In my second life as a phone reviewer, I get to use a lot of different devices and when I consider the virtues of a device, I tend to look at three factors initially to see if it fits my usage. I expect a phone to have usable performance, all day battery life and reasonable ergonomics with no glaring issues. In effect, I want a phone, no matter its price, to have decent enough performance to be usable every day and for that performance to be predictable and consistent. My battery usage tends to be fairly light and almost all devices I have used for the last year comfortably give me a full day of use whilst my ergonomic requirements stretch only as far as asking whether the device can be held comfortably and used easily on the train and whilst generally moving about through my daily routine. Not since the shocking battery life of the HTC Desire HD have I had to declare a phone as failing in any of these categories and yet the Huawei Ascend P6 somehow manages to fall over in all three.
Despite a damning opening salvo, I had to look further to try and work out how Huawei had got it so wrong and to confirm my initial suspicions. As always, I decided to start with a look at the specs which left me even more confused. Huawei have packed the P6 with a range of high end sounding specs that should really have no trouble powering the included build of Android 4.2.2. The P6 is driven by Huawei's own K3V2 processor which is a 1.5Ghz quad-core Cortex A9 based system on chip which includes a 16 core GPU and is backed up by a full 2Gb of RAM. Impressive stuff.
The P6 has a rather pleasant 4.7" 1280x768 pixels IPS+ LCD screen with Gorilla Glass protection that is wonderfully sharp and a delight to look at with a good range of brightness adjustment and a responsive digitiser leading to generally perfect recognition of taps and swipes. It is a lovely screen that also appears to have decent colour balance and is readable in bright sunlight. It is not quite up to the standards of an iPhone screen or an HTC screen, but it is good. Above the screen is where you can find the surprisingly pixel-rich 5Mp front facing camera along with the proximity and light sensors.
Pleasingly, Huawei have mitigated the meagre 8Gb of built-in storage with microSD card expansion, accessible through its own tray above the SIM tray on the right hand side of the device. Whilst this is a reasonable solution, it would still be better if 16Gb of storage were provided by default.
The buttons are also on the right hand side of the P6 and are well positioned. I am rather picky about mobile phone buttons and have frequently criticised HTC for how poor theirs are. Huawei have done a reasonable job here as the buttons are easy to find and responsive though I would prefer them to have a little more travel and be slightly more raised from the metal edge of the phone.
Up top is where Huawei have located the micro USB charging port. There is also a secondary mic which is used for noise cancellation here. Normally I prefer the charging port on the bottom of the device but that wasn't possible here as Huawei have opted for a truly interesting and neat piece of original design with the curved bottom of the P6. It actually does make the device slightly more comfortable to hold and gives the P6 a nice overall look.
Unfortunately, the pleasantly rounded underside seems to have led to one of the worst pieces of design I have seen on a phone. The headphone jack is on the left side of the P6. I urge you to re-read that sentence as I still find it surprising despite having used the P6 for two weeks and having then written the aforementioned sentence! Who in their right mind would want the headphone socket on the side of a phone!? It is almost impossible to have headphones plugged in and put the P6 into an ordinary pocket. An ergonomic mess has been caused by this headphone socket and not just because of the fear you will induce in your local tailor when you ask him to accommodate the design in your next pair of trousers. The SIM tray removal tool is designed to sit in the headphone socket and indeed it was neatly placed in that socket when I received my P6. Plugging headphones in means either leaving the tool at home - the sensible option - or most likely losing the tool as I nearly did when I had to work out what to do with it. It is almost as if Huawei added a headphone jack to the P6 only to hold the SIM removal tool and not to actually be useful as a headphone jack.
Despite all this, the overall look and feel of the P6 is fantastic. This is a very slim device at only 6.2mm thick and it is light at 120g. The metal edging around the three straight edges of the phone combined with the rounded bottom combine to make this a very compelling piece of hardware to hold and look at. It is classy and solid displaying fantastic build quality alongside a lightness of touch rarely seen this side of an iPhone.
Huawei would appear to be capable of putting out some really excellent hardware, whether it be through the simple and brutal strength of something like the G510 or the slender lines of the P6. Yes, there are faults, but there are touches of greatness here. Software however is a completely different ball game. Huawei present to us Emotion UI 1.6 which is their take on what Android should be.
