Highlight - Improved dual-camera setup, impressive battery life, and a brand new processor make the Huawei Mate 9 a contender for Smartphone of the year
Huawei has two main line ups of smartphones right now, there's the P series and then the Mate series. The Mate series is arguably more popular, and that's due to the fact that it has a large screen (something that's very popular now thanks to Samsung) but also pretty incredible battery life. If you take a look back through our reviews of the Huawei Ascend Mate, Ascend Mate 2, Mate 7, Mate S and Mate 8, you'll notice one thing about them, they all had fantastic battery life. So the Huawei Mate 9 has big shoes to fill. Especially with Huawei touting the fact that it can last two days on a charge. That's not all that Huawei has packed into the Mate 9 either, and with a €699 price tag, you'd expect plenty more and Huawei does give that and then some.
With a 5.9-inch 1080p display, the latest Kirin 960 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage out of the box, is the Mate 9 the phone to beat? Probably. And it couldn't have come at a better time (again thanks to Samsung). But is it worth throwing hundreds of dollars at (or Euros if you're in Europe) to pick one up? Let's find out.
The Mate series has always sported a rather large display, and the Mate 9 is no different. Huawei has equipped the Mate 9 with a rather large 5.9-inch 1080p display. This means it's a Full HD display with about 373 pixels per inch. It's also an LCD display. Powering the Mate 9 is the HiSilicon Kirin 960 CPU which is the first one to use Cortex-A73 cores from ARM. Which is something that Huawei really touted in the announcement of this phone. The Kirin 960 is an octa-core processor - four 2.4GHz Cortex-A73 cores and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A53 cores. That SoC is also paired with the Mali-G71, another first for the Mate 9. For memory and storage, we are looking at 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. There is a micro SD card slot included which can support up to 256GB of storage.
On the camera side of things, we have a dual camera setup, which Huawei worked with Leica to create. It's a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel RGB sensor. The RGB sensor does have OIS, and both have an aperture of f/2.2. The front-facing camera is a 8-megapixel shooter with a f/1.9 aperture. When it comes to connectivity, we have support for LTE-A Cat12 600/150Mbps, but also WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.2, and NFC. It does location tracking with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, and GALILEO. Finally, it does use a USB Type-C port to power the 4000mAh battery that is non-removable.
Colors that are available for the Huawei Mate 9 include Space Gray, Moonlight Silver, Champagne Gold, Mocha Brown, Ceramic White and Black. Our review unit here is the Mocha Brown color.
In the Box
Inside the retail packaging, Huawei has provided us with all of the usual suspects. Right on top you'll find the Huawei Mate 9, Below that you'll find two more boxes. One has the wall charger, USB-C to USB-A cable, and a pair of headphones. The other box features your quick start guide and a snap on case to protect the Huawei Mate 9. It's a brown case, and it's the same color no matter which color of the Mate 9 you pick up.
When it comes to hardware, we've pretty much known what to expect from Huawei. All of their devices feel really solid and high-end. Even if the design is a bit boring at times. The Huawei Mate 9 kept a somewhat similar design, compared to the Huawei Mate 8. But it did make some subtle changes. It's a bit more conservative, compared to the other smartphones out there right now. Huawei has an aluminum jacket on the Mate 9, which makes for a great looking device, but often times a slippery one. However, we are happy to report that our Mocha Brown colored review unit isn't as slippery as some of the other colors. We got hands on time at their launch event in Munich, Germany with the Space Gray model, which was a bit slippery, and felt pretty boring to be honest. But the Mocha Brown model feels much different in the hand, and looks pretty nice, to say the least.
The backside of the Mate 9 is in brown, as is the chin and forehead of the front. However the frame is in a more copper color, which gives a nice contrast to the back and front. The back of the device houses that dual camera setup, which is slightly upgraded from the Huawei P9 announced earlier this year. Instead of featuring two 12-megapixel sensors back there, there is a 20-megapixel and a 12-megapixel sensor. The 20-megapixel sensor is a black and white sensor and the 12-megapixel sensor is your RGB sensor. To the left of the sensor is your dual LED flash and then your phase detection autofocus and laser autofocus on the right side. There is also a fingerprint sensor below the camera set up, which is smaller than what we've seen on other Huawei and Honor smartphones. More on that a bit later.
