Huawei is an ambitious company. Over the next two years, the Chinese behemoth plans to overtake Apple to become the second biggest smartphone maker on the planet. It sounds impossible, but considering the company took the number three spot in just four years, I would give them a chance at reaching that goal. Why?
Huawei releases a ton of phones each year and for the most part, they’re all pretty solid. We’ve reviewed several Huawei-made devices over the years including the Nexus 6P, Honor 5X, Huawei P9, and most recently, the Honor 8. All four of these devices are fantastic in their own respects, but there’s a common flaw on all of them ─ the software, but we’ll get into that.
Now it’s 2016, Huawei isn’t slowing down in the slightest, and we’ve got the Huawei Mate 9. Long story short, this phone is great, but let’s take a closer look…
Nomad case for Pixel 3
Huawei has three main goals in mind with the Mate 9, together hoping to solve three of the biggest problems people have with their devices today. What are those? First, bad battery life. Second, slow software and performance. And third, poor camera quality. Consumers want phones that are quick, that take good pictures, and that actually last all day, if not more. Has Huawei succeeded at solving these problems with the Mate 9? If this was most other Huawei smartphones I’d say there was still one big problem, but not this time…
If there’s one place Huawei has always done well, it’s hardware. Just looking back at some of the company’s other flagship smartphones, none come to mind where the hardware was particularly poor. That continues and gets even better in the Mate 9.
This device is all-aluminum and looks fantastic. The chamfered edges along the sides and rounded glass on the front scream premium, and remind me a bit of the Nexus 6P. The “Moonlight Silver” model which I used is nearly identical in color to the aluminum variant of the Nexus 6P, and it looks great.
Arguably my favorite part of the Mate 9, though, is its size. Despite packing a massive 5.9-inch display, the phone is only slightly bigger than a Pixel XL which has a significantly smaller display. That’s thanks in no small part to the slim top and bottom bezels and of course the minuscule bezels along the side. This phone is big, but not unreasonably so. It’s just right.
Speaking of that display, the Mate 9 has a pretty solid one. At 5.9-inches there’s plenty of real estate, but as I mentioned the slim bezels make that display very manageable.
The IPS panel also gets respectively bright and is easy to see outdoors. One thing you will notice, however, is the lower resolution. Where most phones today, especially large phones, use QHD panels for increased sharpness, the Mate 9 is only 1080p. That’s not to say it looks bad; on the contrary, it actually looks pretty good. I typically only notice the lower resolution when browsing web pages as text doesn’t look quite as sharp. There are advantages to the lower resolution as well, but we’ll get into that.
Specifications & Performance
Under the hood, this is Huawei’s most powerful phone to date. It runs on top of the company’s latest home-grown processor, the Kirin 960. Paired with that is 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with a microSD card slot.
What does that mean? Great performance. Aside from the occasional hiccup, the Mate 9 performs like a champ, easily handling whatever I throw at it. Obviously, the high-performance processor and abundance of RAM help out with that, but little things under the hood like UFS 2.1 storage and the all new Mali-G71 GPU help the phone feel incredibly quick. Games are fast and smooth and day-to-day tasks go off without a hitch.
Huawei’s goal with the Mate 9 is to make it fast out of the box (goal achieved), but also to keep it quick through a couple of years of usage. The company says that it’s using machine learning to determine which apps you’ll use most and allocate resources appropriately. Over the week and a half I used the Mate 9, I definitely didn’t notice any slowdown, but this feature is meant to show its value over time, not during the review period. All we can say is so far, so good.
Almost every Android manufacturer has its own take on what Android should be or how it can be enhanced. Huawei is no exception to that rule. In fact, unless the device had the Nexus moniker on board, Huawei’s software has been absolutely horrid, to the point where the phone doesn’t feel like it’s running Android anymore. That all changes with the Mate 9.
The Huawei Mate 9 is the first smartphone from the company to launch with Android Nougat and subsequently, EMUI 5.0. This latest take on Huawei’s skin is undoubtedly its best to date and while it’s still incredibly heavy and not at all perfect, this is a turning point for Huawei.
As I pointed out last month, Android Nougat is a turning point for the entire Android ecosystem. Google is taking tighter control of the OS, not necessarily from a looks standpoint, but in the way that matters: how things work. Picking up the Mate 9 and the Pixel side by side reveals a very different overall look, but the way things work is more or less the same. Pulling down the notification shade reveals a set of quick settings on the top and a second pull reveals several more.
