Huawei Mate 8 review: A flagship phablet with great performance and battery life

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $459.00

Pros

  • Excellent battery life
  • Excellent performance
  • Large 6-inch screen
  • Premium build quality
  • Dual-SIM support
  • Good camera features
  • Fast, accurate fingerprint reader

Cons

  • Screen resolution and brightness could both be higher
  • Handset will be too large for some users
  • Second SIM slot shared with MicroSD card
  • No wireless charging support
  • No support for 4K (2160p) video
  • Superfluous features in EmotionUI Android overlay

'Phablet' is an ugly word, but it does capture the in-between nature of a handset like Huawei's latest flagship, the Android 6.0-based Mate 8. With its 6-inch screen, 80.6mm by 157.1mm by 7.9mm dimensions and 185g weight, the Mate 8 straddles the smartphone and small-tablet worlds -- and like others of its ilk, runs the risk that some will find it too big to use as a smartphone and others will dismiss it as too small to use as a tablet.

So how does the Mate 8 stack up against other leading phablets such as Apple's 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus and the 5.7-inch (Huawei-built) Google Nexus 6P and Samsung S6 Edge+. In particular, does it deliver value for money at €599 euros for 3GB/32GB or €699 for 4GB/64GB (about $650 and $760 respectively)?

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The 6-inch Mate 8 comes in 3GB/32GB and 4GB/64GB variants, and is available in four colours.

Images: Huawei

Design

Our review unit was the dual-SIM NXT-L29 model, which is available in four colours: Moonlight Silver, Space Gray, Champagne Gold and Mocha Brown. We had an unobtrusive Space Gray unit.

Despite its size, the metal-chassis Mate 8 doesn't feel unduly heavy at 185g, although people with small hands will find it hard to grip and navigate -- particularly one-handed (there are UI tweaks that deliver a mini-screen view and shift the on-screen keyboard, dialler, in-call menu and screen lock menu to one side). For the record, the 6-inch Mate 8 weighs a little less than the 5.5-inch Phone 6s Plus, which comes in at 192g.

The Mate 8 not only looks smart, but its build quality is excellent, with the curved '2.5D' diamond-cut glass front meeting the aerospace-grade aluminium back in a seamless angled join.

The Mate 8 isn't the thinnest phablet around, but since the first thing most people do when confronted with an expensive slab of slippery metal and glass is put it in a protective case, the odd half-millimetre here and there is irrelevant. Huawei provides a basic clear-plastic case in the box.

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The most in-your-face feature of any large smartphone is, of course, the screen -- and with a screen-to-body ratio of 83 percent, the Mate 8 is very screen-dominated. There's minimal bezel to the sides, with about 10mm at the top and 12mm at the bottom, where the Huawei logo is displayed.

The LCD screen's resolution is moderate, though, at 1,080 by 1,920 pixels, or 368 pixels per inch (ppi). That's well behind the 5.7-inch Google/Huawei Nexus 6P and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, for example, both of which offer 1,440 by 2,560, or 518ppi. You'll also notice less brightness and general vibrancy than you get with competing high-end phablets.

Having said all that, there's nothing wrong with the Mate 8's screen: those with less than perfect eyesight may appreciate the bigger text, and there's always the trade-off with processing power and battery life to consider. (If you find the size of text and interface elements too big, you can switch from the default 'Large' to 'Medium' or 'Small' in Settings/Display/View mode.)

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The aluminium back of the 185g Mate 8 has a fingerprint reader below the 16-megapixel camera's lens, with a dual-tone LED flash to its left.

Image: Huawei

The power button and volume rocker are on the right, and the SIM/MicroSD caddy on the left. As noted earlier, the NXT-L29 model supports two (Nano) SIM cards (there's a single-SIM NXT-L09 model too), but the second one shares its caddy slot with the MicroSD card, so you can't use both at the same time. We've seen this arrangement in several recent smartphones, and mobile professionals who both travel widely and like to store content on MicroSD cards may not appreciate it.

The top houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone, while the bottom is home to a Micro-USB 2.0 charging/connection port (no USB-C here), two more microphones and a speaker under the right-hand of two grilles flanking the USB port.

At the back there are two circles, the larger slightly protruding one framing the main camera lens, and the other slightly recessed one housing a fingerprint reader. After enrolling a digit, we found the fingerprint reader very responsive and convenient to use. The other functional feature on the back is the camera's dual-tone LED flash unit.

Features

The Mate 8 is the first smartphone to use the 16nm Huawei/HiSilicon Kirin 950 SoC, which includes four 2.3GHz Cortex A72 cores, four 1.8GHz Cortex A53 cores, a 900MHz Mali-T880MP4 GPU and an 'i5' coprocessor. Our €599 review unit had 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage; the top-end €699 variant has 4GB and 64GB respectively.

