Huawei P10 review: Huawei struggles to break away from the also-rans
Last year's Huawei P9 was an impressive piece of work from the Chinese tech giant, even if it didn't make the sort of impact in western markets that Huawei must've been hoping for. Can the new P10 up the ante in 2017? New Atlas takes a look.
As in 2016, Huawei has put out an elegantly crafted handset here, and you'd be hard pressed to have any complaints about the design and feel of the P10. In this department at least, Huawei deserves a place among the Apples and Samsungs of this world, even if it's rather more bezel-heavy than some of its rivals this year.
You won't find anything particularly innovative about the design, but it's tasteful to look at and solid to hold, with a metal rear and your choice of a matte or glossy finish (it's the matte version you can see in the photos attached to this post). The rugged, red power button is a small but nice touch.
Overall, the design is a minor upgrade over the P9 (a refrain you'll be reading once or twice in this review), and it feels like Huawei has played it safe this year rather than reaching further, which means it's either running out of steam or saving itself for 2018.
Considering Huawei spent 10 minutes of its launch event talking about new colors from Pantone – you've got eight to pick from in total – it's perhaps not surprising that headline features are thin on the ground.
It's not all Huawei's fault of course, because we are in a rather flat part of the smartphone innovation cycle at the moment – even Samsung and Apple are struggling to add anything meaningfully new to their handsets – but nevertheless that makes it harder for an outsider like Huawei to wow new users.
Both in its design and in its internals, the phone lacks a compelling reason to make you want to switch from your iPhone or your Galaxy or your Pixel – or indeed your P9.
There are some highlights to talk about though, and oddly enough the fingerprint scanner is one of them, relocated from the back on the P9 to the front of this device, just as Samsung goes in the opposite direction. Huawei always makes much of the speed of its fingerprint-sensing technology, and we found it fast and accurate on board its 2017 flagship – more important than you might think if you're unlocking your phone dozens of times a day.
The fingerprint button on the front also doubles as a home button and can take the place of the other Android soft keys: push and hold to go home, tap lightly to go back, and swipe to the left or right to open the multitasking screen.
It's an odd way of working if you're used to the traditional Android approach to navigation, but after a few days' use it's actually quite intuitive, and being able to lightly tap to go back works particularly well. If you really can't live with the new system, you can revert to the standard virtual buttons through the phone settings.
The camera of the P10 plays a starring role, as it did on the P9, and again Leica joins the party to add the branding weight of its 100+ years in the photography business – though like last year we're not 100 percent sure just how much involvement Leica's engineers have had with the phone's optics.
The P9 came packed with an impressive array of pro-level camera options, like digital ISO and shutter speed settings, and happily they're all present and correct in the P10 too. Add in the selection of camera modes and it's pretty much the best camera I've seen in an Android phone from the software point of view, certainly if you want to play around with advanced settings.
The hardware isn't far behind either, with the P10 capable of some really gorgeous-looking shots from its dual camera, a 20 MP monochrome sensor combined with a 12 MP color one (the monochrome helps bring out the contrast and sharpness of an image, Huawei says).
It's very good, but it's not best-in-class good, at least based on my selection of snaps. Photos come out better than they will on most Android handsets, thanks to that dual camera, but we'd say the very best models out there (the iPhones, Galaxies, and Pixels) are still ahead overall, particularly in low light, where our Huawei P10 occasionally struggled. You can get some decent low light shots too, but you need to keep the camera and your subjects very steady, and noise and focus are issues.
To be fair to Huawei we did notice some excellent detail in our shots under normal lighting when we zoomed right in, and the black and white images taken with the dedicated sensor really can be stunning, but for the Facebook-posting masses these features aren't going to move the needle very far. At Mobile World Congress this year, Huawei set up an exhibition of very impressive photos taken by the P10, so it's a camera to be reckoned with, even if it's not the best for those hurried late-night party shots.
Portrait mode is one of the camera upgrades over the P9, and it works just like the one on the iPhone 7 Plus, letting you keep subjects in the foreground while the background gets blurred (bokeh). For the majority of the time we used it, this produced some eye-catching results, though it wasn't perfect every time.
In terms of its other specs the P10 is an unremarkable device, particularly for something at the premium end of the market. Take its 5.1-inch display, for example, which looks attractive enough in use but only offers a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel, 432 ppi, Full HD resolution. Admittedly the extra resolution of a QHD screen might not make much of a difference at this size, but it's another area where the P10 doesn't differentiate itself enough against the other phones hitting the market this year.
Meanwhile, Huawei's Emotion UI is one of my least favorite Android skins and not much has changed this time around. It looks drab and awkward in places, though this being Android you can of course install a different launcher and revamp the look of the OS without too much trouble. Huawei has also added a bunch of customization options, so you can enable or disable the app drawer, for instance.
The phone maker has also added more of its own-brand apps than I'd like (for health and messages and so on), though there's nothing specifically bad about them, and they're not hard to remove.
Underneath the Emotion UI skin is Android 7.0 Nougat, but disappointingly Google Assistant is nowhere to be seen, which is a big loss even if the app has a long way to go to be truly indispensable. The handset doesn't work with Google's Daydream VR platform either, which is another point in the negatives column.
On top of that there's no waterproofing on the P10, and while omissions like these (waterproofing, Google Assistant, Daydream) aren't necessarily deal breakers, they make it harder to recommend the P10 over other phones.
The other metric most users want to hear about is battery life, and here the P10 again proved middle-of-the-road. The phone never ran out of battery in a single day, but it came close a couple of times, and with a lot of use (GPS, gaming) you would probably be hunting for your charger by the evening.
That said, in the New Atlas battery test, where we run an hour of video over Wi-Fi at a set brightness level, the P10 dropped by only 8 percentage points, which compares favorably to the 12 percent of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, the 14 percent of the Google Pixel, and the 13 percent of the Huawei P9.
Why the average-to-excellent disparity? It's possible the P10 battery holds best when it's not doing much, like serving up video on a low-ish resolution screen, rather than when you're making calls and bringing up maps and websites.
Taking everything into account, the P10 is another nicely designed, decently specced phone from Huawei, but that's not really enough in a market where the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phones dominate. I quite like the P10, but to make a name for itself outside of China, Huawei really needs to offer a compelling set of features or a compelling price, and the P10 does neither.
The Huawei P10 is unlikely to come to the US directly, but it's on sale without a contract in Europe for €649 and the UK for £570 (roughly US$690-710), so slightly below the top-tier prices but not by all that much. It's also worth noting that the P10 Plus is another option for buyers, with a 5.5-inch, QHD display, and the option of more RAM and storage.
Having loved the P9 I was excited to see what the P10 had to offer, but Huawei remains in the chasing pack. The P10 has enough good points to suggest the Chinese company can still go toe-to-toe with Apple, Samsung and Google, particularly with its camera technology, but it's not quite there yet.
Product page: Huawei