(Pocket-lint) - Over the past year we've seen the rising tide of Chinese smartphones. As established companies like HTC and Sony Mobile have reported some difficulties, the likes of OnePlus and Xiaomi have stolen headlines.
Huawei has long been saying it has ambitions to establish itself globally as a consumer smartphone brand. We've seen a number of devices come close to breaking through, with the P7 and P8 handsets having their moments, and sub-brand Honor showing off what's possible in the affordable and excellent Honor 7.
But in the Huawei Mate S, we've got the company's best smartphone ever, and a genuine reason to sit up and take notice. Has Huawei finally made a phone that will make loyal buyers look to it as a viable and intelligent alternative?
Huawei Mate S review: Design
The Huawei Mate S follows on from the Mate 7 and P8 devices, offering a large-format 5.5-inch device with a metal body. It's easy to look at the zero-gap construction and liken it to HTC or Apple, and for a brand that is traditionally more affordable, that's not necessarily a bad association.
Importantly, the Huawei Mate S exhibits great quality, both in design and build. Holding the HTC One M9+ in one hand and the Huawei Mate 7 in the other, yes, we think HTC might be a little more substantial, but this Huawei is still a good quality handset. It measures 149.8 x 75.3 x 7.2mm, which is compact as 5.5-inch devices go; smaller and lighter than the iPhone 6S Plus, for example, and weighing only 156g.
If we've one criticism it might be that the gold version we have on review is a little too kitsch. It lacks the contemporary swish of Samsung's Galaxy S6 edge+ or the minimalist confidence of the iPhone 6S Plus, but in many ways this comes down to personal taste.
In the hand there's plenty of grip. Although it's a metal body, which can be slippery, the anodisation gives some friction. The volume and power buttons are on the side, falling conveniently under your fingers when gripping the phone and there's the addition of the fingerprint scanner on the rear, which we'll cover in more detail later.
There's some neat machining across the bottom for the speakers, colour-matching for the radio antenna breaks across the back, as well as in the camera surround, leading to a cohesive overall look.
Huawei Mate S review: Models and differences
Before we go any further, let's clear up the different models that Huawei offers for the Mate S. There's the standard version, which has 32GB of internal storage and comes in grey or champagne colours. It will cost you £469 and this is the model that's current on pre-order for the UK.
Then there's the premium version that has 64GB internal storage. This model comes in gold and coral (pinkish). It will cost you €699 (approximately £512).
Finally there's a third model, which we have on review here. This luxury model has a pressure-sensitive display, similar to Apple's 3D Touch display in the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, along with 128GB of internal storage. However, we don't know what the price will be or where it will be available at the time of writing.
The important thing to note about these models is that the top-tier luxury version is the only one that has the pressure-sensitive display that was demonstrated at the launch. The others just house a normal AMOLED panel - still a touchscreen in each case, of course, just not with the multiple levels of pressure sensitivity available.
Huawei Mate S review: Hardware & battery performance
Aside from the storage and the display sensitivity, the rest of the hardware in the Mate S is the same. There's a HiSilicon Kirin 935, which is an octa-core 64-bit chipset, at the heart, paired with 3GB of RAM. HiSilicon is Huawei's own silicon manufacturer and while it lacks a bigger brand name it doesn't do the performance any damage: the Mate S is a good performer, we've not found it to suffer from overheating or other complications during daily tasks.
It might be a little weak graphically speaking, however, and although things have been mostly smooth, we've found it sometimes stutters when scrolling through long lists, like in Twitter.
As we mentioned, there's 128GB of storage in this model which is masses of space. This can be expanded via microSD and Huawei has cleverly combined the SIM and microSD card slots, as it's done in some of its other recent devices. That means there's only one tray and you have the choice of either adding microSD, or using the slot for a second SIM card instead.
There's a 2,700mAh battery in the Mate S too, which is fairly average in terms of capacity, but it's a good performer. In most cases we've managed to get through a busy day without having to seek out a charger. It out-performs the likes of the HTC One M9+ we recently reviewed, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S6. In some cases we've sailed through day and night, only recharging the next day.
That's perhaps not expected from a 2,700mAh cell, but there's also a lot of battery management going on in Huawei's software. When an app appears to be eating battery in the background, you'll get a notification with the option to close the app. Nine times out of ten, we've closed these apps when reminded, whereas other devices we'd have just left them to roll-on. Like Sony's Stamina mode, it's diligent management that pays dividends here.
Huawei Mate S review: Display
In 2015 the display has been one of the major battlegrounds for smartphones, especially in these larger sizes. The Huawei Mate S doesn't bump the resolution like many rivals, sticking to 1920 x 1080 pixels on the 5.5-inch display, delivering a 401ppi density. It's a 2.5D display, so curved towards those edges, topped with scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 4.
