Let’s say you have £500 to spend on a phone. What are you going to get?
No doubt the first handsets that spring to mind are Apple’s iPhone 6S and the Samsung Galaxy S6. If you're after a roguish alternative, a rebel of the flagship pack, then it's worth taking a look at Huawei’s Mate S.
This is one of the flashest phones around night now, with bodywork that can sit next to the most dazzling premium offerings and still look great. If not better to some eyes. It also has an unusually feature-packed fingerprint scanner and a great 13Mp camera with optical image stabilisation.
I’m going to admire these curves to start off with. The Huawei Mate S is an aluminium-body phone that looks quite a lot like the HTC One M9 from the back, except it packs in a fingerprint scanner too.
Although the Mate S has a similar aluminium construction, it isn’t remotely chunky like HTC’s top phones. It’s just 7.2mm thick, which is pretty thin by any standard.
With skinny metal phones, you often end up with a fairly boxy-feeling device. Huawei’s own P8 is a good example. However, the Huawei Mate S even ditches that effect, with a lightly curved frame, diamond-cut sides and even a slight curve to the extreme edges of the top Gorilla Glass 4 layer.
This really softens out the feel of the phone, and telegraphs to your fingers quite how skinny that body is. Metal plus smooth plus thin frame equals a design winner.
In short, well done Huawei: you nailed it. If there’s one tiny bit I’d change, it would be to make the anodised metal finish a bit less shiny. It’s that bit ‘brighter’ than the iPhone’s silver back, and ends up looking a little bit cheaper as a result. Maybe that’s what the Chinese buyer prefers: that’s Huawei’s home turf.
I’m also a little bit worried about the diamond cut edges. They’re so pristine they look like tiny bits of mirror on the sides of your Mate S, but that means any damage to them will be very apparent. Unless you’re intensely careful those sides are going to pick up scratches.
However, this is really a truly delightful piece of hardware, and the Huawei Mate S is so skinny that you can use the included cover without it seemingly remotely chunky. Unlike almost every other high-end phone, this one comes with a case in the box. It’s a synthetic leather flip cover that protects almost the whole phone, leaving just one side exposed.
Its also has a window in the front, and a dinky little magnet in the thing talks to a Hall sensor in the phone so that when the cover is closed, only the part of the display behind this window turns on. It just tells you the time rather than cramming in notifications and so on. But it’s a neat bonus when you’d normally pay at least £25 for a case like this. Granted, judging by the classic scratch, sniff and stroke test, it’s not really leather.
For ultimate bragging rights, you'll want to take it off.
Thanks to all of Huawei’s efforts to squish the phone into as small a body as possible, it’s mostly dead easy to handle. Trying to make 5in phones as skinny as physics allows is silly, but decreasing the width of a 5.5in screen phone is only going to help how easy it is to hold and use. Just look at the specs: the Mate S has the same size screen as the iPhone 6S Plus, but is 2.6mm less wide and 8.4mm shorter. Not bad.
The Huawei Mate series started as a bonkers range of phones so big only Hodor could hold them (he’s a giant, for the non Game of Thrones nuts out there), but the Mate S is downright mainstream in its size.
There are two extra-special parts to the Huawei Mate S hardware. First, it has a fingerprint scanner, and some models use offer a pressure sensitive screen like the iPhone 6S.
There's also an iPhone 6S-a-like Force Touch feature, which is only available on the limited edition 128GB version of the Mate S (I’m using the 32GB one). This will essentially let you use a harder press on the screen as a gesture, unlocking extra features in some of the preinstalled apps.
Back to the real world: the finger scanner is one of the few to sit on the back. Most live around the front at this stage. However, it’s a very little pad.
You just rest finger on the indented square on the back, and it sits right under where your index finger naturally rests. Huawei told us the Mate S has a ‘2.0’ generation scanner, following on from the already-great scanner of the Huawei Mate 7.
Ultimately I didn’t find it speed or accuracy a world-changing improvement in most situations. Fail to place your digit squarely in the… square and it’s unlikely to register the print properly. However, it’s dead fast and otherwise accurate just as it was in the Mate 7. And it does seem to register slightly wet digits better than either the Mate 7 or Samsung Galaxy S6 pads.
There are uses for it other than just unlocking the phone too. In a couple of circumstances the Huawei Mate S’s scanner can be used as a tiny gesture touchpad, not really caring about your fingerprint at all. You can flick down on it to pull out out the notifications drop-down, or flick across it in the Gallery app to cycle between photos.
A tap on it can also be used to ‘snooze’ your alarm.
