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Huawei Mate 8 review: A big phone that's almost brilliant

Alphr logo Alphr 18-01-2016 Jonathan Bray

Can a 6in smartphone like the Huawei Mate 8 ever be practical? That’s the first question that leapt into my mind when I pulled the Chinese smartphone manufacturer’s latest handset from its slim, black box. I didn’t think such large phones were practical when Google released the Nexus 6 a little more than a year ago; and now, after nearly a week of using the Mate 8 as my main handset, I still don’t think I’d want to own a phone this big.

That isn’t to criticise Huawei’s design engineers in any way. They’ve done a stunning job on the design of this phone, keeping the dimensions as small as possible. Given the screen size, I can’t imagine it being any smaller. But therein lies the rub. Whichever way you cut it, six inches is six inches, and until some clever clogs comes up with a shrink ray, it’s going to stay that way.

Huawei Mate 8 review: Design and features

Still, if you’re determined to own a phone with as large a screen as possible, the Mate 8 is one of nicest models I’ve come across. This is mainly due to the incredibly narrow bezels surrounding that enormous screen. To the left and right, there’s a distance of roughly 3mm from the edge of the phone until the screen begins. The phone’s “forehead” and “chin” measure 6mm and 9mm respectively. The front is mostly all screen; the way it should be, in other words.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

To my mind, that’s an impressive feat of design engineering, and combined with the 7.9mm slenderness of the phone makes the Mate 8 feel much smaller than it actually is.

It’s also a very handsome device, combining elements of the Mate S and the Nexus 6P. The body of the phone comes in silver and white or gunmetal-grey and black – and both versions look great. The edges are brushed and have chamfered corners to fool the eye into think they’re even thinner than they are, and the detailing, from the twin speaker grilles to the textured power button, is impeccably well done.

Even the subtle Huawei logo on the rear doesn’t detract from the overall look and feel of the device and, as I’ve come to expect from top-end Huawei handsets, it’s replete with a goodly selection of features as well. There’s a circular fingerprint reader in the centre on the rear, just like on the Nexus 6P; the screen is topped with premium Gorilla Glass 4; and the SIM card tray has space for a microSD card (to expand on the Mate 8’s 32GB of internal storage) or a second SIM card, depending on your preferences.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Huawei Mate 8 review: Software

There’s no argument that it’s a great-looking handset, but as with so many other Huawei devices, the Huawei Mate 8 is a smartphone of extremes, and as soon as you switch on the phone you’ll see why. It runs Huawei’s proprietary Android skin – EMUI 4 – so although there’s Android 6 underneath, you won’t see much evidence of its elegant lines and thoughtful features.

The key point of difference between Huawei’s version and stock Android is that there’s no App Drawer. As with iOS, all your apps are shown on the desktop, which adds unnecessary clutter.

Huawei hasn’t stopped there, though. It’s also fiddled with the appearance of icons, awkwardly squeezing them into a round-cornered box so they all have exactly the same shape. This may not sound offensive, but many Android apps have circular or irregularly shaped icons, and these look absolutely horrible.

Huawei Mate 8 review: App icons and notifications pull-down menu© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Huawei Mate 8 review: App icons and notifications pull-down menu

Elsewhere, the pull-down notifications menu is inelegantly presented on two tabs, with the brightness slider and shortcut toggles rather irritatingly on the second one. And EMUI is stuffed with preloaded apps that you may or may not want.

On the positive side, there are some features I do like here. The clock app is very neat indeed, and the power-management tools – which can be set to notify you whenever they spot an app using too much power in the background – are undeniably useful. But surely these could be implemented without the fussy, overbearing redesign. Android 6 Marshmallow looks great on its own; please leave it alone, Huawei.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Huawei Mate 8 review: Performance, display quality and battery life

All this is a shame because the rest of the Mate 8 is pretty tasty fare, starting with the performance of the CPU and graphics. As usual for a Huawei phone, the processor is a HiSilicon unit, but this is not a CPU I’ve come across before. It’s the very latest 16nm Kirin 950 – a step up from the Kirin 935 I saw in the Huawei Mate S Press Touch I reviewed late last year – and it’s backed up by 3GB of RAM.

