- Surprisingly compact body
- Amazing dual-lens Leica camera
- Revised and improved software
- Fast processor
- Big battery
- Not water-resistant
- No U.S. release date yet
- Uninspired design
Although it wasn’t the only big-screen smartphone released in 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 will be the device everyone remembers, and not for the right reasons. Samsung’s next big thing turned out to be a big disaster, and what was almost the Android phone everyone could heartily recommend, became the Android phone we told people to run screaming from.
It left the crown for best trouser-pocket-stretching phone up for grabs, and while we love the LG V20, the company stumbled when it decided to limit its release to a select few markets, especially in light of the Note 7’s disappearance. What phone should people who find a 5.5-inch display just too restrictive buy?
Huawei swooped in to save the day with the Mate 9, the follow-up to last year’s well-received Mate 8. It has a massive 5.9-inch screen, a strong processor, and a new version of the superb Leica camera we adored on the Huawei P9. Samsung’s misfortune may turn out to be Huawei’s opportunity to wow smartphone fans in the U.S.
A GIANT SCREEN IN A MODEST PACKAGE
Here’s a surprise: The Mate 9 isn’t a big smartphone. The screen may be massive, but Huawei has clearly used some form of magic to squeeze it into a small body. Is the Mate 9 related to Doctor Who’s Tardis? Very possibly. It’s shorter and the same width as the LG V20, which has a 5.7-inch screen, and just 2mm longer and 3mm wider than the 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Probably not coincidentally, it has a nearly identical footprint to the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
It sits very comfortably in your hand. Yes, you still have to stretch your thumb from one side of the screen to the other, but it’s not an impossible task. It takes no more effort to do so than on “normal” phones like the iPhone 7 Plus or the Pixel XL. The use of on-screen Android menu keys only helps, too. Huawei smoothed the sides of the metal body, but left enough of an edge to give the phone some “bite,” lowering the chances of it slipping from your grip.
While it’s relatively compact and comfortable, it is quite heavy at 190 grams. It’s a big, all-metal phone, with a very large piece of Gorilla Glass over the display, so the extra weight isn’t a shock. This whopping size doesn’t apply to the fingerprint sensor, which is below the camera lens on the rear. It’s actually quite small and is completely obscured by my fingertip. It’s no bad thing, and the accuracy can’t be faulted.
What the Mate 9 isn’t, is very pretty. The design has barely changed from the Mate 8, which was a bit faceless to start with, and although the dual-lens Leica camera gives it some character; the Mate 9 is all business and not much play.
SOFTWARE TWEAKS ADD FEATURES
Huawei has always frustrated us with its software. It covers Android in its own Emotion user interface (EMUI), which in the past has been intrusive, sometimes buggy, and often awkwardly frustrating. No more so than many other third-party user interfaces, but it usually let the overall phone experience down in a way that seemed unnecessary.
The screen may be massive, but Huawei used some form of magic to squeeze it into a small body.
The Mate 9 still has EMUI, but it’s version 5, and it has been refined. Huawei tells us it’s the company’s biggest software revision to date, with more than 400 alterations, many of which remove older elements we didn’t like. The great news is it’s built over Android 7.0 Nougat, and our review phone has the November 2016 Android security patch installed, so it’s about as up to date as Android phones can get.
Huawei was always a great fan of spreading apps across multiple home screens, Apple-style, rather than giving Android users an app drawer. Rejoice, Android purists, because the Mate 9 has an app drawer. It’s an option hidden in the menu system, but it’s there. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with putting apps on home screens, but having the chance to clear them, highlight key apps, and show off some cool wallpaper is great.
The notification shade now offers a more standard Android experience. Before, EMUI made you swipe about to reach the shortcuts for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other options. On the Mate 9 with EMUI 5, you swipe down to open the shade, then again to reveal all the shortcuts. Just like standard Android on phones like the Pixel and Nexus devices. It’s excellent news.
There’s still a range of pre-installed apps, including Huawei’s own music and video player, game centre, notepad, weather app, calculator, clock, file manager, compass, download manager, and many more. A booking.com, WPS Office, Todoist, and News Republic app are also onboard, the latter of which insists on sending breaking news alerts as notifications, until I made it stop by uninstalling it. The majority of the pre-installed apps can be uninstalled, so if you can’t stand the sight of them, it’s easy to clear them out.
