3 Days with the Huawei Mate S

3 Days with the Huawei Mate S

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At IFA in Berlin amidst much ado, Huawei finally announced their latest oversized flagship, the Mate S and this reviewer was lucky enough to be loaned the new device throughout a short testing period. However, due to the brevity of that period a full analytical review was out of the question, so instead I took the opportunity to attempt a more in-depth hands-on, a mini-review if you will.

Design

First and foremost, Huawei is really pushing the design aspect of this new device. A large portion of the press event was spent describing in detail the level of care that has been gone to, specifically highlighting stand-out features like the diamond-cut chamfered edges and the curved back. Recent flagships from the Chinese manufacturer have been generally well regarded when it comes to their physical design, and thankfully the Mate S continues that trend with its steel unibody chassis, svelte profile, and neatly drilled rectangular speaker holes. The front of the handset features ‘2.5D’ Gorilla Glass 4 that tapers down towards the body at every corner, creating a microcosm of the effect seen on Samsung’s recent S6 Edge/+. This practice is starting to become very common in the Chinese phone market as it looks attractive, but it’s easy to see why it’s been so widely adopted as it feels especially good during usage too. Given the amount of swiping in from the left that the Android operating system encourages, the tactility of this design is repeatedly appreciated, but thanks to its subtlety the effect isn’t as distracting as it can be on fully curved displays.

 

The overall craftsmanship of the smartphone is excellent. There are no gaps or build anomalies, even in this pre-release model, the camera lens is centered within the module (not always the case), and the edges are precise but not sharp. The whole package is surprisingly light too at 156g, which can be something of a shock when picking it up but does go some way to making it easier to handle, considering its size. This won’t help when the handset is dropped however; the metal clad package does of course dent as much as competitors (that is to say, very easily), so a case is absolutely recommended. With a device of this size, details like the Mate S’s diminutive depth and weight go a long way to making the user experience less painful, and as much as many smartphone enthusiasts are now totally used to 5-6″ displays, the average consumer is still wary of purchasing something this unwieldy.

In fact, the only let down here are the misleading bezels, another trend in recent smartphones. When off, the Mate S describes an edge-to-edge appearance that looks wonderful, with the slightest hint of metal either side of the curved glass, but in use it becomes instantly clear that there remains a black bar that encircles the screen and detracts from the experience. This is more than a little frustrating, perhaps not initially, but as time goes on the difference between the aesthetics during screen on and off become more and more noticeable.

 

Overall, the device looks like a cross between the Galaxy Note 5, iPhone 6+ and HTC One m7, taking influence in specific areas from each, meaning that when held at different angles it could be mistaken for any of the above. Of course, the phone shares this design language with its predecessors, and with the huge range of derivative Chinese handsets that are available today. Press focus was directed to the plastic lines on the rear that allow for functioning antennas, which were specifically compared to the iPhone 6 to demonstrate that Huawei’s results are thinner and less obvious, with a bonus being that their color matches each version of the device that they adorn. Speaking of which, the Mate S will be available in four options which, minus the marketing speak, are Gold, Silver, Grey and Pink.

 

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The Use Of Fingers

Around the back of the handset, you’ll find the fingerprint scanner, which blends in fairly well but ultimately ends up looking rather plain. It looks a little tacked on and considering that Huawei has a history of placing sensors in the same place, one would have hoped that they would have thought of a more attractive design by now. The rear placement itself I initially was unimpressed by, as it eliminates the opportunity of unlocking the device when face-up on a flat surface (your desk for example), where a front mounted scanner’s position always matches the operational side. On the other hand, during my usage of the Mate S I became very comfortable with taking the phone out of my pocket and having the screen already unlocked and ready for use, due to the natural position of my forefinger over the fingerprint reader. This small touch went a long way towards changing my mind, and added to the fact that the necessary backup PIN is quick to enter and that the keypad requires no extra taps to bring up or dismiss, I’m prepared to forgive Huawei this.

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The other advantages here are the speed and reliability of the fingerprint scanner itself. I had no major issues registering different prints, and assuming that you are used to placing the center of your saved fingers fairly accurately on to the sensor, I had minimal failure rates when in use. The reader is capable of 360-degree operation, so prints are quickly accepted without too much thought from the user. In fact, the only time I was unable to unlock the phone swiftly was when I attempted to use the sides or tip of my digits, and this is an issue with other manufacturer’s implementations too.
 
