With the launch of the Mate 9, Huawei shows that it is a force to be reckoned with in the smartphone world. After years of being labeled as a maker of budget Android alternatives, the Mate 9 proves that Huawei has the design chops to compete with the best of Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony.
Like many Huawei phones before it, the Mate 9 is an affordable alternative, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the $599 price tag. While the price doesn’t seem that much more affordable compared to the Galaxy S7, you have to take into context the device’s large 5.9-inch display. In this price, the phone compares favorably against larger flagships, like Apple’s $769 iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung’s $769 Galaxy S7 Edge or LG’s V20, which can cost as much as $829 on AT&T’s network. The affordability of the handset comes further into perspective given that the Mate 9 ships with double the storage as the base iPhone and Galaxy S7 Edge models and has the largest screen at 5.9 inches compared to Apple’s LG’s and Samsung’s offerings.
But Huawei didn’t skip any corners in order to keep the price low with its large screen phone. The Mate 9 is a big-screened phone with big aspirations, and for the most part, Huawei delivers on its promise to offer an affordable flagship with plenty of performance.
Despite its large 5.9-inch display, the Mate 9 feels smaller than it actually is in the hands thanks to its minimal bezel design. If you’ve got big hands, you can still navigate much of the phone’s interface one-handed, and Huawei even included some software tweaks to help with easy one-handed use. The Mate 9 was only marginally larger than the LG V20, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 7 Plus—all of which have smaller displays.
The Mate 9 is largely a glass and metal affair. A single sheet of slightly curved 2.5D glass frames the front of the phone, while the back is constructed of a brushed unibody aluminum accented with polished chamfered edges where metal meets glass. The only hint of plastic you’ll find is for the top and bottom caps on the rear of the device, which helps with reception. Even the buttons are made of metal. The phone feels premium and solid, and the overall build reminds me of Apple’s first generation iPad.
The downside with Huawei’s design is that the chamfered edging is prone to scratches over time. If you’re into keeping your phone pristine, the phone ships with a factory pre-installed plastic screen protector along with a slim case to help keep the back free of scratches.
While the screen is large, Huawei chose to be a bit more conservative with the resolution, opting for an Apple-esque 1080p LCD panel, rather than a higher resolution 2K QHD screen that graces LG’s and Samsung’s flagships. In use, the screen looks good with vibrant colors that are on the cooler side, but I wish Huawei had stepped up its display game. Had Huawei gone with an AMOLED panel, it could have enabled more flagship-worthy features, like an always-on display to compete with the best from Samsung.
Overall, the design of the Mate 9 is relatively clean and simple, giving it a very utilitarian feel. The volume and power buttons are located on the right edge, while the combination SIM and microSD card tray is located on the upper left edge. To access the tray, however, you’ll need to have a SIM ejector tool. Up top, there is an IR blaster, which is convenient if you’ve misplaced your TV remote, and the USB Type-C port is on the bottom, flanked by what perforated holes for the speakers and microphone. The Mate 9 ships with three microphones, which helps for clearer phone calls, directional recording of audio and cleaner sound when using the video camera.
A Leica Experience
Like recent Huawei phones, the Mate 9 ships with the company’s signature dual-camera experience with Leica optics. Huawei employs a rather unique setup for its cameras, according to the company, allowing it to capture better details, more dynamic range and a lossless zooming experience.
On the front, you’ll find an 8-megapixel f/1.9 camera. With the selfie camera, you can even enable Beauty mode for skin softening and brightening even while recording video.
On the rear, you have a pair of f/2.2 lenses. Even though the aperture seems small compared to the f/1.7 shooter on Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the dual camera implementation is very competitive in allowing the Mate 9 to capture low light images with good details and low noise. To achieve this feat, the main 12-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization uses a standard RGB sensor, allowing the Leica-branded lens to capture color. A secondary monochrome camera is equipped with a 20-megapixel resolution camera. Using clever photography algorithms, the Mate 9 combines the images captured from the main RGB camera along with the secondary monochrome sensor to render cleaner images.
