Huawei MateBook review: The sleekest of them all
During the last year, Huawei has established itself as a company capable of making premium, smartly-designed devices that are an absolute pleasure to use – including the Huawei Watch, which was our favorite smartwatch of 2015, and the (Google collaboration) Nexus 6P. What happens when the Chinese company applies that formula to a Microsoft Surface rival? You get a product that, while imperfect, stands as the sleekest, most elegant 2-in-1 yet.
The Windows 10-running Huawei MateBook doesn't do much to push the 2-in-1 forward: there are no specs or features here that we haven't seen before, and it certainly isn't going to break any benchmark records. It does, however, take familiar ingredients and tie them together in a theme of modern elegance that feels smart, new and exciting. Whereas most of its rivals are a little on the chunky, loud and techie-looking side of things, the MateBook is pure sleekness. This is the 2-in-1, sexed up.
In some ways, the Huawei MateBook actually beats the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 at its own game. As a tablet, it has that smooth and light aluminum unibody design that makes it feel more like a large iPad than the full-blown PC it really is. Its stunning 12-inch display has phenomenal brightness, color richness, white balance and contrast (even though its pixel density isn't cutting-edge, at 216 PPI). And its keyboard cover has a folio design that folds up to turn the device into a sort of leather attaché case (okay, so it's really pleather, but the effect is similar).
Not all, however, is peaches and cream. The biggest annoyance is that the MateBook's folding keyboard cover only stands up in two positions, making it, in some cases, difficult to position just right on lap. Its trackpad is a decent size, but not nearly as big or enjoyable to use as a MacBook's (we'd also put it slightly behind the Surface Pro 4's trackpad). Huawei also continues the recent trend of laptop/2-in-1 with only a single USB-C port: while this helps make for a modern-looking, minimally designed device, it doesn't help much to make its case as a work-focused machine (especially since the same port is used for charging).
Huawei does offer an optional US$89 "MateDock" adapter that expands its device compatibility with USB 3.0 (you get two of those), as well as LAN, VGA, HDMI and another Type C port. You can buy similar adapters from other companies as well, though you may like that Huawei's fits nicely with the keyboard cover's modern-looking, pleathery theme.
Most importantly, the Huawei MateBook is a pleasure to use, taking Microsoft's vision for the detachable 2-in-1 and giving it a lighter, more elegant (that word keeps coming up) look and feel. Its performance doesn't soar to the levels of the Intel Core i5 and i7 variants of the Surface series, but as an arch rival to the entry-level Core m3 Surface, it's more than capable and worthy of your consideration. For me, it's been able to handle Photoshop and Lightroom editing without major compromises – in LR it only showed concerning slowdowns when editing photos while a wireless import was also underway.
It also doesn't hurt that, like the Core M SP4, the MateBook is completely fanless.
In tablet mode, the aluminum unibody MateBook is awesome. It weighs 16 percent lighter than the Core M Surface Pro 4, and is also 19 percent thinner. For the last few years, we've seen full Windows-running mobile PCs inching closer to iOS or Android-running tablets in terms of size and ergonomics, but with the MateBook that gap is no more. This is a decently-powerful, desktop-software-running PC that feels almost exactly like an iPad.
Its optional (but recommended) MatePen stylus is similar to the Surface Pen, with similar accuracy. It even has a laser pointer built into its backside (which recharges via microUSB), handy for presentations.
In laptop mode, the MateBook loses a little bit of its steam: here it's a bit more compromised than the Surface Pro 4, but only because Huawei opted for a folding keyboard cover – the cover itself folds up as a kickstand, with no built-in means of propping the tablet up. What this adds in elegance (there's that word again) it loses in, shall we call it, lap versatility. Its two supported positions work well on flat surfaces, but if you're reclined in a chair or on a couch, you might have trouble getting it at a just right satisfying angle.
Our experience with battery life is positive: using the same daily workflow, it appears to drain a bit slower than the Surface Pro 4. We ran a video streaming test to compare to the SP4, but since that went off of relative screen brightness (75 percent in settings) rather than an absolutely measured luminance, the MateBook's brighter screen skewed the results against it (it lost 18 percent per hour compared to the Surface's 9 percent). So never mind that – its uptimes are more than respectable.
If you're in the market for a laptop or 2-in-1, we recommend putting the MateBook on your radar. The big questions you need to ask are whether you can live with the somewhat underpowered Core m3/5 processor (compared to Core i5 and i7 chips you'll find in Surfaces and MacBooks) and whether you can deal with limited stand-up options on lap. If so, you can save about $200 compared to an equivalent Surface Pro 4.
For what it's worth, my job takes place entirely on a laptop and, for the last few weeks, I've used the MateBook for writing, editing, creating product comparison images in Photoshop and tweaking raw photos in Lightroom – all without any problems. The laptop screen positions required a little experimenting and adjusting, but not even that was a deal-breaker. If it can stand in as my main work machine, we think it will do well for quite a few other people as well.
The sleek Huawei MateBook is available now, starting at $699 for the tablet only (we reviewed the $849 Core m5 model), with the keyboard cover adding $129 and MatePen stylus tacking on an extra $59.
Product page: Huawei