Huawei Mate S review: Quality hardware, but some unnecessary features

huawei-mate-s-main.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    7.9 Very good
  • $499.00

Pros

  • Solid, well-made chassis
  • Dual SIM support
  • Excellent use of fingerprint sensor

Cons

  • You can use a MicroSD card or a second SIM, but not both
  • Knuckle gestures are awkward to use
  • Force Touch functions are only available on forthcoming 128GB model

Huawei says its new Mate S smartphone combines an ergonomic, 'luxurious' design with innovative technology to deliver a top-notch Android experience. The company often excels on build, and is Google's production partner on the well-received Nexus 6P. So how does Huawei's own flagship handset -- which can be had SIM-free for £399 (inc. VAT) in the UK -- stand up against those from market leaders Apple and Samsung?

huawei-mate-s-main2.jpg

The 5.5-inch Huawei Mate S comes in (clockwise from top right) Luxurious Gold, Mystic Champagne, Rose Gold and Titanium Grey.

Images: Huawei

Huawei certainly knows its stuff when it comes to hardware design. The metal unibody frame feels wonderfully robust, with very slight curvature helping this 5.5-inch handset sit comfortably in the palm. The finish -- the Mate S comes in 'Luxurious Gold', 'Titanium Grey', 'Mystic Champagne' and 'Rose Gold' -- looks simply stunning.

The two plastic strips top and bottom of the backplate allow the antennas to function and are nicely integrated into the design. More incongruous are the depressed square of the fingerpint sensor and the raised square of the camera lens (which is protected from scratches by sapphire glass).

Although this is a very thin handset, measuring 7.2mm at its thickest, the metal casing keeps it from flexing. The 5.5-inch AMOLED screen sits very tight to the long edges, keeping the width to 75.3mm. Weighing in at 156g, the Mate S isn't overly heavy either. In fact, compared to the iPhone 6s Plus, which shares the same screen size, Huawei wins on every count -- 7.2mm by 149.8mm by 75.3mm and 156g versus 7.3mm by 158.2mm by 77.9mm and 192g.

huawei-mate-s-sim.jpg

The SIM caddy on the left-hand side can accommodate two SIMs, but you can't use a second SIM and a MicroSD card at the same time.

Image: Huawei

There's only a minimal set of buttons and connectors. You can't remove the backplate, so your SIM sits in a pop-out caddy on the left side of the chassis. This caddy will accommodate two Nano-SIMs, but if you do use two SIMs you'll forego the opportunity to use a MicroSD card to bolster the handset's 32GB of internal storage.

This is not a unique situation -- we noted it in our review of the OnePlus X, for example -- but we don't much like it. If you use a MicroSD card for important files, you're unikely to want to pop it out to accommodate a second SIM, making the latter feature pretty much redundant.

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The right edge houses the volume rocker and power button, both of which are well made, easy to find by touch alone, and sit solidly in the chassis.

huawei-mate-s-bottom.jpg

The Micro-USB port on the bottom is flanked by speaker grilles.

Image: Huawei

The headset connector is on the top of the handset, while the Micro-USB port is on the bottom alongside the speaker grilles. Sound quality, incidentally, is excellent: the top volume isn't especially high, but when you reach it there's no distortion, enough bass (for our taste), and treble is not overpowering.

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Huawei has added a colour temperature adjustment to the display settings.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The 5.5-in AMOLED screen has a resolution of 1,080 by 1,920 pixels, or 401 pixels per inch (ppi). That's not the highest resolution you'll find in a flagship smartphone, but it's good enough for us and we didn't hanker for more pixels. The image is sharp and bright, and if you find the AMOLED colours a bit too vivid for your taste you can change the colour temperature using a Huawei-added feature in the general display settings. The screen is extremely responsive under the fingers and is protected by Corning's 2.5D Gorilla Glass 4.

Touch is a key feature of the Huawei Mate S, and there are several aspects to this.

The fingerprint sensor at the back uses Huawei's Fingerprint 2.0 technology, which is an update of that used on the Huawei Mate 7. You can use the fingerprint sensor not only for login, but also for other general management features -- and you don't have to have fingerprint login set up for these alternative functions. You can tap-and-hold the fingerprint sensor to take a call or shoot a photo or video; tap the sensor to turn an alarm off; slide a finger down the scanner to display the notification panel, and then double-tap to clear its contents; and you can even swipe left and right to browse photos.

This might sound like a case of 'features for features sake', but we found that these fingerprint sensor functions really helped with one-handed use. Recognition speeds are faster with this new version of Huawei's fingerprint software too -- and that goes for both the sweeping gesture and login recognition, both of which are 'blink-of-an-eye' fast.

We're not so sure about the knuckle-based touch features in Huawei's Knuckle Sense 2.0 technology. You can tap the screen with a knuckle to take a screenshot, draw an area to screenshot as a crop, or tap twice to start or stop a video recording. You can also draw a letter on-screen to start an app -- and you can define lots of different letters for different apps. Two sharp raps with the knuckle can turn the device on.

