Huawei still isn’t a household name in the west, despite having reliably pumped out decent phones regularly over the past few years. The company seems to have found a comfortable niche in the gap between the premium and mid-range phones offered by its better known rivals: high-spec devices at lower prices. It appears to be a strategy that works too, at least in its Chinese home: earlier this year the company overtook Microsoft to become the third largest phone manufacturer on Earth, behind Samsung and Apple.
But this isn’t to say the company doesn’t have big ambitions: it’s launchers are as overwrought and glitzy as Samsung’s, and the company has in the past displayed a confidence to attempt to drive innovations in a market of identikit rectangles.
Sometimes this isn’t so successful. With the Huawei P8 earlier this year it doubled down on the technology it awkwardly dubbed “KnuckleSense” (where you can tab on the screen with your knuckles to interact in a "new way") - but you have to admire them for trying.
Now we’ve hit autumn and a new flagship device is here. The Huawei Mate S is a ballsy attempt to beat Apple to the punch – and then detect exactly how hard the punch was.
What is It?
Huawei’s new flagship handset. A 5.5-inch Android phone, it sits just beneath the upper tier of smartphones. Inside is a Kirin 935 processor with eight cores spread over two chips (4x2.2Ghz, 4x1.5Ghz), and 3GB of RAM.
The screen runs at full 1080p HD – which would be impressive, were it not for the latest generation of phones from its rivals now nudging standards higher (the Galaxy S5 has a 2K screen, for example, and the Xperia Z5 has a whopping 4K display). The pixels-per-inch is also only 401ppi, which is less than its rivals, though you probably won’t notice much difference.
Who is it For?
If you want a phone that does a good impression of being cutting edge, while still not breaking the bank, the Huawei Mate S could be a good compromise candidate. The phone is powerful enough to at least be invited to the same parties as the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9, and there are enough bells and whistles that will make it stand out. But, importantly, thanks to being a relatively unknown brand, it is priced significantly cheaper.
It is probably fair to say that the Mate S’s exterior is at least partially inspired by the likes of the HTC One M9. It is 149.8 x 75.3 x 7.2 mm, so slightly thinner than the iPhone 6S, and its metal finish makes it feel like a classy device.
The right side of the device is home to the volume controls and the standby button, the latter of which is perhaps a little too jumpy. You barely need to brush your finger against the phone in standby mode for the screen to light. The bottom of the device is where the speakers and micro-USB slot are found, and the top contains a headphone jack.
The positioning of the fingerprint reader on the central spine of the device on the back, just below the camera, at first seems a little odd, though the placement in actuality works really well for the device, as it sits snugly beneath your forefinger when holding the device.
All in all, design-wise the phone looks rather slick indeed. On looks alone, if an iPhone didn’t sport the giveaway Apple logo, you would think that the Mate S appears the more expensive (and desirable) device to own.
We’ve all used Android before, so know broadly what to expect. On top though, Huawei has layered over the latest iteration of its “Emotion UI” interface. This does away with need for app tray and instead goes for a more iPhone-style homescreen, where all of your apps are a swipe instead of a tap away. Though, of course, you can still drop in Android homescreen widgets wherever you like.
Despite approaching the UI with some scepticism (I’m a big fan of Google’s ‘vanilla’ Android experience), it doesn’t get in the way too much, and actually offers some nice touches. Literally.
The touch sensor on the rear doubles up as a touchpad, meaning that when holding the phone in your palm, you have an extra finger with which to control the device. When browsing through your photo gallery, a swipe to the left or right on the touch sensor will scroll through your photos without you having to get your big fat fingers in the way of the images. Swiping down will bring down the notifications tray for easy access to that.
Perhaps the best use of the touch sensor though is made possible by its placement. Say you have the phone face down on your desk, when you pick it up you can unlock the phone in one motion by placing your finger on the touch sensor as you lift it. The touch sensor is much faster and responsive than the one on the iPhone 6, meaning that by the time it is pointed at your face, the screen is unlocked and ready to do your bidding. (Sadly I haven’t had a chance to play with a 6S and compare to the supposed improve sensor on that device yet.)
“Knuckle” controls, even though sounding stupid, also could conceivably be at least vaguely useful. As with previous Huawei phones, if you tap on the phone with your knuckles it will differentiate the input from if you use your fingertips, which can be used to take a screenshot. When you’re on a menu screen, you can also draw different letters of the alphabet to launch apps. For example, “C” for camera, and “W” for weather and so on. Though the Mate S isn’t the first device to do this (the Nokia N1 uses this type of input as a core part of its navigation), it gives power users another way to get what they need faster.
One other nice feature, which has been present in earlier Huawei device, is side-by-side multitasking of two apps. To activate this, simply swipe up with two fingers and you can choose how large to make each pane, and which apps to run within. While not exactly new, it is nice to see the feature executed so smoothly.
