Huawei’s Mate 9 packs stunning dual-camera tech to rival the iPhone and a giant 6-inch screen to tempt Galaxy Note fans.
It has been a tough year for big screen smartphones. Or rather, one in particular: the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Now fans of phablets are faced with a choice. Go for a slightly smaller display, or choose one of the phablet alternatives out there, such as the LG V20 and this, the new Huawei Mate 9. Like last year’s Mate 8, it’s made for productivity, business-types, and “young entrepreneurs,” according to Huawei. At a glance, it’s not hugely different to the excellent Mate 8, but there’s plenty of tech inside to attract new fans who’ve perhaps become disillusioned by a certain flammable phone and its manufacturer.
Huawei makes beautiful smartphones, such as the P9 and the new Nova, but they’re part of its fashion-forward range of hardware, while the aluminum-bodied Mate 9 is more about people who wear suits and ties, not skinny jeans. Although it hasn’t fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, the Mate 9 is terribly bland to look at. We’d almost prefer it if it had fallen from the tree in a violent manner. It’d give the phone some visual drama. Instead the rear panel is smooth and featureless, the bezels around the screen are thin, and the colors — silver and grey only in the U.S., we understand — are very restrained.
We’re being hard on the Mate 9’s design for a reason. The competition looks good. The Note 7 (R.I.P.) was a beauty, and the LG V20 is not only versatile and unique, but tough and purposeful. The Pixel XL is similarly good-looking, because it’s reminiscent of the iPhone, and a real alternative for any Android fan not bashing down Samsung’s doors this year. It’s not all snore-worthy in the design department, though. The Mate 9 is very compact, and despite having a larger 5.9-inch screen, the phone is slightly smaller than the LG V20.
The dual-camera lenses on the rear of the Mate 9 attract the eye instantly. Camera maker Leica is back with Huawei after finding success on the P9, and its with a second-generation version of its camera. A 12-megapixel color camera lens joins an updated 20-megapixel monochrome lens with larger pixels than before. This gives the Mate 9 a new hybrid 2x zoom, like the iPhone 7 Plus, on 12-megapixel camera shots. The bokeh effect returns, along with the monochrome mode, and it operates in both portrait and landscape modes. Additionally, the color lens has optical image stabilization.
The Mate 9 is the first Huawei phone with Android Nougat as standard.
A quick test shows the software operates in the same way as the P9, with equally as much speed, and it’s easy to take and edit bokeh-effect pictures. The Mate 9 is the first Huawei phone with Android Nougat as standard, and it’s covered in a new version of the EMUI user interface. It has been treated to an all new design, with cleaner icons, more subtle use of color, and a uniform look across Huawei’s stock apps. Yes, there are still plenty of those, but Huawei has added the option to bring back the app drawer, instead of forcing you to spread apps across multiple home screens. The custom interface is more sensibly laid out generally, with fewer taps needed to access functions. Huawei’s software engineers have made 50 percent of functions available in just two taps, and more than 95 percent in three.
Related: How to use the Huawei P9’s superb dual-lens camera
People who want to use the Mate 9 for work will appreciate encrypted folders, the chance to deactivate all location features in an instant for all apps, Android For Work support, multi-screen, and a feature called app Twin. This enables certain messaging apps, including WeChat and Facebook, to run two separate accounts. In the short time we spent with the phone, it was incredibly fast and super smooth. A real pleasure to use. Huawei’s been working to make sure the Mate 9 stays this way, employing five different methods to negate “performance erosion,” where Android phones may slow down over time. From a machine learning algorithm to speed up processes based on personal use, to smart reallocation of processor resources, Huawei’s made plenty of effort here; but only time will tell if it pays off outside the test lab.
Fastest Huawei processor yet
The software isn’t the only thing making the Mate 9 fast. The octa-core Kirin 960 chip, which it says is its fastest yet, has four cores running at 2.4GHz and four at 1.8GHz, plus a new sensor hub takes care of things like GPS, improving speed and efficiency. How much? Twenty percent quicker than the previous Kirin chip, according to Huawei. There’s excellent news on the battery front, too. It’s a 4,000mAh cell, and finally, Huawei has included its own fast-charging system it calls Super Charge. It’s dependent on both the charger and the device to operate — much like OnePlus and Oppo’s fast charging systems — and zips to nearly 60 percent capacity in 30 minutes, or a full charge in 90 minutes.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Huawei loves to slip unusual features into its phones, such as the odd but sometimes useful Knuckle Sense, which makes a return on the Mate 9. It lets you use your knuckles to perform actions like taking screenshots. However, it’s the new microphone array that caught our attention. It has four mics in the body. Two at the base, one above the camera, and another inside the speaker itself. Cleverly, this gives the Mate 9 noise-cancelation during calls, ready to filter out background noise, so you don’t need to put your finger in your other ear to hear the other person.
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We’ve had nothing but good things to say about Huawei’s hardware for ages, but the software has been a constant negative issue. Whether it’s the speed, the over-stylisation, the irritating changes, or the lack of prompt updates, it has been the primary reason we’ve held off a heartfelt Huawei recommendation. The Mate 9 and EMUI 5.0 seem to have addressed three of these points, which is great news. However, the big one, future updates, remains a sticking point due to the customization.
It needs some flash
The Mate 9 may not have the style of the P9, but the performance impressed, and while the screen is monstrous, I was able to stretch my thumb almost all the way across the body. It’s a shame the resolution is just 1,920 x 1,080 pixels though, which drops the pixel density and therefore clarity down way below competing phones. That said, it certainly doesn’t look pixelated or bad. It’s still a gorgeous screen.
It’s the camera that may end up being the Mate 9’s secret weapon.
It’s the camera that may end up being the Mate 9’s secret weapon. It’s more versatile than the V20’s wide angle twin-lens setup, which doesn’t have a bokeh feature, and the hybrid zoom is a winner on the iPhone, so we’re keen to use it more here. First impressions regarding the pictures it takes are good, and equal to the P9, but only longer term tests will show any major improvements. Examples shown during the launch were very impressive, so we really have high hopes.
Related: Huawei and Leica open new R&D center for better smartphone cameras
We’re left feeling disappointed by the Mate 9’s design, but it’s insides are great. One could argue phones made for a work environment will never be exciting, but that’s no reason to make them staid. Gordon Gekko wore a lairy pair of braces under his dark suit, and similarly the Mate 9 is damn exciting on the inside, but lacking flair on the outside.
Price and availability
The Mate 9 is set for release in the U.S., the U.K., and other regions around the world, although a date is still to be announced. The price in U.S. dollars is unknown at the time of writing, but the Mate 9 will cost 700 euros, which is about $770 at the current exchange rate. This is interesting, as the V20 is more than $800 without a contract, so to come in below this makes the Mate 9 appear good value.
Judging books by covers is never a good idea. The more we’ve used the Mate 9, the faster and stronger it feels, which is exactly what productivity-fiends want. It should really be classed as a business phone that happens to have a really superb camera and a monster processor. However, because it is priced as a rival to the iPhone 7 Plus, the Mate 9 is trying to be the perfect all-rounder. It’s ambitious, but provided all the separate parts come together coherantly — something that hasn’t always been the case with Huawei phones — the Mate 9 may end up being the surprise big screen phone we heartily recommend in 2016.
- Improved version of already excellent dual-lens camera
- Fast new processor
- Slimmed down custom user interface
- Noise cancellation for calls
- Compact, comfortable to hold metal body
- Not an exciting looking phone
- It’s very big
- 1080p resolution is a little low for the screen size