Some might see that as sensible, others as rather reserved. The LG G4 has a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 pixel display (2K), while the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is bonkers 3840 x 2160 pixels (4K). But, like the OnePlus 2 and the iPhone 6S Plus, Huawei sticks to something rather more familiar at Full HD - and arguably as high-resolution as you'll need at this scale.
There's an argument raging about resolutions in smartphones and how much benefit you get through increasing the resolution. Yes, there will be sharper displays and therefore more devices that can pack more detail into your images. But currently you're not going to be losing out on streaming media or detail in games, because they don't necessarily use that extra resolution.
And we think the Huawei Mate S display is very good. We've seen some better visuals from the likes of Samsung recently, but like the big S, this is an AMOLED panel, exhibiting the traits of that technology in its vibrant colours and deep blacks. It can, on occasion, look a little oversaturated; for example we noticed that some of our contacts' faces looked a little flush in a messaging app, but otherwise it's fairly well balanced.
On the whole the Mate S delivers a slick visual experience. Those chasing the highest quality might be tempted to drift off elsewhere, but here you're getting good quality from a Full HD display without breaking the bank, or murdering that already low-capacity battery.
Huawei Mate S review: Force Touch display
But there's something else to consider when it comes to the top Mate S device: the pressure-sensitive display. At the launch at IFA 2015, Huawei made much of the "Force Touch capabilities" of the handset. As you might know, Force Touch is a name used by Apple for its Watch and MacBook trackpad, which both offer pressure as a navigation option.
We suspect Huawei wanted to capitalise on Apple's use of that terminology, although when the iPhone 6S was announced, Apple called it 3D Touch instead. That aside, on the device Huawei simply calls it a pressure-sensitive display.
Technically, Huawei was the first to announce a device offering display pressure as a navigation tool, although Apple beat it to the punch on the shelf, as the iPhone 6S launches before Huawei has fleshed out any details on this luxury version of the Mate S.
We've looked at what pressure-sensitivity brings to the display previously (follow the link below for the lowdown), but we'll cover off the essentials here.
Firstly, it's not as comprehensive as Apple's navigation offering. Apple benefits from being able to mate hardware and software in native apps, something that Huawei can't do so effectively (there's no support in stock Android apps, for example). That gives you things like Peek and Pop (peeking to preview content without opening apps in full, unless it's important in which can pop into the full app quickly) on the iPhone 6S, which could be really useful in the Huawei, but you don't get. Apple's integration of haptic feedback is also a lot more precise than that of Huawei.
But Huawei has enabled it so pressure can be used for navigation, using a heavy press to replace the standard Android buttons of back, home and recent apps. We've been using this since we moved into the Huawei Mate S and we've found it very natural, and barely does it catch you out. The benefit is that you get an uncluttered display.
The other area that Huawei has put it to use is in magnification in the gallery. This lets you zoom in on an area for a closer look, but that's slightly less effective than a pinch zoom and feels more like a demo for the technology than something that actually benefits you greatly.
In reality, Huawei has introduced this hardware feature on the luxury Mate S and its potential isn't fully realised. We like it as a feature, but it currently doesn't offer enough to make you rush out and by this edition of the phone. We suspect we'd need to see wider adoption by other manufacturers for it to make any headway in the Android world.
Huawei Mate S review: Fingerprint scanner and knuckle control
Common to all the Mate S models, and very welcome indeed, is the fingerprint scanner on the rear. The position might cause you to raise an eyebrow, but it's well placed for unlocking the device with a tap of the finger. We found it to be very reliable and faster to unlock than some devices we've lived with this year, such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 family. We've found we can unlock the phone as we're lifting it out of a pocket, like some sort of super-smartphone-whipping-quick-draw cowboy. It's very slick.
But this isn't just about locking, Huawei has added some clever control options into the scanner, rolling out what it's calling Fingerprint 2.0. We saw a range of clever functions on the Honor 7 and these are reflected in the Mate S too. The one we like the most is being able to swipe down the notification area with a swipe down on the scanner. You can clear notifications with a double-tap. On a device this size it really facilitates one-handed use.
You can also use the scanner to swipe through images in the gallery, perfect for showing off photos without obstructing things with a greasy finger. Finally you can use it to trigger selfies, again, a big nod to practical use. We definitely give Fingerprint 2.0 the thumbs-up.
