A few months ago, Huawei passed Apple to become the second largest smartphone maker in the world, (Samsung’s number one). Yet you don’t see Huawei ads on TV in the United States, and its phones are seldom sold in any of the big carrier stores. Even when they are, they are often hidden behind a bigger brands like on the Nexus 6P. Shit, most Americans can’t even say the name of the company properly (it’s hwah-way, btw). The company isn’t a known entity in the US, but that won’t stop it from releasing new phones. Its latest flagship handset, the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro, comes complete with its own homegrown silicon that Huawei claims should make its smartphone the most intelligent. It isn’t.
With its new Kirin 970 processor, our Mate 10 Pro review unit with 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage is definitely fast, and with a body constructed out of glass on front and back and held together by a polished strip of aluminum, the phone feels quite luxurious too. But after using it every day for more than a week, I’m still struggling to figure out how the phone’s AI, machine learning and built-in neural processing unit elevate it above a Pixel 2, iPhone X or any other “smart” phone.
Part of the problem is that certain aspects of Huawei’s programming can only have a measurable impact months down the line. Huawei claims algorithms baked into the Mate 10 Pro should let you avoid the typical three to six-month post purchase slowdown. Maybe it will!
There’s also Huawei’s partnership with Microsoft to provide a custom version of the Microsoft Translator app. It should be powered, in part, by the Mate 10 Pro’s Neural Processing Unit. You take a picture of some text or simply speak into the phone, and the app spits out a translation for you likety split. But the app doesn’t always get it right, and compared to using something like Google Translate, it’s still unclear if the Mate 10 Pro’s NPU gives a real advantage.
Huawei also went the extra mile by including support for machine learning platforms such as Facebook’s Caffe 2 and Google’s Tensor Flowlite machine learning platforms, alongside their own AI framework. But that potential can only be realized after people have had time to develop apps designed to utilize the Mate 10 Pro’s NPU. Which they haven’t, so it’s just another bet on a future that may, or may not pay off.
At least all the AI and neural processing works in the camera app. The camera can identify 13 different scenes or objects including flowers, plants, beach, food, nighttime, text, cats and dogs, and then automatically adjust the camera’s settings to help you capture the best picture possible. You know it’s working, because when the phone detects a subject it knows how to enhance, a corresponding icon will pop up in the camera’s UI.
Those little tweaks can make a big difference too. In a side by side comparison between the Mate 10 Pro and the iPhone X, Huawei’s AI-powered camera added some real drama to an otherwise typical shot of a cold rainy night in NYC. The iPhone X’s photo more or less captured what I saw, but the Mate 10 Pro’s photo captured what I wanted to see. The sky in the Mate’s photo had less of the hazy redness you see in the iPhone’s pic, the various streetlights and decorations are sharper and less blown out, even the street looks wetter. Now some may say this blurs the line between accuracy and interpretation, but given the choice, I’d pick the Mate 10 Pro’s photo every time.
However, other times, like when I snapped a pic of the Empire State Building, the AI failed to recognize anything it could enhance, even though it seemed like it should. Apparently it wasn’t dark enough to classify as a nightscape, and the backdrop wasn’t right for activating the phone’s Blue Sky mode. But it’s November in New York, it’s going to look gray and dreary like this for the next four months, which means the camera’s AI is useless if it can’t adjust. To that end, Huawei says its constantly feeding more images through its machine learning software and hopes to update the its phones with new AI modes over time. But it could be slow going.
That said, even when the AI doesn’t step in an help out, the phone still has solid hardware to fall back on. It’s the first phone featuring two cameras with f/1.6 aperture lenses (the LG V30’s main cam is f/1.6, but its wide-angle camera is not), and the combo 12 megapixel RGB sensor and 20 megapixel monochrome sensor still work together so you can adjust depth of field from super shallow all the way to infinity. The results are quite good too, often keeping pace with Portrait mode shots from the iPhone X. Although as seen in the NYC shots above, photos from the Mate 10 Pro tend to come out slightly underexposed compared to pics from Apple’s $1,000 phone.
So if the Mate 10 Pro’s AI smarts, outside of photography, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, what is it like as a “normal” smartphone? Quite nice! The big 5.9-inch 18:9 OLED screen is vibrant and bordered on top and bottom by some deliciously thin bezels. There’s also a fingerprint sensor around back, and IP67 water-resistance to make sure the phone can survive a quick dip or two. And it lasted 11 hours and 13 minutes on our battery rundown test, which is practically the same as the Pixel 2 XL (11:17), and noticeably better than the Galaxy Note 8 (10:21) and iPhone X (9:56).
Huawei has even included a handful of nifty tricks, like the Mate 10 Pro’s ability to function as a (Android-based) desktop PC just by hooking it up to an external display using a USB-C or USB-C to DisplayPort cable. From there, all you have to do is pair a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and off you go. There’s even a secret mode that lets you sign into different accounts on your phone depending on which finger you use to unlock it.
There’s still one big bummer. Want a headphone jack? Sorry, that’s only available on the standard Mate 10, which by the way also has a higher resolution display. That’s crap. The Pro should have everything the base model has and more. Let people who want to save money figure out what kind of compromises they are willing to make.
Which brings us to price. Huawei says this phone is definitely coming to the US, but hasn’t announced anything official yet. Based on the timeline for last year’s Mate 9, I’m expecting Huawei to make a splash with a US debut at CES 2018 in early January. And if it arrives costing around $800 like its Euro pricing would imply, we’re looking at a pretty nice alternative to other 6-inch phones like the LG V30, Pixel 2 XL or even the Galaxy Note 8. But any more and Huawei is really pushing it, because until the phone gets smarter, the AI hasn’t demonstrated a ton of value.
- Huawei is leaning heavily into machine learning and AI, but it’s hard to see exactly how those developments set the Mate 10 apart from other phones.
- Fantastic battery life and a nice build, but there’s no headphone jack.
- When it works, the camera’s AI-powered auto mode is the best example of AI making the phone better.
- Official U.S. price and availability still to be determined
- Only works on GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile
EMUI 8 running Android 8 • Kirin 970 CPU • 4GB RAM • 64GB storage • microSD card slot • 18:9 6-inch 2160 x 1080 OLED display • 12-MP RGB/20-MP monochrome rear camera with f/1.6 aperture • 8-MP f/2.0 front cam • 5.9 x 3.06 x 0.32 inches • 6.56 ounces • colors: brown, black, champagne
AI camera modes: blue sky, flower, plant, beach, sunrise/sunset, performance, food, text, nightscape snow, cat, dog, portrait.