Besides being the year of the disappearing bezels, 2017 was also the year of some truly astonishing smartphone price tags. Between products like the RM3,999 Samsung Galaxy Note8 and the RM5,149 iPhone X, the cost of owning a flagship smartphone was beginning to border on the absurd.
Then along comes the Huawei Mate 10, a smartphone that’s very nearly as much of a flagship as any of those phones. It’s price? RM2,699.
That, in itself, is a pretty impressive feat but, deep down, a small part of you may be wondering: What did I have to give up so Huawei could keep the price down?
Honestly, not a whole lot. The Mate 10 is as much of a flagship as any of its competitors out there and in places where it lacks, the phone makes up for in others. Makes you wonder why anyone would pay more for a flagship.
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The devices in Huawei’s Mate lineup have always been business-focused. They’re supposed to appeal to the esteemed gentleperson in a well-tailored suit. They’re supposed to distinguish themselves from the young and hip bling-bling-ring-a-ding-ding smartphones like the HTC U11 or the iPhone X. It’s serious and the Mate 10 probably tries the hardest to live up to that image. And for the most part, it’s doing a good job.
Compared to the all-metal Mate 9, Huawei mixed things up with the Mate 10 and given it a brand new glass back instead of a metal jacket. It’s a very 2017 design choice and I think that’s a good thing even though fingerprint smudges are a big trade-off.
It’s also a very well built device — probably the best a Mate smartphone has ever been. I even grew to like that “racing stripe” (especially in the new black colour option) around the camera module because it gives the phone a little bit of pizzazz. Kind of like an ornate pair of cufflinks — classy but with a hint of je ne sais quoi. Despite this gorgeous body, Huawei’s Mate 10 doesn’t have IP68/IP67 water resistance which is a big bummer for me. To be honest, it feels a little like they deliberately left it out on this device so it doesn’t cannibalise the more expensive Mate 10 Pro.
Good performance is key for any flagship smartphone — what more a business-centric one — and the Mate 10 has that in spades. Huawei’s Kirin 970 processor is a real trooper and when you pair it with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of UFS 2.1 storage, you get a smartphone experience that can be best described as effective. It handles my daily tasks well and it doesn’t feel sluggish which are pretty much the hallmarks of a good flagship.
Moving on, the Mate 10 has a good display. Huawei’s flagship has a solid Quad HD 5.9” IPS panel (with HDR10 support) that has great viewing angles, good colour accuracy and is razor sharp.. Perhaps the biggest non-2017 spec about the handset is its traditional 16:9 aspect ratio display and that definitely makes the device stand out. Sure, Huawei’s trimmed the bezels down significantly, but it still feels like a very large device, unlike some of its 18:9 competition. But it is a nice screen and it isn’t too unwieldy for people with moderately sized hands.
The more conventional screen also meant that Huawei could still fit a really good fingerprint scanner on the front, something I’m sure many will appreciate. That said, the lack of prominent bezels also mean it’s harder to handle without accidental touches.
Huawei also scores some points in the UI department. Personally, I’d say that EMUI 8.0 built on top of Android Oreo is the most tolerable out of all the Chinese Android skins. It’s similar to stock Android, but a little uglier with worse UI scaling (widgets look awful). But, there’s a native app drawer, it has stock icons, notification dots and a usable notifications shade too.
A full desktop solution?
The Mate 10 also supports Huawei’s elegant new desktop solution that doesn’t have an equally elegant name: EasyProjector. You can read about the details here, but the gist of it is it’s their answer to Samsung’s DeX Station…and it doesn’t require a proprietary docking station. For the most part, it works pretty well because it’s easy to set up — all you need is a USB C cable and a monitor (use an adapter if your monitor is HDMI) — and fairly intuitive.
Once connected, it’ll give you one of two choices: Mirror phone or use in a Desktop mode. The Desktop mode is actually pretty sleek because you can use your phone as a keyboard and trackpad for a neat little self-contained presentation tool. What’s more, notifications won’t pop up in your Desktop so you won’t get embarrassing messages halfway through work.
However, the overall experience needs more work. App support is pretty lacklustre (there’s no YouTube app, for eg) but I believe this’ll improve over time, and performance isn’t as smooth as a regular desktop PC — sometimes apps crash for no reason.
It feels like a ‘beta product’ so I wouldn’t buy the Mate 10 just for EasyProjector. But there is potential here so I’ll be looking forward to the next iteration.
In the audio department, Huawei gets solid marks because of its better-than-average earpiece-stereo speaker setup. It gets pretty loud without the audio quality turning into a knife scraping simulation so I’m pretty happy with it. It’s certainly better than the single-speaker setups that an unfortunate number of flagship phones still pack. Also bonus points for keeping the 3.5mm headphone jack.
About that “AI camera”…
Smartphone cameras have also grown super important in our daily and professional lives so it’s great that Huawei’s continually trying new ways to improve their camera experience. The company’s latest handset features a dual-camera setup with one 12MP RGB sensor and a secondary 20MP monochrome sensor.
While that sounds familiar, Huawei has added some improvements in the form an upgraded f/1.6 aperture Leica Summilux-H 27mm equivalent lens. But, the upgrades aren’t just on the surface — Huawei also says they’ve improved their camera with the help of AI.
