Huawei Ascend P7 review: the best mid-range phone you've never heard of

What is a flagship? For some companies, it's about cramming as many features into a device as physics allows. For Huawei, it means something else entirely: Though it creates smartphones for the power-hungry crowd, its most eye-catching devices typically favor mass appeal over brawn. Exhibit A: the Ascend P7, a smartphone that emphasizes design and user-friendliness over a blowsy spec sheet. When we reviewed its predecessor, the P6, last year, we found a gorgeous phone that struggled due to an underpowered engine and lack of LTE. The company promises it's learned from its mistakes, though. So is the P7 the mid-range smartphone you'll actually be proud to show off?

Gallery | 13 Photos

Huawei Ascend P7 review

Hardware

Before we begin, we have to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and we're not just talking about the type of glass that coats both sides of the device. The P7 looks like the result of gene splicing between the iPhone 4 and one of Sony's Z-series handsets. That's not meant to be a criticism, but the lens placement and machining scream Xperia, while the plastic dividers that separate parts of the aluminum band are there entirely for effect.

Similarities aside, it's a beautiful piece of equipment and you'll have total confidence in the solidity of this device when it's in your hand. Huawei's got a knack for putting smartphones together and there's no worry that this kit will creak or bend. It's also tremendously easy on the pocket, since it's only 6.5mm thick and weighs a light 124 grams (4.37 ounces). Rest assured that despite being more than £200 cheaper than the Galaxy S5 here in the UK, it's also a good-looking phone, so you needn't be worried that the posher kids at school/the office/the pub will sneer at your cheaper device. In fact, this would happily sit beside flagships from Samsung and HTC without appearing like the dowdy friend who you only sit with under duress.

I'm conflicted on the subject of comfort. This is because the P7 is a great, big, boxy piece of hardware with squared-off edges. Despite this, at no point did it jab into the flesh of my hand or otherwise make my life uncomfortable. I can't imagine delicate hands disliking the feel of this device, but I'm also aware that my mileage will differ from yours. What is consistent is that the glass backing makes this more of a slip risk than more tactile devices, so if you've got greasy palms and a tendency to be clumsy, buy a case.

If minimalism is your bag, then you'll find the understated lines of the P7 right up your street. Up front are the speaker, light sensor and the 8-megapixel forward-facing camera, all of which linger above the display. On the bottom, there's a micro-USB port for charging, with the 3.5mm headphone jack located up top. The left-hand side is bare, so the right has to hold the micro-SIM and microSD trays, as well as the center-mounted power button -- another Xperia-esque trait. All three are metal, and there's some beautiful machining on the center button -- a high-quality detail from a company you wouldn't always associate with small, design-centric flourishes.

Display and sound

The 5-inch, in-cell LCD from Japan Display really doesn't look as big as it is, thanks to bezels that have been shrunk down to just 3mm. With a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 (that's FHD, acronym fans) and a pixel density of 445 ppi, it sits in the same league as the Nexus 5, which means we have little to complain about. Pictures and video are crisp; the viewing angles are almost universally good; and it'll hold its own in the noonday sun, even when not on full brightness. Color accuracy is acceptable, although in side-by-side tests with another device, everything looked a little over-saturated. Not enough to annoy most users, though. The company has also retained its so-called gloves mode, which ups the sensitivity on the screen making it possible to use when you're out in the cold.

One particular bugbear of mine is when smartphone manufacturers place the speaker close to where you hold the device. It's been more than a year since HTC demonstrated front-facing speakers are the way forward, so why do companies insist upon this retrograde step? Unfortunately for me, Huawei has stuck the speaker right in the path of my palm, though it's at least made the placement work to its advantage. Thanks to the vertical orientation of the speaker, the curve of your hand may actually make a funnel to amplify the sound, no matter which one you hold it with. The volume is strong up close, but won't fill a room if you're hosting an impromptu dance party. That's not a criticism either, since it means that berks who forget their headphones on public transport will only annoy the people in their immediate vicinity. Small mercies, eh?

