Some would say that Huawei has become the most important OEM in 2015, not only showing some unbelievable growth in every market it sells devices in, but also because of its partnership with Google on the Nexus 6p and the Android Wear powered Huawei Watch. As such its other flagship devices have generated quite a bit of interest, and while they don't retain the pure Android nature of the Nexus 6p or Huawei Watch they do pack a boatload of features. The Mate S is one of Huawei's latest devices to have launched, and while we've had this phone since our hands-on in September we wanted to give it a little bit of time to bake before giving it the full review treatment. Unfortunately for us there have been no updates to the device since September, and all the issues we saw with the software back then are obviously still present today. With the launch of the Mate 8 is this phone still worth looking at, even with the Android 6.0 Marshmallow update on the horizon, or should you just forget about it completely? Let's dive in!
Huawei's Mate S is premium all around, including both the build and the internal specs. Inside the all-metal chassis is a custom HiSilicon Kirin 935 octa-core processor made up of a 2.2Ghz quad-core processor and a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, along with a Mali-T628 MP4 GPU. The screen up front is a 5.5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display (401 PPI), and 3GB of RAM keeps your apps from closing in the background. There's a choice of 32, 64 or 128GB of storage, and the 128GB model actually features a brand new Force Touch screen with additional features that we'll cover later. On the back is a fingerprint scanner as well as a 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization (OIS), and of course don't forget that 8-megapixel shooter up front with LED flash. There's a 2,700mAh non-removable battery and even microSD card support for expandable storage if you need it. The whole package measures in at 149.8mm high by 75.3mm wide by 7.2mm thin, and weighs 156 grams.
In the Box
Huawei's presentation is premium all the way around, and from the moment you set your hands on the box you're going to feel like you got a top-of-the-line item. The box itself as a cloth-like texture to it and shows the phone in a way that appears more like a jewelry item than your standard smartphone. Behind the phone is a pair of headphones, a wall charger and a microUSB cable in addition to some manuals and the SIM/microSD card tray eject tool. Surprisingly enough there's also a premium feeling window flip case in the box too, an additional value that most OEMs charge extra for.
2015 is clearly the year of Super AMOLED, as we've seen a number of non-Samsung high profile flagships finally make the move to this type of display. In general Super AMOLED technology just looks better than what can be presented on an LCD, and the biggest reason for this is not just the infinite black levels, which are achieved thanks to the display's ability to completely turn off pixels instead of displaying a gray hue like an LCD, but also its high contrast levels. Color accuracy tends to take a back seat on some AMOLED displays, and while Huawei's display here is certainly more saturated than you might find on your average LCD, it's not overly offensive or unrealistic looking. There's no saturation adjustments to be found in display options, but there is a way to easily change the slightly cool tones that the screen ships with to some warmer ones, or if you really want things looking blue you can push it further to the cool range with a simple slider.
Rainbow shimmering can be found only at extreme angles, and it's at these extreme angles where you'll also find some darkening of the panel too. No one would ever hold a display at this angle, so it's within an acceptable range to where we can say this one is just fine, unlike some other AMOLED panels lately that have significant color shifting with even the slightest tilt (Nexus 6p, HTC One A9 for example). Refresh rate of the panel is phenomenal and there's no noticeable color blending or purpling of the blacks as they wake up from slow scrolling. This can be found on some AMOLED panels when scrolling on a dark web page or app and the panel is slow to wake up the individual pixels, creating an odd color for a microsecond.
Last but certainly not least is the digitizer, which is good about 70% of the time, but can get annoying during some fast typing or swiping moments. This is ironic given that the 128GB model features the most advanced digitizer on the market, at least in terms of technical merits, given that it's the first phone on the market with Force Touch. This digitizer is also able to detect knuckles as well as fingertips, giving some additional functionality over normal touch. We'll cover some Force Touch stuff later in the software section, but the digitizer on this particular phone model is not great given the price range.
Hardware and Build
Huawei has been pushing harder into the all-metal realm this year, as evidenced not only by its Spring and Summer 2015 devices, but this and the Mate 8 as well. The Mate S is absolutely in the top tier of all devices on the market in terms of build quality, not only from its all-metal construction but from the sheer weight and construction too. The metal chassis has a nice weight to it and while it's a pretty average 156 grams, it feels heavier and sturdier than the vast majority of flagships on the market. This heavier feeling weight isn't a bad thing at all as the description might entail, rather a way to truly feel the quality craftsmanship that went into creating this device. All the edges are chamfered and smoothed out to create a truly seamless feel to the phone, making one thing it's actually a single piece of material rather than glass and metal fused together. The back also features an ever-so-slight curve to it to fit your hand better.
