Hands-on review: Huawei Mate 8

Introduction and design

Although Chinese manufacturer Huawei still can’t claim much in the way of brand recognition, it’s expanded its reputation in the US and UK with every release. That’s down to the eternally appealing equation of more for less: the company offers high-end hardware at affordable prices.

The new Huawei Mate 8 is no exception. It offers the top-end spec you’d expect from a flagship phone, but at a lower price than the big competition like Samsung and Apple.

Following up on the Huawei Ascend Mate 7 that impressed us last year, the company has taken what it did right and eliminated a lot of the issues we had with that device. It’s also wisely eliminated the Ascend name, so this time it’s just called the Huawei Mate 8.

Huawei Mate 8

The Mate 8 launched in China at the end of last year, and Huawei announced at CES 2016 that both the UK and US will be getting the phone at the start of 2016. But at the time of writing, Huawei hasn’t confirmed the UK and US pricing. With that in mind, we won’t be giving this device a full verdict until we know how much it costs.

Design

The Ascend Mate 7 excelled with its design, but a few little changes to for the Mate 8 formula has made it even better. It has a full metal uni-body design that comes in either gold, silver, grey or brown. We had the silver version for the review, but the gold looks particularly desirable.

The phone has a smooth back that looks like it could be slippery, but I had no issues at all in use. That’s a surprise considering the size as well – it comes in at 157 x 80 x 7.9mm, so it’s not a small phone. It has to fit in a 6-inch display, but the bezels have been trimmed down so far that the phone isn’t that much larger than the screen itself.

Huawei Mate 8

I’m impressed with how little bezel there is intruding on the Huawei Mate 8, especially on the sides. There are slim bezels across the top and bottom of the display, but these are useful for gripping the phone at the bottom, while the top one contains the front-facing camera and earpiece.

At the bottom edge of the phone is a speaker grate, which is one of the worst looking elements of the phone. I prefer manufacturers to hide this stuff away.

It makes the bottom edge of the phone look like it has just gotten into steampunk, which is not something I want from my phone. That’s then surrounded by open screws that remind me this has all been put together in a factory and didn’t just issue perfectly formed into the world.

Huawei Mate 8

The camera protrudes a little from the phone but not as noticeably as on the iPhone 6S, and you only notice it after really studying the back. Below the camera sits the fingerprint sensor that this time is round (it was a strange square on the Mate 7) and slightly indented, much like on the Huawei-made Nexus 6P. It looks great and is a conversation starter whenever other people are checking out the phone.

Huawei Mate 8

Having a fingerprint sensor on the back rather than the front or side does cause issues when the phone is lying flat on a table. But it feels like a natural position for your finger when holding a larger phone – it just might take some time to get used to if you’re switching from an iPhone or non-Huawei Android device.

Key features

One of the highlight features of the Huawei Mate 8 is the 6-inch display on the front of the phone. Huawei hasn’t gone for 2K or 4K here. Instead it has a simple 1,080p option that stretches to the edges of the phone.

It offers 368 pixels per inch and looks gorgeous when on full brightness. I found myself turning off auto-brightness on a few occasions and putting it up to high to get the full effect.

Video looks especially stunning on the screen. The colours are fantastic and I’m very impressed by the quality considering it hasn’t got as many pixels firing at your eyes as rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S6 or LG G4.

Huawei Mate 8

The fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone is another one of my favourite features and it’s one of the best I’ve used while reviewing phones. I’ve recently been singing the praises of the Sony Xperia Z5 fingerprint sensor, but this is just as good if not better.

The phone unlocks in less than a second. I’ve previously used some fingerprint sensors that take longer to register your finger than it would to just push in your PIN on the screen, but that’s not a problem here.

Huawei Mate 8

The Huawei Mate 8 is also one of the few phones out there to offer Android 6 Marshmallow software right out of the box. Most phones running the software have downloaded it as an update or are part of the (Huawei-made) Nexus range.

Unfortunately, you’re not getting the pure Marshmallow experience with the Mate 8. While the Nexus 6P keeps it stock, the Mate adds Huawei’s Emotion UI overlay. This takes over the look and feel of the phone.

Specs and performance

Huawei doesn’t skimp on specs with the Mate 8 – you’re getting a similar set-up to even bigger names such as Samsung or Sony here. The Mate 8 comes with a HiSilicon Kirin 950 system on a chip, made by Huawei, that features a quad-core processor closed at 2.3GHz and another quad-core processor at 1.8GHz.

