Well, what do we have here? Okay, let's scrap the faux surprise. The recently confirmed Ascend P6 has landed, and Huawei hopes it will stir interest in the hearts of mobile users. Debuting across Europe, China and Australia in late June / early August with a €449 ($600) price tag, it's asking you to take it seriously, and that's what we'll do.
The mobile market is a fickle place, so it doesn't matter where you are right now; it's all about where you're going. Huawei? Well, it's definitely got its sights set on an upward trajectory. The Ascend P6 is the latest rung on the ladder, intended to elevate the company to mobile greatness. But, with competition stiffer than ever, can it really call a device with a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, 720p display and 8-megapixel camera a flagship? (For its P-series at least?) Huawei's certainly giving it a try, and it's hoping that beauty, not brawn, will win the day.
A great step forward for Huawei in terms of product design, but just lacking on some performance on software details. Improve these, and it's a potentially great phone.
Remember the Ascend Mate? If you do, then a lot of the following specifications will sound pretty familiar (apart from that gargantuan screen size, of course). We're dealing with the same 1.5GHz K3V2 home-brew silicon, the same 8-megapixel primary camera, the same 2GB of RAM, the same 8GB of internal storage and, yup, the same 1,280 x 720 display resolution (the Mate, as you may have guessed, uses LCD as well). As for radios, there's no LTE; let's just get that out of the way now. If you're okay with that, though, then the rest is as you'd hope -- Bluetooth (3.0), GPS, GLONASS, 802.11b/g/n, etc.
The P6 is positively svelte by comparison to the Mate, though, weighing just four ounces, and measuring 5.2 x 2.57 x 0.24 inches (132.6 x 65.5 x 6.18mm), compared to the Mate's 6.5 x 3.4 x 0.4 inches of Android heft. That size difference is important; crammed into that more diminutive form, it not only offers a greater ppi (312), but also turns an otherwise middle-spec phablet into a much more mass-market device. The specifications are still fairly modest, but the hardware they come in -- plus a few other notable inclusions -- means that this is a completely different proposition than the Mate altogether.
When put next to Samsung's Galaxy S 4, for example, it makes the Korean flagship look and feel shamefully thrown together.
There's a black brushed-metal finish on the rear (there are white and pink versions also) with drilled speaker holes at the bottom, and a brushed-metal band around the edges of the device. The Ascend P6 instantly feels good, solid and, dare we say it, delightful. The chamfered edges that lead into the Gorilla Glass display prove that not only can Huawei do detail, it can also do it very well. Next to Samsung's Galaxy S 4, for example, it makes the Korean flagship look and feel shamefully thrown together. Even the dapper HTC One gets a good run for its money in terms of style, fit and finish. Yes, it's fair to say that Huawei has proven that a well-built phone isn't as much a matter of means as it is intention.
It's not all solid, smooth lines. That metal band is broken up by the occasional port. The micro-USB connection sits at the top, just off-center. The right-hand side houses the power / standby button and volume rocker, plus microSD and micro-SIM card trays. If there was a small negative, it's that these buttons do jiggle slightly in place. Not terribly so, but enough to indicate there's room for a tighter fit. The back cover isn't removable -- hence the trays -- but Huawei has done a good job at keeping them flush with the edges. One related design note -- of mixed success -- is the 3.5mm headphone jack located at the bottom of the left-hand side. You'd be forgiven for missing it, first of all, as it's tightly plugged up. In fact, at first glance, the small circular protrusion looks like an unusual design feature, like a rivet added on at the end to conceal a functional cavity. It's only when you inspect it a little further that you sense something else is going on.
We tinkered around with this curiosity for a few moments, before wondering if the Ascend P6 perhaps came with a stylus, as this small silver disc could have easily been the top end of one. But a little fingernail pulling and gentle wriggling actually revealed the truth: it's a small, concealed pin to help eject the SIM and memory card trays. Genius. Weird genius. The positive being that you never need to worry about whether you have a paperclip or similar nearby, should you wish to remove your SIM (not that paperclips usually work that well). The negative, however, is that every time you want to use your headphones, you have to remove -- and potentially lose -- the pin. In our experience, getting the thing out wasn't exactly a smooth process either. Still, it's a nice idea, and the sort of ingenuity we're loathe to discourage.
If you've liked what you've heard so far, then be sure to add a memory card to your shopping list, like, now.
One thing we would encourage? More internal storage. We're sorry guys, but 8GB really isn't enough these days, especially when barely any of that (less than 4GB) is accessible. Yes, there is the option to expand (by a further 32GB), but that's more a common courtesy rather than a reasonable solution. So, if you've liked what you've heard so far, then be sure to add a memory card to your shopping list, like, now. The memory issue is compounded by the -- albeit pleasantly surprising -- inclusion of a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. Those self-portraits are about to get a serious upgrade, which is all the more reason to get your storage set from the get-go. We'll cover the cameras (including the 8-megapixel main shooter) in more detail later.
