(Pocket-lint) - Despite Huawei having its fair share of ups and downs since pushing into the smartphone market – the P10 that didn't quite hit the mark, especially on reflection of the better and cheaper Honor 9 – it's come out fighting of late with some great handsets.
Even before the major success of the Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro in 2018, Huawei struck it big with the Mate 10 Pro – a device that's bold enough to take on the best of them, including the Apple iPhone X.
Having lived with the Mate 10 Pro for a number of months as our day-to-day phone, we've revisited the device following software updates to see how this large-scale flagship fares.
Design: Glass front and back brings visual delight and downfalls
- Multi-axis curved glass design to rear
- 6H tempered glass for scratch-resistance
- Fingerprint scanner positioned to rear, no home key
- USB-C, no 3.5mm headphone jack
- IP67 water and dust resistant
- Colours: Midnight Blue, Titanium Gray, Pink Gold, Mocha Brown
Since 2017 it's been "glass, glass, glass". The Mate 10 Pro joins the iPhone 8 Plus by adopting a glass rear – which looks stunning thanks to its subtle curve and shiny finish. There's even a strip across the rear intersecting the cameras, to add greater definition.
At least, that's what the Mate 10 Pro will look like out of the box. The obvious problem, as we've found, is that it'll be fingerprint smeared within mere moments of handling each and every time. Not the worst of the worst, mind, but we've often been buffing it on our tee before showing it to anyone. The other inevitability with glass is that it's prone to damage: drop it and it'll smash; don't take care of it and it'll scratch.
Huawei was at pains to point out that the Mate 10 Pro uses 6H tempered glass, which makes it hardy and robust. But, as former Honor 9 users – a device with 6.7H glass both front and rear – we've seen that phone, which we've grown to love, covered in all manner of scratches. The Mate 10 Pro has fared better over time, although one disastrous drop did cause a crack in the rear glass (sad face).
A core feature of the Mate 10 Pro is that there's no front-positioned physical buttons whatsoever (like there is on the not-coming-to-the-UK "standard" Mate 10). The fingerprint scanner is placed on the rear beneath the dual camera arrangement – both of which protrude slightly, to avoid you touching them when looking for the indented fingerprint scanner – which feels generally well positioned, if not a tiny bit too high up the rear. It does avoid the frankly foolish positioning of the fingerprint scanner to the side of the cameras, as found in the less pretty Samsung Galaxy S8, but it's not as altogether exciting as the under-the-screen scanner of the Mate 20 Pro.
Other Mate 10 Pro features include dust- and water-resistance – which we've found very handy when cycling in the pouring rain with the phone in a back pocket. This feature is Huawei's excuse for not giving the Mate 10 Pro a 3.5mm headphones jack, though, which we think is a load of nonsense. Twice in one week our Bluetooth headphones have run out of battery, so we've gone to plug in via the cable – only to remember that there isn't one and, yes, we've looked the fool. Not that any flagship handset seems to offer a headphone jack these days.
Screen: Breaking out of the Full HD shackles
- 6-inch, 2160 x 1080 resolution, 18:9 aspect ratio OLED display
- 'Huawei FullView' for minimal bezel design
- HDR10 support for high dynamic range
- 'Floating dock' virtual home key option (Android soft keys also available)
The other key part of the Mate 10 Pro's make-up is its all-encompassing screen – or Huawei FullView display, as the company's marketeers lioke to call it. Irrelevant of the fancy name, the ultra-trim bezel means the 6-inch screen totally dominates the face of the device. It looks great as there's no excessive bezel/head-and-shoulders, like you'll find on the chunky Pixel 3 XL.
Huawei has adopted th popular 18:9 aspect ratio for a far better one-handed fit, complete with boat-loads of resolution for the first time in the Mate series. Yep, the 10 Pro breaks out of the Mate 9's Full HD shackles, with a 2160 x 1080 resolution that looks great (if it sounds low on the vertical, it's because of the 18:9 ratio's slimness).
It's refreshing to see the Huawei screen avoid gimmicks too: there's no edge-squeeze control like with HTC; there's no curved edges that are all too easily pressed by accident in this form factor. Instead the focus is on deep blacks and brightness, thanks to an OLED panel – which individually illuminates pixels for a stark black-to-white contrast – and HDR10 capabilities for high dynamic range display (at a purported 730-nits – not a measurement we can confirm, but it looks good to us).
