Long established as a smartphone titan in China, Huawei has been gathering momentum for a major U.S. phone launch for years. Its collaboration with Google on the Nexus 6P and the Huawei Watch gave it a running start, and now it’s ready to come clobbering through the door with the Mate 8.
The massive phablet sports an elegant all-metal body and a 6-inch screen, though you’d never know it from looking at it next to an iPhone 6S Plus. With high-end specs and a bevvy of smart extra features, the Mate 8 is good enough to take on Samsung’s Note 5, the LG V10, and just about any other flagship phone from 2015. Its Achilles heel is one that’s plagued Chinese smartphone makers for years: An Asian-flavored user interface renders Android unrecognizable and is sure to delay updates.
Simple design maximizes screen real estate
The Mate 8 looks more or less like every other Huawei smartphone that’s come out in the past year. It has a sleek, all-metal body with no frills or embellishments. There’s no obvious antenna banding on the back of the device – unlike the iPhone with is white lines – and both the round camera sensor and fingerprint scanner are centered perfectly on the top portion of the phone’s backside.
Like the fingerprint sensor on the Nexus 6P, the Mate 8’s is slightly recessed on the back and perfectly round, unlike earlier Huawei phones that had a square sensor. It’s flat and it’s not a button, so you never have to press it to unlock the phone. The sensor is remarkably speedy, and just as good as the one on the Nexus 6P or iPhone 6S. You can also use it with Android Pay, assuming the phone arrives in a country that supports the mobile payment system. The camera protrudes slightly above the fingerprint sensor, and a ring of chamfered metal surrounds both sensors.
To complete the look, the edges of the phone are chamfered as well. There’s a Micro USB port on the bottom along with two speakers. Both the MicroSD card slot and the SIM tray are located on the left side of the phone. The power button sits on the right-hand side below the volume rocker, which is unfortunate. Although the power button in textured so you can locate it easier, I often found myself pressing it accidentally when I held the phone in my right hand. Occasionally, I’d hit the volume rocker instead of the power button, too. Although many phones put all the buttons on one side, it’s something that’s always annoyed me.
Otherwise, the Mate 8’s design is spot on, and the phone is a delight to hold. The chamfered edges give it grip, which helps, because this phone isn’t your average phablet – it’s a 6-inch device. Even though the Mate 8’s screen is bigger than the ones on iPhone 6S Plus, LG V10, and Samsung Galaxy Note 5, the phone never felt overly big or much larger than the more standard 5.5-5.7-inch screen sizes on other phablets.
Part of that comfort is owed to the almost complete lack of bezels on the sides of the Mate 8’s screen, and the minimal white bezels at the top and bottom of the device. The end result is a mighty 6-inch phablet that’s the same size as the iPhone 6S Plus.
Powerful Kirin chip shines
Huawei’s Mate series traditionally sports large, 6-inch screens and top-of-the-line specs, and the Mate 8 is no exception. The screen isn’t Quad HD, but it sports a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution, which is crisp, bright, and attractive. Not everyone notices the difference in a screen with more pixels than that anyway, and the extra processing strain eats into battery life. The Mate 8’s full HD screen should keep all but the most picky smartphone connoisseurs happy.
The Mate 8’s design is spot on, and the phone is a delight to hold.
The extra screen real estate more than makes up for any quibbles you might have about the pixel count. The Mate 8 boats an impressive 83 percent screen-to-body ratio, meaning that the front of the phone is almost exclusively dedicated to the screen – not those annoying bezels. In fact, until you turn the screen on, you’d never think it had bezels at all – the screen appears to go clean over to the sides of the phone, thanks to 2.5D curved glass. However, when you turn it on, you’ll see a slim black frame around the entire screen.
It looks a little silly when you have a light background set on your phone or you open up an app with one. It’s a small, picky flaw that detracts from the overall sleek appearance of the phone. You can’t help but think that Apple and Samsung would never allow such a thing on one of their phones.