And like Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, the dual-camera setup can also produce images with a blurred background. Huawei calls this implementation Wide Aperture Mode, and it works on a variety of subjects, including portraits. Like on the Honor 8 that I reviewed, Huawei’s Wide Aperture Mode is a lot more flexible than Apple’s implementation. Whereas Apple’s software has complete control on the blur, and you must set the Portrait Mode’s background blur at the moment the image is captured, with the Mate 9, you can re-adjust the blur and what you want in focus as many times as you want after the photo has been captured.
On paper, this sounds like a dream, allowing aspiring photographers to ditch their bulky DSLRs behind. However, my success with the de-focused background on the Wide Aperture Mode varied. It works well in simpler compositions, and if the camera can detect a face, performance generally was better. If there are complex elements in your image, the camera can get confused and either blur or not blur specific elements. Examples of this include complex hair, like a horse’s mane, or geometric shapes, like the cutouts in a fence structure.
The good news is that if Wide Aperture Mode inadvertently blurs part of your picture, you can “adjust” the aperture through software after the photo was captured. Going with a smaller aperture allows you to reduce or eliminate the background blur and keep the whole image in focus. Unless it’s a closeup macro shot, I found that with most images, adjusting the Wide Aperture Effect to an f/5.6 or smaller helps to reduce any confusion of what’s supposed to be in focus by the Mate 9’s camera software.
Hopefully, Huawei continues to update the camera experience through software updates to improve the performance of Wide Aperture Mode. Right now, the shallow depth of field effect seems more like a fun toy, and I’d compare the experience to shooting with Polaroid instant film—the fun lies in not knowing what result you’ll get. Fortunately, you can dial down the effect after the photo has been captured if Wide Aperture Mode doesn’t work out well.
The monochrome camera is also useful for zooming. Even though both lenses utilize the same focal length, because the monochrome sensor is higher resolution than the RGB sensor, when you use digital zoom, the monochrome sensor can still add back a lot of the details that would have been lost by cropping into an image.
The Mate 9 is capable of recording 4K video, and similar to LG’s flagship V20, the Mate 9’s microphones allow the phone to capture a lot of audio detail—even in louder environments, like at a concert—without any audio clipping or distortion. You can also turn on directional sound recording while in video capture mode. This allows the phone to either record sound from the front or from the rear. I was impressed with how well the four microphones on the Mate 9 worked in capturing clean audio in a video that I recorded at a jazz bar. Compared to the video clip captured on my iPhone 6S and my Galaxy S7 with muddied audio, the Mate 9’s audio capturing capability really shines.
Image stabilization in video mode is decent, but there is still a jelly effect if the camera experiences bumps or if you suddenly stop while walking and recording with the Mate 9. I found image stabilization to be marginally better on competing handsets, but the Mate 9 offers better audio capture.
Additionally, the phone also comes with several preloaded modes that may be useful for consumers. In addition to the standard Beauty, Panorama and HDR modes, there’s also options for Night Shot, Light Painting, Good Food, Time-Lapse and Slow-Mo. An Audio Note feature allows you to attach a sound byte to your photos, and a Document Scan Mode lets you use the Mate 9’s camera to scan in documents with image adjustment to straighten out the edges of your scans.
The Mate 9 comes with stereo speakers, but Huawei approached sound reproduction in a unique way on this flagship phone. Rather than pumping out the same audio through both the bottom-firing main speaker and the earpiece speaker, the Mate 9 reproduces stereo sound by piping out the lows and mids on the bigger bottom speaker, and channeling the high notes through the earpiece speaker.
This approach results in a cleaner, well-rounded sound experience with no distortion, even at higher volumes. Even though the Mate 9 may have sacrificed some volume gain with this method, I found the volume to still get comfortably loud, and I favored the gain in audio fidelity.
Android Nougat and EMUI 5.0
Powered by Huawei’s latest in-house Kirin 960 processor, the Mate 9 delivers a lot of performance. The phone has four high-performance ARM Cortex A73 cores clocked at 2.4GHz and four lower performance cores. In addition, it has an i6 co-processor. The phone has 4GB RAM.
Huawei says the chip uses artificial intelligence to route data and system processes to deliver the best performance, guaranteeing that the Mate 9 wouldn’t slow down over time. Since I’ve been using the Mate 9 a bit over a month ago, I’ve also resetted my LG V20 and loaded the same number of apps onto each phone. Over the course of the month, I’ve noticed that the LG V20 would hesitate a bit before launching apps, and there was a slowdown in performance in my tests. That wasn’t the case with the Mate 9, which continues to be fast and responsive without any noticeable degradation in performance.
