We find out whether or not the Mate S is another blockbuster from Huawei

In the last twelve months we‘ve seen the rising tide of Chinese manufacturers grow stronger. Even more so in South Africa, with Huawei now a large player in our market and Xiaomi also throwing there devices into the mix on our shores. We have been impressed with recent Huawei devices from the Mate 7, to the more recent Huawei P8. They seem to be on a roll, also having recently announced the Huawei Watch and the Mate 8.
But before we get our hands on the latter, we have the Mate S, very much an experiment (as the S moniker would suggest) in size between the Mate 8 and P8. But did the experiment work? mate-s-review-d4 Before we find out, here are some key features:

  • 5.5″ 1080p AMOLED (401 ppi) capacitive touchscreen
  • Huawei HiSilicon Kirin 935 chipset – quad-core 2.2GHz Cortex-A53 & quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53, Mali-T628 MP4 GPU; 3GB of RAM
  • 13MP autofocus camera with OIS, dual-tone LED flash, 1080p video recording
  • 8MP front-facing camera, LED flash, 1080p video recording, selfie panorama mode
  • Android OS v5.1.1 Lollipop with Emotion UI 3.1
  • 32GB/64GB/128GB of built-in storage; microSD card slot, doubling as a secondary SIM slot on the Dual SIM model
  • Cat. 6 LTE (300Mbps); Wi-Fi a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 4.0
  • 2,700 mAh battery

Design and Build mate-s-review-d5 To anyone that has used a Huawei device in the past, the look and feel of the Mate S will be largely familiar. The design is definitely in the Mate vein, looking extremely similar to the Mate 7. That being said, it does feel decidedly different in the hand.
While the design language is the same, the size difference fells larger than it looks. The device sits in the hand comfortably, but with a satisfactory heft to it. The curved back lends to a comfortable fit in the hand and instils confidence that it won‘t be a chore to handle or easy to slip. While we felt the design of the Mate 7 was great, it has to be said that the Mate S is built with even more beautiful precision and detail. Once again, the little screws at the bottom are for aesthetic reasons only, but they do lend that industrial feel to the design.
At the bottom you‘ll also find two speaker grills, only one of which has an actual speaker in it. The other, once again, is there for the aesthetic appeal. mate-s-review-d2 The power button and volume rocker on the right feel clicky and sturdy. The unibody design also mean that the back is made of metal, although it‘s not as slippery as you would expect due to the anodisation it goes through which gives it some friction.
The camera module on the back protrudes a little, which isn‘t ideal, but it is encased behind strong glass that is scratch resistant. The hump is there to accommodate OIS in the camera (which we‘ll get to later) but we would still prefer a flat back. The fingerprint sensor also feels great, juxtaposing the protrusion from the camera. mate-s-review-d3 The front slab of glass folds neatly into the metal frame, rounding of a great design. The small bezels also meant that the 5.5-inch device feels smaller than it actually is. Overall we can‘t really fault the design of the Mate S.
There were rumours that the Mate S would be launched with a Quad HD display, but once again we have a 1080p panel. We aren‘t huge proponents of the QHD screen yet, as we haven‘t seen any huge benefits from it in the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4. Although beautiful, we don‘t see these screens as a necessity yet.
This time though, the display is a bit of a rarity in Huawei products ““ it is an AMOLED display this time around. The only other Huawei that uses this technology at present is the Nexus 6P. This could potentially be advantageous over the likes of Huawei other devices. It definitely does show in the deepness of the blacks when compared to IPS displays, but other than that there isn‘t a massive difference to the end user.
The colour saturation is strong with this one, showcasing some real punchiness in the display. If anything, Huawei might have been slightly overzealous with the saturation. At certain angles and in certain light conditions there can be a slight red hue, but it isn‘t noticeable in everyday use and we‘re only nit-picking here. This is a display that you won‘t ever be disappointed in and is usable even in direct sunlight. As far as 1080p panels go, this is one is up there with the best.
User Interface mate-s-review-ui1 Over the last couple of years our greatest criticisms when it came to Huawei devices has always been regarding the software experience. The biggest reason for this is because of the extremely heavy skin Huawei employ to give you a different experience to anything else you‘ll find on Android.
The Mate S is running Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with the latest version of Huawei‘s Emotion UI on top (EMUI v3.1). We have debated the validity of Huawei‘s decision to scrap the app drawer, leaving you dependent on folders to keep things organized. The notification shade is divided into two sections ““ Shortcuts and Notifications.
Although it would have been nice to have these two sections combined, the notifications section is quite nice with a little timeline on the left side keeping your notifications very organized. There is also a theme engine available to change the look and feel of the UI to better suit your liking. mate-s-review-ui2 We think that EMUI is a little awkward visually compared with the sophistication of HTC Sense, for example, and we think it would be a better user experience if Huawei toned things down a bit. Otherwise it is pretty standard Android fair. You can manage the individual default apps, for example, you can manage two types of notifications for each app, you can turn off the network name, or you can show the data speed you’re getting. Critically, this is now a smooth user experience ““ much more so than with previous Huawei devices.
Simply put, Huawei’s software changes shouldn’t be a barrier to considering one of its phones, but it would be an easier sell if it embraced material design and at least attempted to design its software more to the vision Google had for it when they created it.
Under the hood, the Huawei Mate S packs an octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 935 processor, with four Cortex-A53 processors clocked at 2.2GHz and four more clocked at 1.5GHz. This is backed by a Mali-T628 GPU and 3 GB of RAM. Performance is as smooth as you would expect from this Huawei-made processing package, and very rarely will there be any signs of stutter or lag.
The Android interface didn‘t experience any major smoothness issues, which was great to see. Moving through the various elements of the UI is smooth, and opening, closing, and switching between applications is also fast and snappy.
Fingerprint Scanner and Force Touch
The fingerprint scanner performs extremely well, just as well as on the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6S, if not better. Having it on the back is also a very interesting design choice which we found to like a lot after having used it for a week or so. If you keep your phone in your pocket, especially, it is great to whip out the phone already unlocked as the sensor is placed in the natural area your finger would be holding the phone anyway.
Force Touch is a big talking of the Mate S. The 3D Force Touch Technology allows the display on the Huawei Mate S to gauge the amount of pressure you’re applying, and then provide different functions depending on the level of force. When looking at a photo you can hold down on an area to see it magnified in a bubble. The harder you press, the more zoomed in your magnification will be.
Come out to the gallery overview and hard pressing on the images provides you with a larger thumbnail preview. You can even remove the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen to give you more real estate, and then just press down on where the buttons would be to perform the same commands. It’s certainly a fun feature to play around with, and Huawei has integrated it into the interface in a number of ways – but it’s still early days for the technology.
Battery Life
The Mate S is equipped with a 2700 mAh battery, sealed in behind the back panel. If you think that is quite small, you‘d be right. Luckily the battery only needs to power a 1080p display as opposed to a QHD screen, which should help matters. The battery life is more than decent, but if you‘ve come from the likes of the Mate 7, you will be a bit disappointed.
While it doesn‘t have the longevity of the aforementioned, it will easily last you a full day, and then some. You‘ll get up to 6 hours screen on time, which is quite remarkable for such a small battery. You can watch videos, browse the web and use messaging apps to your heart‘s content and you‘ll come out the other size with enough juice left.
Camera dav