The Kirin 950 chipset delivers the goods as far as cellular connectivity goes, supporting 18 4G/LTE, nine 3G/UMTS and four 2G/GSM bands, making it an excellent handset for international business travellers. The second SIM only supports 2G/GSM connections.

For local-area wireless connection, there's dual-band 802.11a/g/n/ac (with Wi-Fi Direct support) and Bluetooth 4.2. GPS and NFC are present and correct, along with an FM radio and a full range of sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, ambient light, proximity, Hall, barometer).

Huawei has put a lot of effort into the rear camera, which includes Sony's new 16-megapixel IMX 298 sensor with 4,608 x 3,456 1.12-micron pixels. Combined with an f/2.0 lens, this gives a very respectable, if not class-leading, resolution limit (Dx) of 2.44 microns -- the same as the Nexus 6P, but behind the LG G4 (Dx=2.20). The Mate 8's camera subsystem also includes a new proprietary image coprocessor, optical image stabilisation and a dual-tone LED flash.

The camera software includes a number of useful features, such as independent focusing and brightness metering via two draggable circles that appear on-screen when you tap and hold in Photo mode. You can swipe between five camera modes: Photo, Video, Time-lapse, Beauty and Light painting -- the latter providing four settings ('Car light trails', 'Light graffiti', 'Silky water' and 'Star track') that allow you to get creative in various low-light conditions.

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Camera options for the Mate 8's 16-megapixel rear camera.

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

The camera menu offers plenty of shooting choice, including Panorama, HDR, a fully-adjustable Professional setting, a Watermark feature and a new Document readjustment mode that automatically straightens text images captured at an angle for easier reading:

One thing that video fans will miss from the main camera's specs is support for 4K/2160p video -- it'll do 1080p at 60fps and slo-mo at 720p/120fps, but not the higher resolution. The front 8-megapixel camera is optimised for selfies, and includes a 'Beauty' mode on a 0-10 slider that does the best it can with the subject matter (don't push the slider too far, though, or you'll end up looking like a waxwork). The front camera also supports 1080p video at 30fps.

Here are some samples of what the main camera can do (we didn't observe the focus problem noted in early reviews, as we had installed an OTA firmware update at the beginning of the review period):

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Images shot with the Mate 8's 16-megapixel rear camera.

Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

The audio subsystem includes three microphones, allowing the Mate 8 to do omnidirectional recording and directional playback. The bundled Recorder app has settings for Meeting, Interview and Normal, and you can choose the direction of the sound you want to hear during playback:

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The Recorder app supports omnidirectional recording via three microphones, and directional playback.

Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

There are plenty of voice options too. You can wake the phone up and make or answer a call with a voice command, for example, while the three-microphone system's 120-degree audio pickup range and directional noise reduction help to make conference calls clearer.

The Mate 8 runs the latest Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) with Huawei's EMUI 4.0 overlay. The latter has a lot of features and UI tweaks, but will probably divide users according to how they feel about the extent to which Huawei has messed with the vanilla Android experience -- particularly the use of an iOS-like home screen and lack of an app drawer.

Among Huawei's wackier UI tweaks is Knuckle Sense 2.0, which allows you to perform various actions -- take a screenshot, start recording a video, open an app, enable a split-screen mode -- using different knuckle gestures. The only one we used regularly was a double-tap with a single knuckle to take a screenshot.

Performance & battery life

The Mate 8's octa-core Cortex A72/A53-based Kirin 950 is a cutting-edge mobile SoC, as these Geekbench 3 results show:

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Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

In general use the Mate 8 -- as you'd expect given these benchmarks -- is extremely responsive. Business users who like to indulge in downtime 3D gaming will find its GPU performance respectable, if not class-leading.

The Mate 8 is fitted with one of the most capacious smartphone batteries around -- a 4,000mAh unit, which comfortably beats the Nexus 6P (3,450mAh), Galaxy S6 Edge+ (3,000mAh) and iPhone 6s Plus (2,750mAh). In general use, we found that, whereas your average large-screen smartphone usually requires recharging overnight, the Mate 8 was good for two days, sometimes even more. In CNET's video-looping battery test, the Mate 8 lasted for 15.6 hours, compared to 11.5h for the Nexus 6P.

There's no wireless charging on the Mate 8, which is a shame, but it does support fast charging (up to 40 percent -- enough for one day's normal use -- in half an hour, says Huawei). There are copious options for tweaking the handset's power consumption under Settings/Advanced settings/Battery manager -- including Smart (the default), Performance and Ultra power plans.

