I remember the last truly-great Android tablet well. The second-generation Nexus 7 was an excellent upgrade to its also-excellent predecessor. It delivered great performance, a terrific high-resolution display, and reasonable pricing. And it positioned Android as the heir-apparent to Apple’s iPad.
That was 2013.
In the five years that have since elapsed, Android has surpassed iPad in the tablet market, overall, if not to the same degree that Google’s platform has won the smartphone market. And while this isn’t necessarily the place for a lengthy discussion on this topic, it may be helpful to reflect on how the smartphone and tablet markets are different.
First, there isn’t a single Android hardware vendor that dominates in tablets as Samsung does in smartphones. Instead, Apple’s entry retains nearly 30 percent marketshare, as of the end of 2017, in a slightly declining market.
Second, there isn’t a single high-quality Android tablet that comes to mind these days. Meanwhile, Apple’s success with the iPad is understandable: It makes great products backed by excellent apps and content ecosystems. And cutting prices on the entry-level iPad last year didn’t hurt either. You no longer have to pay a huge premium to get into an iPad anymore.
And third, tablets simply haven’t caught on in the same way that smartphones have. Indeed, tablet sales never surpassed those of PCs as was widely expected in the wake of the first iPad.
Indeed, this diminished market has since split into two somewhat unrelated sub-markets, what I’ll call media tablets—devices for reading, watching video, and consuming other content—and hybrid tablets with keyboards that are sort-of morphing into PCs. This change has further fragmented the tablet market, leading to two even smaller markets of device types.
Anyway, hybrid Chromebooks that can run both Chrome web apps and Android mobile apps seem to be the future of the productivity tablet market, at least from a Google perspective. But that leaves the media tablet market wide open.
And that’s where Huawei steps in with the MediaPad M5 family of tablets, which are now available for purchase in the United States (as well as worldwide).
Huawei makes two MediaPad M5 models, with 8.4- and 10.8-inch displays, and you won’t be surprised to see that they line up perfectly with Apple’s consumer offerings, the iPad mini and the iPad (2018). I’ve been testing both for over two weeks here at home, using them in place of the iPad mini I normally use. (I also have a 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which I realize doesn’t match up fairly to the 10.8-inch MediaPad M5. But I don’t have a full-sized base iPad.)
Let’s start with the pricing. After all, this conversation is a non-starter is the MediaPad M5 isn’t competitively priced, given the strength of Apple’s hardware designs and its excellent app and content ecosystems.
The 8.4-inch MediaPad M5 costs $320 at Amazon.com, whereas Apple charges $400 for the increasingly out-of-date iPad mini 4. The mini ships with 128 GB of storage, double what’s available on the M5. But you can expand the M5’s storage, whereas doing so on any iPad is impossible. And the iPad mini 4 is literally four years old. It’s getting pokey. Which I know all too well, thanks to my daily usage.
The 10.8-inch MediaPad M5 costs $360 at Amazon. By comparison, the 2018 iPad starts at $330, but that comes with just 32 GB of storage, which is unacceptable for a media tablet. A 128 GB version is $430, and unlike the M5, its storage cannot be expanded.
Put simply, these prices are both reasonable and competitive. So the question must shift to other concerns. The specs. The quality of the hardware. And the quality of the supporting app and content ecosystems.
Looking at the things Huawei can control, I’ve come away mostly impressed by the MediaPad M5 hardware. There’s not much one can do with a tablet from a design perspective—it’s a flat-ish slab with a display that takes up most of the front—but Huawei rises to the quality challenge: The tablets both feature a high-quality metal unibody with a premium look and feel.
The displays are 16:9, which I think is ideal for a media tablet where you will be reading in portrait mode and watching videos in landscape mode. By comparison, the iPad’s 4:3 displays are squatter and are more ideal for the productivity tasks that few perform on these devices.
The displays specs are solid, too: Both tablets feature the same IPS technology and the same 2560 x 1600 resolution. Yes, that means that the larger tablet has a lower PPI count, at 280 PPI vs. the 8.4-incher’s 359 PPI—but I like the consistency, and both displays offer razor-sharp text and graphics and deeply rich colors.
Both displays also provide some unique Huawei touches, too. A technology called ClariVu claims to improve video playback by smoothing out unclear and dropped frames. And an Eye Comfort Mode, which I appreciated, helps block blue light for more comfortable nighttime viewing.
As impressive, both tablets also feature Hi-Res audio support and Harmon Kardon audio, and the results were quite noticeable. The 8.4-inch unit’s stereo speakers delivered clear, loud, and nicely-separated audio in the Google Movies & TV content I watched. And the 10.8-inch M5 tablet provides four speakers, similar to my iPad Pro, for a shockingly-loud aural experience that is devoid of noise.
Inside, both tablets are powered by Huawei’s octa-core Kirin 960 chipset instead of a Qualcomm Snapdragon part. To put this in perspective, I did run the Geekbench 4 CPU benchmark and compare the results to some Snapdragon-based handsets I also have.
