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Huawei Matebook Review: Take It Lying Down

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Huawei Matebook Review: Take It Lying Down

Huawei has quickly become one of the most impressive technology hardware producers in the business. Whether it’s handling Google’s latest Nexus, its own flagship phablet, budget devices or even wearables, the Chinese company has proven time and again it knows how to craft beautiful, sophisticated hardware that anyone would be proud to own.

With the Matebook, Huawei is entering uncharted waters and an area, frankly, that is known to be turbulent. Microsoft has been addressing this fine line in computing for years with its Surface products, but 2015 and 16 saw other giants such as Apple, with the iPad Pro, and Google, with the Pixel C, enter the fray.

Everywhere you look, from nearly every major player in the business, there are devices claiming to be “2-in-1,” both tablet and full-fledged laptop. But no one has cracked the code with these machines.

Usually, they fall into two camps: tablets that are not so good at being laptops (iPad Pro) or laptops that really shouldn’t be used as tablets (Surface Pro). Huawei is hoping it can find the happy medium on the first go-around with the Matebook, a device it’s hailing as “the new style of business.”

Let’s start simple and forget for a moment that, as with any other 2-in-1 device, the Matebook requires numerous add-on accessories that are listed as optional but are in reality mandatory in order to get the most from the device. Let’s begin with the tablet itself.

matebook_standing2_680.jpgIt’s stunning.

Huawei has positioned itself as the best hardware manufacturer this side of Apple in the last few years and its products come with the same sense of awe as those designed in Cupertino. The Matebook is as premium in build quality and design as you’d expect from a tablet with a $699 base price. Like most Huawei devices before it, the slate is entirely aluminum and glass with an understated design that allows elegantly chamfered edges as the only flourish.

There is no denying the Matebook echoes Apple’s iPad Pro with its rounded corners and gold finish, but this is no mere knockoff. Huawei has every reason to puff out its chest the same way Apple does in regard to design and build quality, and while the design here can certainly be knocked as derivative, the end result is a fine machine nonetheless.

The gold finish especially impressed me. As someone who was not quick to jump on the bandwagon of gold devices some years ago, I have grown an appreciation over time for the subtle employment of the color, and its rose sibling, by tech companies. The finish of the Matebook is sophisticated and soft enough to be at home in a high profile business room, but doesn’t completely lose its glamour. The shade changes depending on the light, appearing closer to a traditional gold in the sun, and almost like bare aluminum in cooler lighting. For those completely opposed to the gold color, Huawei will also offer the Matebook in silver.

matebook_fingerprint_680.jpgOn the right side of the device, you’ll find the volume buttons with a fingerprint reader nestled between and the tablet’s lone port, a USB-C connection. The reader is a nice touch, making logging into the device a breeze, placement is ideal when in landscape and having it fall between the volume buttons makes it easy to locate. On the top is the power button and the speakers.

Often a sticking point on tablets and smartphones, the speakers here are actually quite impressive. Their top placement allows them to be of actual use, and they take advantage of it. They’re loud, clear and offer decent sound with little distortion. You won’t prefer to hear your music or videos through these speakers, but you certainly won’t mind to, either.

matebook_headphone_680.jpgAt 6.9mm thin, the Matebook is the same thickness as the comparable iPad Pro model and feels impossibly svelte for a slate of its size. It’s lighter than the iPad Pro, but does initially feel hefty if you’re not a consistent tablet user. Not enough to cause real fatigue, though, and after an hour or so you’ll get accustomed to the weight or, more likely, use it attached to the keyboard cover and thus never worry about heaviness.

The massive 12-inch, 2160×1440 LCD screen is a showstopper. It’s clearly made to be used in landscape with its 3:2 aspect ratio, and that’s how I employed it during my review period. Having it in portrait always felt awkward, like I was holding it incorrectly. It’s too long and too thin to work in that orientation, and you’d be best served to let the screen sprawl in it’s desired direction. Aspect ratio aside, the screen is wonderful to look at. The image is crisp with bold colors and great viewing angles. As an LCD panel, it doesn’t offer the same deep blacks of AMOLED displays, but the overall quality will no doubt satisfy any user.

Above the screen, you’ll find the Matebook’s lone camera. That’s right, Huawei’s tablet doesn’t have a rear-facing camera. That may seem odd for a tablet in 2016, but I like the choice. It illustrates the intention with the Matebook isn’t to be a same old, same old tablet. It wants to be much more. And, it also means you won’t see anyone holding the massive 12-inch Matebook to take a photo, so double bonus.

All of this seems to begin the argument that the Matebook is a great tablet. The truth is that it could be, but this device doesn’t want to be a mere tablet. Running full Windows 10 and with internals that reach Core m5 processors and 8GB of RAM (the specs our review unit had), Huawei’s machine wants to be much more than a tablet.

matebook_edge_680.jpgIn order to be a proper laptop, however, there are numerous variables you have to get right. Everytime I look at the Matebook, I think about what a beautiful Android tablet it could have been. Reduce the size, lower the specs to appropriate levels and offer the same high quality construction, and the Matebook could have been a contender for best Android tablet on the market. You can’t knock Huawei for its ambition in making a 2-in-1 to compete with rest the market. You can knock it for getting it wrong.

