Huawei Mate S smartphone review
This has certainly been a good year for Chinese phone cobblers. OnePlus and Xiaomi have been grabbing headlines but Huawei has been doing remarkable things. Their sister-brand, Honor, wowed me at its launch of the Honor 7. My latest favourite phone, the Nexus 6P was designed and built by Huawei and now I have the Mate S to review.
Sony and HTC have been reporting problems with their market share, and we’ve seen Nokia become part of Microsoft but Huawei has had its sights fixed on becoming a main player in the smartphone arena. So, with the Mate S, has Huawei finally made a phone that will lure the usually brand-loyal buyers away from the safety of the known?
Huawei Mate S design
The Huawei Mate S is a very stylish offering.
It is equipped with a 5.5-inch AMOLED display wrapped up in a slender metal body.
It also ticks the box for zero-gap construction. It certainly looks like it’s up there with the likes of HTC and Apple, and for a brand that is traditionally more affordable, that has to be another feather in Huawei’s cap.
In the hand the Huawei Mate S feels as much as a quality item as it looks. The anodised metal body gives it some friction so you won’t scare yourself with the bar-of-soap-juggle that some more slippy metal-bodied phones tend to put you through.
I still love my HTC One M9 and having the Mate S and Nexus 6P all together the Mate S isn’t overshadowed by its company in the quality or looks department.
The Mate S measures 149.8 x 75.3 x 7.2mm and weighs only 156g.
The volume and power buttons are on the right-hand side, falling conveniently under your fingers when gripping the phone and there’s the addition of the fingerprint scanner on the rear, which I have now become totally accustomed to through using the 6P as my daily driver.
The cut-outs for the speakers at the bottom are flanked by what looks like small screws. These are all nice and clean and, on the silver model I have, the inserts for the radio antenna breaks across the back are in a grey that fits with the design. The edges of the fingerprint scanner and around the camera lens are finished in a silver metallic.
The whole design scheme pulls together with a classy, cohesive look.
Huawei Mate S performance
The version I have comes with 32GB of internal storage and is available in this silver grey or champagne colour. There is also a premium version that has 64GB internal storage and comes in gold and coral (pinkish).
Oddly, with the silver grey model I have here there is a gold smart case bundled in with the usual earbuds and charging cables. Gold may have not been my first, second or third choice of colour to pair with a grey phone but, the case is a welcomed addition any way.
Under the hood there’s a HiSilicon Kirin 935, which is an octa-core 64-bit chipset that’s paired with 3GB of RAM.
HiSilicon is Huawei’s own silicon manufacturer and while it lacks a bigger brand name it doesn’t seem to stop it performing like one of those more recognisable players.
You can expand the storage space in the Mate S thanks to a microSD that sits on the same tray as the SIM. This is pretty neat as, if you don’t need the extra space you could actually sling in a second SIM card instead.
Everything is kept going by a 2,700mAh battery and it will happily get you through a day of fairly constant usage and, when needed, charging is via a microUSB – I was expecting a USB-C though.
Aiding battery life is some nifty battery management software. When an app appears to be eating battery in the background, the phone will give you a nudge to remind you that the app is still running and ask you if you want to close it. Most of the time you will indeed do just that, which raises the question – would you get more out of the battery on your other phones if they had the same clever notification system?
Huawei Mate S display
The Huawei Mate S may have a 5.5-inch AMOLED display but they have kept it at 1920 x 1080 pixels with a 401ppi density. It’s an edge-to-edge 2.5D display, and so is curved towards those lovely chamfered edges, and then topped with scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 4.
You might be turning your nose up at those numbers and be thinking “But, the Nexus 6P has a resolution of1440 x 2560 and pixel density of 518ppi”. Where that may be true, I could also point out that the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium rocks a cray cray 3840 x 2160 pixels (4K). But remember, the OnePlus 2 and the iPhone 6S Plus, like the Huawei Mate S, sticks to Full HD as, perhaps arguably, that’s all you actually need at 5.5-inches.
The Mate S’s AMOLED screen definitely displays all the characteristics you’ve come to expect from AMOLED. You get rich, vibrant colours and deep inky blacks. All-in-all the balance is good but can, on occassion, lean to being a little oversaturated. Not hideously garishly so but, especially on skin tones, could give you a more than healthy glow – not great for goths 😉
On the whole the Mate S delivers a slick visual experience. Those chasing bragging rights to owning the phone with the highest resolution or pixel density might be tempted to drift off elsewhere, but here you’re getting good quality from a Full HD display without breaking the bank, or murdering that comparatively low-capacity battery.
Huawei Mate S performance
The Mate S is loaded with a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner and, where this positioning may seem curious, actually makes plenty of sense.
This is where the scanner is on the LG as well as the Huawei-built Nexus 6P and, with the latter, unlocking the phone becomes seamless as your finger instinctively slips over the scanner.
In fact, this is so slick, and probably shares the same tech behind the Nexus, that the Mate S is faster to unlock than my friend’s Galaxy S6 and Note Edge.
But this scanner can do more than let you in to your phone. Huawei has added some clever control options into the scanner, rolling out what it is calling Fingerprint 2.0.
