Huawei Mate S

Brave is the Android publication that has its American contingent review a Huawei phone. While the company isn't exactly a stranger to top-shelf hardware, it's definitely fighting an uphill battle in this part of the world. That's (probably) going to change with the next wave of Nexus devices, and so it makes sense for us Yanks to take a good long look at the latest from Huawei, the Mate S.

First, a primer. There's Huawei proper, which comprises the Mate line (previously known as the "Ascend Mate" line), as well as the single-letter flagship phones, such as the recent P8 smartphone. (Think Galaxy Note vs. Galaxy S.) There's also Huawei's "Honor" brand, which is sort-of (but not really) separate, bringing the same sort of aesthetic under a more Western-friendly name. (Or so Huawei hopes.)

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What we have in the Mate S isn't unfamiliar to Huawei fans. We've got some very solid hardware, coupled with frustrating (but at times also very impressive) software that gives Huawei's phones a distinct look and feel, for better or worse.

There's a good bit to like here. And a good bit to grumble at. Let's take a deeper look.

About this review

We're publishing this review after spending a week with the Huawei Mate S (model CRR-L09) as my full-time phone. It's a pre-production unit, though, as given to us at Huawei's IFA event on Sept. 2, 2015, in Berlin, Germany. It's running Android 5.1.1 (Build CRR-L09C432B106) out of the box, with the EMUI 3.1 user interface. I used the Mate S for a couple days in Berlin with a local Blau SIM, but mostly later in Pensacola, Fla., on T-Mobile.

Huawei Mate S Video walkthrough

Huawei Mate S Hardware

If you're looking at the Huawei Mate S and thinking that it looks just a wee bit familiar, well, you're right. Curvy aluminum body with chamfered edges with breaks in the metal for antenna purposes. Sleek lines, solid build.

If the HTC One M7 had a larger twin sibling, the Mate S pretty much would be it. From the back, they're nearly identical save for the size and Huawei's fingerprint scanner. (The HTC One Max maybe would be a better comparison, but the removable metal cover and plastic inserts lessen that a good bit.) This similarity in and of itself isn't a bad thing, of course. The M7 still is one of our favorite Android smartphone designs.

So think M7, only bigger. We're talking a 5.5-inch display in tucked inside that metal body that's reminiscent of the LG G4, only with edges that aren't as sharp. It fits the hand well, and Huawei nailed the positioning of that fingerprint scanner just as LG's nailed the positioning of its rear buttons. Your hand almost instinctively knows where to grip it.

HTC One M7, Huawei Mate S and HTC One Max

The Mate S design 'influences' are undeniable. Fortunately that makes for a really nice phone.

The bottom of the phone has a pair of speaker grilles that attempt to hide the fact that there's really only one speaker, and it's not all that great once you get things up to a volume where you can actually here them. But with the exposed screws and micro-USB (Type B — not the newer Type-C most of us are waiting on), it at least looks nice down there.

You'll find the power button and volume rocker on the right, and the 3.5mm headphone jack up top. The SIM card/microSD try is smartly tucked into the left-hand side.

For as much as we've enjoyed the overall build of the Mate S, though, the front of the phone leaves a lot to be desired. The AMOLED display is fine indoors — and Huawei does a nice job of using default elements that show off the colors and contrast. But get anywhere near sunlight — overcast even — and the display immediately washes out. After more than a week of using the Mate S, this has proven to be the bigger deal-breaker to me than even the software Huawei's inflicted upon us.

As for the internals, we've got a quad-core Hisilicon Kirin 935 processor, which as of the time of this writing means the phone won't be coming to North America anytime soon. This isn't a processor I'm familiar with in any real sense, but at the same time the phone behaves the way you'd expect a smartphone to behave in 2015. (The 3 gigabyte of RAM help, too.)

Battery life has been decent, getting me through a good 12 to 15 hours on a single charge. And that's saying something given that this isn't, strictly speaking, a North American device, and the battery tops out at 2700 mAh capacity. The banding of the L09 model I've got, however, is impressive in its own right. Consider:

  • TDD LTE: B40
  • FDD LTE:B1/B2/B3/B4/B5/B7/B8/B12/B17
  • UMTS:850/900/AWS/1900/2100
  • DC-42M:B1/B2/B4/B5/B8
  • GSM:850/900/1800/1900

That's 15 bands of LTE, folks. It's worked just fine here in the U.S., if you're thinking about importing.