But I know what you’re thinking. What about ForceTouch, the handset's pressure-sensitive screen tech? When Huawei announced the phone a week or so before Apple unveiled the iPhone 6S, it managed to beat Apple at its own game – cheekily using the pressure sensing technology to weigh an orange (not an apple) using the new hardware feature. It is perhaps worth noting that ForceTouch is only built into the 128GB Premium version of the Mate S, so if you pick up one of the cheaper versions hoping to hammer the screen, you may be out of luck.
Despite the feature being the phone’s banner addition, at the moment it appears to be a case of a solution in search of a problem. Even Huawei’s publicity doesn’t even appear to know why it might be useful: it promotes the ability to push to magnify parts of photos and, umm, weigh stuff.
Unfortunately both these use cases fall apart a little.
First off, when you’re viewing a photo and push harder on it than usual, a little magnifying circle will appear under your finger, zooming in on part of the photo. The harder to you push, the more zoomed in the zoom goes. Whilst a cool tech demo, this isn’t actually all that useful given that a) pinch zoom will zoom the whole image and b) maintaining steady pressure from your fingers is harder than you think. So whatever you’re trying to zoom in on will pulse in and out as you try your best to hold your finger in place.
Secondly, the “fun scales” app is, as the name suggests, designed to be fun and not a useful tool. Sure, it is fun to weigh stuff around your house when you first set up the phone, but how often have you ever thought to yourself “I need to know how much this object between 100g and 400g [the limits of the scales] weighs exactly”. It wouldn’t work for cooking either, because you can’t zero out any measuring jugs or containers, and in any case, you probably don’t want to be pouring flour or liquids near your expensive phone.
So the exact point of ForceTouch is a question for future generations. No doubt once developers figure out how best to use ForceTouch, (and, of course, if more handsets incorporate it), the point will become clear. The technology, especially now Apple has built it in, is likely to become standard over the next few years across all phones, but for now, I’m left shrugging my shoulders.
Perhaps the best implementation of ForceTouch on the phone though is something really simple: it can remove the back/home/app switcher buttons, freeing up more screen real-estate, and instead handing over that functionality to ForceTouch presses in the same places. So the useful buttons are still there, but ForceTouch makes them invisible. Brilliant, clever, and something that will hopefully be adopted by other handset makers, but hardly a compelling reason to pick the Mate S specifically.
All of the recent high-end Huawei phones have had decent cameras thanks to the designers packing in as many megapixels as they can, and the Mate S continues in this tradition.
The rear camera is 13MP and has built in optical image stabilisation and has the same RGBW sensor as previous models. This sensor, it is claimed, should increase brightness, reduce colour noise and ultimately result in brighter whites and dark blacks.
And the result seem to bear this out. Notice how the colours on the Huawei shots of the church and the close-up of the piggy bank (taken in poor light) appears much brighter than those taken with the iPhone 6. This said, in my subjective judgement it certainly appears that whilst the Mate S has better colours (note how the leaves look less artificial), the iPhone 6 appears to produce sharper images.
Meanwhile on the front of the phone, the 8MP snapper seems to cope better with the range of colours on the church than the iPhone – but my face appears much darker. Conceivably either shot could be better calibrated, but these were snapped with the lenses auto-focusing, so it interesting to see where both chose to focus the attention.
So the Mate S is an accomplished handset but it isn’t without flaws. It is hard to pin-point exactly what is lacking on the phone, but speaking as someone who normally uses an iPhone 6, the phone lacks some of the slickness that Apple leads you to expect.
As mentioned above, there’s almost too many ways to wake up the phone: the touchpad, the standby button, and simply knocking on the screen. It all feels a little… fidgety.
User-interface-wise too, while the “Emotion UI” doesn’t wreck Google’s pure approach to Android too much, there are still inconsistencies of the sort that are common on many Android devices, such as parts of menus overlapping other UI elements. Essentially, it is simultaneously a very slick device, but has some rather awkward moments.
The other downside of the Emotion UI is that it means that any future updates to Android (such as the forthcoming “Marshmallow” release due next month) is that it will rely on Huawei being quick off the mark to bring it to the Mate S, rather than an automatic update from Google itself.
Should You Buy It?
So is it worth splashing out on? Essentially, it depends on the price, which Huawei has not yet announced. The base models of the phone (which lack ForceTouch) are set to cost €649 (£480ish) and €699 (£515ish) for the 32GB and 64GB versions respectively. It isn’t yet clear exactly how much the ForceTouch version will cost.
With this caveat though, it appears that the phone is being priced roughly in line with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, which is probably its closest competing phablet. The Note 5 beats the Mate S on pretty much every measure of raw power (processor benchmarking, megapixels and so on), but if you want a phone with a bit more character, some interesting features (and perhaps some more useful UI innovations like KnuckleSense, and of course ForceTouch) it could well be worth going for the Mate S instead.