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Huawei MatePad Pro 12.6 (2021) review

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(Cybertech) – Android tablets haven’t really been all that competitive for some time, because Apple dominates with iPad. So in the Android market, it therefore hasn’t been too jarring an experience for Huawei going Google-less in its MatePad Pro – the first HarmonyOS device that we’ve handled.

At least, not compared to smartphones. Those are a whole different bag where, we suspect, HarmonyOS for a Western audience may be a different story. But tablets are different, used for productivity and content creation – and the 12.6-inch MatePad Pro gives a glimpse at a potentially bright future for Huawei’s operating system. 

It’s not the finished article yet, but the barriers and obstacles that were there just 12 months ago have been greatly reduced. And in HarmonyOS, Huawei has created software that’s genuinely good to use on a tablet.

Design

  • Dimensions: 287 x 185 x 6.7mm / Weight: 609g
  • USB-C charging port
  • Plastic rear casing

There are only so many ways you can dress up a rectangular display, especially when the drive from the market says bezels need to be evenly sized and skinny. It doesn’t give manufacturers a lot of space for manouevering, and so it’s no surprise that the MatePad Pro looks like a stretched out iPad Pro from the front. 

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It has skinny, even black bezels all the way around it, acting as a slim border to the screen which otherwise completely dominates that front space. There are no home buttons, and no hole-punch camera anywhere to be seen. 

Instead of going down that route of having a selfie camera punching through the display area, Huawei put it in the horizontal bezel so that when the tablet is in landscape mode, it’s in the ideal position for making video calls. 

As for the rest of the MatePad, that’s made from plastic. That means it doesn’t have that same feel you might get from an all metal and glass device, but it does help it to feel quite lightweight. The edges are slightly rounded, and combined with the body’s impressive slimness make for a tablet that – for its size – is easily portable and comfortable to carry. 

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By the same token, the 12+ inches of screen in a device with a 16:10 ratio does mean it can be a tiny bit awkward when using it in portrait mode. It’s a large tablet that definitely lends itself more to being used horizontally, unless it’s flat on a table/desk. 

As an obvious point of comparison, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is slightly shorter, but considerably wider. That means Huawei’s 12.6-inch tablet is closer in width to the 11-inch iPad Pro, but has the 12.9-inch model’s length. 

Pro enough?

  • M-Pencil stylus support
  • Smart Magnetic Keyboard available
  • Supports wireless mice & external storage

For a lot of companies, slapping the word ‘Pro’ at the end of a product name usally means that it’s the top model in the range. With that comes an expectation of certain advanced features and capabilities. Huawei’s tablet has some of those, but maybe not others that you might expect. 

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For instance, you can snap a wireless keyboard cover (sold separately) onto it so it functions in almost the same way you’d use a laptop. Huawei’s Smart Magnetic Keyboard connects automatically as soon as you attach it to the back of the tablet. It features a full-size keyboard with 1.3mm of travel to the keys, which are well spaced apart.

In fact, this review was written using that keyboard. However, at times we did notice some lag when typing quickly – which sometimes led to letters being in the wrong order, despite having been typed in correctly. As mentioned, though, this was only really a problem when we were writing quickly. 

There’s also support for Huawei’s new stylus, dubbed the M-Pencil (also sold separately). Like the keyboard, it snaps magnetically onto the tablet. The difference here is that it has an internal battery which charges wirelessly when it’s snapped to the side of the MatePad Pro. It even features a bespoke groove up one side so that it fits perfectly.

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The transparent coating over the internal nib means the M-Pencil looks a little more like a real pen, but more importantly it makes it possible to be more precise. You can see the exact location the skinny nib is lining up on the screen, so it takes a lot of the guesswork away when writing or drawing. 

We’ll get more into the software side of things later, but the one thing that is definitely worth noting in this secton is that HarmonyOS 2 has support for wireless mice. We had our Logitech MX Ergo connected wirelessly to the tablet, allowing us to get that almost computer-like feeling when sitting down to do work. It definitely helps having that extra tool, and saves you from having to use the touchscreen for everything. 

You can plug stuff into the USB-C port too. For instance, our portable Samsung T5 SSD could be read and was easily accessible within the ‘Files’ app. 