I did find that the notification drop-down is a bit easy to fire-off accidentally, but that’s why it’s disabled as standard. You need to turn it on in the Huawei Mate S’s settings menu.
For other hardware bits and bobs you can’t see, the Huawei Mate S has a microSD slot, 4G and NFC, but doesn’t have an IR blaster. This seems to be rapidly disappearing from virtually all phones, sadly enough.
Set saturation to stun
The Huawei Mate S also doesn’t have the super, ultra, mega resolution screen you see in the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4. It has stayed with a 1080p Full HD display, but uses a rich AMOLED screen panel for deep colours and even deeper blacks.
It’s a good screen, but this is one area where Apple and Samsung take the lead. One tiny niggle you may not notice is that there’s a bitter fuzziness than you’d seen in a 1080p LCD screen. It’s minor, but a sign that Samsung’s best are, well, a lot better.
The area that got to me, though, was colour. The Huawei Mate S display is a bit oversaturated, something that’s very common in OLED-screen Androids. It’s not as badly syrupy as the Nexus 6, but in coming from using the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, that the tones are far less natural-looking is very obvious. Colour is better-controlled in Apple’s iPhones too.
There’s no way to tone down the colour saturation either. You can make the display a bit more ‘warm’ or ‘cool’, giving it a yellower or bluer tone, but whatever you do it looks like the Mate S needs to, well, chill out a bit.
Still, the other benefits of OLED are here. The Mate S has perfect blacks, great viewing angles and good outdoors visibility. Huawei is clearly just not quite as good at OLEDs as Samsung, yet.
The bit more likely to put off a few of you, though, is the software. Android 5.1.1 (the last stop before Android M) is the system at the heart of the Huawei Mate S, but on top there’s Emotion UI, a custom look made by Huawei.
It’s a lot more invasive than most UIs, though, because it scraps the separate apps menu entirely. You have homescreens, a settings menu: that’s it. It doesn’t fit too well with a lazy approach to organising your phone, as otherwise your apps will end up in awkward spots. Some tweaking and occasional pruning is required.
Huawei doesn’t do the Mate S any favours either. First, it slaps a pretty horrible theme on the phone as standard, and packs the phone with a bunch of rubbishy apps. Some can be deleted, but when you’re paying around £500 for a phone, it doesn’t seem like the first thing you should have to do is to delete a half dozen Gameloft games. Not when the phone needs a bit of curation by its very nature.
Emotion UI gets a worse rap than it deserves a lot of the time, though. With a bit of customisation, it can look and feel great. The Themes app provides a few visual makeovers on the eye than the default one, although with no way to search for Huawei’s own ‘official’ ones, you do have to sift through a load of home-brew cartoony rubbish to find them.
You can make the Huawei Mate S look great. It just takes a bit of effort. At its best it can look better than the HTC One M9 or LG G4, though, to my eyes at least.
You’re Kirin me
As well as not pulling entirely crowd-pleasing moves with the software, the Huawei Mate S lags a bit behind the competition with its processor.
Now, before I get too techy, I’m going to tell you that in raw performance terms you won’t really notice the difference between this and a Samsung Galaxy S6. Huawei has sorted out of most of the performance weirdness with its Emotion UI, and the Mate S runs pretty well, subject to the odd glitch-making bug.
However, the Kirin 935 used here isn’t really all that impressive in a number of ways. First, its GPU is a generation behind the one used in Samsung’s top dogs. It has a Mali-T628 chipset while the Samsung S6 and co have the newer, faster T760-MP8 chips from the same family. For gamers of the future, the Huawei Mate S isn’t the best choice.
The main CPU part of the Kirin 935 is an eight-core setup with four 2.2GHz cores and four 1.5GHz ones. That top clock speed is 0.1GHz faster than the Samsung crew: tech Top Trumps at its finest. However, the Geekbench 3 scores show the truth. This is a slower phone than the other flagships.
In Geekbench 3 you’ll score around 3900 points, where I can get 4400 out of the Snapdragon 810 and up to 5200 out of Samsung’s latest Exynos stunners. So why is it slower if the clock speed says it’s faster?
The Huawei Mate S’s CPU is a lot less efficient than the best chipsets out there, because it has a 28nm architecture. This number tells you how small the chip’s transistors are, and, roughly speaking, the smaller they get, the more efficient your CPU can be: more power out for the same power in.
When the Snapdragon 810 is 20nm and the Galaxy S6’s Exynos 7420 14nm, the Kirin 935 is stuck in the past. Now, I don’t think this is a big issue for day-to-day performance. This phone runs well. However, you can tell it’s not all that efficient.