Huawei has the power button below the volume rocker on the right side. Now Huawei referred to this setup as upside down, and they did it this way as they felt it gave users a better experience than having the buttons reversed. And in everyday usage, that does definitely appear to be the case for us. On the top of the device, you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack as well as an IR blaster. Huawei said that their users loved having an IR blaster, so they made sure to keep it included in the Mate 9. The bottom of the device houses a speaker and a USB Type-C connector. Now the Mate 9 does do stereo sound, using the bottom speaker and then the earpiece as the other speaker. Finally, on the left side of the device houses the SIM card and SD card tray.
There's not a whole lot to say here about the hardware on the Mate 9. It does look a whole lot like any other Huawei smartphone, which is to be expected. It has a slightly curved back, which makes it fit more comfortably in the hand. There's no doubt about it, the Mate 9 is a large smartphone, with a 5.9-inch display you'd expect that. But the phone is pretty compact, it's actually the same size as the iPhone 7 Plus which has a 5.5-inch display. That just goes to show you how small these bezels really are on the Mate 9.
Huawei has been adamant about keeping their devices to a 1080p display. Saying that QHD or 2K displays aren't really necessary, and that they just affect battery life and gaming performance. So it's no surprise to see a 1080p display here on the Mate 9. Although it is a bit of a surprise to see the more expensive PORSCHE DESIGN Huawei Mate 9 feature a 2K display. Using a 1080p display on the Mate 9 means that the battery life is going to last even longer. But if the display is terrible, than the extra battery life doesn't make much of a difference. Luckily, the display looks incredible.
This is an IPS panel, that Huawei is using on the Mate 9. Which means it should be pretty good at viewing outdoors in direct sunlight, which it is. We used the Mate 9 in direct sunlight and could still see the display without much of an issue. Additionally, the display got nice and dim, but perhaps not dim enough, especially in dark rooms. But Huawei has a nifty trick up its sleeve in the Mate 9. And the feature is 'Eye Comfort'. What this feature does is that it filters out the blue light and it will relieve the visual fatigue when you are reading for a long period of time. Especially at night. There is a toggle for this in the quick settings, but there is also the ability to schedule when this feature automatically enables. I have it set to enable at 10pm and disable at 7am everyday. You also have the ability to adjust the temperature the screen is when Eye Comfort is turned on, so you can set it to your liking.
Outside of that, you can also adjust the temperature of the screen. So that you can adjust it to be cooler or warmer, which ever is your preference. From the naked eye, the screen normally looks a bit cool, but you can adjust that if that does indeed bother you. The display isn't as sharp as something you'd find on the Galaxy S7 Edge from Samsung, or really any other QHD smartphone. But it's quite good for a 1080p panel, and in fact, it doesn't even bother me that it's a 1080p display. It's just that good. Now of course, if you're looking for a phone to use for virtual reality, then the Mate 9 may not be that great - and that's due to having the screen much closer to your eyes than if you were using it normally.
When announcing the Mate 9, Huawei was pretty proud to be able to say that this is the first smartphone using the new ARM Cortex-A73 architecture in the Kirin 960 (also the first device to feature this SoC). The Kirin 960 is an octa-core processor featuring four Cortex-A73 cores clocked at 2.4GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. Making it a pretty powerful processor, especially when paired with the Mali-G71 GPU and 4GB of RAM. With this kind of specs, you would expect the performance on the Mate 9 to be top notch, especially in everyday usage, and it certainly is. We experienced virtually no issues with using the Mate 9 daily. This included doing things like going through Twitter, using Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail and other apps.
