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Huawei Mate S review: Slender and metal, but not a great buy

Although the Huawei Mate S can take great photos, and looks good doing it, its high price is difficult to swallow.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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13 min read

Facing off against the giants of Apple and Samsung in the smartphone arena is no easy task. Huawei's usual tactics in this fight has been to make its products a lot more affordable, while still competitive on a technical level. Not so with the Mate S. While it's indeed moderately cheaper than the iPhone 6S or the Galaxy S6 , it's not cheap enough. And it's not the only problem Huawei needs to address.

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Huawei Mate S

The Good

The Huawei Mate S takes sharp photos, it has enough power for everyday tasks and its metal design look and feels great.

The Bad

It's too expensive, Huawei's custom Android is messy to use and the pressure-sensitive display is a pointless addition that adds nothing to the overall experience.

The Bottom Line

Though Huawei's flagship Mate S has classy looks and a great camera, you can find better-performing top-end phones for less money elsewhere.

Even buying the phone is difficult to do, with Huawei's own UK website directing you to a Chinese-language online shop. The phone itself has some highlights to boast about, including an attractive metal body and a good camera, but Huawei's custom Android skin makes the phone awkward and sometimes sluggish to use. It's the exact same issue I found on Huawei's P8 , launched earlier this year. Huawei talked up the pressure-sensitive screen at launch. It's the same idea as the 3D Touch on the iPhone 6S, that allows you to press hard into the screen. On the iPhone it works well, but Huawei has done precious little to take advantage of this new technology.

At £420 (around $642, AU$898), the Mate S's SIM-free price tag is still far above other excellent flagship offerings, including the brilliant LG G4 and the luscious HTC One M9, and it just doesn't do enough to justify that cost. Particularly since Huawei still lacks the brand appeal to tempt people to choose its handsets over more recognised and trusted manufacturers. And that's not the only problem Huawei needs to address.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If you can get it

Right now, you can only buy the Mate S in the UK, and even here it's tough to find. Although you can pick it up on Amazon -- amongst a raft of other imported Chinese handsets -- the only place you can find it from a high street retailer is via Carphone Warehouse. Worse still, when you go to Huawei's homepage and click "browse smartphones", you're directed to a Chinese-language store called VMall. When I eventually found the landing page for the Mate S, there is no option to buy the phone, nor any links to retailers. Huawei has an online store in the US, but the Mate S isn't yet available to buy there.

Not only does this make it difficult for consumers to actually get their hands on the phones, this poor quality service doesn't do anything to instil confidence in the brand in general. If Huawei is to sell this phone at a top-end price, it will need to do everything it can to gain that confidence.

Design

  • 150 x 75.3 x 7.2mm (5.9 x 2.96 x 0.28 inches)
  • 156g (5.5 ounces)
  • All-metal body
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint scanner

The all-metal body helps the Mate S feel like a premium piece of kit when you hold it in your hand. It resembles the previous Mate 7 , but Huawei has made various changes to bring the Mate S up to date. It's thinner, for one, with just a 7.2mm profile. The glass screen is rounded at the edge to meet the screen, and there's a gentle curve to the back of the phone that makes it comfortable to hold.

The edges of the phone have been given a chamfered finish too, which adds just an extra touch of luxury to the look and feel of it. It's well built, with no unpleasant gaps in the body, and no flex in the metal chassis -- even when I tried really rather hard to flex it.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It measures 150m long and 75.3mm wide, making it quite a large phone, although its size is expected given the large 5.5-inch display. Having said that, the narrow bezel around the edge of the screen limits the amount of unneeded real estate. To give some perspective, though the Mate S's screen is the same size as the iPhone 6S Plus, the Mate S is 8.4mm shorter and 2.6mm narrower, making it slightly easier to use in one hand.

You'll find the volume and power buttons on the right hand side, the 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top of the phone, and the Micro-USB port is on the bottom. The bottom edge is also home to the speakers, behind two sets of drilled grilles. They pump out a big enough sound for Netflix watching while cooking, but you'll want a proper set of speakers or headphones if you want to feel properly immersed in the soundtrack to your movie.