This incredibly beautiful looking and feeling device also features rounded edges to the glass, giving the sublte feel of continuity between the glass and metal that wouldn't be achieved otherwise. It's difficult not to gush about just how good this phone feels in the hand, much less looks. The bezels on the side of the device are rather thin, although the chin is slightly larger than you might initially think given that there are no capacitive or physical buttons here. The whole panel is covered in Gorilla Glass 4, although this is now the second Gorilla Glass 4 covered panel that I've managed to scratch, whereas I've never scratched a Gorilla Glass 3 panel before. Above the display you'll find the normal sensors and ear piece, while a surprising front-facing LED flash makes an appearance here too. On the right you'll find the radial-grooved power button placed just above the midpoint of the device, while the volume rocker is above that.
The left side of the device houses the ejectable SIM card tray that features two slots, one for a micro SIM card, while the other slot doubles as either a micro SIM or microSD card slot. Up top you'll find the 3.5mm headset jack and secondary noise-cancelling microphone, while the bottom houses a faux stereo speaker setup and microUSB port. Around the back you'll find the rounded square fingerprint scanner placed just below the rounded square camera lense. The fingerprint scanner is recessed into the body while the camera lens juts out the tiniest bit, keeping you from pawing the lens too much. There's also a dual-tone dual-LED flash back here too along with some rather attractive looking antenna lines.
Performance and Memory
Performance as a whole was abysmal given the price of the phone and the fact that this was using Huawei's top-end SoC at the time of release (the Kirin 950 in the Mate 8 is now the top dog). Unfortunately reality sets in after a brief usage of the phone, and prolonged usage only tends to grow more and more irritating. Things stutter when they shouldn't, apps take forever to install, and in general this doesn't always feel like a top-end high-priced phone in any way when it comes to performance. Gaming wasn't bad but it wasn't great either, and yet again doesn't feel quite like a high-end device, especially at "only" 1080p resolution when plenty of other flagship phones at this price have better performance and push quad-HD resolution. This phone should perform way better, but Huawei's chipset just can't keep up with Qualcomm's or Samsungs, especially at this price range.
Multi-tasking was alright, and thankfully Huawei's use of software buttons, specifically a dedicated overview multi-tasking button, make a lackluster experience at least somewhat tolerable. Huawei doesn't use the traditional 3D carousel that Android Lollipop introduced though, rather it uses a thumbnail grid with 4 thumbnails on screen at once, with additional apps on subsequent pages. Swiping down on a thumbnail locks it into memory and gives it priority over other apps when the system needs to free up RAM, while swiping up takes the app out of RAM (closes it). In general I found that apps had to reload far more often than they should, and even having 3-4 apps open at once proved to be too much for the poor RAM management in EMUI as a whole on this phone.
Benchmarks reflect what the overall experience feels like, and the results show it much closer to a $150 Lenovo K3 Note than anything in the $500+ price range. This is easily the most disappointing factor of the phone, and it's not just comparing raw numbers either. Take a look at the benchmark results below.
Phone Calls and Network
Call quality was nothing short of excellent, and I even experienced a full fledged HD voice call on T-Mobile US's network. Network strength was as good as I could have hoped for, which is great given that metal phones can some times cause problems with signal strength. I even got full LTE support on T-Mobile US too and never once felt like this was a second-rate experience when it comes to network quality. Check out the list of all supported bands below and pay close attention to each model number, as the supported bands vary wildly. We have model CRR-L09, which is the one best configured for US support including T-Mobile and AT&T LTE bands. This particular model even got LTE in Germany during IFA on Vodafone, so it's quite the jet-setter.
3G HSPA: 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz
LTE Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/17/20/38/39/40/41
3G HSPA: 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz
LTE Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/18/19/20/25/26/28/40
2,700mAh is a battery size you'd normally find in a phone closer to the 5-inch mark, and it feels like it in regular use too. I struggled to get 3 hours of on-screen time with the phone regardless of what I did per day, and while I don't normally go too much by the on-screen time this one felt really weak. The biggest problem here seems to be some sort of bug with cell standby and that dual-SIM card slot, where the phone appears to be constantly searching for a second SIM card even though it should be content with a single one. This artificially drains the battery quite a bit and showed up in the top 3 battery drain every day. If this can get sorted out things will probably be great, but as is it's pretty lame. Battery tests show a considerably higher usage scenario than I was able to net, so there's certainly plenty of hope here for good battery life even if I didn't find it in my personal usage.
