Huawei Mate 9 review: big screen, long charge and two cameras

Huawei Mate 9 review: big screen, long charge and two cameras

Huawei’s Mate 9 is a phablet that tries to squeeze a monster screen into a not-quite-so monster body and mostly succeeds.

Given the demise of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 owing to exploding batteries the top-end of the phablet market is open for the first time in years.

Huawei’s Mate series - its big screened but until recently, niche phablet - has been around for a while. The Mate 9 is the latest and greatest, and while it doesn’t look much different from the outside than its predecessor the Mate 8, it’s now more widely available than ever and targeting that vacant spot at the top of the phablet tree.

Big slab of metal

huawei mate 9 review
The metal back has two colour-matched plastic windows at the top and bottom for the antennas. 

The Mate 9 doesn’t share much in the way of design likeness to Huawei’s flagship P9. The front is pretty plain: a screen with tiny bezels either side with a top bar containing the earpiece speaker and selfie camera and the bottom bar just containing the Huawei logo.

Huawei Mate 9 (grey) unlocked £807

It’s got one of the highest screen-to-body ratios of any smartphone available, which is good, because the screen really is ginormous at 5.9in. There have been a few devices with larger screens, but not many. For instance, Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus and Google’s Pixel XL have 5.5in screens, while Samsung’s Note series topped out at 5.7in on the diagonal.

The curved aluminium back and chamfered edges make it a lot easier to hold on to the Mate 9 than you might expect. I say easier, because it certainly isn’t as easy to use as a normal, non-monster smartphone such as the Galaxy S7 or Huawei P9.

Huawei Mate 9 review end
Huawei Mate 9 review end 

At 7.9mm thick, the Mate 9 is relatively thin, and even at 78.9mm wide it’s relatively narrow, but one thing it certainly isn’t is light. It weighs 190g, is solidly built and with heft.

There’s no getting over this is a bigger-than-big smartphone. For comparison, the 5.5in iPhone 7 Plus is 7.3mm thick, 77.9mm wide and weighs 188g, while Google’s Pixel XL is 8.5mm thick, 75.7mm wide and 168g.

The 5.9in screen is surprisingly good for a 1080p screen. Most smartphones this size have higher resolution screens so that they have higher pixel densities - the more pixels the sharper the screen.

You can certainly see the difference; the Mate 9’s screen is just not as pin-sharp as the Pixel XL’s screen for instance. But colour reproduction is good, so are the viewing angles and brightness.


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Specifications

  • Screen: 5.9in 1080p LCD (373ppi)
  • Processor: octa-core Huawei Kirin 960
  • RAM: 4GB of RAM
  • Storage: 64GB + microSD card
  • Operating system: Android 7.0 with EMUI 5
  • Camera: 12MP RGB with OIS + 20MP monochrome rear cameras, 8MP front-facing camera
  • Connectivity: LTE, dual-sim, Wi-Fi, NFC, USB-C, Bluetooth 4.2 and GPS
  • Dimensions: 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm
  • Weight: 190g

Impressive battery life

The Mate 9 can take two sims at the same time for two numbers and plans connected to one smartphone, or the second sim slot can be used with a microSD card for adding more storage.
The Mate 9 can take two sims at the same time for two numbers and plans connected to one smartphone, or the second sim slot can be used with a microSD card for adding more storage. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The Mate 9 has Huawei’s new top of the line processor the Kirin 960 and 4GB of RAM, which places right up there with the best of the rest of Android devices in raw power.

It’s snappy, particularly in launching apps, which is down in part to Huawei’s new system of intelligent resource management that predicts apps you’re likely to want to use at any given moment.

My usage is obviously predictable because after about two days it was noticeably snappier. Particularly when launching relatively complex apps such as Evernote and games. It actually felt faster than any other Android smartphone I have used to date, which is an achievement.

Huawei promises that its smart systems will keep it that way over the lifespan of the smartphone, but it’s not something we’ll be able to tell for a year or so.

The Mate 9’s battery is equally impressive. Without any power saving modes active I routinely went over 36 hours between charges, dropping only 3% overnight with do not disturb enabled. I used it as my primary device with three hours of app usage and browsing, hundreds of emails and push notifications, a few photos, 30 minutes of mapping, five hours of music over Bluetooth headphones and quite a lot of Dan the Man and Out There Ω during my one hour and 20-minute train commute to and from work.

There are some aggressive power saving modes that promise to stretch the battery life out further. For most the Huawei Mate 9 will last a good two days between charges.

A full charge took just over two hours via the included fast charging USB-C power adapter.

Call quality was excellent, and so was its signal retention: the Mate 9 got a strong, usable 4G signal in places most other smartphone struggle to get any signal, including underground.