Now, while that looks great on marketing materials because AI has become such a vague yet powerful buzzword these days, the actual technology behind Huawei’s “intelligent camera” probably isn’t what you expect. Unlike Google’s Machine Learning, Huawei’s Mate 10 camera won’t directly improve the more you take photos.
Instead, Huawei tells us that their camera “AI” uses what they call a knowledge crystal that you can think of it as a set of rough guidelines for how to take photos of different subjects — how to adjust camera settings, etc. Huawei periodically updates this knowledge crystal with new data but it doesn’t “learn” directly from your usage. It learns what Huawei teaches it.
And you can tell when the camera “recognises” an object because you’ll get a little icon at the bottom left corner of your camera UI telling you what scene it is. For most scenes, I didn’t really notice anything special about them compared to the other smartphones so I’m not entirely convinced that it is any better.
The biggest difference I did notice was with food photos (the little fork and spoon icon). In my experience, when the camera recognises food, it does one of two things: 1. It slightly overexposes the middle of the frame, 2. It seems to bump up contrast and saturation by a little too much.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the way it makes most of my food photos look. But, sometimes it does make the food pop in a way that looks good on social media, even if it is a little unnatural. I will note that it has trouble recognising banana leaf rice, however. Maybe because it’s unsure of whether it is a food or a plant? Your guess is as good as mine.
As a whole though, the Mate 10 takes pretty decent photos. Portrait mode — though not the most flattering angle because of the focal length — works pretty well. Images in good light turn out pretty well with good colour, sharp edges and typically good dynamic range. Low-light isn’t amazing, but it’s mostly usable. As usual, when you switch to monochrome, low-light photos look much better.
If you want a more detailed look at how this camera stacks up with the other flagship smartphones in the market now, check out our flagship camera comparison.
Camera performance is also good. Shooting and focusing is snappy and pretty immediate most of the time. It’s perhaps a step slower than something like the Samsung Galaxy Note8, but then again I don’t think any phone is faster than the Note8 right now.
However, all of this good performance would mean nothing if it couldn’t last. Stamina is just as important as performance, after all. Huawei’s Mate series have traditionally been pretty long-lasting smartphones because they had massive batteries keeping the lights on. This one has a 4,000 mAh cell and it can net you an above-average battery life.
Most days, I was averaging 4.5 hours of screen on time with about 14 hours on battery. Moderate usage pushed that up to 5 hours of screen on time with 15 hours time on battery. I’m hearing reports of Mate 10s lasting 1.5 days on a single charge, but I’ve personally never been able to squeeze more than a day out of it. I am a pretty heavy user, so your mileage may vary.
It’s worth noting that I used this phone with the screen resolution set to “smart” so the phone is supposed to “automatically lower screen resolution to help save power”. In my experience, even at 4% battery my screen was still at the highest 2560×1440 pixel resolution. Curious if there was much of a difference, did a quick battery comparison test using PC Mark.
Smart vs Full HD
For the first test, we left the display at “smart” and ran the benchmark. It produced a score of 4 hours 53 minutes. Then, we charged it up to full again, switched the screen resolution to “Full HD” and ran the test again. We got a score of 5 hours and 3 minutes. Not really a monumental difference, then.
It does charge quickly though, Huawei’s SuperCharge is no joke. A full charge from 5% can be reached in under 1.5 hours while 30 minutes on the plug gives you about 68%.
But there’s something you should know
Despite how great the Mate 10 is, it was really hard for me to form a solid judgement on this phone. When it works, the phone is every bit a flagship as its more expensive rivals. It’s got an excellent build, great performance, a nice screen, a good camera and above average battery life. But, just when I start to like this phone, things start going wrong with crashing applications, freezing lockscreens and buggy app interactions. I don’t know how much of it is the phone’s problem and how much of it is Android’s problem but from my experience with the other Android flagships, these things don’t happen very often, if at all.
And this was my second Mate 10. The first one crashed Facebook so hard I had to reinstall the app.
Why does the Mate 10 — both of the ones I received — seem to have these problems? It just frustrates me so much because if it didn’t have those problems, the Mate 10, priced at RM2,699, is a steal in today’s flagship market. I’d even be willing to overlook the lack of IP68/IP67 water resistance because of this price tag.
Now I don’t like to pick on bugs, crashes or even stuttering performances because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s causing it. The problems could stem from stuff like a faulty wireless modem, bug in the OS, bug in that application install or even some gremlin living in the circuit board. But when I experience these problems in two separate Mate 10s, I think it’s something you should definitely know about.
I’d love to recommend this phone to others but when I think about my own personal experiences, with two different Mate 10s no less, I hesitate. Maybe it’s a software thing that Huawei can patch, but I’ve given them so much time to sort it out via an OTA update and yet things haven’t changed.
Maybe I just have rotten luck with Huawei’s flagship this year. Maybe my concerns are unfounded and those of you who have bought this phone haven’t experienced any of these problems (let me know your experience in the comments below). But as it stands, as good as the Mate 10 is, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you buy this device.
Here are more photos captured with the Mate 10’s camera. Click on each one to view its full resolution.
This photo was taken in pretty challenging light.