Review: Huawei Mate 8 – a powerhouse phone that’s built for business, but too stiff for fun

The Chinese phone manufacturer’s follow up to the popular Nexus 6P is more powerful, but less of an all around great phone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 2:00am

Having wowed the tech world with the well-reviewed Nexus 6P last year, Huawei showed the world what else they’re capable of at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas with the Mate 8.

Design

Huawei has been pumping out premium looking metallic phones for a while, and the Mate 8 is no different. It’s a full slab of metallic body and aluminium goodness with a piece of Gorilla Glass 4 (hardened) covering its entire front. The side bezels are super slim and at first glance had me worried that it would be like the Galaxy Note 5, where accidental palm touches to the screen was an everyday occurrence. Not so here, probably because of the slightly protruding glass. The Mate 8’s screen-to-body ratio is impressive too – its body is a hair smaller than the iPhone 6s Plus, despite having a 6-inch screen to the 5.5-inch on Apple’s phone.

Two machine drilled speaker grills are placed symmetrically at the bottom and are flanked by two tiny screws that presumably aren’t just there for looks. The back is largely metallic, disturbed only by two thin strips of plastic to allow antenna signals to pass through. This is where the only sign of issue exist – the plastic strip at the bottom sits flush below the rest of the body and so the aluminium juts out to create a sharp catch where lint collects. Near the top there’s the camera as well as a fingerprint scanner directly beneath it, just like the Nexus 6P. And also, just like 6P, you can unlock the phone without activating the screen first, and it’s lightning fast. It’s also an ergonomic location as proven by the LG phones who pioneered this the back placement. Typically the phone is unlocked and ready by the time it’s halfway raised toward my face.

Features/Software
Huawei is trying to do a lot here with its Android skin, dubbed the EmotionUI. There are plenty of nice concepts littered throughout the UI, offering their take on what the Android home screen should be like. For example, the notification slide shows notifications in chronological order, like a timeline. It’s an addition I’m particularly fond of. Now if only apps that appear in the notification pull down menu were themed properly instead of having text blend into the background.

Another way the EmotionUI strays from Android is it removes the app drawer, which Android phones use to store infrequently-used apps. On the Mate 8, all apps must go on the home screen, like an iPhone. It’s really a matter of preference – those who don’t mind iOS should have no problem with the lack of an app drawer, while Android diehards might find it really annoying.

Also unique to Huawei devices is Smart assistance and it consists of the ability to customise your navigation bar, motion controls such as “flip to mute”, knuckle gestures where you draw a circle with your knuckles to take a screenshot, for example, though I can never get it to work on the first try.

Also noteworthy is what Huawei calls “Link+” which is further divided into WLAN+, Signal+ and Roaming+. Generally speaking these are features designed to enhance connectivity by either holding onto a weak signal or letting go and moving on to another. On most other Androids, roaming across Wi-Fi networks has always been a pain because they simply would not let go of signals that are far too weak to transmit anything. With the Mate 8, the situation is dramatically improved and I struggle less in connectivity deadspots because it would either connect to a different Wi-Fi signal or go back to cellular altogether. Rarely did I have to do the switching manually just to get the data flowing again. Commendable.

Display
Unlike most other flagship devices, Huawei has wisely stuck with a 1080p display instead of going for Quad HD (1440P). On a 6” display, this translate to about 368 pixels per inch (PPI), and though that number is lower than just about every other new phone on the market, it’s not like the human eye can really tell the difference. There really isn’t a need for Quad HD on phones, it’s mostly a pissing contest between other phone manufacturers. I say Huawei is wise because going Quad HD would have made the battery drain faster. The display panel is a IPS-Neo LCD, not as high-end as AMOLED displays, but it’s still pretty good.

Audio
The speakers, or rather the speaker is actually worth noting. While there are two speaker grills at the bottom as mentioned, sound only comes out of the right speaker. The left grill is actually a microphone. At least the mono sound coming out is pretty amazing. It’s very loud with enough bass and doesn’t distort under pressure.

Camera

The 16-megapixel camera is sadly a disappointment, especially coming on the heels of the fantastic Nexus 6P camera. It’s not terrible, but I’m not sure I would rely on it for vacation photos. Colour comes out rather bland during the day, minor exposure issues at night and there is often a slight barrel distortion (skewing towards the edge of the photo) that can be observed. At least the camera is quick to launch and has some interesting features such as built-in filters and a mode for light trail long exposure photography.

There’s also something called “Document Readjustment” that automatically straightens text so you scan in. It works well, especially if you scan in a lot of documents and it’s always fun to try scanning at an angle to see how well it works. Notably missing is 4K recording, the maximum quality you’ll get here is 1080P at a smooth 60 frames per second.

Performance and battery life

The Mate 8 employs its own HiSilicon Kirin 950 processor and it is unbelievable. In terms of speed it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before and is definitely a breath of fresh air after most of the Snapdragon 810 flops. Inside the Kirin 950 is a pair of quad core chips, one is the low power Cortex A53 and the other is the beast that is the Cortex A72. The latter is a newly released chip that is speculated to find its way into many next generation 2016 processors. It’s a beast of a processor that will blow you away.

So it’s a huge surprise that the 4,000 mAh battery doesn’t burn to zero within a day of heavy use. It’s probably due to the combination of Android Marshmallow’s new battery-saving features and Huawei’s own system protection against apps draining battery in the background. On my typical usage, an hour of bluetooth streaming music, an hour of video, 20 minutes of light gaming plus social media and emailing, the phone lasted almost two days – that’s 7am until 10pm the next day, with an impressive six hours of screen-on time. This beats just about every phone out there.

Conclusion
So we’ve established that the Mate 8 performs great and has long battery life, but the mediocre camera and huge size means it’s not ideal for travelling. It’s not exactly a gamer’s phone either, as its four-cores graphic unit was not built for intense gaming. What it does do is directional recording and conferencing with its multiple microphones. It scans in and straightens documents when you’re in a hurry. It does have a comprehensive permissions manager and fingerprint security. The whole thing is clearly geared towards business. But nobody would judge you if you picked it up wanting only to have an Android smartphone with next-gen speed and battery life.

Huawei Mate 8 32gb version, $3,980; 64gb version, $4,580. Both are dual SIM with the secondary slot doubling as a Micro-SD card slot