Huawei Mate 10 Pro review: Beauty and brains, but a questionable bargain

 

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Huawei isn’t a widely known name in the US market, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese company from becoming the second largest smartphone maker on the planet. As its fortunes have risen, so has the quality of the hardware. Last year’s Mate 9 was a reliable phone, and Huawei’s revamped Nougat version of Android eliminated many of the pain points from its past devices.

Now, we’ve got the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro on the horizon. The Mate 10 Pro, which is the phone we’ll be talking about today, is the more expensive of the two. Despite being called “Pro,” it lacks some of the features power users have come to expect like a microSD card, headphone jack, and 1440p display. Can sleek design and Huawei’s custom neural network processor make up for that? Maybe a bit, but it’s hard to see the Mate 10 Pro competing with phones like the Note 8.

Design and display

Huawei has hopped on the glass phone bandwagon, but it’s not a functional change a la Apple—this phone does not support wireless charging. The back panel is glass just for aesthetic reasons. I’m not necessarily a fan of glass phones, but this one does look pretty nice (except for the fingerprints it picks up as soon as you touch it). The back is a single piece of glass that’s curved on all four sides. There’s also a strip of reflective foil under the glass in a strip that surrounds the cameras. Huawei made a phone that’s very comfortable to hold (with IP67), but oh my god, the fingerprints.

The fingerprint sensor is in a small recess directly below the cameras. I like that the two lenses and the fingerprint sensor are all lined up right in the middle of the back panel. Huawei also has the dual flash on one side of the cameras, and a matching autofocus window on the other side. Symmetry is good. I’ve come to expect good quality fingerprint sensors from Huawei, and this one delivers. Even the lightest touch for just a moment is enough for the phone to recognize my fingerprint, and the phone unlocks instantly. It’s even faster than OnePlus phones. I know that sounds like a strange metric, but OP’s fingerprint sensors have been great in recent years.

On the bottom edge is the lone port, a USB Type-C. Instead of a headphone jack, you get a digital adapter for your 3.5mm devices. The sound quality coming from the included adapter sounds fine to me—it’s very middle-of-the-road for smartphone audio and similar to other Huawei phones I’ve used. The bottom of the phone is also where you’ll find the speaker. This one gets the job done, but I don’t think it’s a particularly good speaker. It doesn’t get very loud, and when you get anywhere close to maximum volume, the distortion makes music unlistenable. The speaker is also in the perfect spot to be blocked by your finger while holding the phone. That’s not a problem exclusive to Huawei, of course.

On top of the phone is a somewhat baffling feature—an IR blaster. It seems odd to drop features people expect in a high-end phone but keep the IR blaster. I’m sure the IR blaster will make some people very happy, though.

On the left side is the SIM tray. I would not usually bother calling attention to it, but this one supports two SIM cards, and both of them can be LTE. On the opposite side are the buttons, which are also made of metal and feel solid in the frame.

Left: Mate 10 Pro, Right: Mate 9

The regular Mate 10 has a 1440p LCD, but this phone uses an entirely different display; it’s a different shape and resolution. The front of the Mate 10 Pro has slim bezels on all sides of the new 6-inch 18:9 OLED panel. The corners aren’t rounded off like a lot of other phones, but that doesn’t affect usability. The display still dominates the front of the phone. There’s barely enough space on the bottom bezel to squeeze in the Huawei logo. They found a way, though.

The OLED has a resolution of 2160×1080. So, it’s a slightly taller 1080p. The resolution is lower than the regular Mate 10, but it is OLED. As we’ve all come to know, OLED quality varies quite a bit. This is a good overall panel with only minor color shifting at angles, and the colors are calibrated to be vibrant out of the box. There’s a more natural “normal” mode in settings. I’m not sure if it’s sRGB, but it looks close.

Brightness levels are average for a modern OLED, but it doesn’t get as bright as Samsung’s latest phones. It’s bright enough, and the low brightness is sufficiently dark to use in a dimly lit room without blinding yourself. However, there’s some noticeable smearing in the transition from black pixels to colored ones. It looks to me like last year’s Samsung OLED tech.