The one oddity of the Mate 10 Pro is the lack of any physical buttons to the front. Many have become so used to using a home key, or even gestures, that the removal of such a key feels initially odd. Huawei has attempted to tackle this with what it calls a "floating dock" key – a software version of a home key, which you can position anywhere around the screen to suit your needs. Press it to go back, press-and-hold to return to home screen, swipe it for an open apps display. Its execution isn't great and we've stuck to the usual trio of Android soft keys, which can be hidden by tapping a 'v' arrow to their side.
Oh, two other things, one bad, one good. Because Huawei has a silly Apple-aping lock screen swipe-from-bottom mechanic – which brings up torch, calculator, timer, and so forth – it's not uncommon for this to appear when trying to unlock the phone, given the absence of a home key. Which is annoying. On the plus side: the Mate 10 Pro features an oleophobic screen coating, so smeary fingerprints aren't an issue like they were on the P10 and P10 Plus. That's a mistake that the company hasn't made since, obviously.
Hardware and software: It's all about AI, apparently
- Kirin 970 (2.4GHz) chipset, 6GB RAM
- 12-core Mali G72 GPU
- 'Neural Processing Unit (NPU)' for Artificial Intelligence (AI) enhancements
If we cycle back to the beginning of October 2017, to the second "Made by Google" conference, it kicked off with Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, discussing the merits of artificial intelligence (AI). The subtext, to some degree, is that computational power, while still improving, is beginning to hit a glass ceiling in its direct use. It's not necessarily how quickly something can be achieved, but the process of achieving it that will be the next evolution in speed – with AI and machine learning being at the heart of this evolution.
Since then it's all gone a bit AI mad, with LG, Samsung and others jumping in on the party. Really, though, we think it's more buzzword than reality. Huawei was at the fore, though, with the Kirin 970 chipset being the first past the post to offer artificial intelligence ability, now superceded by the 980 chipset (in the Mate 20 series).
This has what the company calls a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) to benefit AI's needs. One example is an optimised Microsoft Translator app, which has been tweaked specifically to pull on this NPU potential for speedier operation. This app is good for things like near real-time dictation (when online), sure, but there are third-party companies like Speechmatics which do this offline just as well. And in some cases we've found the photo translator for MS Translator to be less proficient than Google Translate.
EMUI: Huawei's new closer-to-Google operating system
- At launch: EMUI 8.0 over Android 8.0 (Oreo) operating system
- Update (October 2018): EMUI 9 over Android 9.0 Pie
- Dual SIM (no microSD slot), 128GB storage
- Cat.18 LTE modem (to 1.25Gb/s)
Huawei had made a rather out-there choice for the Mate 10 Pro's launch operating system: its EMUI re-skin leapfrogged from version 5.1 to EMUI 8.0, bypassing would-be versions 6 and 7 in their entirety, in a move that Huawei said reflects how big a leap forward it is. We think it was because it sounds a lot more like iPhone 8 – the phone to beat at initial launch – thus putting it in the psyche of many as up to date and "equal".
EMUI 8's days are done now, though, with the EMUI 9.0 rollout beginning from October 2018. This tidies up the layout, while maintaining some of its predecessors great different-to-stock-Android features: there's a dock-free PC experience, which functions straight out of the USB-C cable to any monitor; while a new split-screen proactive alert notification means you can side-by-side apps when prompted to make best use of the 18:9 screen ratio.
One complaint we've long had about EMUI is that it's overzealous with alerts, notifications, battery prompts and the like. Not so much in current EMUI form. Hurrah.
A battery that will last all day - and then some
- 4,000mAh battery
- Huawei SuperCharge (quick charge)
- No wireless charging
One staple of the Mate series has always been its considerable battery capacity, something the Mate 10 Pro continues to honour. With a 4,000mAh cell at its core, we've been getting great battery longevity per charge.
If you've ever heard to the contrary it's because pre-release models way back in 2017 were lacking an optimised software update; with that downloaded, just as any out-of-the-box Mate 10 Pro will be, there's no issue whatsoever. So fret not.
With fairly heavy use, including gaming in the morning, almost non-stop Wi-Fi connectivity, and all manner of app use, we've been getting from 100 per cent charge down to around 30 per cent charge over 15 to 17 hours. That's really good going. We would have run it to zero but, you know, we like to do this thing called sleeping.
If you do crank it a bit too hard then that's no problem, as Huawei SuperCharge (read: fast-charge) is on board for quick top-ups at the plug.
There's no wireless charging, though, which is a small letdown and oddity given the all-glass design. But you will find that in the Mate 20 Pro, if you're looking to the more modern version of this Mate.
