2016 has proven to be an interesting year for fans of larger phones. Where we used to have numerous big screen experiments to choose from, premium options are becoming scarce. Wrapping up the year, Huawei sent us a beast of a phone, and after using it for a month, we’re encouraged by the direction this company is taking.
Design & Build Quality
There’s no way around it. This phone is big. Huawei has done an admirable job of containing the 5.9” display, but there are only so many bezel shrinking tricks a manufacturer can employ. By comparison though, the Mate 9 is only a 2m taller than a Pixel XL with a 5.5” screen. That’s a praiseworthy achievement, and prevents the Mate from feeling too much like a mini-tablet.
This is familiar design territory for Huawei. An aluminum frame with shiny jewel like facets where edges are chamfered. The rear is gently curved to help fit your hand, though the antenna cutouts remain. They’re far more subtle than on previous Huawei’s, but there is still a visible seam running above the camera and down by the chin. Even for that minimal distraction, the Mate 9 is a premium priced device, and it certainly looks the part.
The hardware configuration helps tremendously in keeping the phone in your hand. Seat the phone in your grip, and the power button located under the volume rocker is easy to reach. The rear mounted fingerprint sensor is positioned almost exactly where an average sized finger would land. One-handed use is still a bit tricky, as most thumbs won’t be able to clear the full width of the screen, but the Mate 9 does an excellent job of feeling smaller than it really is.
As a quick note, we are happy to see the Mate includes an IR blaster to use the phone as a universal remote. This feature has fallen out of favor with most Android manufacturers. It seems not a lot of people use it, but the people who do are passionate fans. As the father of a small child, its invaluable as said small child enjoys hiding our TV remote, but I digress.
At almost six inches on the diagonal, folks are likely to use this phone slightly farther away from their faces, but we still would have preferred moving up to a Quad HD display. 1080p is more than adequate for getting daily tasks done, and this is a nice LCD. As a fan of keeping text as small as possible, there are times puling it close to my face where it’s not quite as sharp as competing devices. Also, if you’re likely to play with some VR, the lower pixel density on the Mate probably wouldn’t be our first choice.
Happily, this display is respectably bright, and easily readable in all but direct sunlight reflecting off the front glass. In auto-brightness mode it falls just behind the LG V20, but we did find it easier to get the Hauwei up to its maximum brightness, where LG reserves the last bit of power as more of a temporary screen boost. While shooting in bright Southern California daylight, we had no issues composing shots from the Mate’s display.
Huawei Includes an eye comfort mode that shifts the tone of the screen warmer, removing blue from the display. Late night redditing is easier on the eyes, but we do wish the screen could get dimmer.
We haven’t always been the biggest fans of Huawei’s software skin, but EMUI 5 takes several steps towards fixing some of our issues with this kind of UI customization. Out of the box, the Mate 9 doesn’t show an app drawer, delivering all app shortcuts to the homescreen, but there’s an easy toggle in the settings to replace the more traditional Android organization.
The notification shade has also been redesigned. No longer are apps and shortcuts divided by an awkward side swipe, one slide down from the top lowers the notifications, a second swipe expands on quick actions. This action replicated in hardware. Swiping the fingerprint sensor will also drop your notification shade.
We’re also happy to report that after we shot our video review, Huawei has updated notification icons. Where originally all users could see was a number indicating how many notifications a user had (which topped out at 9), now app icons have returned to the top of your screen.
There’s a lot going on with EMUI, but this year Huawei has focused on optimizing and streamlining. You won’t have to troll through as many settings to find the options you need. The phone seems to rely more on Android 7 for the “fun” features, like improved multi-tasking, richer notifications, and split screening apps. Some design elements still feel half baked, like dialog confirmations which live in sliding panels, but in general, this iteration of EMUI outwardly feels leaner and more responsive.
We’re most curious about the changes under the hood though. The Mate 9 employs on device machine learning to anticipate your behavior and better allocate system resources. Improved storage management should handle garbage and temporary file deletion better. Huawei claims over time the phone should remain a fast performer when other Androids might start to slow down. After a solid month of use, it’s difficult to test those assertions, but the phone has remained a powerful performer through its first major update.
The one area we might poke some fun, during the Mate 9 announcement, the photo gallery was demoed, sliding through thumbnails, almost instantly loading images. After shooting our Real Camera Review, and capturing tens of gigabytes of data, much of that UHD video, the phone isn’t quite as fast at loading thumbnails as what we were shown during the keynote.
All of these software updates and improvements benefit greatly from the powerhouse chipset in this device. The Kirin 960 will be unfamiliar hardware to a lot of Android fans, but it’s proving to be one of the most powerful CPU’s available. In CPU driven benchmarks, the Kirin 960 is handily able of competing with (and often besting) the Qualcomm 821 found in the Pixel and the OnePlus 3T. The weak link for Huawei in the past was graphics performance. The Mali G71 GPU in the Mate 9 is a significant improvement, but benchmarks often fall slightly behind Samsung and Qualcomm chipsets. Regardless, this phone is an absolute screamer.
Navigating the UI, multi-tasking, using productivity services, this phone will be a consistently top tier performer. Even for the slight graphics deficit, it’s still one of the better gaming platforms we’ve reviewed. Demanding titles like Oblivion play fluidly, and the Kirin seems to be better optimized for Marvel Future Fight than the older Qualcomm 820.
WiFi & Cellular
WiFi performance is top tier for a metal backed phone. The Mate 9 displayed almost exactly the same reception numbers as the LG V20, falling only slightly behind the glass backed Galaxy S7.