Performance was particularly impressive on the Mate 8. There were no app crashes during my time with the phone, and gameplay was smooth even when playing a graphically intense game like Asphalt 8, which caused other phones (including the Ascend Mate 7) to stutter.

That may be down to the 3GB of RAM included on this version of the phone. You can also get 4GB of RAM on both the a 64GB version of the phone, but for this review we only had time with the 32GB version that hosts 3GB of RAM.

Huawei Mate 8

It feels a bit of a letdown that we didn’t get the full deal, but that said I didn’t experience any problems that meant I was asking for more RAM. Storage options of 32GB and 64GB cover a decent range, and the pre-installed software doesn’t take up much room on the phone either.

Each version comes with microSD support up to 128GB as well, but you have to sacrifice your second SIM slot to get the extra storage. The Huawei Mate 8 comes with the latest Android software, but you wouldn’t know it was 6 Marshmallow if you just looked at it.

It includes all the latest features from Google, but there’s no sign of the Material Design the company introduced back in Lollipop. Instead Huawei has its own Emotion UI and it’s one of the worst aspects of the phone.It loses the app drawer and instead follows iOS, with all your apps on different pages. If you use a lot of apps, finding the one you want can be a nuisance.

Huawei Mate 8

Adding to that problem, Emotion UI also changes the logos of apps, so what you’re looking for won’t necessarily look as you expect it to.Of course, some people do really like the look of Emotion UI, but I feel it tries too hard.

Huawei Mate 8

I just wish Huawei offered the phone with stock software. Looking at what it achieved with the Nexus 6P, which combined great design and awesome specs with stock Android software, I can’t help but feel the Mate 8 could have been so much better.

Camera

The camera on the Mate 8 is particularly impressive. On paper it has a 16MP sensor, a slight upgrade to the 13MP sensor on the Ascend Mate 7. In practice, that makes a big difference, and I’ve found results much better on the newer phone.

Shooting with the Mate 8 is reasonably simple. You can just take the phone out of the box, turn it on and get a great image without having to fiddle around in the settings. The auto-photo mode is good in itself and I got acceptable results by just pointing and shooting the phone.

Other options with the rear camera include video, time-lapse, beauty and light painting. Light painting is useful for when you want arty images of car headlights but not much else. It takes a small segment of video and then blurs together all the images to give you what it expects the image should look like. Light graffiti, silky water and star track modes all vary the effect on your photos.

Huawei Mate 8

Huawei sticks beauty mode on all its devices. It automatically blurs out blemishes, creating an inhuman mannequin effect. Here you have 10 levels of “beauty” to choose from: anything over five takes you to waxwork town, but it could save the most exacting selfie takers some time with Photoshop.

Huawei Mate 8

Above is the shot with beauty mode off; below is with it on five out of ten.

Huawei Mate 8

You can also use beauty mode on the rear facing camera but it didn’t work as well as when using it on selfie shots, probably because the the camera struggles to identify faces from a greater distance.

One big negative about the Huawei Mate 8 camera was blur. I found it quite easy to blur an image with the slightest movement of the camera and I think Huawei could do with putting some time into its autofocus technology to improve that.

The Sony Xperia Z5 series comes with an incredible autofocus that means you get steady shots almost every time, no matter what you’re doing. I’d like to see Huawei adapt a technology like that into its next range of cameras.Night shooting was particularly impressive on the Mate 8. I got some really good shots of street lighting, including one of the tip of the Shard.

On both the front and rear facing cameras, there’s a little button in the bottom right that gives you a variety of lenses for your photos. It means you can shoot your photos in that Instagram-feel sepia before you upload it.

Huawei Mate 8

Those options range from mono to nostalgia to dawn – but are mostly useless. If you want a treatment on your photo, just apply it after taking the image.

In terms of video recording, the Huawei Mate 8 doesn’t offer 4K, which is featured in many of its rivals. Instead it goes all out on the Full HD recording, and I think it’s all the better for it. I don’t find much use for 4K video recording and it’s especially useless when the phone only has a 1080p screen.

There is a slow-mo mode, but few other options for processing video, and some will miss 4K recording. But I don’t, and pointing and shooting for a quick video clip will suit most users.

Camera samples

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Huawei Mate 8

Click here for the high-resolution image

Battery life

Throughout my time with the Huawei Mate 8, I’ve never gone to bed without battery still left in the tank. Even when using the phone quite heavily, the battery life on the Mate 8 has stayed strong.