Software

The P7 runs Android 4.4, but you wouldn't know it just by glancing at the screen. As ever, Huawei included its proprietary Emotion UI skin, with this particular device running version 2.3 of the software. The first thing die-hard Droid fans are going to notice is that there's no app tray. Huawei and I share the same annoyance with Android's two-stage launcher, so all apps now reside on the multiple pages of the home screen -- yep, just like on iOS. In order to prevent the phone from becoming unnecessarily cluttered, the company crams several of the smaller utilities into folders. That's fine, but don't be surprised if you have to do a little shunting around to get things the way you like it.

Gallery | 17 Photos

Huawei Ascend P7 screenshots



The landing screen comes preloaded with weather, music, gallery and Google search widgets, all of which are easily dispatched. The "Me" module, which offers up instant access to a favorite contact or two, is largely useless and, thankfully, easy to get rid of. The other upside is that there's a wide variety of customization options, and you can tweak the icons and environment to suit any number of tastes. There's also the option to add a suspend button -- a ring of shortcuts that hovers over the screen, offering instant access to utilities such as note-taking, messaging and music playback.

Buried within the settings menu is Simple, a home screen style that transforms the ordinary Android environment into something more akin to Windows Phone. The company's been offering the setting since the start of the year, but this is the first time I've actually been able to sit down and see what it's like up close. It's certainly a clever way to present this phone to those who may not have as good eyesight or not much familiarity with smartphones in general, but the small icons and text -- there's a lot of blank space on each button -- make me wonder if bigger text and icons wouldn't have done a better job. Unfortunately, these shortcuts only work for launching apps themselves, after which you're just using standard apps with the text blown up.

Camera

Imaging is one area where Huawei has, at least on paper, splashed the cash. Rather than attempting to craft a solution on its own, the company sought out Sony to provide the 13-megapixel sensor used in the P7. Even better, the forward-facing camera now boasts an 8-megapixel sensor, besting both the HTC One M8 (five megapixels) and the Galaxy S5 (2MP). The primary unit is much improved, and the over-saturation we found in last year's model has been dialed down somewhat. There's a pleasing depth to the images now, and I was happily snapping stills and landscapes in the summer sun. In the late-evening gloom, however, photos got a little too murky to be useful, and at night, the images were decent, but tremendously noisy. As the company works on the inevitable Ascend P8, we hope that instead of just throwing in more megapixels, Huawei improves the hardware as well.

Whenever you use a forward-facing camera that doesn't take grainy, blocky selfies, it's a moment of triumph, and even an unattractive curmudgeon like me enjoyed snapping some vanity shots with the P7. The forward-facing unit here is a great piece of kit, and should set the standard for all of those duckface-obsessed teenagers who want to show off how much of a good time they're having on holiday. Speaking of which...

T-shirt: AOL; Coat: Red Herring; Face: Model's Own.

In this world of artifice and constructed reality, everyone wants to be their best when they post braggies (bragging selfies) online. That's why Huawei includes "Face Beauty Mode" as one of the options for the forward-facing camera. With the ability to detect one face in the frame, the P7 will get out the digital Vaseline and smooth out the wrinkles, blocked pores and creases in your face. The only downside is that at a certain point, the effect rapidly begins to backfire, and if you posted a picture of your mug at Beauty Level 10, we're sure people would start calling you to check you weren't ill. Surely those Dove ads have taught us all that natural beauty is the way forward, right?

What of the Huawei Ascend P7's video performance? There's nothing wrong with the images, per se, and we can even forgive the accelerometer issue that caused footage recorded in landscape to occasionally save in portrait. Audio, however, is an entirely different, and painful, story. The P7's microphone manages to be both far too weak and far too sensitive. When the subject is mere inches away from the phone, the audio appears to be piped in from some faraway land. Despite this, the microphone just adores wind shear, and even on an almost entirely still summer day, the footage sounded as if I'd been filming it in a gale. Suspecting that those flaws would make it an ideal device to record indoor gigs with, I took the P7 to see The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and even standing at the back of the auditorium, the audio simply couldn't handle the noise. Instead, it made everything sound as if the handset had been left in a box of dry cereal during an earthquake.

