button. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to restore it, and you're good to go. It's simple and effective.

One thing we did notice though, is that if you are trying to go "back" out of an application, you need to collapse the keyboard first, then you can back out. This is actually vaguely annoying, because it means you have to press at least twice to back out of an app.

Huawei UI

Huawei includes its "Emotion UI" on this phone. What that means is that the company has skinned standard Android and produced a slightly different UI from that you'd see on a device like the Nexus 4 or 10.

It is quite light touch in terms of how it looks, however. The biggest change is to what's called the "launcher" on Android. This is really what you see most - the home screens. Huawei has done away with a separate app area too. What that means is apps get shortcuts on the home screens, but there's no "tray" that keeps icons as well. This is something we've found a bit odd. If it bothers you, then search the app store for third-party launchers and replace it with something that you like the look of.

 

In fact, the skinning really is quite modest. It changes the look of the menus, but we think the lighter colour is an improvement, and it adds a few little touches here and there which do the interface some favours. The unlock screen is nice too, and has options to unlock directly into certain features, such as messaging, the camera or the phone.

The stock browser still seems to be the Android thing, although Chrome was installed on our phone. We suggest you get switched over to Chrome quickly, it is a marvellous web browser and on Android ties in  nicely with your Google account, as long as you're happy to wave goodbye to your privacy.

Screen

At 1280 x 720 (241ppi) the Mate can't be called "high resolution". Based on specs, it's actually a big disappointment. But 1080p screens cost a lot more and use more battery, so it's not a big surprise that Huawei has toned the panel down here, to save money and power.

But specs be damned, because to look at, there's nothing at all wrong with this screen. It certainly isn't as sharp as the iPhone or Samsung's Galaxy S4 or Note II - which has the same resolution, on a smaller screen. But in most circumstances, it looks terrific. There's no real problem with webpages, the text looks crisp, and there's no noticeable softness at all. Text looks a little larger than it would on a high-resolution screen, but this might be preferable to some, after all, not everyone has perfect eyesight.

We also think that 1280 x 720 is a good resolution from an HD perspective, as it fits neatly with the majority of HD video you'll find either for download online or on services like YouTube, which have 720p video more than 1080p.

What you should take away from this review on the screen is quite simply that we think it's great. Having lived with the phone for a while now, any worries we had based on the specs went away when using the device.

Performance

This phone contains a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. For the kind of money Huawei is asking for this device, that's a pretty stunning spec. That said, we think the Emotion UI might be using more than its fair share of resources. We say this because some really silly little things are slow and unresponsive at times. Nothing too serious, but sometimes the phone feels like a much slower spec than it has.

Perhaps installing a different launcher would make some difference, but as most people won't do that we're not going to base our review on tinkering. That said, we aren't massively concerned and all handsets have slowdowns from time to time - we see the same with the Note II, for example, although not to quite the same extent.

For everything that matters, there are no problems at all. For example, video playback is excellent, and we could get nice full-screen video playing via Plex or online from sites like YouTube and the BBC. There's no Flash player of course, which can still cause problems online, but we think the world is better off without Flash and will suck up our disappointment.

Calls and text messaging

We like the Huawei text message interface. It's nice and bright and the big screen means you can fit in stacks of text messages, which makes for a decent threaded message view. The large screen, and middling resolution of the screen, mean that the buttons are big too, so typing is quite easy. One thing we did find  was that it was very easy to hit the home key when typing a text message. This results in a lot of anger when you're writing a message, and we've never had this problem on other phones.

Calls on the Mate are nice and clear too. This isn't a massive surprise given how much Huawei knows about mobile telephony, it is, after all, a major player in the backend systems that run your mobile network. But it's good news that call quality is up there with the best of them.

 

What's slightly less pleasant is the feel of the phone against your face. This handset is essentially a massive slab of glass, and it feels like it when you're in a call. It's hard to rest your ear precisely over the speaker, because there's no definition on the handset to guide you, so nothing to remember the "feel" of, something you'd use to get perfect ear placement with another handset.

Of course this "tombstone" design is common to all handset manufacturers, but the issue here is that the extra size seems to make it slightly more of a problem. Interestingly, in a call we could place our ear halfway down the glass and still hear what the other person was saying.

This isn't a terrible experience overall, but nor is it one that will make you want to use the Mate for lengthy calls with loved ones.

Camera

Although it comes with an 8-megapixel camera, we did find the photos produced by the Mate to be pretty disappointing. It's much the same as all of Huawei's cameras, so it didn't come as much of a surprise. Essentially, the problems are a lack of colour accuracy, with light blooming on shots where a bright light is just out of, or just in, frame.

Detail was reasonable, but in lower lights it drops off substantially and takes on a grey look, with a not inconsiderable loss of detail.

Video seems better. It can be recorded at up to 1080p, looks fine in good light and manages to keep things together in reasonably low light too. The good thing about video is that touching the screen will refocus, so you don't have to wait for the camera to guess what you want.

Battery

It's a beast, frankly. At 4050mAh, there's enough juice in here to see you through the day easily. To give you some comparison, that's just a shade under 1000mAh more than the Note II. As we always say with battery tests, it will vary wildly from user to user. What works for us, won't necessarily for you. Even so, we'll say that if you can't get a full day out of this phone, you're not using it right.

In fact, we think that most users will get two days out of this phone. We haven't get seen the battery go below 50 per cent after a day of serious use, and so all but the very heaviest users should easily get two full days. This is pretty much the only phone we can say that about, and it's one of the biggest selling points for us.

Verdict

At this size, the Mate won't be for everyone. You're going to need to really want a massive handset and you're going to need to think about the practicalities of owning such a big phone. And on the downside, the screen resolution isn't that great but for the most part, it didn't trouble us. The only problem is, some things do look a little soft on the display, but this never gave us significant problems in real-world testing and we say it's nothing to worry about.

Aside from that the build quality is great, that built-in battery is pretty epic at 4050mAh and we can't see anyone complaining it doesn't see them through the day. The phone is powerfully enough to play most games and the on-board storage - at 8GB - is enough to get started. With microSD cards costing so little now, expanding your phone to 32GB need cost no more than £20.

So with everything considered, the price, the brilliance of the phone in general, we have to say the Mate has earned our respect. We liked it from the moment we took it out of the box, and it just kept impressing us. This is one of Huawei's finest, and we hope it does more like this.