Rounding out the hardware side of things are a few significant omissions. First, there's no LTE. It's simply not happening. So if that's a dealbreaker, stop reading now. If it's not -- and there's category 14 HSPA+ (up to 21 Mbps) to keep things moving -- then you'll likely be expecting some returns elsewhere -- such as in the longevity of the non-removable 2,000mAh battery. Again, more on that later. If you got this far and were wondering about NFC, then suffice to say, it's not here either, but you're okay with DLNA sharing and Dolby Digital audio instead, right?
At 4.7 inches across, with a resolution of 1,280 x 720, the Ascend P6 might not be in the (increasingly less) exclusive 1080p club, but the 720p "in-cell" LCD does a good enough job that you likely won't mind. Compared to some of the larger flagships (heck, for some, 4.7 inches is almost "mini"), the P6's display might seem average -- but it really does feel perfectly sized. You can reach your way across it comfortably, and thanks to a minimal bezel, the phone should sit snugly in most hands. We did find that the touchscreen was occasionally less responsive to our pokes and gestures from time to time. Pinching out from the home screen to bring up the zoomed-out view sometimes took two or three attempts to register. Likewise we sometimes found ourselves prodding more than once to get it to realize that we were trying to open an app. There is a "gloves" mode, which increases sensitivity, and we noticed the problem occurred less frequently when this was activated, so you may prefer to keep this switched on.
We're inclined to give the Ascend a solid pass in the display department.
When you're not thumbing at it, the Ascend's LCD looks bright and crisp, with excellent viewing angles. The screen is dimmer when gazed at from anything other than straight on, and you'll definitely want to keep the brightness set to no less than 50 percent for outdoor viewing. Do that and colors will remain solid and blacks dark, making photo and video viewing on the device a pleasant experience. Also, we noticed that the screen displayed a pleasing resilience to fingerprints -- definitely a plus point.
We already mentioned the 312-ppi pixel density, which is by no means terrible despite an increasing number of phones cresting over into the 400s. If you really want to be picky, you can spot a little bit of pixelation on rendered text in websites, but you have to bring the phone a lot closer to your face than is reasonable. Likewise, with no visible hues or tones, we're inclined to give the Ascend P6 a solid pass in the display department.
Huawei's invested more than just developer dollars on its Emotion UI, so it's no surprise that it's sticking to that, ahem, theme here. In fact, it's version 1.5 of the custom interface that you'll be dealing with, keeping the stock Android Jelly Bean (4.2.2) out of sight. Regional versions of the final production software may vary, but we're giving you some impressions based on the version we got to spend time with. If you've ever used Emotion UI, or at the very least, read about it, then you'll largely know what to expect. If you've not had the pleasure, then how about a brief refresher?
As Android skins go, Emotion UI is a largely inoffensive offering. Much like TouchWiz, and Sense, it mainly manifests itself by rearranging the home screen slightly, and offering up proprietary widgets. Depending on your preference, this can be considered either a positive or a negative. In our experience, the parts we liked were similar to what we found useful in other skins such as the aforementioned TouchWiz -- quick access to switches and toggles alongside the notifications up top. The options you see here are extensive (such as screen sharing) and also customizable. Likewise, quick access to a profile selector will be a boon to those who hop between meetings and public transport.
By default Emotion UI pushes its "Me" widget on you, which is the usual gathering of favorite contacts, images, videos and weather and date widgets. Basically, all the usual suspects that manufacturers are sure we're most in need of direct access to. You're not stuck with this, of course, and not only can you customize (and remove) the widget entirely, Emotion UI also lets you easily set another screen as your default destination. One thing that remains absent, however, is the app tray. So, if you appreciated the ability to keep your essentials on the top layer, with everything else hidden away, you're fresh out of luck with Emotion UI. You can exert some control, though, by stuffing less-used apps into folders, and tucking them away on home screens out of view -- with the ability to create up to nine, which should just about suffice.
Let's hope that some of those other themes offer more variety, and something a little more modern
The skin extends to the main settings menus, theming them slightly differently to Android's stock Holo look and feel. Oh, and if you don't like it? No problem: Huawei will have an extensive number of choices available (at least 100, last we heard) when the phone actually launches. The default themes we saw on our review device, however, all had a few things in common. First, and this may seem like a small detail, but the app icons are all rounded squares, regardless of what the original app icon intended. An example? WhatsApp's green speech bubble suddenly gets an opaque rounded square behind it. The result is something that looks like an attempt at iOS; an important distinction from actually looking like iOS. Let's hope that some of those other themes offer more variety, and something a little more modern. After all, even Apple thinks iOS 6 icons need an update.
