Huawei's Take On A Macbook Air Is Still Great

Image: Kotaku / Alex Walker

My dream for a laptop has always been pretty simple. I want something lightweight like an XPS 13 or a Macbook, with just enough power that can also play Overwatch or Counter-Strike on. And if you're prepared to sacrifice quite a bit when it comes to fidelity, sharpness, and a resolution that fits the screen, but you still want something that's light for work and university, the Huawei Matebook 13 does an admirable job.

I've been spending the last few weeks with Huawei's follow-up to their Matebook X Pro, the Matebook 13. In the same way that the Matebook X Pro was a carbon copy of a Macbook running Windows, the Matebook 13 is basically a carbon copy of the Macbook Air.

And like the Matebook X Pro, it's pretty good.

It's available in two configurations through the Microsoft Store: a Whiskey Lake i5-8265U CPU paired with a 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM for $1800, or an i7 model, 8GB RAM, a 512GB SSD and, crucially, a discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU.

That's about $400 cheaper than what the 2018 Matebook X Pro model is going for, unless you really want the i5 X Pro that doesn't have a discrete GPU for whatever reason.

So for all intents and purposes, the great value that the Matebook X Pro isn't quite there anymore. You can't get the Matebook 13 with 16GB RAM, as much as I would love. And you're not getting the same 3000 x 2000 screen, although at 2160 x 1440 the Matebook 13 still has that 3:2 aspect ratio (a massive boon for anyone who needs that extra height for their workflow).

Huawei Matebook 13

WHAT IS IT?

Huawei's take on a Macbook Air as a Windows laptop

PRICE

$1799 for the i5/256GB model, $2199 for the i7/MX150/512GB model (tested)

LIKE

Better keyboard, more refined chassis, discrete GPU is good enough for low-end 720p gaming, better webcam placement

DISLIKE

Only 8GB RAM, touchpad bit on the heavy side, no active pen support, no native USB-A ports

Having used the Matebook X Pro for an extended trip overseas earlier this year - and nearly pulling the trigger on buying one in the United States, where you could get the 16GB/i7/MX150 model for under $2000 through Amazon - the Matebook 13 shares a lot in common with its bigger brother. Many of the changes have been fairly subtle, though, but almost all of them for the better.

Let's start with the best bits. The biggest weakness of the Matebook X Pro was a lack of refinement in the build quality. The keyboard and chassis were a little too flexible under heavy load and when carrying it around; the chassis would flex a little in your hands if you gripped it a fraction too tight; the touchpad had a gap around the edges whenever you clicked on the sides, leaving enough room for part of your finger to get wedged in; the rounding of the corners around the keyboard wasn't completely fine; and the keyboard itself didn't have quite enough travel distance. It was perfectly functional, and could take a battering, but it wasn't as nice a typing experience as you'd find on a Surface Laptop, XPS 13 and many others.

It was fine - just not exceptional. What made it a great package was the overall stylishness of the device, coupled with how little you were paying compared to over devices of its ilk.

Minus the RAM issue, the Matebook 13 does everything the X Pro did but just a little bit better. There's no USB-A port this time around, although you do get a USB-C dock in the box that adds HDMI out, an extra USB-C and the USB-A port you need.

The travel distance on the Matebook 13's keyboard is a little deeper, which helps reduce that feeling of bottoming out that the X Pro's keyboard always had. The touchpad itself is made of sterner stuff, and the edges around it (and the keyboard) are much finer, so you don't get that sharp feeling when running your fingers over it all.

Being a slightly slimmer frame, there's no speakers enveloping the keyboard - although the Matebook 13 still has a 3.5mm jack, so that's not a huge dealbreaker. But the skinnier chassis means the Matebook 13 sits much more nicely in the lap, and it's more accommodating if you need to whip up a quick article or email on the train to work. Battery life also clocks in at around seven hours in my testing. That's not outstanding, but unless you're flying, most people will regularly find themselves close enough to a power point on a daily basis to fast charge via USB-C.

The Matebook 13 sitting atop the Matebook X Pro. You can see the Matebook 13 is a fraction thicker, but not by much.

It's a well-made thin and light laptop. But the real fun element is how far you can push that discrete GPU.

An MX150 is never going to replace a more dedicated piece of gaming hardware, even the entry level low-end GTX 1650 or 1660 Ti boards. But it's got just enough power, coupled with Intel's Whiskey Lake i7 CPU, to play some prominent games at low settings.

If you wanted to play Overwatch on a laptop with an integrated GPU, you'd have to settle for 30fps. The Intel UHD Graphics 620, the onboard graphics that comes with the i5-8250U, i7-8550U and i7-8650U mobile CPUs, isn't exactly a powerhouse. It's sufficient for low-end pixel art indie games, but it's not really up to snuff if you want to get some light Fortnite or Quake action.

The MX150 just gets over that hump. Putting the resolution to 720p, dropping all the graphics settings to low (or off) and setting the resolution scale in Overwatch to 75 percent, I was able to maintain a stable 55-60fps in congested firefights during competitive matches. The FPS was much higher during one-on-one battles, but the key is to have the performance necessary in the most dire of circumstances. And the Matebook 13, a laptop which has no pretensions of being a gaming laptop, did the job well.

Its performance in other games was really dependent on what you were playing. Several rounds of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were technically playable, but far from ideal. CS:GO has always been one of those games that benefits from an absurdly high frame rate: the smoother the gameplay, the better you'll be able to control recoil. And while 50-55fps during firefights might sound playable when compared to other games, the stark drop in frame rate as soon as those gunfights begin - the frame rate would often be hovering between 100fps and 120fps while running around the map - makes for a really jumpy and unpleasant experience.

Games like Apex Legends require too much GPU grunt but Fortnite, which lets you customise the rendering resolution separately like Overwatch, can work rather well. The game hovered around 50fps during firefights when just set to 720p windowed, but dropping the rendering resolution to 75 percent resulted in smoother 60fps experience, with only drops when there's several explosions and a ton of effects being displayed. You're obviously losing some sharpness and clarity - hell, you can play the game at complete potato quality if you want - but it's absolutely playable.

For uni students or the kind of user that likes a bit of light gaming, and absolutely prefers the lighter profile of thin-and-light laptops, having that extra headroom is worthwhile. We're still a few years away from having a properly powerful thin-and-light laptop that can knock out AAA games at low settings, but being able to play some of the bigger and more prominent online games - as well as every indie you can imagine on Steam or the Epic Games Store - will make a huge difference to plenty of people.

Because when you buy something like a Matebook 13 - or a Surface Laptop, XPS 13 or any other sleek laptop around the $1800 to $2200 mark that's designed to be light enough that you won't notice - you're not buying it for gaming. You're buying it because it's a joy to use. And if you can competently do a bit of Fortnite, Overwatch and, say, Into the Breach, while doing some image editing on the side?

That's a good deal.


Comments

    Display response time is pretty brutal for Fortnite/Overwatch.

    I've all but given up playing anything competitive on my Xiaomi Mi Notebook Pro (also MX150, which is plenty powerful TBH) due to the screen lag.

    Machines like this seem much better suited to stuff like single player games like Torchlight 2 / Barderlands 2 etc.

    Also, great to see laptop reviews popping up on here. Hopefully see the new 240hz RB15 or 144hz RB17 soon? :)

      It's laptop season! Next thing is an AMD ASUS laptop that has a discrete Nvidia GPU. Whole thing costs 999, so super keen to see how it holds up.

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