Huawei Ascend P7 Review: Samsung, Sony & HTC Better Watch Out
Huawei's aiming to tick all the premium flagship boxes with the Ascend P7 - has it succeeded?
Huawei's gradually gaining traction in the Western smartphone market, so how does its latest flagship offering stack up? Is this a viable alternative to Samsung, Sony and HTC?
My initial impression of the Ascend P7 hasn’t really changed much during my entire time with the device, I still think it’s a stunningly elegant and stylish smartphone with a very solid build quality. And, although it clearly takes inspiration from rival handsets such as Sony, it’s actually executed with more panache.
The overall theme is very similar to Sony’s Xperia Z range, with an aluminium bezel around the outer edge and glass panels on both front and back. The weird thing is, I used to think Sony’s implementation looked appealing svelte, but alongside the Huawei Ascend P7 it looks positively clumsy by comparison. The Ascend P7’s aluminium edging is razor thin and tightly hugs the rest of the bodywork, more so than does Sony’s metalwork, but it also sports an attractive brushed finish the Xperia models lack.
A neat touch – though perhaps not to everyone’s tastes – is the way the metal surround covers both side edges and the top, but the bottom is made from polycarbonate and curves round from front to back, while the other edges are flat. I rather like this and think it’s very unique, giving the phone some character.
On the rear of the device, the back panel is quite minimalist, which goes well with the rest of the design. However, Huawei has added some subtle visual interest here – it’s made from seven layers of material and while the black version might simply look black at a glance, when it catches the light just right you can see there’s colour and texture lurking below the glass with a shimmery blue mesh design.
As good as all this looks, it's still worth pointing out that the Ascend P7's glass panel design is the same double-edged sword we've seen from Sony. It has the same problem of looking fantastic straight out of the box, but in actual use the fingerprints and smears show up quickly on both front and back, reducing all that elegance substantially.
The size, weight and balance of the phone makes it very easy to handle and operate – I can only think of one other high-end phone I’ve handled which feels as lightweight as this while retaining a solid, premium finish, and that’s Apple’s iPhone 5/5S. No doubt the use of magnesium has helped reduce weight and keep things robust. The Ascend P7 feels extremely well built in the hand and there’s no give or sponginess in any part of the bodywork.
Ports, buttons and controls are also well-implemented and handled rather stylishly. They’re mostly clustered along the right-hand side, but the control keys are easily operated with either hand. The same metal is used so that these components blend in with the surrounding bodywork and they have a satisfying level of travel and feedback. Huawei has recessed a round power key into the metal edging while the volume rocker’s bar shape with rounded ends is mimicked by the end-to-end card slots on the other side of the power key. It’s all very neat.
Lastly on the subject of design and build, the Ascend P7 does seem quite sturdy – I dropped the handset a few times and expected it to take damage, but it has remained remarkably intact.
The screen impressed me initially and, to be fair, it is still a sound offering. It’s a 5-inch, 1080p IPS LCD with a pixel density at 440 pixels-per-inch (ppi). Sharpness is great, and colour and brightness are also very good, but I must say I used the P7 alongside HTC’s One Mini 2 and its SLCD2 display recently, and I noticed white tones on the Huawei are not quite as bright and pure, with a slightly bluish tint. Viewing angles are reasonable, but not great, and in direct light things are less impressive.
It’s a trade-off, however, as the Ascend appeared to produce slightly richer colour saturation for things like app icons. The white balance issue is not enough to hamper the experience by any means as the overall picture quality is top notch, but if you’re looking for the very best display on the market this is not it – but it is still a very good one. Bear in mind the SLCD2 onboard the One Mini 2 is not even the best HTC has to offer, the flagship One M8 uses SLCD3 and there are many devices with IPS+ LCD which can outperform Huawei’s choice of regular IPS tech.
Regardless, I still found using the Ascend P7 on a daily basis a pleasant experience and maintain that the screen offers good visual quality.
Hardware, Connectivity & Storage
Huawei offers typical high-end connectivity with 4G LTE, dual-band Wi-Fi (Hotspot and Direct), DLNA, Bluetooth, NFC, microUSB, GPS and an FM Radio. There’s no MHL or HDMI TV-Out, however, which is a bit of a shame.
The handset takes a MicroSIM and this sits next to the microSD port, with support for cards up to 64GB, while onboard space is 16GB, which may prove a bit slim for some users. There’s a Dolby Digital Plus speaker on the rear panel which offers fairly good sound quality. At higher volumes it doesn’t distort and the range is reasonable, however, being a single rear-facing speaker it’s perhaps not as punchy as it could be and is easily covered up by accident.
Software & UI
The Ascend P7 runs Android 4.4 KitKat with Huawei’s custom “Emotion” UI 2.3 on top. The interface is somewhat idiosyncratic, with a definite Android flavour overall, but a few odd nods here and there to rival systems such as Apple’s IOS 7. There’s a hefty dollop of customisation on offer, meaning you can tailor things to an extent.
The Homescreen is fairly standard Android fare, with KitKat’s transparent navigation and notification bars, and white icons. Drag the notification panel down though and you’ll see it’s been given a semi-transparent white treatment with blue Quick Settings icons – this menu is expandable and customisable too. The full settings menu follows a similar theme, though with more detailed icons.
