Love it or hate it, there’s no question that Apple’s iPhone lineup brings some things to the table that rival devices do not. Specifically, Apple’s designs and its attention to detail are completely unmatched. There are some Android phones with gorgeous designs and there are some with sleek software enhancements, but none offer the total package that Apple’s iPhone affords.
It stands to reason, then, that rival companies would copy the iPhone in some ways. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and Apple has copied various things from other companies as well. The iOS Notification Center was inspired by Android, Apple’s new app switcher interface in iOS 7 is a blatant webOS ripoff, and the company’s iPhone 4, 4S, 5 and 5s all bear a striking resemblance to an LG smartphone that debuted in 2006.
It’s the nature of the beast.
Of course, many Android phone makers take inspiration from different aspects of Apple’s iPhone — not just Samsung. Try as they might, however, no other company has been able to offer an end-to-end user experience that even approaches the iPhone.
Until now, perhaps.
Huawei on Wednesday unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, the Ascend P7. If you live in the United States, the odds are good that you’ve never heard of Huawei. And if you have heard of Huawei, the odds are still good that you’ve never seen one of its smartphones in person.
But if you plan to purchase a new phone this year, you should sincerely hope that soon changes.
I have spent more than a week testing Huawei’s new Ascend P7 and I’ve come away completely surprised. Everything about this phone was surprising to me, from the hardware to the software to the user interface design.
We’ll start by stating the obvious: The Ascend P7 has borrowed a great deal from Apple’s iPhone.
Huawei’s handset design is quite unique in some ways, but it is also very familiar in others. The front and back of the phone are covered with Corning’s latest Gorilla Glass, and beneath the rear glass panel lies a wonderfully detailed pattern that catches the light and draws the eye. Huawei says it took seven different layers of various materials to achieve the effect, and it really is gorgeous and unique.
While certain individual elements of the design are new, the overall look is quite familiar — it looks like an iPhone 5 with no home button that has been flattened by a steam roller.
The overall shape of the phone is the same flat, rounded rectangle that we have seen from Apple for the past two years. The sides and top of the phone are also wrapped with a gorgeous anodized aluminum band with polished, chamfered edges.
Again, just like the iPhone.
Similarities between the Ascend P7 and Apple’s iPhone also extend to the phone’s software, which is a heavily customized version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat.
Huawei calls its Android interface “EmotionUI,” and it includes a number of cool and useful features.
It also takes a few obvious cues from iOS.
For one thing, EmotionUI is the only Android build from a major smartphone vendor that does away with Android’s app grid. Most Android phones have a series of home screens on which users can arrange application shortcuts and widgets, and then there is a master app grid that lists every app installed on the phone.
The P7 has no such grid. Instead, it is set up like iOS, where icons for each and every app on the device are spread across the various home screens.
Beyond that, the P7 also ships with several pre-installed themes that can change the look of the interface, and each one includes a different icon set. It just so happens that one of those pre-installed themes — “Dream” — features flat designs and bold, bright colors… just like iOS 7.
There is really no question that Huawei’s new flagship phone was inspired by Apple’s iPhone. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. If you’re going to look somewhere for inspiration, the best-selling smartphone in the world isn’t a bad place to look.
Of course, we’re not sure Apple will feel the same way.
The materials and build on the Ascend P7 are phenomenal. There is barely any plastic on the phone’s exterior aside from the bottom of the device and thin strips that help seat the glass face and rear panel.
Huawei’s Ascend P7 also features a design that is positively gorgeous.
At just 6.5 millimeters thick, the P7 is shockingly thin and it feels fantastic in the hand. For comparison, the HTC One (M8) is 9.35 millimeters thick, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is 8.1 millimeters thick, and Apple’s iPhone 5s is 7.6 millimeters thick.
Equally impressive is the fact that Huawei was able to make the bezel on the sides of the P7’s full HD 1080p display so narrow. The result is a smartphone with a nice big 5-inch screen that is still quite comfortable to use with one hand.
Despite the fact that the Ascend P7’s display is a full inch larger than the screen on the iPhone 5s, Huawei’s handset is only 17% wider than the iPhone. It’s pretty remarkable, actually.
In terms of striking a balance between screen size and overall handset size, it really doesn’t get any better than the Ascend P7.
Also impressive are the cameras on Huawei’s new phone.
Huawei’s rear camera on the P7 is a 13-megapixel Sony unit with five elements that captures very clear photos with impressive color reproduction. The camera software is also well-made and versatile, packing in plenty of filters and effects that novices and more skilled photographers alike will appreciate.
The bigger story may be around front, where Huawei has fully embraced the selfie era with a front-facing 8-megapixel camera, also with five elements. For those keeping score, that’s the same resolution as the iPhone’s rear camera.
