Huawei Mate 9 review: A giant phone with a small frame and big ambitions

Huawei Mate 9 review: A giant phone with a small frame and big ambitions

If you hold the Huawei Mate 9 just right, it can almost look like a Galaxy Note7.

Granted, you probably don’t want it to look like a Note7 after all it went through, but there’s no denying the character and craftsmanship that Samsung’s phablet exuded. And while there are distinct differences between the two handsets, the sturdy, svelte build of the Mate 9 instantly conjures images of the Note7 in happier times.

But that’s not to write it off as a copycat. Even with a somewhat derivative design, the Mate 9, which recently became available for purchase in the U.S., packs quite a punch. With a proprietary chipset, Leica-branded camera, and decidedly unique spin on Nougat, the phone absolutely plays by its own rules, and proves that Huawei can hold its own against other premium phone makers.

Pixels on display

The most defining feature of any smartphone is the display, but on the 5.9-inch Mate 9 it’s particularly striking. Its ultra thin top and bottom bezels manage to pack a tremendous screen into a relatively small package without needing to rely on wrap-around curves or even a particularly high pixel count. (In fact, its 1080 x 1920 IPS LCD is fairly pedestrian by today’s standards, especially when compared to the Note7’s stunning Quad HD 2560x1440 display.)

mate 9 display Christopher Hebert

The Mate 9’s 5.9-inch display is flanked by small bezels that allow it to fit comfortably in your hand.

Of course, small is relative here. If you’re not a fan of phablets the Mate 9 is unlikely to convince you otherwise, but large phone lovers will appreciate just how much screen Huawei has built into this phone. For comparison purposes, it’s just 2mm longer and 3mm wider than the Pixel XL (and just as thin), yet you’re getting nearly half an inch of extra screen.

Display purists will grumble about the seemingly low-density 373ppi density, but the 1080p resolution doesn’t dull the Mate 9 experience in the slightest. While the sides of the Mate 9’s glass curve down kind of like the Galaxy S7 Edge or Note7, the display ends before the curve. However, I barely noticed the bezels, and the slight curves felt smooth and natural in my hand. Furthermore, its thinness helped make it seem far less unwieldy than it should, even when attempting to use it with one hand.

Pushing buttons

With such skinny bezels, Huawei opted to put its name where the home button would be (a Samsung-inspired design feature I could do without), so you’ll find the fingerprint sensor around the back. It’s noticeably smaller than one on the Nexus and Pixel phones, but its speed mostly made up for my sloppy fumbling during most unlocking attempts. Equally offputting is the placement of the sensor, about an eighth of an inch below the camera and a good half-inch away from where my finger naturally rested, and I often had to readjust my grip to reach it.

mate 9 buttons Christopher Hebert

Hauwei placed the Mate 9’s power button below the volume rocker, and I had a devil of a time getting used to it.

As someone who generally relies on vibrations rather than sounds, I found the Mate 9’s haptic engine to be alarmingly powerful. It jolted me out of my chair a couple times when a alert came in and eventually I shut them off altogether. Even the keyboard vibrations were bit too strong for my liking (a feature I use on my Galaxy S7 and Pixel phones), and I found myself wanting for an intensity slider.

Then there are the physical buttons. The volume rocker and power buttons are both on the right edge of the device, but unlike the Pixel, the power button is below the volume controls, and I lost track of how many times I pressed volume up expecting the screen to turn on or off. It’s a small issue for sure, but if your muscle memory as stubborn as mine, it’s one that will be a constant bother.

Speed demon

Like the international Note7’s Exynos 8890, the Mate 9 is built on a proprietary processor, Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 960, an octa-core Big.Little CPU design with four ARM 2.4GHz Cortex A73 cores coupled with four Cortex A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. What that boils down to is a downright screamer of a chip.

