Huawei MateBook X: A Premium Smartphone in Computer’s Clothing

I am a big fan of thin and light laptops that are also capable. The thin and light category has been competitive the last few years, with several manufacturers proving they can do more with less space. Apple shocked the public a couple years ago with their new MacBook 12 inch line, which caused people to revise their expectations of thinness. If you haven’t picked up a MacBook 12″ before, you should go to an Apple store and do so. Even as a Windows fan, I can readily admit that the device is amazing.

If I were to guess, I would say that the development of the MacBook 12″ wasn’t a coincidence. Apple’s ability to make thin devices has been shown over the past few years with their iPhone and iPad. It was only a matter of time before they brought that knowledge over to their laptop line.

With that concept in mind, what if another premium phone maker started making laptops? Well, one did, and it’s quite an amazing device. This is the Huawei MateBook X.

A few years ago, Huawei was one of the many Chinese phone companies that was criticized for copying Apple’s iPhones. Whether they were or not, they gained ground in Asian phone markets, becoming the number one manufacturer in China. The last couple years, feeling the pressure to innovate that Apple can somehow avoid, Huawei started developing their own design language when it came to phones. The Huawei P8 set the stage, and was followed by the P9 – one of my favorite devices when it comes to design. While their phones still had similarities to iPhones, they offered a different in hand feel and subtle design changes – like more squared sides, antenna lines hidden behind glass, and so on.

Last year, Huawei released a MateBook tablet, that doubled as a two in one. While the device was very well designed, it was plagued by the state of Windows 10 on tablets – which I will discuss in another post. Instead of opting for a kick stand design like the Surface Pro line and many devices that followed it, the MateBook opted for a foldable detachable keyboard. I personally think the reasoning behind this was design driven – the product designers at Huawei probably couldn’t find a way to make a clean curved unibody metal device with a kickstand.

This year, Huawei tripled down on Windows 10 by releasing three computers. The first, the MateBook E, is a follow up to the original MateBook. It is similar to the Surface Pro form factor as a dedicated tablet with a detachable keyboard. The second, the Matebook D, is a mid-range 15 inch laptop with pretty standard specifications and a clean metal design. The flagship device is the MateBook X, which is a 13-inch laptop with a miniscule footprint and amazing design.

 

Design

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Huawei advertises the MateBook X as having smaller footprint than sheet of A4 paper. While I do not work with A4 paper all that often, I can confirm that the device is wonderfully compact. While Dell and HP both are now making flagship devices with smaller bezels, Huawei’s MateBook is even more impressively contained with 4.4mm side bezels and only slightly larger top bezels. I’m actually interested in seeing what laptop manufacturers will do next to shrink size after eliminating bezels completely.

Unfortunately, unlike many other flagship devices, the MateBook does not have a touch screen. It’s certainly an interesting trade off for a company that makes very high quality touch screen phones. For me, I’m not too concerned about having a touch screen on a standard clamshell laptop. I also envision the second generation of this device including a touch screen.

Screen

Similar to Apple and Microsoft, Huawei has deviated from the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio to a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes the screen significantly taller and gives more usable space. I personally like these screens for browsing, but not as much for the work I do in Excel and PowerPoint – the width of the screen is actually smaller, allowing for less width for two programs side by side. Regardless, the screen a high quality, glossy display, that I have no major complaints about. I have had minor issues with automatic brightness, so I have resorted to just manually controlling brightness.

Keyboard and Trackpad

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With such a small footprint, I was worried that the MateBook keyboard wouldn’t be as tactile or useable as other devices. My biggest gripe with the Dell XPS 13 is the cramped keyboard, and the MateBook is even thinner. Thankfully, the MateBook keyboard is quite useable. I average about 56 words per minute on this, as compared to 67 words per minute on my desktop mechanical keyboard. For this kind of portability, that’s a trade I’m willing to make. I will say though that the Surface Laptop has much more space for typing comfortably while staying a portable device – it is a tradeoff. In order to tell for yourself, you should go into a Microsoft Store and try all of the premium laptop keyboards.

I have no complaints about the trackpad. It is smooth, receptive, and quick. I wouldn’t quite put it at the caliber of the Surface Book or Surface Laptop, but from my testing it performs better than the HP Spectre x360 and feels more smooth than the Dell XPS 13.

