Review of Huawei Mate 8 – A Fabulous Flagship Phablet

While Huawei is still considered one of the “new kids” when it comes to smartphones, the Chinese company has produced some excellent products over their brief history.  While they have been producing white label devices since 2010, it hasn’t been until the last few years that the company has sold devices under their own name.  Late last year they released the Mate 8, the follow up to the 2014 Mate 7 and as far as phablet sized devices go, have hit the mark.  While a device this size, a 6″ display is what the Mate 8 sports, is not for everyone, if you are looking for a seriously powerful device with an excellent display and stunningly good camera, this device should be on your shortlist to consider.  The only real hesitation I have with it is the Emotion UI that Huawei has on top of the Android Marshmallow build it runs.  That can, however, be largely eliminated if you don’t like it and certainly doesn’t stop me from giving this device a strong recommendation.

Specifications

As you would expect from a flagship device, the Mate 8 is chock-full of power in an easy-to-hold and comfortable form factor.  Size wise, the Mate 8 measures 6.18 x 3.17 x .31″ in size (H x W x D) or in new money, that is 157.1 x 80.6 x 7.9 mm.  Weight wise it is 6.53 oz or 185 g so the all aluminum chassis and body certainly won’t bog your pocket down as you carry it.  The display is a 6″

Huawei Mate 8
Huawei Mate 8

IPS-NEO LCD display that renders at 1920 x 1080 resolution, giving you 368ppi under the Corning Gorilla Glass 4 protected screen.  That display is driven mostly by the Mali-T880 MP4 Graphics Processor.

RAM on the Mate 8 is either 3GB for the 32GB and 64GB storage models while the 128GB storage model gets 4GB of RAM.  I don’t really understand why Huawei decided to do this on the lower storage devices other than to make the 128GB model really premium but regardless of which storage total you buy, you can expand it further with up to a 128GB MicroSD card.  Powering all of this are dual Quad-core processors.  First is the Cortex-A72 processor running at 2.3GHz and it is partnered with the Cortex 1.8GHz processor.  This combination of processors makes the Mate 8 feel very smooth and snappy.  I’ll discuss that more later in the review.

Camera wise, you have a 16MP rear camera that has Optical Image Stablization (OIS) as well as phase detection auto focus.  The focusing on the camera is amazingly fast, even in low light situations.  The front camera is a nice 8MP unit with auto focus.  It works great for Hangouts video calls or Skype video calls.

Finally, the Mate 8 runs Android Marshmallow 6.0 with the Emotion UI (commonly referred to as Emui) as the user interface.  Huawei has been doing a pretty good job of updates to the Mate 8 over the course of its life so you can expect security updates to be reasonably timely.  There is no official word if this device will be upgraded to Android N.

Form Factor and Design

When you first hold the Mate 8 in your hand, you will immediately have a sense of solid construction and excellent design.  The body is an all aluminum design with machine tapered edges that give it a comfortable feel.  The front of the device is dominated by the 6″ display with a very small bezel around it.  From a design perspective, I prefer this as it cuts down on the overall size of the device while not cutting down on the screen size.  On the left side of the device you will find the dual SIM and MicroSD holder while on the right side you will find the power button and the volume up/down rocker.  On the top of the device is where you will find the 3.5mm headphone jack along with a small hole

Mate 8 Left Side
Mate 8 Left Side
Mate 8 Right Side
Mate 8 Right Side

for the microphone while on the bottom you will find the MicroUSB charging port with the stereo speakers of the Mate 8 flanking each side of it.

One of the criticisms of the Mate 8 was the lack of a USB Type C connector not being put on the device over the MicroUSB.  The criticism is fair in my view as it is clear Type C is the future and many device released before or after this one have this new connector.  Hopefully this is something we see come to what is expected to be the replacement for this device later this year, the Mate 9 (assuming).

The back of the Mate 8 is smooth with the fingerprint sensor and camera lens near the top-center of the device with the dual-tone flash flanking the camera.  The fingerprint sensor is perfectly positioned on the device as it is where your forefinger naturally lands on the back of the device.

I will cover more specifics on the fingerprint sensor and the camera later on in the review but for now, I will say that both performed exceptionally well in my time with the Mate 8.

Emui Operating System

Like many manufactures, Huawei has taken Android Marshmallow and has modified it with their own user experience.  They have named it Emotion UI 4.0, or simply Emui for short.  I will say that after using Emui for a few days, it did indeed make me emotional… but not in a good way.  While I appreciate that manufactures want to capture their audience and provide them a good user experience, I do not believe that either is achieved by Huawei in Emui.  It feels a lot like Samsung’s Touchwiz did 2 or 3 years ago:  Disjointed and clunky.

What it seems like is that Huawei has built Emui to have a certain style and look with the themes but also has hidden away things that only advanced users would want to see. This is well and good

Mate 8 Emotion UI
Mate 8 Emotion UI
Simplified Emui UI
Simplified Emui UI

but given the target audience of this device, I’m not so sure it is the best plan. Functionally, Emui works and does a pretty good job but it can be a bit frustrating at times if you want to change a feature or setting.  Take for example if you want to change the launcher to something else, say Google Now Launcher.  The setting to do this is not off the main Settings menu like it is in pure Android or Touchwiz.  Rather, it is buried in the Apps part of settings.