From scrolling to scrubbing, everything on the Mate 9 feels buttery smooth, and it rarely got warm, even under heavy loads. Apps launched instantly, movies played with little-to-no lag, and live streams were impressively clear. Benchmarks were mostly on par with the Pixel, but in day-to-day use it felt even faster than the Snapdragon 821, a real feat for a device with such a large screen to keep lit. If it wasn’t for the 1080p screen, in fact, it would be a killer Daydream phone. As such, Google recommends the Mate 9 Pro, which has the same processor but adds a 2K curved screen.

mate 9 benchmarks battery Greenbot

A large battery gives the Mate 9 fantastic longevity.

Also impressive is the battery life. The Mate 9 includes a giant 4,000 mAh battery, but with such a gigantic sdisplay, I was dubious that I could last through the whole day. Those fears were completely unfounded, and not only did the Mate 9 tear through a heavy day like a champ, it rarely needed a charge at the end of it. And its SuperCharge tech let me quickly power up while I got ready for work in the morning, getting me from the red to a near-full charge in about an hour. In my benchmark tests, the Mate 9 topped off at a whopping 9 hours and 38 minutes, besting the Pixel XL by nearly three hours.

However, since the Mate 9 started as a China phone, it doesn’t play nicely with the CDMA networks in the States. That means Sprint or Verizon subscribers like myself won’t be able to use it without switching to AT&T or T-Mobile, a real bummer and a likely deal-breaker for many would-be buyers.

Snap decision

Like several of the flagship phones on the market, the Mate 9 utilizes a dual camera setup, with 20MP monochrome and 12MP RBG sensors that work together to bring depth of field and clarity to images. But the Mate 9 has one more thing going for it: Leica branding.

mate 9 back Christopher Hebert

The Mate 9 features a dual-camera system co-engineered with Leica.

The name alone commands attention when you’re talking about photography, and it mostly lives up to the hype here. While it doesn’t offer the kind of leap the Leica name suggests, the Mate 9 is a definitely a solid performer along the lines of the Galaxy S7 and Pixel. Features like optical image stabilization and 2x faux-optical zoom give it a real premium feel, while easy-to-access manual controls give you tremendous control over every picture.

pixel mate compare Greenbot

The Mate 9 photo on the left doesn’t quite capture the same color and sharpness as the Pixel on the right but it’s still a solid performer.

But even if you stick to the Mate 9’s auto settings, your pictures will be crisp and vivid. While I found some shots to be a touch undersaturated when compared to the Pixel, detail and focus were superb, even in low light conditions. Portrait mode (called wide aperture here) isn’t just limited to faces, and you can adjust the depth of field to fit the background, a neat touch that even the iPhone doesn’t allow. The phone’s f/2.2 aperture caused some softness with nighttime images, but coupled with the optical image stabilization and dual-tone LED flash, there weren’t too many unusable shots.

iphone mate 9 Greenbot

When compared to the iPhone 7 (left), the Mate 9 gives you more control over how much depth of field your wide aperture photos will exhibit.

Around the front, the Mate 9 sports an 8MP camera with several features selfie enthusiasts will appreciate. Autofocus helps the camera capture multiple faces quickly, and a beauty mode gets rid of any bothersome skin blemishes. And if you’re shooting in the dark, it will turn the screen white a moment before it snaps your picture to lighten up the shot a bit.

selfie mate Greenbot

Even if pitch-black rooms, the Mate 9’s faux-front flash will brighten your selfies.

While neither camera brings anything particularly innovative to the table, that doesn’t stop the Mate 9 from being a top-notch shooter that will produce stunning images with little fuss.

Sweet spin on Nougat

But of course, none of this matters if the OS is unusable. We spend a lot of time navigating our phones and jumping in and out of settings, and the mileage can vary greatly between Android versions. I’m happy to say that Huawei hits it out of the park with its EMUI 5.0 interface.

mate 9 emui Greenbot

From the settings to the customization, EMUI 5.0 on the Mate 9 is a pleasure to use.