Cameras

Huawei is again using a dual camera array on this year’s phone. The Mate 10 Pro has a 20MP monochrome sensor and a 12MP RGB sensor. There’s optical stabilization only on the 12MP sensor, but both have a respectable f/1.6 aperture. By default, the camera takes 12MP images. However, the camera app blends data from the RGB and monochrome sensors when you snap a photo. That means you can take 20MP shots with color. The drawback is that some of the camera’s special features don’t work in that mode. In 12MP mode, you have the option of 2x zoom “lossless” zoom. It uses the higher-resolution 20MP sensor to essentially zoom and crop to 12MP.

I’m extremely impressed with the quality of photos from the Mate 10 Pro. It excels at taking quick snapshots in moderate light, which is what most people are doing with their phone cameras. In most situations, I’d place it up there with Samsung and Google as one of the best smartphone cameras I’ve ever used. It pulls in a lot of light to make photos in dim settings usable, and captures are fast enough that you don’t get too much blurriness. The OIS on the 12MP sensor helps there. White balance looks very accurate, and focusing is almost Samsung-fast, too.

It’s not all good news, though. I have noticed some noise in black and almost black areas of photos, which I think is an issue that can be addressed in software. Some other photos in low light come out looking a bit over-processed and almost like a painting. This is something I’ve seen on LG phones over the years, but less so lately.

Outdoor shots on the Mate 10 Pro are good as well, but they’re not exactly leading the pack. My main issue with this camera is HDR is a completely separate mode, and it disables a lot of the camera’s other capabilities when it’s on. This isn’t the magical HDR processing Google has on its phone or even the slightly less impressive version from Samsung. Without HDR, the Mate 10 Pro tends to blow out some brighter areas. However, the Mate 10 Pro HDR shots come with slightly more shutter lag and no option to zoom or do AI analysis.

Ah, yes. The AI features. Huawei is making a big fuss over the neural network processor built into the Kirin 970 SoC. Using the on-device AI engine, Huawei has made the camera able to recognize what sort of objects are in your viewfinder. This all happens on the device, and it’s fast. I can point it at my dog, and the camera correctly identifies him as a dog. Point it at a page of text, and it IDs the text. Food? Yep, it usually knows what that looks like, too. Okay, so that’s basically a fun tech demo, but what can you do with that info? The camera applies different post-processing settings to the image based on what it sees. I don’t know if this is really making a difference, but I do like most of the photos I get from this camera.

Battery and performance

Most phones are shipping with a chip from Qualcomm or MediaTek, but Huawei uses its own Kirin SoCs in many phones. The Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro debut the new Kirin 970, which consists of four ARM Cortex A73 cores at 2.36GHz and four ARM Cortex A53 cores at 1.8GHz. There’s also a Mali G72 GPU with 12 cores. These are all reference designs, but the neural processing unit (NPU) is a completely custom core intended for machine learning and neural network applications. Since this is a new chip, I’ve got a few benchmarks below.

Benchmarks only tell part of the story, though. What you really want to know is how the phone feels in daily use. In a word: fast. The Mate 10 Pro is extremely responsive: apps open quickly, everything remains in memory as it should, and multitasking is instantaneous. There’s no hesitation on the quick-switch multitasking gesture like there is on a lot of other phones. Even next to a phone like the Pixel 2 XL, the Mate 10 Pro can hold its own.

I’ve always been pleased with Huawei’s phones when it comes to battery life, and the Mate 10 Pro continues that tradition. Everyone’s battery life varies based on usage, so here’s a quick rundown of how I used this phone. I have three Google accounts syncing to the phone, and it was always connected to a wearable device of some sort. My usage consisted of a lot of messaging and email, some gaming, video streaming, and listening to audio over Bluetooth. Under these conditions, I used the phone heavily for a day and a half and saw well over seven hours of screen time. I would classify this as solidly above average battery life.

Huawei has also done some sort of magic with the Kirin 970 SoC to reduce power consumption in idle mode. I left this phone sitting overnight, and the battery didn’t lose even a single percentage point. With lighter usage, the Mate 10 Pro could probably last you the better part of a week on a charge. It’s a 4,000mAh battery, but this is still impressive.