The phone comes with 32GB of storage as standard, but you'll be able to pop in a microSD card up to 128GB in size, using the combined nano-SIM and SD card tray on the left hand side.

Fingerprint scanner

The Mate S's fingerprint scanner is on the rear of the phone, just beneath the camera. It's in the same location as it was on the Mate 7 before it, and it's a position that works well for me. It's exactly where my index finger naturally sits when I hold the phone, making it easy to unlock without having to make any extra effort or jiggle it around. I have pretty average-sized hands, although if yours are quite small, then your finger may not come to rest in quite the same place.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's a good scanner, too, accurately reading my fingerprint and unlocking the phone in an instant. (placing your finger on the scanner simultaneously wakes up the phone and grant you access). You can use the scanner to perform other functions too; tap it when in the camera app to take a photo (it makes it slightly more comfortable to take a selfie at arm's length), touch and hold it to answer a call, swipe it to browse through photos or touch and hold it to stop an alarm.

The scanner isn't any easier than using the screen to perform these actions, but it's nice to have the choice, I suppose, and at least helps the Mate S stand out a little -- these scanner-specific features aren't commonly found on phones with rear-mounted scanners, even the Huawei-made Nexus 6P .

Display

  • 5.5-inch diagonal screen size
  • 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution
  • Pressure-sensitive interaction

The 5.5-inch display has a full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution, which is the minimum I'd expect to see on a phone of this size, and with a high price attached. If Huawei truly wants the Mate S to do battle against other top-tier handsets, it should have equipped it with an ultra high definition display, as we've seen on the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, both of which have 2,560x1,440-pixel resolutions.

As it is, its full HD resolution is sufficient to make icons and text perfectly readable, although they lack the pin-sharp clarity that you'd get from an additional helping of pixels. It's an AMOLED display however, which at least provides a rich contrast level, with deep black levels. Colours are vibrant and the screen is bright enough to counter overhead office lights and the outdoor light of a grey, autumnal London.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The display does have a small trick up its sleeve, however. In between Apple debuting its pressure-sensitive screen, dubbed 3D Touch on the Apple Watch and launching it on the iPhone 6S, Huawei snuck in with its own version of 3D Touch on the Mate S. Besides tapping or swiping the screen, you can press and hold to perform different commands. On the iPhone, 3D Touch acts in a similar way to a right click on a desktop PC; push hard on an app icon on the iPhone and it will bring up quick commands related to that app, without actually loading it.

While I like the feature on the iPhone, it's not anywhere near as useful on Huawei's phone. It only takes a little more effort to push, rather than tap on the Mate S's screen, but the problem lies in that it doesn't really do anything. One of the few uses I found for the pressure sensitivity was as a replacement for the on-screen navigation keys. When the function was enabled, the navigation keys were invisible -- meaning they weren't cluttering up the display -- but a hard press on the areas they would would be would make them reappear. And when in the photo gallery, pressing firmly on a photo delivered a zoomed-in view, with the zoom increasing the harder you press.

While Apple is working closely with developers to integrate apps with 3D Touch on its phones, the Mate S's long presses don't even work with Huawei's own bundled apps. To me its seems as if Huawei simply wanted to beat Apple to the punch in launching the technology on a phone, but gave little thought into how it would actually work, or whether it's even of any benefit to the user. Which it isn't. As such, it really offers nothing additional here and certainly shouldn't be a reason to buy this phone. Hopefully, Huawei will address this shortcoming soon.

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Android software

  • Android 5.1 Lollipop
  • Custom Huawei interface

The Mate S arrives with Android 5.1 Lollipop on board, which is last year's update of Google's mobile software. Huawei launched the Mate S just before the latest Android version -- codenamed Marshmallow -- was available, so I won't knock the phone for not having Android 6.0 on board. As to when it can get Marshmallow, I wouldn't get your hopes up too much -- Huawei isn't typically in any rush to bring new software to its existing handsets.