Sound output via the 3.5mm headset jack was nothing short of phenomenal, especially with the optional DTS mode enabled. Volume levels were nice and loud, highs were clean and clear, lows were deep and mids didn't get muddled in to where they shouldn't be. This is good since there's no equalizer to adjust the sound at all, so the only actual toggle you've got here is the DTS mode. Overall the music listening experience from the Mate S was absolutely top notch and I really couldn't ask for more in terms of quality, but it's always nice to have software EQ adjustments in case you need to change some things for specific listening equipment like earbuds or headphones.
Sound from the speaker on the body of the phone was actually quite impressive, especially given that it's a bottom facing single speaker. Only the right grill is actually a speaker, the left side is simply for design, but this speaker was not only loud, it was clear and pronounced. Actual bass can be heard from it and audio wasn't tinny or muddy the way it can be on these sorts of small single speakers. It's not as good as front-facing speakers but it's about as good a bottom facing speaker as I can recall ever hearing.
Huawei's EMUI is one of the heavier Android skins around, and while it changes some core functionality of Android it doesn't really ruin anything the way some other heavy Android skins out there can do. The biggest changes you'll notice are aesthetic ones which come in the form of the lockscreen and notification shade among the general app design that Huawei sticks with. Our unit is running EMUI 3.1, which runs atop Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, although the EMUI 4.0 update running atop Android 6.0 Marshmallow is slated to happen very soon. EMUI 4.0 carries things even further into the iOS clone market and doesn't bode well for those looking for a Chinese phone that doesn't look like an iPhone knockoff, but at least Huawei tries to differentiate itself via features since it seems to be content with following the pack in looks.
We've covered EMUI 3 in a few other Huawei phone reviews, and there's relatively nothing different here in terms of design over those. The biggest issue visually is the tinted status bar that was introduced officially in Android Lollipop, and offers a way for developers to change the color of the top status bar to their app's color scheme. Huawei apparently doesn't like this feature unless it's their own apps, which all tint the status bar white, while the rest of the apps are all given a clear status bar. Behind this clear status bar is whatever wallpaper you've chosen on the home screen, which often times means it's an interesting looking bar that will look unique on everyone's phone, but won't fit with the color scheme that a certain app's developer has set.
While this is certainly a preference thing the behavior of the status bar is just plain broken, as its behavior depends completely on what launcher you're using and what wallpaper you've chosen. Some wallpapers behave "properly" as Huawei designed it and are displayed behind the transparent bar, while others completely break the UI and this status bar. This results in a proper Lollipop colored status bar, but ends up breaking other UI elements that Huawei designed in a very weird way. Header images on settings and other Huawei apps literally don't appear right after this happens, and overall you're going to find some truly bizarre looking placeholder images in place of the correct ones. It's a mess to say the least.
There are no priority modes in the volume panel, so there's no easy way to turn priority mode on or off from here. Do Not Disturb is at least present and works well, as you can either toggle it from the quick settings portion of the notification shade or schedule it each day. Lockscreen notifications are also pretty much nonexistent by default, and users that want these notifications will have to hunt through the convoluted system settings menu and enable them on a per-app basis. This is an absolutely abysmal and painful way to do this, and will result in most users never seeing notifications on their lockscreen as Google intended it (and honestly as just makes sense).
Huawei's digitizers have become more advanced in some ways, and while we covered the issues pertaining to fast typing on this phone there are some other interesting uses that Huawei has enabled here. Like some other Huawei phones, the Mate S is able to detect your knuckles in addition to your fingertips, and this brings some additional gestures that wouldn't be possible without something like a stylus otherwise. You can cut pieces of the screen and share them just like on a Galaxy Note device by just using your knuckle instead of your finger, or take a full screenshot if you'd rather do that. You can also draw the letters c, e, m and w on the screen with your knuckle to launch any app on the phone, all of which is customizable from the settings menu.
There's a voice wakeup feature but it can only be used to find the phone or place calls. This isn't a personal assistant and it isn't Google Now, so its functionality is quite basic although it does work very well. There's also plenty of other features to be found here that we've seen on other Huawei phones, but are no less mentionable. Check the screenshots below for tons of little things on the Mate S.
Most phones only use the fingerprint scanner to unlock the device, while others allow you to lock individual apps or even pay using your fingerprint to authenticate. While the fingerprint scanner's authentication does only unlock the Mate S, it can be used as another gesture device to perform actions without touching the screen. Pressing and holding it will answer an incoming phone call, clicking it will take a picture or stop an alarm, and swiping on it will bring down the notification shade down or browse through photos. Almost all of these are pretty gimmicky to say the least, but taking photos with it is actually incredibly useful since it doesn't require you to shift your hand to take a picture, and works very well with selfies too because of the way the phone is held.