It all works, but it's a step too far for us -- not least because it seems that you can't do a knuckle gesture with a fingertip, so you must remember that you've set up a knuckle gesture. It's simply a hassle.

If you're lucky enough to get hold of the 128GB version of the Huawei Mate S at some point after its future launch, you'll also be able to take advantage of Huawei's Force Touch system.

Essentially, like 3D Touch that's implemented on the iPhone 6s, this is a feature that uses the pressure you put on the screen to elicit effects. Pressing on the screen to zoom into photos is quite a neat idea. Pinch-to-zoom still works too, but it's a two-handed thing, and the force touch option can be done one-handed. You can also touch parts of the screen edge to replicate the jobs of bottom-row navigation keys, allowing you to free up that section for applications and for quick-launching apps.

The other use for Force Touch is really 'outside the box': you can put an object on the screen to weigh it. We're not convinced by any of these uses, to be honest -- they feel like a solution looking for a problem.

huawei-mate-s-split-screen.jpg

Huawei's EMUI 3.1 interface additions include a split-screen feature.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Android 5.1 (an update to Android 6 is planned) is topped by Huawei's EMUI 3.1 skin, which makes numerous top-level changes to Android.

Huawei continues its rejection of Android's app tray, and has also skinned features like the calendar and contacts. There are plenty of tweaks further inside to discover, such as the ability to open two apps at the same time.

Internally the Huawei Mate S is powered by the company's HiSilicon Kirin 935 octa-core SoC, supported by 3GB of RAM. We noticed no performance issues at all with this configuration.

Of the 32GB of internal storage in the standard Mate S model, our review sample had 23GB free for apps and data. You can, as already noted, add a MicroSD card if you wish -- albeit at the expense of a second SIM.

The Mate S's 13-megapixel main camera is perfectly serviceable, and there's a neat option to quickly switch between different shooting modes along the bottom of the screen. This makes it easy to alter the light balance, as well as switch into 'beauty' mode, video, time-lapse and a set of light-painting options that slow the exposure to varying degrees. These complement the manual controls nicely. All but the light painting options are also available when you switch to the front 8-megapixel camera.

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Light-painting exposure options (left) and filters for the main 13-megapixel camera (all options except light painting are also available for the front 8MP camera).

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Wi-Fi (2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n only) is present, along with Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and GPS. The 2,700mAh battery might not get power users through a working day, so it's good to know that fast-charging is supported to give the battery a quick boost if required.

Conclusions

Huawei has done a good job with the Mate S in terms of its physical design, and the extra functions added to the fingerprint sensor are also welcome. We like a lot of what's been done with the EMUI skin too, although it might not suit all tastes. However, the knuckle gestures seem unnecessary, and Force Touch isn't present in the version that's currently available to buy.

Read more on Huawei smartphones

Specifications

Cellular
Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
Type Smartphone
Integrated Components audio player, front-facing camera, rear-facing camera, voice recorder
Navigation A-GPS, 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 5.1 Lolipop
User Interface HUAWEI Emotion UI 3.1
Input Device 3D Touch
Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, digital compass, gyro sensor, hall sensor
Additional Features Multitasking, Mobile Phone Weighing, Knuckle 2.0, Navigation Key Function
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Details
SAR Value 0.42 W/kg (body) / 1.35 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, audio player, voice recorder
Body Color Titanium gray
Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, 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
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.0, IEEE 802.11b/g/n, NFC
Processor
Clock Speed 2.2 GHz
Type Hisilicon Kirin 935
Manufacturer HiSilicon
Processor Core Qty Octa-core
64-bit Architecture Yes
Display
Technology Full HD Super AMOLED
Display Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
Diagonal Size 5.5 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 14 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 5.5 in
Color Support color
Features In-Cell Display Technology
Camera
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source dual LED flash
Features Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), RBGW sensor, sapphire crystal lens cover, video recording
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards MKV, RMVB, RM, FLV, AVI, MOV, XviD, MPEG-4, 3GP, H.264, H.263, WMV9, RealVideo, VP8, H.265
Supported Digital Audio Standards WMA, AAC, PCM, AMR, MP3, FLAC, AAC +, OGG, eAAC+, MIDI
Digital Camera
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source dual LED flash
Features Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), RBGW sensor, sapphire crystal lens cover, video recording
Header
Brand Huawei
Product Line Huawei
Model Mate S
Packaged Quantity 1
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (3D Touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, 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 Knuckle 2.0, Mobile Phone Weighing, Navigation Key Function, multitasking
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, AMR, FLAC, MIDI, MP3, OGG, PCM, WMA, eAAC+
Supported Digital Video Standards 3GP, AVI, RMVB, RealVideo, VP8, WMV9, XviD, FLV, H.263, H.264, H.265, MKV, MOV, MPEG-4, RM
RAM
Installed Size 3 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 32 GB
Optical Sensor
Sensor Resolution 13 megapixels
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 8 Megapixel
Focus Adjustment focus free

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Where To Buy

Huawei Mate S (titanium grey)

Part Number: Mate S-titanium grey

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