Performance and battery life

Huawei Ascend P7 HTC One M8 LG G3
Quadrant 2.0 7,175 25,548 25,548
Vellamo 2.0 1,141 1,804 1.405
3DMark IS Unlimited 7462 20,612 16,662
SunSpider 1.0.2 1,239.7 782 918
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) N/A 11.2 N/A
CF-Bench 30,108 40,223 24,667
SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

The subtitle for our Huawei P6 review read "a beautiful handset, but performance is lacking." That's because that handset came with a Huawei-made 1.5GHz quad-core CPU, which, while affordable, wasn't up to the task of running a flagship smartphone. The company says it's learned its lesson, and promises that the tablet-class, 1.8GHz quad-core CPU, Mali-450 GPU and 2GB RAM on show here would be up to the task. This new silicon even boasts HPM technology -- in short, a system designed to offer lower power consumption for demanding applications. As you can see above, however, this new hardware still isn't enough to get the P7's head above its rivals in the benchmark stakes. In fact, in an industry where standing still is equivalent to going backward, the fact that this phone is so far behind its rivals is going to turn off many people who would otherwise consider giving the P7 a shot.

But.

Benchmarks do not tell the whole story, and day-to-day, this apparent weakness was in no way noticeable. Tweeting, making calls, surfing the internet, dicking around on Instagram and watching video were all undertaken with only the odd flicker and stutter to mention. I did find that if I wanted to launch the camera app from a standing start (e.g., from the lock screen), the action didn't keep up with the graphic reorientation as I switched the phone from portrait to landscape mode. The result was that everything would freeze for a second while the software caught up, which meant that I missed a few action shots I would have otherwise been able to take. The biggest test, of course, is in games performance, and graphically intensive 3D titles like Asphalt 8 worked like a dream. The only issue I found was that it took a few loads (and a hard restart) before Dead Trigger 2 would play, but once it did, it was buttery smooth.

So what of the battery life? In Engadget's standard video-rundown test, I managed to crank out a respectable seven hours and 12 minutes from the handset's 2,500mAh power pack. At least, it's respectable if you're contented to compare this with handsets in the same price bracket, such as the HTC One mini and the Galaxy S4 Mini, but more on that later. Over the course of a day with light to normal use, we were finding that it still had around 20 percent of charge remaining to it.

The other thing we need to talk about is the data rate, and unfortunately, while Norwich has a thriving arts scene, beautiful landscape and a fast train to London, Three have yet to offer LTE in the city. That's why I was instead only able to test the P7's 3G performance, which hit 6.62 Mbps down and 1.10 Mbps up. The next time I'm in an LTE area, I shall update this section with my findings. Call quality is perfectly fine, in case you were wondering, not that anyone uses their phones as phones anymore.

The competition

As I benchmarked the P7 and tried to assess its performance, I thought about which phones I should be comparing this device with. On one hand, Huawei, would position this as a significantly cheaper alternative to the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5. Unfortunately, at least in the UK, no carriers have announced that they'll be offering the handset, and so we can only look at it in the context of its SIM-free price, which is £330. For around that same amount of cash, you can also buy the Galaxy S4 Mini (£330), the Huawei Ascend Mate (£330) or the first-generation HTC One mini for £320. (Yes, I know the replacement is called the HTC One mini 2, but let's avoid confusion.)

Wrap-up

In a money-is-no-object world, every smartphone would come with a Snapdragon 805, a 41-megapixel camera, a beautiful body and a 4K display. Huawei's aim here was to build a device that could be spoken of in the same breath as the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 at a significantly reduced cost. And it succeeded with a handset that is more than the sum of its parts. Huawei wins points for the rock-solid build quality, the materials used and the overall aesthetic. The imaging prowess of both the forward- and rear-facing cameras is better than you may expect from a handset that's priced well within the second tier. That's another merit, since at £330, the Ascend P7 is about £220 cheaper than the Galaxy S5 -- enough money to buy a first-generation Android Wear device and still have enough money left over for a meal. If you're prepared to accept a few rough edges here and there, the Ascend P7 is a worthy recipient of your hard-earned cash.

78
Huawei

Ascend P7

Pros

  • Good front-facing camera
  • Great hardware
  • Fantastic screen
  • Decent battery life

Cons

  • Poor video recording
  • Fares poorly in benchmark tests
  • Glass backing makes the phone a bit difficult to grip
Summary

With the P7, Huawei has crafted a phone that defies its modest price tag. It may not be as powerful as other flagships, but it's better than other handsets that cost about the same.