3 Days with the Huawei Mate S
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So 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
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.