Ever since the 2012 release of their Ascend D Quad, Huawei has been trying to break into the global luxury smartphone market, leaving North America to Samsung and Apple as so many other smartphone brands have. Announced earlier this month at IFA 2015, the Mate S is their latest effort (and note now: it’s not coming to North America), with Huawei finally nailing down the luxury look and build quality that Apple has perfected. It’s their best attempt yet, but to command luxury prices, everything has to be perfect or very close to it. While the Mate S excels and even exceeds others in some areas, there are still some critical shortcomings that prevent it from competing with the iPhones and Galaxies of the world. Note: This review is of the 32 GB storage/3 GB RAM/Hisilicon Kirin 935 processor configuration, model number CRR-L09 (pre-release). This model does not have the Force Touch feature, so that will not be discussed in this review.
The Huawei Mate S is being marketed as a luxury flagship phone, and the design reflects that. With a 5.5″ display, this phone is comparable to the iPhone 6/6S Plus, although the frame is less rounded. Impressively, despite the frame being a bit smaller than that of the iPhone 6/6S Plus, the display is a little larger thanks to thinner bezels, especially on the sides. The back is also slightly rounded, although with a phone this thin (7.2 mm) and large, I didn’t feel like this affected grip — the phone is awkward to hold, just like any phone of similar dimensions. What does make the phone comfortable to hold is its weight, coming in at just 156 grams. Port and button placement doesn’t depart from the norm — the audio port and mic are on top, the volume buttons and power button are on the right side, the SIM/MicroSD card tray is on the left side, and the Micro USB port (2.0) is on the bottom. On the back, the camera lens is top center with the LED flash off to the right. Below the camera is an exceptionally useful fingerprint scanner, which we’ll get to in the next section. The navigation buttons are digital and move around as you change the orientation of the phone. The Mate S feels very solid and looks like a high-end phone. The all-metal frame is dual diamond cut, giving the edges an attractive polished sheen. The camera lens is protected by sapphire crystalline, of the sort found on the Apple Watch, while the display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4. The phone is also waterproof, making it a pretty tough all-around phone, even if those diamond cut edges do scuff easily — and unlike the iPhone or a Galaxy S phone, it won’t be easy to find a case for the Mate S. As with most metal phones (and most flagship phones these days), the back is not removable, so you won’t be able to swap the battery out. We’re glad that the MicroSD card slot didn’t get the axe in the process, but if you were hoping for an alternative flagship with a removable battery now that the Galaxy S series moved away from that, the Mate S isn’t it.
The main purpose of any fingerprint scanner is security, and Huawei delivers here. You can use your fingerprint as authentication to unlock your phone, even when the screen is off, and the performance is reliable. That’s fine, but you might be understandably leery of fingerprint authentication after the HTC debacle, and as the biometric-skeptic refrain goes, you can change a password, but you can’t change your fingerprint. Fortunately, the backside fingerprint scanner is capable of doing much else that doesn’t involve your fingerprint. You can use it as a selfie shutter, but the feature I found the most useful was notification control. You can swipe up and down on the scanner to dismiss and pull down the notification bar, a small feature that goes a long way in making the phone more comfortable and convenient to use. It feels natural, and I haven’t swiped down from the top of my phone since I started using it.
Read on for the Camera, Performance and the Verdict…