Excellent hardware all around
We've been telling the world that Huawei does great hardware for at least 18 months now. Ever since the Ascend P7 launched and rocked our opinions, we've been impressed every time a new phone is launched. That doesn't change with the Mate S. In many respects it's Huawei's best phone so far with its aluminum unibody, 5.5-inch 1080p display and one of the best fingerprint scanners you'll find on any phone, anywhere.
1080p isn't the top-end display anymore, but Huawei sticks with it
A 1080p display seems downright old compared to the likes of 2K and 4K display seen in high-end phones now, but Huawei is perfectly content to keep Full HD as its upper limits on its name-brand phones. Whatever the reasoning behind it (battery life, most likely), 1080p still looks pretty good on a TV. And it's hard to say it looks bad on a phone. The Nexus 6P also is aluminum, with a rear mounted fingerprint scanner — essentially the same one as is on the Mate S — and is a little larger than the Mate S with a 5.7-inch 2K display.
Here's how the numbers stack up:
Both are premium in look and feel, and while the Nexus 6P edges ahead in some areas, the Mate S has things like an optically stabilized camera and microSD card expansion which to some folks are important. One area often overlooked is the speakers. It's hard to ignore the front facing speakers on the Nexus 6P, and the Mate S falls way short on this front. The single speaker on the bottom of the phone pales in sound quality to the stereo ones on the Nexus 6P. Huawei also has a "luxury edition" of the Mate S, which is only available in selected markets. This one ups the internal storage to 128GB and has a pressure sensitive display. Everything else is the same.
The software isn't close at all
For as long as we can recall, the stock response to folks who crave the latest versions of Android as soon as humanly possible has been "buy a Nexus." That hasn't changed and the Nexus 6P is still at the time of writing one of only a handful of ways to get you some Marshmallow. But it's not the version of Android that's the differentiator between these two. Yes, the Mate S is still on Lollipop, but that's not so much a problem either. The problem is that the Nexus 6P comes with Google fresh Android and the Mate S with Huawei's customizations in the form of EMUI. And we've never been shy about calling out EMUI on things that are just broken or not nice to use. It has its positive points, though. There are lots of useful features built in, visually it's quite nice in places, and things like the knuckle gestures aren't as ridiculous as they sound once you start using them. No matter how much you tap a knuckle twice on the Nexus 6P you won't get it to take a screenshot. Huawei is testing Marshmallow right now on the Honor 7 and the forthcoming Mate 8 will also be running Android 6.0 and the latest version of EMUI. We hope that it's much improved and that the Mate S will benefit with an eventual update, too.
Performance, battery and camera
Huawei's janky experience of old has mostly gone away with the current generation of devices. Whether it's better optimization or just that 3GB of RAM was what made the difference, for the most part the Mate S is smooth and snappy. The Nexus 6P is as you would want a Nexus to be. Packing about as much raw horsepower as you could get in a phone right now, you're not going to find yourself wanting for more.
The Mate S boasts a feature the Nexus does not: OIS
The battery life crown also goes to the Nexus 6P. Not just that it has a much bigger battery — about 21 percent bigger — but that it makes it last longer, too. The Huawei Ascend Mate 7 was a true two-day phone with an enormous battery. The Mate S lost some size and with it some capacity and will get you through most days, but rarely into a second. Touching quickly on the camera, and the Mate S can boast a feature the Nexus 6P cannot: Optical Image Stabilization. Both have similarly sized sensors, but the Mate S has a more feature packed camera app than the stock Google Camera on the 6P. It's also quicker at processing HDR images. But while the Mate S takes good shots some of the time, overall the Nexus 6P will get it done better more often. Aside from when it just forgets to save the photo you just took.
Price and availability
It doesn't matter how good a phone is if you can't buy it. That's one thing Huawei doesn't have on its side right now for selling its own phones in North America. Officially, you can't just go and buy a Mate S. You can in Europe and Asia. But for North America, you'll just find the Nexus 6P. What also swings in favor of the Nexus is the price. Going on UK pricing the Mate S retails for £469. The Nexus 6P starts at £449.
The bottom line
It's hard to recommend the Mate S over the Nexus 6P. The form factor is definitely better if you're not overly keen on large phones, and software annoyances aside it's not a bad phone at all. But it's more expensive than the Nexus 6P, which immediately sets it back a step. And if you're in North America right now there's no simple way to just buy a Mate S. But the best Android phone you can buy right now has a Huawei badge on the back. That's no small feat and while there was a big handful of help from Google, the Nexus 6P is an impressive thing. Whichever phone you put it up against .