There are a few other quirks in Emotion UI that make themselves apparent. To start, despite running Android 4.2.2, there's no gesture keyboard, which will be a major loss if you've become reliant on that. The good news, of course, is that you can go ahead and download it from the Play store for free, but it's an unusual omission nonetheless. Another odd, but not entirely unwelcome addition is a battery-level indicator in the notification bar that also displays a numerical percentage. This extra info is undoubtedly useful, but we also found ourselves becoming more pre-occupied with remaining battery life than ever before. One minute, it's at 97 percent. Then you play a few rounds of a game, and what's that, now it's 92 percent? Definitely not a feature for those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Huawei's added a few other features that again will likely split opinions. By default, a folder of "management" apps has been added that includes such useful-sounding options as being able to determine which apps can and cannot send push messages. It will also alert you each time an app sends out such a message for the first time, asking you to OK it. Definitely good for the security-conscious, but much like Windows' User Account Control, you can soon find yourself bypassing it completely to prevent further pestering, despite best intentions. Not all the inclusions are quite so heavy-handed, though. One straight out of the "it just works" camp is the media-sharing app. One press while connected to the same WiFi network as our smart TV, and we were watching video and viewing photos on the larger screen. DLNA and media-sharing apps aren't anything revolutionary, but when they work as effortlessly as this, we're inclined to applaud them.
Many of you may have headed directly here, or at least held a particular interest given the P6's unusual camera configuration. With a generous five megapixels on the front-facing camera, Huawei has given the P6 a standout feature that many will be drawn to. The rear-facing camera, on the other hand is a rather less-notable 8-megapixel affair. Naturally, we gave both of them a spin to see how they fared.
Let's start with that main shooter, shall we? While it might not be the one people are talking about, that doesn't mean it lacks a few tricks of its own. Huawei is keen to play up the main camera's macro credentials, boasting "distance-defying" 4cm capabilities (it's based on a Sony sensor). This, of course, encouraged us to get up close and personal with a variety of things and, all in all, the results are pleasing. Those who like to shoot objects such as flowers and other natural delights will generally get positive results. We found the camera was usually able to pull focus on nearby objects, but sometimes would get itself stuck. One foray out into a local park to test this feature resulted in a few occasions where despite being four centimeters (or more) away from the intended subject, the camera just couldn't fix its focus on the target despite us repeatedly guiding it (by tapping on the object on screen; it has autofocus too). To compound the issue, if we took the picture from a different angle (but the same distance away) the issue disappeared. Perhaps the macro features are slightly sensitive to light levels, but the issue wasn't consistent enough to rouse anything more than minor annoyance (perhaps partly due to the specific boast on this exact feature).
As for the pictures themselves, we generally found the colors could be a little oversaturated at times, but not displeasing -- just a touch more jacked up than might seem natural for some light conditions. Conversely, when shooting darker subjects with a bright background -- or, in our case, even the overcast English skyline -- detail against that surface can deteriorate. Again, in even cloudier conditions the camera sometimes struggles to compensate resulting in dull, softly detailed images. These criticisms don't detract greatly from what is otherwise a reliable shooter, and one that can definitely deliver great images.
We generally found the colors could be a little oversaturated at times, but not displeasing.
Perhaps you're more interested in self-portraits? If so, then it's that front-facing camera that you'll no doubt be curious about. Yes, five megapixels are a lot, but as some are keen to point out, not all pixels are created equal. We took selfies with an HTC One, a Galaxy S 4 and the Ascend P6, and (as you can see below) got mixed results. The images from the Huawei do appear to have more detail (visible in the T-shirt, collar, etc.) but the brightness and color levels seem to struggle a little compared to its competition. The Galaxy S 4's 2-megapixel front camera gives a similar result overall, with roughly the same focal range, but slightly less detail. The HTC One, on the other hand, shoots much wider, but also offers the most light (possible thanks to its HDR functionality). Beyond the self-portraits, we took some standard pictures from the front for comparison, and found that colors are somewhat more washed out. It's particularly noticeable when put against the high-contrast rear-facing camera.
Whether you're happy with the results of your self-portrait or not, Huawei's there to offer a helping hand with a facial-enhancement feature to help "Beautify" your mug. Much like Nokia's Glam Me feature, essentially this is a filter that softens edges and -- at least in theory -- delivers a beautiful visage. In practice, pictures end up looking unnatural, and little more than a novelty. We tried the same feature on non-facial subjects and the results looked not much different from a couple of quick filters you might find in most popular image-editing apps. No big deal; it's a bit of fun. But in terms of a useful feature? It's a bit of a miss, we fear.
