Huawei Mate 10 first impressions: ‘intelligent’ phone’s NPU chip can run AI and an internet-free digital assistant

Huawei says its latest chip set makes the Mate 10 faster, more efficient and able to recognise subjects to take much better photos. It is also waterproof and looks just as good as Samsung and Apple’s phones

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 9:33am

The smartphone era is over – that was what Richard Yu, Huawei’s head of consumer business, told me in Berlin in August. He was, of course, building hype for the Mate 10 (and Mate 10 Pro), which the Chinese tech giant is calling the “intelligent” phone.

Announced on Monday in Munich, both variants of the Mate 10, at first glance, follow the 2017 mobile handbook closely.

The bezels have been reduced considerably from last year’s Mate 9; both devices have glass backs; the Pro has that elongated 18:9 aspect ratio. The dual Leica camera set-up from previous Huawei flagships has returned, and the aperture matches LG’s industry leading f/1.6 aperture.

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The Mate 10’s Kirin 970 chip set, which the company developed in house, is the world’s first mobile SoC (systems on a chip) to have a dedicated NPU (neural processing unit).

For those who may be unfamiliar, an NPU is essentially like a CPU (central processing unit) that has for decades been used as the “brains” of a computer, but it’s much more powerful and has the ability to adapt and grow. Yes – NPU is built for running artificial intelligence.

“In traditional CPUs and GPUs [graphic processing unit], they process information step by step. If step A happens, then B happens … they are reactive chips,” explains Justin Zhang, Huawei’s smartphone marketing senior director.

“An NPU works more like the human brain. Our brains do not wait for A to happen before we can process B. An NPU processes everything at once.”

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Right now, using voice assistants (such as Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant) on other devices requires an internet connection, because the AI is stored in the clouds. But with the Mate 10, the AI is inside the NPU. This, Huawei says, will improve efficiency and speed, not to mention eliminate the need to be connected to the internet.

I only had a brief time testing the device, so I wasn’t able to test many of the “intelligent” features Huawei is trumpeting (the phone will learn my habits as I use it, Huawei says), but the Mate 10’s cameras were indeed able to identify different objects. I pointed the lens at a flower, and a tiny plant icon shows up inside the camera app. When I moved the lens over to a man’s head, the phone knew I was trying to snap a portrait. Huawei says because the NPU can identify objects in real time, it’ll be able to improve photo performance.

“For example, if you’re taking photos of a plate of food, the camera will know to punch up the contrast to make the colours pop,” says Zhang. “If you’re taking a photo of a pet, the Mate 10 will know to focus on the fine details of its fur.”

Offline translation with Microsoft’s Translate app was also noticeably faster than on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which Huawei attributes to the NPU at work.

As mentioned earlier, the NPU also allows the Mate 10 to run a voice assistant offline, but unfortunately, that is limited to Huawei’s own HiVoice assistant, which only works in Mandarin. Huawei tells me it is working closely with Google to “maybe” bring offline capabilities to Google Assistant.

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We have reason to believe that Huawei is working closely with the software giant, because the Mate 10 is the first non-Pixel phone to run the latest version of Android (8.0, aka Oreo), though it was hard for me to tell during my hands-on with the device because Huawei’s own EMUI skin is quite heavy.

The Mate 10’s 5.9-inch 1080p LCD display is very good, but the Pro’s 6-inch Quad HD OLED panel is noticeably superior. Both devices are IP67 rated, making them the first Huawei devices to be waterproof.

In terms of look and feel, Huawei’s newest keeps pace with the LG V30, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and the iPhone X. But ultimately it’s what’s inside that counts. We’ll be sure to put the NPU to the test in our full review later this month.