Moving into the recent apps menu, things also look and act the same, as is the case with multi-window, the settings menu, and much more. Of course, Huawei still has its own flair all over the UI and a bunch of its own apps, but it’s clear that Android is finally starting to shine through. This is the first Huawei device — besides the Nexus 6P, of course — that feels like an Android phone, not a really bad iPhone.
What’s there to complain about? As with previous Huawei phones, accessing certain things can be a chore. Changing launchers comes to mind. Another thing that seems minor, but really gets annoying is notifications. Rather than showing notification icons in the status bar, the Mate 9 just shows a number, so until you pull down the shade, there’s no way to know what’s there. It’s not the end of the world, but it was rather annoying. Update: This notification issue is confirmed to be because the software is not final.
During the course of this review, I spent my time with pre-production software, so if anything changes when the final version drops, this review will be updated to reflect that. Hopefully, the only changes we see will be to fix the ever-present bugs, because as it stands right now, Huawei has done a great job with EMUI 5.0 It feels like a Huawei device, but it still feels like Android. Now let’s just hope that things get even better when EMUI 6.0 hits.
Oh and by the way, it does have an app drawer, you’ll just need to enable it in the settings.
As for audio, well first off yes it has a headphone jack. Like most other Huawei phones the Mate 9 features a mono bottom facing speaker. Just like the iPhone 7 and HTC 10, the Mate 9 uses its earpiece as an auxiliary speaker to create a stereo experience. That speaker isn’t nearly as loud as the bottom facing speaker, but it does just enough to create that stereo sound. Overall, the audio quality on the Mate 9 is pretty solid. It could be better but it’s not bad.
As mentioned, Huawei had three goals in mind with the Mate 9 and one of those was to deliver great battery life. Did it succeed? With the embedded 4,000 mAh battery, I can say without any doubt that the Mate 9 has surpassed my expectations. I’ve never ended a day on the Mate 9 below 30% capacity, and I can easily squeeze two days of light usage out of this phone.
The Mate 9 also packs USB-C for charging and over a standard charger it charges at a decent enough speed. With fast charging, however, things get a little more exciting. Huawei also has its own fast charging standard with the Mate 9: “SuperCharge.” The company claims that you’ll be able to charge up the battery to about 60% in just over 30 minutes, but in order to do so use it you’ll need to use the included fast charging brick and USB-C cable. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put this to the test seeing that the phone arrived with a European adapter, not the US one I needed. However, when the Mate 9 does land in the United States as the company has confirmed, I’ll be sure to give that new fast charging standard another look.
Interestingly enough, the Mate 9 does still charge over USB PD fast charging, as I found out when plugging it into the charger from my Pixel XL. The phone reads this as “fast” charging, but not “super” as I’m told the included charging brick will show.
As usual with Huawei devices, the fingerprint sensor on the back of the Mate 9 is fast and accurate. The company has also trimmed down its custom fingerprint options with the Mate 9. There’s still the option to swipe down or up to access the notification shade and the app locker is still present for keeping app secure.
As for cameras, the Mate 9 packs three. First, a single front-facing camera, which is decent enough, although I’m not one to really put those to the test. However, that rear camera is very good. It’s not the best on the market today, but it is a fantastic option.
Similar to the Huawei P9 from earlier this year, this dual-camera system co-branded with Leica takes outstanding photos. Detail is good, colors are accurate, and shots are taken quickly, even with HDR turned on. There are a handful of various modes available as well for taking shots with HDR, panorama, and more. However, the automatic mode was great for most shots. The only mode I found at all useful was the monochrome option. Since one of the two sensors on the Mate 9 sees only in monochrome, this mode took some solid shots, although it’s not something I’d use on regular basis. My only complaints against the Mate 9’s camera come in the low-light performance which could be better, and the lack of a quick access option. Double tapping the volume down button will take a quick shot, but it’s slow and 90% of the time shots come out blurry.
When it comes down to it, I can honestly say I love the Mate 9, and there’s not really any catch. The hardware is fantastic, the performance is solid, the battery life is outstanding, and the cameras are excellent. As for the software, it’s finally good. It’s still not perfect, nor is the Mate 9. But so far, Huawei has made its best phone to date by a long shot. Pricing in Europe lands at about €700, or $750 in the US. Is it worth it? I’d say yes. Are there better options? In one way or another, yes, but if the Mate 9 is available in your region, it should absolutely be a top contender if you’re in search for a new Android phone.