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Huawei's MateBook is beautiful, but fundamentally flawed

Engadget Engadget 28/06/2016 Devindra Hardawar

© Provided by Engadget

For many people, Huawei isn't a name they associate with premium gadgetry. Sure, it's the world's third biggest smartphone maker, and in China it's gained a reputation for quality, but in the US and most of the Western world it's mostly known as a purveyor of cheap phones. With the MateBook, a hybrid tablet that marks the company's first stab at a full-fledged computer, Huawei is hoping to change that. But while it certainly looks nice, the MateBook's keyboard cover ultimately dooms it as something I can't recommend.

Hardware

"Wow, that looks expensive." That's something I've heard, unprompted, from several different people while testing the MateBook. It has a sleek unibody aluminum design that's only 6.9 millimeters thin, and it weighs just 1.4 pounds. In comparison, Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 is heavier and a tad wider at 1.7 pounds and 8.4 millimeters thick. The MateBook's 12-inch screen takes up most of its front, with very little bezel around the display itself (usually a hallmark of good design). A simple chamfered metal trim adds some additional class.

The MateBook is surprisingly comfortable to hold with one hand, and it feels pretty solid too, with very little flex when I tried to bend the case. Around the sides, you've got the usual power and volume buttons, as well as a single USB-C port for charging and plugging in accessories. There's also an incredibly thin fingerprint reader resting between the volume buttons, which is compatible with the Windows Hello fast sign-on feature. The MateBook's back is cleaner than most other tablets since it forgoes a rear camera, but there's a 5- camera up front for video chatting. Huawei throws in a USB-C to micro-USB cable in the box, as well as a USB-C to traditional USB-A adapter.

Unfortunately, Huawei pulled a Microsoft and chose to make the MateBook's keyboard cover an additional $129. At least it also looks expensive, with a faux-leather finish that wraps completely around the tablet, portfolio style. It offers 1.4mm of key travel, which is impressive for a mere tablet cover, and the buttons are also surprisingly large. The keyboard cover doubles as the MateBook's kickstand; you just have to fold the back over, similar to Apple's iPad Pro. It's fairly thin, but it adds an additional pound of weight to the MateBook. (In comparison, the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover weighs 0.6 pounds.)

That lone USB-C connection probably won't be enough when using the MateBook as a laptop, so Huawei also developed the MateDock ($89), which adds two USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet and HDMI/VGA connectors. And since this is a hybrid tablet, there's also the expected stylus, the MatePen ($59), which has 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity, as well as a laser pointer built in. The latter feature probably won't be useful to most consumers, but I suppose it's one way Huawei can differentiate it from the scores of other stylii out there.

Display and pen input

The MateBook's 12-inch display packs in a 2,160 by 1,440 pixel resolution, which is sharp, but less so than the iPad Pro (2,732 x 2,048) or the Surface Pro 4 (2,736 x 1,824). You likely won't even notice the slightly lower resolution in a screen that size, though. For the most part, the display looks adequate, with strong colors and detail. But it's also a surprisingly dark at times; I had plenty of issues using it outside in direct sunlight. Even sitting in front of a window with sun pouring in was enough to wash it out. And it didn't help that the screen is also very reflective, which makes things seem even darker. When it comes to watching movies and reading digital comics, it didn't have much of a "wow factor."

Huawei's MatePen felt similar: It's an adequate stylus, nothing more. It worked well enough for jotting down handwritten text and drawings in OneNote, and it effectively detected varying levels of performance. But the pen itself isn't comfortable to hold, and writing on the screen feels nothing like actual handwriting. I gave Microsoft lots of credit for trying to mimic the feeling of pen and paper with its latest Surface Pen (it even has different styles of tips for different tastes). The MatePen feels like Huawei didn't consider much about the handwriting experience; it simply created a stylus because everyone else did. But hey, it at least has a laser pointer!

Typing (and cover) experience

This is where Huawei truly broke my heart. On paper, the MateBook's keyboard should be fantastic. I was looking forward to feeling every bit of its 1.4mm key travel, I really was. But looks can be deceiving. While mashing down on those keys feels pretty good, it couldn't keep up with my (admittedly harsh) typing style. I could type quickly, but most of the time I'd end up with gibberish that I'd have to go back and correct. I was able to type around 60 words per minute in TypingTest.com's Aesop's fables test, which discounted words that I misspelled. On the MacBook Air and my desktop keyboard, I get around 90 accurate words per minute. Key comfort is a big deal, sure, but accuracy is just as important.

Similarly, the keyboard cover's trackpad looks inviting, with a large and seemingly smooth surface. But it's incredibly inaccurate when it comes to mousing around Windows; navigating through menus and websites with links closely packed together was an exercise in frustration. The trackpad's buttons have trouble determining if I'm trying to left- or right-click, and you can forget about trying to highlight text and scrolling at the same time. I gave up after several minutes of trying to copy large chunks of notes for this review.

