Big phones are all the rage, but they generally come with price tags that put them in the upper echelon of mobile spending.
Huawei’s first big phone is bigger than Samsung’s own Galaxy Note, and coming with a 6.1 inch screen and a price tag well under $500, it might just prove to be the budget phablet you’re looking for.
Huawei’s first phablet, the Ascend Mate attempts to steal some of the market from Samsung, a brand which currently dominates the big phone space in Australia with its two Galaxy Note handsets, number one and number two (of which only the latter is currently available).
This handset features some similar specs that we’ve seen in at least one Huawei handset before, and that includes a homegrown (or built by Huawei) quad-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz, 1GB RAM, 8GB storage, and a 720p display.
There’s also an 8 megapixel rear camera, 1 megapixel front camera, and your typical selection of connectivity options, including Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, microUSB port, and a 3.5mm headset jack.
While all of those specs line up with Huawei’s Ascend quad-core D1, the major separation seems to be the screen and battery sizes, with the Ascend Mate jumping to a massive 6.1 inch display (running 1280×720) and a 4050mAh battery.
Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass protects the display from keys and nails, and some enhancements through the touch panel technology make it more receptive to gloves.
Android 4.1 is the operating system being used here, though Huawei has made some changes over it, with the use of what it calls “Emotion UI,” the company’s own Android overlay.
Unlike the Ascend D1, this handset takes a microSIM, not the miniSIM, which most people know as a regular SIM.
Out on the streets, we’re seeing many a big phone, so much that it’s an area that has taken off in ways that some companies just didn’t see coming.
We’ve seen many a person with a Galaxy Note, and now it’s time for Huawei to try a middle-ground solution, a phablet (we still hate that word) with a price tag for $429.
Let’s get this out of the way, because it’s important: this is a big phone.
You’d think that saying the Huawei Ascend Mate is a 6.1 inch phone would get that point across, but this handset is so big that the statement needs to be reiterated, again and again and again, if only to cite the obvious.
In fact, the Ascend Mate is so big that it looks silly in smaller hands, and downright ridiculous in the pants of this reviewer.
Euphemisms aside, there’s only so much room to keep six inch units, and when that six inch product is spread out over the shape of a rectangular prism, it’s even more difficult.
Sufficed to say, make sure your pants don’t have slim, skinny, short, or tight pockets, because this handset just won’t fit.
It will sit inside a jacket pocket, a handbag, or a backpack quite comfortably, but it’s worth noting that due to the behemoth size of the Ascend Mate, pants, jeans, and shorts don’t seem to be the best place to store the ginormous device.
When you do take it out (again, no euphemism, we’re talking about the phone), this is a heavy handset. Just shy of 200 grams, it’s one of the heaviest phones you’re likely to consider buying, although with credit to Huawei, the weight is spread out over the 6.1 inch size quite well, and as a result, doesn’t weigh you down as much as you think it might.
For the build, Huawei has gone with plastic as the main material, giving this a rubbery finish on the rear which helps to make it easy to grip.
The edges aren’t harsh and the back of the handset has a slight curve that flows into the palm nicely, but due to the insane width of the Mate, you’re more likely to grip it tightly between digits, rather than let it rest comfortably.
We’re thankful that Huawei decided to stick the power button on the right edge of the handset, and that makes it easy to switch on, something you can generally do with the closest finger.
Once the screen switches on, you’ll find a bright 6.1 inch 720p display shining back at you, with on-screen electronic soft buttons for you to use at the very bottom of the handset.
While the display resolution doesn’t really hold a candle to what we’re seeing from Sony, Samsung, and HTC lately, 240 pixels per inch isn’t terrible, and is only roughly 80 off where Apple’s “Retina” screens works from.
In fact, the pixel per inch count is 20 higher than what you get on Sony’s PS Vita (220ppi), and the screen is even bigger here on the Ascend Mate.
Overall, it’s not a bad screen, providing a decent amount of brightness and contrast, and while its ppi isn’t outstanding, it’s perfectly useful for browsing websites, watching videos, and reading documents.
Huawei’s modifications to Android are some of the more unusual ones we’ve seen, moving away from Google’s typical application menu system and integrating it completely with the several homescreens.
Without an applications menu, you just go from left to right and right to left – from screen to screen – finding the app you want, or running whatever widget you wish. It makes us think of what would happen if Android and iOS came together in a strange marriage of ideas.
In a way, this makes using the Ascend Mate closer to that of Apple’s iPhone, and for many a first time user, this will be a welcome experience, as will the special widget that brings together a clock, weather, a few contact shortcuts, and music widget.
Getting the Ascend Mate to perform without slowdowns is a different matter altogether.
Despite featuring a similar processor to Huawei’s Ascend D1 Quad – an excellent budget handset from earlier in the year – the Mate just slogs through applications, often loading parts of programs slowly, even when virtually no other apps are running concurrently.
Synthetic benchmarks show a similar though slightly lower performance than Huawei’s previous quad-core handset, but with only 1GB RAM, the 6.1 inch handset struggles, running things very slowly, and often with crashes.
Email, for instance, could sometimes take twenty to thirty seconds to load up. At one point, YouTube just gave up after five seconds and stopped responding, crashing and waiting to restart. Twitter often gave us black screens and refused to go on, forcing us to exit to the homescreen and kill the app from memory by force.
Huawei’s on-screen keyboard has never been amazing, and it hasn’t changed much in the version present here, with spelling errors rarely corrected or looked at, and no gesture-based writing mode built in, something we’ve seen on practically every stock on-screen keyboard this year.
You could always replace Huawei’s keyboard with one purchased from Google Play, but the Mate can be so slow that it makes using Swype-like writing near impossible thanks to the frequent slowdowns and crashes.
The lack of high-speed 4G LTE connectivity is a bit of a downer here too, and with a maximum download speed of around 6 to 7Mbps, not everyone will be delighted with the value being packed into the Mate.
There’s nothing wrong with 3G, but we didn’t even experience any dual-channel love here, and with speeds in the Sydney CBD topping out just before 7Mbps, we’re a little concerned what the performance will be like the further we move from the city and into the suburbs.
Its one saving grace in performance is battery life, which for us topped out at around two days of constant use. That’s using the phone with two email accounts, web surfing, social networking, music playback, text messages, and phone calls.
Outside of the battery life, the camera is ok, though we wouldn’t say Huawei’s choice of 8 megapixel camera modules is the best out there. Auto-focus is a bit of a hit and miss, though when it works, you’ll find it takes roughly half a second.
Up close, the image quality is a touch blurry, though for most people, uploading to Facebook and other social networks will be the main use, and for that, this camera is perfectly adequate, adding some effects to the camera app.
If you can live with the slowdowns and speed issues, the Ascend Mate is a decent handset for people who prefer bigger screens.
From this reviewer’s point of view, this would make it ideal for senior citizens or children, as the phone is big enough that neither of these groups of people will suffer from complaints of things being too small to see or read.
The performance problems might be too much for some, and since it doesn’t quite come close to what Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 offers, we’re suggesting this handset only if you’re prepared to put up with the occasional problems and are keen on the $429 price.