LTE reception was surprisingly good. Around town on AT&T, the Mate shamed our HTC 10, and often outperformed plastic back phones like the Galaxy S7 Active.
We have the full scoop on audio performance in the above Real Audio Review, but as a quick recap, the Mate 9 is something of a mixed bag.
Speaker performance is very good. The phone utilizes a stereo split between the earpiece and the bottom mono speaker. In portrait mode it performs similarly to the HTC 10, higher frequencies from the top, lower frequencies from the bottom. When turned to landscape, the phone shifts to a more traditional stereo left / right arrangement. It’s not as well balanced as an Axon 7, Sony XZ, or Alcatel, but it’s a massive speaker improvement over mono solutions and previous Huaweis. It’s a very good option for watching a little video or playing games.
The story isn’t quite as positive when listening to headphone performance. The Mate 9 features one of the quieter headphone amps we’ve tested, and the phone’s DAC quality scores fairly low, battling out for last place against the LG G5. This jack gets the job done, but it wouldn’t be a top pick for the audiophiles in our audience.
As mentioned above, this phone recently received a significant update, and a major part of that update focused on camera improvements. We just re-shot our Real Camera Review embedded here.
If you don’t have ten minutes to spare on getting the full camera review experience, we’re happy to report that Huawei’s second venture with Leica on a dual camera shooter is a formidable competitor. This system plays with light unlike any other phone we’ve reviewed. Jpegs are produced with terrific dynamic range, excellent color depth, and Leica’s image processing provides options and controls for users, producing more photographic output.
The Mate 9 produces some of the best still photos we’ve ever seen from a phone.
This is a unique solution for a dual camera phone. Both sensors working together instead of one sensor being used for a zoom. We haven’t seen this since the One M8, and it’s used to much better effect on the Mate. This includes the astounding Wide Aperture Mode, which can blur the background of your photos, making images look like they were captured by a proper DSLR. This the best implementation of software blur we’ve ever seen, and it handily outperforms Apple’s portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus.
This year, Huawei has significantly improved video. Now users benefit from hardware image stabilization and max resolution has been increased to 3840 x 2160 (UHD). H.265 compression is employed to keep file sizes in check. The Mate uses about 30% less storage space than the iPhone for similar video quality.
Video is crisp and colorful, but the OIS feels first generation. There’s a “lively” quality to everything shot, even when the user tries to hold still, and when walking, the phone will still shake. We can’t quite replicate the almost Steadicam like quality of Pixel or iPhone video.
Against those two phones though, we’re happy to see (or hear rather) that the Mate captures stereo audio. Settings aren’t as robust as on the V20, but the microphones on the Mate are directional, focusing in on your subject and shifting the stereo sound to follow them. Very well done audio capture, with excellent noise reduction.
The main benefits of this camera, its incredible level of control and manual options, is also the phone’s greatest weakness. This camera is one of the more intimidating we’ve encountered on first impression. It’s not that any one setting is hard to use, more that it takes an investment in time and memorization to get a feel for where every setting lives and which settings you can use in which modes. As one example, the phone has a terrific zoom, but if you’re in manual mode and capturing RAW files, you can’t use any zoom. In manual mode, and only capturing jpegs, magically your zoom returns.
The phone will alert you to what you can and can’t do, but in the moment, when you just need to fire off a photo, it’s these kinds of situations which contribute to someone missing the shot. Anyone who thinks they can discuss the pros and cons of this camera after only a couple days of use is probably wrong on both the benefits and the compromises.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that when you increase battery capacity, a phone’s runtime also improves. The Mate 9 is one of the best Android performers we’ve run through our benchmark. 30 minutes of HD video over WiFi at 190 lux resulted in 4% drain, falling just behind the iPhone 7 Plus as our current champ.
Real world use closely followed that synthetic test, and the Mate 9 easily got us past dinner time with plenty of room to spare under moderate use. This phone should be easy to hypermile, and light use should deliver two full days on single charge.
If you do need to top the battery off though, this phone is now the reigning champ at recharging. 30 minutes on the included charger resulted in a 58% jump. Huawei estimates the phone will completely recharge from dead to 100% in 90 minutes, and our tests would indicate that its even faster than that.
Lastly, we wanted to touch on the experience consumers should expect from a premium priced handset. It’s a small thing, but delivering a high-end phone with accessories in the box was an appreciated touch. Where a Pixel XL is likely to be more expensive in many markets, and might not even include earbuds, the Mate ensures customers can cover the basics.
The Earpod style buds are certainly not my personal favorite, but a hands-free solution comes with the price of admission, as does a basic cover. An aluminum phone this large can be a slippery proposition, but our Mate 9 has lived almost exclusively in the snap-on plastic cover which came included. Not everyone’s favorite look, but it provides a little more grip when using the phone on the go.
Mid-range manufacturers are playing this game well, some even including VR hardware, and it’s a sales philosophy we appreciate on a premium handset.
Let’s wrap this up. Where’s that leave us with the Huawei Mate 9?
In many markets around the world, this might be one of the only options for a truly large screen premium phone. It handles this responsibility with grace. I’m not personally a fan of big phones, yet this Huawei has been one of my favorite phones to review this year. Phablets used to feel like vanguard products. Thanks to the size, manufacturers could push the limits of the technology on board. The Mate 9 resembles that philosophy a bit more than many 5.5” screen solutions at the high end of the price spectrum.
There are very few compromises to make, and what this phone does well, it does really well. It’s a big, bold offering from a company looking to turn up the heat on the competition.
Mate 9 vs iPhone 7 Plus
Mate 9 vs LG V20