The MateBook's cover proves that Huawei has learned how to mimic designs from better computer makers, but doesn't actually have a clue why consumers love Apple's trackpads or Lenovo's keyboards.

Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the best/worst part: Huawei's keyboard makes for a terrible kickstand. It can hold the MateBook up in two positions -- 67 degrees and 52 degrees -- but there's no flexibility outside of that. And it's not even good at maintaining those angles. If you move the screen too far back, or simply shift the MateBook the wrong way, the entire thing falls apart. As someone who's grown to love the Surface's stable, fully articulating kickstand, Huawei's implementation feels like a complete disaster. And you can forget about holding the MateBook on your lap: It works, but only if you sit just right. Otherwise get ready for your 12-inch tablet to come crashing to the floor.

Performance and battery life

PCMark 7PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated)3DMark 113DMark (Sky Diver)ATTO (top reads/writes)
Huawei MateBook (1.1 GHz Core M3, Intel HD 515)3,5922,867E1,490 / P8872,454538 MB/s / 268 MB/s
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet (1.2 GHz Core M7-6Y75, Intel HD 515)4,9513,433E1,866 / P1,1122,462545 MB/s / 298 MB/s
Samsung Notebook 9 (2.5GHz Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,3093,705E2,567 / P1,541 / X4163,518539 MB/s / 299 MB/s
Dell XPS 13 (2.3GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel Graphics 520)4,9543,499E2,610 / P1,5313,3351.6GB/s / 307 MB/s
HP Spectre x360 15t (2.4GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel HD 520)5,0403,458E2,672 / P1,526 / X4203,542561 MB/s / 284 MB/s
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520)5,4033,602

E2,697/ P1,556/ X422

3,6141.6 GB/s / 529 MB/s
Lenovo Yoga 900 (2.5GHz Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,3683,448

E2,707 / P1,581

3,161556 MB/s / 511 MB/s
Microsoft Surface Book (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520)5,4123,610

E2,758 / P1,578 / X429

3,6231.6 GB/s / 571 MB/s

The MateBook I tested packed in a Core m5 processor running at 1.1 GHz (with boost speeds to 1.4 GHz) and 4GB of RAM. Not exactly powerhouse specs, but enough to get some work done. When it came to browsing the web, using Slack and typing in Evernote, the MateBook held up just fine. But honestly, the best specs on the market wouldn't make a difference with such a horrific typing and mousing experience. I also noticed that the MateBook's back got surprisingly warm whenever I stressed the system.

The MateBook lasted around six and a half hours in our typical battery test, which involves looping an HD video until the computer dies. That's significantly less than Huawei's claim of nine hours, and it's on the low-end of the Ultrabooks we've tested.

Battery life

Huawei MateBook 6:35
Surface Book (Core i5, integrated graphics)13:54 / 3:20 (tablet only)
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)12:51
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2015)11:34
Surface Book (Core i7, discrete graphics)11:31 / 3:02 (tablet only)
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015)11:23
iPad Pro10:47
HP Spectre x360 15t10:17
Chromebook Pixel (2015)10:01
Lenovo Yoga 9009:36
Microsoft Surface 39:11
Samsung Notebook 98:16
Apple MacBook (2015)7:47
Dell XPS 13 (2015)7:36
Microsoft Surface Pro 47:15
Lenovo Thinkpad X Tablet7:05
HP Spectre x26:43
Razer Blade Stealth5:48
Dell XPS 15 (2016)5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger)

Configuration options and the competition

The MateBook starts at $699 with an Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Jumping up to $849 adds a much more usable Core m5 chip, and for $999 you can get the m5 with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD. At the top end, there's the $1,199 Core M5 model with a 512GB SSD. Huawei also mentioned that it'll offer Core m7 processors eventually, but it's not saying anything about pricing and availability of that configuration just yet. And remember, you have to add $129 for the keyboard and another $59 for the MatePen (not that you'd miss the latter).

Huawei is certainly entering a crowded market. Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 starts at $899 with a Core m3 chip, 4GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD, but at least with that you've got the option of a much better keyboard (for an additional $130). If you were really gunning for a hybrid, I'd recommend shelling out $999 for the Core i5 Surface Pro 4. There is of course the slightly cheaper Surface 3, which starts at $499 but is saddled with a much slower Atom processor.

Among other Windows hybrids, there's the Lenovo X1 Tablet starting at $1,029 (it includes the keyboard cost), and I'm personally looking forward to testing ASUS's upcoming Transformers. Apple's iPad Pro is another solid competitor starting at $799, but again you'll have to add $169 for the keyboard cover. And of course, you're stuck with iOS and not a full-fledged desktop OS and real productivity apps.

TL;DR: There are plenty of better hybrids out there.

Wrap-up

Huawei's MateBook is a confounding device. It impresses upon first glance, but it's not long before you realize it's only beautiful on the surface. If Huawei's goal was to prove it could make a premium-looking device, well, mission accomplished. It just forget to make a device you'd actually want to use.

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