Huawei may not be the hottest name on the block - or the most pronouncable - but the Ascend P7 looks set to propel the Chinese company into the Western spotlight, thanks to its record-breaking thinness, 4G, Full-HD screen and host of camera features.
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,5/13/2014 3:08:20 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Great design and feels well-made.
Full-HD screen looks gorgeous.
4G a much-needed upgrade from last year's P6.
Best front-facing camera on the market.
Squared design won't appeal to everyone.
Not quite as powerful as rivals from HTC, Sony and Samsung.
Battery life still a concern, despite improvements.
By Alistair Charlton, Devices Editor
An upgrade on last year’s P6, the Huawei Ascend P7 is a high-end Android smartphone with a 5-inch, full HD display, a powerful quad-core processor, Huawei’s highly customisable Emotion user interface, and a pair of cameras designed to shoot the perfect selfie.
At €449 SIM-free, the P7 will be around €100 / £100 cheaper than rivals from HTC, Samsung and Sony - but while the lower price and unfamiliar name may see some relegate the P7 to the second half of the smartphone league table, Huawei believes it has what it takes to rival the very best in the business.
At just 6.5mm, the Huawei Ascend P7 is the thinnest 4G smartphone on the market. It undercuts the iPhone 5s by 1.1mm and the Samsung Galaxy S5 by 1.6mm - and while that may not sound like much, you notice how skinny the P7 is the moment you pick it up.
Read More - Samsung Galaxy S5 Review
Add this to a weight of 124g - much less than the 145g Galaxy S5 - and you quickly realise the huge effort Huawei has put into making the handset so compact.
Compact is the name of the game here - during the P7’s launch event in Paris, Huawei was keen to highlight its screen-to-footprint ratio, which it claims to be better than many of its rivals - and it shows. Holding the Ascend P7 is a joyous experience; the screen bezels are just 3mm thick, and while the squared designed didn’t feel comfortable on the larger Sony Xperia Z2, it works with the Huawei.
Measuring five inches means the top corners of the screen are still a stretch when using the phone one-handed, but the lack of height and thickness make the P7 even easier to hold and use than the curved HTC One (M8).
Read More - Sony Xperia Z2 Review
Like a Sony Z2 photocopied at 85%, the Ascend P7 uses a metal chassis with Gorilla Glass 3 on its front and back. That chassis is broken into three metal strips which run up the sides and across the top of the phone, while the bottom edge is a single piece of rounded plastic. The left edge is completely blank, while the right houses a volume rocker, Sony-esque power button, and two micro SIM card trays - one of which can also take microSD cards of up to 64GB.
Read More - HTC One (M8) Review
My white review unit has a faint pattern on its back panel, circling and centred on the chrome Huawei logo. It’s a classy look, but as with the glass-covered Sony Z2, the P7 likes to slip and slide its way off almost any uneven surface. Sofa arms and my leather wallet were no match for the Huawei, which would eventually slide off - be careful where you leave it.
Aside from its habit of sliding off the arms of my sofa, the Huawei Ascend P7 is a gorgeous smartphone with a deeply impressive build quality and a premium feel - all adding up to create the world’s thinnest 4G handset.
The P7 has a full-HD display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and a pixel density of 445 per inch - making it one of the sharpest smartphone screens on the market and a clear improvement from last year’s P6.
Read More - Huawei Ascend P7 vs Ascend P6: Should I upgrade?
Five inches has quickly gone from an oddity to the norm when it comes to smartphones, and while personally I don’t like screens that are any larger than this, the Huawei’s super slim bezels do a great job of disguising the big screen and making it feel like less of a handful.
As for quality, the P7’s display is excellent. Individual pixels are impossible to spot with the naked eye, making text beautifully rounded, images crisp, and icons pin-sharp. Colours are accurate and bold without being too artificial, while the backlight is both evenly distributed and strong enough to overcome the glare of a sunny day. It’s not as bright as the Galaxy S5, but does a better job at defeating glare than the reflection-riddled Sony Z2.
Huawei has clearly worked hard to make the P7’s screen the best it can be, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the tiny, almost unperceivable gap between the glass and the display panel itself. Just as with a Galaxy S5, swiping across the Huawei’s screen feels like you’re dipping your fingers into the user interface and pushing the pixels around.
Only when compared side-by-side with an HTC One (M8) does the Huawei look slightly too warm, but this can be adjusted in the settings app. It’s a great screen and goes a long way towards justifying Huawei’s claims that it can mix it up with smartphone royalty.
Honed, refined, flattened and generally updated from last year, Huawei’s Emotion UI makes a return on the Ascend P7. Customisation is King here, and out of the box the P7 comes with nine different themes, each offering a different wallpaper, lock screen and set of application icons.