The Mate 9 comes with Android 7.0 Nougat out of the box, and Huawei loads on its EMUI 5.0 interface. The interface itself isn’t too bad, and this time around you do get an option to use an app drawer instead of EMUI’s historically drawer-free experience that makes the UI more iPhone-like. The biggest complaint with the app drawer on Huawei’s implementation is that apps are listed alphabetically, without any options to create folders. You can still search for apps if you have a lot installed, or use the alphabetical scrollbar on the right edge to quickly jump to “S” for Google’s Sheets app.
EMUI is also aggressive with how it manages background apps, and you’ll get constant notifications of apps that continue to run in the background or frequently wake up the phone. This way, you can either continue to allow the apps to run, or force them to shut down to extend your battery life. Frequent culprits include Instagram and Facebook, for example.
EMUI also allows you to have what Huawei calls App Twins. So far, only two apps can use this feature: Facebook and Whatsapp. This is useful, if you’re managing two different Facebook accounts, or if you have different Whatsapp accounts tied to different SIM cards — the Mate 9 is a dual-SIM phone. It’d be nice if more apps can be cloned to have twins, like Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, and hopefully Huawei works on a solution.
Thankfully, with a larger phone, Huawei was able to squeeze in a larger battery. The Mate 9’s 4000 mAh battery is larger than most phones—Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge comes with a 3600 mAh battery. I found the Mate 9 to last a full day of heavy use. In standby time without using the phone, I found the V20 did a better job at reducing battery drain, but where the Mate 9 excels is in streaming videos. The Mate 9 does a better job at regulating battery drain while streaming YouTube, DirecTV Now or Netflix content than the V20, and under heavy load and with location permissions turned on in apps, it drains less quickly than the Galaxy S7 Edge.
Multiple Assistants, Multiple Personalities
Thanks to a recently released software update that brings Amazon’s Alexa to the Mate 9, Huawei now supports three voice assistants on its phone: Huawei’s Emy, Google Assistant (formerly also known as Google Now) and Amazon’s Alexa. While both Amazon and Google promote an instant-on experience just by saying “Okay Google” or “Hi Alexa,” Huawei’s implementation on the Mate 9 falls short of this simplicity.
For example, with the screen off and without any power cord connected to my LG V20, saying “Okay Google” would summon Google Assistant without any problems. Even if you enabled Google Assistant’s settings to enable voice command while the screen is off, you still need the Mate 9 to be connected to a power source, which limits its usefulness in daily use. If the screen is on, Google Assistant works without a hitch.
The experience with Alexa is even more complicated. Alexa can only be summoned when the Huawei Alexa app is opened, and from the app, you can use the Alexa command to beckon the digital experience. The Alexa implementation is a bit more limited than what’s available on Amazon’s Echo speaker as well. Smart home controls aren’t available through Alexa on the Mate 9.
The only assistant that works when the screen is off and when the Mate 9 isn’t connected to a power source is Huawei’s Emy, which has far more limited capabilities. Emy is capable of making, accepting and rejecting calls and launching applications.
In designing the Mate 9, Huawei came up with a large screen phone with a well-rounded experience. Sure, the Mate 9 doesn’t come with a unique feature that’s unavailable on another phone—like Samsung’s MST feature in Samsung Pay—but it combines the best aspects from its competition in an attractive package at an affordable price. The Mate 9 marries the V20’s audio and video capture prowess with the phablet craze driven by Samsung’s Galaxy Note lineup along Apple’s shallow depth of field camera and metal construction.
With a large screen that’s nearly six inches big, I’d expected the Mate 9 to feel like driving a van, but the phone’s slim bezels and solid construction makes it feel more like handling a fun SUV or crossover. There are only a few features that Huawei could have added to the Mate 9 even better: a higher resolution screen given the phone’s large display size and an always-on display.
If you can live without these extras, the Mate 9 is a terrific phone with a lot of performance to back it up. And at $599, it’s a much more affordable and compelling option than many of the flagships on the market today, thanks to the fun, albeit sometimes fickle, Leica-branded dual camera, zippy performance and large screen that’s suitable for content production and consumption.