CHINESE PHONE MAKER Huawei unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, the Huawei Mate S, during its IFA press conference this week.
We took the opportunity to go backstage and try out the Huawei Mate S for ourselves, and see whether its hardware enhancements justify the €669+ price tag.
The Huawei Mate S is encased in a lovely matte metal body, which provides a premium feel as well as a reassuring solidity. It's curved at the back, which feels quite comfy, and the front panel - constructed of 4th-generation Gorilla Glass - is very slightly tapered at the edges. The display doesn't quite reach the tapering, so there's no Galaxy S6 Edge-style screen curves, but it looks great with the razor-thin bezels.
In fact, the handset is quite compact for something with a 5.5in display, measuring in at considerably smaller dimensions than the iPhone 6 Plus. Despite the metal case, the Mate S is light too.
Having recently reviewed the Honor 7, the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor felt familiarly quick and responsive. We're not sure how many people will prefer to flick through slideshows or open the notifications menu with the sensor's gesture controls, rather than the conventional touchscreen controls, but there's no denying that it works well.
We could easily read the Huawei Mate S's big, bright screen even under the harsh lights of the demo area. Small text appears crisp and sharp, and is legible across a wide range of viewing angles.
Colours aren't the boldest we've seen but they're far from washed-out, and blues and purples in particular are just as vibrant as we'd want on a £400+ product. The same goes for the touchscreen's responsiveness, which is nice and slick.
Operating system and software
We were pleased to find that Huawei has loaded the Mate S with Android 5.1 Lollipop, the most up-to-date version possible - until Android 6.0 Marshmallow rolls out, at least. We've always liked 5.1 Lollipop for its performance and security improvements and enterprise-friendly features, such as managed user profiles and split-screen multitasking support.
The bad news is that Huawei's Emotion UI custom skin is here as well. Once again, it makes numerous unnecessary changes to the stock Android interface, such as removing the apps drawer so that all installed apps must be placed on the Home screen. Like all custom skins, Emotion UI will also slow down the arrival of Android updates.
Emotion UI is also stuffed with bloatware, from redundant tools to storage-hogging games. WPS Office is included for viewing documents, but that's about the only pre-installed app we found that might prove much good.
Luckily, Emotion UI doesn't interfere with one of Android's best security features: built-in device encryption which adds an extra layer of protection by requiring a PIN to decrypt the device whenever it's switched on. We found this option present and correct in the Mate S's settings menu.
The integrated fingerprint sensor offers another authentication alternative - and an especially useful one for business-owned smartphones with numerous users, since multiple fingerprints can be registered at once. The Mate S also runs Huawei's Fingerprint Sense 2.0 software, so it should be faster and more responsive than the readers on previous Huawei smartphones. We certainly had no complaints about the sensor's speed when we tried it ourselves.
We couldn't connect the test unit to the internet, so we didn't have a chance to run some proper benchmark tests. Nonetheless, we found that the Mate S performs fairly well in normal use, opening and closing apps instantly and staying chug-free even with a plethora of tasks open at once.
That said, we are a little concerned about the inclusion of a Kirin 935 chipset. This was used in the Honor 7, which also shared the Mate S's 3GB of RAM but managed only middling benchmark scores. Since the Mate S is a premium-priced machine, targeting competitors like the iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, this might well mean it struggles against its better-equipped rivals.
We tested the 128GB edition of the Mate S, which includes the new Force Touch tech that effectively allows the screen to detect force in small increments. Right now, it seems like the main application is simply to zoom in and out of photos by pressing harder or softer. We're satisfied that the tech works as advertised, but it's definitely a feature that will rely on good third-party app support to reach its potential.
The 13MP rear camera and 8MP front camera took some well-detailed shots, although we were able to view them only on the smartphone's screen. The main camera seems particularly adept at dealing with adverse lighting, and its shutter speed is wonderfully quick.
We did spot a bit of visual noise in shots taken on the 8MP front-facing camera, and shooting in low light causes colour quality to drop off sharply, but otherwise it's decent enough.
We were impressed with, rather than amazed by, the Huawei Mate S. It seems to occupy a space in between the middle and high ranges of smartphone quality, which might appeal to those who want a reasonably powerful handset without splashing out for a top-end device.
Even so, it will take some more time with the Mate S to determine whether it can really outperform the Honor 7 - which we remain unsure about. At the very least, Huawei can always fall back on the Mate S's superb design, fine display and quality fingerprint sensor. µ