Before I dive into the detail, I must admit to being a little confused as to why so many manufacturers feel the need to give us an alternative take on Android without ensuring that what they are offering is actually better. Yes, there are parts of all of these so called "skins" that are an improvement on parts of Android, but since Jellybean (Android 4.1) I have seen no need for them on the whole. Even HTC Sense 5 which is perhaps one of the least intrusive and most "Androidy" of the skins seems overbearing and unnecessary in large parts. I much prefer the lighter touch as employed by the likes of Motorola in their RAZR i or by Asus on most of their devices where a few simple enhancements alongside additional apps and widgets are all you get. Asus get it right by also offering you the option to disable most of their changes and revert to stock Android should you wish. I am not a stock Android apologist but I do believe that software is extremely hard to get right.
Android has developed a consistent and recognisable user interface which Huawei have ripped apart with Emotion UI. But they have not put it back together and maintained their own consistency. At least HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz maintain that consistency. Emotion UI is heavy and overbearing and quite frankly, not to my taste. There are many features to discuss here, but I will begin with themes.
Themes have always felt a little strange to me. I think it is great that you can customise your device, but themes need to be able to affect everything in the look and feel of the software in order to maintain a consistent design approach and Huawei have not managed to make that happen with Emotion UI. The themes are not really to my taste but no matter which you pick, they are only skin deep. Many items are not changed such as menus, some app icons, the notification drawer and more. Still, most icons do change as does the lockscreen.
Huawei provide an entirely different user paradigm in their launcher. I am not sure if it is better or worse, but it is so very different that I am sure it will confuse some people. There is no app drawer. There are only home screens. This is exactly like iOS is presented on an iPhone but of course Android also has widgets. Widgets and app icons intermingle as on a normal home screen, but there is no way to see an alphabetical list of all installed apps. Given that many widgets take up a full page, it can be quite hard to find an app on your various home screens. As the last home screen becomes full, new ones are created up to a maximum of nine beyond which there is nowhere for an app icon to go and despite being installed, you will not be able to tap on an icon to open the app of your choice. App icons can also appear fairly randomly on unexpected home screens - wherever there is space really. Fortunately, folders can be used to help keep things in check.
Below the home screens there is a dock which shows whenever you are not using an app. This can hold a maximum of five icons. Home screens can be added or removed easily via the fairly common helicopter view.
The notification drawer has been fairly heavily customised and sports an opaque light colour scheme with quick toggles across the top. Quite a few toggles can be put there and you can scroll the list horizontally. Thankfully notifications work exactly as they should as Huawei have not changed the rules around which notifications show in their enhanced expanded states.
The settings menu has been re-organised. Most operating systems including iOS, Windows Phone and Android have a fairly scattered approach to their settings menu but Google have definitely done the best job of the lot. Unfortunately Huawei have confused matters somewhat by adding tabs to the top of the list. The items in the general tab are not customisable and in fact serves to confuse more than help. This is one area where I really object to changes by manufacturers as the order of items in the settings are fairly sensible to start with so please, don't make it worse.
Whilst the P6 is heavily skinned, many apps are actually very similar to the normal stock Android ones but with Huawei's design take on them. I applaud the efforts towards consistency but it is not entirely successful as some apps are very different such as the music app. This leads to a state where opening some apps leaves you somewhere fairly familiar, opening others does not.
All told, the software on the P6 is not terrible, but it is terribly slow and in some places the design is harsh and clunky. The themes are not to my taste and the whole look and feel of the device seems to remove the dark broody nature of Android and not replace it with either the dark but very clean look of Windows Phone or the much brighter and more candied but still orderly and streamlined look of iOS. Whether this is a positive is very subjective but I strongly believe that the basic look and feel of all three of these leading mobile operating systems is successful and Huawei are not.
The camera interface that Huawei provide is nice and simple and encourages just shooting lots of pictures which I like. It has the usual touch to focus and then you tap the large button on the right to capture your image. There are only a few simply settings immediately available, including a toggle into video mode.
There are a few special camera modes, but I left mine on smart most of the time. The HDR mode works pretty well and helps when capturing in unevenly lit environments. In general this camera performs best with HDR on, but it does slow down the speed of image capture which can be a problem too. The panorama mode weirdly only works in portrait mode and produces passable results that are easily bested by most other high end devices today. I could not see what the beauty mode was doing for my images, it seemed useless, but there are some other effects available through the effects option which work fine. The burst mode - activated by touching and holding the capture button - deserves a mention for being particularly poor. The P6 seems unable to keep up and I never managed to get burst mode shots to be properly focussed.
