Huawei MateBook X review: Almost the perfect ultraportable

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When I first saw the original Huawei MateBook convertible at 2016’s Mobile World Congress, I thought the PC market had a new king. The MateBook was outstanding: thin, light, bringing all the expertise that Huawei had in building svelte mobile devices to the PC.

Unfortunately, the MateBook didn’t appear in the shops until six months later, and it proved to be considerably less practical than it had first appeared. But now, Huawei is back with a new series of MateBooks, including the X, which is a proper laptop rather than a tablet.

And it’s an excellent effort that manages to squeeze a 13in laptop into a body not larger than a 12in MacBook. Huawei has achieved this through having incredibly slim bezels surrounding the display: a mere 4.4mm on either side of the screen, with 8mm at the top to allow the placement of a webcam. Thankfully it’s done this without adding weight; the whole package tips the scales at a mere 1.05kg.

Huawei MateBook X: Design

The MateBook X has an all-metal body that’s available in three colours: gold, rose gold (aka pink) and grey. Don’t get the pink version unless you want to stand out: I had more comments about my laptop working around the office than any machine I’ve ever reviewed and all because of the colour of my review unit. The whole thing inherits some of the design DNA of the MacBook, which is no surprise, but there’s enough originality here to make it not look like an Apple knock-off.

The keyboard is nicely laid out with large keys and a decent light action that’s not too mushy. There’s a dual-purpose fingerprint reader and power button at the top right above the keyboard, which works well, a wide touchpad below it that’s not a patch on the MacBook’s but perfectly usable nonetheless, and a pair of USB Type-C ports, one on each side to the rear.

And this is where the first negative note comes in. Only the left port can be used for charging the laptop, and only the right port supports connecting an external monitor. Yes, that’s right: you can forget about powering your laptop and using a screen using a single cable, which is one of the most joyous things about using a correctly-configured USB Type-C port.

Huawei MateBook X: Screen and audio

The most amazing thing about the MateBook X is the screen. Those small bezels I mentioned earlier mean you get an incredible 84% screen-to-body ratio, which in practical terms means you have a lot of screen to look at. It’s at the now-fashionable 3:2 aspect ratio and gives you 2,160 x 1,440 pixels to play with. While not as pixel-packed as the Dell XPS 13’s QHD+ display, it’s more than sharp enough from normal viewing distances.

Brightness reaches 414cd/m², so you’re not going to struggle to read the screen, even in the brightest of conditions, while sRGB coverage is a pretty decent 92.8% and the contrast ratio 925:1. To my eyes, though, this is the nicest screen I’ve seen on any laptop from any manufacturer. The subjective quality of a screen is all about the balance between resolution, size, contrast and brightness rather than dry statistics and Huawei has managed to hit the sweet spot with the MateBook X.  Most 12- and 13in screens leave me wanting a break after a while or itching to connect a monitor, but the MateBook X is something I’d be happy to work on all day.

The MateBook X’s speakers manage to be even better though, and they deliver audio that sounds not just “good for a laptop” but good, full stop. Developed in partnership with Dolby, they’re the world’s first Atmos-branded laptop speakers, and they don’t let the brand down. There’s not a huge amount of bass (that’s physically impossible for something this size and format), but the sound produced here has depth, presence and clarity.

Huawei MateBook X: Performance and battery life

The short version: although it looks good on paper, if you want good performance in an ultraportable laptop, you’re better off looking to the Dell XPS 13. Our review sample is the base model and has a Kaby Lake seventh-generation Intel Core-i5 7200U processor with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe Liteon SSD. It looks pretty good on paper.

The catch is that the MateBook X falls short when you hammer the processor hard. I suspect this is down to limitations imposed by the design. It’s fanless, and the case gets pretty hot when pushed – I measured it at 46˚C at one point in the tests – which means the processor has to throttle back to avoid overheating. Although single core performance was fine, the MateBook X performed very poorly in our demanding multitasking benchmarks, dropping the overall score to 31, a good 38% lower than the Dell XPS 13.

Putting that into context, the MateBook X will beat the MacBook and be the equal of the XPS 13 under normal use, but as soon as you push it harder, it’ll fade badly. For lots of users that’s fine but don’t buy this if your daily grind involves a lot of Photoshop editing.

Battery life is good, but not exceptional. The Huawei lasted 7hrs 11mins in our video playback battery test with the screen set to 170cd/m². That puts the MateBook X a long way behind the 2016 Skylake Core M3-based Apple MacBook, which lasted past ten hours, but it’s around the same as other lightweight Kaby Lake Core i5 and Core i7 Windows machines we’ve tested recently.

MateBook X: Verdict

Every laptop design is a compromise between portability, power, battery life and design, and the MacBook X is no exception. It sacrifices power for a fanless and highly portable design that I prefer to the Dell XPS 13, but also forsakes the exceptional battery life of the MacBook for more power.

The balance between the trade-offs that Huawei has made deliver a well-designed laptop with an exceptional screen and superb speakers. I’ve enjoyed carrying it around, but there are some niggles. Heat, even under relatively small processor loads, is something that always annoys me and the MateBook X does get warm with little provocation. Issues with the USB Type-C ports are just silly: USB Type-C, properly implemented, should eliminate usability issues, not add to them.

But whether it’s right for you comes down to whether you value battery life over everything – in which case get a MacBook – or need to push the performance hard, when you should look at an XPS 13 instead. But, if you want a highly portable laptop that delivers a decent compromise between those two elements, then the Huawei MateBook X could be the machine for you.

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