When we first laid eyes on the Huawei Mate 8 at CES 2016, we were only mildly impressed. While its clean industrial design and oversized battery were welcome additions to the Mate family, the phone still came with software quite literally designed for another continent – and its overloaded feature set seemed more at home on a Samsung phone from 2012 than a modern Android flagship.
A week with the Mate 8 back home in Boston hasn’t changed our feelings about the phone’s shortcomings, but it has given us time to appreciate all the advantages this device has to offer. And when one of those advantages is enough battery life to see you through an entire weekend on a single charge, we become a lot more forgiving about things like substandard software. Join us for Pocketnow’s full Huawei Mate 8 review!
Huawei Mate 8 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
With the possible exception of the Nexus 6P, the Mate 8 is probably the best-looking smartphone Huawei’s built. That doesn’t mean it’s terribly distinctive; it’s made of metal, with narrow-radius corners and chamfered edges, a design we’ve seen plenty of times before. The result is a very boxy look, broken up only by the circular camera lens and the fingerprint scanner beneath it. Those round casing penetrations don’t fit terribly well with the phone’s angular aesthetic, but neither do they look particularly bad. In the hand, the phone’s anodized aluminum casing feels wide and weighty at 185g, cool to the touch and slightly slippery in dry weather. Even in an age of phablets, the Mate 8 is a very large device.
Of course, it needs to be large to accommodate its display. Under the Gorilla Glass 4 cover sheet sits a 6-inch panel from JDI, an IPS LCD with 1080p resolution. If you think Full HD/367 ppi is too low for 2016, we’re gonna go ahead and disagree. We’re hard pressed to see the pixels without a microscope, colors pop as they should, and the lack of a super-dense Quad HD pixel mat means this is an easier panel to power (more on that in Performance, below). As with most LCD screens, blacks could be deeper: JDI’s IPS-NEO technology is meant to help with this –and it does to an extent– but for true blacks nothing can top AMOLED. On the whole though, this is a fine display.
Elsewhere, the hardware bears Huawei hallmarks we’ve seen before. On the left edge sits the now-familiar dual-SIM/MicroSD card slot, which allows for additional storage or the ability to register the phone on two separate carriers simultaneously. The fingerprint scanner on the back appears lifted straight from the Nexus 6P, and it’s just as quick and accurate. On the bottom lip an older MicroUSB port is flanked by twin speaker grilles, though only one actually contains a (fairly average) speaker.
Huawei has shortened the name of its custom Android skin from “Emotion UI” to the slightly-sleeker “EMUI,” which hits version 4.0 with this release. Just like its predecessors, this iteration combines the look and feel of Apple’s iOS with the overburdened feature load of Samsung’s early Galaxy S devices.
The result is a phone that’s often harder to use than it should be. After the bizarre flirtation with knuckle-based taps on last year’s Mate S, we’d hoped Huawei would streamline its input approach for 2016. Nope: the Mate 8, too, wants you to knock on it like it’s a door. A double-tap with a single knuckle on the display will capture a screenshot, while bringing a second knuckle into the mix will activate the video screenshot feature. A sharp knuckle-rap followed by a drag lets you trace a custom outline to be captured, while a knock-and-drag horizontally across the screen activates the phone’s multiscreen mode. To be fair, it’s nice to have video screenshots built right in to the out-of-box software, and we could see ourselves getting used to the simple convenience of the double-knock for static screengrabs … but on the whole, using your knuckles on a phone screen looks and feels about as ridiculous as it sounds. Even worse: the phone sometimes misinterprets taps as knocks, so you’ll sometimes find yourself drawing a brilliant blue line down the display when all you wanted to do was check the notification shade.
Speaking of: the Mate 8 is a notification nanny. It hits you with an alert whenever it detects an app using too much power – even if you’re actively using that app. When you update the phone’s software and then try dismissing the “just updated” notification, you’ll get an error message that dismissing such ongoing notifications is “not recommended.”
Other annoyances pervade the OS. Some pop-ups, like the volume settings window, are scrollable even though they display their entire contents by default – so half the time, trying to adjust a volume slider results in accidentally scrolling the pop-up instead. Unless you’re a fan of Swype you’ll probably want to swap out the stock keyboard, whose sound effects seem to have come straight off a Smith Corona typewriter from 1988. And regardless of what keyboard we used, we couldn’t get voice dictation working in any way that felt familiar.
Fortunately, this is still Android –Marshmallow at that– and that means you can change almost anything you don’t like by installing a different launcher. And if you decide to keep EMUI, you might actually like it; Huawei deserves a lot of credit for making version 4.0 not only snappy, but also quite pretty in some areas. We like the recurring use of the circle as a design element; it’s used for everything from download progress indicators to battery meters, which really helps tie the interface together. The smoked translucent overlays are another nice touch, lending some refinement to elements like the notification shade (though this does make things like email subject lines very difficult to read if you’re using a dark wallpaper).
EMUI also provides plenty of ways to use the phone’s assets intelligently. To leverage the huge display canvas, there’s the aforementioned split-screen multitasking mode with its limited array of compatible apps, and you can change the display’s DPI value right in the Settings menu to fit more on the screen if you’re a fan of a denser layout. The new multitasking view lets you prevent apps from automatically closing in the background by dragging down on their card. New features like the scrolling-screenshot function are also nice to see here, and Huawei has spent time optimizing otherwise-unremarkable apps like the voice recorder to take advantage of the Mate 8’s steerable microphones (more on this in Performance).