Internals and Pricing

The MateBook X has impressive internals for such a small device. The base model has an i5-7200U processor clocked at 2.5 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of internal storage. This model is currently listed on Amazon for $1,100, but has seen price drops to $900. I’m personally glad they opted for 256 GB in the base model instead of the 128 GB that many manufacturers are offering. The top end model (there are only 2 models in the US) has an i7-7500U processor clocked at 2.7GHz, 8 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage. This model is currently listed on Amazon for $1,280, but has seen price drops to $1,100. I am not the type of person who needs more than 8 GB of RAM on this type of laptop, so I have no complaints about the two models available.

The Rest

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In typical thin-and-light fashion, Huawei has reduced the ports in the MateBook X to two USB-C ports (one for power, one for data) and a headphone jack. I am disappointed that the device does not have Thunderbolt 3, because I really enjoy being able to hook any laptop I want to my docking station and know that it will be compatible and charging. I am really hoping for that to be resolved next generation.

I can’t praise Huawei enough for the quality and usefulness of their fingerprint sensor / power button combination. If you have ever used a flagship Huawei phone, or even an Honor 8, you know exactly how quick and seamless the fingerprint sensors are. This one is no exception. It makes so much sense to just press it as soon as you open the computer and instantly get into the device. This is one case where I think Microsoft did it wrong. I have always loved Windows Hello facial recognition, but even my brand new Surface Laptop has issues with recognizing my girlfriend even after she has set it up many times. Even for me, it takes several seconds to unlock a device with an IR sensor, seconds that I don’t need to waste with the MateBook.

I have been disappointed by the battery performance, and have resorted to keeping the laptop in battery saving mode on the days that I need it to last. Most of the time, I have a charger readily available, so battery isn’t of concern to me.

Head to Head Comparison

Vs Dell XPS 13:

While the XPS likely has better heat dissipation due to it’s thickness, it does not compare in portability to the MateBook X. The XPS has significantly more ports, including Thunderbolt 3, but a worse keyboard and a (admittedly subjective) worse design. The XPS does have touch screen optionality, while the MateBook does not.

Vs HP Spectre x360:

The x360 also has better port selection including Thunderbolt 3, and is a convertible device with a touch screen. It is bulkier, and the 16:9 inch screen in some ways makes it feel slightly less premium relative to the MateBook X or the Surface Laptop. The x360 uses an IR camera for Windows Hello.

Vs HP Spectre 13:

HP’s Spectre 13, unlike their x360, is a traditional clamshell laptop without a touch screen. The newest version (with 8th generation Intel processors) is touch enabled. The Spectre also only offers USB type C ports, but 2 with Thunderbolt 3 enabled. The design of the Spectre 13 can be polarizing, and in my eyes it’s not as attractive as the MateBook. The Spectre also uses an IR camera for Windows Hello.

Vs Surface Laptop:

While the Surface Laptop is a compact device, it pales in comparison to the MateBook X. The Surface Laptop has a great design with a premium feel. The Surface Laptop uses a proprietary Surface Connect Port for additional functionality outside of its USB type A and MiniDisplay Port. I personally prefer the Type C of the MateBook. The touchpad and keyboard in the Surface Laptop can’t be beat, but the MateBook offers a good alternative.

 

The Bottom Line

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The biggest caveat to all of this is that the MateBook is now working on outdated silicon. Before this round of Intel processors, I could readily recommend a device with an older generation processor as long as it was still a good value. Unfortunately for Huawei, the new line of Intel Core i5 and i7 processors are quad-core, with significantly more computing power in multi-threaded processes than their dual-core predecessors. With standard day to day activities, this will not likely make a significant difference. But if you do anything that relies on multiple threads, a quad-core processor will perform better.

That being said, the MateBook is an incredibly impressive device for a manufacturer’s first try at a high-end laptop. If you want a thin, portable, and capable device in a traditional clamshell form factor, then this is a fantastic device worth considering.

Huawei has brought their design prowess from smartphones into laptops, and this a clearly proof. Now they need to refine the details to make the MateBook a major contender.

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