We’ve reviewed a whole lot of phones this year, but very quietly, one of our favorites has remained a device that came out early in the year. The Huawei Mate 8 wasn’t perfect — Huawei’s EMUI overlay had a lot of problems and the graphics performance was lackluster — but as a pure productivity device, it was nearly unbeatable. The battery can last for as much as two days on one charge, and the CPU in Huawei’s Kirin 950 SoC was powerful enough to make the phone very fast and responsive, even with a lot of apps running. For fans of big phones (the Mate 8 has a 6″ display), it gave the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 a real run for its money as the ideal Android productivity device.
The worst part about the Mate 8 was that it wasn’t made available in the United States. That’s changing with the Mate 9. Huawei plans to sell the new device in the United States, with a launch possibly coming early next year. It won’t be easy — while Huawei’s mid-range Honor phones have come to the United States, Huawei-branded phones haven’t, mostly because of longstanding suspicion of Huawei’s involvement with the government of China. While those suspicions have prevented Huawei from selling networking equipment in the United States, it hasn’t precluded them from selling handsets. With the Mate 9’s most obvious competitor going up in smoke, Huawei is finally going to take their chances in the premium smartphone market in the United States.
That’s all to say that we’re not sure how the Mate 9 launch will go — they could overcome all odds and secure carrier partners, they could just sell the phones on their own online store, or they could scrap their U.S. plans altogether. What we can say for sure is that if the Mate 9 does manage to come stateside, we’ll have access to hands down one of the best performing smartphones on the market. The Mate 9 is fast, the battery is every bit as great as the Mate 8’s, and Huawei has taken pains to fix virtually every complaint we’ve ever had about EMUI, their Android overlay. If you prefer large Android phones, the Mate 9 might be unsurpassed right now.
The Mate 9 is a bit smaller than the Mate 8 at 5.9″, but only just — it’s still one of the largest phones available right now. But, here lies one of the great strengths of the Mate 8 and Mate 9 alike — thanks to the small bezels on the top and bottom, the phones aren’t that much bigger than 5.5″ phones like the iPhone Plus series. The 77.5 percent screen-to-body ratio is one of the best in the business, so credit to Huawei for once again packing a massive screen into as small of a body as possible.
Physical design has gone mostly unchanged. It’s still an aluminum chassis with dual speaker grilles on the bottom, the 3.5 mm port and IR blaster on the top, and the fingerprint sensor and camera on the back. The only noticeable change is that the rear camera array now has two sensors, like Huawei’s other premium phone, the P9. Huawei’s also kept the diamond-cut edges that mark most of their other premium phones. On the side, there’s a dual-SIM slot, with the second slot doubling as a microSD card slot.
The Mate 9 has the same kind of soft-touch finish Huawei had on the back of the P9. It feels comfortable, although the P9 got dinged up easily, and that might extend to this phone. We’ve not heard anything about any screen protection, so getting a case and/or not dropping this phone are both highly recommended. It’s also not rated for protection against water.
In terms of overall comfort, the sheer size of the Mate 9 inevitably makes it a little unwieldy — the back is slightly curved, but that doesn’t make much difference on a 5.9″ device. The great screen-to-body ratio helps to keep one-handed use possible sometimes, but occasionally you’ll need to use two hands.
Huawei is unlike most other major Android smartphone makers in that they don’t use Qualcomm’s chipsets. Instead, they use their in-house Kirin chipsets, which have historically had slightly more powerful CPUs (ARM-based, like Qualcomm) and much less powerful Mali GPUs. The Mate 9 runs on Huawei’s latest, the Kirin 960, which has four 2.4 GHz Cortex-A73 and four 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53 processors, plus the new Mali-G71 GPU. That hardware is backed up by 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, and a microSD card slot good for 256 GB more storage.
|PC Mark for Android Work 2.0||6382|
|GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen||1,342 frames|
|3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme||2110|
|PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life 2.0||9 hours, 4 minutes|
This thing’s powerful. The octa-core CPU delivers on benchmarks, and real-world testing reflects that — it’s one of the smoothest Android phones I’ve used this year, regardless of how many apps are running in the background. But, the huge leap forward here is in graphics performance. We knocked the Mate 8 for having sub-standard graphics performance while asking for a premium price, but we have no such complaints about the Mate 9. It’s still slightly outperformed by fellow premium Android handsets, but the gap has narrowed considerably. The Mate 9 doesn’t chug during 3D games, can play HD video much more smoothly, and can load pictures much faster than the Mate 8. All in all, it’s a lightning-fast phone.
The 1920 x 1080 LCD IPS display gets very bright, and it performs well outside in direct sunlight. The colors do look a bit over-saturated, particularly the blues, so that can be distracting if you’re used to using other premium Android phones. It’s worth pointing out that while the Mate 9 is Google Daydream-ready for VR, we wouldn’t recommend this device for that purpose — 1080p makes for a muddy and jagged VR experience, problems that will be magnified when using a display as large as this one.