When it does come time to recharge, the Mate 10 Pro comes with a Super Charge adapter. This plug supports 4.5v and 5A for more than 20W of juice. I’m happy to report you don’t need to use that hardware to fast-charge the phone. A USB-PD charger like the one shipping with the Pixels also charges the Mate 10 Pro at an accelerated rate—I’m seeing the full 18W speed from the Pixel 2 adapter.

Software

The Mate 10 Pro launches with Android 8.0 Oreo along with EMUI 8. Huawei skipped a few versions of EMUI there, which is supposed to be in recognition of how much has changed. Really though, it’s probably just to match the Android version number. There are still some rough edges in EMUI, but overall it’s in a much better place than it was a few years ago.

A lot of the good things are just sticking around from the Nougat revamp of EMUI. The OS doesn’t kill apps in the background every time you turn off the screen, and you don’t have to babysit apps just to get notifications. Huawei has learned its lesson there. There are also plenty of handy options for the status bar like showing/removing the carrier name (you might want that for dual-SIM reasons), network speed, battery percent location, and more. Some devices offer more customization, but I think Huawei strikes a good balance between power and usability.

The notifications and quick settings support all the usual features like quick reply, snoozing, and custom settings tiles. The rounded notification items look a bit odd to me, but they behave exactly as they should. I only wish I could say the same for the lock screen. Huawei is still obsessed with the Magazine unlock, which shows you a new picture every time you wake up the phone. Your notifications will only appear on the lock screen once. If you unlock, those notification items won’t show up when you look at the lock screen next—you can’t even pull down the notification shade without unlocking. One bright spot here: Huawei has made media notifications persist across unlocks, which was not true on the Nougat build of EMUI.

Huawei still includes knuckle gestures on the Mate 10 Pro, which it had on the Mate 9 also. I know this sounds goofy, but I actually use and like this feature. You can knock on the screen twice with your knuckle to take a screenshot or draw a line across the middle to open split-screen mode. You can even draw letters on the screen with your knuckle to launch the app of your choosing. For example, draw a “C” to open the camera. I just wish knuckle gestures worked when the screen was off.

Because this phone has an 18:9 screen, Huawei needed to make some allowances in the software for apps that don’t scale correctly to the taller aspect ratio. Samsung, Essential, LG, and Google all have their own versions, and Huawei is closest to Samsung’s approach. Apps that don’t fill the screen get a small bar at the bottom of the UI (see the benchmark screens above) that fills the unused space. You can tap that bar to force the app into full-screen (zooming and cropping). The settings also contain a menu where you can choose which apps run in full-screen by default. This is a totally reasonable way to do things.

Huawei’s stock launcher has seen some substantial improvements in Oreo including a swipe-up app drawer and Google Feed integration on the far left panel. It also has launcher shortcuts, custom transitions, and several different grid options. I have two qualms here: One, the widget picker is arduous to use thanks to tiny previews and no quick scroll. Second, the launcher is jerky when swiping over to the Google panel. These are both things that can be fixed, but I expect a little more refinement from a flagship phone.

While Huawei has learned some lessons from past mistakes, it still insists on cramming the phone full of unnecessary apps. There’s a Huawei calendar app, a calculator, a notes app, a music app, email, and so on. There are also a few third-party pre-loads like the Booking.com app. You can disable or uninstall most of this, so it’s not the end of the world. Huawei points out its custom apps include special features like quick access to split-screen mode and a dual-pane UI in landscape mode. That’s great, but I’m still not using Huawei’s email client over Gmail.

Huawei also has an interesting “navigation dock” alternative to the standard navigation buttons. It’s a floating widget that supports back (tap), home (long-press), and overview (press and drag to the side) actions. You can move it around wherever you want and reclaim the bottom of the display from the nav bar. It sounds good in theory, but long-pressing and dragging is a little more arduous than just tapping a button. I also can’t figure out how to trigger Assistant while using this feature.