 
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Huawei has gone further than simple phone or app-locking with their ‘Fingerprint Sense 2.0’ technology though. Apart from higher success rates in tough situations like sweat clouding the sensor, they have found a number of unique applications for the reader which I found genuinely useful. These ignore the biometric aspect of the tech and use it instead as a rear-mounted touch pad in certain situations, allowing you to touch or swipe over the square and free up your other hand. Examples include a quick swipe down to pull down the notification shade and vice versa (a huge advantage on a large ‘phablet’-sized handset), swiping between pictures in the gallery, and tapping your finger to answer a call or take a selfie. Once you are used to these gestures and you begin naturally integrating them into your usage, they can save you a lot of time and can help avoid quite a lot of hand gymnastics. This functionality reminds me a little of the kind of software tweaks that Motorola make, where minor advantages in intelligent places benefit the user every day and over time eclipse the sometimes gimmicky features that usually form the basis of modern OS differentiation.
 

Force Touch

One thing that most readers will already know is that probably the most famous feature of the Mate S is something called Force Touch. Predictably enough, this is quite simply an effort to measure the amount of force that is used to touch the screen, and provide a literal extra dimension of possible interaction with what’s being displayed. Apple introduced a variant of this capability on their Apple Watch, and are rumored to have brought similar functionality to their upcoming iPhone 6S and 6S+, but for a full introduction and explanation of Force Touch and its possible applications, be sure to check out this article

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Unfortunately, it seems like Huawei’s most anticipated, most hyped feature could easily be its most crippling downfall. At the press conference, Force Touch had more time spent lauding its potential and how ‘innovative’ its inception was than any other aspect of the device, and yet, just as pricing and storage options were detailed, a small asterisk promised to ruin everything. The short sentence it led to informed the hungry journalists present that Force Touch was only going to be available on the ‘premium’ version that came with 128GB of storage. There is no confirmed release date at the time of writing for this model, but when it does finally appear, you can bet that its abundance of memory will help to boost prices to the roof. It should be noted too that although Huawei has the resources and financial clout to release the Mate S in multiple markets, the brand name is still relatively unknown across the globe, meaning that most carriers have no incentive to offer the device on contract, and that in the majority of cases consumers will need to buy it outright at full price.

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Secondly, the feature-set is a little limited at this point, so much so that Huawei provided a way to send in suggestions for further uses of the technology during the conference itself. This simply served to provide the impression that the technology had been rushed to market in an attempt to be the first (read: before Apple) to flaunt it, with only minimal R&D time taken to find practical applications for it. What the Chinese company haven’t done however, is provide an API for Force Touch, meaning that developers cannot experiment with it to find better uses than have been so far. This, added to the lofty price tag and vague availability ensures that the there’s almost no incentive to develop ideas for this device, and therefore, little chance of Force Touch evolving meaningfully in the coming months. Even the models that were made available to testers and journalists at IFA were lacking the capability, and therefore, the only experimentation made possible was on the permanently-attached display models.

sdrSo far, Huawei has implemented four main uses for Force Touch. Firstly, adaptable picture zooming when in the gallery is now possible, and as shown in the picture to the left, pressing forcefully on the display brings up a magnified circle that zooms in or out depending on the pressure you apply. This is a little difficult to control in practice, but thankfully some calibration options are available in the Settings menu that allow for slightly more accuracy. Overall though, it’s fiddly, and beyond novelty value, I struggle to imagine myself using it over the already simple pinch-to-zoom gesture. When looking at multiple photos in the gallery, you can also force touch to bring up a larger preview of a given picture without filling the whole display, which is a lot more practical. There’s ‘Magic Touch’, which allows you to press hard on the bezels at each corner of the display and assign an app to launch when you do so, and also the similar ability to use the navigation keys when in fullscreen-mode by force touching below where they should be.

Lastly, Huawei claim that you can actually weigh light objects by placing them on the screen, but it wasn’t available to test and so its accuracy (and therefore its usefulness) cannot be established. These do sound like better options for Force Touch, but really only time will tell whether they become truly useful, and this reviewer fears that it might take another few attempts from OEMs to bring this technology to its full potential.