Now when it came to gaming, that is where those Cortex-A73 cores really showed what they were made of. The gaming experience on the Mate 9 was top notch. Probably one of the best gaming experiences on a smartphone released this year. The Mali-G71 definitely lived up to all of the hype, and it's going to be interesting to see how many OEMs use it next year (Samsung is rumored to use it with an Exynos processor in the Galaxy S8).
When it comes to RAM, 4GB is more than enough. For most people, 3GB is even enough RAM. And that was our experience on the Mate 9 with 4GB of RAM. There's plenty here, we never even came close to using up all of the available RAM, never mind running out of RAM. Memory management isn't bad at all, nothing like what Samsung does with their devices. Going back into recents and opening an app that was already opened, simply brings the app back up, instead of reloading it. Which is nice to see.
Huawei, as some might say, pioneered the fingerprint sensor being on the back of a smartphone. Their fingerprint sensors have always been lightning fast and very, very accurate. And it's no different here with the Huawei Mate 9. The big difference between the fingerprint sensor here on the Mate 9 and some other smartphones is the fact that the sensor is actually a bit smaller. Now Huawei didn't tell us why the sensor was smaller, but it looks like this was done to make it uniform with the camera module above it. Now with the sensor being smaller, the sensor is still just as accurate as you would expect from a Huawei device. Unlocking the phone is nice and quick, and since it is running on Android 7.0, the fingerprint API is included. Meaning that you can use the fingerprint sensor to login to supported apps and authenticate purchases made in Google Play and Android Pay.
The fingerprint sensor is a sort of touch pad, like you see on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones. Allowing you to swipe down to pull down the notification shade, and swipe up to get rid of it. This isn't actually new on Huawei devices, as this was part of the feature-set in the Honor 8, that the company launched over the summer. However, it doesn't bring all of the features from the Honor 8, as this is just a sensor and not an actual button like the Honor 8's fingerprint sensor is.
Even with the Huawei Mate 9 being such a large device, the fingerprint sensor seems to be in the perfect spot. It's right about where your finger would be resting when holding the device. Making it easy to pull the phone out of your pocket and unlock it, as well as logging into apps using it, without needing to shimmy your hand up the device to get your finger onto the sensor.
The Mate 9 wasn't announced to be available in the US, but we do know it is coming. Huawei hasn't yet made it official, as there are still some things going on behind-the-scenes to get it ready for a US release. Having said that, the model that we have here does have all of the bands necessary to be used in the US. Both the MHA-L29 (the model we are using) and the MHA-L09 work in the US with AT&T and T-Mobile, unfortunately neither one works with Sprint or Verizon, even though there is some CDMA support on the MHA-L29 model. The bands for the MHA-L29 are listed below.
GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900
HSDPA 800, 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100
LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 26, 28, 29, 38, 40, and 41.
Now, we used the Huawei Mate 9 on T-Mobile (both in Germany and in the US) and it worked great with both. We actually noticed that it got better reception in the US than on other smartphones, even T-Mobile branded smartphones. Definitely nice to see, as you can never have enough signal, especially in dead zones. Speaking of dead zones, areas where we typically wouldn't get coverage, or have very slow 4G LTE speeds, we were getting some pretty fast speeds. Now also keep in mind that this will not support WiFi Calling, VoLTE or any other carrier technology like that in the US. Since this smartphone is not sold on a carrier, it does not have their software baked in which would enable these services.
We do also have WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac as well as Bluetooth 4.2 included here. WiFi speeds were about what we've seen with other smartphones. So no real surprises there. Bluetooth also worked well. We didn't have many issues with it losing connection, as we've seen with other recently announced smartphones.
No front-facing speakers here, but we do have stereo speakers on the Mate 9. The speaker is at the bottom of the device, and it's actually both sides of the USB-C port, instead of just one side. For the second speaker, Huawei is using the earpiece on the front of the device. Which is similar to what Lenovo has done with the latest Moto smartphones. This provides nice and clear, also loud audio from the Mate 9. The speakers are pretty good here on the Mate 9, not perfect, but pretty great. Watching videos on YouTube, the speakers perform quite well. Giving you clear sound, even while holding the device. Thanks to the earpiece being a second speaker, you don't need to worry about covering the bottom speaker and affecting the audio that the Mate 9 is outputting.