One of the reasons it likely takes Huawei longer, is that it heavily customises Android with its user interface it calls Emotion UI. I'm not keen on Emotion UI, as it makes too many changes to the Android experience. The biggest of which is that it removes the app tray, so all your apps you download are stored across your home screens, in among your widgets, like on an iPhone. I find it gets cluttered extremely quickly, so you'll want to make sure you keep it neat and tidy if you have any hope of finding things.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

You can customise the themes on the phone, although there are only six themes to choose from and I could find no way to download more. Huawei has also chucked in a bunch of additional apps, including two apps both called "SIM Toolkit", and one called "Screen Lock" which simply locks the screen -- I can think of no reason why you would ever need to use this. There's also an NFC app, something called "Fun Scale" and various backup and updater tools, all of which make the phone feel somewhat cluttered and complicated fresh out of the box.

Processor and cellular performance

  • Octa-core processor
  • 3GB RAM

Huawei Mate S performance chart

Huawei Mate S 10,946 791 2,958LG G4 18,611 1,046 2,981Motorola Moto X Style (Pure) 19,725 1,271 3,528Apple iPhone 6S 27,698 2,527 4,402
  • 3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited)
  • Geekbench 3 Score (Single-Core)
  • Geekbench 3 Score (Multi-Core)
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Rather than spend money buying in processors from Qualcomm, Huawei uses its Kirin 935 chip, made by its subsidary, HiSilicon. It's an octa-core chip, made up of a quad-core processor running at 2.2GHz for high-intensity tasks, and a lower-powered 1.5GHz quad-core chip for everyday processes. It's backed up by 3GB of RAM. It's a potent engine and it gave some decent results on our benchmark tests, scoring 2,951 on the Geekbench 3 multicore test, putting it alongside the LG G4 (2,981), although below the S6 Edge (4,608) and even the more affordable Motorola Moto X Style (3,528).

It performed less well on the 3DMark Ice Storm: Unlimited graphics test, achieving a score of 10,946 -- significantly below the S6 Edge's 20,778 and the LG G4's 18,611. In general use, I found the phone to be pretty swift, with only the odd delay when navigating the home screen panels or opening apps -- I'm tempted also to blame any sluggishness on the bloated Android customisations, rather than a lack of power from the processor.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It handled gaming well, with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Angry Birds 2 and Crossy Road all playing smoothly, and high definition video streamed from Netflix without issue. On paper, this phone doesn't have the raw power of its rivals like the Moto X Style/Play or the LG G4, but it's perfectly capable of handling your everyday essentials.

Phone calls using the Vodafone network in London were clear and free of any noise or static. Voice quality was at least on par with other higher-end phones around. Call quality is very much affected by network, location and time of day however so your own results may vary.

Huawei Mate S data speeds (unlocked on Vodafone UK)

4G LTE download rate 4.82Mbps
4G LTE upload rate 3.30Mbps
CNET mobile site load 3.5 seconds
CNET desktop site load 6 seconds
Temple Run 2 app download (44.68MB) 1 minute 30 seconds

Cameras and image quality

  • 13-megapixel rear camera
  • Variety of scene modes
  • Creative slow-shutter effects
  • 8-megapixel front camera, with flash

The back of the Mate S is home to a 13-megapixel camera, which is a touch too few megapixels for a high-end Android phone. Sony's Xperia Z5 packs in 23 megapixels, as does the much more affordable Motorola Moto X Play . However, megapixels certainly don't result in better-looking photos, and in fact the Mate S is capable of taking some impressive shots.

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Huawei Mate S camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My first shot of these lovely flowers is incredibly vibrant, with rich tones that really pop off the screen. Exposure is great and there's plenty of detail at full screen.

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Huawei Mate S camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This park scene has been captured well also, with the bright sky being kept under control, yet still maintaining sufficient detail in the shadowy areas in the trees.

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Huawei Mate S camera test, without HDR (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei Mate S camera test, with HDR (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Some shadows in the original canal shot (top) have become a bit too dark, but the HDR mode (botttom) has brightened up those areas, while also slightly dialling back some of the bright highlights in the sky.

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Huawei Mate S camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This shot over West London has lovely natural colours and good overall exposure. When you zoom into the details -- particularly on the houses on the right -- the image is noticeable quite fuzzy. While 13-megapixels is sufficient for getting a crisp-looking Facebook snap, it doesn't provide much additional detail to allow you to crop into a scene.

