Huawei Ascend Mate 8 preview: Fab phablet brings super-powers

Not so long ago the idea of a 6-inch phone sounded like a bonkers one. Now it’s the norm for many, and with devices as powerful and refined as the Huawei Mate 8 coming to market it’s perhaps a more appealing concept than ever.

Well, assuming it arrives in the UK anytime soon. At present the Mate 8 is out in China (where we got to sample the handset), with no promise of its UK arrival confirmed just yet. But then there’s the Huawei-made Nexus 6P which is doing a good job of filling the gap in its own way.

Having lived with the earlier Mate 7 for a number of months in 2014 – a phone we thought we’d hate but actually loved – the Mate 8 steps things up a notch as the first handset to sport the super-fast Kirin 950 chipset. Does that extra power, combined with some subtle tweaks over its predecessor, make it the big-screen phone to beat all others?

The Mate 8 is quite a beast, with a 157.1 x 80.6mm footprint proving a little large for most pockets. But it’s certainly not giant in all directions, with its 7.9mm thickness up there with most current flagship devices. That’s the very same measurements as last year’s model, so no nips and tucks in this department.

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For the most part the Mate 8 looks every bit the same as the Mate 7 too, with chamfered metal edges and curved corners softening the look. Flip it over, however, and it shows off some design tweaks: the fingerprint scanner, which is positioned to the rear for quick access, is now a circular opening into the phone rather than a square one; while the upgraded rear camera protrudes slightly from the phone’s body.

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That fingerprint scanner is great, just as capable as any competitors out there, and that rear positioning is really natural for a device of this size. The fact it’s recessed into the body makes all the difference.

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The hardware is a tale of two halves, with some components upgraded but the majority remaining the same as the previous model.

As the first handset to use the eight-core Kirin 950 chipset – here in its quad-core 2.3Ghz Cortex A72 and quad core 1.8GHz Cortex A53 form, alongside 3GB RAM – the Mate 8 has heaps of power, but it’s only rendering to a 1920 x 1080 resolution screen. Hardly low resolution, but at this scale that’s behind the current curve, especially with even 4K resolution screens are now available in the likes of the Sony Z5 Premium.

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That ought to aid battery life, though, with the 4,000mAh cell on board likely to last for a decent innings with each charge, just as we saw from the Mate 7. That kind of capacity is unusual and not affected by an ultra-high resolution screen, which works to its advantage. With the Mate 8, however, there’s the benefit of fast charge, capable of delivering 37 per cent battery from dead in just half an hour.

Besides, that screen is plenty good enough. It’s an IPS LCD panel so viewing angles are on the money, while colours look decent.

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Huawei uses Android as its base operating system, here in its 6.0 Marshmallow guise, with its EMUI re-skin over the top, here in the latest version 4.0.

That makes for some interesting choices, not all of which are ideal. First is the clear lack of an app tray, which makes typically organised Android feel a little less organised to use. The icon designs have a kitschy look to them too.

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But that’s not to say EMUI doesn’t bring its own benefits, and we rather like the Huawei harassment filter option, as one example. In EMUI 4.0 there’s the addition of split screen to run two apps, which is something stock Android lacks and a great addition at this scale in particular. We’ve seen Samsung tackle the dual app view before with the Note series, so it’s good to see Huawei taking a similar lead.

However, as we’ve been looking at the Chinese handset rather than a fully “Googled” version, we’ll have to reserve judgement for the time being as to just how much EMUI 4.0 can bring, whether it’s improved in terms of power consumption, and if it interferes with the potential of the chipset on board (theMate 7 wasn’t always 100 per cent smooth in operation, as a base example).

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The camera application is different to generic Google too, but despite the rear sensor now being a 16-megapixel sensor (up from 13MP) the interface is largely the same as we’ve seen in P8 and other Huawei phones, albeit with the addition of a pro shooting mode.

It’s operationally easy to use, with a tap on the screen acquiring focus, but handling a device as large as this for photos is a little taxing, especially given how slim the device is. You can use the fingerprint scanner to fire they shutter if you want though.

With beauty mode activated for selfies you can expect excessively smoothed-out skin and bulging eyes, but it can be deactivated as required. Other filters are also available, while video capture is at 1080p (so no 4K this time around).

Perhaps the most obvious difference with the cameras is that it protrudes slightly from the rear, an increasing trend in smartphone design. But that does bring with it the advances of optical image stabilisation to help keep things steady.

First Impressions

The Huawei Mate 8 is an echo of the Mate 7. But with an added thump of power at its core, the latest software on board and an improved camera, it’s all the more appealing. Plus 6-inch phones are becoming increasingly the norm, which ought to further seed its success – if it arrives in the UK any time soon, anyway.

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So while we can’t call qualms on the build quality, and find the fingerprintscanner exemplary, the decision to leave some features just as they were on the Mate 7 sees the Mate 8 sit a little behind the curve. The 1080p screen, while fine, seems a little shy of what a 6-inch panel would really benefit from – especially now there’s a split screen mode and more than enough power on tap to provide content to a higher resolution solution without a problem.

Largely the Mate 8’s success will hang on its price. It’s a large-scale, good-looking phone with heaps of power that ought to sit it in good stead in the phablet world. If we’re still using the phablet word by 2016, that is. Here’s hoping for a UK date announcement soon, with whispers suggesting we’ll know at CES 2016.


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