That 6-inch screen demands a lot of power, so Huawei has packed in a big 4,000mAh battery to keep it going. That’s slightly down on the 4,100mAh battery included in the Huawei Ascend Mate 7, but it’s offering the same kind of life, if not better.

While doing everyday tasks, the phone would get down to about 20% at the end of the day. I had one day of really putting the phone through its paces by watching a lot of video and using Google Maps heavily, but it still made it to the end of the day with 10% or so left over.

Huawei Mate 8

One of the reasons for the extended life is the smart apps feature within Emotion UI 4.0 that tells you what apps are using up the most of your battery.

It reminds you to shut down apps you’re not using, and acting on its advice immediately leads to extended battery life. Sometimes though it will tell you to shut down an app you’re using, which is quite irritating.

The battery manager feature also came in useful. If you head into Settings and select battery, you’ll find a big button called optimise that will look over everything the phone can do to prolong life.

There are lots of different options here to fiddle with: you can exclude certain apps from being shut down to save battery, or choose a specific power plan. If you choose the Ultra power plan it limits the phone to just calling and messaging features but saves you on lots of life. On a full charge, Ultra will give you two full days of use with a little bit of change leftover.

Huawei Mate 8

Huawei has also included a fast-charging feature on the Mate 8, but our sample didn’t come with a charger so it wasn’t possible to test. Huawei claims it will charge from zero to 37% in 30 minutes with the fast charger but we can’t confirm that just yet. It seems Huawei isn’t including the fast charger as standard, which is disappointing.

I put the Mate 8 through our normal battery test which involves a 90-minute video played with the screen at full brightness and all connectivity options on.

The Mate 8 got to the end of the test with 80% of its battery leftover, a respectable score. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 beat that score with only a 14% drop while the Galaxy S6 Edge+ dropped further than the Mate 8 with only 76% left at the end.

The Huawei Ascend Mate 7 scored really well in this test though only dropping down to 91% in the test.

Overall, the Huawei Mate 8 offers outstanding battery life for consistent daily use. If you’re looking for a phablet with a strong battery life, this fits the bill.

Music, movies and gaming

Music

Huawei has its own Music app that works in a similar way to most Android manufacturers’ own apps. If you upload music to your phone you can listen to it in here, but it doesn’t offer that much exciting functionality past that.

In fact it’s a very simple music player and I soon downloaded the Spotify app instead. Google Play Music is also installed, and you can get three months free use when you log in or upload your own tracks to the storage.

The speakers on the bottom of the Mate 8, although not particularly attractive, are quite powerful. I spend quite a bit of time playing music out of them and I found they could get a little tinny when turned up too loud but otherwise they worked perfectly.

Huawei Mate 8

Then there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge of the phone for whenever you need to keep it a little private.

Movies

The highlight of watching video on the Mate 8 is the display on the front. It’s the perfect size for watching films on the go when taking a tablet is too much for the journey.

Huawei has its own Videos app: a simple player for the stuff you’ve taken with the phones camera which can also play movies if you need it to. If you want anything more impressive you’ll have to go into the Google Play Store and download another player app like VLC.

Google Play Movies & TV is also included on the phone so you can rent and buy TV shows and films. It’s a great selection, although Google sometimes overcharges compared to some other services. It may just be worth your while to download the Netflix app and watch all your films that way.

Gaming

Huawei Mate 8

The Mate 8 doesn’t come with any games preinstalled, but it’s simple enough to choose something from the Google Play Store, which offers a huge collection of mobile titles.

I played a lot of Asphalt 8 as it’s a graphically intensive game that puts the phone through its paces, and I didn’t encounter any issues with the phone. There was no stuttering and the game didn’t crash like it can sometimes on less powerful phones.

I also played Tomb Raider 2, and even though it has a complicated control scheme for a mobile phone, it was an outstanding mobile gaming experience. With the Mate 8, any game you get from the Play Store should be problem-free and pleasurable.

Competition

Not feeling the Huawei Mate 8? Here are the other top end phablets to consider.

Nexus 6P

Google Nexus ^p

The Nexus 6P is the closest thing you’re going to get to the Huawei Mate 8 without buying the phone itself. The latest phone in Google’s Nexus project is made by Huawei and a lot of the design and spec elements are shared across the two devices.

The specs on the Nexus 6P are about the same, with a few little extras added onto the Huawei Mate 8. There’s a slightly smaller screen on the Nexus 6P and a slightly less powerful camera, but it still offers a similar result.

