While the Apple fans were still salivating at the rumours of the next iPhone sporting a pressure touch screen, Huawei beat everyone to it by announcing it at this year’s IFA 2015 in September. The official announcement also included a few hands-on units for verification, just to prove the company wasn’t playing around. Huawei has had a good 2015 when it comes to smartphones sales and shipments across the globe, and should now be taken seriously in the flagship smartphone space, having already surpassed 100 million shipments along this year. It is now the second most shipped Android smartphone.
The success of the company is not only thanks to their flagships devices such as the P8, but also for the more budget-friendly Mate 7 and Ascend G7. With all the buzz around those devices, Huawei continued to on the success by releasing the Mate S, one of the most eagerly anticipated smartphones of 2015.
Build and Design
One of the reasons Huawei have been so successful this year is a matter of good design. The Huawei Mate S is does not hold anything back in this regard either. The rounded glass edges with 5.7mm thickness makes it feel great in hand, and with a host of colour options and metal design make it good to look at as well. The back is curved with its edges measuring 5.7mm, and the centre, at its thickest point, still only measures 7.9mm. The edges are said to have a “dual diamond-cut” chamfered to give it a premium look and feel. There are also a few nifty features built into the design, much like the rear fingerprint reader, which doubles as a gesture sensor. Even with its 5.5” screen, the unit doesn’t feel cumbersome to hold at any time, and even fits neatly into your pocket without any fuss.
The volume rocker, microUSB, microSD card and nanoSIM ports are all where they’re supposed to be, making it easy to pick up and use without too much thought. The buttons also have a metallic, textured finish, which doesn’t detract too much attention away from the design. The tactile feedback is also sufficient enough, and doesn’t have the lose feel so often found on one or two “premium” smartphones these days. There’s not a lot more one can say about the build and design of the Mate S, it is one of the finest looking and finished smartphones of the year without any doubt.
Screen and Display
The Mate S has a 5.5” AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, which covered 74% of the front face, protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4. The display has a 1080x1920px resolution at 401ppi pixel density. While the resolution isn’t 2K, as we’ve seen on a few Samsung smartphones, it is still very impressive. The colours are vibrant, which can be fine-tuned in the settings if you like. There is no evidence of graining given the large screen, which has been a point of contention on many phablets in recent times.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Mate S beat this year’s iPhone to punch with its pressure sensitive touchscreen. This feature, however, is only available on the limit edition 128GB version, while we reviewed the more reasonable 32GB version, hence and sadly, no touchscreen review. The Mate S still has a few tricks up its sleeve with a knuckle sensor, which allows users to draw specific patterns onscreen as a shortcut to open a particular app or perform a pre-set function.
There has been a lot of talk on many tech forums on the topic of pressure sensitive touchscreens, and while Apple may have built a lot of features into the latest build of iOS, Android has not quite reached that point, and neither has Huawei’s EMUI v3.1 catered much for the near technology. Google has focused a lot of its attention on Wear, VR and IoT in their latest releases, it shouldn’t be too long before more emphasis is put on the tech as more OEMs start pushing their own pressured touchscreens.
Performance and Battery Life
When Huawei entered the smartphone market a few years back, there were one or two devices floating around fitted with a Qualcomm chipset. For the most part, however, the company has used Chinese-based manufacturers, and in recent times, switched to their own, in-house developed, HiSilicon chipsets. The Mate S is fitted with the latest, the HiSilicon Kirin 935, which has an octo-core, quad-core 2.2GHz and quad-core 1.5GHz, CPU and Mali-T628 MP4 GPU. Performances are reasonable in isolation, with no real lags, jitters, or screen freezes, but when compared to the likes of Exynos and Qualcomm in benchmarking tests, it doesn’t quite reach the same heights. It doesn’t matter a great deal, though, as most users would never require such high-end processing on the smartphones, even when playing some of the latest games available on Android.
The non-removable, 2700mAh battery does its job, and, if you’re not a power user, you can easily eke out close to two days’ worth of usage on the Mate S. For the more power hungry users, you’d still easily make it through a day, with a few games and videos thrown in throughout the day. This isn’t the greatest battery life on a smartphone, with Huawei’s own Ascend G7 having fared somewhat better overall.
Camera and Software
Huawei has fitted two really good cameras onto the Mate S, the 13MP rear-facing camera, and the 8MP front-facing camera. The rear-facing camera comes with a host of features, some standard, some not so standard, and includes f/2.0 aperture, 28mm lens, OIS, autofocus, dual-LED (dual tone) flash, 1/2.6″ sensor size, geo-tagging, touch focus, face detection, HDR, panorama, and more. One standout inclusion on the camera is its 4-colour RGBW imaging sensor, which Huawei claims allows for 32% more brightness in high-contrast scenes, and a decrease of colour noise by 78% in low-light. These numbers seem impressive, but mean nothing if it cannot be replicated in real-world situations. Thankfully, as with the P8’s camera, the camera provides good quality photos for almost any situation. With the host of in-app features such as slow motion, time-lapse, and light painting, users will have a field day snapping pics. One interesting aspect of the camera is how it deals with an abundance of bright red in the scene, which loses a bit of fine detail as a result. It isn’t often that one has such an issue, the overall quality of the camera is still very good. Both cameras have the capability of recording full HD videos in 16:9 aspect ratio, which is a huge bonus. The front-facing camera also comes with its own flash, which, too, provide impressive photos.
On the software side, the Mate S is powered by Google’s Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, which is scheduled for a Marshmallow update in the next few months. On top of the vanilla Android is Huawei’s Emotion UI, or EMUI, v3.1. Coming from almost all other Android smartphones (minus other Huawei smartphones of course), it takes some getting used to the homescreen, which doesn’t have a separate app drawer. Users will need to be a little more organised in using folders to get the best out the experience, but this is one of the only gripes about EMUI v3.1. The notification drop-down has been tweaked, making it easier to use, and even has a few gesture responses built in, which can be triggered by the fingerprint sensor on the rear of the device. The timelines approach also makes it easier to view when messages were received and prioritise based on the timing. The firmware also has an “always-on” speech awareness, which allows users to issue commands such as “OK Emy, call James,” much like Google’s own “OK Google” commands.
As seen with Samsung’s dual-window approach on the Note, Huawei has also included the capability on the Mate S. Support for this feature varies, with mostly only native apps supporting it, including gallery, notepad, videos, file explorer, etc. There are also a few themes thrown in for good measure, much in the tradition of Huawei smartphones over the years.
The Huawei Mate S is definitely one of the best looking smartphones of 2015, and with a few additional features, it could be one of the best smartphones overall. Huawei main let down, in comparison to other leading manufacturers, is its processing power, and while it may not affect overall usage, it still isn’t able to compete with the big boys. For power users, this may be an issue, but given the fact that it is able to handle most apps and games thrown at it, it may only be a question of powering custom software and benchmarks that don’t live up to the high-end status.
Be that as it may, there’s little to fault on the smartphone. I just love the look and feel of the thin metal frame, something Huawei has paid close attention to over the years. At a cost of around R11,000, it isn’t the most affordable Huawei smartphone available, but it is their best. The best in 2015, it may yet be.