Huawei Mate 8 hands-on: It’s big, it’s fast, but what about the software?

2015 ended on a high for Huawei. In the Nexus 6P it had, alongside Google, released the best Android smartphone of the year. The Chinese brand hopes to begin 2016 on a similar footing with the Mate 8, a super-sized _phone_ just announced at CES 2016 in Vegas.

I took a break from the roulette wheels and blackjack tables to take a look at the _phone_ in all its glory.

First things first – the Mate 8 is both really big, and really good-looking. Since it boasts a 6-inch display, it isn't surprising to discover that it’s tough to hold; trying to grasp it in one hand felt like I was tempting it to fall to the floor. It is thin, though, which at this size feels slightly odd for the first few seconds when you pick it up.

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The phone bares a striking resemblance to the Mate S, with a slightly curved back, protruding camera lens and a mostly clean front.

There’s great attention to detail here, from the machined speaker holes to the micro-USB – interestingly, it doesn't include the USB Type-C port used on the Nexus 6P.

Beneath the metal body sit a bevy of high-end specs. My eye was instantly drawn to the beefy 4,000mAh battery, although I was less impressed with the screen's 1080p resolution.

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In truth, it looks fine. Pixels can be seen, but only if you're really looking for them, and viewing angles and colours look accurate and bright. Having such a huge battery paired with a lower-resolution display should make this the Mate 8 last for quite some time, but I’ll have to use it a little more to know for sure.

The Mate 8 is the first phone to use Huawei's new Kirin 950 chipset. It’s a quad-core setup, and in my brief hands-on I found the phone to be exceptionally fast. Apps opened up almost instantly, web pages loaded with ease and everything felt incredibly smooth.

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There’s 3GB of RAM too, and multitasking was handled without any lag or stutter. This is good news – since in the past I've found Kirin chips can be susceptible to lag.

The Mate S had one of the best fingerprint scanners around – as did the Nexus 6P for that matter – and Huawei has loaded the Mate 8 with the same reader. The circular sensor sits below the camera, which is the best place for it in my opinion, and it’s fast to set up and unlocked the phone pretty much instantly. It can also be used for other functions, such as sliding down the notification tray and capturing a quick selfie.

My biggest issue with Huawei’s past few phones – Nexus 6P excluded for obvious reasons – is the software. While many others have slimmed down their Android skins as Google’s OS has integrated more features and a sleeker look, Huawei’s seems to have headed in the opposite direction. EMUI 4.0 pretty much follows this rule – it looks almost nothing like the Android 6.0 Marshmallow version it sits over, which is a shame.

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There’s still no app tray, the icons are a big step backward and everything from the settings menu to the notification tray are completely redesigned. It pales in comparison to vanilla Android and it just doesn’t seem suited to Western markets. There’s an excess of unnecessary apps, settings and camera modes – the weird beauty mode seems to make me look more like an alien with every update – that I would happily do away with.

Speaking of the camera, the 16-megapixel sensor on the rear of the phone is a step up from the 13-megapixel version on the Mate 7, and in my brief time with the phone it performed impressively. The fully featured camera app has a bevy of manual modes and it opens up in a flash; focusing is quick too. My initial batch of pictures looked good – offering plenty of detail.

First impressions

Huawei really knows how to make great-looking, great-feeling phones – and the Mate 8 follows that trend. That just makes it all the more disappointing that the software looks to have once again let the Mate 8 down. It's ugly, over-engineered and loses what makes Android such a good operating system.

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