More Huawei mate S specs:

Category Specification
Operating System Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, EMUI 3.1
Display 5.5-inch AMOLED ONCELL display, 1920 x 1080
Processor Hisilicon Kirin 935, Octa Core: Quad 2.2GHz + Quad 1.5GHz
Storage 32GB/64GB or 128GB
Rear Camera 13MP with AF, BSI, F2.0, OIS, Dual color-temp LED flashes
Front Camera 8MP, FF, BSI, F2.4, LED soft light
Sensors Accelerometer, Compass, Gyroscope, ALS, Proximate, HALL
GPS Compatible with GPS/ Beidou/ GLONASS/AGPS
Additional NFC, FM
Battery 2700mAh (Typ.) 2620mAh (min.) Lithium Polymer
Dimensions 149.8 x 75.3 x 7.2mm
Weight 156g
Colors Mystic Champagne, Titanium Grey, others vary by region

Huawei Mate S fingerprint scanner

Huawei Mate S Fingerprint scanner

The Mate S rear fingerprint scanner is as good as its gets for something on the back of the phone.

So the bottom line on the Mate S hardware is that it's solidly done. But it's the fingerprint scanner that really stands out, for obvious reasons. I've used some really bad fingerprint scanners on Android phones. (Most notably, I guess, is what was on the HTC One Max.) Samsung's done really well with its scanners, built into the front home button of its past few phones. But I've never been crazy about having it down at the bottom of the phone. For me it's still awkward, even for the thumb.

Huawei's placement of the scanner on the back of the phone is perfect for me. My finger knows exactly where to go. Some of that is muscle memory after using the LG G4 for a good bit this year, but it's also where your index finger naturally rests.

There are trade-offs, of course. The rear placement means you have to pick up the phone to unlock it. (Though there is a double-tap option to wake the phone, and you can always just use a PIN unlock, which you have to set up as a secondary thing anyway.) You're also pretty much limited to your index finger, or maybe your middle finger.

But here's the important part: This is easily the best fingerprint scanner I've used. I don't even bother using Smart Lock with it — and normally I can't live without Smart Lock. The Mate S is just that fast. Pick up the phone, tap the scanner, and you're done. This bodes well for any (cough) upcoming Nexus from Huawei.

But on the other hand, the novelty sort of wears off quickly. While it's great being able to unlock a phone this easily, I sort of want it to do more. Exactly what I want the fingerprint scanner to do? I'm not sure. I've turned on the option to use the scanner to expand the notification pull-down, and that's fine, but it just feels like something that works this well should be doing something else. Maybe that's an argument for LG's rear buttons instead. Or maybe I'll change my opinion as Android Pay really gets going — and I think that's going to be the real advantage.

Or maybe I just need to explore the other options more. You can answer a call via the fingerprint scanner. Or use it as a shutter button, or to silence an alarm. You also can swipe through the photo gallery. (And any thing that's not security-related can be done without actually enrolling a fingerprint, turning the scanner into a touchpad.)

So actually it can do quite a few little things. And it does all of them very well.

Huawei Mate S

Huawei Mate S Software

The 'Emotion User Interface' still has too many broken features overshadowing the parts it does really well.

The Achilles' Heel of Huawei devices has for some time been in its software. That's continued in 2015 with EMUI 3.1. Alex went into great detail in the software section of our our Huawei P8 review, and things mostly haven't gotten any better in the Mate S. Android Wear actually works now, which is good given that the Huawei Watch is now a thing. The pesky Gmail notification duplication but has also been extinguished. But otherwise many familiar headaches remain.

And it's not even really a matter of Huawei just doing things differently — and to be clear we're talking about a user interface that's a good deal different than what, say, Samsung or Sony or LG or HTC do. EMUI forgoes the app drawer for a "Springboard"-type launcher, more like iOS. You can clear that up with a third-party launcher, but that doesn't do anything about the major retooling of the notification area and settings menus.

Huawei Mate S notificationsNor does it do anything about the things that are simply broken. Gmail notifications are next to worthless because the subject line or sender (depending on how many notifications are waiting) is in black on a dark background. If you prefer dark wallpapers or dark-themed apps, you're pretty hosed here. (And don't even think about being able to see them outside.) For me, that's darned close to being a deal-breaker for the entire phone. And Gmail notifications still aren't able to be surfaced to the lock screen. (Other Google apps can, but not Gmail.)

And of course there's Huawei's overly aggressive power management nags, which throw scary-sounding "This app that you're currently using is using up all your power because you're using it!" notifications, and ask if you'd like the Mate S to kill that app for you. No, thanks. I'd prefer to keep using the apps I'm using — and moreover the user should never have to worry about power management. Android as an operating system does a pretty good job of that these days.

