Live From Thailand: Huawei’s New Flagships (And A Girl With Wings of Fire)

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Huawei certainly knows how to throw a party. As I type this, I’m seated in a large auditorium ringed by three gigantic screens. In the middle is a motley crowd – socialites, celebrities, tech bloggers like myself, photographers, Tv presenters, the top nobs of Huawei’s operations and marketing. Red lights strobe from the stage. A well-dressed MC on the stage announces himself as PK (or is it Pee Kay?).

“Sawadee krap!” he grins at the audience.

This is Bangkok, Thailand, at CentralWorld, at the launch of the Huawei P8.

The event is attended by more press than I can count; there’re so many DSLRs and video cameras that I’m tempted to surreptitiously hide the battered bridge camera I’m using. On-stage, the MC gives way to white-clad dancers wreathed in smoke, That in turn gives way to Clement Wong, Huawei’s head of Global Product Marketing, who strides on stage to decidedly metal beat. Some of Thailand’s hottest (and I mean this quite literally) celebrities smile from the front seats; at the back is seated a massive legion of supporters in Huawei fan club gear.

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Now, I’ve spent the past two hours messing around with the new Huawei lineup,so in the name of tech, let’s briefly ignore the flashy slogans, beautiful women, and the celebrities to focus on the real deal. The P8 is Huawei’s new flagship; a sleek, metal phone that – to judge by the presentations – directly guns for the iPhone 6 and the Samsung s6. It’s accompanied by the supersized P8max and the lesser brethren, the P8lite.

Firstly, the P8.

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The P8 is a flagship, so however you look at it, it is a beautiful phone. Metal unibody, chamfered edges – it looks premium and it feels premium. At 6.4 mm it’s thinner than the iPhone 6 and the Ss6, though if you want to play the millimeters game, Oppo has the lead. At the back is a single strip with the camera, laid perfectly flush with the surface. Huawei claims it takes 810 minutes of machine carving to make the shape perfect. I can’t verify that, but perhaps the photos can give you a slightly better idea of what it’s like.

  • Octa-core, 64-bit Kirin 930 processor (ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture: one quad-core Cortex A53 at 2 Ghz and one quad-core Cortex A53 at 1.5 GHz)
  • 3 GB of RAM
  • 5.2″, 1080p IPS-NEO screen (IPS-NEO is a variant made by a company called Japan Display; it allows for better blacks and slightly reduced power draw)
  • Metal unibody design
  • Android 5.02 (Lollipop)
  • A 13 MP back camera with an F 2.0 aperture and dual LED flash
  • 2,680mAh battery (non-removable)

As far as hardware spec sheets go, this seems to be standard for flagships today. Reserve judgment on the camera: we’ll get to that part shortly.

Alongside the hardware is a software upgrade. The P8 runs the latest iteration of Huawei’s custom interface. I spoke to Henry Liu, Huawei’s Country Head for Sri Lanka, about how serious Huawei was with Emotion, and while he was careful not to name names, he made it pretty clear that they don’t intend to sit on it.

They’ve made some changes: Emotion UI has moved away from the stark iOS-ish minimalism of the previous generation to something busier. Icons have gotten starker. I quite like what they’ve done – transparency in the pull-down menus, for example – but Android interfaces are a highly subjective thing. The hardware, however, is an unabashedly likable piece of design. They’ve somehow managed to make the phone seem smaller than it actually is. That’s a 5.2-inch phone, and from three feet away its profile looks very much like the first HTC One.

The camera is something they’re very keen about. Prior to launch, Huawei worked with a professional photographer called Benjamin Von Wong. Von Wong made the news when he captured a stunning image called the “Fire Angel” using the Huawei p8; the Daily Mail and SLRLounge hailed it “the best image ever captured with a smartphone.”

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This was captured with a P8, using its stock software and no Photoshop. No, I’m not kidding.

As you can see, the photo itself is a work of art, using light trails and two assistants with flaming torches to capture a woman with fiery wings sprouting from her back. What makes it special is that Benjamin did not use Photoshop – he was apparently restricting himself to epic lighting gear and Huawei’s stock camera app.

“We don’t think more megapixels will solve the issue,” said Clement Wong, introducing the camera segment, perhaps unconsciously mirroring the argument put forth by HTC for their Ultrapixel cameras a while back. “We want to focus on giving users the ability to take the best photo in any light condition.”

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The sensor is the world’s first RGBW (Red Green Blue White) imaging sensor on a smartphone; that W – the white channel – is usually something seen in security cameras.