Dual cameras: Battling it out with the best
- Dual Leica Cameras, f/1.6 at 27mm equivalent for both
- 12-megapixel colour with optical stabilisation (OIS)
- 20-megapixel true monochrome with no stabilisation
- New auto scene recognition, based on machine learning
- 8-megapixel f/2.0 front-facing camera
The last considerable piece of the Mate 10 Pro puzzle is its camera. Well, Dual Leica Cameras, plural, to be more on point.
Adopting a similar setup to the (now pretty much irrelevant) P10 Plus, the Mate 10 Pro features a 12MP colour sensor with f/1.6 27mm equivalent optically-stabilised lens, sat vertically alongside a 20MP true monochrome sensor with the same f/1.6 27mm equivalent optic (but without optical stabilisation in this instance).
With the Leica stamp of approval, the Mate 10 Pro brings all the benefit that offers: the software offers full colour or black and white shooting modes, plus software-controlled aperture modes where it's possible to apply an f/0.95 equivalent. This pseudo-aperture works to varying degrees of success, as we've found in other Huawei devices, but can be good fun for selfies and portraits to blue out the background.
As both lenses are wide-angle, however, Huawei doesn't offer an ultra-wide view nor longer lens equivalent, as you'll find in the more recent Mate 20 Pro. To deliver a "zoom" the 10 Pro is able to crop into the monochrome image and losslessly apply the data from the colour image to give the perception of zoom, in what Huawei calls Hybrid Zoom. It's a clever solution, but not the best current way to do this.
In operation, the Mate 10 Pro pulls on its four-in-one autofocus system – which combines laser, depth, contrast-detect and on-sensor phase-detect forms – for decent autofocus, coupled with a new scene recognition system to adjust settings according to what the camera sees.
This recognition system pulls on the idea of AI and machine learning. Aparently the Mate 10 has been fed over 100 million images from which to define what it "sees" to select the right picture profile. It can discern between individual faces, group shots, movement for sports/action, even define the difference between plants and flowers to ensure the exposure and colour balance is on point.
We've seen the camera auto recognise food, too, by showing us a symbol on screen when shot our lunch – hello Instagram nation – but, actually, that shot came out far too warm and yellow and didn't look perfectly balanced. So it's not as all-out defiant as it sounds, really. Over time this over-processing has caused some to shun Huawei's AI camera modes, with settings like Blue Sky and Greenery pushing things a bit too hard in the saturation department.
The key thing to take-away from the Mate 10 Pro's dual camera arrangement is that it's competitive. It works pretty well at night – despite apparent texture and grain given the conditions – and has lots of pop from brighter-lit scenarios. There's no Night Mode as found on the Mate 20 Pro though, while Google shows off even more here with its Night Sight feature.
Dial down some of those software additions and, ultimately, Huawei has a camera setup that's taking on the best of them and... ok, so not quite winning, but it's getting there. It set the footprints for the P20 Pro triple camera and current Mate 20 Pro setup.
The Mate 10 Pro was a defining handset for Huawei when it launched in 2017. Every bit as capable as its Samsung, LG and Apple competition, it marked the moment Huawei made it to the big time.
And that's still the case, following updates. The Mate 10 Pro can still standout in among its peers for its sleek design, considerable power and a raft of veritable features. The battery life is better than you'll get from most, while the software, finally, is at a point where it feels like a more natural and non-interfering Android experience.
Say hello to your new best Mate, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. Well, if you can ignore the Mate 20 Pro's charms, that is. If only a single carrier in the US would provide it on plan, eh?
This review was first published in October 2017. It has been updated to reflect changes in software performance and market context.
Samsung Galaxy S9+
Perhaps the Huawei's most obvious competitor and handset is the large-scale Samsung Galaxy S9+. It also has a high-resolution 18:9 ratio screen, but curves the edges in a more pronounced fashion. Expect top-end power, too, plus a camera that's as good as these things get.
Google Pixel 3 XL
After righting the Pixel 2 XL's screen woes, the third-gen device does something rather special: introduces Night Sight low-light mode which, frankly, is an absolutely incredible camera mode. It's worth buying a Pixel for that feature alone. Not to mention the great specs, soft-touch finish and other credible features (such as unlimited Google Photos storage).
Huawei Mate 20 Pro
The device to supercede the 10 Pro, the latest Mate in the range ads wireless charging, an even better screen, in-screen fingerprint scanner and epic cameras. It's one of 2018's best phones. But it'll cost you more.