The large smartphone is here to stay. And as all new technologies tend to after a few years, the commoditization of the form factor has begun. While Samsung is seen as the pioneer, or at least the trend setter, in the category, the move to larger phones began with HTC and its Windows Mobile-powered HD2. But once Samsung one-upped the iPhone 3GS with the original 4-inch Galaxy S, things have been moving one way.
The Huawei Ascend Mate was launched in January at CES, and at the time was one of the biggest devices to grace the Android platform. Its 6.1-inch screen size may be oversized, but the company is counting on a few novel software tweaks, and a price considerably lower than the Galaxy Note series, to entice users.
WIND Mobile recently made the Ascend Mate available in Canada for $399 outright and $99 on the Wind Tab with a $40 plan, and despite its aging quad-core processor and murky 720p display, this is a handset worth considering. It runs Android 4.1.2 with a few Huawei-specific modifications, many of which are meant to make it easier to use with one hand. For example, a few of the system apps, like the dialer and keyboard, can be reduced in size and relocated for use with a single thumb.
There is also no app drawer to speak of: like MIUI, a popular custom ROM, all apps are arrayed on the home screen and live among folders and widgets. It actually works, since the screen is so large, and I rarely missed the old method. It’s also possible to maximize screen space by minimizing the on-screen navigation buttons, reinitializing them by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. This is great for apps and games that don’t do this automatically, and shows Huawei is actually trying to build out a version of Android people will love. Unfortunately, Huawei also eliminated the home button swipe gesture that quickly activates Google Now, and it’s unclear why they did that.
Switching to hardware, it’s clear this is not a premium product. The back material feels sturdy enough, but the metallic-looking plastic that runs around the outer bezel looks about as cheap as it feels. The display doesn’t ring modern, either: it pales to the Super Clear LCD of the Galaxy Mega, despite sharing the same resolution, with narrow viewing angles and a muted colour palette. Not all is lost, though: the screen is quite responsive and gets sufficiently bright.
The Ascend Mate’s performance is not flagship-worthy, since the Cortex A9-based SoC, which was developed in-house by Huawei, is coming on two years old. Performance was intermittently jerky, though I had no issues with the majority of tasks. It played games well enough — Riptide GP was flawless — but load times were extended, and the keyboard would often stutter and have to catch up to itself. Because it has 2GB of RAM, the handset is somewhat equipped for the future, but we wish Huawei would have upped its silicon game a bit.
Its 8MP camera was similarly mid-range, with muddy, noisy photos in all but the most naturally well-lit scenes. Because the device comes with only 8GB of internal storage, of which 3.5GB is used by the system, a microSD card is an imperative purchase.
A side effect of its relatively low-resolution display and huge 4050mAh battery is a staggering uptime. Users shouldn’t have a problem reaching two days of battery life per charge, and Huawei has even included an extensive Power Manager app that includes a Windows-like Startup Manager, and it’s possible to manually set which apps are updated in the background when Battery Saver is turned on. Call quality from the headpiece was passable over WIND’s network, and I had no issues with coverage in downtown Toronto, though data speeds were rarely higher than 2.5Mbps.
In short, I like the Huawei Ascend Mate. The Chinese company knows its audience, and is trying to negotiate a form factor that was recently reserved for devices twice this price. This is no Galaxy Note, but it’s a worthy entry into the so-called phablet market, and an excellent addition to WIND Mobile’s lineup.