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Huawei P10 review: two steps back

Although you still can’t buy its best phones in the US, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has been building a steady profile in the West over the past few years, with products like the Huawei Watch and the Nexus 6P serving as examples of what the company is capable of. Last year’s flagship phone, the P9, was also reasonably well-received.

With the P10, then, Huawei should be looking to cement itself as one of the preeminent smartphone manufacturers in the world, whether you can pick one up at your local AT&T or Verizon store or not. The P10 is an impressive phone on paper, and its announcement was one of the biggest made a month ago at Mobile World Congress. And with a UK price of £550, or about $685, Huawei isn’t shying away from positioning it as a high-end device.

The question is, what are Americans missing out on?

The P10 is both attractive and derivative. I’ve used a lot of shameless iPhone clones from Chinese companies like Meizu and Vivo over the past year or so, and the P10 isn’t in that category. It does, however, swerve pretty hard in the direction of Cupertino. With the angular P9 as a base, the P10 rounds off its corners and smooths out its edges so that the overall profile of the device is unmistakably reminiscent of the iPhone 6.

The iPhone 6 came out in 2014, however, and Huawei’s spin on the design is considerably more up to date. The dramatically skinnier side bezels are the most obvious difference when looking at the phone from the front, while on the rear the glass panel that covers the camera array offers an appealing flourish. The total lack of camera bump, despite the svelte 7mm-thick frame, also sets the P10 apart. And I love the knurled power button on the side, as well as its subtle red highlights.

The P10 might not be the most original phone in the world, but it’s hard to find faults with its fit and finish — it’s a very well crafted device. The thin layer of plastic between the glass front panel and the chamfered edges is one minor nit I could pick, however. Another is that the phone comes with a cheap plastic screen protector affixed, which you’ll want to remove immediately; trouble is, the glass underneath has no oleophobic coating, which means it’s a lot more susceptible to collecting fingerprint grease. I personally didn’t find this a huge problem, and these coatings do tend to wear out pretty quickly in my experience, but it does mean the phone feels less than pristine in a matter of seconds.

What’s unfortunate about the P10’s design is that its most impressive aspects are the areas where it diverges from iPhone uniformity. The camera panel and power button are fine as minor flourishes, but otherwise it seems that Huawei is relying on its wide selection of colors and finishes to stand out. The blue model you see pictured here is one example, complete with an unusual “hyper diamond cut” finish on the back — I wasn’t a huge fan of this, as the rough texture makes the material feel cheaper than it is. I spent more time with the matte black P10, which looks good, but is much less distinctive. Overall the P10 just makes me wish Huawei tried for something a little less conventional, because it has more neat ideas than your first impressions might suggest.

The regular P10 model is a pretty small phone by 2017 standards, with a 5.1-inch 1080p LCD screen. (A larger variant called the P10 Plus has a 5.5-inch 1440p screen.) Possible quibbles over oleophobic coatings aside, the display won’t wow or disappoint you — it’s a bright, sharp panel with solid color reproduction. I had no problem using it in bright light outdoors, and it looks good from every angle, but it doesn’t produce as wide a range of colors as the iPhone 7 or images as punchy as on Samsung’s OLED screens.

In fact, “won’t wow or disappoint you” goes for just about every aspect of the P10’s performance. The phone is powered by the Kirin 960 processor from HiSilicon, Huawei’s own chip-making subsidiary, and I found it to be entirely up to the task for a high-end phone in 2017. I spent much of my time with the P10 using it as my primary device on an eight-day vacation, which mostly meant I wanted it to take photos, navigate me through Singapore, and archive my unwanted emails as efficiently as possible. I didn’t run into regular hangups or any other issues that would have prevented me achieving those kinds of tasks, and apart from a couple of days where I played more Pokémon Go than I probably should have, the P10’s battery didn’t have any trouble lasting a full day on a charge.

There is one thing about the P10 that I found to stand out in a good way: the camera. This isn’t to say that it has dramatically better image quality than its closest competitors; in fact, I don’t think it’s at the top of the pack in that regard. But what Huawei and its partner Leica have done with the software is worth taking note of. The P10’s camera app is a great combination of simple and feature-packed — most of all, it’s just a lot of fun to use. Unlike the stock camera apps on basically every other phone out there, it feels like it was actually designed by photographers.

To understand the P10’s camera software, you need to know what hardware it’s working with. Huawei has iterated on the dual-camera approach it started with the P9, pairing a 12-megapixel sensor with a 20-megapixel monochrome unit, placing both behind f/2.2 lenses. The black-and-white sensor is more light-sensitive, meaning the color image processing pipeline has more data to work with and can theoretically produce higher quality results.

