Huawei P10 Review: The P9 ‘Fashion Update’ with a Twist All of Its Own

A year on (from the P9) and a subtle shift in emphasis for the latest Huawei consumer flagship – the company has gone all out for the most profitable sector of the market, traditionally dominated by Apple with the iPhone. Here we have front-mounted fingerprint sensor and home control, rounded aluminium unibody that’s almost indistinguishable from the iPhone 6S, plus a raft of cosmetic options – and a suitably iPhone-like bump up in price by over £100. Which is not to say that the P10, reviewed here, isn’t a great little smartphone – it is. It’s just perhaps not the one you should actually choose.

But more on that later. The price is the obvious talking point here, with the P10 selling for well over £500, despite specifications which match those on the likes of the more budget ZTE Axon 7, OnePlus 3T, and so on. Can the iPhone-esque styling and colour options (gold/green/blue/pink/silver) give Huawei a success story here?

Huawei P10 review

There’s no denying the build quality which is as solid as…again, the iPhone. Attention to detail on all corners and edge make the P10 super-easy to hold, though also super-easy to drop. And as with the iPhone, a case is almost an essential first step – and then you don’t get to see the colours or feel the metal. The usual fundamental flaw in modern smartphone design, taken to extremes by the Mi Mix, but also a problem here.

The 5.1”-screened P10 here is a lovely size for every day use though, you can wrap your hand around it securely (perhaps in a thin TPU case) and it’s just about possible to use the interface one-handed – at a pinch.

The display is gorgeous and (optionally) very bright – it’s 1080p and IPS-NEO again (like the P9) – and I had no complaints about visibility. Gorilla Glass 5 should provide sufficient protection, though I was amused to see Huawei ship the P10 with a plastic screen protector out of the factory. It looks horrible and it has been taken off for the photos here. Underneath the protector there’s no oleophobic coating, as on most other non-budget phones, though this has recently been addressed in currently shipping P10s, it seems – it’s worth checking the one you’re buying ahead of time. The P10 is usable without the coating, but it does gather and retain fingerprints rather too much.

Huawei P10 review - bezel and navi-key

Although the bottom bezel seems artificially large (again, think iPhone design and top/bottom bezel symmetry), all is not as it seems, since the P10 has a huge trick up its sleeve. Rather than only using virtual Android controls, which take up screen real estate, there’s the option to use the new ‘navigation key’, i.e. the fingerprint sensor, which now doubles as a back, home and recent apps control. And it works brilliantly.

The P10 Navigation key
The navi-key gestures are explained very well and are easy to grasp quickly.

Tap once for ‘back’, tap and hold for ‘home’, swipe for ‘recent apps’, and you’ll find you can ditch the onscreen (default) controls altogether. Meaning more room on the display for your applications to show content, all the time. Yes, there’s a short learning curve while you adapt to the new system, but trust me – it only takes minutes, and you’ll be enjoying a bigger and more immersive Android experience.

Huawei P10 review - bottom edge - jack, USB Type C and speaker

Around the sides and bottom of the P10 are some nicely tactile power and volume buttons, a welcome 3.5mm headphone jack (not always a given now, sadly), a grille for the mono loudspeaker (which is decently loud and of good quality) and a USB Type C jack, capable of receiving up to 4A at 5V from the supplied (or compatible) charger. This works very well indeed, with the internal 3200mAh battery not always able to cope on a day of heavy use, so 15 minutes fast charge before heading out for the evening should get the phone through to bedtime easily.

Huawei P10 review - back, smooth metal on the whole...

It’s worth noting that there’s no attempt at waterproofing the Huawei P10. This isn’t a given on any smartphone, but you expect it once you get above £500 and into flagship pricing tiers. After all, if you do drop the P10 into a puddle or sink, you’re out of pocket massively, while you can accept lack of waterproofing on a £150 budget handset – just buy another one at worst case.

I’m sure this isn’t the first smartphone to feature this, but I did note that the GPS chip under the hood here supported the new/upcoming European ‘Galileo’ satellites, in addition to the existing American, GLONASS and BDS arrays. The positioning power we have in our phones in 2017 is…. extraordinary. I remember sitting in an open field in 1995 waiting 20 minutes for a ‘fix’ and getting very excited. Now you can be located in a second or so anywhere on the planet. And with a hundred times lower device bulk and power consumption. That’s 20 years of progress!

