Huawei has been trying to break into the U.S. market for years, and with some help from Google, the company got its foot in the door last fall with the Nexus 6P. We're huge fans of that smartphone, but how does Huawei's own phone hold up? After spending some time with the Mate 8 I've come away with a better understanding of what this Chinese giant is capable of.
The Mate 8 was actually announced back in November 2015 and launched in China last month. Huawei recently announced plans for a global launch that still won't include the U.S., though the review unit I received worked great on AT&T's network.
So if you want to use Huawei's phone in America (or anywhere else with GSM networks) you can. But does the Mate 8 deserve to be your next smartphone? Let's find out.
This is Android so you pretty much know what you're in for. Unfortunately Huawei's Emotion UI (EMUI) 4.0 is kind of a bummer, but thankfully there's no real barrier stopping you from customizing it to your hearts content.
There's nothing specifically wrong with EMUI, but it feels unfinished. Huawei even pushed an update to the phone while I was reviewing it, adding scrolling screenshots and fixing a few bugs. Even after that it still has some issues. A few key Android 6.0 Marshmallow features are missing, including Now on Tap. Interactive notifications don't always work either, though that seems to be on an app-by-app basis.
EMUI comes with a pre-set home screen, including widgets for Huawei's own music and gallery app, which I quickly deleted. The company also decided to squeeze every icon into a square with rounded edges, which means a lot of third-party apps exist on the home screen as other shapes forced into a dull grey box. The result can look pretty ugly.
Huawei's also inexplicably decided to remove the Android app drawer. That means you have to keep all your apps right on the home screen or on another page. We don't really understand this decision, though it feels like an unfortunate attempt to imitate Apple's iOS.
One other weird bug I noticed was that the home screen theme kept changing on its own. I tried installing Muzei, a third party app that cycles through background images, but every time I left the home screen it switched back to one of Huawei's own pre-set themes. The first few times I switched it back manually, but eventually I just gave up.
My colleague Mark Burstiner also ran into plenty of bugs. He tried installing a third-party launcher, but couldn't set it as the default. He also noticed that some settings automatically revert to default each time you set them, which meshes with my own experience. We reached out to Huawei, but haven't heard back about either of these two issues yet.
Visually the Mate 8 is stunning. Seriously, it's one of the most beautiful smartphones I've ever seen. The entire device looks like one big piece of machined aluminum, only if you get really close can you see small antenna bands near the bottom and top of the back panel. The bezels are so thin they're barely there, and the back curves just slightly to fit the palm of your hand. Huawei's also managed to offer both the curved glass corners that are currently in vogue and the striking chamfered edges we still love within one seamless design.
Holding it in my hand I can't find a single visual fault. Every corner and edge catches the light. The metal is smooth without feeling too slippery. The Mate 8 feels light despite its hefty frame. If you have smaller hands this 6-inch beast probably isn't the phone for you.
Huawei opted for a 1080p resolution instead of Quad HD, which seems strange considering the phone's big screen and premium price. It's possible the decision might come down to battery life, which is a big focus for the company (more on that later). Overall it hasn't been an issue, at least for me. 1080p is still sharp enough for most situations, but the display won't blow you away like on some competing smartphones. If you're switching from a Quad HD OLED screen you may have some regrets.
The Mate 8 is also running Huawei's own octa-core chip. I never had any issues with the Kirin 950 processor, and it hasn't crashed once since I originally booted up the device. Everything runs smooth and fast. You also get dual SIM support, with the second slot doubling as microSD for adding extra storage.
Huawei gave me the cheaper (600 euro) model with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. There's also a 700 euro variant with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but that seems unnecessary when expandable storage is an option. I don't think that extra gig of RAM makes a huge difference either, as 3GB seemed to be more than enough most of the time.
Another highlight is the Mate 8's rear fingerprint sensor. It's extremely fast (maybe faster than the Nexus 6P) and works most of the time with a single touch. You don't even need to push or press a button to activate it. Just hold your finger over the scanner for a second and the phone unlocks automatically.
Finally, the Mate 8 packs a pretty impressive pair of speakers located along the bottom edge on either side of the microUSB port. They get really loud, which is great if you want to watch a video without headphones or even play music for a few friends. The sound quality isn't particularly impressive, but that's still not something I expect from smartphone speakers.
The Mate 8 should excel when it comes to battery life. Huawei packed the phone with a huge 4000mAh battery while skimping on the display resolution. Combine that with some very aggressive battery management software and you should have power for days. Unfortunately that wasn't always the case for me.
Most nights I still had about 25 percent battery life remaining when I plugged in the Mate 8 and went to sleep. That's not bad, but it's not amazing either. One day I even had to recharge before going out after work or risk running out of power before I got back home. Thankfully, the phone does charge very quickly.
Interestingly, Mark didn't run into any of these issues with his own review unit, and says it easily lasted him two days on a single charge. It's possible my Mate 8 had some small bug, or maybe I just spend too much time on my phone. Either way you can check out the video above for his take on battery life and everything else.
The Mate 8's 16-megapixel camera is fine, but it's nothing to write home about. The photos it takes look good for the most part, though it struggles a bit in low light situations. Colors can look a little oversaturated in some cases as well.
My biggest complaint here is that launching the camera takes way too long, and if you need to get a shot off fast you may end up missing the opportunity. Once the camera is booted up you can switch between apps and pick it up again quickly, but waking up the camera for the first time after a few hours is painfully slow.
Huawei has also included some interesting features in its camera app. There's a beauty mode for cleaning up your pictures, and a time lapse mode built in. When you take a selfie the phone will give you a quick countdown to pose. Not a bad idea, but not necessary either. For the most part I'm still not interested in these gimmicky camera modes, and Huawei hasn't done much to convince me otherwise.
Huawei Mate 8
The Mate 8 has plenty of great features, but it also has almost as much going against it. The design is beautiful and the specs are powerful, but the software is buggy and the camera is just okay. Expandable storage is a great perk, but the 600 euro price seems a little high when the Nexus 6P is also an option.
Huawei isn't actually selling the Mate 8 in the U.S., but considering how this device performed I'd be wary of making any of the phone running EMUI 4.0 my daily driver until the software shows some serious improvements. Then again, if you do end up with this phone in your pocket it's not the end of the world. At least it looks good.
- beautiful design
- blazing fast fingerprint scanner
- expandable storage
- buggy software
- mediocre camera
- expensive and not available in U.S.