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Hands on: Huawei MediaPad M5 Lite review

A lower-specced (but not much cheaper) kid-friendly tablet

What is a hands on review?

Early Verdict

It's a lower-specced (but barely cheaper) version of last year's tablet that might find a niche audience in parents who want a controlled environment for their kids' screen time.

For

  • Kid-friendly software
  • Respectable specs
  • M-pen stylus bundled

Against

  • Not enough kids activities
  • Specs don't rival last year's tablet
  • Price is still high for a niche tablet

Update: After Google suspended Huawei's future access to Android Play Store and security updates, there are serious question marks over the future of Huawei and Honor phones.

While Google and Huawei have promised to support phones currently on the market, it's not clear how long they'll receive Android updates or access to the Google Play Store, which would severely curtail their usefulness compared to the competition.

Huawei unveiled the MediaPad M5 series at MWC last year as a trio of high-performing Android tablets – two standard, one souped-up pro model – to compete with Samsung and Apple tablets at comparable prices. Almost a year later, at CES 2019, the Chinese company has unveiled a new entry in the line: the MediaPad M5 Lite, a stepped-down tablet at a lower cost aimed at families. 

To be clear, this isn’t a budget version of Huawei’s year-old tablet; rather, it has enough new features that optimize the tablet for younger users at a slightly more affordable $299 (£235, AU$420) price compared to the standard MediaPad M5’s $319 price. 

Just be aware that you won’t be getting quite the performance or specs seen in the main MediaPad M5 devices – but the new tablet’s target demographic (young children) probably won’t care.

Instead, they’ll be amused by the new Kid’s Corner, a cutesy custom environment with a handful of simplified apps for kids to entertain themselves. 

Other new additions are protective, like alerts nudging the user to keep the tablet a healthy distance away to ease eyestrain, as well as a blue light filter. That should relieve parents worried about leaving their child in front of a screen for extended lengths.

To sweeten the deal, the M5 Lite comes with an M-Pen Lite stylus (which the standard M5 tablets may also include depending on local sales policies). While the M-Pen Lite doesn’t have the added functions of the Samsung S Pen or new Apple Pencil, it’s still a nice way to make the M5 Lite more kid-friendly out of the box.

And given all the higher-specced tablets out there at this price point – including the standard M5 – only parents or stylus-favoring users will benefit from the compromises made here. 

Same look, better sound

The Huawei MediaPad M5 Lite looks identical to the M5 line that came out the year before. The flat screen, minimal bezels and metal back have a solid feel, classy enough to take to a coffee shop, but sturdy enough to leave with a young user.

The screen resolution has been downgraded, though the bright, vibrant 10.1-inch full HD (1,920 x 1,200, 224ppi) display is still crisp enough for casual media. If you’re a binge watcher, last year’s M5 has a sharper screen (2,560 x 1,600) you might prefer – but again, the M5 Lite is good enough for kids.

The big upgrade is sound: instead of dual speakers, the M5 Lite has four, and they're all Harmon Kardon-certified. In our full review, we’ll test out whether this is a real advantage over most twin-speaker tablets, but we could hear the difference. 

Not a speaker person? Good news: Huawei brought back the 3.5mm port after taking out of the M5 tablets.

The M-Pen stylus worked, well, like a stylus – but it was especially handy for the Kids Corner’s drawing app. 

The M5 Lite inherited one good thing from its older siblings: a 7,500mAh battery, previously found in the larger of the M5 tablets. Huawei claims will net 13 hours of video playback, 55 hours of music or 8.5 hours of gaming, and take less than 3 hours to fully recharge – which are nice boasts that we'll have to test in the full review.

Lower specs, but not lower quality

The MediaPad M5 Lite comes with a Kirin 659 processor, and according to benchmarks, it has demonstrably lower performance than the Kirin 960 that comes in the earlier M5 tablets. Likewise, the M5 Lite has 3GB of RAM instead of the M5’s 4GB.

We didn’t notice any serious slowdown or poor performance just casually browsing and using whatever apps Huawei installed, but we’ll have to wait for our full review to put the tablet through its paces.

As for storage, the M5 Lite only comes with 32GB – perhaps not an issue for young users unless they take too many photos – but a Micro SD slot lets you expand that up to 256GB. 

The M5 Lite packs both an 8MP camera on the front and on the rear, which take serviceable photos. That’s a downgrade from the 13MP rear shooter on the M5; on the flipside, the kid-designed photo app lets you add fun backgrounds and filters.

A tablet for kids, mostly

It’s clear that Huawei put some work into the Kids Corner, which has cutesy animations and simple versions of regular apps (like camera and media gallery). 

It even has an adorable animal remind kids when to move the screen away if it’s too close, or sit up if they’re using the tablet lying down (the front-facing camera tracks distance and even posture). Parents can set their desired ranges for these, as well as limit screen time. 

What’s legitimately neat: kids can open the M5 Lite with their fingerprint and it will take them straight into the Kids Corner. 

That kind of guided touch is nice, especially when keeping youngsters locked into their own environment and not poking around the rest of the tablet (you can navigate out with a passcode). 

Like most Huawei devices, the M5 Lite uses the company’s EMUI 8.0 overlay and handful of streamlined proprietary apps, which weren’t cumbersome or bloated. It boasts Android 8 Oreo out of the box, but given that the MediaPad M5 line just got Android 9 Pie in November, hopefully it wouldn’t be too long before the M5 Lite got it as well.

Early verdict

Retrofitting last year’s tablet to target a niche audience was certainly cheaper than designing an entirely new one, and Huawei can be forgiven for not risking much with the M5 Lite. 

Parents seeking a tablet for their children that they can use too will be satisfied with the M5 Lite’s decent performance, features and ability to control how (and how long) their kids use it.

But at $299, niche devices are a tougher sell, as the baseline iPad sells for $329. Tablet sales continue to suffer, especially as smartphones adopt more of their advantages, and selling one that isn’t an all-around improvement on last year’s model at roughly the same price won’t wow consumers.

Perhaps Huawei will be happy with limited sales in the youth device market. And it could be interesting if the company keeps experimenting with different versions of its flagship tablets geared toward particular users, like media creators. 

But it’s hard to see the M5 Lite as different enough from the M5 line to warrant attention: it’s not significantly cheaper, its kid-designed experiences are limited, and its specs are so-so. We’ll have to see whether those compromises matter or if parents really have been looking for this middle-of-the-road answer. 

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What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.