Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G review: Budget Android phablet reaches the middle class

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The Good The Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G has a fun custom interface, 16GB of internal storage, clear call quality, and mostly strong data and internal performance.

The Bad Weak image quality from the Mate 2's 13-megapixel camera, a poor speakerphone, and low pixel density in the screen are drawbacks. It's also far too big for some hands.

The Bottom Line You'd be hard-pressed to find a phone for the size and price of the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G that performs as well as it does.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

The 6.1-inch Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G doesn't have the most recent Android version, the highest camera quality, or the sharpest new specs. But it does have one of the lowest prices we've seen for a phone this huge -- and its solid performance, and unique take on selfies are plus points too.

The Mate 2 costs $300 off-contract in the US, direct from Huawei's website. Pricing and availability in the UK and Australia are yet to be announced, but a straight conversion would be £180 or AU$320, plus sales tax.

The Mate 2 performs as well or better than Samsung's 6.3-inch and 5.8-inch Galaxy Mega phones , which are close to a year old at this point, and cost a good deal more -- $430, £390 and AU$480 off-contract. Nokia's Lumia 1320 is also a good bet at around $340, £210, or AU$400 off-contract, and takes better photos in low light situations.

Depending on where you live, obtaining the Mate 2 may be a trickier ordeal, though Huawei does sell the phone directly in some countries, like with its new initiative in the US. Still, if it's a budget Android experience you're after, make this Mate 2 your top choice.

Design and build

The Mate 2 is a big phone with generously rounded edges. At 6.34 by 3.33 by 0.37 inches (161 by 84.7 by 9.5mm), it requires a wide, firm grip. Add that to the phone's 7.13oz (202g) weight, and you've got a hefty handful.

How does it feel? My hands are on the small side, which made it tougher to hold, and it fumbled out of my clutches more than once, leading to a tragicomic adrenaline-fueled dance as I tried to keep it from crashing to the ground. Thankfully, a very subtly curved back and finely textured soft-touch backing help stabilize the phone, and straightish sides give your fingers something to grab onto.

A shiny dark grey rim rings the black Mate 2, which also comes in white. The accent also makes an appearance around the camera module on the back and the slim volume rocker and power button on the right spine. I'd like these buttons a tad thicker, myself.

The 6.1-inch Ascend Mate 2 has a huge screen, but middling resolution. James Martin/CNET

Instead of relying on buttons beneath the screen to navigate around, the Mate 2 uses on-screen controls within its 6.1 display. As with most other midrange phones of its exaggerated size, this one comes with a 1,280x720-pixel HD resolution rather than 1080p full HD. While the pixel density -- 241 ppi -- is sharper than Samsung's 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega, text and images appear notably softer than they do on smaller screens with the same resolution.

This lower resolution isn't a dealbreaker, since it's typical for the Mate 2's size and class. You can still read articles and immerse yourself in games, enjoy photos, and giggle at your friends' Facebook updates. But the second you glance at another screen with a higher resolution, you'll notice the difference.

As for the externals, the Mate 2 comes with a 5-megapixel camera on the front, a 13-megapixel camera and LED flash on the back, and a microSD card slot beneath the back cover, which can hold up to 32GB in external storage. Although the back cover comes off, the 3,900mAh battery is fixed in there; just know that you won't be able to pop it or swap it out.

OS and apps

Android 4.3 Jelly Bean isn't the most up-to-date OS possible, but it isn't far behind, and the Mate 2 runs just fine with what it has. You still get a voice-activated search bar on the home screen, access to Google Now, and notifications you can respond to from the pull-down shade.

It also comes dressed in Huawei's custom Emotion Lite UI, which is the company's own fresh taste of Android. You can choose among several visual themes (and customize individual elements, such as the profile's default ringtones), and can add some of your own flair by filling in the block of widgets on the home screen with a photo from your album, and three most-used contacts.

You can choose from a number of polished themes, and use the WOW button as a free-floating shortcut. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There's no app tray with Emotion UI; instead, you'll find your app icons grouped together on the home screens, which longtime Android users might take some getting used to. Although I find the interface straightforward, you can also turn on simple mode in the settings to get a one-page view.

Huawei's extra settings share a number of other similarities with Samsung, HTC, and LG phones as well. There's a glove mode that makes the screen extra-sensitive to navigation with your nail or gloves, motion controls to flip the phone to mute (for example), and a one-handed mode.

Just a note on that: the one-handed UI isn't exactly what it seems. Without changing any default settings, I only saw the shrunken, shifted treatment applied to the dialer, and not to the keyboard. If you swap out the Google keyboard for Huawei's own keyboard, you'll see that's when it kicks in.

If you want a large amount of screen real estate, the Mate 2 is your new best friend. James Martin/CNET

Similar to an on-screen tool that Samsung has on its Galaxy S5 (which the Mate 2 predates), the window-on-window (WOW) button is a persistent floating dot you can move around and expand with a touch. It'll bring up options to optimize go home, customize your memory, and open a handful of smaller windows on top of whichever screen you're on, such as the calculator, calendar, and text message window.

Unfortunately, you can't open up separate browser windows to look up snippets of information, and you have to go into the settings menu to toggle it off. It would be nice to see a more accessible toggle in the notifications shade.

Another special app monitors memory usage and can clean your phone to stave off battery drain. I appreciate this feature, but found its "helpful" popups aggressive, often appearing soon after I opened an app.

Camera and video

A midrange smartphone with a 13-megapixel camera sounds too good to be true, and it sort of is. Although images boast a high resolution, image quality is consistently poorer than it should be, producing softer photos with blurrier edges and less detail than I expect.

Colors also appear a little duller and flatter than you'd hope. The pictures are still absolutely usable, and some even come out nicely, especially when there's plenty of natural light around. I did notice I had to remain absolutely still for the best results, and photos taken indoors and in low light environments didn't turn out as well.

You can shoot video from both front- and rear-facing cameras -- up to 720p resolution from the front and 1080p HD video from the rear. In both cases, images captured smoothly and without stuttering, with the main camera unsurprisingly recording the more detailed movies.