There's not much available here as far as settings go for the audio side of things on the Mate 9. But Huawei does have the option to use Stereo+. What this does is when the device is in landscape mode, it will switch from euphony to stereo, and provide some pretty amazing sound. During our review, we left this option on the entire time, and were quite impressed with how well it really worked.
Benchmarks don't always translate to real-world experience, but the numbers from the Kirin 960 SoC and 4GB of RAM in the Mate 9 definitely look stunning. For Geekbench 4, it scored a 1935 in the single-core test and a 5907 in the multi-core test. Now what does that mean when comparing it to other devices on the market? Well it's the best. In the single-core test, the device with the highest score is the Galaxy S7 (even higher than the Galaxy Note 7) with 1806. So it has a pretty big lead over it. When it comes to the multi-core test, the highest is the Galaxy Note 7 at 5228. Making a big jump between the two.
With AnTuTu, the story isn't actually the same. It scored a 122,254, which is pretty impressive in its own right, but it's not the highest score we've seen in AnTuTu. That's actually only good enough to put it at #20 between the LG G5 and Meizu PRO 6. Both of which are high-end flagship devices that launched this year, but still pretty low on the totem pole.
These numbers don't really mean a whole lot, for daily usage, but it does show that this processor is quite powerful, and being the first to use the Cortex-A73 architecture from ARM, it shows just how powerful mobile processors will be in the next year or so.
One of the big features of Huawei's Mate series, and something that has made it super popular, is its battery life. And the Mate 9 doesn't disappoint. It has a pretty large 4,000mAh battery inside, which lasts all day long - actually, Huawei says it can last you up to two days. We've steadily gotten 6+ hours of on-screen time out of this battery. Which is pretty impressive, and largely the same as the Honor 8 which has been my daily driver for a few months now. Which shows that Huawei really knows what they are doing with software optimization and making these batteries last as long as possible. It can probably get you through two full days of usage, especially with standby being so good (a big thanks to the improved Doze mode in Android 7.0 Nougat), but we were often only able to get through a full day and have about 30-40% left at the end of the day, which is still very respectable.
Having a huge battery inside a smartphone is great, but what isn't great is charging it. Typically these larger battery capacities will take longer to recharge - it's a good thing that you only need to charge the Mate 9 at night then. But Huawei has a feature in the Mate 9 that allows you to charge it pretty fast. It's called SuperCharge, and using the included charger, it can output up to 4.5A, which brings some serious power to the Mate 9. Huawei said that you can fully charge the battery (from 0 to 100%) in 90 minutes with the included charger. Now since the charger is an EU charger, we were only able to test it out while in Germany for the launch event, and we're happy to report that it does indeed charge it that fast. Luckily it does still work with Qualcomm's Quick Charge solutions, so you are able to charge the Mate 9 using Quick Charge 3.0, although it is a bit slower, without any issues.
There are some power-saving modes here, which we haven't needed to actually use. Since the battery lasts so long already. But we have a "Power Saving Mode" which "limits background app activity, reduces or disables some visual effects and sounds, and disables background email retrieval to save power. Power saving mode will turn off automatically when your device is charging or has a full charge." Now this mode doesn't add a whole lot more time to the battery, but if you're in need of keeping the Mate 9 alive longer, this is definitely a good idea. Then there is "Ultra", which according to Huawei's description here "Only select apps are available." It basically turns off everything and only gives access to six apps. Three of those are the phone, messaging and contacts. You can add the other three if you wish to do so. Now the Ultra power saving mode does definitely save you a ton of battery. Throughout my usage, I've seen the time go up to as much as 271 hours. Which equals about 11 days, that's pretty impressive to say the least.
If you were wondering about the battery life here on the Mate 9, don't. It's everything it's cracked up to be, and then some.