The Honor 7 has similar skills and these are reflected in the Mate S too. You can swipe down the notification area with a swipe down on the scanner, or you can clear notifications with a double-tap. This lends the smartphone more single-handed use to those out there with less lanky digits than I.
The scanner can also be used to swipe through images in the gallery or trigger selfies, both of which benefit from not having your greasy finger in the way of the screen.
Fingers are good but knuckles also have their use on Huawei’s smartphone.
Knuckle Control (hidden in the Motion Control settings menu) enables you can trace letters on the display to launch apps such as the camera. The handy thing (pun intended) about Knuckle Control is that you can knuckle your phone from wherever you are in the user interface. So, short-cutting to the camera to capture your mate falling off their chair when you’re in the middle of a Tweet becomes a swift thing. Also, knocking on the screen twice to wake your phone up is a nice touch.
Huawei Mate S software
I like HTC’s Sense. I am OK with Samsung’s TouchWiz. Vanilla Android is lovely. However, Huawei’s EMUI… Hmmm… this is a tricky one.
It’s not that EMUI (Emotion User Interface) is clunky or unsophisticated, I just find it a little… awkward in the looks department.
During the review EMUI got updated to iron out some of the camera issues and also there were occasions when using the fingerprint unlock would randomly open some apps.
EMUI could be pretty cool but, if Huawei is intent on tackling the established brands then I think a lighter touch around the Android OS would match the classiness of the hardware a little more than it does at the moment.
You also loose the apps tray in favour of just swiping through pages of apps. Something I am not keen on, I prefer having an apps tray, but I have seen other skins do this.
It’s not all doom and gloom with the Mate S software bundle though. As already mentioned, there’s that quirky knuckle control, clever power consumption notifications, and there are many other options that add to Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.
For a start, you can manage the individual default apps, you can manage two types of notifications for each app, you can turn off the network name, or you can show the data speed you’re getting.
Perhaps the things I don’t feel comfortable with are the kind of things I’d get used to in time. I don’t know. It would be a shame to dismiss EMUI just because of those little niggles because it does a lot of stuff really well. Let’s face it, if it troubles you too much you could always sling on the Google Now Launcher.
It is smooth, lag-free and it seemed to behave itself through the many tasks I threw at it. There are also some fairly neat looking themes pre-loaded.
Huawei Mate S camera
I was suitably impressed by the Huawei’s camera and the app is pretty slick.
There are a lot of options and settings on top of the usual major shooting modes. Mentionables include Car Light Trails’ in the Light Painting Mode and ‘All Focus’ which allows you to change the focal point of the photo after it has been taken.
The rear mounted 13-megapixel camera has f/2.0 aperture, offering optical image stabilisation and a dual-tone twin LED flash. It’s a great camera, fast to focus and the results are good.
Even my shots have been snapped with plenty of detail and good natural colours.
Low-light performance is not bad at all either as you can see above. There is a little noise but I have seen a lot worse from much more expensive phones.
The front-facing 8-megapixel camera is again very capable and thanks to the options for a front illuminator to aid with pictures in low-light, ‘beauty’ and ‘perfect selfie’ modes there should be everything a keen social updater will need.
If you are using the selfie camera be warned that everything is reversed (see photo above)! Fortunately, the image editor will let you flip the image, just a shame that there isn’t such an option in the camera app to set it before shooting.
One thing that’s missing from the Mate S which may have upped its standing even more is 4K video capture. It does offer Full HD capture, which will cater for most users, but for whatever reason this handset doesn’t embrace UHD video yet like an increasing number of flagships – it isn’t even an option on the top of the range 128GB model.
Huawei Mate S smartphone review conclusion
As you have probably gathered, there’s a lot to like about the Huawei Mate S.
The fit and finish of the metal body and the slimness that Huawei has achieved is certainly up there with the best of them. The display, although not being the highest resolution out there, is good enough to please even the most critical of peepers.
The fingerprint scanner, as expected, is excellent too. It’s very doubtful that you’d be disappointed by the cameras either.
Battery life is pretty darned fine and all the software moves along effectively and smoothly.
Add that to the likes of the HTC One M9 still costing £580 direct from HTC SIM free, the £470 asking price from Huawei and Honor’s V-Mall isn’t looking too bad. You can actually get the Mate S even cheaper from Carphone Warehouse SIM free too!
Is a saving of £110+ enough for some to move away from a brand such as Samsung or HTC? It’s really down to how much stock they put in to brand names I guess and, with seeing how well OnePlus and Huawei seem to be doing, I’d be worried if I was Sammy or HTC.
User-interface-wise the ‘Emotion UI’ or EMUI doesn’t feel quite there yet. It doesn’t undo Google’s work totally but there are still things that need to be ironed out, such as parts of menus overlapping other UI elements.
Also, having skinned Android means that you have to rely on how quickly Huawei can tweak EMUI to take Marshmallow as to when you will receive the updated Google operating system.
The Huawei Mate S is a very capable smartphone and no doubt a very welcome addition to the company’s range.
It is definitely worthy of consideration for those looking for top-notch quality without the cost.
The thing is, the Nexus 6P, which is also made by Huawei and has prices starting at just £449, I think that’s where the better deal is right now if you can put up with an even larger phone.