Buying the Nexus 6P will come with the benefit of always having the most up-to-date software. Android Marshmallow is already on the Mate 8, but the Nexus 6P will be one of the first few phones to get the Android 7 software when it’s released in 2016.

Plus the Nexus 6P has that software in a stock capacity so you won’t have to put up with the look of Emotion UI if you don’t like it.

iPhone 6S Plus

iPhone 6S Plus

Fancy something with an iOS flavour? If you’re looking for a phablet this is the better of your two choices. The iPhone 6S Plus comes with a variety of updates such as the latest iOS 9 software, improved camera technology and Live Photos.

The best feature of the latest phablet from Apple is the introduction of 3D Touch. It means the screen reacts to different degrees of pressure, meaning a long hard press will open up a different menu to the one you acces by tapping it.

It’s being used in a variety of games as well as being adapted to a variety of apps and it will only get more integrated with time. If you’re looking for a phablet that will impress you and you’re not sure if Android is the way to go, the iPhone 6S Plus is the best choice for you.

Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

Sony’s latest flagship choice has one thing above the rest: the fact it’s the first ever phone to come with a 4K display. That means it can pack a huge 808ppi in the 5.5-inches of its display. It’s an impressive number and when you’re watching back 4K video it feels like a worthy addition to your smartphone.

But the problem is that eats into your battery and there’s so little 4K content out there for your phone to make it worthwhile.

The rest of the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium‘s specs do add up though and make it a fantastic choice. If you’re looking for a phablet with a supremely different design to the Huawei Mate 8, this may be the best choice for you.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+

Samsung’s latest phablet comes with a curved display. They don’t really add much in way of functionality, but do make it look absolutely gorgeous. It has a 5.7-inch display, so it’s a little smaller than the Huawei Mate 8, but it comes with a 2K display instead of the 1080p option on Huawei’s phone.

You’ll be getting rid of the awful Huawei Emotion UI as well, and Samsung’s TouchWiz look has improved a lot in recent years – especially with the elimination of a lot of bloatware from the platform.

Verdict

Huawei has put a lot of work into its latest phablet and it has paid off well. The company is starting to create some phones that really rival the top end of the market with the big name Android phone manufacturers.

The Huawei Ascend Mate 7 was a good phone, but not really inspiring anything. The Nexus 6P and the Huawei Mate 8 are both a distinct move on from the Ascend Mate 7, and different to each other thanks to the Mate 8’s slightly better camera and very different design and feel.

Huawei Mate 8

We liked

I especially like the design of the Mate 8. A lot has been improved in this version of the phablet and it all feels more premium than what we’ve seen before from Huawei.

The bezel on the side of the screen is a particular highlight that means you get more screen squeezed into the body. I also really like the look of the side of the phones with its slim stylish edges and premium feel finish.

The fingerprint sensor has been improved quite some way on the one on the Ascend Mate 7. The round design is much nicer and it doesn’t stand out as much anymore. It’s also one of the fastest I’ve used on a smartphone and anything that unlocks my phone quicker is always exciting.

Battery life on the Mate 8 has also been a great surprise. I was shocked by how long I was getting out of the phone and it feels like Huawei have made significant steps here so you can really get a full day out of a large screen phone.That may decrease in time, most phone batteries do, but right now this is one of the best phone battery lifes I’ve experienced over the last year.

We disliked

The Emotion UI has improved in the latest update, but it’s still not great. I’d much prefer to see a stock look to the phone like it was on the Nexus 6P but it doesn’t seem like Huawei is interested in doing that at all.

Living without an app drawer takes some getting used to, and it just doesn’t work when it’s this heavily overlayed. Having a searchable app drawer is one of the best elements of Android: this feels like dumping them all on the floor and shuffling them around.

I also wish Huawei would hide the speakers. Rival phone manufacturers conceal them behind other elements of the phone but instead Huawei chose to put a big grill along the bottom of the phone. It just looks ugly.And then there’s the lack of the fast-charging cable in the box, which feels like a cheap trick to get you spending more money.

Final verdict

Without knowing the price it’s difficult to give the Mate 8 a final verdict – we haven’t included a star rating yet for that exact reason.

But no matter how it’s priced, the Mate 8 is a fantastic phone. If it can undercut heavy hitters like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 and the iPhone 6S Plus, it will have made a niche it can prosper in.

First reviewed January 2016.

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