In the past few weeks, I've been carrying a number of high-end smartphones, including Huawei's Mate 8. It's a rather large phone, with a 6-inch display, a modern custom processor, a good camera, and its own user interface on top of Android 6.0. It excels with the size of the screen and great battery life, but most U.S. customers don't know it's even a choice.
Even though Huawei is now the world's third-largest maker of smartphones (and a big seller of telecommunications infrastructure equipment) and the phone came out at the beginning of 2016, none of the major U.S. carriers sell the device, perhaps because of some concerns raised by the U.S. government about Huawei's Chinese ownership.
The first thing you notice about the phone is the size. At 6.19 by 3.17 by 0.31 inches (HWD), it's larger than most phablets, in order to accommodate the 6-inch, 1,920 by 1,080 LCD display. More squared-off angles make it look bigger, but it's actually only slightly bigger than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus; because of its relatively small bezel, the Mate 8 is smaller than many 6-inch phones. In particular, it's not much wider than these phones, so it's not too difficult to handle.
The large size of the screen makes for easy reading, though the resolution doesn't match the top end of the 2,560 by 1,440 displays used in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Note 5, as well as the LG G5, so it's not quite as sharp (about 368 pixels per inch) nor quite as bright as Samsung's. Everything is bigger, making it easier to read, but you get a bit less content in exchange, and you can see the pixels a bit at closer distances. It's a trade-off many will accept, and the lower-resolution screen should help with battery life. I didn't find it to be as bright as the Samsung display, and on occasion did wish for a higher-resolution screen. Still, it was pretty good.
One other thing the large size does is accommodate a larger battery with 4,000 mAh. I've been very impressed with the Mate 8's battery life. This phone made it through about two days of normal use on a full charge. It does have fast charging technology, getting nearly 40 charged charged within 30 minutes, typically enough to get you through the rest of the day.
The Mate 8 is unique in using the Kirin 950 processor from Huawei affiliate Hi-Silicon. This is a 16nm FinFET chip based on an Octo-core redesign with four ARM Cortex-A72 cores running at up to 2.3GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores running at up to 1.8GHz, plus Mali-T880 graphics. Many of the benchmarks I've seen, such as Antutu, put it a bit behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, Apple A9, and Samsung Exynos 8890, but ahead of the chips used in last year's Android phones. In the real world, a number of things seemed a bit faster, and a number seemed to be a bit slower than the S7 or G5; some of this is the processor, but others could be ascribed to the modem or screen resolution differences. In general, it seemed to be a strong performer, accomplishing all the tasks I expected easily and quickly.
It doesn't appear to have the most advanced modem, but that wasn't really a problem. I used it on the AT&T network, and it generally worked well, though there were occasional instances when I seemed to have better connections with other phones. Some people have reported issues stepping down from 4G to 3G coverage.
The Mate 8 has a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera with what Huawei says is a proprietary image sensor processor and optical image stabilization. The camera app makes it pretty easy to apply a number of filters, and I liked how easy it was to change the brightness of the image. It also comes with a separate feature that lets it easily scan business cards and save information to your contacts list. It has a 5-megapixel front facing camera. Photos from the Mate 8 looked good, if a bit darker than those from the Galaxy S7 or LG G5. I found it holds its own against most current flagship phones, taking photos roughly equivalent to those I've seen with an iPhone 6s Plus, sometimes better, sometimes worse, depending on lighting conditions. In general, videos looked quite good.
The fingerprint scanner is on the back, and I found it worked very well, easily as good as any I've seen on an Android phone. I like the omnidirectional recording microphone system, and thought this worked well, but I can't say I found the speakers to be anything special. It does offer a dual-SIM configuration, which is more popular in other markets, but you can use the slot for a microSD card, allowing for more storage.
The Mate 8 runs Android 6.0, with Huawei's own Emotion UI (EMUI) 4.0 skin on top of it. This is a pretty heavy skin, changing a number of things from stock Android. Most notably, instead of displaying all of your apps in a single view or "app drawer," and then putting the most frequently used apps on various home screens, Huawei lays all the apps out across your home pages, more like an iPhone than most Android phones (LG has recently done the same). When you press the square button on the bottom left to see your recently opened apps, you see thumbnails that scroll left and right, rather than the cards you see in most Android phones. Holding down the switch apps button gives you a split screen view, though this only works for select applications, such as email, calendar, and video.
There are lots of animations, and many of the icons are different and could take some getting used to, though once you do, they seem to work quite well.
The individual apps were quite functional, including a health app that automatically tracks your steps and activity. I thought the mail app was reasonable, although sometimes I found it didn't refresh the list of messages until I switched views. Similarly, the calendar app was fine, but I wish it had an agenda view (I have the same complaint about Samsung's) and it has a tendency to add in obscure holidays (May 4 is Rhode Island Independent Day, in case you were interested).
In short, just about everything about the Mate 8 is good, but It didn't seem quite as polished at the S7 or the G5. The 6-inch display and great battery life make it worth checking out.