One thing which is really weird if you’re already used to Android is the absence of a conventional app drawer. Instead, by default, you can find all your apps on a dedicated home page with a swipe to the right – like iOS. You can move this page around in terms of where it sits relative to other homescreens, and thankfully you can’t delete it.
A hold press on the homescreen gives you plenty of customisation options – you can change the screen transition animation, select wallpapers for the lockscreen and homescreen, add widgets, and add, re-order or delete homescreens. A dedicated “Themes” app allows you to configure an overall visual theme for the phone’s interface – there are nine to choose from, but by selecting “Customise” you can mix and match components from each, including the lock screen, homescreen, app icon style and font style. Again, some of these seem unashamedly iOS 7 inspired, while some are more Android-like. It seems Huawei wanted to cater to everyone here, and why not indeed?
Other useful things include a "Simple Home" toggle, which changes over to a simplified tile-based interface. I reckon this has been done with elderly relatives or users with disabilities in mind and it's a decent addition. The multitasking menu will also tell you how much memory is available, how much is being used and how much has been "saved" when you close apps. Lastly, there's a built-in file manager, which is always a nice touch.
I found the camera to be fairly impressive, it offers plenty of detail, good colour reproduction and great dynamic range. The phone uses a 13-megapixel back-illuminated sensor (BSI) with an f/2.0 aperture, LED flash and 1080p video. Meanwhile the front-facing secondary is rated at 8-megapixels, meaning it’s better than your average front-facer.
Huawei has specifically designed this with selfies in mind, as per the current trend, and it features a preview window situated next to the front-facing lens – this ensures you’re looking straight at the camera when you capture. Clever.
Another neat trick is the quick capture which allows you to fire the primary camera simply by double tapping the volume down key, even if the phone is asleep. This can capture in as quick a time as 1.3 seconds, so the idea is that if something happens suddenly you don’t have to fumble around with the phone to grab the image.
The battery cell is a non-removable 2,500mAh unit, a bit lower on the scale than typical 2,600-3,000+mAh we see on most flagships these days. Battery performance was therefore not quite as good as many competing devices, but still not too far behind. I found consistently that rather than lasting a whole day and into the evening (or even to the following morning), with my typical usage patterns (which are admittedly not the most demanding), the Huawei Ascend P7 would often need to go on charge as soon as I got home from the office. Likewise, our video test – running all of Django Unchained (2.45 hours) on full brightness, with Wi-Fi and mobile data turned on – left the phone with 50% battery when the credits rolled, a little less than many other flagships, but not too much. You can probably expect 5 hours 30 minutes of continuous video playback from full charge.
As usual, gaming is so demanding that it’ll see the battery rapidly diminish during a play session. Don’t expect more than about 1 hour 40 minutes from a full charge with more intensive titles such as N.O.V.A 3, but if you spread this out over a whole day, or play less intensive titles, such as puzzle games, it probably won’t be a problem.
Processor & Performance
Huawei’s opted for a HiSilicon Kirin 910T quad-core processor based on ARM’s Cortex-A9 architecture. It’s clocked at 1.8GHz, has 2GB of RAM and uses a Mali-450MP4 GPU. This processor might not be what we’re used to in the current trend for Qualcomm Snapdragon hardware, but it’s still capable enough of delivering decent performance. On the whole the experience is quite zippy enough navigating Android KitKat, though I did notice some intensive multitasking and gaming, while not exactly slow, lacked the smooth consistency of higher end chips.
The overall performance is what really counts though, and it’s very fluid with enjoyable gaming.
In my opinion this is a really solid offering from Huawei, the Ascend P7’s exterior design is, quite simply, a work of art, and schools much of the competition in how to make a phone with a premium look and feel. On top of that, Huawei has managed to put together a well-optimised combination of Android 4.4 KitKat with a custom UI and a capable processor. It is not the fastest piece of kit on the market, but in most situations it should please all but the most hardcore power users. The UI also offers something with enough Android flavour, while also giving the user a LOT of customisation options right out of the box – something not enough phone makers seem to acknowledge is quite a desirable thing to have. You really can make this phone your own.
Huawei’s approach to the camera is also noteworthy. With titans on the market such as Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Nokia’s Lumia 1020, it seems to go without saying in most handset reviews with 16MP sensors or lower that they are “not the best on the market”. But despite this glaringly obvious fact the camera on the Ascend P7 is still impressive. Picture quality is high in a variety of conditions and the handset has a couple of nifty tricks to make image capture in certain situations easier and more effective , demonstrating intelligent thinking about real-use scenarios rather than superfluous bells and whistles no-one will use.
The downsides feel like relatively minor gripes – 16GB of onboard storage seems smaller than it used to be these days, with increasing file sizes, but this isn’t unique to Huawei as many manufacturers offer 16GB only even on flagships. It also has microSD, which makes up for things anyway. The smaller battery size means it doesn’t keep up to quite the same pace as other flagships but it’s so close as to be almost inconsequential.
A better position for the speaker would have made a difference to the experience and, again, the display is not best in class, though it is still a nice setup for the most part.
Huawei is yet to reveal a UK RRP, so far we have a price in euros of €449, which is about £365. That figure isn’t far off the launch price of the Huawei P6, so seems about right. Naturally, we’ll update this review when we have an official figure, but for now, assuming that is somewhere in the right ballpark it seems like a pretty good deal for the money. This handset offers a premium exterior and a rewarding Android experience with a great camera – for less than £400 that’s not to be sneezed at.
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