The Mate may push phablet size boundaries for now, but it's the Android interface and not the hardware that's the phone's major winner.
The Huawei Ascend Mate may be built like a linebacker, but it's the custom software interface floating on top of the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean device that can hope to salvage an otherwise blah phablet experience.
With its 6.1-inch screen, the Mate is currently the largest smartphone you can buy -- though Samsung's Galaxy Note refresh is rumored to match or surpass even this gargantuan display with its own 6- or even 6.3-inch version. The Mate's screen is easy to read, yes, but it's also lower-resolution than I'd expect for the size. Furthermore, it creates an unwieldy device that made typing and photography awkward -- and you can just forget about carrying this hulk around in your pocket all day.
Its specs may have been on the higher end of the scale in January when Huawei first announced its Mate, but anyone looking for a supersize smartphone today should look elsewhere, or wait for future options.
Design and build
There are no two ways about it, this phone is a 6.4-inch-tall-by-3.4-inch-wide-by-0.4-inch-thick beast. Weighing in at a meaty 7 ounces, the Mate can feel like a sack of flour in a shoulder bag if you're transitioning from a lighter phone.
Straight, matte-gray sides on the front mellow into a slightly curved back designed to cradle your palm. The black soft-touch finish certainly helps with the fit, but I found the spine edges too sharp and the span of the screen too wide for the phone to ever fit into my smaller-size mitts. For me, this Mate is just stupid-big.
Readability is the obvious benefit to a phone with the Mate's 6.1-inch Super IPS LCD screen, but then in that case, I'd expect Huawei to outfit its XXL device with at least the same 1080p screen resolution that today's 5-inch superphones have. Instead, the 1,280x720-pixel resolution brings in a mere pixel density of 241 ppi.
That isn't to say that the screen looks dull or blurry; it doesn't. Colors are rich and vibrant, the display beams brightly in automatic mode, and I could read everything clearly.
However, screen savants may notice that gameplay or video playback might not seem quite as crisp or detailed, and the screen doesn't have the pow or pop of some others. In terms of everyday usability, though, the Mate does just fine.
I'll dive more into the onscreen controls in the following section, but I would like to point out that there are no capacitive buttons below the screen; instead, the Mate uses onscreen controls to go back, go home, show "recents," and pull up Google Now.
There are still the usual buttons to push and a few ports to open. A slim volume rocker and a power/lock button reside on the right spine. Moving clockwise, the Micro-USB charger port lives on the bottom, the microSD card slot is on the left, and you'll slip the micro-SIM card into a slot nearby the 3.5mm headset jack up top. A 1.3-megapixel camera peers at you from above the screen, and the 8-megapixel rear camera and flash stake out a spot on the back.
Emotion UI and navigation
The Mate was one phone to kick off Huawei's completely refreshed Emotion UI for Android. In this case, Emotion customizes Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It's different enough to make you take notice, and has some nice visual and functional touches that are all Huawei's own.
The first thing you see is a stylized block of information that attractively groups the weather, time, two favorite contacts, and a music player. Below that, Huawei has preloaded popular app shortcuts, wisely putting the camera front and center. Below this icon row are the static shortcuts for tools like your e-mail inbox and the browser.
Conspicuously missing is an app tray icon. Huawei does away with this, instead adopting the iOS style in which you swipe to see your apps. Huawei helpfully groups a load of apps into folders like Tools, Management, and Google Apps. You can also create your own.
One thing that threw me, though, is that new app icons download on subsequent home pages, not necessarily on the first empty page you've got. That struck me as a sloppy oversight.
Much better planned out was Huawei's work with themes and profiles. There's nothing wrong with the default color scheme in my book, but with 20 options to choose from, I found a much more electric look that made me excited to pick up the phone. I also like Huawei's visual work on easy-access profile settings for sleep, outdoors, and meetings.
Like Samsung and others, Huawei has expanded its one-touch system access settings in the notifications drop-down -- you'll be able to scroll for more options, and swap out shortcuts.
Features and settings
Anything you can do with Google's stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, you can do on the Ascend Mate. There's GPS and Wi-Fi, navigation and mapping, all of Google's services at your fingertips, and so on. NFC is installed, so you can Beam with Android friends, and Bluetooth 4.0 makes for easy pairing.