Normally, this would signal the start of a moan about sluggish performance and a general lack of responsiveness, but this time, it’s different. In fact, as you can see from the tables below, in terms of pure CPU grunt the Kirin 950 is a cracker.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. The chip is an octa-core unit made up of a pair of quad-core CPUs of ARM design. One is a 2.3GHz Cortex-A72 CPU, used for intensive tasks; the other is a 1.8GHz Cortex-A53 for low-power jobs, and both do an admirable job of keeping the phone’s UI moving.

The Mate 8 phone feels responsive in every way. It restarts and boots in seconds, apps launch at a snap and web pages load, scroll and pan smoothly. Just the level of performance you’d expect of a flagship smartphone.

Even graphics performance, which has in the past been a particularly weak area for Kirin chips, is pretty good.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

The Huawei Mate 8 can’t match the might of the Apple iPhone 6s here, but it’s on a par with the Nexus 6P (Qualcomm Snapdragon 810) and it’s well ahead of the dismal Mate S and its Kirin 935.

This is all very promising stuff, and the performance picture is rounded out by solid display performance. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the resolution is only 1,920 x 1,080, but this isn’t a problem. At no time since I’ve been using it have I noticed any graininess or pixellation; despite what the manufacturers would have you believe, Quad HD and 4K displays aren’t really necessary, even on a 6in smartphone.

And the quality is rather good. It’s bright, reaching a maximum of 505cd/m2 at maximum settings. Contrast is rather good, reaching 1,402:1, ensuring black looks inky and colours really leap out. The screen covers 99.3% of the sRGB colour space, which is exceedingly impressive. The only weakness is that colour accuracy is somewhat out of whack, particularly in green and red tones, so some graphics can look a touch strange.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

But this is easy to forgive in the light of the Huawei Mate 8’s battery life. In day-to-day use, I was able to regularly eke one-and-a-half day’s use out of the Huawei Mate 8’s huge 4,000mAh battery. If you use the phone sparingly, I’d imagine two days’ full use wouldn’t be out of the question.

Oddly, its performance wasn’t quite so good in our video-rundown battery test, but its runtime of 11hrs 48mins is on a par with the Nexus 6P, and better than its predecessor, the Mate S. All told, battery life is considerably better than average.

Huawei Mate 8 review: Cameras

The Huawei Mate 8 is a capable smartphone from a performance point of view; the cameras are a touch less impressive, however. There’s nothing missing in terms of raw capability. On the rear, you get a 16-megapixel shooter with an f/2 aperture, optical image stabilisation, phase-detect autofocus and a dual-LED flash. The front camera is an almost-as-impressive eight megapixels.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Despite the specifications, however, the resulting photographs and videos aren’t the best I’ve seen, with still images looking very soft and lacking in detail compared with the best mobile phone cameras on the market.

This is one area where the Nexus 6P stands head and shoulders above the Huawei Mate 8. Google’s phone produces shots that are crammed with far more detail, in both good light and poor, and have richer colours and generally better all-around exposure. Just look at the quick comparisons I’ve made below to see how dramatic the differences are.

Huawei Mate 8 vs Google Nexus 6P camera samples© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Huawei Mate 8 vs Google Nexus 6P camera samples

Huawei Mate 8 review: Verdict

In all, I like the Huawei Mate 8. It’s a little too large for my pockets, but I love the design and, generally, it’s been a pleasure to use. The sluggish performance of past Huawei flagships has been banished thanks to the shiny new Kirin 950 chipset, and battery life isn’t half bad either.

Couple that with a tempting SIM-free price of £429, and you have a smartphone that holds a good deal of appeal. If you're looking for that big-screen smartphone experience with few of the drawbacks, it should be on your shortlist.

There are, however, a couple of critical things that undermine its bid for smartphone greatness. First, the proprietary EMUI software, which given the choice I’d replace in an instant. The second is the slightly iffy camera, which produces soft images, despite impressive specifications.

In short, unless you’re entirely wedded to the idea of carrying around a 6in smartphone, you can do better than this. It may not have a 6in screen, but I’d recommend the Google Nexus 6P instead.

Huawei Mate 8 review: A big phone that's almost brilliant© Alphr Huawei Mate 8 review: A big phone that's almost brilliant

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