In practice, I don’t know how effective this is. I’m sure the secondary sensor is improving output one way or another, but in my experience it doesn’t quite elevate the P10 to the level of the best phone cameras out there today. But this is a thin phone without a camera bump, so it’s somewhat impressive that it’s even in the same conversation. And if you happen to be into black-and-white photography, there’s just no competition — the P10’s monochrome sensor is capable of producing gorgeous results with far more texture and depth than you’d expect from a phone.

Monochrome mode aside, the app gives you a lot to work with. A well-designed “pro” mode is activated by swiping up above the shutter button, giving you the ability to lock in ISO, shutter speed, and so on. Swipe right and you get a selection of simple but useful scene-specific modes like light painting, “good food,” and “night shot” — the last one combines multiple low-light exposures into a single well-lit frame, though you’ll want a tripod or some other method of keeping the phone absolutely still. And I’ve already covered the P10’s portrait mode, which uses the two lenses to simulate a bokeh-style blurred background to sometimes-impressive effect.

I wish I could say similarly nice things about the rest of the P10’s software, but unfortunately I cannot. The P10 runs Android 7.0 Nougat, which is a fine base to start from, but Huawei’s EMUI skin does little to endear itself to me. Most of its tweaks are innocuous enough — the quick actions on the notification shade are more numerous and functional than Google’s stock version, and there’s the occasional minor but useful idea like the ability to blur your wallpaper so that app icons are more readable. I didn’t find any of the multiple included themes attractive in the slightest, though, and some of Huawei’s extra features are just baffling. One, for example, is designed to let you “cut out” and share irregularly shaped screenshots, apparently by rapping on the display panel with a knuckle. This has a habit of activating itself with regular finger taps, however, which was endlessly annoying until a commenter below pointed out how to turn it off.

And my least favorite thing about the P10 is a collision of bad hardware and software. There’s a capacitive home button with a fingerprint sensor below the screen, which is all well and good. But it’s the only capacitive button: the traditional Android commands for back and multitasking are also shoehorned onto the same thing. You tap the button lightly to go back, hold it down to go home, and swipe it to multitask. My colleague Vlad likes this idea, but I think it’s disastrous on the P10. I constantly found myself invoking the first command when I meant to do the second and vice versa, and the third often just didn’t work at all. There’s no way to do Nougat’s neat app-switching feature, which is usually activated by tapping twice quickly on the recent apps button, and the Google app shortcut is handled with an unreliable swipe-up gesture from the bottom right of the screen.

I’ve tried, and I can’t think of a single advantage to this approach. If it’s an attempt at iPhone-style simplicity, it’s a total failure. The single home button works on iOS because its functions are clear and separate — you press it to go home, you double-tap to multitask, you hold it for Siri, and that’s pretty much it beyond the occasional fingerprint login. But the entire Android operating system is designed around the three cardinal commands you find at the bottom of almost every other phone screen, and Huawei can’t just make that fact go away by pretending only one button is necessary. Back, for example, is essential to operating virtually any Android app, and yet you can find yourself exiting apps entirely on the P10 by pressing it for a fraction of a second too long. Conversely, I can’t count the number of times I was reading a web page in Chrome and, instead of going to the home screen as intended, ended up having to reload the previous page and then go forward again before finally ending up on the home screen after a frustrated, determined long press.

You can turn this off and use on-screen buttons, thankfully, which is what I did in the end. But that’s not a great solution either, because they’re tiny and easy to miss; even then they still manage to take up too much screen space when every pixel counts on a device of this size, and you’ll find yourself staring ruefully at the P10’s chunky top and bottom bezels wondering why Huawei didn’t just put proper buttons there in the first place.

There’s quite a lot to like about the Huawei P10, and I found it mostly amenable as my main phone over the course of a couple of weeks. But even if it weren’t for its few maddening flaws, I’d be wondering who it’s for. Samsung and LG both seem to have turned in extremely strong flagship phones this year already, and if you want something more compact you’d probably be better off with a Google Pixel. And if you want something like an iPhone, well, you should really just get an iPhone. It’s hard to recommend the P10 at the price that Huawei’s asking.

What the P10 proves is that Huawei should be entirely capable of making a fantastic phone that could go toe-to-toe with almost anyone by traditional metrics. But it also proves that the company doesn’t yet know how to differentiate itself in sensible ways. The P10’s camera experience is fun and innovative, and the phone’s industrial design has some attractive elements, but elsewhere the blend of software and hardware is incoherent to the point where it just feels like a product developed without confidence or direction.

Huawei is a titan outside the US — the third-biggest smartphone vendor in the world, according to data from IDC. It has the resources to keep on trying to crack the West, and it’s sinking money into research and marketing in an attempt to overthrow Apple and Samsung. It ought to have the ability to design a phone that customers the world over would genuinely want. On the evidence of the P10, though, the US isn’t missing out on all that much.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

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