The best mate yet

Sunday Tribune - - ONLINE -

Huawei’s Mate se­ries of bigscreened smart­phones have al­ways been larger than life, but with the ar­rival in South Africa this past week of the new Mate 10 Pro, they’re now also a whole lot bet­ter looking, smarter and more pow­er­ful.

I’ve been a fan of the Chi­nese tech ti­tan’s Mate line of ph­ablets since I got my hands on the Mate 7 in 2014 and was smit­ten by its ex­pan­sive screen real es­tate, pro­cess­ing power, build qual­ity, bat­tery stamina and a rea­son­able price tag. In the Mate 10 Pro, Huawei has taken these at­tributes to a new level in­clud­ing, alas, the price tag – more about that later.

Let’s start with the looks which are frankly stun­ning. The Mate 10 Pro boasts a gor­geous, al­most bezel­free 5.9-inch screen with a tow­er­ing 16:9 dis­play ra­tio. The shrunken bor­ders and new taller, but skin­nier as­pect ra­tio make for a Mate that sits in the hand more com­fort­ably that any of its pre­de­ces­sors.

It’s still a big phone, but it doesn’t feel clumsy and slab-like any more. En­hanc­ing the grip com­fort is an all-glass body, which also adds to its eye-candy fac­tor.

But a smart­phone, as the first part of the term sug­gests, is about more than looks and the Mate

10 is not merely a feast for the eyes, it may just be the smartest smart­phone in a class of se­ri­ously clever can­di­dates. That’s be­cause, Huawei says, it’s the first phone to fea­ture built-in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) with­out the need to con­nect to the in­ter­net.

These smarts come cour­tesy of Huawei’s own Kirin 970 chipset, billed as the world’s first true AI pro­ces­sor for smart­phones. This al­lows the Mate 10 to per­form clever tricks like trans­lat­ing text while off­line and recog­nis­ing plants, peo­ple and food when lin­ing up a photo, ad­just­ing the fo­cus and light­ing for the op­ti­mal shot.

When Huawei hon­chos demon­strated these fea­tures live at the launch event in Cape Town, they were at pains to switch the demo phones to air­plane mode to prove they were not sneak­ily draw­ing on the cloud to sup­ple­ment their brain power.

Such feats are made pos­si­ble, says Huawei, by the Neu­ral Net­work Pro­cess­ing Unit (NPU) built into the Kirin 970, which makes it ba­si­cally a shrunk-down ver­sion of the kind of tech you’d nor­mally need cool­ing fans and teams of eg­gheads with clip­boards to keep in good run­ning or­der.

I touched on the cam­era ear­lier and it’s un­doubt­edly one of the new Mate’s star fea­tures. Even with­out the AI smarts, the rear dual cam­era clus­ter, which fea­tures a 20MP mono­chrome sen­sor, a

12MP RGB sen­sor and an aper­ture of f/1.6 looks, makes it note­wor­thy, at least on paper.

I com­pared pic­tures I snapped on sev­eral Mate 10 Pros on dis­play at the launch with iden­ti­cal pho­tos taken with a Sam­sung Gal­axy S8

I’d brought along and a col­league’s iphone 8 Plus with mixed re­sults. In some shots the Mate came out tops, in oth­ers the iphone or Gal­axy had the edge.

I’m con­fi­dent my brief shootout at the launch did show that the Mate 10 Pro is up there with the best of them. And if Huawei is right about the NPU’S abil­ity to learn on the fly and im­prove the phone’s soft­ware over time, in­clud­ing the cam­era, it’s only go­ing to get bet­ter.

An­other de­part­ment in which the Mate is now on par with its afore­men­tioned flag­ship com­peti­tors is wa­ter and dust re­sis­tance, cour­tesy of an IP67 rat­ing. It’s a qual­ity Huawei gutsily flaunted at the launch with Mate 10 Pros in gold­fish bowls dot­ted about the venue, with staffers pulling them out at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals to show they were still work­ing.

For some, wa­ter re­sis­tance is an over-rated fea­ture, but as a geek who at least tries to lead a rea­son­ably ac­tive life­style, not hav­ing to worry about killing one of my most ex­pen­sive de­vices by drench­ing it in sweat or drop­ping it in wet sand while lin­ing up that epic sea­side snap­shot is now a non­nego­tiable.

The Mate range of ph­ablets has al­ways been renowned for stay­ing power and the lat­est in that line is no ex­cep­tion. Huawei claims the Mate 10 Pro’s 4000mah bat­tery will de­liver up to two days be­tween charges in mod­er­ate use and, based on my ex­pe­ri­ence with ear­lier models, I have no rea­son to doubt them.

By now you’re spec­u­lat­ing that all of this geeky good­ness can’t come cheap. You’d be right, un­for­tu­nately. The Mate line, once cel­e­brated among those in the know for their un­ri­valled price tag-to-specs-ra­tio, is now priced firmly in line with other high-end flag­ships.

You’ve al­ways needed deep pock­ets in the lit­eral sense to own a Mate. Now you’ll need them in the fig­u­ra­tive sense too. The Mate 10 Pro will set you back R17999 on pre­paid or monthly con­tracts start­ing at R699, while the swanky Porsche De­sign model comes in at an eye-wa­ter­ing R26999 or R899 on con­tract.

Huawei now clearly un­der­stands what Ap­ple has known since the launch of its first iphone more than a decade ago: that for many peo­ple a smart­phone is so much more than a mere com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice, it’s a fash­ion state­ment.

As fash­ion state­ments go, they don’t come more big and bold than the Mate 10 Pro. That it’s also ar­guably the smartest, most pow­er­ful por­ta­ble com­put­ing de­vices cur­rently avail­able doesn’t hurt ei­ther.

Whether brand con­scious con­sumers will see it that way and buy these de­vices in the num­bers needed to fur­ther ce­ment Huawei’s grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a pre­mium smart­phone brand is yet to be seen. But based on their me­te­oric progress thus far, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Fol­low Alan Cooper on Twit­ter @alan­q­cooper.

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