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November 30, 2017

With the Mate 10 Pro, Huawei comes close to greatness

by John_A

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The Mate 10 Pro is one of the fastest and most seductive phones on the market, but its software lets it down where it counts.

Here in North America, there are the phone companies you know about, and the ones you need to know about. Huawei is in the latter category, despite broaching fame in early 2017 with the U.S. release of its flagship Mate 9.

With that phone’s sequel, the company divided the line into two distinct models: the regular Mate 10, which looks a lot like its predecessor, and the Mate 10 Pro, which is taller and sleeker and goes forward in a more modern, future-proof direction. That latter version is coming to the U.S. in early 2018 (though the company won’t say exactly when, or if it’s partnering with a carrier this time around), and there’s a lot to look forward to.

I’ve been using the Mate 10 Pro for a few weeks now in both the U.S. and Canada, and though you can’t buy it yet, there’s lots to look forward to when it becomes available next year. (Or if you’re so inclined, you can import it from Europe, but that’s for the truly desperate.)

Huawei Mate 10 Pro review: Best Android flagship for battery life

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Huawei Mate 10 What you’ll love

There’s a lot to like about the Mate 10’s hardware. You should take a look at Alex’s review because it gives an excellent overview of the way Huawei has migrated, as other companies have, away from metal to a warmer glass-back design. The racing stripe along the back gives what would be an otherwise bland-looking device a bit of personality, too, which is a nice touch.

  • Display: 6 inches, 2160×1080 pixels (2:1 aspect)
  • OS: EMUI 8.0 (Android 8.0 Oreo)
  • Price: €699 (EUR) / TBD (US)
  • Processor: Kirin 970
  • RAM: 4GB / 6GB
  • Storage: 64GB / 128GB
  • Camera (front): 8MP ƒ2.0
  • Cameras (rear): 12MP (main) | 20MP (secondary)
  • Weight: 178 grams
  • Size: 152.2 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
  • Wireless: LTE 1.2Gbps
  • Sensors: Rear fingerprint
  • Battery: 4000mAh
  • Water resistance: IP67
  • Colors: Midnight Blue, Titanium Gray, Mocha Brown, Pink Gold

Holding the Mate 10’s all-glass chassis is often treacherous given its size and weight — it’s over 6 inches tall and weighs 173 grams, but as an object, the phone is stunning to look at. The AMOLED screen, despite not matching up in resolution to much of the competition (and, oddly, to its own LCD-sporting Mate 10 counterpart) is vivid and accurate, without a hint of the unsightly blue tint that has afflicted the LG V30 and Google Pixel 2 XL.

Like the Mate 9, the Mate 10 Pro does away with most of the bezels around the screen, though that effect is less pronounced this year for a number of reasons: there are many phones that look almost identical (the front is a dead ringer for the OnePlus 5T); and the AMOLED screen blends nicely with the black bezels.

This is one of the fastest phones on the market, and the Kirin 970 is to thank for that.

The phone is also very fast — the Kirin 970 processor inside the Mate 10 Pro matches or outperforms the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in most synthetic benchmarks I’ve used, and the phone feels incredibly snappy. While I’m no fan of Huawei’s software — EMUI 8.0 is still a mess in many places — there’s no question that using the company’s latest flagship feels like there is plenty of headroom (I’ve been using the model with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.

Other nice touches: Huawei’s fingerprint sensor is incredibly fast and wonderfully placed. On a phone this tall, I never had a problem getting to the home screen. (That’s a good thing, too, because the phone lacks any form of gesture to wake the screen with a double-tap.) It’s water-resistant, rated IP67, which is good for one meter of submersion for 30 minutes.

Given that this is the first in the Mate line with such a pedigree, it’s a timely addition, as the feature feels like table stakes for a release in late 2017. There is no headphone jack, nor wireless charging; oddly, I’m less bummed about the former than the latter.

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The camera is outstanding on here. Huawei has always done a great job with its optics, partnering with Leica in the past, and the collaboration bears even juicier fruit with the Mate 10 series than it did on the P10 and P10 Plus from earlier in 2017.

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The Mate 10 Pro’s camera has decent dynamic range in difficult shooting situations. This is without HDR.

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Colors are vivid and pleasing.

The big change is in low light performance: the secondary 20MP monochrome sensor is now paired with an ƒ/1.6 lens, and the results are truly special. I still think it’s nuts that Huawei’s otherwise-excellent camera app still doesn’t support Auto HDR, but shooting photos and video is an otherwise sublime experience. I’d buy this phone for the monochrome sensor alone.