And then there are the tiny timestamps in the notification pulldown. And the murdering of app icons with Huawei's colorful and extraneous icon backgrounds. (If you really want to see something messed up, you should see those app icons when they're displayed in Android Auto. That is, if you get Android Auto to work at all. It's mostly entirely broken, but I believe that's something that an updated version of Google Play Services could help with.)

Huawei Mate S

The real crime is that Huawei actually is doing some really good things with EMUI, and they get buried (or at least shouted down) by the bad. There are some really good transitions and animations. There are a bunch of really neat features (again, I'll point you to Alex's P8 review), such as long-pressing the multitasking button to switch between the two most recent apps.

With less importance placed on emulating features from iOS and more attention given to getting some of the basic things right, Huawei actually could have a compelling user interface. Unfortunately, we're left complaining about many of the same features we've complained about before.

Huawei Mate S camera

Huawei Mate S Camera

A decent camera in a phone priced among some great smartphone shooters.

Huawei has (and has had for some time) a decent camera setup on its phones, with this current iteration basically dating back to the Honor 6 Plus, which we took a look at in March 2015.

First, the particulars: The Mate S is sporting a 13-megapixel camera on the back, with autofocus, f/2.0 aperture, a backside-illuminated sensor, optical image stabilization and dual-color flash. The front camera has an 8-megapixel resolution and f/2.4 aperture, BSI and a soft-LED flash.

Huawei Mate S camera optionsThe camera app is definitely full-featured. You swipe from left to right for the Beauty, Photo, Video and Time Lapse modes. Additional modes like Watermarking (date, time and weather), mirror, panorama and audio note are tucked behind an overflow menu. You've got a ton of options, including resolution and aspect ratio, geotagging, ISO, white balance and image adjustments. But I'm an auto shooter, and that's where I've left things. (Though I did make sure to shoot in the full 13MP resolution and 4:3 aspect ratio.)

As mentioned before you can use the fingerprint scanner for a shutter button, which works nicely with selfies but is a bit awkward when you're using the rear camera. Otherwise, you'll either use the on-screen shutter button, or the volume-down button. One thing I did turn off is the "Ultra Snapshot" feature, wherein you double tap the volume-down button to quickly launch the camera and snap a pic in less than a couple seconds. (It still tells you exactly how fast it snaps it off, actually.) I need more time than that, usually, to properly frame a picture. But I do still allow the camera app to launch with that double-press.

So, how's it all work? Decently. Maybe not as sharp (or over sharpened?) as what you'll get from LG or Samsung, but the Mate S has a completely capable camera.

Other odds and ends

  • No issues for me with GPS.
  • Same goes for Bluetooth (4.0) and Wifi (b/g/n).
  • Call quality on T-Mobile has been fine, and Huawei's phone app is another one of those bright spots in the software.
  • Huawei sang the praises of its white plastic earbuds at the Mate S event in Berlin, and they're surprisingly good. Maybe that surprise comes because they look a lot like Apple's earbuds, but there's no denying the amount of bass that's coming through these things. And they're not uncomfortable for me, too.
  • Huawei also made a big deal in Berlin about being able to draw letters on the display with your knuckle as a shortcut for launching apps. This is turned off by default, though, and I never really felt I was missing anything by not using it.

Huawei Mate S

Huawei Mate S Bottom line

Spend a short time with the Mate S, as we did in Berlin, and you get the feeling that Huawei has a mostly capable phone on its hands. Spend more time with it and that supposition is confirmed.

But so, too, are the old truths about Huawei phones. You've got hardware that is pretty much able to compete with the best other manufacturers can roll out — if only because Huawei tends to borrow from a number of them. And the software, while impressive in some spots, is still painfully broken in others.

And we'd like to believe that some of those pain points might be worked out by the time the phone hits users' hands. But Huawei has a long way to go before it starts inspiring confidence on that front, particularly given all the issues we had with the P8 — and the fact that the mid-range P8 Lite shipped just a few short months ago with Android 4.4.4 KitKat.

Should you buy the Hauwei Mate S? Only if you really love Huawei

And then there's the price. The 32GB Mate S runs €649 — about $731. The 64GB model is €699. That's a chunk of change in a day when you can get a lot of phone for a lot less — and particularly one that's not going to give you so much grief over the software. And then there's the unicorn 128GB model with force touch — we don't have a price on that one yet, and it won't be available everywhere anyway.

So should you consider the Mate S? Only if you really love Huawei and are willing to put up with the software. The hardware impresses, as does the fingerprint scanner. But that only goes so far.