The Apple MacBook has a new rival, and it comes from an unexpected source: Huawei. The MateBook X is the Chinese tech giant’s big Windows 10 play in 2017, and it’s a fantastic effort, squeezing a 13in laptop into a chassis not much bulkier than that of the 12in MacBook.
How has it managed such a feat? Slim bezels are the answer: measuring 4.4mm on either side of the screen and a slightly thicker 8mm at the top, the MateBook X is able to boast an incredible 84% screen-to-body ratio. It’s also amazingly thin, measuring 12.5mm from top plate to underside, stupidly light at 1.05kg and is the first laptop in the world to have Dolby Atmos-powered speakers.
MateBook X review: Tl;dr
This is an ultraportable laptop, first and foremost, but it’s one with hidden strengths. It has a 13in screen in a chassis you might normally associate with a 12in laptop. It weighs very little, is achingly slender, is impressively well-made with a superb keyboard and touchpad, and it has astounding audio output – as well as more power than the Apple MacBook. It’s the sort of laptop you buy if you want the best of all worlds.
MateBook X review: Price and competition
The MateBook X isn’t cheap. Prices start at €1,299 for the base model, which comes with an Intel Core i5-7200U, 4GB of RAM and 256GB of PCIe SSD storage. That will probably translate to a UK price of around £1,200 (I’ll update this review when we know for sure), which is precisely the same as the Apple MacBook and pricier than the Asus ZenBook 3, both of which have a smaller 12in display.
As for 13in rivals, you’re looking at the Dell XPS 13 or the glitzy HP Spectre 13. The HP is slightly pricier, starting at around £1,399, while the Dell, though fatter and heavier, is better value, having an Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for the same as the Core-i5 MateBook X.
MateBook X review: Core features and design
No two ways about it, the MateBook X is a gorgeous machine. Available in three colours – gold, rose gold and grey – Huawei has hit the button on design. The laptop’s all-metal chassis has a silken, sand-blasted finish to it, and every element, apart from the minimal screen bezel, is colour-coded, from the touchpad to the power button.
As you’d expect from a newcomer to the scene, Huawei has borrowed many of the design cues behind the MateBook X from Apple. Corners are rounded, the keyboard is subtly sunk into the base and there’s very little overt branding visible. It’s minimalist in the extreme. And yet Huawei has sneaked in a few of of its own little touches.
There’s the dual-purpose fingerprint reader and power button situated above the keyboard and to the right. There are Dolby Atmos-powered “dual-motor” speakers hidden beneath the understated runway of micro-perforations that top the keyboard. And, in a tiny, teeny dig at the Apple MacBook, the MateBook X has two USB Type-C ports, one on each side.
It’s a mark of Huawei’s design maturity, however, that very few liberties have been taken with usability here. The backlight on the keyboard is a little patchy, but otherwise the practicality of this laptop outweighs its frivolities. The keyboard is sensibly laid out with large keys. The key action is a little on the light side, but it isn’t unpleasant, and the large touchpad responds sensibly to gestures and clicks. I had no problem with it during testing.
There is only one negative point to note. Although there are two USB Type-C ports – double that offered by the MacBook and ZenBook 3 – only the left port can be used for charging and only the right port for hooking up an external monitor. This means you can’t use a single cable for both jobs; laptop desk-jockeys beware.
Huawei MateBook X review: Display and audio
The MateBook X’s screen is as desirable as its design. The aspect ratio is 3:2, so it’s squarer than most of its rivals, and the resolution is a crisp 2,160 x 1,440. That isn’t as high as the Dell XPS’ QHD+ 3,200 x 1,800, but from a normal viewing distance you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.
In terms of quality, it’s pretty good too, with brightness reaching all the way up to 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.
The MateBook X’s speakers are even better. Developed in partnership with Dolby, they’re the world’s first Atmos-branded laptop speakers and boy do they sound good.
Although there isn’t much bass to speak of, audio has such a depth, presence and clarity that it’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s coming from a device this small and slim. There’s not much sense of surround sound, but sound effects do pan across the soundstage effectively, and when it comes to music even laptops twice the size will have a hard time matching the MateBook X’s performance – they’re quite simply phenomenal.
Huawei MateBook X review: Performance and battery life
So far, so good. However, one area the MateBook X can’t compete with the Dell XPS 13 is performance. On paper, the specifications look pretty good. 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.
In our benchmark tests, it performed, in part, as expected. The less demanding image conversion and video conversion part of the tests gave scores of 82 and 43, which is a little slower than the Dell’s 92 and 55, but that laptop does have a Core i7 and double the RAM.
Where the MateBook X falls short is when you max out the processor. Although this laptop copes reasonably well with short bursts of activity, the fanless design means the chassis gets pretty hot – up to 46 degrees Celsius – when it’s pushed for any length of time. In response, the CPU throttles back and slows, and it performed very poorly in our demanding multitasking test, dropping the overall score to 31, a good 38% lower than the Dell XPS 13’s score. The good news is that, for short bursts, this is a much faster laptop than the MacBook; the bad news is that it really doesn’t like being stressed.
Still, that’s an extreme scenario and other elements of the MateBook X’s performance are pretty respectable. The 256GB Liteon PCIe SSD returned sequential read and write speeds of 1,079MB/sec and 339MB/sec and, more importantly, the 5,449mAh battery helped the Huawei to an impressive time of 5hrs 47mins in our video playback battery test at full brightness.
Dropping the brightness to a more realistic 170cd/m2 improved stamina to a slightly less impressive-looking 7hrs 11mins. This puts the Matebook X a long way behind the 2016 Skylak Core M3-based MacBook, but it’s right on the money for Windows Kaby Lake Core i5 and Core i7 machines we’ve tested. That is to say, it’s slightly better than the Asus Zenbook 3 and slightly behind the 2016 Dell XPS 13 we tested earlier in the year. Either way, here’s a chart to show you exactly what I mean:
MateBook X review: Verdict
Whatever you think of the MateBook X, there’s no doubt it’s an impressive first stab at a laptop. It’s almost as thin and light as the Apple MacBook, yet boasts a larger 13in display and a more powerful processor. Battery life is excellent, the screen is sumptuous, the ergonomics spot on and the speakers are incredible.
It isn’t perfect. The fanless design means the MateBook X can get quite warm and performance dips when you push it hard. You should also be aware that the 12in Asus Zenbook 3 is just as lightweight, costs a considerable amount less and yet offers more RAM and double the storage.
However, if you absolutely must have that extra inch of screen real estate, the MateBook X is hard to beat. It’s a rather lovely, ultraportable 13in laptop.