When it comes to power, the Mate 8 is a monster. It’s powered by an octa-core 2.3GHz Kirin 950 processor. It’s a remarkable chip that uses FinFET technology to offer a 100-percent performance boost over the Kirin 930 processor found in the Mate 7, improve battery life, and make sure the phone doesn’t run too hot. When Huawei and Kirin co-presented the chop at an event in Beijing, the two emphasized that this chip won’t overheat like some do, namely, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810.
Indeed, the chip handles normal tasks like a champ, loading apps and websites swiftly. The Mate 8 never got hot to the touch, even when I updated a number of apps at the same time while performing other tasks. That’s not something I can say of most phones. In benchmarks it did well, too, scoring 29,724 in the Quadrant benchmark and 919 in the 3D Mark Slingshot test.
In addition to the Kirin chip, the Mate 8 sports an i5 co-processor, which will handle speech recognition, reduced location-based power consumption, and low-power MP3 consumption, among other tasks a typical processor would normally need to handle.
An over-the-top UI with some excellent tricks
Like most Chinese companies, Huawei’s phones run a very heavily customized user interface on top of Android. Huawei’s EmotionUI 4.0 draws over Android 6.0 Marshmallow until it’s scarcely recognizable. There’s no app drawer, so all your apps pop up on the various home screens, just like in iOS. You can apply a number of themes, which customize app icons, color schemes, and other key parts of the interface’s appearance. The notification shade looks like a notebook or an agenda, and a bunch of quick settings are a tab away.
Related: Nexus 6P review
Huawei also packs a ton of apps on the phone that cannot be uninstalled. We counted 25 pre-installed apps, including the phone dialer, email, and messaging app. To my mind, it’s pure overkill. Sure, it’s nice to have a calculator, FM radio, flashlight, and compass at my fingertips, but it’s a bit annoying that I can’t get rid of them if I don’t want them, nor can I get them off my home screen. I have to shove them in a folder that just sits there, taking up space.
The Mate 8 has so many tricks up its sleeve it might as well be a magician.
Users hate it when they can’t uninstall apps – especially when they end up with two of everything on their phones, after they’ve downloaded all the utility apps they actually like to use. It’s not to say that all of these apps are worthless, but it would be nice to have more choice in what stays on your phone and where it’s located. The absence of an app drawer is more annoying when you have too many pre-installed apps onboard that you cannot remove.
Beyond the visual annoyance of all these apps and the valuable space they take up, they also delay updates. The more serious threats to Android become, the more important it is for manufacturers to push out updates early. The more complex and heavy the UI, the longer the updates take to arrive. Not only do slow updates prevent users from taking advantage of new features, but they also put users’ phones at risk.
Seeing pure Android on a Huawei phone with the Nexus 6P was a real pleasure, and proof that the company can do away with EMUI without sacrificing too much in the process. To be honest, the uncluttered 6P has almost ruined me for seeing any kind of UI on a Huawei phone.
That said, Huawei does bring a few truly innovative and useful features to the Mate 8 via the annoying UI. In fact, the Mate 8 has so many tricks up its sleeve it might as well be a magician. You can tap your knuckles on the glass to take screen shots for one; activate a code word to wake, unlock, or help find your phone; change the screen’s color temperature; have the screen unlock automatically with a trusted Bluetooth device like a smartwatch; enable glove mode for when your hands are covered up in the winter; the list goes on.
Related: Huawei P8 review
My favorite one was setting a keyword to wake the phone and then find the device when I’d misplaced it. I set the phone to react each time I said “panda bear” – not a word I say much in conversation, so I didn’t risk waking my phone up for no reason. After saying the word to the Mate 8 a few times so it could get used to my voice, I placed the phone in the other room, and called out, “Panda bear!” and then, “Where are you?” With that, the phone began to play music and say, “I’m here!” in a pleasant voice, as the music swelled to a crescendo. And it wasn’t just novel: It proved helpful the next day when I couldn’t remember which purse I’d stashed the Mate 8 in.
Cool features like these add to the user’s experience – not skins, weird icons, and extra apps. I’d be more than happy with EMUI if all it did was offer fun, useful features instead of over-the-top theming and extra apps.
