Huawei has made a huge push into the premium smartphone market in recent years, with the Mate S going a long way toward helping the company shed their budget image. But, last year, their in-house chipsets still weren’t matching up with the high prices of their best devices, preventing them from being good value choices despite being terrific phones overall.
Still, Huawei has been increasing their smartphone market share globally, and 2016 figures to be a big year for the company. They’re leading off with the Mate 8, a direct descendant of their Ascend Mate 7. The new phone is more akin to the Mate S, though, in that it really drives home Huawei’s new commitment to luxury build and pricing. That’s nothing new — the big question is whether or not this can be the premium Huawei phone that finally merits its huge price tag. The answer? It’s still not perfect, but this is Huawei’s strongest effort yet, and it’s been shrewdly built for its targeted audience of power users and businesspeople.
Note: This review is of the 32 GB storage/3 GB RAM configuration.
We’ll start with the Mate 8’s most polarizing design choice, so you’ll know whether or not to stop reading right off the bat — this phone is huge. It has a 6″ display, and while the terrific 78% screen-to-body ratio means the bezels are very small and the body size is minimized, it still makes this phone enormous, eclipsing the iPhone 6/6S Plus and the Galaxy Note 5. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — we were laughing at the idea of 6″ phones a couple of years ago, but as time has passed it’s become clear that there is a market for them.
That said, there’s usually some happy medium to be found between the desire for a large screen size and the physical limitations of the average human hand — in other words, if you have small hands, it’s going to be really uncomfortable to use the Mate 8. Even for the average-sized hand, one-handed use won’t always be fluid. There is a one-handed UI setting, but the only way it deviates from default is by making the keyboard movable. That helps, but it’s not a completely satisfying solution.
It’s also not the most comfortable phone to hold — it has a rounded back, but because of how thin the phone is (7.9 mm) and how large the dimensions are, the rounded back doesn’t nestle into your hand and doesn’t do anything for ergonomics. It’s only 185 grams (6.53 ounces), though, which makes things a little better.
The all-metal frame is sleek and durable, capable of surviving drops even without a case (which is good, because case options are still going to be slim for Huawei phones for now). Being a metal frame, the back is not removable, so you can’t replace the battery (although we don’t think that will be a problem, as we’ll discuss later). It’s worth mentioning here that there is a MicroSD card slot on the SIM tray. The LCD is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4, of the 2.5D diamond-cut variety.
On the edges, things look the same as the Mate S, with speaker grills on the bottom (there’s only a speaker behind one), a Micro USB charging port on the bottom, right side power and volume buttons, and a headphone jack and mic up top. On the left is the SIM card tray, which has a dedicated SIM slot and a second slot that can be used for another Nano SIM or a MicroSD card. Only one of the SIM card slots can be used with a 3G/4G connection.
It’s likely we’ll see a lot of premium smartphones make the jump to USB Type-C charging ports in 2016. That’s a change everyone’s going to make eventually, but there’s no need to do it in 2016. With smartphones being replaced in under two years on average, they don’t really need to be future proof. In the next two years, most people will still be using laptops, 2-in-1s, or desktops without Type-C charging, and for them, a Type-C port just means another adapter. Come 2017 and 2018 Type-C is probably going to become a must-have for new devices, but I don’t see it as a big issue for 2016.
On the back of the phone, you’ll find the rear-facing camera lens, the LED flash, and a fingerprint sensor. The fingerprint sensor works quickly to unlock the phone, if you’re on board with biometric security. While there still are a few extras functions mapped to the fingerprint sensor, like a shutter button for selfies, a quick way to answer calls, and a snooze button, the best feature on the Mate S, being able to pull down the notification center with a downward swipe on the sensor, has been removed. I have no idea why, because it was a low-key awesome feature that made phones this huge much, much easier to use with one hand.