The Huawei Mate S comes with a 13 MP rear camera that includes a 4-color RGBW imaging sensor and Optical Image Stabilization. Also, the camera housing is scratch proof thanks to sapphire protection. The camera app is packed full of features that will have you snapping great photos, including a fully manual ‘Pro mode’ allowing you to fine tune ISO, shutter speed, brightness and more. There’s also the more familiar features including HDR, time-lapse, beauty mode and light painting, giving you a full range of shooting options. sdr

Image quality is excellent and the camera is capable of taking some really good shots with a good amount of detail and saturated colours. As per usual with smartphone cameras, your best shots will come from well-lit environments, but you need not be afraid of indoors or low-light shots. This is the best performing camera Huawei have ever put into a smartphone, especially in low light. sdr

The 8 MP front-facing camera is coupled with a flash, which is more like a dim flashlight, but can be good to get a little bit of light into the shot. One thing that’s missing from the Mate S is 4K video capture. It offers up to Full HD capture, which will cater for most users, but for whatever reason this handset doesn’t embrace UHD video like an increasing number of flagships. dav

While the Mate S can‘t quite stand up to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 when it comes to camera performance, it is still a very capable shooter with which you‘ll be more than happy with. sdr

The Huawei Mate S is definitely the best smartphone has ever made (perhaps only until we test out the newly announced Mate 8). There‘s a lot to love here, like the great metal body immaculately finished. The display, although not being the highest resolution out there, offers great visuals and, on this particular model. The fingerprint scanner performs extremely well and is intuitively placed. Great camera performance boosts the proposition even further, and the device performs better than previous Huawei models.
The Huawei Mate S is a commendable smartphone and a welcome addition to the company’s range, worthy of consideration for those looking for top-notch quality without the cost. While there are cheaper phones out there, it is much cheaper than the Samsungs and the iPhones of the world. It is definitely a device you need to consider, even though we wish that Huawei had a slightly lighter touch with Android.
Watch the video review:

Follow Theunis on Twitter: @Theunis_BWB