Can you live without a Thunderbolt 3 port? The Huawei MateBook 13 (starts at $ 999; $ 1,299 as tested) has none, unlike most competing ultraportables. Perhaps most pointedly, Apple’s MacBook Air has two—but it also has an inferior keyboard, a weaker Intel Y-series rather than U-series processor, and a $ 400 higher price when comparing Core i5 models. The Huawei’s aggressive price and offbeat 3:2-aspect-ratio touch screen may also tempt shoppers from our two ultraportable Editors’ Choices, the 2019 revisions of the Dell XPS 13 and the Razer Blade Stealth.
A Literal Little Sibling
You can think of the MateBook 13 as a $ 200-cheaper alternative to the premium Huawei MateBook X Pro, which has a Thunderbolt 3 port. Both offer a choice of Core i5 power with integrated graphics and a Core i7 processor with Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics. In the MateBook 13’s case, the $ 999 model in Mystic Silver carries a Core i5-8265U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB NVMe solid-state drive, while my $ 1,299 Space Gray test unit features a Core i7-8565U, the same 8GB of memory (16GB would be nice), and a 512GB SSD.
Like the MateBook X Pro’s, the MateBook 13’s touch screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which lets you see more Web or word processing content without scrolling than today’s common 16:9 ratio. The MateBook 13’s display is somewhat dimmer (300 nits, versus 450 nits) and lower in resolution (2,160 by 1,440 pixels, versus 3,000 by 2,000 pixels).
Thin screen bezels and almost nonexistent borders on either side of the keyboard keep the CNC-machined-aluminum Huawei to just 0.59 by 11.3 by 8.3 inches, right up there (or down there) with the famously diminutive Dell (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches) in space-saving. At 2.87 pounds, the MateBook weighs a bit more than the XPS 13 (2.7 pounds) but it’s a cinch to carry in one hand, thanks to a soft glossy finish that the company credits to an advanced sandblasting technique.
You can count the ports on three fingers of one hand: a USB Type-C port on the left, for data transfer and charging; a USB Type-C port on the right, for data transfer and DisplayPort; and an audio jack on the left. Wish there were a USB 3.0 Type-A port, an HDMI port, or a VGA port? According to Huawei, commercial units will come with a USB-C dock that provides those connections. (The review unit I’m looking at, though final in hardware and software, did not.) Having to carry the dock will be a minor inconvenience, but it’s more than Apple gives MacBook Air buyers.
Finger, Not Face, Recognition
The 720p webcam above the screen is nothing to write home about—its images were grainy and murky under anything less than bright lighting conditions—but it should suffice for Skype conversations. The camera does not support Windows Hello sign-ins, but a fingerprint reader built into the power button does. When the PC is off, one press of the button can both switch it on and sign you into Windows.
Bottom-mounted speakers produce surprisingly loud sound—more than enough to fill a room, though rough and ragged at max volume. At 60 or 70 percent volume, audio is quite satisfying, if short on bass. With headphones, it’s even better, thanks to Dolby Atmos software and its choice of music, movie, or dynamic equalization.
It’s easy to get used to the display’s 3:2 aspect ratio, which gives content a taller, less letterboxed look than 16:9 screens. Like many other touch screens, the MateBook’s has a mirror-glass finish that can lead to reflections in dark areas, but brightness is ample (though pitch dark if you click “Change brightness automatically when lighting changes” in Windows’ display settings), and contrast is high. Colors look rich and saturated, and fine details are sharp.
The backlit, spill-resistant keyboard lacks Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, or even lettering on the cursor arrow keys to show those functions partnered with the Fn key. The arrows are also in my pet peeve of an Apple- or HP-style row instead of an inverted T.
But the keyboard has a pleasant, pliant typing feel. Up/down travel is a bit shallow (Huawei says 1.2mm), but it’s definitely more comfortable than the almost travel-free MacBook Air keyboard, and feedback is firm. The sizable, buttonless touchpad glides and taps smoothly, though it takes a firm press to right-click.
A Benchmark Quintet
I compared the MateBook 13’s performance to that of four other Core i7 ultraportables, seen in the specifications table below. The Dell XPS 13 and Razer Blade Stealth share the Huawei’s 1.8GHz (4.6GHz turbo) Intel “Whiskey Lake” processor, the former with integrated graphics and the latter with the MateBook’s GeForce MX150 discrete graphics. The Asus ZenBook S has a fractionally faster CPU. The Acer Swift 7 stands out for its 14- instead of 13-inch display, extreme thinness, and low-wattage Y-series processor.
The Huawei trailed the Razer by trivial amounts in our tests, though both proved clearly superior to the integrated-graphics laptops for users seeking to enjoy some light gaming as well as productivity work. It also finished next to last in our battery rundown benchmark, though its unplugged life of 10 hours and 21 minutes is more than enough to get you through a workday.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the storage subsystem. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
The Huawei, Dell, and Razer crossed the line three abreast in the PCMark 10 productivity test, with two of them reaching the 4,000-point score we consider excellent. (We’ve seen scores over 5,000, but from gaming rigs and workstations with six-core rather than quad-core CPUs.) All five systems’ speedy solid-state drives aced the PCMark 8 Storage test.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
The MateBook tied the XPS 13 for second place in this event, showing it to be a worthy candidate for spreadsheet jockeying or even some light video editing. The Acer’s Y-series processor relegated it to last place in this lot.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Huawei split the difference between the Razer and Dell in another close finish, with the Asus a disappointingly distant fourth. (For comparison’s sake, the Core i5 MacBook Air took 241 seconds to the MateBook’s 148.) If it had an SD card slot, the MateBook 13 would be a good choice for managing a photo collection.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Nvidia’s GeForce MX150 has nowhere near the game-playing capability of its GeForce GTX and RTX products, but is still good enough to blow Intel’s integrated graphics out of the water. The MateBook finished a step behind the Stealth, but either will deliver a much more satisfying experience in games like Fortnite than laptops without discrete GPUs.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
Again, neither the Huawei nor the Razer will play the latest, most demanding games at satisfactory frame rates, but they’re not limited to casual or browser-based games as their rivals with integrated graphics are.
Video Playback Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 1080p file of the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
The Swift 7 and its battery-sipping CPU lasted the longest, with the Dell and Razer sharing the silver medal. But the Huawei’s time is hardly something to be ashamed of.
An Upstart Bargain
We’ve stated in other reviews that a four-figure laptop should have a Thunderbolt 3 port for the latest desktop storage and docking solutions, but realistically we’ll admit it’s less essential for a grab-and-go productivity ultraportable than a multi-display workstation. Meanwhile, the MateBook 13 is priced right compared not only to the Core i5 MacBook Air but to competing models in Core i7 guise—the test unit is about $ 300 under 1080p configurations of both the Razer Blade Stealth and Dell XPS 13.
Perhaps the MateBook 13’s toughest competition, however, is from within its own house: the MateBook X Pro, which for $ 200 more offers double the RAM and a brighter, higher-resolution screen. Either way, it’s getting harder to ignore Huawei as you shop the ultraportable aisle.
Editors’ Note: We are aware of the allegations presented by the U.S. Attorney General’s office on Jan. 28 regarding Huawei. Until we see evidence of how these allegations touch upon Huawei’s laptop business, we will continue to recommend its laptop products so long as their performance continues to merit our endorsement.