Huawei Mate S Review: Last year we met the Ascend Mate 7, then earlier this year the P8 and IFA 2015 has given us the Mate S another premium offering from the Chinese tech giant.
Huawei’s Mate S looks like the lovechild of HTC’s One M7 and a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, with a level of polish that the company has been refining most notably since last year’s Ascend P7.
Featuring an all-metal body with a finely textured finish it’s pretty pleasing to handle, particularly thanks to the subtle curvature along its back that gives the impression of a handset that’s a lot thinner than it actually is (even if in truth it’s still only 7.2mm thick). Finely milled hardware controls along the phone’s sides offer nice tactile feedback and a relatively low overall weight (despite its size) also help push the premium factor that Huawei has clearly put a lot of effort into.
The dual grilles along the bottom allude to both being speakers, but in fact only one pushes out (relatively good) sound, whilst inbetween them sits a standard microUSB port and on the back there’s a fingerprint sensor. The whole design packs a nice symmetry and even with a larger screen, feels as though it occupies a fairly small footprint, with a nice feel in the hand.
Whilst Full HD resolution is a touch behind the curve for the majority of top tier handsets in 2015, the 401ppi of the Mate S’ 5.5-inch display ensures that it’s still a pretty good looker. The main gripe, as with a number of Huawei’s devices, is that even at maximum brightness it just doesn’t pack the same visual punch or visibility as the likes of the Galaxy Note 4 or LG G4 and as a result colour reproduction can suffer a little bit too.
Huawei has done a great job of ensuring that the screen is the star of the show from a design perspective thanks to some impeccably thin bezels, and although the phone doesn’t take on Samsung’s Galaxy Edge phones with a curved panel, it does offer what Huawei calls 2.5D glass – a pillowed front, not unlike the Lumia 930, hewn from toughened Gorilla Glass 4 that looks and feels the pinnacle of premium.
The other headline feature is the screen’s force touch ability, which similarly to the iPhone 6s‘s 3D Touch lets the user applies force into the display to pull off additional actions like zooming in on specific parts of an image. Only the specialised version of the Mate S possesses this extra ability however and whilst its inclusion is novel, we’re yet to see a meaningful implementation of the technology, especially one that justifies the higher price tag.
Based on the extensive presentation the company gave at launch and the subsequent deep-dive we’ve been able to do since the device came in for review, Huawei has gone a little feature-mad, which you’ll either love or hate.
The Android 5.1.1 Lollipop-based UX keeps the iPhone-esq app tray absence in place and leaves room for extensive theme customisation too. Interaction with the rear fingerprint sensor lets you swipe down the notification panel or snap a selfie without obscuring the screen, which is a smart implementation that we wished other phones had and as the Mate S packs a fairly large display, you can multitask with select apps too.
There are some unusual extras like knuckle mode (which we met on the P8) that lets you customise app shortcuts with different symbols of your choosing or capture entire webpages and images, even if they span beyond the dimensions of the screen, but despite Huawei’s claims that it’s been improved since the P8’s implementation, it still feels as hit and miss as ever.
Force touch-capable devices also get the benefit of ‘magic corners’ and a ‘magic bottom’ (yes, seriously) for yet more methods of interaction. The former lets you pull in and quick launch apps with a flick in from the bezel of the display’s corners, whilst the latter lets you hide the standard Android navigation keys and instead press along the bottom edge of the display to perform the same actions – meaning the UI becomes cleaner and unobstructed.
The chipset powering the Mate S is the same Kirin 935 octa-core chip that runs inside the Honor 7 and on-paper pairing it with 3GB of RAM looks like a promising combination.
Real life performance can be a touch hit or miss, with the handset being impressively fast to initially boot up and navigate, but stuttering when tasked with intensive experiences like 3D gaming or synchronising large amounts of information. On the whole the experience feels tight, but it can unravel when asked to go the extra mile
Depending on how much money you spend not only dictates how much internal storage is on offer, but also which colourway you can choose. The standard version with 32GB comes in Mystique Champagne (what a name) or Titanium Grey, whilst the premium version, which packs 64GB of internal storage is up for grabs in Coral Pink or Prestige Gold.
That ever-present force touch-specialised Mate S boasts 128GB of internal storage, which paired to the phone’s dual-SIM 4G setup makes it great for power users (there’s no 5GHz WiFi support though). Whichever version you pick, your Mate S will also pack a surprisingly small 2700mAh terraced battery (similarly to the likes of the latest Apple MacBook). Huawei claims you can expect a day’s use without trouble and we’d have to agree, although we’d have hoped for more based on the current smartphone crop.
Another similarity to the Honor 7 is the Mate S’s camera setup. An 8-megapixel front-facer with an incredibly deep beauty mode experience and a front-facing LED flash that should satiate selfie fanatics with an impressive level of detail.
Meanwhile on the back the phone’s 13-megapixel primary camera packs OIS (optical image stabilisation) with a range of up to 1.2 degrees, that you can see working in both photos and video capture. The most obvious application of the system is in assisting Super Night mode, which takes around 20 seconds to capture a single photo, by combining multiple shots at various exposure values to iron out noise and fine tune contrast and colour reproduction.
Beyond that the camera produces surprisingly well-exposed stills, albeit struggling in darker environments, however video is where things fall down. The camera experience was one of the most talked about aspects of the phone’s unveiling and yet video quality is undeniably hit and miss.
The autofocus takes a long time to catch what it should be aiming at, pushing you to resort to tap to focus more often than not. What’s more the OIS system can create murky footage, whilst the addition of DIS (digital image stabilisation) can give footage a ‘wobbly’ look. The lack of slow motion and 4K shooting also feels like an oversight for a phone billed as a flagship at the tail end of 2015.
In a nutshell the Huawei Mate S plays itself off as a serious contender in the big-phone space and as such it doesn’t come cheap, with prices starting at £469 for the base 32GB model. However aspects like camera quality and battery longevity fall short of the mark.
The other clouds waiting to rain on this new phone’s parade are Huawei’s own Honor 7, which we kept drawing comparisons against throughout this review and Sony’s Xperia Z5.
Despite being significantly more affordable at £250 the Honor 7 doesn’t really miss out on a whole lot the Mate S brings to the table; with the same resolution screen and cameras, a metal build, fingerprint sensor, similar storage options and dual-SIM 4G. The Z5 meanwhile adds waterproofing and one of the best smartphone cameras in the business into the mix for a similar price tag.