When it launched the Ascend P6, the world’s slimmest smartphone, last year, it was clear Huawei was wanting to step up its game and enter the premiere league of smartphone. HTC made the same move several years ago to gear success, and last year it was the Chinese company’s turn. The P6 may not have been the blockbuster success Huawei was hoping for, but the company is making progress - and now with the new Ascend P7, it hopes to pose a genuine (and affordable) threat to the three biggest Android players.
Almost identical to last year’s P6, the Ascend P7 is a seriously slim smartphone, noticeably undercutting its rivals - in fact, even the iPhone 5s is larger than the 6.5mm Huawei. Each of the four smartphone has its own distinctive style, but if I was to slot them into categories I would team the Huawei with the Samsung and the HTC with the Sony. The former duo ops for a high gloss finish, giving them a sleek look and with minimal weight, while the latter two bring a more premium design to the party, the HTC making use of brushed aluminium and the Sony going for the same metal and glass.
To its credit, Huawei’s given the Ascend P7 an aluminium chassis, where Samsung’s flagship is an all-plastic affair, save for the glass screen. The Ascend P7’s glass front and back, squared finish and aluminium chassis reminds me of the iPhone 4 - or a smaller version of the Sony Xperia Z1 and Z2. Where the Huawei wins praise is with its screen bezels. At just 3mm they mean the phone stays remarkably small despite its 5-inch display. When announcing the P7, Huawei was keen to point out how its screen-to-phone ratio was larger than any of its rivals, and in my book the more screen you can cram into the phone - while keeping its footprint small - the better.
Conversely, the Sony stands out for being a little too chunky. There’s a lot of space above and below the screen, which itself is slightly larger than the other three, and the squared design may be an engineer’s dream, it isn’t ergonomic. Only those with the largest of hands will find the Z2 comfortable to use one-handed. The HTC’s curved back helps to make things more comfortable, but that metal back can be super-slippery against cold hands. Samsung may lose design points for the plastic, elastoplast-looking rear of the S5, but it’s the comfiest of the three and feels more secure in the hand.
Although not quite having the premium feel of the HTC, the Huawei still feels very comfortable in the hand. It’s small enough to use one-handed and its lack of weight - just 124g - makes it a joy to hold and use.
The Ascend P7 has a 5-inch Full HD screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1080. This is the same resolution as all three of its rivals, while the Samsung and Sony are a barely-noticeable 0.1in and 0.2in larger respectively. Colours look very good - if slightly over saturated, although the phone’s Emotion UI could be to blame here - and the backlight can cope with being used outside on a sunny day. An almost imperceptible gap between the glass front and the display panel itself is very welcome and helps to make the phone feel like it belongs to be included with such stiff competition.
Samsung has struggled in recent years to produce a screen that looks natural, as previous generations of Galaxy handset have had their saturation turned up way too high, making colours look artificial. Thankfully this isn’t the case with the S5, which has one of the best smartphone screens I’ve ever seen. It is by far the brightest of this group and with the tiniest of gaps between the glass font and the display itself, it feels like you’re dipping your finger into the TouchWiz user interface and pushing the pixels around. Beautiful.
The HTC comes a close second, providing a superb display that is accurate and bright, but one which doesn’t quite pop in the same way the Samsung does. Sony has improved the Z2’s Triluminous display from last year’s Z1, boosting brightness and adding X Reality to improve colours when watching video and viewing photos. This can make colours appear artificial, but is easily turned off in there settings app.
However, Sony’s biggest downfall with the Z2’s screen is glare. That extra space around the screen is a nightmare in natural light, producing far more reflections than the other three phones here. Although improved from the Z1, the Z2’s backlight can’t overcome this - go outside on a sunny day and you’ll have the most trouble with the Sony, it pains me to say.
No longer merely useful for capturing the occasional snap, the smartphone camera has become a battlefield all of its own in 2014. First HTC rocked the boat with the One (M8)’s Duo rear camera, which features a depth sensor to help create shallow depth of field images where either the background or foreground can be blurred after the photo is taken. Despite this trickery, the M8 makes do with the same 4-megapixel Ultrapixel sensor debuted by last year’s One (M7).
Sony and Samsung both offer the blurred-background effect, but do so with software instead of a depth sensor. The results are less impressive as a result, but with 20.7 and 16 megapixels respectively, the Z2 and Galaxy S5 can take more detailed photos, and in my experience I found the Samsung to produce the best quality images. Despite offering the most pixels, Sony’s photography software tends to make photos look too artificial, with excess grain and noise levels.
Huawei has fitted the Ascend P7 with a 13-megapixel rear camera, joined by an industry-leading 8-mp snapper on the front - ideal for capturing the perfect selfie. In fact Huawei spent much of the P7’s launch event talking about selfies, plus the phone’s ability to take group selfies (which the company calls, rather painfully groufies) and panoramic selfies, where you move the from left and right while snapping yourself to create a wider, more landscape-orientated image.
Because the camera plays such a vital role in the modern smartphone, we’ll be publishing a group test dedicated to the snappers of these four phones soon.
The Sony, HTC and Samsung are all powered by Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at more than 2GHz, while the Huawei opts for a 1.8GHz quad-core chip from HiSilicon.
Sony has given the Z2 3GB of RAM, while the three others make do with 2GB; as for storage, all four come with 16GB as standard and they can all be upgraded with a microSD card. Interestingly for the Huawei, it’s microSD card slot can instead by used for a second SIM card, should you need a second SIM while abroad, for example. It’s a clever bit of design which adds flexibility and helps to lower manufacturing costs, as there is no need to make a separate dual-SUM model for specific markets.
All four phones offer very similar levels of performance - HD video streaming is shrugged off with ease, along with intensive 3D gaming. We’ll be putting the Huawei through its paces over the next few days, so keep your eyes peeled for our full review of the P7 soon.
Price is where the Huawei shines most brightly. It will cost €449 SIM-free when it goes on sake on 7 June, which we expect to translate to roughly £450 here in the UK. This compares favourably to the other three, which all cost around £530.
Some would argue the Huawei shouldn’t be included with the other three phones - perhaps because it lacks their brand loyalty, or because the lower price suggests it shouldn’t be as good. I’m partly inclined to agree with these points - Huawei has a long way to go before it is recognised in the same way Samsung and Sony are, but its price simply can’t be ignored. If you can get over the less familiar (and difficult to pronounce) name, then the Ascend P7 offers a lot of bang for your buck.
The P7’s slim size and low weight make it the most comfortable of the four to hold - in fact, it makes me realise I would have a lot more love for the Sony if it was the same size as the Huawei.
While it offers some questionable features - namely, a heart rate monitor - you simply can’t ignore the Galaxy S5. It may not have the gorgeous looks and premium feel of the HTC, but it’s hardly ugly. The S5 is a powerhouse of a phone with the best screen of the four and a great camera too.
For me the HTC One (M8) is the best phone here - and the best phone on sale today - followed by the Samsung, then the Sony. The Ascend P7, as much as Huawei would like it to be, simply doesn't belong in the same league as the other three. But that shouldn’t be read as a criticism, because it’s actually one of the best phones in its class.