The Huawei P9 was one of my favorite phones of 2016, combining rock-solid build quality with a minimalist design and a very attractive price. It was, in many ways, the definition of the flagship phone for those who couldn’t afford or simply didn’t care for all the bells and whistles of a full-on premium device like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S.
For its reprise in 2017, Huawei returns with the P10, a phone that’s very much faithful to the P9, though this time it has an extra couple of tricks borrowed from Apple’s iPhone playbook plus an updated spec sheet to make it ready for another tough year of mobile competition. I spent some time with the P10 ahead of its launch today, and I found it to be a competent update to a phone that was already doing a lot of things right.
Like the P9, the new P10 comes in two sizes: a 5.1-inch device with a 1080p display and a 5.5-incher, called the P10 Plus, with WQHD resolution. Huawei’s own Kirin 960 processor lies at the heart of both, powering its EMUI 5.1 software built atop Google’s Android, however the larger model gets 6GB of RAM plus 128GB of storage versus 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage on the regular P10. Both phones have MicroSD expandability and generous batteries: 3,200mAh for the P10 and 3,750mAh for the P10 Plus.
The Leica-branded dual-camera system makes a return, with the P10 Plus benefiting from a higher class of lenses that gets it a wider f/1.8 aperture than the P10’s f/2.2. Huawei equips its new flagship phones with a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel one for colors, using the former to capture sharper detail and more light, which the latter essentially colors in. The camera is where one of the iPhone associations surfaces: Huawei now has a Portrait Mode that’s a direct match for Apple’s in the iPhone 7 Plus.
In my brief time with the P10, I found it did a reasonable job of identifying and isolating people in my frame, and then blurring out both the foreground and background to focus attention on the subject I’m trying to shoot. As with the iPhone implementation, this is a nice trick to play, but only if you don’t look in too close — no matter how smart the algorithm for separating the subject of a portrait from the background, cameras will often get the edges a little bit wrong.
It’s also hard to look at the black Huawei P10 and not be totally reminded of Apple’s iPhone. It has the same curved, more discreet antenna lines — which Meizu was first to market with, about 10 months ago — and a similar look and feel. But Huawei’s differentiation tweak is to do a wide range of colors and add a new textured-back finish the company calls "hyper diamond cut." The latter is available only on the Dazzling Blue and Dazzling Gold colorways, and it feels quite unusual, offering a more ridged surface, which I’m not yet sure I like. Huawei worked with Pantone on the specifics of the Dazzling Blue color as well as the Greenery shade that will likely garner all the attention at Mobile World Congress. I would describe it as polarizing, with my opinion being in the camp that hates it.
The new home button on the Huawei P10 shifts the fingerprint reader from the back to the front, which I’m perfectly okay with. It’s not a button per se, as it doesn’t press in (yep, just like the iPhone), but it takes in swipes and taps that turn it into a single-button alternative to the Android control keys. One tap is back, a long press takes you home, and a swipe brings up the recent apps. Android purists might scorn this change, but I think for novices this might be a better user interaction than having three icons on screen whose function isn’t immediately obvious.
This year, Huawei is extending the Leica branding to its front camera as well, and it’s doubling the brightness and extending the dynamic range. It also has an "adaptive selfie" feature built in, which will detect whether you’re taking a solo or group selfie — a groufie, in Huawei parlance — and will automatically expand to a wider angle for the latter. I like that, it’s a bit of automation that truly helps people without loading them up with extra widgets to adjust or things to be cognizant of. Provided it works as advertised, of course!
On the software front, Huawei’s got custom themes to match each of its eight exterior colors for the P10 and P10 Plus, but that’s the most superficial of its updates. I’m more intrigued by the machine learning implementation that Huawei is using to accelerate apps. The company promises that its "behaviour-based compression mechanism" will intelligently compress the apps you don’t use very often, and it’s modified the kernel so that the operating system is recycling the phone’s memory faster.
Apps on the Huawei P10, we’re promised, will open 20 percent faster than other phones without Huawei’s machine learning algorithms. When I asked for specifics on whether that means brand new phones or ones that had been used for a while, Huawei just said that its internal testing bears out that number. I also asked about whether all these customizations will affect the time it takes for Huawei phones to get Android updates, I was told it would be the converse. Huawei is working to make everything as modular as possible so that it can turn around Android updates faster.
Also faster is the touch controller driver on the Huawei P10, which uses predictive fingerprint tracking to convey a sense of snappier response to your swipes around the screens. I’m still no huge fan of Huawei’s EMUI skin — I find it tolerable rather than loveable — but I totally agree with the company’s approach of implementing under-the-hood optimizations intended to improve the quality of the entire user experience.
As to additional services on top of EMUI, Huawei is talking to Amazon twice a week, I was told, and it very much wants to bring Alexa to the P10, as it did with the Mate 9. Google Assistant is another extra that Huawei wants on its new flagship phone, but that’s not a certainty yet, so the company remains somewhat cagey on that front.
Huawei will begin shipping the P10 and P10 Plus in March across Europe, Malaysia, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of other countries.
Announced during Huawei’s press event at MWC, the prices of the P10 and P10 Plus are surprisingly higher than their predecessors, at €649 ($685) for the regular P10 and €699 ($738) for the larger model. That raises the bar of expectation higher than I had assumed while writing up my initial impressions of Huawei’s new flagship. It’s still a fine phone, but fine might not be quite good enough for such a high price point.
Photography by Sam Byford