Huawei included a few notable additional features. App Twin allows you to run two different accounts from a single app. For example, you can run a personal and work version of Facebook or WhatsApp on the same device. Use is limited to supported apps, though. To minimize the negative effects on sleep caused by blue light from the screen, there’s an eye-comfort mode with a scheduler, and there’s a sound recorder that makes great use of the multiple microphones.
Although it’s too early to tell, Huawei has used some clever algorithms to stop Android from slowing down over time, meaning the phone should remain the same speed demon it is now, for the length of time you own it. Huawei also uses this machine learning system to monitor how you use the phone, and what apps you frequently use, to try and predict what you do on a regular basis. Through this understanding, it funnels system resources to those apps and features automatically, in theory making the phone faster in the places you want it. It’s difficult to say if this works. The phone’s really fast, regardless of how it achieves it.
The changes made to EMUI are interesting. It’s a vast improvement over previous models, and no longer a reason to avoid a Huawei phone, but it’s still different and unique enough so as not to lose its Huawei identity. That’s clever, and shows the effort that has gone into the software. The Mate 9’s EMUI fills a pleasing, usable space in-between stock Android and Huawei’s previous extreme customization techniques. We’d still prefer the Pixel’s clean, standard version of Android, but Huawei has taken a giant leap forward here.
LIGHTNING FAST PERFORMANCE
Huawei doesn’t use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, or any Qualcomm chip, in its flagship phones. The Mate 9 introduces the Kirin 960 octa-core processor, which is the first to use ARM’s new A73 design, bringing it right up to date. It’s a monster. Regardless of the task, game, or app, the Mate 9 sprinted along, never showing any signs of fatigue.
Put the phone through the usual benchmark tests, and it comes close to Snapdragon 821 devices, such as the OnePlus 3T, depending on the test. It’s worth remembering the Mate 9 has 4GB of RAM, rather than the OnePlus 3T’s 6GB. On AnTuTu, the Mate 9 scores 132,922, which is way below the OnePlus 3T’s average 166,000. Geekbench 4 is more interesting, as it records 5,893, considerably more than the OnePlus 3T’s 4,390. Gaming benchmark app 3D Mark returned a 2,389 score on Slingshot Extreme.
Most importantly, the tiny stutters and pauses we’ve seen in older Huawei phones, almost certainly caused by EMUI, are gone on the Mate 9. They were never hugely intrusive, but remove them and the overall experience is cohesive, smoother, more mature, and speeds up work flow in subtle ways. The Mate 9 is a phone primarily aimed at people who wear suits and carry briefcases, and this is important for productivity fiends.
STUNNING DUAL CAMERAS BY LEICA
The Huawei P9 was the first to feature a Leica co-developed dual-lens camera, and it remains an amazing camera phone. The Mate 9 brings the second-generation sensor with it, along with a lot of expectation. Early builds of the software didn’t bring out the camera’s best, and we held off reviewing the device before the final version that will be installed on the phone you buy was released.
It changed everything for the better, and we’re extremely pleased to report the Mate 9’s camera is every bit as fantastic as the P9’s. The top lens shoots in color and has 12 megapixels, while the monochrome lens underneath has been boosted to 20 megapixels. There’s optical image stabilisation, phase detection, laser autofocus, 4K video recording, and a f/2.2 aperture.
A headline feature often reported is the inclusion of a 2x optical zoom. This feature actually uses the two lenses together to create a digital zoomed in 12-megapixel picture, without a loss of quality. It does a good job, although zoom in on the already zoomed in picture and there’s a definite loss of quality when you compare it to a standard, non-zoomed version.
The camera can also create pictures with a bokeh effect, where the background is blurred around a single subject, reproducing an effect usually seen on DSLR cameras. It’s becoming more common on smartphones, including Huawei’s own P9, the Honor 8, the iPhone 7 Plus, and Xiaomi’s Redmi Pro. It’s every bit as fun to use as on the P9, and is more versatile than the iPhone’s Portrait mode, thanks to the ability to alter the focal point after the photo has been taken.