Huawei has also thrown in some software extras in the settings, just little things here and there. For instance, you can turn on one-handed operation to shrink, then slide the keyboard and dialer from one side to the other.
You can also hide the navigation bar if you'd like, and turn on high sensitivity to use your gloves on the display. You'll also be able to customize the notification panel.
Interestingly, there's a buried setting for turning on something called the Suspend button. This launches a floating, draggable button that persists across all screens. Tap it and it expands out to give you one-touch shortcuts to notes, the calculator, your multimedia albums, and messaging.
I like it in theory, but I'm not sure how often I'd use it, personally. I could see myself moving it out of the way more often than I'd fire it up.
Cameras and video
Even beyond the fact that the Ascend Mate's bulky body makes holding the phone still for photos a tougher experience, its 8-megapixel camera underdelivers. At least there's continuous autofocus and flash, which helps, and there are plenty of Android tools as well, like effects, white-balance presets, and shooting modes aplenty.
My biggest issue is with image quality; the camera spiked and exaggerated color, omitted detail, and overexposed. You'll see what I mean in the sample photos below.
I do like that there's the standard 1080p HD video recording, but the quality in terms of focus, color, smoothness, and clarity wasn't as high-end as competitors'. For casual capture, though, it'll do, and it's a definite step up from most entry-level devices.
This phablet also totes a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera that's capable of 720p HD recording. The specs are promising, and the camera photo does its job, though it once again falls short of a top-tier experience.
Call quality was fair to good when I tested the unlocked Ascend Mate (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) using AT&T's network in San Francisco. Volume hovered between a little too loud and a tad too soft in my calls, so I kept toggling the rocker. The call was clear and without background noise, though voices sounded a little flat, less resonant and warm than in real life, and also a little muted. Tiny bits of distortion crept in as well, but were largely ignorable. Everything sounded fine, but I wasn't inspired to carry on a conversation longer than necessary.
On his side of the line, my chief testing partner said the call was clear, but not crisp, and also noticed a little distortion. Volume was fine for him, though voices sounded very slightly crackly. He declared it better than average, but lacking warmth.
Huawei Ascend Mate call quality sample Listen now:
Huawei managed to rein in speakerphone echo in my test calls, in which I held the phone at hip level. However, I had to immediately hike up the volume on my end, which led to an unpleasant high-pitched quality when my tester spoke. Voices were also slightly muffled and hard to understand. On his side, volume was strong, but some of my words came out unintelligible and I had to repeat myself. Some vocal tones just dropped off, he said, but he noted, too, that the phone wasn't overly echoey.
The Ascend Mate's 1.5GHz quad-core Intel XMM6260 processor performed on the low end in CNET's diagnostic tests, producing a score of 4,818 in the Quadrant diagnostic app. For reference, that's as compared with 5,314 for the dual-core Pantech Perception, 11,381 for the quad-core Samsung Galaxy S4, and 12,194 for the quad-core HTC One.
Diagnostic ratings don't mean that the phone is necessarily slow or laggy. Apps snapped open without delay, and the camera took shots without too much lingering.
I unfortunately wasn't able to test data speeds on the Ascend Mate. The AT&T SIM card I used worked fine on other phones, but only gave me voice, not data, on the Ascend. Huawei didn't immediately get back to me with a fix. Suffice it to say that performance for unlocked phones varies by network and region.
The phone has 16GB internal memory, but you can expand it to 32GB. You get 2GB RAM, too, and a promise of 9 days of standby time on the impressively capacious 4,050mAh battery. We'll be able to test the talk time in our in-house test.
Admittedly, the Huawei Ascend Mate is no longer a surprise, and its specs, respectable when the phone was first announced in January, became less impressive in the ensuing months as new phones have pushed software and hardware features forward.
Yet, even despite my possibly one-off SIM card data issue, this handset's sheer size, shape, weight, and camera performance keep me from recommending it as anyone's Mate. The best part of this Ascend is the new Emotion UI, which you'll also be able to find on Huawei's other phones, including the Ascend D2, Ascend P2, and Ascend P6.
If it's a more-than-5-inch-screen phablet you're looking for, keep looking. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is the obvious choice for those who can't wait for the next generation from Samsung or others.