One of Huawei's rather more comical options is knuckle control. It's a slightly derided feature, but there's one thing about it we really like: you can trace letters on the display with your knuckles to launch apps and we've been using it to launch the camera. We didn't plan to, it just sort of happened, which suggests to us that it's actually a really useful feature. When we tested the P8 smartphone we found the knuckle experience dreadful, but that's not the case in the Mate S: presumably this pressure-sensitive display is far more adept at recognising those nuances of pressure.
The good thing is that you can knuckle your phone no matter whereever you are in the user interface and for the camera that means you can jump to taking photos really easily. It's not as fast as double clicking the home button a Samsung Galaxy S6, but it's faster than rooting out the icon for the camera in the apps tray.
Huawei Mate S review: Software
One of our greatest criticisms of Huawei over the past few years and previous generation devices, was the extent of the software changes to Android. On the Huawei Mate S, you still get a lot of Huawei modification. Much of this steps away from Android's material design and changes some things for the worse.
The best example is the app icons. Huawei's so-called EMUI interface wants to put each icon on a background with matching colour. We have no idea why, when Android presents some lovely icons, and Huawei messes them up. Look at the ugly handling of Calendar or even the Play Store icon, for example. It works for Huawei's own apps, but even those will change their imagery based on the theme you pick on the device, which is the very definition of inconsistency.
We think that EMUI is a little awkward visually compared with the sophistication of HTC Sense or the latest Samsung TouchWiz, but we can see that this is what Huawei is trying to emulate as a method of differentiation. We just think it would be a better user experience if it toned things down a bit.
But there are also some great elements. We've mentioned that quirky knuckle control, we've mentioned the attention to power consumption, and there are other options galore that add to Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. You can manage the individual default apps, for example, you can manage two types of notifications for each app (features coming to Android 6.0 Marshmallow), you can turn off the network name, or you can show the data speed you're getting.
In short, there's a lot here for smartphone fans to geek out about - and we like that. But we think that the Huawei apps miss the mark compared to Android stock apps, so the Mate S offers a better software experience once you install apps like Messenger and Calendar, and an alternative keyboard.
One of the big things that we don't like is the launcher in EMUI. It ditches the apps tray in favour of just swiping into pages of apps. It feels like it apes the iPhone's iOS interface and replaces it with something else - like Google Now Launcher - making you feel a little more in control of things.
But critically, this is now a smooth user experience. We didn't find any lag or unexpected behaviour. Yes, we moved things back towards Android norms, but the result was an excellent smartphone experience. 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 sing from the Android hymn sheet.
Huawei Mate S review: Camera
One area that Huawei has performed well in the past is in the camera. The company makes a lot of noise about its cameras and so it should. The camera app is a little close in design to that of Apple iOS, but it's simple enough to use. There are a lot of options and settings in addition to the major shooting modes, should you want to dig out a specific control.
There's a 13-megapixel camera on the rear with f/2.0 aperture, offering optical image stabilisation and a dual-tone twin LED flash. It's a great camera, fast to focus and the results are good. We've got snapped shots with plenty of detail and good natural colours, although it can be a little muted in some situations.
We suspect this is due to being slightly aggressive with processing to sweep image noise away, and you might find on closer examination that some dark areas or backgrounds get reduced to a fine grain. Low-light performance is pretty good too, because you still get usable results, even though there's some inevitable noise - but again there's the processing going on to make sure it doesn't get too offensive.
When it comes to the front 8-megapixel camera, again it will give you some great results. There's a whole range of beauty functions to enhance your selfies, as well as the option for a front illuminator to aid with pictures in low-light. We've good some good quality results, but we've noticed that the default picture is reversed, so everything is backwards when you look at it, which is odd.
Imagine our disappointment when we took a photo in the new Rolls-Royce Dawn to find that the embroidered RR logo on the headrest was backwards. Fortunately the image editor will let you flip the image, but nowhere could we find this option at the point of shooting.
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 - a shame considering we've got the 128GB model.
There's a lot to love about the Huawei Mate S. We like the finish of the metal body and the slimness that Huawei has achieved. The display, although not being the highest resolution out there, offers great visuals and, on this particular model, offers the advantage of pressure-sensitivity (even if that function could offer so much more).
The fingerprint scanner is excellent too, and there's great performance from both cameras, along with some impressive attention to detail in Huawei's software. There's plenty of power, meaning daily tasks will happen with ease, and a battery life that matches if not betters many of the flagship handsets currently available (a surprise given the 2,700mAh capacity on offer).
But the Mate S finds itself in a slightly awkward place. It's undercut in price by the excellent OnePlus 2 and perhaps won't turn heads as readily as something like the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+. That said, it is substantially cheaper than the Samsung and the likes of the iPhone 6S Plus, which should make it attractive for those looking for a great handset in this sub-premium sector.
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. We just wish that Huawei had a slightly lighter touch with Android.