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Huawei Mate S camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In low-light, the Mate S's camera is about average. This shot is reasonably bright, although the colours have lost a lot of their vibrancy. The camera's attempts to reduce image noise has also meant that a lot of detail in the image has been lost.

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Huawei Mate S camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As well as HDR modes, panorama and burst modes, you'll find a few other neat tricks in the camera interface. This slow shutter mode lets you capture neat light trails from car headlights, while the Pro mode allows you to take manual control over shutter speed, ISO and white balance. The interface is fairly easy to use, with main shooting modes clearly labelled near the shutter button, with other settings hidden behind a menu in the top left of the display.

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Huawei Mate S front-facing camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On the front of the phone is an 8-megapixel camera, which takes reasonable selfies. This shot of me looking particularly wonderful suffers from quite a lot of image noise in the top left, while fine details on my face are lost when viewed up close.

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Huawei Mate S front-facing camera test, with 'Beauty' mode (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's a beauty mode you can use when taking a selfie, which applies digital effects to your face, including whitening and smoothing your skin, brightening and enlarging your eyes and making your face look thinner. I naturally turned it to maximum beauty and I think the results speak for themselves. The front-facing LED flash doesn't provide the most flattering light for a face, but it's pretty powerful and will certainly light up those selfies in dingey, underground bars or during low-light music gigs.

It shoots video at full HD (1,920x1,080 pixels) quality only -- there's no 4K video option as you'll find on the S6 or LG G4. Exposure is reasonable, although highlights can sometimes be a touch blown out, colours are good and the footage plays back smoothly. Image noise can be an issue in lower-light situations, but for capturing clips of your dog in the park, it's perfectly fine.

Battery

  • 2,700mAh battery
  • Non-removable

Providing the power is a 2700mAh battery. It's a good size cell and with moderate use you'll easily be able to get a day out of it. After playing music on your commute to work, sending and receiving texts and emails throughout the day and even a spot of gaming on the way home, you should still have enough power to get you through an evening out. Of course, is still depends on how demanding you are of it.

It hold its charge very well in standby mode, meaning if you tend to send a few messages throughout the day, leaving the screen off the rest of the time, you'll get a longer time from it. That bright screen is the biggest drain on the power so if you tend to leave it on for long periods, checking for texts or playing games for ages, you can expect the power to ebb away pretty quickly.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The battery is sealed into the phone, meaning you can't replace it for a fresh one when it runs out. If you're a heavy user then you might want to consider keeping a portable battery pack in your bag, just in case you can't dash to a plug quickly enough.

Conclusion

Huawei has clearly put care and attention into the design of the Mate S. It looks great, and its metal chassis with chamfered edges makes it feel like a reassuringly high-end device. Even so there are issues that are holding me back from giving this phone a glowing review.

I'm still not keen on Huawei's custom Android skin, which is messy to use and bogs down the phone's processor more than necessary. Sure, it has the fancy pressure-sensitive screen seen on the iPhone 6S, but on the Mate S, it feels to be there only as a marketing tactic to show that it's on the same level as Apple's phone. In reality, Huawei has put little thought into how it wants to deploy the technology and as such the pressure-touch does nothing of any value on the Mate S.

Huawei typically pitches its handsets as more affordable alternatives to other phones out there, but the high price of the Mate S means it's much less of a bargain than other Huawei devices. It's a fine all-rounder, but it's not worth its top-end asking price. If this phone were reduced by around 25 percent, I'd say it would be worth a look. As it is though, your money is better spent elsewhere.

One phone that's well worth a look is the Nexus 6P . Although made by Huawei as well, this phone makes up for a lot of the problems I have with the Mate S. It's easy to buy directly from Google's Play store, it runs stock Android Marshmallow and it maintains the metal design and fingerprint scanner on the back. It doesn't come cheap, though.

If you're keen on the all-metal design but want to save some cash, then HTC's One M9 should be up your street. It's beautifully-made, with a full HD display and plenty of power. Alternatively, the leather back on the LG G4 feels great to hold and its ultra high definition display is pin-sharp. Both phones have more standard Android interfaces (which I much prefer) and can be picked up for less money than the Mate S.

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Huawei Mate S

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6Camera 7Battery 7
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