The Huawei Mate 9 introduces us to EMUI 5.0 and Android 7.0 Nougat. So with the Mate 9 we're able to see what Huawei is planning to do with Android 7.0 (they are preparing a beta of EMUI 5.0 for the Honor 8 now, and should have other devices updated shortly thereafter). It's launching with the October 1st security patch. When this was announced, it was the latest security patch, so good job of Huawei to launch it with the latest patch.
When talking with Huawei, there were a lot of things that they opted to change with EMUI 5.0, versus EMUI 4. One of the big ones was getting to different settings. If you used the Huawei P9, or the Honor 8, then you'll know that a number of settings are located under the "Advanced Settings" section, making it a bit difficult to jump to things like storage, memory and battery life. Now, 90% of the common user settings are within 1-2 taps when jumping into settings. Making it easier to get to everything. Another big change was the launcher. Huawei, and many other Chinese manufacturers, don't use an app drawer in their skin. That appears to be a big thing over in Asia, but on the Western side of the world, many of us prefer and app drawer. Luckily, there is an option to bring it back now. Just head into Settings > Home Screen Style and select "Drawer." It's a small feature, but definitely worth having here.
There's a few other interesting features available in EMUI 5.0, and one of them is "App Twin". Now what this allows you to do is log into two accounts at the same time on supported apps. Right now, the only ones supported are WhatsApp and Facebook. Supposedly WeChat is supported, but that may only be in the Chinese ROM, seeing as mostly only those in China use WeChat. This means that you can use two WhatsApp accounts at the same time, by having two instances of the app running. It's a pretty interesting feature, but since I only have one Facebook and one WhatsApp account, I didn't really have a need for it.
The update to EMUI 5.0 is full of fantastic changes, but not all of them are good. For instance, in the status bar now, instead of seeing the app icons for notifications, you just get a number. Meaning you need to open the shade to see what notifications you have. And if you use an app like LastPass that always a notification in there, that means you will always have a "1" in the status bar. It's not something we like, but we have gotten used to it. Now something we don't like, pertains to Gmail and Inbox notifications. And that is the fact that the subject of the email is shown in white, the same color as the background of the notification. Meaning you can't read the subject. Now with this being Android 7.0 Nougat, you do get multiple notifications together, then you can see the subject, but when you expand the notifications to deal with each email, the subject turns white again. It's a bit strange, and it's something that affects most software skins from Chinese manufacturers, surprisingly. Meizu has the issue with Flyme OS, and Xiaomi with MIUI. Leads us to wonder if they don't check and/or try Gmail or Inbox because it's not available in China.
When it comes to Nougat features, there are actually plenty of them in here. Huawei has adopted Google's multi-window feature. So you can long-press the recents button to jump into that. You can also use your knuckle and draw a line horizontally across the display to jump into it. Speaking of gestures with your knuckle, you can also knock on the display to take a screenshot. This is something that first debuted on the Honor 8 earlier this year. The settings app does also have the slide-out drawer, like AOSP Nougat has. We also have the updated Doze from Nougat on the Mate 9, which provides even better standby time on the device. One last Nougat feature that is available on the Mate 9 is the ability to quickly double-tap the recents button to switch back to the last opened app. It's a small feature that debuted in Android 7.0, but it definitely makes multi-tasking even better.
After using the Mate 9 as our daily driver for about a week, it's safe to say that EMUI has definitely gotten better. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot. There are still things that need to be updated and changed, but this update shows that Huawei is paying attention to their customer feedback, and making changes based on that feedback. Which is important, because without customers, there is no Huawei.
Prior to 2016, one of Huawei's weak points was their camera. We had the opportunity to visit Huawei in China last year and we asked about their cameras, because they are good but they weren't great. Huawei told us that we'd see a huge improvement in their smartphone cameras in 2016, and we have. Starting with the Huawei P9 back in April, where the company debuted their dual-camera setup that was Leica branded. Our Editor-In-Chief, Tom, attended that event and reviewed the P9 and absolutely loved the camera. Huawei continued this with their flagship Honor device in August with the Honor 8. Although it wasn't Leica branded, it was a slightly upgraded camera from the P9 earlier in the year. That device has been my daily driver since it launched, and I absolutely love it. And that got me excited about the Mate 9's camera. As it was an upgraded camera setup from Leica and Huawei. Featuring a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel RGB sensor (as opposed to a 12-megapixel RGB and a 12-megapixel monochrome in the P9 and Honor 8). And even with the high expectations, we still came away impressed.