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One feature that lacks is proper biometric scanning. There’s no fingerprint sensor anywhere on the MatePad Pro – neither button nor in-display – and the only face unlocking is done using the tiny front-facing camera. That means it’s not as secure as it should be, and the best way to keep it locked is just using a six-digit PIN and not setting up facial recognition at all. 

Media powerhouse

  • 12.6-inch AMOLED screen
  • 2560 x 1600 resolution
  • 16:10 aspect ratio
  • 8 speaker sound 

As well as having the tools required to get work done, the MatePad Pro has (almost) everything it needs to immerse you in media. That large 12.6-inch screen is primed and ready for video consumption, plus it’s joined by some fantastic speakers. 

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In all, the MatePad Pro has eight speakers dotted around the body and together they offer a truly brilliant immersive sense to anything you’re watching on the screen. Audio and dialogue that’s supposed to sound like it’s coming from the centre of the screen has that, while the rest gets a really effective stereo separation to offer a soundstage you don’t often get from tablets. 

Having a 2560 x 1600 resolution panel means the screen is relatively sharp too. In tablet terms, the 240 pixels-per-inch (ppi) is more than enough to ensure that details on screen look crisp. By default its vivid mode is way too saturated, though, but once you change it to natural mode it’s a much better experience that’s great for media and photos. 

So what’s with the “almost”? Well, this is where you get your first speedbump with the operating system. The lack of Google Play Services means that if you want to use apps like Netflix, Disney+, and Prime Video, then you need to download the APK through Petal Search. That experience is actualy pretty easy these days and relatively risk free, since the Huawei software will check it for threats and optimisation issues before it lets you install it. 

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The issue comes in when those apps don’t stream at their highest resolutions on the MatePad Pro. Netflix and Prime are noticeably poorer than they should be when streaming, with details being quite ropey. It’s not so much an issue when the video is downloaded for offline viewing. Disney+ didn’t have the same issue in our experience. 

In Harmony?

  • Kirin 9000E processor, 8GB RAM
  • 128GB/256GB storage options
  • HarmonyOS 2 software

HarmonyOS 2 shows some promise in the tablet market, although there’s still some way to go before it’s something we’d advise getting over iPad. Sure, we know one is Android-based and the other not, but Apple’s setup is the best on the market at present in our opinion.

A lot of what makes the MatePad Pro so good is stuff that Huawei seems to have ‘borrowed’ from Apple – and hasn’t even really tried to hide that fact. The home screen has a dock full of apps at the bottom that’s virtually identical to iPadOS, including the small tab with recent apps to the right. 

Like Apple’s ‘Scribble’ you can directly write with the M-Pencil in any text field and it’ll translate that into text. It works pretty well, but there’s no real palm rejection happening, so it feels a little unnatural since you’re not really able to rest your hand while trying to scribble away. 

It’s in multi-tasking and multi-device collaboration where the MatePad really shines though. Apps can be reduced to a small floating window over the screen, or launched into full side-by-side split-screen mode. 

With the floating window you can move it anywhere you like on the screen, while pressing the minimise button adds it to an easy-access tab at the side. You can have multiple apps in here for quick access, which is particularly useful if you’re messaging friends/colleagues while working or browsing. It means not having to keep switching betwen space-hogging full-screen apps. 

In our work day we mostly used it to store Telegram, Slack and Microsoft To-Do for easy reach, while we used the browser and Dropbox Paper for writing up reviews and scripts. That experience meant it helped us stay productive, keep on top of our to-do list – without losing touch of our colleagues through the day.


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Again, on the apps side, the Huawei AppGallery is still lacking the productivity and creativity apps on offer from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. We got Telegram and Microsoft Office from there, but needed to use Petal Search’s APK installation feature to get most apps. 

As we’ve mentioned, that’s not especially difficult to do. You just open the app, search for the app you’re wanting to use, and see if there’s an APK available to install in the ‘Apps’ list. Even if you search for the app in Huawei’s AppGallery, it’ll show you Petal Search APK results, allowing you to install it from there. 

The main issue here isn’t how difficult it is to install. Because it’s not. The issue is that they need to be available as Android apps in order to be installable this way, and Android still doesn’t have anywhere near the number of quality productivity or creativity programs that iPad enjoys.