While the fingerprint scanner was good it still isn't quite as good as the one found on the Nexus 5x or 6p, and I found that probably close to 20% of the time it would tell me it couldn't read my finger. When it did unlock though it was nearly instant, and I have nothing but positive remarks on the unlock speed when it works.
Huawei is one of the many OEMs out there that feels content with simply copying Apple's camera interface without changing almost anything at all. While this is irritating visually what's more irritating is the speed at which it takes to switch modes. A simple swipe to the left or right moves between the clearly marked modes, but it takes too long to get from one end to the other. It's also annoying to have to switch between photo and video modes when so many Android phones have been able to do both at the same time for years now. Live filters are here and exactly where you would expect them to be, in the bottom right button, and up top you'll find context-sensitive options that change depending on the mode selected.
The real interesting meat of this camera comes in the form of a very detailed and well designed manual mode. This manual mode features tons of options for the photo component, including manual ISO, shutter speed, white balance and focus modes, as well as a few manual video modes as well. This isn't quite as detailed as the manual modes on the LG V10, but it's definitely considerably more customizable than the vast majority of phones out there. Manual mode can help take better pictures when the auto mode can't get it quite right, and being able to adjust each component of the shot individually while leaving others at the auto setting makes it easier to do what's needed. The biggest issue comes in design yet again, but this time it's because some options are only shown as arbitrary icons without any sort of description, which could leave plenty of users scratching their heads.
OIS is present on this 13-megapixel module and generally does a good job of keeping video still. You can even see the OIS module moving to adjust for hand shake when lining up the shot for both audio and video modes, attempting to keep things smooth whereas a hand might make them a little bit jittery. This is even the case with HDR where there was almost never double imaging or ghosting, even in lower lighting conditions. Overall though HDR mode does a good job of preserving details and adjusting lighting for better dynamic range to help mellow out those highlights and eek more details out of the shadows. Keeping this mode hidden within the mode selection menu rather than making it automatically choose, or better yet providing a dedicated button on this large 5.5-inch screen, would have been a much better choice. Again the decision to blindly follow Apple in many ways causes problems when trying to more intelligently design software to meet the specific needs of users.
Overall the picture quality of the camera is generally quite good, although it's not quite the best the industry has to offer. The biggest holdup here isn't in picture taking speed, where the Mate S definitely excells, or even in preferring shutter speed over ISO to keep images from being blurry, but from noise reduction. Only in the brightest of sunlight does the denoise filter seem to nearly completely turn itself off, but outside of this the denoise filter seems to be set to overdrive, coming in to erase noise but also cancelling out the additional detail a 13-megapixel sensor delivers. The results are muddy low light shots, even if the shot is well balanced in all other categories, and even daylight shots just look soft overall. This is something that's very easily fixed in software and very well could be changed in a simple mod, but unless Huawei offers a manual adjustment or changes the default behavior, most users will find these results.
Videos were just as muddy and only go up to 1080p instead of 4K as we've become accustomed to for years in the top-tier Android world. There's some pretty cool timelapse video here and even some slowmo features to record light trails, but most of these were useless unless you're using a tripod to keep the phone steady. Some standard slowmo video at 120FPS or 240FPS like the Huawei-built Nexus 6p has would have been nice, and honestly has come to be expected from most people in their smartphone cameras anyway. Check the Flickr album below for all the pictures and video we took during the review period.
Incredibly strong, thin and well shaped metal build
Excellent screen quality
Lots of software features
Sound output is phenomenal
Lots of options in the camera software
International signal compatibility
EMUI has huge UI issues
Camera has poor low light performance
Camera software can be slow, confusing
Digitizer needs work
Performance is horrible for the price
While the Mate S has been out for just under 2 months now, it already felt dated at launch. Part of this is due to the high price tag and terrible performance for that price, and while the build quality is among the very best in the smartphone world it simply can't make up for the sluggish behavior found during use. There are simply too many areas where the Mate S falters or just doesn't do as well as other phones in this price range, and ultimately make it impossible to recommend for any one feature at this price range. Huawei even has another phone that's vastly superior in every aspect, the Nexus 6p, and even the recently released Mate 8 outdoes it in nearly every category too. Like some other Chinese OEMs on the market Huawei's version of Android ultimately causes more problems than it attempts to fix. Even with all the great features it adds the basic use falls flat because of the undying love some Chinese OEMs seem to have for Apple's design, which just doesn't work well with Android. If you're looking to spend $500 or more on a smartphone right now you really should just get something else, there's just too many better phones on the market for this price.