Detachable laptops

Review: The Huawei MateBook has class, but lacks a few features

The new 2-in-1 tablet has an excellent display and a good selection of hardware, but the design of its keyboard cover could use some tweaking.

The 2-in-1 tablet-cum-laptop has been appearing in the product lines of many top vendors these days. And it's no wonder; for many, carrying a lightweight tablet along with a reasonably-good keyboard that doubles as a tablet cover can be the best of both worlds. Now Huawei, which has made itself known in the U.S. market with products such as the Nexus 6P and the Huawei Watch, has stepped into the fray with its MateBook, a 12-in. tablet that is going straight for business buyers.

The Huawei MateBook is a 10.9 x 7.6 x 0.27 in. aluminum tablet that has a solid and quality feel; at 1.41 lb. it's slightly lighter than most of the other 2-in-1 devices currently shipping. It features a 2160 x 1440 IPS TFT display that doesn't have quite the verve of an AMOLED screen, but it's otherwise pretty impressive, with vivid colors and clean, bright visuals.

As is appropriate with a business-centric product, Huawei provides a variety of iterations. The $699 (Amazon price) base unit comes with a 6th-generation Intel Core M3 processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. You can also purchase units that have a Core M5 processor, up to 8GB of memory and up to 512GB of storage. The $999 (Amazon price) review unit came with the Core M5 processor, 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD.

The MateBook has the usual share of controls. It offers a single USB-C port on the lower right edge; however, an adapter is included for all your now-legacy micro-USB devices. Also on the tablet's right edge is a fingerprint reader, which is located between the volume up and down buttons, an interesting choice for placement -- and one that actually worked for me. In fact, I found it more convenient than the back-of-the-tablet placement I've seen elsewhere.

The power button is on the upper right edge, while the audio-out port is on the left corner. Unfortunately, there is no SD-card slot, which I found surprising and which I very much missed, at least during my workday.

The tablet is also missing a back-facing camera - it comes with only a front-facing 5MP camera. I don't see this as a serious problem -- I don't know how many people actually use their tablets to take photos, as opposed to their phones, especially if they're business users -- but for some, it may be a factor.

The keyboard cover (which is sold separately for $129) is covered with brown faux leather, giving it a very classy look and feel. Rather than just folding on top of the display, it folds over it and snaps shut magnetically, giving the tablet the appearance of a business portfolio. A ridge near the bottom of the cover makes it easier to carry without slippage.

I found the backlit keyboard to be comfortable to type on, although the travel of the keys and the general feel didn't quite come up to the HP Elite x2. But that was a minor quibble. More of a problem, in my opinion, is the way the display is supported when you're using the keyboard. Like Samsung's Galaxy TabPro S, the back of the keyboard cover folds inward to provide a prop for the display. And like the TabPro S, it provides only two angles to work with -- a slightly inclined angle that works well for a desktop, and a far wider angle, nearly to the desktop, that (in the case of the MateBook) seemed tenuous and not very useful.

I spend a lot of time with my laptop on my, well, lap, and found the MateBook far less comfortable to work with than the HP Elite x2 or Microsoft's Surface, both of which have integrated kickstands built into the tablets themselves. In fact, this alone would be a showstopper for me -- for others, it may not be as important.

There are two other optional add-ons. The first is Huawei's MatePen ($59), a sleek stylus that includes a laser pointer and can be attached to the back of the keyboard cover via a small magnetic loop. However, although the magnet seemed strong enough, I was never completely confident that the loop (and the pen) wouldn't get pushed off through day-to-day use.

Rounding out the package is the $89 Huawei MateDock, which adds two USB 3.0 ports, plus Ethernet, HDMI and VGA ports.

The review unit performed well, if not outstandingly; it scored 2411 on the PCMark 8 performance test; slightly below the similarly equipped HP Elite x2, which scored 2746. In battery tests, it didn't do as well; it lasted only 3 hours 25 minutes in the PCMark 8 battery rundown test and about 4 hours 15 minutes when I ran our video test. And during testing, the back of the tablet became unusually warm.

[Note: After this review was published, a Huawei representative sent an email stating that the MateBook that was tested was actually a pre-production unit. According to the email, "The MateDock available in stores will be updated, and be able to maintain a charge and run an external display at the same time.”]

Bottom line

The Huawei MateBook, which will be available for purchase on July 11, has some good things going for it, including an excellent display, a convenient fingerprint reader and a good choice of specs.

But, as with Microsoft's Surface, there is really no advantage to the tablet without the keyboard cover, which adds an extra $129 to the price of the unit -- and which is limited in its ability to prop up the tablet. That, along with the lack of an SD card reader and less-than-ideal battery life, keeps the MateBook from being truly competitive in the 2-in-1 field.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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