 

Performance and Specs

Looking towards the inside of the Mate S you’ll find some well-rounded specifications, which put the smartphone somewhere within the mid-to-high-end spectrum in today’s market. The 5.5″ AMOLED display is bright and vibrant, with colors that offer great contrast without looking artificially over-saturated. To that end Huawei has included a cool/warm color temperature slider under the display settings for those that want to tinker with the balance further, but I found the default value to present more than acceptable results. Photos and text retain good clarity on the 1080p resolution despite its size, and even when directly compared to the 2k display on the LG G4 I found differences in detail to be quite minimal. It will always be held back a little by this non-competitive pixel density of 401ppi, especially for those who want to use VR applications like Google Cardboard where the extra pixels would come in handy, but for the majority of users and scenarios the Mate S provides a very pleasant viewing experience.
 
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Powering this display is Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 935 processor with 8 ARM Cortex A53 cores, 4 performance-orientated and clocked at 2.2GHz and 4 low power cores at 1.5GHz, all running in the popular big.LITTLE architecture. This 64bit SOC also features a Mali-T628 MP4 GPU, LPDDR3 memory speeds and Cat 6 LTE. This set up is practically identical to the Kirin 930 found in the Huawei P8, retaining the (comparatively) large 28nm manufacturing process but bumping the performance cores up by 0.2GHz. It’s definitely a capable processing package, and gave me few problems during my daily usage. I’ve not yet used any smartphone that’s completely without some slow-down, lag or the occasional stutter at points, but the Huawei still isn’t quite up to the level of recent top-tier phones. Below you can see the results from running the device through its paces using a number of popular benchmarking applications, and you’ll see that it tends to fall between Snapdragon 801 and Exynos 7420 territory, although varies quite a lot depending on the application used.

 

With Antutu, scores weren’t bad at all, with the ~53k score putting the Mate S in the same ballpark as the HTC One m9, but trailing behind the Samsung’s recent handsets. After multiple testing I can confirm that there is some throttling going on as scores tend to gradually fall away, but the difference is rather minor and therefore totally expected, and through personal experience the smartphone gets no warmer in high use than any other efficient CPU package. In Geekbench results are mixed, showing a clear difference between the ability of the octo-core chipset’s single and multi-tasking prowess, where the multi-core score of 3970 falls a little short of the Exynos 7420, but the low single-core score of 960 puts it on a par with the Moto X 2014 and OnePlus One. With PCMark, the Mate S again falls short of Samung’s recent flagships, but above a good many of this year’s handsets running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 or less, but in GFXBench you can begin to see that the GPU seems to let the Huawei smartphone down, with the T628 clearly a lesser chip than the T760 used in the S6, for example. Rendering in 1080p, the Mate S manages FPS values comparable with the S6 at 2160p, and when the offscreen tests begin, the Chinese handset begins to fall far behind.

 

In reality of course, this matters only in the continual top-trumps game that seems to permeate the smartphone market, where in everyday life one tends to notice far less how powerful the internals of each mobile phone are. In reality, I wouldn’t have guessed that the SOC drops down to S801 levels at some points until I began running benchmarks, as the performance outside of these tests is generally very good. We’ll get on to Huawei’s EMUI skin later, but it’s more than possible that the small stutters I saw during usage were down to its fairly heavy-handed version of Android’s user interface, which could easily be ironed out before or after global release. On the plus side, the 3GB of RAM ensure that apps generally don’t get removed from memory, which makes multi-tasking a lot easier than on some smartphones (I’m looking at you, Touchwiz).
 

Hardware & Battery Life

There are a few more interesting notes about the hardware of the Mate S that should be noted too, and although none of them are ground-breaking, they are appreciated. Firstly the device has been through a nano-coating procedure, making it water-resistant, which is excellent to hear. No IP certification is claimed of course, but even a cursory protection against the elements is something that can be very useful; I used the phone in the Berlin rain, with no problems during or after the shower. Despite this, Huawei has also included 3 microphones, which are used both to provide digital noise-cancellation during calls, but which can also be used for automatic or manual ‘Directional Listening’ for things like conference calls. Fast charging is present, with the included adapter being rated at 2A/5V, although wireless charging is not. Along with the normal suite of connectivity options like Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC, Wi-Fi is present, but lacks the 5GHz channel, an obvious problem for some. Interestingly, the Mate S is dual SIM as standard, allowing one 4G and one 2G SIM simultaneously, or instead the option of using one of the SIM slots for a Micro SD card, supporting up to 128GB of expandable memory. Lastly, ‘dual speakers’ on the bottom of the handset were claimed, but although the drilled holes were present on my model, sound was only projected out of one side, so only a mono speaker experience is available. This speaker’s quality is average too, breaking up into distortion and losing all bottom-end when the volume is pushed over about 80%.