Before we jump into the camera quality, let's talk about some of the features and the actual software. The camera app is jampacked with all sorts of features, yet it still looks fairly minimal. Holding it in landscape, you'll see a few quick (and easy to get to) settings on the left side. This includes the option to switch cameras (rear to front, and vice versa). There's also filters, flash and wide aperture. The wide aperture is good for those macro and close-up shots you are looking to take. Swiping in from left to right, you'll find all of the modes included. This includes auto, monochrome, beauty, video, HDR, beauty video, panorama, night shot, light painting, time-lapse, slow-mo, watermark, audio note, document scan and Good Food. There is a button to download more, however right now the only one you can download is "Good Food", this may change in the future though. Swiping from right to left, brings you into all the rest of the settings. An important thing to note here is that out-of-the-box the camera will default to 12MP. But you can do 20MP, which is a bit strange since the RGB sensor is 12-megapixel. But Huawei explained to us that it basically takes multiple photos like the new Pixel smartphones do, to give you that 20-megapixel resolution.
There's another feature in this camera that I absolutely loved, and that's the fact that you can do manual in any mode. You probably noticed that when listing off the available modes, there was no professional or manual mode listed. That is because you can use manual settings in every single mode on the camera. That is pretty impressive, and will make every photographer happy.
Enough about the software, how's the pictures? Phenomenal. The pictures all came out looking stunning. None of them had blown out backgrounds, nor were they oversaturated. Additionally, these monochrome photos looked pretty amazing as well. Now there's another feature that I didn't mention, and that's the Hybrid Zoom. Basically, this uses image data from the larger 20-megapixel sensor to allow for lossless zooming. Meaning you can zoom in and it won't degrade the picture. In the gallery below, there is a picture of a "Trump Pence" sign (this was taken before the election, obviously), it is zoomed in about halfway and in monochrome. And it just looks absolutely stunning.
The Huawei Mate 9's camera is up there as one of the best smartphone cameras of the year. We were seriously impressed with this camera, and it only got better the more we used it. This is leaving us excited to see what Huawei does in 2017, as they have just set up an R&D facility with Leica in Germany a few months ago, so this partnership will be continuing for the foreseeable future. And we're excited about it.
Android 7.0 Nougat
A bit of a boring design
Some quirks with EMUI 5.0
We basically knew what to expect with the Huawei Mate 9. And that wasn't due to all the leaks, but because this is the fifth Mate smartphone the company has produced, and the DNA has always been the same. A big phone, with a big battery. And that's what the Mate 9 is. And it is arguably a more popular line than their P series, which was their original flagship. The Mate 9 is probably going to be one of Huawei's best smartphones for the near future, depending on what they announce at CES in January and Mobile World Congress in February.
The only real down-side to the Huawei Mate 9 is pricing and availability. The device was announced to cost €699 in Europe. Pricing was not announced for other regions, and no availability was announced either. Which is not a good thing for Huawei. With the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 being taken off the market, now is the time for the Mate 9 to hit the market and hit it strong, as users are wanting another big smartphone to replace the Galaxy Note 7. And unfortunately, the Mate 9 may come a bit too late. The Mate 9 is coming to the US (and the model we have supports ALL of T-Mobile and AT&T's bands), but there's no word on when that will happen.
Should you buy the Huawei Mate 9?
If you don't mind, or prefer a larger device, then yes. There's plenty to love about the Huawei Mate 9. Like most phones it does have its quirks, but those are pretty easy to get used too. The battery life and larger display definitely make this an attractive smartphone from Huawei. And the fact that it looks like Huawei is getting on board with quicker software updates, just gives users another reason why the Mate 9 should be their next smartphone.