The Mate 10 Pro’s AI-powered SoC is evident in the software experience, but not as much as I had hoped. Many of the applications for AI Huawei talks about aren’t obvious to the end user. For example, it’s supposed to improve battery life and make calls clearer. There’s no way to turn off the AI core, so I can’t say how much of a difference this makes. For now, the Mate 10’s AI chops are very limited in scope. There’s only one app shipping on the phone with support for the AI core—a special version of Microsoft Translator. This works well enough, but it doesn’t seem faster or more accurate than Google Translate. You need to download languages for the Microsoft app to translate offline, just like Google Translate. When the chips are down, the translation experience is not noticeably better for running on a phone with a dedicated AI core.

The true value of Huawei’s NPU could be in the future availability of third-party apps. The Kirin 970 will be able to run code developed for Google TensorFlow and Facebook’s Caffe2. That doesn’t do you much good for the time being.

There’s one other fancy custom software feature we should talk about: projection mode. By plugging in a Type-C to HDMI cable, you can mirror the phone’s UI on a larger display. When you do that, there’s also the option to switch into desktop mode, which is much more interesting. The Mate 10 Pro does a pretty passable impersonation of Windows in this mode. You have a desktop, windowed apps, a taskbar, and a notification center. Unfortunately, not all apps work in the expanded desktop mode. It’s mostly Huawei’s apps, but the UI also makes allowances for Chrome and a few other third-party apps. This is all very impressive from a technical standpoint, but I don’t know how much use it will actually see in real life.

Conclusion

The Mate 10 Pro looks great in photos with the sleek glass frame and small bezels. Yet, as a glass phone, it picks up fingerprints to a maddening degree. The decision to go with glass on this phone doesn’t even have a functional component like wireless charging. Huawei is just doing glass because everyone else is doing glass. I wish the Mate 10 Pro was a metal phone like the Mate 9, but it’s a pretty glass phone at least.

The Pro variant has a fingerprint sensor on the back, which is where I prefer them. Unlocking the phone with this sensor is essentially instantaneous—maybe the fastest I’ve ever used. At the same time, the Pro ditches Mate 10 features like the microSD card, 1440p display, and headphone jack. It’s bizarre to call something “Pro” when it’s actually missing features from the non-Pro. It is water-resistant, but is that enough to make up for the omissions? It’s just very strange to make the cheaper phone more capable.

The display might not be 1440p, but it is OLED. It’s a solid panel, too. There’s very little color shift at off-angles, and the calibration is nice and punchy with the option to switch to a more natural mode. However, the lower resolution means you can see a bit of fuzziness if you look closely. You won’t have the opportunity to be disappointed in VR because this phone lacks support for Daydream. I can’t imagine why, but you can’t install the app. You’ll have to make do with being disappointed in Cardboard.

Huawei’s dual camera setup performs admirably on the Mate 10 Pro. Shots in most lighting conditions are captured quickly and with impressive fidelity. I can trust this camera to produce good enough results that I don’t need to take a bunch of backup photos. You have 2x lossless zoom, a capable portrait mode, and AI-powered scene recognition. However, Huawei’s HDR capture is a separate mode that deactivates many of the camera’s fancy features. Additionally, I’m not entirely sold on the value of the AI camera modes.

I don’t know if the AI software features will amount to anything in the long term, but the Kirin 970 makes this phone very responsive. I never feel like I’m waiting for the phone to catch up, even after a restart or when it’s installing apps. The battery life is fantastic as well. It uses almost no juice while asleep, and the screen-on time has been well above average during my testing.

I applaud Huawei for shipping this phone with Oreo—some other OEMs (which shall remain nameless) are still shipping phones with Android 7.1. Huawei has taken past criticism to heart. EMUI no longer kills apps every time you turn off the screen, and there are fewer unnecessary feature substitutions and UI tweaks. It’s not perfect, though. I don’t much care for how many apps Huawei has included on the phone. There’s also some lag on the home screen that needs to be addressed.

The Mate 10 Pro is a good phone, but it’s hard to say if it’s a good deal yet. The phone is only available in a few markets so far, and it’s priced at the equivalent of between $ 900 and $ 1,000. Huawei cannot sell this phone for almost $ 1,000 in the US—it has neither the name recognition nor the feature set to justify it. The Mate 10 Pro doesn’t do anything significantly better than the similarly priced Note 8, and it’s missing several features you get on that phone. The regular Mate 10 might prove to be a better deal for a few hundred less, but I hope Huawei can find a way to make this phone viable.

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