I love the Google Pixel. Since the day I bought it I’ve been a fan of almost everything about it and even recommended it to some close friends. Despite how good the Pixel is, though, it’s important to remember that it’s not the only great Android smartphone on the market.
There are several others that are fantastic, and I’m lucky enough to have gotten my hands on most of them. After spending time with almost every major flagship smartphone released in the past several months, I can easily say that my favorite option that’s not the Pixel, is the Huawei Mate 9…
Taking a step back, let’s look at what makes the Pixel so great. Some might say its pure software, others might say its hardware, and still others will say its camera. Realistically, the measurement most people use for what makes a good phone is the culmination of a few different factors: the performance, camera, battery life, and ease of use, all compared to how much the phone costs.
The Pixel scores high in each category — it’s a fast, powerful smartphone with great battery life and an outstanding camera sensor. However, it’s really how all of those factors come together that makes the Pixel so great.
All of that said, why is the Mate 9 the “runner-up” to the Pixel? Why would a phone from a Chinese manufacturer mainly known for how bad its software has been be the best device (at least in my opinion), outside of the Pixel? Because it truly is that good.
Software & Performance
Some people measure a manufacturer’s skin on Android based on how similar it is to what Google would hope Android to be. In some ways, that’s a good method. Google’s version of Android is clean, easy to use, and works great, but that doesn’t mean it should be the only option. The problems we’ve seen over the last several years have come with OEMs changing Google’s software in the wrong way.
For years, that’s what Huawei has had an issue with. The company had adjusted Google’s Android so much, it turned into a horrible clone of iOS. It was slow, riddled with bugs, and just… terrible. That’s not the case with EMUI 5.0. This version of Huawei’s skin is cleaner, faster, and easier to use than any version before. I’ve been using the Mate 9 side-by-side with the Pixel for nearly 3 months now, and I can honestly say that I enjoy using the software on the Mate 9 just as much as I do the Pixel.
That’s not to say it’s without fault, though. Huawei still has some work to do in cleaning up the Mate’s software, primarily when it comes to the battery saving features and its infmaous bloatware. There are a few apps on the Mate 9 which feel completely unnecessary, a few which legitimately shouldn’t be there (seriously why are there two SIM toolkit apps that don’t actually do anything?) and until I finally deactivated it, the power-saving notifications drove me just a bit crazy. All of that said, though, I can say EMUI 5.0 is my favorite take on Android software that’s available right now.
Smartphone design over the past year or so has gotten pretty stale, and there’s nowhere that’s more evident than with the Pixel. It feels like an iPhone clone that’s trying to be different, but failing. The build is good, yes, but it’s nothing I’d call attractive. Of course, the software and performance are the main attractions on the Pixel, but hardware is an important aspect of any device.
On the other hand, the Huawei Mate 9 has a very attractive metal build, especially in the gray color I’ve been using for the past month or so. The curved back of the device combined with the rounded edges and curved glass feels fantastic, and the slim bezels on all fronts don’t hurt matters at all (yes I’m talking to you enormous Pixel chin).
Those slim bezels also help the Mate 9 feel a bit more compact than it actually is. Despite having a 5.9-inch display, the Mate isn’t too much bigger than the Pixel XL.
One area where the Mate loses to the Pixel is in the camera department. The Mate does pack a solid dual-camera system, but it just doesn’t match up to what the Pixel is capable of, both in stills and in video. The primary difference shows itself in low-light. Outdoor shots in decent lighting are basically identical on these two phones, but indoors there’s a clear difference in quality. The Pixel XL has better detail and sharpness, as well as better colors. The Pixel’s camera results are just second to none, and there’s no way to argue that.
The Mate 9 definitely has a better camera app, offering a solid balance of simplicity and features. The interface is easy to use in auto mode, but you can easily access the pro functions with a quick swipe, and there are over a dozen different shooting modes available. The Pixel, on the other hand, essentially has a couple of modes and a shutter button.
Battery life is a strong point for many large phones, but it becomes especially apparent on the Pixel XL and Mate 9. The XL easily gets me through a day on a charge, where the Mate can get through one, perhaps even two on medium usage. It’s a tight battle between the two here, and I’ve been fully satisfied on both. The Mate, though, especially impressed me with its ridiculously fast charging which fills up the 4,000 mAh battery in what feels like minutes.
When it comes down to it, the Mate 9 isn’t a perfect phone. But, neither is the Pixel. Google has come as close as ever to a perfect Android device with the Pixel, but perfection comes at a cost. The minimum you’ll pay for a Pixel is $649 plus taxes and extra fees, and that’s just for the smaller 5-inch model. The XL starts at a whopping $769, and ranges as high as over $1,000 depending on the configuration you buy and including all the various fees associated.
Meanwhile, the Mate 9 runs just $599 for a device which, in all reality, only somewhat lags behind the Pixel in terms of the camera, software, and display resolution. It runs on top of similar specifications — a powerful chipset and 4GB of RAM paired with Android Nougat and plenty of storage. In the case of the Pixel, you get a Snapdragon 821, where Huawei’s device runs on top of its in-house Kirin 960 processor. So overall, you aren’t losing any power, you’re just changing its source to an extent. There is the extra plus in the Mate 9, though, of having 64GB of storage out of the box and a microSD card slot available. The base Pixel XL, on the other hand, only comes with 32GB of storage without a way to expand that.
If you can afford a Pixel XL, yes, it’s probably the better phone, but if you can’t, I honestly think the Mate 9 is your best bet. It ships with a current Android version with one of the best skins I’ve ever used, and offers an overall experience that is simply excellent. You can pick up the Mate 9 at Amazon.