Strong camera with fun features
Huawei consistently uses excellent cameras in its phones, and the Mate 8 is no exception. The 16-megapixel camera on the back includes both optical image stabilization and a dual-LED flash, along with light painting, night mode, manual mode, beauty mode for selfies, panorama, and more.
Pro mode contains tools for adjusting ISO, EV, shutter speed, focus, and white balance. You can see the changes in real time, too, which makes it easier for those who aren’t pros to take good photos with it. LG offers more fine control and an easier interface in its pro mode on the G4 and V10, but Huawei’s is better than most others’ attempts at manual mode.
Light painting is a fun trick that works well on city streets, and produces some interesting shots. A tripod helps make sure the look is steady and professional, but if you want to have fun, you can twirl the phone around and get some very modern-art-like shots. Night mode also benefits from a tripod, and illuminates subjects well at night. If you don’t have a tripod, the image may turn out slightly blurred and a little romantic looking.
If you like to be artsy with photos, you’ll enjoy the extras Huawei’s thrown in the mix. The app itself is easy to use, and all the modes and effects are just a tap away.
On its own, the camera takes great photos on clear sunny days, just like any camera on a flagship phone these days. The colors may be a bit muted or cold, though, depending on what you’re shooting. A quick boost in the editor solves the problem, though. The Mate 8 focuses quickly on subjects and captures detail close up and from afar well.
If you like to be artsy with photos, you’ll enjoy the extras Huawei’s thrown in the mix.
At night, the camera takes good photos without over or under exposing them. Since it was Christmas time, I took lots of shots on bright Christmas lights at night, and even a shot of the New Year’s Eve ball poised to drop in Times Square. Surprisingly, the shots turned out lovely. You can see both the city in the background and the colorful lights without much blur or washing out.
The front camera is an 8-megapixel shooter, which takes decent selfies, though the tone was a bit cool for my taste. The camera app even helps tell you where to look so that you make eye contact with the camera, which is something that everyone struggles with when taking selfies (unless they’re pros like the Kardashians).
Related: Huawei Watch review
Overall, the iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S6, and LG’s G 4 and V10 all boast better cameras than the Mate 8, but not by much. Huawei needs to do some software fixes to boost the temperature in photos and truly make its camera shine. Still, it’s a great camera with fun, unique modes.
Thanks to the 1080p screen and the efficient Kirin 950 chipset, the Mate 8 gets great battery life. It easily lasts through a busy day with ample battery left, and on less hectic days, it can even last through a day and a half of use. I never worried about running out of juice over the course of a day or even into the night. In a time when most flagship phones can barely make it through the day, the Mate 8’s strong battery life was a welcome addition. It charged up relatively quickly, too, when plugged into an outlet via the Micro USB port.
Huawei has a real winner with the Mate 8. It’s a strong flagship phablet that could easily take on the likes of Samsung’s Note 5, LG’s V10, and the iPhone 6S Plus if it made its way to the United States. Its sleek metal design, speedy fingerprint sensor, fun camera effects, and unique tricks set the Mate 8 apart from the crowd.
Only two minor issues hold it back: a cluttered UI and its lack of availability in the United States. Luckily, both of these problems are easily solved. Scaling back EMUI to only the most essential useful tricks and power-packed apps would elevate the Mate 8 substantially and help speed along crucial Android updates.
As for availability in the States, Huawei could always sell the Mate 8 unlocked in its online store, but the real challenge is getting carriers to sell it. Now that the Nexus 6P is doing so well and Huawei’s brand is growing in America and the world over, it seems more likely than ever that Huawei sneak into your local phone store alongside Samsung and LG. These are the companies Huawei has always seen itself competing with, and the Mate 8 is certainly a phone strong enough for that battle royale.
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- Fast fingerprint sensor
- Elegant all-metal build
- Gorgeous big screen
- Useful and fun extra features
- Respectable battery life
- Emotion UI is annoying
- Unattractive black frame around screen