This was the bane of the Mate S, which ran on a lackluster in-house Kirin 935 chipset that simply wasn’t good enough for the phone’s price tier. The Mate 8 uses the new Kirin 950 chipset, which features an octa-core CPU (quad-core 2.3 GHz Cortex-A72 / quad-core 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53) and the Mali-T880 MP4 GPU, and 3 GB or 4 GB of RAM, depending on the configuration (reminder: our review model has 32 GB storage and 3 GB RAM). In tests and practical use, the new processors prove to be excellent upgrades, although the GPU is still lagging behind comparable premium phones.
Over three runs of the PC Mark for Android Work test, the Mate 8 scored between 6247 and 6509. The only Android phone that scores better is the Meizu Pro 5 — it blows by the Galaxy S6 family, although we strongly suspect that barring a shock, the upcoming Galaxy S7 family and the eventual Note 6 will beat these numbers. The phone scored 76966 on AnTuTu, which puts it more in the middle of the pack in the premium smartphone category. That said, most other reviews have the Mate 8 scoring about 90000 on AnTuTu, which makes it best in class. I’m not sure what the reason for the discrepancy is, as most other review models also had 3 GB of RAM, not 4 GB. Regardless, it’s a phenomenal performer.
The GPU is better than what was on the Mate S, but it’s still a weak point for Huawei. On the 3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1 test, the Mate 8 scored 879. That’s much better than what the Kirin 935 chipset was getting, and while that puts the Mate 8 above some competitors like the LG G4, it’s still a little behind the HTC One M9 and well behind the Galaxy S6 family, which score in the 2,000s. On the GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan offscreen test, the Mate 8 scored 611 frames, which handily beats the Mate S’ disastrous showing and compares favorably with most other premium phones. Overall, the Mate 8 fared better on GFXBench’s battery of tests than on 3D Mark’s.
There’s one aspect of performance that makes the Mate 8 much more preferable to phones running on the Snapdragon 810 SoC — heat. The highly efficient Kirin 950 combined with Huawei’s own thermal management system keeps the Mate 8 cool to the touch during even intensive use, which is great news for the power users this phone is targeting.
All that said, Huawei is the first to release a major premium phone in 2016 — we expect 2016 flagship phones from Samsung, Sony, LG, and HTC to match, if not best, the Mate 8 in both CPU and GPU performance. Still, the Kirin 950 chipset represents a huge leap forward for Huawei and shows that they’re definitely on the right track if they want to hang in the premium market, and we wouldn’t necessarily bank on this year’s competing chipsets being more efficient.
The display might be considered a disappointment at 1920 x 1080 resolution. I’ve long been (and still am) of the opinion that 1920 x 1080 is as good as necessary for a smartphone unless you’re using it in a VR headset, but it is worth pointing out that because this phone is so large, the pixel density is less than what you’d usually see on a 1080p smartphone display. You’re also not getting Samsung’s AMOLED technology or Sony’s Triluminos technology, so the colors aren’t as vivid or accurate as on other premium phones. Still, this is being marketed as a business phone, and for that purpose, the display is good enough.
But forget all that performance stuff for a second, because the battery life on the Mate 8 could be enough to sell you independent of everything else. We’ll get to the numbers, but suffice it to say that this phone will not die on you within one day. If you absolutely need something that will last all day and night without charging and don’t want to sacrifice premium performance, this is the phone you want by far.
On the PC Mark Work battery life test, the Mate 8 scored 11 hours and 53 minutes. In the mainstream premium smartphone market, there’s nothing else that comes even remotely close. The battery is indeed pretty huge at 4,000 mAh, but we suspect the Kirin 950 chipset must be awfully efficient, as well. It also helps (as we’ll discuss later) that Huawei’s Emotion UI Android overlay, while not perfect, is pretty lightweight. Avoiding the draw of an unnecessarily high-res display was another good call, in this light.
In practice, the Mate 8 never came close to dying within one day, and only on the busiest days did it even drop below 50 percent. Two days of battery life is a possibility for the average user, and even power users can expect a full day at the very least, and probably more. And, if the battery does run low, using Huawei’s quick charger can give you 40% in about 30 minutes of charging. There’s no wireless option, which is mildly surprising, but that doesn’t seem to be a must-have feature just yet, at least until public wireless charging spots become more common.
