Huawei Ascend P7 sports 8-megapixel front camera in slim body

The LTE smartphone is a quarter-of-an-inch thick, has a 5-in. screen, Android 4.4

Huawei Technologies is hoping that a sleek, 6.5-millimeter (about a quarter of an inch) silhouette and the ability to take high-resolution selfies with an 8-megapixel front camera will make its flagship Ascend P7 a hit.

Huawei Ascend P7
Huawei's Ascend P7 has an 8-megapixel front facing camera and a 13-megapixel camera on the back.

Huawei was the third-largest smartphone maker last year, shipping 48.8 million units, which was just enough to beat LG Electronics and Lenovo, though far behind Samsung Electronics, the biggest smartphone maker by units shipped, and Apple. This year Huawei hopes to increase shipments to 80 million, but for that to happen the P7 has to be a smash.

Huawei launched the smartphone at an event in Paris on Wednesday. The P7 is priced at about €449 (US$625) without a contract and will be available this month across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The company didn't immediately say when and if the device would go on sale in the U.S.

Orange will sell the phone in all its European stores from June 7, said the company's executive vice president of connected objects and partnerships, Yves Maitre.

The LTE smartphone runs Android 4.4, is powered by a quad-core processor running at 1.8GHz, and has a 5-inch screen with a 1920 by 1080 pixel resolution. It has 16GB of integrated storage, which can be expanded using a microSD card slot, and 2GB of RAM.

Huawei is hoping the P7's 6.5 millimeter thickness and 124 gram weight will attract buyers. The competing Galaxy S5 from Samsung is 8.1 millimeters thick and weighs 145 grams. The risk Huawei runs is that it gets a smartphone that feels inconsequential, and not a premium, high-end phone.

The slimness is the hallmark of Huawei's P series phones, said Shao Yang, vice president of the consumer business group marketing department, speaking on the sidelines of the Paris launch. "We try to let the P series always be a fashion symbol," he said.

The company hopes to sell 10 million P7s. In comparison, it sold more than 4 million of its predecessor, the P6, and that phone is still selling well, said Shao.

The phone's processor is the quad-core, 1.8 GHz Kirin 910T from HiSilicon. Huawei chose HiSilicon as its supplier because it already buys networking equipment chips from the company, and values its expertise in LTE, said Shao.

There were dozens of the phones available to play with at the launch event. They felt substantial, with no flexing despite their slimness. The displays were sharp and bright compared to the somber lighting of the demo room.

Like its competitors, Huawei said it has done a lot of development work to improve the P7's cameras, which lets users take a picture 1.2 seconds after double-clicking the down volume button when the device is locked. The basic specs are an 8-megapixel camera on the front of the device and a 13-megapixel camera on the back. The camera on the back uses a sensor from Sony that Huawei promises can deliver good pictures at night or indoors. The smartphone also has a dedicated image processor that is used to control functions such as autofocus, white balance and noise reduction.

These days it isn't enough to have a good device, however -- shrewd marketing and a trusted brand are almost as important. Over time, Samsung has developed quality products and has lavished a huge budget on marketing.

"Huawei's biggest single challenge in Western markets is brand. This can be addressed organically as demonstrated by Samsung, but time is of the essence given the magnitude of Lenovo's ambition," said Geoff Blaber, a vice president of research at CCS Insight.

Huawei is counting on early buyers of the P7 to promote it through social media and word of mouth, said Shao. "If they use it, they will recommend it to friends. Comments on social media are most important for us," he said. He expects the camera, the battery-saving features and the design to drive recommendations.

At the launch event, company executives ran through the phone's camera, image editing and other new features.

The phone runs Android 4.4.2 (KitKat), overlaid with Huawei's own user interface, EMUI 2.3. The P6 ran an earlier version of EMUI, 1.6, and the company has added 650 features, said Clement Wong, Huawei's global go to market director.

One of those is an app called Mirror, "for applying makeup." It shows the image from the front-facing camera, surrounded by a pink curlique border. There are a couple of twists to the app. Breathing into the microphone will "mist up" the image, and just like on a real misted mirror, designs can be traced with a fingertip. It's also possible to freeze the image by tapping on it. In that state, the screen shows an icon representing a 3.5-inch floppy disk, probably unrecognizable to most of the phone's target market.

For knob-twiddlers, there's also a phone-tuning app that will free up memory and accelerate some operations. It allows users to select exactly how many apps may continue running when the screen blacks out, and which ones have priority for the shortlist.

(With additional reporting from Peter Sayer in Paris.)

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