Saying that, we were able to install Adobe’s suite of mobile-focused apps, including Photoshop Express, Lightroom and Premiere Rush, but all were pretty slow and stuttered a lot, making any content creation more of a chore than it should be. It was nowhere near as fast and effortless as it would be using more powerful apps on the iPad. So if video/photo editing is your bag, this Huawei isn’t the one for you. 

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For those who have a Huawei phone you get some extra cross-device collaboration. In fact, if you have the keyboard attached you can just tap the back of the phone to the shift key on the right and it’ll give you an easy pop-up to launch into collaboration mode. This will then let you control the phone from the tablet, allowing you to respond to messages, or even drag-and-drop files from one device to the other. 

Apart from those photo and video editing apps, the MatePad Pro was smooth and fast in every department during our testing. That’s thanks to the Kirin 9000E processor inside, which makes light work of most tasks. For most of the time we didn’t miss our proper PC at all – until it got to where we needed to work with photographs anyway.

On the lack of Google

While we’ve already talked about software to an extent, it’s probably worth pointing out a few things coming our way with HarmonyOS and HMS Core. Namely, Huawei is pushing hard to make sure you don’t miss Google as much as you might have.

It has its own maps and navigation in Petal Maps now, which is actually decent and can not only find your walking, cycling and driving routes but even has live traffic and public transport information. Huawei Docs pretty much replaces Google Docs, while Huawei Music is a subscription service that allows you to listen to music on the go. 

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If you don’t want to take the chance on Huawei’s own music, then AppGallery has both Tidal and Deezer. We just downloaded Spotify as an APK, and it worked like a charm with no issues arising from the lack of Google Play Services. 

Huawei Health, which we talk about more in our Watch 3 review, is on board, too, offering a good amount of data and tracking for your activities, weight, movement and sleep. 

Granted, as we’ve already mentioned, the Huawei ecosystem isn’t perfect yet, but it’s a better place to be in than it was just 12 months back. It’s still not quite at a level where it’s on par with Google or Apple’s offerings, but it at least has all the basics, and – from a tablet experience – didn’t leave us wanting that much more (other than good quality Netflix, really).

Cameras and battery life

  • Cameras: 13MP primary, 8MP ultrawide, depth sensor
  • 10,050mAh battery capacity

Tablet cameras are neither here nor there for us, but Huawei has equipped the MatePad Pro with a few. There’s a 13-megpixel primary alongside an 8-megapixel ultrawide, plus depth sensors for AR (augmented reality). You can get decent shots in good daylight, but this will never be something you’ll use as a primary camera, not in the same way you’d use your phone. 

The selfie camera is ropey at best, but it will at least work as a basic video calling camera for those times you need to jump on a Zoom call (an app that, again, is not supported officially, but downloadable through Petal Search). 

As for the battery life, that’s exceptional. The MatePad Pro will comfortably get through 8 hours of solid work, video watching and gaming – and still have juice left over. Huawei says it can work for 14 hours without needing to be charged, which we can believe. It’s an all-day machine and then some. 

Once it’s empty you can refill it relatively quickly using a wired charger or take your chances on the wireless charging, which can be a bit more hassle than it’s worth if you have a tiny charging base. 

First Impressions

As much as we enjoy Huawei’s HarmonyOS software for getting work done, the MatePad Pro’s 12.6-inch display and versatility of the added stylus and keyboard, there are a couple of things that’ll likely stop people from buying one compared to an Apple iPad.

First: it’s not readily available at time of writing, so you can’t actually buy it. Second: being based on Android means you don’t get the same level of apps that an iPad enjoys. Add to that the fact that Huawei’s AppGallery still lacks a lot of popular games, and it limits the experience somewhat. 

However, if what you’re after is a tablet to help you get work done, and you’re an Office 365 user, or don’t mind going down the APK route to install apps like Paper by Dropbox or Slack, then the usability and flexibility of this Huawei tablet as a work machine might just make the compromises worth it. 

Alternative to consider

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Apple iPad Pro 

Apple has pretty much nailed the tablet market, and is one of the few to offer a compelling larger device with a laptop-sized screen. The latest M1-powered iPad is brilliantly powerful and the App Store is full of great creativity apps. 

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Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Mike Lowe.



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