Now, Android purists will still probably pitch a fit, and I’m generally right there with them. I’m a big proponent of stock Android, and had read enough about the Marshmallow-flavored version of EMUI to know that Huawei tends to take extensive creative liberties with its design, and Nougat is no different. From the icons to the animations and gestures, EMUI 5 may be based on Android 7.0, but it reimagines just about every aspect of it. And it works.

mate emui Greenbot

EMUI 5.0 on the Mate 9 adds subtle touches throughout that enhance the Nougat experience.

There’s a certain sweetness to EMUI 5, with little touches throughout the add a new intuitiveness to the interface. For example, there’s a plus icon after the last app in a folder that lets you quickly select one of your recently used apps without needing to drag it in. There’s an address book-style index alongside the right of the app drawer that lets you jumps to a specific letter. And when you enter the multitasking carousel, a small box will show you how much RAM you are using and let free some up by close all open tabs with a tap. And all throughout there are subtle transitions and unexpected animations that give the interface a fun, light feel, and make it a joy to use.

Alexa advantage?

It’s as smart and it is customizable, and the thoughtful navigational touches and gestures actually help make the Mate 9 feel smaller than it is. My only real quibble (other than the bits of removable bloatware in the form of third-party apps like Lyft and New Republic) is that some of the icons are a bit too skeuomorphic for my tastes, but the ease and elegance of the interface more than makes up for it.

mate 9 gnow Greenbot

The Mate 9 includes support for Google Now, but the real test will come when its Alexa integration arrives.

Unfortunately, the model of the phone I tested didn’t come equipped with what’s sure to be its most compelling feature, Alexa. The first phone to build in support for Amazon’s digital assistant, Huawei is betting that Alexa will translate well from our living rooms to our pockets, but there are a lot of questions: How well will it work with Google’s services? Will it be able to talk to third-party apps or just Amazon’s? Will it sync with the skills we’ve loaded onto the Echos or Dots in our homes? Will we be able to summon it by saying “Computer”?

Digital assistants are rapidly becoming one of the most essential components of the smartphone experience, and Alexa could very well make or break the Mate 9.

Should you buy it?

This is a tough question to answer. While the Mate 9 is undoubtedly among the top phones in its class, a few things give me pause. For one, the lack of support from Verizon and Sprint puts it at a significant disadvantage. And it’s one that’s likely to plague phones coming out of China for years to come, as neither manufacturers nor CDMA carriers show much desire to work together.

mate 9 full Christopher Hebert

The Mate 9 is available in the U.S., but Verizon and Sprint customers won’t be able to use it on their networks.

But priced at about $250 less than the Note7, the Mate 9 is a heck of a phone. While it’s hard to call a $600 phone a bargain, Huawei has built a handset any manufacturer would be proud to call its own, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another 5.9-inch handset that provides a better big-phone experience. It’s a phone that could easily cost upwards of $800, and likely would if it had Samsung’s or Google’s name on it.

But ultimately, the Mate 9 will be defined by its Alexa integration. If Huawei gets it right, it will bring a compelling feature that will set the Mate 9 apart from its competitors and give Verizon subscribers a reason to consider jumping ship.

But if it’s gimmicky or glitchy, the Mate 9 could just end up being another great phone from China that ends up in the bargain bin. Or rather, a super bargain bin.

IDG Insider

PREVIOUS ARTICLE

«Apple's Mobility Partner Program comes out of hiding

NEXT ARTICLE

Oracle bets Java EE future on REST APIs»
author_image
IDG Connect

IDG Connect tackles the tech stories that matter to you

Add Your Comment

Most Recent Comments

Our Case Studies

IDG Connect delivers full creative solutions to meet all your demand generatlon needs. These cover the full scope of options, from customized content and lead delivery through to fully integrated campaigns.

images

Our Marketing Research

Our in-house analyst and editorial team create a range of insights for the global marketing community. These look at IT buying preferences, the latest soclal media trends and other zeitgeist topics.

images

Poll

Should companies have Bitcoins on hand in preparation for a Ransomware attack?