The endurance test
I found the stamina of the 2700mA battery to be pretty so-so, similar to the performance of something like the LG G4, and not as good as the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ or Note 5. Give it a single task to do and it’ll do reasonably well because the software keeps a very tight rein on nonsense going on in the background: the Huawei Mate S lasts for a respectable 11.5 hours of 720p MP4 video playback, for example (we got 16 from the Note 5).
However, make it juggle background tasks and mobile data use and the battery drains down on the snappy side. It is, unfortunately, quite easy to exhaust the Huawei Mate S in a day. I get the feeling Huawei had to sacrifice a few hundreds milliampere hours of battery to get the phone as slim as it is.
Here I’m torn: the design is fab, but the stamina is the least we’d expect from a phone like this and little more. As the Huawei Mate S uses an OLED screen that only lights-up areas of the screen needed, you should be able to save a little bit of power by using a very dark wallpaper. Desperate times, eh?
There’s no such sense of compromise with the Huawei Mate S’s camera, though. It has a 13-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilisation. All of the other big names out there have more megapixels, but for the most part this camera sits among them pretty happily. Even if it doesn’t unseat the LG G4 and Galaxy S6 at the top of the league table.
The most impressive thing here is optical image stabilisation. What this does is to fractionally move the sensor to compensate for any movements your hands make while shooting. If your late-night shots end up blurry right now, it’s because of this movement.
Very effective stabilisation in the Huawei Mate S lets you shoot with the shutter open for as long as 1/4 of a second and still get sharp shots. In camera terms that’s longer than the reign of some English kings. Try that with a non-stabilised phone and you’d get a blurry mess.
The Auto mode is also very good. Just fire away and you’ll get some very good shots. While we see 13-megapixel cameras on pretty cheap phones these days, this one is a grade above the budget fluff.
Dynamic range is good, colour saturation is generally very nice and white balance is reliable. This is a camera that feels like it belongs in a top-end phone.
There are just a few bits and bobs that keep it from challenging the real top runners. First, the camera app is Huawei’s usual slightly ropey one. The way it lays out custom modes is unintuitive, and I find it slows me down.
After shooting for a while I did find that 90 per cent of the time the Auto mode is the right option anyway, but you don’t always know that from the preview image. You see, while the shot might look overexposed and like it has a weird, off-kilter white balance on-screen, head to the Mate S’s gallery afterwards and you’ll usually find it’s just about bang-on the money in reality. What's that about?
The Huawei Mate S’s camera processor is smart, but you have to put a little faith into it. Samsung and LG’s rivals offer a much more ‘true’ image preview.
If there’s one part we would change about the processing, I do find that the Huawei Mate S’s shots can lose some contrast when shooting a scene that has both bright and dark areas. It’s nothing a quick Photoshop fiddle won’t fix, but it’s a shame the phone doesn’t do the job itself. Right down at pixel level the Mate S also is not quite as sharp as the 16-megapixel competition in daylight. No surprise there.
These are niggles, though. The Huawei Mate S has a great camera. It’s just that this year we’ve been truly spoilt by all these top performers like the Samsung Galaxy crew and LG G4.
Video and selfies are both good here, though. The Huawei Mate S has a detail-packed 8-megapixel front camera that’ll keep close-up (ish) objects looking sharper than most of the others out there. In the usual Huawei fashion, there’s a Beauty Mode slider that smoothes-out your face and inflates your eyeballs, making you look pretty weird when the slider is maxed-out.
The Huawei Mate S can only shoot video up to 1080p rather than 4K resolution, but once again the stabilisation system is dead handy, removing the amateurish judder from your footage. Most of the other top Android phones offer 4K video at this point, though.
For the grand finale to this review, let’s cover the speaker. Exciting stuff. The Huawei Mate S has a similar style to the iPhone 6S clan and the Samsung Galaxy crowd, with a single unit on the bottom edge. It’s nice ’n’ loud, and able to cut through the noise of extractor fans and showers with ease (who doesn’t like some tunes in the shower?). However, it also gets a bit harsh at top volume, more so than the other Android flagships.
Huawei Mate S verdict
The Huawei Mate S oozes quality. The stuff is dripping out of the thing’s microUSB port like sap. In pure hardware terms this is one of the most finger-charmingly impressive metal phones to date.
The Mate S is a slim phone where the slim factor isn’t meaningless too, letting you keep its body pristine with a case without it filling your pocket. And ‘naked’ it disappears into your jeans more than and 5.5in phone of old.
There’s a lot to like, but a few limitations elsewhere stop it from being a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ killer. The CPU’s a bit dated in some respects, the screen is that bit oversaturated and the battery life is just ok. If you find a good deal on a Huawei Mate S, though, snap it up.