 

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Huawei has placed a stepped battery inside the body of the Mate S to match the curve across the rear of the device. This sounded promising at first but it soon became clear that even with this bespoke adaptation the capacity is only 2700mAh, which is distressing considering the size of the screen. This is almost certainly due to the designers putting emphasis on shaving millimeters from the depth of the phone, which is partly why it feels so good to use, but a majority of users would probably appreciate some extra juice, even if meant the sacrifice of a little-added heft. Because unfortunately, battery life is not a strong-suit here; the Mate S will last you a full day if you don’t abuse it, but no longer. It’s as if this was the aim all along, keeping longevity truncated to about 2-3 hours of SOT in the name of that svelte profile. Again, software could be to blame here too, and some battery-saver options are included, but nothing will change the fact that components like LTE radios and GPS hardware suck battery when they’re used, regardless of optimization.

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Software

Emotion UI (EMUI) is typical of the approach of most Chinese manufacturers when writing software layers, in the way that it results in an aesthetic melding of Lollipop and iOS. This is especially noticeable in the Camera and Launcher apps, where some real effort has been put into attempting to fool onlookers into thinking that you’re using an Apple handset. It’s no surprise, as they’re regarded as luxury items in China, and the same is visible in skins from Xiaomi and Meizu. Instantly obvious is the lack of an app drawer; Huawei limit you to keeping your apps organised into folders across your multiple homescreens instead. One specific note to those who hate bloatware – there are a substantial amount of pre-installed applications on the phone as you can see on the right, many of which of duplicates of offerings from Google which I found particularly annoying, but thankfully the majority of these can be uninstalled without root.
 For the most part, EMUI is pretty and works well, but the duality of the design means that often there can be jarring transitions between Android-esque flat bright icons on some screens, and iOS style black-on-white-on-blurred-background choices on others, which tends to break up the experience somewhat. A theme store is included however, with some basic options to start with, but other than background and icon tweaks not much more is on offer. Overall, the interface should be familiar to anyone that’s used a fairly recent version of Android (especially something like MIUI), so we’ve included some screenshots below to help you get a feel for the OS.
 
 
A few software features come as standard too, although their usefulness is varied and sometimes questionable. Multi-window support is present, but the apps that function with it are limited to a few stock options like Calendar and Email. A menu called ‘Protected Apps’ allows you to decide which applications you want to allow to run once the screen is off, whilst ‘Networked Apps’ manages whether apps are permitted to use Mobile Data or Wi-Fi – a handy tool. There are many more minor additions, again detailed in these screenshots, but the main feature worth discussing here is Huawei’s proprietary ‘Knuckle Sense 2.0’.
 
If you hadn’t guessed, Knuckle Sense has been available in previous flagships from the manufacturer, and returns in the Mate S with some additional functionality. Essentially, the device can tell when you’re using a knuckle as opposed to a finger to draw or tap on the display, which allows for yet another layer of control. You can free-hand crop pictures, drawing around your subject whilst not being limited to a normal square template, and you can also take long screen captures a la Samsung, where multiple screens are stitched together to gain an elongated portrait of lists, etc. You can also draw shapes on the display to launch certain apps, like an ‘M’ for music, or ‘C’ for camera (these are customizable), and usefully this works even when the screen is off, joining the popular double-tap to wake gesture. Finally, a double-knock can start or stop a video whilst using the camera app, although this is something I truly never saw a use for. But whilst we’re on the subject…
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Camera

Huawei’s recent P8 appeared in a number of camera quality comparisons with the top shooters of 2015, and rightly so, as it created competitive results, so I was understandably curious to see what improvements could be made. The Mate S is equipped with a 13MP f/2.0 4-color RGBW sensor, which is meant to improve its ability to capture light in tough situations, along with a dual-tone LED flash. OIS is also included on the rear camera, along with a Sapphire coated glass lens to make sure that scratches don’t accumulate, which I believe more manufacturers should be copying. A pro-mode is available to take full advantage of this hardware, allowing you to change values on the fly for your ISO, shutter speed, metering and more. LG have paved the way with this of course, but the advantage of being able to control the shutter speed to gain far better pictures at night, or just to encourage some nifty effects cannot be over-stressed.