The Mate 8 dominated in battery life, and that hasn’t changed here. We actually don’t mean to complain about the display — a 1440p display this large would be an enormous battery hog, and that would kill one of the best things about the Mate 9. The 4,000 mAh battery is used efficiently, with the Mate 9 getting about two days’ worth of battery life on average for us with mixed use. At one point, I left the phone alone on standby for a week, starting at full charge — when I returned, it was at 46 percent. The battery can’t be removed, but with one this big, it’ll be outperforming other phones well into the future, even with battery degradation. The phone uses a USB Type-C charging port and works with Huawei’s own fast charging adapter, which took the phone from 18 percent to 50 percent in 20 minutes.
Audio isn’t too bad, although it’s not a point of emphasis like it was for the ZTE Axon 7. There are two speaker grilles on the bottom, but only one speaker, located behind the right grille. That speaker works in tandem with the earpiece speaker, but we wouldn’t call this stereo — the earpiece speaker is noticeably weaker, producing thin and tinny sound. Fortunately, it’s drowned out by the fuller, more powerful speaker on the bottom.
Having the IR blaster is a nice bonus if you want the phone to be a universal remote. GPS did a great job of tracking running routes, and we didn’t notice any problems with Wi-Fi connectivity. We tested the phone on the AT&T LTE network in San Francisco, and had no problems with connectivity or call quality.
Huawei went all-out on the rear camera. It has the same kind of dual-sensor array Huawei introduced on the P9 — one camera for color, one for black and white (the idea is that the former pulls in better color data, while the latter pulls in more accurate light levels). The color sensor is now more robust, as Huawei has paired a 20 MP sensor with a secondary 12 MP sensor. The array brings back Leica-approved lenses (f/2.2) and features 2x optical zoom, phase-detect and laser autofocus, dual-LED flash, and optical image stabilization. On the front end, the Mate 9 has an 8 MP sensor with a f/1.9 lens.
In the camera app, you’ll find HDR, monochrome, panorama, and night shot modes, along with Huawei’s skin-softening beauty modes (now for stills and video). On top of a manual mode for settings adjustment, there’s a wide aperture mode you can use to create bokeh effects, bringing near objects into sharper focus. They had this on the P9, too, but I think the results on that phone looked more natural — on the Mate 9, the background blur is too obviously a special effect added on.
Video can be taken in 4k at 30 fps, and optical image stabilization goes a long way in making the videos look great in the end. There are no special audio recording features like on the LG V20, so as a pure media phone, LG’s is still tops. But, the Huawei Mate 9 is no slouch.
The camera app loads quickly, but the phone can be a little slow to focus depending on the situation. Usually, it performed really well — it’s genuinely excellent at taking nighttime photos, which isn’t a compliment we get to give out often. Oddly enough, the only time I really had issues was with low morning light — for whatever reason, this gives the sensors fits. The spice rack photo below was taken early in the morning, and the colors are noticeably washed out, while the whole photo is out of focus. Using manual mode, you can probably get that shot right — it’s just odd because otherwise, the Mate 9 is excellent as a point-and-shoot camera.
Huawei’s Android overlay is called EMUI. We’ve never been huge fans of overlays, but Huawei’s in particular has had its share of problems in the past. But, as we mentioned up top, we have to give credit where it’s due — Huawei has listened to virtually every complaint. Notifications that have some text blending into the background? Huawei’s notifications now appear as Google Now-like cards on white backgrounds, with readable text and immediate actions like archiving emails. Horizontally scrolling carousel of running apps? It’s now vertical, letting you see all of your running apps at a glance like on stock Android. No app drawer? You can now enable it in settings, and it functions just like it does on stock Android, except with an additional suggested apps bar running across the top. After using the Mate 9 for a few weeks, I can’t think of any EMUI complaint I’ve had in the past that hasn’t been addressed. They’ve done a great job.
But, that’s all to say that EMUI doesn’t have problems — overlays are still undesirable unless they actually manage to add value. Huawei succeeds here, too, not only by making sure EMUI is well-optimized (oft-used apps are stored in system memory, for one), but by making tweaks suited for the Mate 9’s size. Their Swype keyboard, which was already one of the fastest and most responsive, takes advantage of the 5.9″ display by having a permanent numbers row over the keyboard. Their keyboard also does cool little things like automatically inputting spaces after words, and it’s smart enough to know to automatically delete that space if you input punctuation. It’s even better when working with spreadsheets — instead of only having a numerical keypad, the screen is big enough to accommodate a scientific calculator-like layout with functions and symbols on the left.
There is some bloatware, like the News Republic app, but anything that isn’t a Huawei system app can be deleted. While Huawei is now trying to push users to set up a Huawei account, the number of redundant system apps is much lower than it used to be.
And, of course, we’re always going to give a shout out to what Huawei does with their fingerprint sensor. The backside sensor can be used as a touch controller — you can swipe down and up to bring down and dismiss the notification center, or swipe left and right to navigate photos. It can also be used as a front camera shutter, and can dismiss all notifications with a double tap. This is a cool feature on Huawei’s other phones, but with a phone as big as the Mate 9, it’s essential if you want to use the phone with one hand. This feature was, for whatever reason, left off the Mate 8, so it’s nice to see it here.
Unfortunately, there’s no always-on display or tap to wake. That makes the phone a little more inconvenient to use when it’s laying on a desk, especially considering the fingerprint sensor is on the back, not the front. Knuckle Sense is still here to let you draw gestures on screen with your knuckles to do things like launch apps and take screenshots, but like before, it doesn’t work consistently enough to be useful.