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Huawei Ascend Mate review

We review the Huawei Ascend Mate, the latest Android phablet. Can it beat Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 at its own game?

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Samsung’s surprise success with the Galaxy Note has prompted several other manufacturers to start exploring the phablet phenomenon. Huawei’s Ascend Mate is the latest example, with a 6.1” screen that dwarfs even the Note II. But is size everything, or is there more to the phablet than meets the eye? Read on to find out.

Design

The Ascend Mate is positively huge. With previous phablets, toting displays in the region of five and a half inches, they have carefully straddled the line between one and two handed use. The Mate is unquestionably a two handed affair. Even though it is built for use in portrait mode we still found ourselves needing the second hand to balance the weight as we swiped around the screens.

Huawei’s software includes some clever touches for the most important one-handed tasks. You can minimise the phone dialer, keyboard and lock screen to the bottom right or bottom left corners of the screen so that they become more thumb friendly, and there’s also a Chatheads-style ‘Suspend button’ that is located beneath your thumb and expands to reveal icons for four apps, a couple of which will even open in their own floating windows above your current app.

The device will fit in a typical trouser pocket, but you will know it’s there. It’s slim enough at 9.9mm, but the 198g weight is heavy. For easy access the power button is located midway up the right edge. The volume controls are just underneath and were a little too easy to press by mistake for our liking.

On the opposite edge is the microSIM slot, on top the microSD and bottom the microUSB port. There are no other buttons on the device. On the back is the camera lens and LED flash and small speaker at the bottom, which is easily covered.

The device is well built with an understated yet stylish design. But it is also totally uncompromising: regardless of what else the Mate has to offer you will know as soon as you pick it up whether this is the device for you.

Screen

The display measures 6.1 inches corner to corner at 720p resolution. We’d have expected 1080p at this size, the Mate’s pixel density of 240ppi is back at 2011 levels for flagship devices. Sit it side by with an HTC One and you will notice the difference.

We weren’t troubled by this, though, as the overall quality of the panel was high. The viewing angles are very wide, the blacks are reasonably deep, the brightness is good, and you can also adjust the colour temperature to suit your taste. There’s also a glove mode that helps you to keep using your phone in the middle of winter.

We would have preferred the extra resolution to give the display a bit more pop, but on the whole it certainly counts as one of the device’s strong points.

Where the larger screen really comes into its own is for video playback. The display is noticeably larger than, say, a Galaxy S III, so far more condusive to longer viewing sessions, and the device is significantly smaller than a seven inch tablet like the Nexus 7.

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Performance and battery

Benchmark tests pegged the Ascend Mate as being faster than the Galaxy Note II but somewhat slower than the current leaders in Android performance such as the Galaxy S4 or HTC One. We has little cause to be concerned about its all round performance.

Huawei’s own quad-core 1.5GHz processor and 2GB RAM on board produced a buttery, lag-free experience, aided by what appears to be a fairly light skin (in spite of its UI overhaul). The device devoured every task we threw at it, including some 3D gaming, which is an ideal use for this screen.

The only real sign that the it was being taxed at all was a not inconsiderable heating up of the top half of the handset, which became uncomfortable after a prolonged gaming session.

There is 8GB of storage on board, of which around 4.5GB is available to the user and around 1GB is already filled with assorted junk that you may want to remove. This doesn’t leave a massive amount of space for apps, as they cannot be stored on the SD card.

The battery is a mammoth 4050mAh and is not replaceable. We had mixed results in our battery tests. For ‘normal’ use it would run pretty much forever, or at least well into a second day on a single charge. For heavy use, especially where gaming was involved, the battery drained considerably quicker.

We’d still rank it among the best devices around for battery life, but it is still possible to drain the whole thing in a day if you’re not careful. It’s also worth noting that this large battery does take longer to charge than most other phones.

To help squeeze more life from the battery there is a Power manager mode. This takes several approaches, including allowing you to set which apps launch on boot, as well as control those that run in the background. It wasn’t entirely clear how much benefit was gained from the various settings, but it is set to Intelligent Mode by default and we saw no need to change that.

Software

The Ascend Mate runs Android 4.1.2 with Huawei’s Emotion UI on top. As skins go this is the most radical we’ve seen for one key reason: it does not have an app drawer. This makes it a very disorienting experience when you first turn on the device and we cant say we ever really got used to it.

It reminded us of the MIUI custom ROM, and like that comes complete with a huge number of themes that will further change its look. For most users, though, the effect is best described as ‘iOS with widgets’.

The default theme is not the classiest. All app icons are placed in iPhone-esque glossy boxes with rounded corners, and the stock icons are overly colourful, cartoon style. A small number of changes have been made to the software, including a welcome return for the normally overlooked phone profiles. The additional apps include a few streaming solutions, the main social networking apps and an office suite. The lack of bloatware is admirable.

Even though the skin includes such a major change to the UI it still feels quite light and we frequently had more than 1GB of free RAM in general use. With a design that is largely consistent with vanilla Android the general feel is of a stock Android device running a fancy launcher. Indeed, installing an alternative launcher such as Nova gets you very close to that, with even the app drawer being fully restored.

Camera

The Ascend Mate has two cameras, a 1MP effort on the front for video chat and an 8MP camera on the back. It’s about average in quality.

In good light the images it produced were fine, although when zoomed in there was evidence of heavy noise reduction having been applied. In poorer light conditions the quality fell off as you would imagine.

The camera was fast, with minimal shutter lag. Ironically it was the size of the device that had the biggest negative impact on our shots, its size making it difficult to get a steady shot, especially when using the tap to focus function.

Extras in the camera app are limited – a few shot modes for HDR or panorama photos, and the ubiquitous photo filters. Video quality, at resolutions up to 1080p, was only average.

Verdict

The Ascend Mate is a device with plenty of good points and bad points. We’re not so keen on the launcher, although it’s easily replaced, and the severe shortage of storage is a concern for a high end device, as its propensity to get hot under heavy use. But the screen, performance and battery life are all real positives.

Yet the pros and cons are almost irrelevant, since size is the only factor that really matters. The Mate comes with none of the phablet-specific extras that you get from a Galaxy Note device, and no equivalent to the S Pen either.

This is significant: you could argue that what makes the Note a ‘phablet’ is not the screen size but the fact Samsung has clearly thought about the unique ways you could put such a large device to good use. There’s no sign that Huawei has done the same, and as a result it really is just a very big phone.

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