Emotion UI 5

huawei mate 9 review
Emotion UI 5 is the most refined and pleasing to use version of Android Huawei has produced and is a big step forward for the company.

Huawei customises Android on its smartphones with a different look and changes to the underlying control and app permissions systems, which it calls Emotion UI (EMUI).

In the past EMUI has been a bit clunky, chintzy and not to my tastes looking a bit like an Android clone of Apple’s iOS. The new EMUI 5, which is based on Android 7 Nougat, is a giant leap in the right direction.

It’s much more streamlined. Out the box it doesn’t have an app drawer - every icon must be on the home screen - but it’s a simple option to enable. The colour scheme across the whole interface has been cooled to a much more modern-looking white and blue.

The strange notification panes and other changes that made EMUI worse than most other Android versions have been removed. A series of quick settings are now accessible from the notification shade and even the overview of recently used apps now resembles standard Android.

EMUI 5 still has the tight control over app power consumption, and the reminders that guide users through the identification and killing of apps that are using more than their fair share of power when the screen is off. Some may not like them, but they are useful when used properly at prolonging battery life without having to change you habits.

Some of Huawei’s apps are actually better than standard Android’s counterparts too. The voice recorder app, which is able to use the range of microphones positioned about the phone to identify where a person is speaking from an isolate their audio, is particularly good for recording roundtable meetings.

The app twin feature is also worth using - it allows you to have two instances of apps that only allow one login, such as WhatsApp, Facebook and others. It essentially duplicates the app so you can hot swap between them.

Fingerprint scanner

huawei mate 9 review
The fingerprint scanner on the back of the Mate 9 is the best in the business, unlocking so fast you blink and you miss it. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Huawei’s fingerprint scanners are the best in the business for accuracy and speed. The one of the back of the Mate 9 is no exception. Despite being quite small compared to rivals, it worked with a near 100% accuracy. The only time it didn’t recognise my finger instantly was when I was cooking and it was a bit greasy.

Camera

huawei mate 9 review
The monochrome mode using the dedicated black and white 20-megapixel camera is great fun to use.

The Mate 9 has the second generation of Huawei’s dual camera, which like the P9 is branded as co-engineered with camera maker Leica.

There is one 12-megapixel colour camera with optical image stabilisation and one 20-megapixel monochrome sensor, which is used to collect more light information for the colour camera to improve the amount of detail captured in the shots.

That’s the theory, in practice the whole experience is pretty transparent. If you didn’t know there were two cameras on the back you wouldn’t notice.

Low-light performance is good, but not quite up to the same quality as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge or the Pixel XL. It’s relatively easy to get good shots in average lighting conditions, and you can produce some detail-rich, beautiful shots in good lighting.

There are various camera modes to choose from, including an easy to use “Pro” or manual mode and some software-based refocusing tricks. But it is the monochrome mode, which just uses the monochrome camera on the back that’s the most fun, capturing sharp, black and white photos better than any colour camera just turned black and white ever could.

The 8-megapixel selfie camera is good - most will like its balance of detail and soft focus for more flattering pictures. It struggled a bit in low-light conditions but no more than most others.

Observations

  • There’s a super simple mode should you want to use it without the complexity of apps all over a home screen
  • There are lots and lots of customisation options should you want to change the order of the navigation buttons, enable gesture support, themes, the size of items on the screen, the colour temperature etc
  • A blue light filter is there for saving your eyes at night and helping you sleep
  • Various utilities such as a floating dock, a shifting keyboard and a mini-screen view are available to help make using the Mate 9 one handed a little easier

Price

The Mate 9 costs €699 (£595) and is expected to be available by the end of November in a range of five colours in some markets.

For comparison, Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus and Google’s Pixel XL both cost £719 with 32GB of storage, Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge costs around £520, the Huawei P9 Plus costs £500 and the OnePlus 3T costs £399.

Verdict

The Huawei Mate 9 is a very large smartphone that does a great job of not feeling so in use. The curved back, minimal body to screen ratio and solid build mean it’s easier to hold onto than you might expect.

But with that 5.9in screen, it’s still a massive phone whichever way you look at it, both in use and in your pocket or bag.

After the demise of Samsung’s top-end Note 7 phablet, the Mate 9 is ready to fill the void, as long as a stylus isn’t crucial. So if you want a phone with the big screen, snappy performance and great battery life, a good camera, excellent fingerprint scanner, expandable memory and dual-sim support you can’t go far wrong with the Mate 9.

Pros: expandable storage, dual-sim, great battery life, excellent fingerprint scanner, good camera, massive screen

Cons: big, heavy, screen only 1080p

huawei mate 9 review
The Mate 9 comes with a screen protector pre-installed, but like any other screen protector, it feels nicer to use without one stuck to the screen. 

Huawei Mate 9 (grey) unlocked £807


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