The Mate 8 uses Sony’s new IMX298 camera, a 16MP sensor with an f/2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization able to compensate for 1.5 degrees of motion. The software behind it is feature-packed: you can launch the camera with a quick double-tap of the volume button, and the viewfinder offers everything from full manual controls to automatic object tracking. That means you can tap a subject in the frame, and the camera will hold focus on that subject even as you pan the shot, which is really cool. When you do take a picture, the Gallery application gives you much more photo information than most phones; there’s even a histogram.
The photos themselves will satisfy typical users, while the added features will likely pique the interest of even the experienced smartphone photographer. Like many phone cameras, this one sometimes has trouble obtaining and maintaining focus, particularly with a moving subject. But even shooting alongside a Galaxy S6 edge+, the Mate 8 keeps up with the Samsung phone more often than not. Its SuperNight mode is basically a shortcut to a long exposure setting, and it allows up to 32-second exposures (though as with the Light Painting mode, a tripod is recommended). Sticking to the basics, the camera usually does what it’s supposed to: whether you’re brightening the shadows with HDR, trying out the skin-smoothing Beauty Mode on the front-firing 8MP camera, or just snapping sunset shots on a winter afternoon, the Mate 8 keeps up.
The camera is at its least impressive when it comes to video. Because of the limitations of the CPU/GPU combo you’re confined to 1080p resolution at a maximum of 60fps … and while the autofocus and stabilization are fine, there’s more digital noise in the output than we’ve come to expect from high-end sensors. For the occasional video in bright lighting the Mate 8 will do fine, but this is no LG V10.
The Mate 8 runs on a Kirin 950 SoC (built by its wholly-owned HiSilicon subsidiary) backed up by either 3 or 4 GB of RAM and internal storage ranging from 32 to 128 GB. We’ve used the lower-end NXT-L29 model on T-Mobile US for eight days in Greater Boston, and the Mate 8 has proved itself a beast in more ways than one.
We already mentioned the interface’s excellent responsiveness, and that zippy fluidity translates to games as well. The phone made short work of our test game titles, with Asphalt 8, Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy, Kill Shot Bravo and Extreme Landings all running without a hitch despite us maxing out their graphics settings. Due to the less-common Mali GPU, we expected some trouble similar to the issues we’ve run into with Tegra-powered tablets, but the Mate 8 even ran Dead Trigger 2 with no problem at all. The biggest issue we encountered was trying to keep our finger from blocking the audio port, a problem on all smartphones with side-firing speakers.
While a louder, bassier speaker would have helped make conference calls on the Mate 8 more enjoyable, we have to acknowledge Huawei’s work in crafting an excellent audio solution for the other end of voice calls. Dial up a buddy on speakerphone and you’ll see a small icon in the upper-right corner of the Dialer; tap it and you’ll be able to control which of the three microphones the phone will favor, “steering” the audio input away from background noise and making you easier to hear on the other end. This is also handy when using the onboard Recorder app, which also includes an Interview mode for dual-channel, opposite-sides-of-the-table input.
More impressive than any of this is the Mate 8’s endurance. With a 4,000 mAh / 15.3 Wh battery and the aggressive power management software Huawei has come to be known for, the phone lasts longer than any similarly-specced smartphone on the market. Our personal record is 7.5 hours of screen-on time over two days, a figure we achieved without using any of the phone’s power-saving features. That means that even heavy users should be able to get through a full 12-hour day on the Mate 8, while more cautious folks will likely be able to coax an entire weekend out of the device. If there’s one area where the Mate 8 absolutely spanks its more-mainstream competition, battery life is it.
+ Best-in-class battery life
+ Solid camera with strong feature set
+ Clean, tight industrial design
+ Innovative voice-input features
– Derivative, clunky software
– UI gimmicks detract from legitimate features
Pricing and Availability
While a version of the Mate 8 has made it through the FCC certification process, it’s still unclear when or if we’ll see the phone offered for sale in the United States. For now, purchasers in North America will need to import the device from one of the European or Asian markets in which it’s available.
At press time, the cheapest price we could find on Amazon for the Mate 8 was $688 for the unlocked 3GB/32GB version, with the higher-end 4GB / 64GB version going for $743 and the premium 4GB / 128GB trim starting at $855. The Mate 8 is offered in four colors.
It goes without saying that you can get plenty of Android smartphones for a lot less than Huawei’s asking for the Mate 8. Good ones too, like Huawei’s own Nexus 6P ($499+) or Motorola’s Moto X ($399+). Given their streamlined software and wider availability, we think devices like those will be the better option for most folks in the States.
But that’s not saying the Mate 8 doesn’t have a place in the world. Big screens, big processors and huge batteries are very appealing to a certain kind of buyer – the same kind of buyer that can easily get around the software shortcomings of EMUI by installing custom software of his or her own. When you factor in its staggering endurance and never-ending feature list, the Mate 8 becomes the new import alternative for a new kind of customer: the road warrior/power user combo, or “Power Warrior.”
Sure, it’s a little much – but then, so is the Mate 8. And for Power Warriors, “a little much” is often just right.
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