 

 

Along with the normal software modes like panorama, time-lapse and best-picture, Huawei has put particular time into two modes that I’d like to draw attention to. Firstly the LightPainting mode, which takes advantage of the added shutter control to automatically create long exposures and capture light trails for writing in the air, or the tail-lights of cars in night-time city shots. It has four modes within for controlling exposure, but considering that the user controls how long the shots are, the difference is fairly minimal. Overall the mode works well, and encourages creativity, and you can see my best amateur result among the below.

Secondly, there’s something called Auto Rectangular Alignment, that attempts to recognize a document or screen shot off-center, and then process the resulting trapezoid into a rectangle that looks as if it’s been taken from directly in front. This looked impressive when described on stage, and I can say that my own results are surprisingly good. Looking at the paintings below, it’s clear that the processing that’s going on is pretty sophisticated, and only when you zoom in on the opposite side of your subject can you start to notice artifacts from re-sizing. For board-room meetings, presentations or just for quick snaps of documents at work, this could prove to be an excellent feature, well implemented.

 

The pictures produced in auto mode from the rear camera of the Mate S are usually reliable. The sensor is clearly quite capable, but the software is what completes the package when it comes to processing the raw images. Saturation and image smoothing can be a little on the aggressive side, but this generally means that the pictures created by this smartphone look pleasing, if not totally accurate, especially in high-light scenarios. White balance is also handled well, with the device often quickly finding a level close to reality. The f2.0 aperture allows in quite a bit of light and provides the opportunity for some nice depth of field, but falls short of more wide-open models like the LG G4, especially in low light scenarios, where unfortunately the Mate S very quickly begins to struggle, and produces noisy, blurred shots, despite the OIS. Detail is acceptable for the most part, with images only starting to break up when magnified, although when compared again to the higher megapixel offerings from LG and Samsung, the Huawei does lose out by an obvious margin. I stuck to auto-mode for the most part to get a decent sense of the probable point-and-shoot usage of most consumers, but rest assured that some tinkering with the professional mode can produce impressive pictures. When looking at the galleries below, it should be noted that most of the Berlin weather made for cloudy half-lit days, and that despite the washed-out appearance of some of the shots, the color displayed is fairly accurate.

On the front is an 8MP snapper with a dedicated front-facing flash, the illumination of which is controllable from within the camera app. This is unique as far as I’m aware, and is genuinely useful, allowing you to brighten dark selfies without forcing over-exposure or blinding yourself. The pictures created are on a par with most other smartphones, with the relatively high resolution allowing for more detail in the day, but more noise at night, but I did find that the software sometimes has trouble managing exposure, where it could pick the wrong value and completely blow-out a few shots in row.
The Mate S is less confident with video however, with 1080p footage from the rear camera looking decidedly average to my eyes. Colors lose vibrancy and detail is underwhelming, creating lackluster images overall, with similar results from the front-facing camera. The OIS does a decent job of smoothing out vibrations and jitter however, and you can even turn it off to compare the results, the practicality of which currently escapes me. Additionally, the exposure and focus tracking is quite quick to adapt, meaning that using the Mate S to capture moving targets or motion is actually rather easy, even if the results look a little dim.
 

 

Wrap-Up

The Huawei Mate S will be available for pre-order on the 15th September in 32 countries, with prices starting at €649 ($725) for the 32GB model and increasing to €699 ($780) for 64GB. This places it firmly in flagship territory, and considering that the specifications fall a little short of the competition once you remove the bell and whistles, this price point could be a mistake. There’s no doubt that this phone is a well-built bit of kit that performs admirably, but once the many gimmicky additions are whittled down by usage into a smaller feature-set, you could be left wanting more, especially in the battery department.

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On the other hand, I enjoyed my time with the device, and found that I missed a few of its features once my time with it was over. The physical design goes a long way to making the user experience one to remember, and the camera, although again not at flagship level, produced consistent results that have the potential to impress when viewed on a full size monitor. Overall, the Mate S is a mixed-bag, but one that certainly deserves to be considered at the mid-to-high end of the market, and more so once the Force Touch model finally rears its head. What should be noted is that the smartphone should also start to become far more tempting once the price begins to drop next year, especially if it does so aggressively through lack of traction, which could turn this fractured flagship into a compelling option for the discerning consumer.

What do you think of the Huawei Mate S and Force Touch?

Let us know in the comments!!