Technically, this should translate to much better low-light imagine (they claim 79% less noise in low light). A brief slide shows an Altek image signal processor hooked up to the camera. Optical Image Stabilization can deal with 1.2 degrees of hand shiver, twice the range of the iPhone 6.

However, the best part – at least for me – was the software. The camera app’s undergone a drastic redesign and now comes with a one-button shortcut for shooting light trails; this, apparently, is how Benjamin generated the Fire Angel. Even more impressively, it has a preview function that predicts light trails for you to see – something that no commercial DSLR can pull off. There’s also something called Director Mode that lets you link three P8s together to record video from different angles, simultaneously.

Now that you’ve waded through all that text, here’s a fiery, stylized Huawei P8 trailer on the Fire Angel, ft Von Wong, directed by Eli Sverdelov. See what I mean?

I thought about this much later, as I sat having breakfast and (accidentally) overhearing Huawei’s Indian retail partners enthusiastically forecasting sales for the next few months. Benjamin wrote a Medium post on how exactly he pulled off those fantastic images, and to be fair, it does involve a great deal of lighting work. I have no illusions about capturing Fire Angels of my own – in the absence of photographic talent, that would take some serious drugs.

Nevertheless, I got to play around with the camera in low light conditions, for a grand total of perhaps 15 minutes. We’ll need to wait for someone to conduct comparison tests to see, but personally to call that low-light performance great would not be doing it justice; that thing felt like someone had shrunk a DSLR and attached a magnetic chain to the back so I couldn’t run off with it. Up until now, my default advice for anyone who wanted a good camera experience was either “iPhone 6 Plus or ask <insert friendly photographer’s name here> about a DSLR”.

This phone might just make me go back on my word.

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The camera UI’s been vastly improved – while previous generations of Huawei phones had a pretty ugly camera interface, with this one they’ve gotten it to the point where you wouldn’t really want to switch it out for Google Camera. It’s an exponential upgrade to the camera app in their current lineup – it’s like going from Gingerbread to Lollipop in one generation.

Of course, no manufacturer seems to be able to resist putting quirky features in their phone. Remember Samsung’s Air Gesture? Huawei’s version of that is called Knuckle Sense.

Because…this phone detects knuckles. No, I’m not kidding. Tap with your knuckle on the phone and the phone takes a screenshot. Use your knuckle to draw around a photo on a web page or whatever and the phone will save the image in that area. It’s strange and cool in the same way that Air Gesture was.

There’s also the phone finder: say “Hi buddy!” and the phone will answer “I’m here!” I’m not a huge fan of the wording – can we change that to “Adoh! Phone eka ko?” – if it works, it’s going to be useful finding the damn thing when it inevitably gets lost. The only downside is that you risk looking like a bit awkward, running into rooms shouting “Hi buddy!”.

As mentioned before, the P8 was not the only thing that launched. Joining the stage was the P8max and the P8lite.

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The P8max is literally this phone superscaled. Picture the P8 with a 6.8″ screen and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Depending on the variant, it comes with either 16 or 64 GB of storage.

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At that size, it’s a pretty large phone; not so long ago, it would probably have been called a tablet. This I didn’t get to use, but given the hardware, the experience will probably be similar to the P8  – except, like any phablet, expect it to be rather uncomfortable if you want a phone you can easily use with one hand. It packs a massive 4,360 mAh battery, so we can expect it to last quite a while.

Then there’s the P8lite, a sleek black 720p device with a 5-inch screen and a Kirin 620 processor – 64-bit, octa-core, but with less power than the P8. 13 MP shooter, as with the others; I’m not sure what price range this will fit into when it comes to Sri Lanka, but it’s unlikely to supplant the likes of the Honor Holly.

Alongside all of this was launched yet another device:

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That, for the record, is a pretty girl holding the Huawei Talkband B2: a fitness tracker-slash-bluetooth-headset. It’s a sleek device that has four basic functions: telling the time, tracking your sleep, tracking your steps and counting the calories burnt. This data it syncs to your smartphone via Bluetooth and an app called Huawei Wear.

I’ve got one of these: Huawei handed them out to every member of the audience. They also gave away P8’s to 60 lucky attendees picked at random (gah!), but nevermind: I may not have a P8 to inspect, but I do have this thing. As I type this final paragraph, the Talkband B2 tells me I’ve walked 16,001 steps today, slept for 3 hours and 13 minutes. The top detaches with a click, revealing an earpiece and microphone underneath. It’s wonderfully basic – like a champagne gold Fitbit that can transform into a Bluetooth headset at the press of a button. The review, though, will have to be a nother story for another day – let’s see how it survives the week ahead.

Until next time.

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