It doesn’t seem impressive on paper: In this test, the M5 delivered scores of 1187 for single core and 3928 for multi-core. By comparison, my 2017-era and Snapdragon 835-powered Google Pixel 2 XL delivered better scores: 1886 for single core and 6218 for multi-core. And the newer Snapdragon 845-based OnePlus 6 hit even headier scores of 2463 and 9015 across single- and multi-core, respectively.
But I never noticed any performance hitches of any kind, which is an issue I have routinely with my iPad mini 4. (But not with my iPad Pro, which performs at a very high level.)
Beyond the core chipset, each M5 is also powered by 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of internal storage, and a microSD slot provides for additional storage up to 256 GB. Wireless connectivity is modern, as expected, with Wi-Fi AC at both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz and Bluetooth 4.2. There is no SIM slot for cellular broadband capabilities, which is an (expensive) option on iPad. There are two cameras, an 8 MP front-facing unit and a 13 MP rear-facing unit, which I didn’t test.
I don’t have a formal way to test battery life on tablets, but the 8.4-inch MediaPad M5 provides 5100 mAh battery while the larger 10.8-inch utilizes a 7500 mAh unit. These are roughly comparable to the batteries in the iPad mini 4 (5,124 mAh) and 2018 iPad (8827 mAh), and Huawei claims up to 11 hours of battery life. My anecdotal observation is that the MediaPad M5 performs similarly, from a battery life perspective, to my iPad mini 4 (which is rated at 10 hours).
From a hardware perspective, I have three complaints, all of which are minor.
Neither tablet provides a built-in kickstand, something that I feel is especially necessary on the 10.8-inch version (but would be useful on any tablet).
There’s no headphone jack on either tablet, which seems like an odd omission. Even Apple still provides such a port on its iPads. (Huawei does provide a USB-C to 3.5 mm headset jack adapter cable in the box, however.)
And Huawei places the ports and buttons on the 10.8 in odd locations. On the 8.4-version, the USB-C port and Home button are centered on the bottom of the device when viewed in portrait mode, which I consider normal, and the Volume Up/Down rocker and Power button are on the upper-right. But on the 10.8-inch version, the USB-C port is on the lower right when viewed in landscape mode, and the Home button is centered on the right. And the Volume Up/Down rocker and Power button are on the upper-right, again in landscape mode. This is a concession to the Pogo-Pin connectivity on its bottom (again, in landscape mode) so you can attach a keyboard. Given the device’s consumption orientation, such functionaltiy seems a bit superfluous.
(Huawei also sells a Pro version of its MediaPad M5 that likewise supports keyboards, mice, and, unique to that device, an M-Pen smartpen. I did not test that version.)
From a software perspective, Huawei provides the same EMUI skin over Android 8.0 that I first experienced with the Mate 10 Pro smartphone. As I noted then, EMUI mostly looks and feels like stock Android, but there are some dated elements—like the onscreen real estate-stealing “Apps” button in the dock—that I find odd. Fortunately, it does provide access to the Google app’s feed off of the leftmost Home screen rather than its own less-useful feed.
There are some interesting Huawei-specific additions that are worth exploring, including an optional gesture system.
But Huawei bundles a lot of apps on these tablets, and while some are certainly useful enough, others—like Amazon Shopping, Booking.com, Bing Videos, and more—are unwelcome crap. Fortunately, most of them can be uninstalled. And they were.
The bigger issue here is beyond Huawei’s control: The Android app ecosystem, while certainly voluminous enough, is just not up to the level of quality I see on iPad. Some apps that are available on both work similarly, like Amazon Kindle, Smart News, and Pocket. But others do not, and I don’t have a single example where the Android version of a reading or media app is better than the equivalent iPad app.
Take The New York Times app. Please. It’s pretty terrible in all of its forms, but on the iPad, it at least provides newspaper-like multi-columnar navigation through each section. On Android, however, The New York Times app is just a single-column smartphone app, even on these bigger devices. It’s also a lot less customizable, making it impossible for me to easily access all of the sections I want to read each day, something the iPad version handles seamlessly.
Most people will never notice these issues: Few can compare the same apps side-by-side across two devices like I have. And Android does, of course, provide virtually everything you can get on iOS, or least reasonable alternatives. But there’s no doubt that iOS provides the better experience overall. And that many will—and should—choose an iPad for that reason alone.
The Huawei MediaPad M5 is recommended. It is a solid competitor to the iPad and the first truly great Android tablet that I’ve used in years. But it still falls short of the bar set by Apple in some key areas, and it is thus of most interest to those who simply can’t stomach owning an iPad.
- Premium quality and design
- Excellent display
- Excellent audio
- Reasonable pricing
- Expandable storage
- Some Android apps are lackluster compared to those on iOS
- Comes with crapware
- No kickstand
- No headphone jack