Huawei P10 review - cameras

Imaging

Up at the top on the mainly metal back is a glass section covering plastic (for some of the RF aerials) and with the imaging hardware – twin cameras, both with f/2.2 apertures and OIS, one with a 20MP monochrome sensor and one with a 12MP RGB colour sensor, plus dual LED (two-tone) flash and a small window for the ‘laser’ auto-focus. There’s the usual LEICA branding though I’m not convinced of the extent of the camera maker’s involvement.

Results are OK in good light conditions, see the samples below, though I was ultimately disappointed in comparison to other 2017 flagships, especially when light levels dropped. The monochrome sensor is supposed to add extra contrast and detail into colour images and, in my tests, at last I’m seeing some evidence for this working (it didn’t on early P9 review models), though you have to pixel-peep to really see any difference. Despite the potential difficulty of reconciling OIS-stabilised shots from the two different camera units, stabilisation is here, yet the benefits are ruined by over-zealous noise reduction. I’m sure a system firmware update will help here, Huawei, but in the meantime don’t expect too much from the P10 camera.

Sample, shots, taken at the highest 16:9 resolution supported, i.e. 9MP, using full data from both cameras – each image with overview and then a 1:1 crop to show quality:

Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – here showing a degree of over-exposure. Naughty algorithms, Huawei…
Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – again some over-exposure and lack of definition on the finer threads
Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – decent contrast here from the P10, though the image is starting to get digitally noisy – we’re right on the edge here!
Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – and there we go, noise reduction and sharpening duelling together and resulting in a mess if you look closely enough…
Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – and when light levels get really low, images descend into water-colour parody of what the scene should look like. Very disappointing.
Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – moving subjects in low light are a problem, but then they are for almost every other current smartphone camera, so… Bring back Xenon flash!

The P10’s camera is incredibly fast at taking photos – so fast, in fact, that it’s a problem by default. If your thumb lingers on the capture icon for even a tenth of a second then your snap turns into a burst of photos, usually not what you want. Happily, albeit slightly confusingly, there’s an option in Camera’s settings to assign a long press on the capture icon to ‘focus’ and this worked much better in my tests. Though, of course, you’d have to re-enable ‘burst’ for the school sports day!

As with previous Huawei dual camera phones, there’s ‘wide aperture’ mode, taking a range of shots very quickly at different settings and then letting you combine them to order to simulate differently focussed, low-depth-of-field photos. This works fairly well, though the results always look artificial and purists will rather get up close to their subject and perform ‘bokeh’ the traditional way.

In addition to the usual shooting modes:

Camera modes on the P10

…I loved the ‘Pro’/manual mode here, with controls that pop out besides the standard shutter control:

Pro mode controls

Both the rear and front facing camera have portrait and beauty modes, providing artily blurred backgrounds beyond anything in the 1 metre field of view, plus beautification of skin blemishes – in the usual Huawei way. These work surprisingly well, as you can see here (apologies for the ugly subject!)

Example photo from the Huawei P10
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing pixel-level detail – I’m tempted to say that the front camera works even better than the rear ones – in fact, it does and has a larger f/1.9 lens. Go figure. And stick to selfies on the P10 – it’s GREAT at them!

Video capture is at up to 4K and can be stabilised in two ways – the OIS is always on, plus there’s software stabilisation too – put the two together and footage is truly steadicam-like. Impressive in good light, though the low f/2.2 aperture does make for ‘noisy’ footage in lower light conditions. The captured audio is in stereo too, making the P10 great for general video work, though perhaps not in a live music scenario, where you often find both low light and high volumes which will overload the general purpose microphones here.

Interface and performance

Performance for applications and games on the P10 was stunning – or at least up with other 2017 flagships, with no lag at all, thanks to a Kirin 960 chipset and 4GB RAM. As usual with EMUI 5.1, the UI skin here over Android 7, there are algorithms to leap in and terminate applications that have been running for a while in the background and which might be compromising performance and battery life, though this is sensible for regular users and it’s not as if applications take long to launch again when needed.