As for the camera interface? It deviates from the stock Android experience, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the camera controls you'll find in TouchWiz. More of the camera scene modes (which include HDR, Beauty, Smart and Panorama) are brought to the top of the interface, as are some of the other settings such as GPS tagging, touch-to-capture and object tracking. If you're more of a moviemaker, you'll find the same positive notes we made about the stills camera apply to videos too. We viewed some of the footage you see below on a 37-inch TV and were very pleased with the brightness and clarity. This only improves when watching back on the phone's own display. Definitely a competent performer.
Performance and battery life
Huawei Ascend Mate
Huawei Ascend P6
3,384 (Quadrant Standard)
Vellamo 2 HTML5
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
With a quad-core SoC clocked in at 1.5GHz, this might not be the most eye-watering chip out there right now, but it certainly shouldn't be a slow coach. That said, unlike much of the competition that leaves the finicky subject of processors to the likes of Qualcomm and NVIDIA, Huawei wanted to tackle the job itself. The result is the K3V2, based on the Cortex-A9 architecture, variants of which we've seen show up in much of the firm's other hardware -- the MediaPad 10, Ascend D1 Quad and the aforementioned Ascend Mate. The hardware it runs might have changed, but our verdict remains largely the same -- it could do better. When it comes to general performance, navigating menus and using popular apps (email clients, Twitter and so on), you'll be hard-pressed to find a fault, even if occasionally you can notice the transition animations (between portrait and landscape mode, for example) can be a little slow. Open up something a bit more intensive, however, and that soon changes.
While it's not a like-for-like comparison, we tried opening Real Racing on the P6 and the Galaxy S 4 at the same time. The difference in speed when loading the game was, to be polite, pretty drastic. At some points we weren't sure if the P6 had given up completely, with it just getting past the splash screen as we were about to force close and start again. Gameplay, too, was a very different matter. The pre-installed Riptide, to be fair, plays just fine. But, it seems, the extra muscle required to play Real Racing gets the processor sweating. Don't get us wrong, it will open, and you can play, but the experience (especially when put side by side with a more capable SoC) is very different indeed.
You'd hope that building your own chip would provide scope for optimization. If so, it's hard to see where that might be taking place here -- it's certainly not reflected in battery life. With a 2,000mAh battery to play with, this should be enough to reach well over 24 hours of usage. Our experience, and battery life rundown test, suggests otherwise. In regular use, we found the battery seemed to noticeably decline at a rate that, while not causing panic, did have us thumbing at our collar a little. Perhaps it's that expanded battery notification we mentioned earlier; perhaps we're the ones with a tendency for the obsessive? Maybe, but with only four hours and 45 minutes on our typical battery rundown test (video playing on loop; 50 percent brightness; WiFi on, but not connected; etc.) It still falls a little short compared to what we'd expect from the battery's potential. Perhaps more worrying is that it's not like there's even LTE on board to blame.
The P6 sounds great.
When you're not playing games and fixating on battery levels though, we imagine you might want to make a good, old-fashioned phone call or two (remember them?). We certainly do, and the P6 sounds great. We found crisp, clear and solid signal levels in areas where we know there to be good coverage -- take your pick from WCDMA (850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100) or GSM (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900). In terms of data, that omission of LTE might be a dealbreaker for some (though Device Chairman Richard Yu did let slip that a revised version will come this year sporting that radio), but the HSPA+ does a decent job in its place. We regularly hit data speeds between 4 Mbps and 6 Mbps down, and 600-800 Kbps up at home, which is consistent with what's typically available in the area. As for media playback? Little to report other than it worked without issue. Likewise, audio performance was good, and was only further enhanced by the inclusion of Dolby Digital Plus.
For a phone that had its specifications fairly public for some time, it's hard to feel overly excited about what the Ascend P6 has to offer. That's not intended to seem unkind, however. It's more an acknowledgement that it's clear the majority of the effort has been put into designing an object of desire, rather than blowing our minds with numbers and features. Yu made it known at the London launch event that the P6 isn't for the power users, with that distinction going to the Ascend P2, instead. So, are good looks and a daringly thin design enough to carry it? Possibly. More important than all of those things, however, is that the P6 shows that Huawei can build high-quality phones. What goes inside those phones can more easily be improved, but making something that feels and looks good is a harder skill to nail. Huawei appears to have made good ground here.
Pleasing as the design is, it's still hard to ignore the occasionally mediocre performance, slightly dated UI (despite what the research might say), iffy battery life and lack of LTE. On more positive notes, the display looks great, the main camera can turn out pleasing photos and video, data and call performance are all solid. For the most part, the negatives are balanced by the positives (barring no LTE, perhaps). The takeaway message here is that Huawei means business. With the build quality and core-functionality nuts cracked, most other niggles should be relatively easy to improve. Iron those out, and there's potentially a bright future for the brand beyond its traditional markets.