The camera on the P6 is best described as OK. In good light, outdoors, it is capable of well balanced shots which capture a very good level of detail and resolve colours nicely. Shots are produced with low noise levels and good control of shadows and white balance. Fairly impressive. Using the P6 indoors is a totally different story. Even in well lit rooms, I found the camera produced pictures that were very disappointing with lots of noise, poor contrast and without accurate focus. There is a distinct lack of detail and many of the pictures were unusable. The indoor performance of the P6 camera was frankly on par with the likes of the Lumia 520 which is itself a very basic shooter and only captures images at 5 megapixels while Huawei have endowed the P6 with an 8 megapixel sensor. Video on the P6 suffers the same issues when indoors but the 1080p capture mode outdoors can produce some lovely clear videos with good autofocus results. You can see some sample pictures taken with the P6 here.
(click on images for full resolution versions)
Using the P6 as a phone is to all intents and purposes excellent. It has decent signal strength when connected to a cellular network while calls are fairly loud and clear. I never had any complaints. It seems that the WiFi reception is not quite as good, but it is certainly still good enough.
The software on the P6 is not offensive, but it is certainly not great. It is not the worst issue though. That ignominy falls to the performance which is frankly terrible. Despite having adequate hardware specs on paper, this is a device that refuses to perform tasks quickly and will stubbornly crash and hang with frustrating regularity. Is this the fault of Emotion UI? Installing Apex launcher gives a more regular Android look and feel to the P6, but the performance remains poor. Adding widgets to the Emotion UI launcher is incredibly slow and clunky. The jerkiness of animations is reminiscent of low end Android devices of years past and scrolling through lists almost never reaches the 60 frames per second required for the smooth feel of such things. Worse, the performance is inconsistent. Sometimes, for a minute the device feels fast enough and then it will hang for upwards of ten seconds for no apparent reason.
Superficially apps perform well, but put the P6 next to another Android device - say an MTK6589 powered device, hardly a powerhouse of a chipset - and apps suddenly feel slow to load with far too many blank screen moments as data is pulled off the internal storage and processed. Scrolling around in Google maps would test the patience of a saint and launching the app switcher ended up being far more bothersome than simply finding the app I wanted on my home screen and launching it from there.
The issues around performance are compounded by the thermal deficiencies of the P6. It is a very thin device with limited space inside, but the level of heat produced when under any sort of load is alarming. On a number of occasions the device has powered down as it has got so hot. I would not be surprised if you could fry an egg on that plastic back at times! I suspect there is a relationship between the poor performance and the poor thermal management here. Perhaps if the device stayed cooler, the CPU would more readily run at higher clock speeds.
A chipset that can hardly power the device might suggest that it would itself sip power from the battery but then you would be sorely mistaken. The battery life on the P6 is poor. Almost all Android devices tend to give me about a day and a half of use. Everything from the Huawei G510 to the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 perform very similarly for my usage pattern. The P6 has a fairly small 2000mAh battery which is actually a good effort on battery size given the limited volume Huawei had to work with on a device as thin as this. The problem is that I struggle to make it past 7pm on most days without being below 10% battery. And you are made acutely aware of how much battery is remaining as Huawei include the ability to show the battery percentage in the status bar. This is well short of the normal performance I would expect. I would gladly have a little greater thickness for the 25% larger battery that the P6 sorely needs.
So, the Huawei Ascend P6. It has quite a few glaring faults. Would a stock Android edition - a Google Play edition in fact - fix some of the performance and battery life issues? Maybe. But actually I would much prefer to see this phone come with a good Qualcomm system such as the Snapdragon 600 or the S4 Pro which I feel would benefit performance, battery life and thermal efficiency. Huawei are making an attempt at being vertically integrated and producing their own hardware and their own software, yet the K3V2 CPU in the P6 is simply not up to the job and Emotion UI is a mixed bag at best.
The P6 can, at the time of writing, be bought for around £280 which is a good price for a phone with a quad core chipset, a lovely screen and an OK camera, to say nothing of the great build quality and gorgeous design. But even at that price this is not a phone I can recommend to anyone. It is too slow and has too many flaws to be worthy of consideration. Many of last years flagships can be had for the same or less money and they are all superior.
I have been left feeling sad by the Ascend P6. When I took it out of the box I fell in love with the design and prayed for it to be great. But no-one was listening and I was left to mourn what could have been.