Also sensible for ‘normobs’ is the presence of a ‘Storage cleaner’ built into Settings, making it a doddle to clear up temporary files, close applications and generally have a Spring Clean:

Storage cleaner

A common complaint in Huawei and Honor device reviews is that the UI skin that Huawei puts on its Android phones is too different, too wacky, and not close enough to ‘stock’ – or at least what anyone used to other Android phones would expect.

EMUI 5 addresses these complaints head on. There’s now a choice of the ‘Standard’ EMUI launcher, where all application icons live on the home screens, and a ‘Drawer’ layout, which most would argue is err… more ‘standard’, where you just put what you want on the home screens and everything is also accessed in an app drawer when needed. Naming ironies aside, this is an important option and something that I think Huawei had to do.

Choosing a homescreen style

Although I tend to only keep around a dozen of the very best third party apps or games installed on my Android phones and so am able to live with these on homescreens or in folders, I accept that it was a major pain for anyone with much, much more installed. EMUI 5’s Drawer interface is well done too, with an alphabetic index down the right of the screen – just tap the letter you want and you’re taken straight to that section of the apps list – useful when you’ve got potentially hundreds of apps and games installed!

The Huawei first party applications have acquired a new visual style for EMUI 5, with common actions in a pod-like graphical control at the bottom of each screen – these are hard to argue against since they’ll lead new users more easily into discovering the main things they can do with their data, even if they have nothing to do with Android’s own conventions, as dreamed up by Google.

You can now long press on any notification shade controls to go straight to the appropriate settings pane – an intuitive aspect that works across the board here. In addition, the much-maligned EMUI notifications shade has been streamlined and bug fixed and now works better – the inline expansions are subtly different to those in stock Android, but I had absolutely no complaints.

Home screens
The default home screen load-out, with the optional ‘app drawer’ shortcut enabled on the left and disabled on the right screenshot….

Huawei has done a good job with the app load-out here, using a combination of Google applications and first party alternatives and with only minimal duplication – most new users won’t have to do too much reconfiguring or app hunting to get started.

Under the hood, EMUI 5 apparently monitors resource usage to ensure smoother running on a per-user basis, using a combination of smart CPU management based on most recently used apps and storage defragmentation, including replacing the native Android file system with F2FS , which should be more reliable in the long term. Allegedly!

With an ‘App Twin’ feature in Settings, you can now dual-log-into WhatsApp and Facebook, if you have more than one account. I’ll leave this to fans to verify though – I don’t use either! (Why not? It’s a long story, for another time…)

Overall, Emotion UI 5 is a big step forwards for Huawei and Honor phones generally, and works really well on the P10 here.

Verdict

In addition to the other caveats above, there are two other dark clouds over the P10, and they’re of Huawei’s own making. You see, they also announced the P10 Plus and this brings in a 5.5” QHD display for only 8mm extra length to the phone. And the Plus model has extra storage and RAM options, a main camera with much larger f/1.8 aperture, and a 3750mAh battery. Now, the Plus is slightly harder to find for sale, and is usually well over £100 (or local equivalent) more expensive, but it’s undoubtedly the better option if it’s available where you are in the world and if you can find the cash.

Secondly, the existing P9, from last year, has also now received the EMUI 5 update and the P9’s now not far off half the P10’s price yet with very similar specifications. So, as I see it, you’d have to really, really want the colour options or the new navigation key system…!

Huawei P10 review - top bezel

But either way, Huawei gets your money, I guess – and the P10 is a lovely little smartphone. Yes, it’s overpriced, but buying it on contract should fix that. Yes, it’s far too similar to the iPhone in styling (where are Apple’s lawyers, I wonder?), but the coloured variants at least add some flair. Yes, the rear cameras disappoint, but hey at least the selfie camera is stunning… Overall, the P10 is a very capable little Android smartphone in its own right and deserving of your attention if how a smartphone looks is as important to you as how it performs.

Review unit kindly supplied by Vodafone UK.

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  • Fingerprint Sensor on home screen button. It is more useful, and easier to reach, on the rear of the device though, even though it runs the risk of smudging the camera lens with a greasy fingerprint.