Huawei Mate 10 Pro review: NPU adds intriguing AI possibilities to an already refined and powerful phone
In specs, looks and photos the Mate 10 Pro can compete with the iPhone X or Galaxy Note 8, while its proprietary Kirin 970 chip and powerful neural processing unit open it up to a host of AI opportunities
While Huawei’s newest flagship, the Mate 10, has all the eye-catching smartphone features of 2017, with this device it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
This review is of the more premium Pro variant of the Mate 10, but other than the OLED display panel (exclusive to the Pro), everything else mentioned can be applied to the standard edition.
Huawei Mate 10 first impressions: ‘intelligent’ phone’s NPU chip can run AI and an internet-free digital assistant
Design and hardware
The Mate 10 Pro has slim bezels bordering a bright and vibrant display with an 18:9 aspect ratio. Sleek but tough Gorilla Glass 5 on front and back is held together by an aluminium frame, while two specced-out cameras can be found on the reverse. In other words, it’s like every other big name 2017 phone.
Though the Mate 10 Pro is a highly polished piece of gadgetry, it’s hard to gush too much about a general design vibe that is now the norm.
Software and features
Under the bonnet is where things get exciting. The Mate 10 Pro runs on a Kirin 970, Huawei’s proprietary SoC (system on a chip). Last year, the Kirin 960 was arguably the most powerful Android mobile processor on the market, topping Qualcomm and Samsung’s offerings, and the Kirin 970 looks to push the lead further with the world’s first NPU (neural processing unit).
An NPU, as the word “neural” implies, is built to handle artificial intelligence, and the Mate 10 Pro is the first smartphone to have one built inside its processor.
While AI, thanks to decades of sci-fi fiction, can bring to mind fantastical ideas like killer sentient robots with Austrian accents or talking cars, reality is more boring. AI in its current form simply means more efficient software and features.
For example: translating text on the Mate 10 Pro with Microsoft’s Translator app is incredibly fast. Huawei worked directly with Microsoft to customise the app to take advantage of the Kirin 970’s NPU, which can process text and images up to 25 times faster than a GPU. I was able to translate an entire block of text from a physical Chinese newspaper to English in under 20 seconds – without an internet connection.
Huawei says it has made its NPU an open platform for mobile app development, so any developer interested in optimising their app to work with the NPU can do so.
The Mate 10 Pro is one of the first phones on the market to run Android 8.0 (aka Oreo), the latest version of the operating system. Even though Huawei’s own software, EMUI, sits on top, it is smart enough to not get in the way of Oreo’s new features such as picture-in-picture and more granular notification controls.
In fact, the version of EMUI found on the Mate 10 Pro may be the leanest and least annoying Chinese Android skin I’ve used yet.
Performance and battery life
Photography is another area that makes big use of the phone’s AI handling. The Mate 10 Pro’s camera can recognise scenes and objects in real time, and tweak photo settings accordingly.
Huawei is eager to show off that this feature really works too, because the camera app will display a small icon in the lower left corner identifying the object. Point the camera at a cat and you get a cat icon. Bring the lens over to a dog and the icon immediately changes to a dog. It can even tell the difference between a sunny day and a cloudy one, midday sun or sunset.
Does this AI-assisted photography result in photos that are always far superior to other top smartphone shooters? No. Again, the AI here is less a miracle worker than a helping hand. Because the camera knows to dial up the ISO at night, or use a faster shutter speed when shooting moving objects, it gives the person taking the photo a bigger margin of error.
In general I found the Mate 10 Pro to outperform the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the iPhone 8 in standard point-and-shoot scenarios. Night shots with the Mate 10 Pro, in general, appear cleaner, with less grain and noise.
Overall, the phone’s performance is solid. Surprisingly, though, it is not as zippy as one would expect from a top-of-the-line device. The Mate 10 Pro isn’t slow per se, but I’ve seen a few apps crash and some slower-than-usual load times for apps like Google Maps.
It’s nothing deal breaking, and perhaps future software updates will address this. But as of now, the Mate 10 Pro isn’t as smooth as, say, the LG V30. When pushed, the device also gets warmer than most other phones I’ve used this year. Perhaps that NPU is very power intensive?
Battery life is still excellent, but that’s likely due to the fact that Huawei packed in a significantly larger battery (4,000 mAh) than what its competitors are doing. In six days of use, only once did the phone not last an entire day.
Huawei has been making very good handsets for a couple of years now, but each device tended to have its own glaring flaw – with the P9 it was subpar software, and with the Mate 9 and P10 it was outdated hardware design.
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With the Mate 10 Pro, the company has crafted its most refined device yet. Both in specs and in looks, the Mate 10 Pro can compete with the iPhone X or Galaxy Note 8, with the added potential of NPU to boot. But whether consumers actually see Huawei as a brand that is equal to Apple and Samsung remains to be seen.
Dimensions: 154.2 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
Weight: 178 grams
Display: 6-inch 2160 x 1080 OLED panel
Battery: 4,000 mAh
OS version reviewed: Android 8.0 with EMUI 8.0
Processor: Kirin 970
Cameras: Dual 20-megapixel and 12-megapixel lens with f/1.6 aperture (back); 8-megapixel with f/2.0 aperture (front)
Memory: 64/128GB ROM; 4/6GB RAM
Colours: Grey, blue, brown
Mate 10: HK$4,780
Mate 10 Pro: HK$6,380
Porsche Design Mate 10: HK$11,888