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Huawei's Ascend P7 wants to be the LTE phone of the people

With the Ascend P6, Huawei looked to build a smartphone that emphasized design and material quality over performance. Unfortunately, it shipped without LTE at a time when networks were making a big push on the new standard, and so marginalized the P6 in favor of devices from rival manufacturers. Lesson suitably learned, the company is back with the P7, a handset that's marketed as a cheaper alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8. Unlike its predecessor, it comes with LTE and a series of refinements that should eliminate all of the issues that were found with last year's model. We've spent some time with the prototype, and wanted to share with you our initial impressions.

Unlike the previous generation, which had an aluminum band around the edge and a coated aluminum back, both sides of the P7 are coated in a generous helping of Corning's Gorilla Glass 3. Despite resembling a bizarro-world iPhone 4, the metallic band doesn't comprise part of the phone's antenna assembly, so you'll be spared any concerns over "death grip." Speaking of which, the prominent microSD and SIM card slots remain down the right-hand side of the slab, but the headphone jack plug-cum-ejector pin is gone -- it may have been a neat design trick, but it was hardly the most practical of features.

Despite having a 5-inch display, it's also deceptively small, given that the bezels on either side of the 1,920 x 1,080 screen have been shrunk to under 3mm on either side. The in-cell Japan Display screen itself has a pixel density of 445 ppi, the same as the Nexus 5, and appeared to be bright and sharp -- not that we had any issues with last year's model. Speaking of which, the company wasn't prepared to talk pricing, but we gather that the P7 will retail for the same rough bracket that you could grab the P6, hovering under $600.

The Ascend P7 comes with the company's Emotion UI 2.3 that sits between you and KitKat (Android 4.4). As usual, there's mostly refinements and finesses placed upon what we've seen before, including a low-battery mode that'll push the phone's UI into grayscale to warn you to find an outlet. It may not be new, but Huawei is also going to start emphasizing that you can now switch from Emotion UI to a simplified home screen that's pretty reminiscent of Windows Phone 8. With big, bright blocks, it's designed for smartphone novices and those with poor eyesight, and means that this device could supplant the Lumia 620 as a device you'd buy for an elderly family member due to its relative ease of use.

Huawei has no background in imaging technology, so for the P7's camera, it once again teamed up with Sony for the BSI shooter on the rear side of the device. This time out, however, you'll be using a 13-megapixel sensor and a lens with an f/2.0 aperture. You'll also get the usual nifty tweaks including HDR and real-time filtering for all of those faux-Instagram shots of your dinner. The company is also working on a one-second snapshot function, whereby a sharp double-press of the volume key will instantly take a picture from standby mode. There are also options like audio snapshot, where you can take 10 seconds of ambient noise to accompany each image, and the ability to add text and watermarks to your pictures.

If you were excited at the 5-megapixel forward-facing camera on the P6, then the 8-megapixel unit (with an f/2.4, five-element aspherical lens) that replaces it will have you screaming in apoplexy. In addition to the face-beautification modes that were found on last year's model, there's now a Selfie Panorama mode, which will let you take a wide location shot with your fizzog obscuring most of the historic location you're capturing.

One of our biggest complaints about the P6 had to do with the Huawei-made system-on-chip that ran things from within. The homegrown 1.5GHz quad-core K3V2 silicon was efficient, sure, but was entirely unable to keep up with smartphones carrying chips from NVIDIA or Qualcomm. Has the company learned its lesson? It's too soon to tell, but we do know that it'll be another homemade variant of an ARM Cortex-A9 with a quad-core 1.8GHz CPU, a Mali-450 MP4 GPU, 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM and 16GB storage.

When we tested the 2,000mAh battery on the P6, we were dismayed to see that it lasted for less than five hours on a charge. Huawei, however, claims that it acted quickly to switch battery suppliers in the wake of those early reviews, and produced several software tweaks to ensure that customers didn't suffer from the same fate. The cell inside the P7 has only a modest increase, to 2,500mAh, but we're told that the company has been working hard to make certain that it'll have even more staying power, despite the huge demands of the new LTE modem.

All in all, the Huawei P7 is a device where time and effort has mostly been spent fixing the gripes of last generation's hardware. The pre-production model that we used was comfortable in the hand with surprisingly solid build quality. Huawei may still be in the second or third tier of handset makers, but it's easy to forget that it's only been making phones under its own flag for less than five years. We're looking forward to seeing what this device can do under the rigorous conditions of a full review, so check back in the near future to find out more.

Sharif Sakr contributed to this report.