It’s easy to joke about selfies but the fact of the matter is that they are now a hugely important part of the smartphone experience for millions upon millions of users. The quality of front-facing cameras on smartphones is going to improve dramatically as a result, and Huawei is way ahead of the curve.
Also included in the camera software is a special group selfie feature called “groufie” that captures more people in a single frame using panorama stitching, an option to capture selfies with a voice command, and an “ultra snap shot” feature that can open the camera app and snap a photo in just 1.3 seconds while the phone is asleep.
I haven’t spent much time with Huawei phones in recent years, so making my way around the Ascend P7’s custom software on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat was fun for me. It’s rare these days that I come across something on a phone that I haven’t already seen 50 times.
Huawei’s EmotionUI is similar to other Android builds in many ways, but it has a unique style and many elements that other custom builds do not have.
For one thing, most vendors try to create a design identity and then spread it across as much of the interface as possible. This strategy obviously makes sense, but Huawei went a different direction by including several ways for users to customize the P7’s interface.
There are plenty of third-party Android apps that allow the user to apply different themes that change the look of an Android phone’s home screen and app icons. Unlike other big vendors, Huawei actually includes this functionality out of the box.
The Ascend P7 includes a “Themes” app that ships with nine different visual styles the user can switch between on the fly. Like the aforementioned “Dream” theme that bears a striking resemblance to iOS 7, each theme switches out icons, wallpapers and other visual elements.
Beyond themes, users have additional controls over other areas of the interface as well. For example, a long-press in an open space on a home screen will open a menu with several options, one of which is “Transitions.” This will present users with eight different options for the animations displayed as the user swipes left and right between home screens.
Also included in the P7’s software is an app permission manager that can increase battery life by restricting certain apps’ access to background processes, a Do Not Disturb feature that can be scheduled, and a super battery-saving mode like the ones found on Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and the HTC One (M8).
Actually, Huawei’s previous-generation flagship phone had an extreme power-saving mode long before the S5 or M8 debuted, and it’s even more efficient on the P7. Huawei says that with just 10% of the 2,500 mAh battery’s charge remaining, the Ascend P7 will last a full day in standby using this “ultra battery” mode.
Functionally, the P7’s software is very similar to other customized versions of Android. The look is unique, but most of the functionality comes from Google’s core Android software.
I will say this, however: one of the few big complaints I have is that the software on the P7 is a bit sluggish at times. The phone is powered by a quad-core 1.8GHz processor but you wouldn’t know it when you swipe up from the bottom of the display and Google Now takes two, three, even four times as long to launch as it does on other modern smartphones.
Beyond a few stutters and stammers here and there during usage that simply aren’t seen on flagship phones from big-name Android phone vendors like Samsung, HTC and LG, the Huawei Ascend P7 looks and feels like a premium high-end phone.
Full HD resolution on the phone’s 5-inch display works out to a pixel density of 445 pixels per inch, making the screen very sharp. The overall quality isn’t on par with Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels or the Super LCD 3 screen on HTC’s M8, but it’s still beautiful and quite impressive.
The cameras are impressive as well — especially the front-facing 8-megapixel selfie camera, which is far better than any rival offering — and the software is unique and functional.
Huawei’s hardware and design on the Ascend P7 are phenomenal. This phone is easily among the best I have tested in terms of build, materials and feel. The glass and anodized aluminum are premium, the seven-layer effect on the back is gorgeous, and the phone is incredibly thin and compact for a handset with a 5-inch full HD display.
Battery life was a bit subpar during my testing. I found that the P7 was just able to carry me through a full day of average use, but it died several times overnight unless I charged it a bit in the evening. And with heavy use, it was ready to die by sundown unless I charged it during the day.
I should note that the Ascend P7 model Huawei sent me to test was not a U.S. phone. As such, it is possible that constantly looking for 4G LTE frequencies that are not available in the U.S. had a negative impact on battery life.
…which brings me to the bad news.
Huawei’s new Ascend P7 will begin launching in some markets next week, and the vendor has plans to release the phone in many markets across the globe. The United States, unfortunately, is currently not one of those markets.
It’s a shame, but it’s also completely expected. The U.S. is a very difficult market to break into because it is controlled but just a few huge wireless carriers. They have a handful of vendors they give the bulk of their support to, and the rest whither. Just ask Nokia, which was barely a blip on anyone’s radar in the U.S. even when it was the top smartphone vendor in the world.
If things do somehow change later this year and Huawei manages to strike a deal to bring the P7 to one or more U.S. carriers, it is absolutely a phone worthy of your consideration. In the meantime, readers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere can check out the Ascend P7 when it begins hitting store shelves next week.