For those who want a more simplistic user interface, one nice that that Emui has is a simple, block-style UI that makes getting to key apps and features on the phone.  This UI works really well and while some may poo-poo it, it is super handy while you are on the go and want to get to a strategic app quickly without wading through menus.

All of this said, the Emui OS is not enough to cause me to write off the Mate 8 or not recommend it for those who want this type of device.  You can get around a lot of the Emui bits to make it a more natural Android experience.  Likewise, I do think this is a part of Huawei’s larger plan in the mobile space so I would expect subsequent updates to improve the performance and look-and-feel.

Huawei Apps – Health, Phone Manager

The Emui UI aside, Huawei also has some great apps that are built into the Mate 8.  The first is an app named Health.  Here you put in your vital information and using the accelerator of the device, it will keep track of your steps and other activities automatically to show you how many calories you have burned. In testing the app for this review, I was very impressed with the accuracy and overall performance of the Health app. When I compared it to my Fitbit and to Google Fit, I found that Heath was as accurate and on some activities, like stairs, more accurate than Fitbit. Clearly the Huawei team has done their homework on this app and it performs very well.

Huawei Health App
Huawei Health App
Huawei Phone Manager App
Huawei Phone Manager App

The other built-in app of note is Phone Manager. This is a centralized management app for your entire Mate 8 that allows you to control things like notifications, manage your battery and overall system optimization.  The app also gives you a dial indicator to tell you if your Mate 8 is running optimally and by tapping the dial, the app will automatically optimize the phone for the best performance.  I used the Phone Manager app a fair amount while I was preparing this review and while 95% of what you can do in this app you can do in Settings, it is nice to have these things just a tap away.  I can see where a lot of people would find this app very helpful instead of diving into some obscure settings.

General Performance

Having used the Mate 8 over the past few weeks, I have to say that performance wise, it is outstanding.  The display is very responsive while the overall performance of the device is great regardless of what you are doing or the content you are consuming.  At no time did the device feel sluggish or freeze, even when streaming Netflix or playing an intensive game like Real Racing 3 or Dead Trigger 2.  The touchscreen was outstanding and it felt very flowing, something that I have found other devices have struggled with in the past.

Display Performance

Frankly, I don’t have much more to add on the display and its performance.  It was simply outstanding.  Colors were accurate and the GPU powering the display had no trouble keeping up with streaming content.  I don’t recall ever seeing any heavy pixelization other than when I first fired up Netflix or HBO Go – but I get that on every device.  The display itself has excellent contrast so colors are not only accurate but pop a bit with vibrance.  This contrast also makes it easy on the eyes and using the Mate 8 for long periods of time did not cause me any eye strain.

Camera Quality & Performance

The cameras built into the Mate 8 are excellent as well and produced excellent indoor and outdoor photos.  Color accuracy was excellent and details were very sharp on the rear camera.  The front

Outdoor Photo from the Mate 8
Outdoor Photo from the Mate 8

camera also was excellent for video calls on Hangouts.  I tested the camera in several situations, from bright sunlight to dark rooms, and overall it did well in any situation.  I did find that photos shot at low light without flash were a bit grainy but nothing horrible and certainly not worse than other phones.  The flash however is fantastic and those low light situation photos turned out well when I enabled it.  I was very impressed with the flash photography as it did not wash out the photos like other phone cameras tend to do.

Fingerprint Sensor Performance

Like many 2015 and 2016 phones, the Mate 8 comes with a built-in fingerprint sensor.  It is located in the middle of the back of the device, much like those that you would find on the Nexus 5X or 6P.  Setting up the reader is very easy to do and you can register multiple fingers with it to assure you can get into the device.  I found in my testing that the reader was amazingly accurate and worked flawlessly.  One of the nice things you can do with the Mate 8 is when you pick up the device and put your finger on the reader, it instantly unlocks the phone.  It is super fast and I found myself using it a lot.  Frankly, it just is so handy it is silly not to use it.

Battery Performance

In my review of the Mate 8, I made it my daily driver and I had no problem making it through the day on a single charge.  The phone’s battery management software, coupled with Android Marshmallow, make it very battery friendly even with a large display.  My typical day included things like streaming YouTube content, Google Play Music content, email and some light Office apps work as well as a game or two of Real Racing 3 and Dead Trigger 2.  By the end of the day I generally had about 15% battery left which was more than acceptable.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a phablet device with great specs and performance, the Mate 8 should be on your list to consider.  While I’m not a big fan of the Emui, Android-based OS, the overall form factor and functionality of the phone is excellent.  It has an outstanding display for long term viewing and cameras that are hard to beat on any flagship device.  You will also find the fingerprint sensor to be fast and accurate.  It is the best I’ve tested so far.

The Huawei Mate 8 is available from Amazon in grey or silver for $539.99