Huawei's a company that's proven it can clean up at the budget end of the smartphone market, and now it's setting its sights higher up the food chain with the Ascend P7. Gizmodo went hands-on with the handset ahead of today's official unveiling. While it's not a premium device in the way the HTC One M8 or Samsung Galaxy S5 is (nor will it be priced as such), it's looking to position itself as the ultimate smartphone for selfie snappers -- we're not kidding.
It's territory that the company has explored once before with its Ascend P6 handset. That sported a ludicrous-for-the-time 5MP FRONT-facing camera. But now, with the word 'selfie' in the Oxford English Dictionary, you could argue that it was a future-gazing move from the Chinese handset manufacturer. As such, its new Ascend P7 has an even more advanced front-facing camera on it, this time weighing in at eight megapixels.
Also shooting 720p video, Huawei is kitting out the front camera with a range of software features to make the most of its selfie-shooting credentials. Owners will be able to trigger the shutter with a voice activated command (though I wasn't able to pronounce the Chinese phrase configured for the pre-release demo handset I tested), and make use of a somewhat-pointless picture-in-picture option to frame the shot perfectly if the handset's full-size screen alone somehow isn't enough. Arguably more useful, and certainly a hundred times more fun to use, was the face-recognising "Beauty" mode. Able to "beautify" your face on the fly along a scale of one (spotty, standard Gerald) to ten (airbrushed-beyond-recognition-Barbie-doll Gerald), it knocked ten years off, leaving me looking like some sort of smooth-skinned boyband star. Justin Bieber, watch your back.
The photography focus extends to the rear camera too, which is a Sony-built 13MP offering, with an f.20 aperture lens and backside-illuminated sensor. It's capable of impressive macro photos, and can fire up and snap away within a second with a double-click of the physical volume button housed on the side. As well as the usual array of filters, the camera software will also let you add watermarks to photos directly from the phone, as well as having an option to share ten seconds of audio captured with a shot as an accompaniment.
Of course, a smartphone isn't defined by its camera tech alone, however important that may be these days, and the Huawei Ascend P7 is looking like a solid all-rounder elsewhere, even if it isn't breathtaking.
Looking not unlike Apple's iPhone 5, minus the home button, the Ascend P7 comes in both black and white shades, kitted out with a 5-inch, full HD display. It's sharp, bright and colourful, with an impressive 445ppi count. The screen makes use of an "auto contrast optimisation" system to adjust its brightness and black levels in relation to ambient lighting conditions, though it was hard to see how effective this would be under the demo room's artificial lighting.
Weighing 124g, measuring 139.8mm x 68.8mm and a little over 6.5mm thick, it's a mostly-angular phone aside from its bottom edge, which features a slight curve. It sits comfortably in the hand, with its slim frame allowing for one-handed use without stretching your digits too much. Both the front screen panel and the back of the phone make use of Gorilla Glass 3, and while Huawei will be offering the usual array of official cases and covers alongside the handset, it conceded that you'd unlikely need them to protect the handset any better than the GG3 already does.
Supporting CAT 4 LTE download speeds, the phone is powered by Huawei's 1.8Ghz quad-core Hisilicon chip, backed by 2GB of RAM and ARM's Mali 450 MP4 GPU. 16GB of storage space comes as standard, which can be expanded by microSD cards as big as 64GB, while there's also Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC connectivity. For the most part, the phone ran smoothly enough during my brief test with it, though some of Huawei's own UI additions did cause it to become sluggish on one occasion.
Though the Ascend P7's software base if Android 4.4 KitKat, the company has once again laid its Emotion skin over the top, here present in its latest version 2.3 form. It'll be quite familiar to seasoned Android owners, though it does come with a few quirks. For starters, there's no app drawer, so all downloaded apps will have to be efficiently managed into folders across the homescreens. App icons (and, in fact, the overall feel of the UI) have a decidedly Apple-like look, boxed off into square shapes as opposed to Android's usually-more-irregular icon sizes. Elsewhere there's hints of pre-iOS 7 Apple-like skeuomorphism across some of the apps, too.
It may have been the root of the handset's brief moment of sluggishness, but the inclusion of a "Simple UI" option was quite an attractive one. The usual homescreen view, full of widgets and apps, is replaced by a colourful two-column, chunky grid, each section of which is dedicated to a specific function on the phone. Though it can be customised to launch specific apps too, default applications in this view include the dialler, text messaging app and calendar. It's aimed at beginner smartphone users and the elderly, with a Windows Phone-like feel to it. It's usefulness may stutter when users dive in to regular, complex apps not optimised for novice users, but it's a thoughtful addition all the same. It's a shame then that there was a notable moment of lag when returning to the standard UI view, with the handset crawling to repopulate its usual homescreen upon living the simplified set-up. Note however again that I was testing a pre-release handset -- further software optimisations are promised ahead of release to the general public.
A storage cleaner was also onboard, intelligently suggesting files and apps to delete as the device approaches capacity. If you can't be bothered organising app icons across the homescreen, a quick shake gesture with the device will also align icons tidily, saving you the effort of doing it manually. As with other Huawei phones, the handset will land with dozens of different themes to choose from at launch, at least some of which will likely lean less heavily on Apple's influence.
Equipped with a 2,500mAh battery, Huawei's reps promised that the Ascend P7 will comfortably see you through a day's worth of standard use. So confident are they in its battery efficiency that the handset also supports "reverse charging" -- pick yourself up a male-to-male USB or USB-to-Lightning cable and you can use the Ascend P7 as a battery pack, sharing its juice with another device. An optional eco-battery mode is also available in the phone's UI, switching off extraneous functions and leaving you just with messaging and calling capabilities, while switching the interface to a black and white colour scheme to maximise legibility at the lowest possible brightness settings.
Pricing and release info are to follow shortly after today's big reveal, but with Huawei positioning the phone as an "upper mid tier" device, expect to see the Ascend P7 land on contracts priced between the high £20s and low £30s per month. It's an intriguing effort from the company, making a few concerted efforts to offer something a little different from the pack. But whether or not that's enough to win over the tried-and-tested Samsung faithful, or those looking at Motorola's impressive-yet cheap Moto G, remains to be seen.