If you’re a camera junky — especially a fan of monochrome photography — this is the phone to get. It takes beautiful photos.

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Battery life from the 4000mAh battery is astoundingly good. I know, that’s a big adverb, but it’s worth the hyperbole. I only had to charge the Mate 10 Pro once every two days, and that’s with using it as I would any other phone. Yes, battery life has improved across the board on high-end Android phones this year — the 10nm manufacturing process of chips like the Kirin 970 and Snapdragon 835 have facilitated that — but this takes things to a whole new level.

Elsewhere, I had no problem using the phone to make calls and connect to both AT&T’s and TELUS’s LTE networks in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, and though I couldn’t take advantage of the purported 1.2Gbps potential network speeds, I did notice the phone’s LTE connection was always solid, even in remote areas. The stereo speakers, too, are very good.

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Huawei Mate 10 What you’ll hate

I said it earlier, and I’ll strongly reiterate it here: I do not like EMUI. Even with its modern retrofit, running Android 8.0 Oreo behind the scenes, Huawei still doesn’t understand what makes Android so singularly decent. It strips away the logical changes Google brings to the fore, opting to hide behind years of legacy behavior that offers almost no value to the user.

If you’re a Pixel software fan, this is as far from that as you’ll find.

The most striking example to me is the most simple: it’s not possible to expand notifications on the lock screen. It appears you can, but tapping the arrow that on other Android phones offers the entirety of a message does nothing here. The phone just prompts you to tap again to go directly into the app. That’s the exact opposite of the behavior I want.

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Next is the insistence on theming the phone like it’s a character in a space opera. Everything is chrome and textured and ugly. That the phone makes it difficult to change one’s default launcher doesn’t help matters, but I wouldn’t mind if the one that ships with it was any good. Of course, the default version lacks an app drawer, but that’s relatively fixable. What isn’t is finding a theme — and there are around a dozen pre-installed — that doesn’t offend my eyes. I couldn’t install Action Launcher and AdaptivePack quickly enough.

Thankfully, once those issues were dealt with, the software experience was akin to any other Oreo-based phone. EMUI 8.0 is not a drastic change from 5.0, which shipped on the Mate 9.

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Huawei insists that its machine learning algorithms will keep the phone running quickly well into its expected two-year lifespan, but in my few weeks with the Mate 10 Pro I haven’t noticed any substantive difference.

There’s a lot of potential inside Huawei’s NPU, but it will rely on the ingenuity of developers to make it useful.

Moreover, Huawei’s Neural Processing Unit, a vector-based chip that offloads a bulk of the machine learning processing from the main Kirin processor, doesn’t seem to have a real-world impact on performance or even experience at this point. The main use case, identifying various subjects and changing the camera settings accordingly, is nice in theory, but applying additional saturation to my food subjects isn’t impressive.

I am encouraged by what the NPU is capable of, and I expect Qualcomm to double down on AI-based silicon optimizations in upcoming versions of its platforms, but for now, the NPU is waiting for a killer app. (And no, the pre-installed version of Microsoft Translate that speeds up on-device translation doesn’t count as a killer app.)

I also had a hell of time getting Bluetooth headphones — multiple headsets — to maintain solid connections to the Mate 10 Pro. I’m sure this is a software bug, but it basically precludes me from using the phone to listen to music, as its lack of a headphone jack puts me in dongle territory, and I hate being in dongle territory.

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Huawei Mate 10 Pro Should you buy it?

My visceral reaction to the Mate 10’s few software quirks is likely not going to mirrored by the vast majority of people. I prefer Android when it gets out of my way and just does things intuitively — Pixel 2, OnePlus 5T, even Galaxy Note 8 — and when I use the Mate 10 Pro, I always feel like I’m fighting the software. But I felt that way about the Mate 9 before Huawei released a massive update weeks after its release to fix some nagging bugs, so I’m hopeful of the same thing here.

At the same time, this is classic Huawei hardware: substantial and practical, if a little derivative. The Mate 10 Pro is a good-looking phone indeed, but it’s the hardware inside that’s most impressive. No company packs its phones so full of specs like Huawei.

If you’re not a fan of the Pixels, the Mate 10 Pro offers a camera experience that’s far more feature-filled, with day- and low-light shots that come out nearly as well. If you’re a photo fanatic, this is one great companion.

We don’t yet know specific U.S. release details, but I’d bet that the Mate 10 Pro will undercut the vast majority of flagships available today, and that will make it a hell of a good deal.

See at Huawei

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