Conclusion

If you're a fan of big-screen smartphones, or phablets, then they don't come bigger than Huawei's 6-inch Mate 8. Normally you'd worry that such a large screen would be a major drain on the battery, but the combination of the LCD's moderate 1080p resolution and the presence of a 4,000mAh battery can allay any such fears: battery life on this handset is excellent, and there's fast-charging support too. The Mate 8's Kirin 950 SoC also delivers impressive performance, and there's a fast and accurate fingerprint reader.

All of which means that this elegant and well-made phablet has a lot going for it.

Some will quibble with the Mate 8's moderate screen resolution, others with the lack of support for 4K video, the absence of wireless charging and/or the fussy EMUI Android overlay. It's not exactly 'affordable', either: in the UK our 32GB review unit costs about £451 compared to £449 for the Nexus 6P, £579 for the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and £619 for the 16GB iPhone 6s Plus (there's no 32GB 6s Plus option; the 64GB model costs £699).

We like the Huawei Mate 8, but not everyone will. However, with a few improvements, it could easily move from 'excellent' to 'outstanding'.

Specifications

Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, digital compass, barometer, gyro sensor, G-sensor, hall sensor
Additional Features DLNA Certified, sharing media via DLNA, noise reduction microphone
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Details
SAR Value 1.18 W/kg
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, FM radio, audio player, voice recorder, navigation
Body Color Space gray
Cellular
Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
Type Smartphone
Integrated Components FM radio, audio player, front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, voice recorder
Navigation BeiDou, GLONASS, GPS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider not specified
Operating System Family Android
Operating System Android 6.0 Marshmallow
User Interface HUAWEI Emotion UI 4.0
SIM Card Type nano SIM
SIM Card Slot Qty dual-SIM (SIM1 and SIM2/MicroSD slots)
SIM Card Configuration Details nano SIM + nano SIM/microSD
Input Device Multi-touch, capacitive
Miscellaneous
Sensors G-sensor, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, gyro sensor, hall sensor, proximity sensor
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Yes
Communications
Data Transmission EDGE, FDD-LTE, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA, TDD-LTE
4G LTE Band Band 1, Band 12, Band 39, Band 4, Band 40, Band 5, Band 6, Band 7, Band 8, Band 17, Band 18, Band 19, Band 2, Band 20, Band 26, Band 3, Band 38
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.2, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Processor
Clock Speed 2.3 GHz
Manufacturer Hisilicon
Processor Core Qty Octa-core
64-bit Architecture Yes
Display
Display Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
Color Depth 24-bit (16.7 million colors)
Display Format Full HD
Pixel Density (ppi) 368
Contrast Ratio 1500:1
Diagonal Size 6.0 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 15.2 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 6 in
Color Support color
Camera
Digital Zoom 4
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source dual LED flash
Still Image Resolutions 4608 x 3456
Features CMOS sensor, ISP-Chip, Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), Phase Detect Auto-Focus (PDAF), Slow Motion mode, Time-lapse mode, video recording
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards SWF, MKV, AVI, MOV, XviD, MPEG-4, WMV, DivX, 3GP, H.264, H.263, WMV9, WebM, VP8, H.265
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, WMA, AAC, PCM, AMR, MP3, FLAC, AAC +, OGG, eAAC+, MIDI, M4A
Memory
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC - up to 128 GB
Battery
Standby Time Up to 22.0 days (528 hours)
Digital Camera
Digital Zoom 4
Lens Aperture f/2.0
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source dual LED flash
Still Image Resolutions 4608 x 3456
Video Recorder Resolutions 1920 x 1080 (1080p)
Features CMOS sensor, ISP-Chip, Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), Phase Detect Auto-Focus (PDAF), Slow Motion mode, Time-lapse mode, video recording
Header
Brand Huawei
Product Line Huawei
Model Mate 8
Packaged Quantity 1
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Touchscreen Technology capacitive
Features
Sensors G-sensor, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, gyro sensor, hall sensor, proximity sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Additional Features DLNA Certified, noise reduction microphone, sharing media via DLNA
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, WMA, eAAC+, AMR, FLAC, M4A, MIDI, MP3, OGG, PCM, WAV
Supported Digital Video Standards 3GP, AVI, VP8, WMV, WMV9, WebM, XviD, DivX, H.263, H.264, H.265, MKV, MOV, MPEG-4, SWF
RAM
Installed Size 3 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 32 GB
Max Supported Size 128 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC
Optical Sensor
Sensor Resolution 16 megapixels
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 8 Megapixel
Lens Aperture f/2.4

Where To Buy

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Where To Buy

Huawei Mate 8 (32GB, space gray)

Part Number: Mate 8-32GB/space gray