The Matebook is built to be a machine that can get work done. The aforementioned specs point to that, though they do come at a significant cost. With Windows 10 in place as the OS, Huawei’s tablet is great for hunkering down to finish a project, as well as consuming entertainment in a normal laptop setting. It’s best suited to be a laptop, given Windows’ troubles with tablet mode, but it can’t stand up to the task. It literally cannot stand up.

matebook_portfolio_680.jpgFor all its ability with hardware, Huawei made a huge misstep with the Matebook’s keyboard peripheral. There is no issue with the keyboard itself or the accompanying trackpad, which is phenomenal. The keyboard is spacious with large keys that have good travel. I had no problem moving about it quickly and felt that I was able to find a good rhythm with the peripheral in almost no time, which can’t be said about every mobile keyboard. It’s also backlit, a huge plus, and overall performs well with its primary function: typing. In the secondary function, however, which may actually be the more important of the two, the keyboard cover fails miserably.

Huawei opted for a folding mechanism, similar to Apple’s Smart Keyboard, that attaches to the tablet via magnets. It allows for the device to be used at two angles, which was generally enough for my use, but meant moving my body to accommodate the limitations of the machine, rather than moving the machine to accommodate me. That wasn’t the major annoyance, though.

The whole thing is so precarious that using it on any surface besides a solid desk or table is a lost cause. I was able to use it on my lap during the duration of my review period, but only if I set it up and then didn’t move an inch, or accepted the constant collapsing. The magnets are not strong enough to hold it all together, and so the slightest bump can cause the whole setup to come crashing down.

matebook_angle1_680.jpgIt’s a shame, partly because the keyboard portion is well thought out and satisfying, but more so because Huawei didn’t learn from the past struggles of companies like Microsoft. Of course, Huawei and Microsoft are not the only companies to have struggled with this element of a 2-in-1 machine. Apple’s solution is just as wobbly as Huawei’s, and Google’s, while my favorite of them all for its sturdiness, is not exactly intuitive.

The fact is, if you want a successful 2-in-1, the device needs to be usable as a PC in all the ways a traditional PC is, and a big part of that is being able to use it in any situation or area, not just on a desk. The Matebook doesn’t offer that with anything resembling confidence.

Visually, the keyboard cover is just as striking as the tablet itself, appearing to be leather (so much so, that I was fooled upon initially handling it) but in actuality being plastic with a nice light brown finish that complements the device. Huawei, aesthetically, nailed the idea of “new style of business” it was going for. When the Matebook is wrapped in its keyboard cover, the whole package looks like it would be right at home in an NYC boardroom.

matedock_side_680.jpgThere are several other accessories you can grab for the Matebook, incluidng a stylist (the MatePen, which I did not get to test) and a dock (MateDock) that is essentially an adapter to turn the sole USB-C port into numerous connection points. The MateDock comes in a case of its own with the same faux-leather finish as the keyboard, but the actual dock has a familiar aluminum finish. Unlike the keyboard, I had no issue using the MateDock and found it performed exactly as I’d hoped and added a lot of versatility to the tablet but, once again, at a cost.

The dock offers six inputs in total, 2 USB 3.0 ports, a LAN port, VGA and HDMI connections and a USB-C port so you can charge the tablet while using the accessory. The big omission here is the lack of SD card support, which would have been monstrously useful for anyone who takes photos on a regular basis. It’s not a complete deal breaker, but not having the convenience to pop in your card and start editing photos is a shame.

matebook_keyboard_680.jpgAs I noted above, the Matebook runs Windows 10 which, if you’ve read any other review about a Windows 2-in-1 machine, means it’s really good at PC things and not so great at tablet things. I found using the Matebook in tablet mode to be serviceable but awkward at best, and always preferred to use it in Desktop mode, whether I was using the keyboard or not. The lack of a true tablet interface didn’t bother me, because I see this device as a machine meant to get work done, including the kind of heavy lifting only a true PC can do.

matedock_side2_340.jpgThe good news is that, if you throw a significant amount of cash at it, the Matebook can do all the things you want a PC to, and with respectable speed. I enjoyed using it, when it would stand up, as my daily machine and found that it rarely slowed down even if I had a dozen Chrome tabs open, was streaming HD video and editing photos. But, that performance comes, once again, at numerous costs.

First, there is the literal monetary cost and the fact that, in order to get top-notch performance, you have to shell out the same amount of money you would for a laptop with similar specs. Second, that performance comes at the sacrifice of battery life and heat. Because it’s fanless, which means it is also silent, Huawei’s tablet gets frighteningly warm when under a heavy load. You mostly won’t notice because it will be connected to the keyboard case, but it is worrisome nonetheless.

You will notice the battery issues. Huawei claims the Matebook will give you 9 hours of video playback and 10 hours of “work.” That is not the case. In my experience, the tablet consistently gave me only 4-5 hours of battery life, with no real increase if I limited demand on the machine. With most laptops offering 10-plus hours of battery, getting half that or less is simply not enough in today’s world. I never felt truly comfortable to be away from the charger, knowing the battery would be gone in what felt like a blink. You certainly could still take the Matebook out into the world, just don’t make the trip too long, or make sure you pack the charger for the journey.

matebook_standing_680.jpgThe Matebook is a gorgeous machine that doesn’t do enough of the little things for me to wholeheartedly recommend it. I love Huawei’s design language, even if it echoes Apple’s, and its hardware chops are among the very best, no matter the kind of device. But with a 2-in-1, you need more than just a beautiful tablet, and the Matebook doesn’t offer much beyond that.

The good news is this form factor is a seemingly important area for every major company in the tech world, and thus it’s likely to stick around for several more years. That means Huawei should have ample opportunity to learn from the mistakes here, and deliver a device that backs up the Matebook’s initial promise.

Until then, this is not the 2-in-1 you’re looking for.

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