A week with the Huawei Mate 10 Pro

It may (or may not) surprise you to know that the battle among smartphone users isn’t only limited to iPhone vs. Android. There is the audio jack vs. no audio jack argument, for example, which cuts across both operating systems. And, inside of the Android environment, there’s the fans of the pure Android experience vs. the overlays that companies like Samsung and Huawei include.

Photo courtesy Huawei

While not a “no-overlay” absolutist like, say, my former Computerworld colleague JR Raphael, I do have to say that I much prefer phones where the manufacturer hasn’t messed with the Android features. Part of it is that I’m just used to using straight Android: I went from a Moto X to a Nexus 6P, neither of which came with any kind of overlay. I also like the idea of getting the latest and greatest upgrades as quickly as possible — although one of the more recent updates caused my Nexus 6P to shut down whenever the battery hit around 30%.

So when I was recently able to try out the new Huawei Mate 10 Pro (the European edition; the U.S. edition hasn’t shipped yet), I was as interested in how I’d react to the software experience as the hardware. When this was written, I had used it as my phone for a little over a week.

Hardware Comments

Not that the hardware is anything to sneeze at. The Mate 10 is a well-constructed high-end phone with quite a bit of pizzazz. The 6-inch 2160 x 1080-pixel OLED display doesn’t have the best specs on the Android market — the Pixel 2 XL, also a 6-inch display, offers a 2880 x 1440-pixel display — but it is bright and clear, and the different will probably not be noticeable unless you’re doing a direct comparison.

It’s a very snazzy-looking phone as well. All glass, which is not my favorite type, since that tends to sacrifice style for the possibility of accidental slippage (and is a fingerprint magnet as well). However, I felt relatively secure holding it, and Huawei includes a clear plastic case which makes it easier to grasp (the display also came with a pre-placed plastic cover).

In its publicity, Huawei pushes the fact that the Huawei Mate 10 is the first to use the new Kirin 970 processor along with an NPU (Neural Network Processor Unit), the latter which, according to the company, adds a variety of higher-level processes. Certainly, in day-to-day use, the phone felt very fast. There was never any lag at all, even when I had had several apps running at once. In addition, there was the reaction time of the back-of-the-phone fingerprint sensor — it was extremely fast, opening the phone practically before I touched it. The same speed was evident when I pulled up the camera app to take a quick photo, or asked a question verbally using Google Assistant.

Unfortunately, like many of the high-end phones today, the Mate 10 Pro lacks a headphone jack, perhaps because it is IP67 water- and dust-resistant. The slightly smaller Mate 10 lacks the resistance but does have the headphone jack, and I’m not sure (at least, as far as I’m concerned) it’s an even trade. Huawei does includes a USB-C-to-audio-jack converter with the Mate 10, but that didn’t help when I wanted to plug the phone into my admittedly out-of-date car’s audio system and keep the phone powered at the same time.

The phone includes a double-SIMM drawer, very handy for world travelers, but no microSD card to expand the 128GB storage.

After using the phone for a variety of tasks, including email, social networking, calls, and some video watching, I found that the 4000mAh battery did its job admirably — by the end of each day, I never went below about 40% of battery power, and usually ended up closer to 50%.

Camera Comments

There are dual Leica-engineered cameras on the back of the phone, one with a 20MP monochrome sensor and one with a 12MP RGB sensor. (The front camera offers 8MP.) The standard for photos is to use the 12MP sensor, which allows you full access to all the software features, such as optical image stabilization; but you can also go up to 20MP color photography.

While I have some problems with Huawei’s additional apps and overlay (see below), I have absolutely no argument with its photography software. Swiping left to right gives you access to various modes such as 3D panorama, slow-mo and document scan (which simplifies document images); swiping right to left gives you access to all the various settings. A small but visible icon on the main screen gives you access to Pro controls such as ISO. And the software will identify certain classes of objects — plants, for example, pets, or text — and adjust itself accordingly.

So far, I’ve been very impressed by the photos I’ve taken with the phone. Low-light photos were excellent, as were general photos, scenery and close-ups, although when I pushed it by shooting close-ups in low-light conditions, a bit of graininess crept in. However, those were the exceptions; on the whole, when allowing the software’s intelligence to choose the settings for my photographs, I was extremely happy with the results.

Software Comments

With the exception of the camera app, I found the software acceptable but not fabulous. As I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of Android overlays, and this one is no exception. I was not very familiar with previous versions of Huawei’s EMUI overlay, having only worked with them briefly; this is version 8 over Android 8.0, and I understand that it has been much improved. For example, if you don’t like EMUI’s habit of putting all your apps on the home pages, you can opt instead for the more familiar app drawer.

However, other differences from standard Android seem to me unnecessary. For example, when you swipe down from the top of a straightforward Android phone, a single “Do not disturb” icon lets you choose between “Priority only,” “Alarms only,” and “Total Silence.” Huawei, on the other hand, has two separate icons: a “Sound” icon which goes from On to Vibration to Off, and a separate “Do not disturb” icon that mutes calls and messages except for priority notifications.

Again, unlike with the “pure” Android phones, you can’t use the “Okay, Google” phrase to wake it up with a voice command. You can create a separate voice command to wake the phone, but only to make a call or find the phone.

Other apps duplicate existing standard Android apps without really adding much, such as the calendar app, music app and and video app. (I do have to admit that I found the Translator app a lot of fun to play with, although I haven’t had a chance to try it out in the field.)

On the other hand, two features can make this an excellent business phone. First, the ability to connect it to a large screen (via a USB-C to HDMI cable), along with a desktop mode to add a full Windows-like feel. In addition, you can designate a “Private Space” — a secondary profile so that you can keep your business and personal apps separate. Not quite as enterprise-secure as Samsung’s Knox solutions, but useful for small businesses, or for parents who want a separate space on the phone for their kids.

Final thoughts

It’s difficult to really assess a smartphone’s full capabilities with a week’s experiences; and, of course, everyone’s needs are difference. In addition, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro that I worked with was the European version; the U.S. version may have differences in software. Also, I should note that, while this phone was only compatible with GSM networks, there could be a U.S. version compatible with CDMA as well.

And finally, without knowing the price, it’s hard to make a real assessment. The phone is set to be released in Great Britain for £699, which is about $920 U.S. — not all that far from the much-publicized $999 Apple iPhone X (although that iPhone X has half the storage capacity of the Mate 10 Pro). At that price, Android users (who have more range to choose from than iOS fans) may hesitate a bit. [[NOTE: As of February 5, 2018, the pre-sale price for the unlocked Mate 10 Pro at Amazon is $800, a reasonable price for this level of phone in today’s marketplace.]]

All that being said, if priced right, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro’s long battery life, excellent performance, fine display and outstanding photography could make it competitive with other high-end phones in the U.S. market.