Huawei made camera quality a priority with the Mate 8. They sprung for Sony’s optics for the rear camera, which uses a 16 MP sensor with an f/2.0 27 mm lens. That’s joined by dual-LED flash and phase detection auto-focus, plus loads of settings you can toy with. There’s a professional mode that lets you change ISO, shutter speed, and exposure settings, plus an HDR mode, a panorama mode, and a super night mode for time-lapse photography. Huawei uses their own image processor, and they offer plenty of filters and effects for light editing.
The rear camera can take 1080p video at 60 fps or 30 fps, and there’s a slow-motion shooting mode that takes video in 720p at 120 fps. You can’t take video in 4k, which has been the norm on premium smartphones for some time, so that’s a bit of a disappointment for anyone who’s spent money getting their tech lives 4k-ready.
The front camera has an 8 MP sensor with an f/2.4 26 mm lens, and can also take video in 1080p. The front camera is mostly for selfies, which is why Huawei long ago created their Beauty Mode. Your mileage will vary — this mode can do away with blemishes automatically, but it can also make people look pretty unnatural, especially when turned up all the way (it’s on a sliding scale from zero to ten).
In general, image quality is pretty good. It’s probably what you’d expect — daytime shots come out clear and in-focus, while nighttime shots and indoor shots suffer from a lot of noise unless you have just the right kind of lighting. It’s also hard to tell how good your photos are coming out when you view them on the phone — this is one instance where the Mate 8 could have used a better display. Still, it’s pretty high quality for a smartphone camera, and it’s much improved over what was on the Mate S.
The Mate 8 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box. The marquee Marshmallow feature, Google Now On Tap (which calls up extra contextual information based on what’s on screen) was absent at launch, but it has since been added through an update. You can use it to immediately call up more information about a movie if you’ve just watched a trailer on YouTube, for example. I think it’s still not as useful as Google wants it to be, but it’s still a new feature and there’s a lot of development to be done.
As part of Android, Google Now on Tap is on any Android 6.0 phone. What sets Huawei apart is their Emotion UI overlay (now version 4.0). Unfortunately, the very worst parts of EMUI survived into 4.0. There’s still, for I can’t fathom what reason, no app drawer. To Huawei’s credit, there’s less bloatware on this phone, and all of it save for Huawei’s own apps can be uninstalled. Even with Huawei’s own, it looks like they are scaling back — Huawei has removed their proprietary browser and made Chrome the default. It’s still a bit silly to have a redundant calendar app that can’t be uninstalled (and can’t be hidden away in an app drawer), and that’s just one example.
Otherwise, EMUI is pretty lightweight and doesn’t add anything in the way of widgets or overwrought menus. It’s still noticeably far removed from stock Android, though, and not usually in good ways. Having settings shortcuts and notifications on different tabs isn’t optimal, but that’s a minor usability gripe. One major issue that has surprisingly persisted is that the text of Google app notifications blends into the background of the notification center. It makes it impossible to preview emails at a glance from the notification screen. The EMUI app carousel also still makes you scroll through active apps horizontally, one at a time, instead of the vertical orientation on stock Android that lets you see several of your active apps at once. Another minor annoyance, but one that’s hard to explain.
Knuckle Sense is also still here, which allows you to use knuckle taps and drags to input different commands, like taking a screenshot or cutting an image out of the browser. It’s rarely useful, but it doesn’t detract from the phone either. Huawei’s business card scanner, a handy addition, is also back. Huawei’s Force Touch technology, found on only the 128 GB Mate S, is not on the Mate 8, so don’t expect pressing harder on the screen to do anything.
The Mate 8 works with GSM, HSPA, and LTE bands. Connectivity has improved from the Mate S, thanks to the use of Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 ac. AGPS and GLONASS are also here for positioning and routing, and NFC also makes a return, predominantly for use with Android Pay. As mentioned before, there are two SIM card slots, but one is a combination SIM/MicroSD card slot and only one SIM card can be used with a 3G/4G data connection. Unlike with the Mate S, it seems like Huawei has made sure to round out the Mate 8 with premium features in all aspects, which really does a lot for the overall package.
Read on for the verdict…