Still recognisably Android, Emotion UI’s default theme, called Balance, adds a soft, friendly and pastel-coloured finish to the entire operating system. It looks smart, but some users might find its appearance a little childish compared to the competition.
Huawei has ditched Android’s application launcher, instead putting all apps on the phone’s home screens. Nine such screens can be created and app icons can be grouped into folders however you like.
Away from the visual changes, Huawei has made a number of tweaks to make its build of Android 4.4 KitKat unique. As with other high-end handsets, the P7 has an ultra battery-saving mode which turns the home screen to black and white, switches off multitasking, Wi-Fi and mobile network, and limits the user interface to give access only to the phone dialer, text messaging app, and contacts. According to the phone’s own estimates, this will almost double the battery life.
Gimmicks are thankfully thin on the ground, but those included by Huawei are certainly...eye catching. First is an app called Mirror, which uses the front camera to act as a vanity mirror, complete with garish pink frame. The second is Magnifier, which uses the rear camera to act as a magnifying glass.
Most of Huawei’s changes to Android are found in the camera application, which can be launched and used in just 1.2 seconds, with a double-press of the volume down button. I found this feature to be surprisingly useful and a very reliable way of capturing photos at a moment’s notice. Huawei shouldn’t feel the need to state how long each photo took to capture using this shortcut, called Ultra snapshot, but I can live with that.
Open the main camera app and Huawei has included all of the features smartphone users have come to expect - there’s HDR (high dynamic range), panorama, and a range of filters. In addition, there’s ‘Beauty Mode’, which automatically detects faces and attempts to make them better looking by softening the focus - in testing I found it to do little more than make my selfies look like they were taken on the smokey set of a 1980s music video.
After photos are taken, it's possible to adjust skin texture and complexion, make your face thinner, nose more slender, teeth whiter, and eyes larger. The edits all work reasonably well, but apply too many and your results will soon start to look like bug-eyed aliens.
Another photography feature is panoramic mode, which makes taking group photos with the 8-mp front camera easier by automatically snapping three photos and stitching them together. Huawei suggests this can be used to take group selfies, or - brace yourself - a groufie. Huawei’s word, not mine.
Switch to the rear camera and you’ll find a 13-megapixel sensor sourced from Sony and capable of taking some pretty good shots with balanced exposure and natural colours.
Coming into this review I was concerned that the P7 would do little more than keep its head above water, especially after Huawei so openly pitted itself against Apple and Samsung at the phone’s launch event.
So far the phone has done remarkably well - but will it be able to keep its cool when its performance is tested?
A glance at the P7’s spec sheet reveals a number of shortcomings compared to its Sony, HTC and Samsung rivals. Its quad-core processor, clocked at 1.8GHz and produced by Huawei-owned HiSilicon, is a little slower than the other three, while 2GB of RAM falls short of the 3GB offered by the Sony Z2.
A Geekbench 3 score of 1805 puts the Huawei significantly behind its rivals. The HTC One (M8) came out as the most powerful, posting a score of 2797, while the Sony came second with 2632, and third place was the Samsung, scoring 2349.
But there’s much more to smartphone performance than raw numbers, and in the real world the gap between the Huawei and the competition is closer than you’d think. In everyday use, the P7 offers near-identical performance to the HTC One (M8), with most applications openly equally quickly and being just as responsive. Only occasionally would the Huawei fall behind, stumbling slightly when asked to scroll through masses of tweets quickly, or rapidly switch between open apps.
That said, intensive games like Real Racing 3 play smoothly and Huawei’s work to improve cooling with the P7 appear to have paid off. Where the P6 would get hot under heavy load, the P7 stays merely warm - in turn, this helps with battery life, another achilles heel of the P6 which has been addressed with the new model.
While it’s true that the P7 doesn’t get as hot as its predecessor, the battery still drains quicker than I’d have liked. Watching a half-hour TV episode on Netflix over Wi-Fi saw the battery fall some 12%, meaning the phone would die in just four hours of viewing. For context, a Sony Z2 fell 6% in the same test.
The Ascend P7 is an attractive phone that feels well made and is incredibly thin and light. The operating system modifications made by Huawei won’t be for everyone, and the selfie gimmicks largely feel like a waste of time - but brush those minor issues aside and the P7 is a very good handset, considering at €449 (an expected £400) it will be around £100 cheaper than other flagships.
But ultimately Huawei doesn’t have the brand recognition to be a threat to Samsung, HTC, LG or Sony. Its efforts to expand beyond cheap, own-brand phones and towards flagships like the P6 and P7 should be greatly admired and praised, but not being a household name (or even a particularly easy one to pronounce) will hurt Huawei’s dreams of taking on the Android premiere league.