Huawei Mate 9 full in-depth smartphone review
The perfect Android phone. Almost
- Great battery
- Very fast
- Good value
- Potentially-amazing camera
- Potentially-disappointing camera
It succeeds in the three key areas required of smart phones: battery, performance and camera. As such it's great value at $999. However, the camera can struggle in basic low-light conditions. We hope this will get fixed down the line.
Here’s a phone we’ve looked forward to reviewing. The Mate 7 was our phone of 2014 and the Mate 8 was in our Top 5 best phones of 2016. We’ve reviewed many middling phones of late so we’ve been hoping that Huawei’s new flagship would impress us. It didn’t get off to a great start. We’ve associated the Mate range with outstanding value but the Mate 9’s price has inflated to into premium territory to match the market rather than undercut it. So did it bring anything new to the table to justify the inflated price?
Yes it did.
5.9in, 1080 x 1920, 373ppi IPS LCD screen, 64,4GB RAM; Octa-core CPU on Hisilicon Kirin 960 chipset, Mali-G71 MP8 GPU; Dual 20/12MP rear with 8MP front cameras, Android 7, 4,000mAh battery, Fingerprint reader, microSD slot/dual-SIM card, USB-C, 157 x 79 x 8mm, 190g. Full specs here.
Handling and design
As with previous models the Mate 9 has squeezed an (almost) 6-inch screen into a chassis where most manufacturers only fit a 5.5-inch. The metal chassis is classy and thin which made us worry that the battery may have been shrunk for fashion-related reasons but it still sports a whopping 4,000mAh unit.
Standalone variants carry a dual-SIM slot (with the second slot doubling as a microSD) but units bought through carriers have the second SIM deactivated – they don’t want you using services from rivals.
As with its predecessor it comes with a useful clip-on case that protects the back and corners without making the phone bulky – we wish all manufacturers did that. This might be particularly useful as the phone uses Gorilla Glass 3 – an older, less-robust variant of the ubiquitous screen medium.
The screen is ‘only’ Full HD and LCD based – not the ‘superior-quality’ Ultra HD or AMOLED combination. This might come as a surprise to some but it’s a conscious choice to make the most out of the phone’s battery life and we’re inclined to agree. The larger resolution means icons and lettering are that bit larger and easier to see/use too but multimedia naturally doesn’t look quite as good as we’ve seen on the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 phones. We don’t really miss it, though. The Mate 8 was an amazing workhorse phone which would power through any hard task all day without letting you down. The only other phones that did this were Samsung’s Galaxy Notes up until they morphed into fashion devices that exploded. So we’re happy the Mate 9 is here with an all-day hard-work ethic. The LCD screen (which uses premium IPS technology) itself is impressively bright and colourful anyway. The colours just don’t pop as much and, if you find a VR headset that it fits into, it will look a bit grainy up close.
[Related: HTC U Ultra phone: full, in-depth review]
A variant called the Mate 9 Pro does have a UHD AMOLED screen plus Google Assistant and Daydream VR compatibility which will sate the desires of those to whom these features are important. But the battery life won’t be as good. And the Mate series is largely about battery.
The new Kirin 960 chipset has four 2.4GHz processing cores and four 1.8GHz cores. We don’t like phone benchmarks here as they bear little resemblance to real-world performance. But we’re happy to say this is easily one of the fastest and most responsive phones we’ve ever used. In basic functions it may even edge ahead of the Android flagship, Google Pixel XL.
The fingerprint reader is at the rear (our favourite, convenient location) and is very quick at unlocking the phone. It’s not quite as instant as the Oppo R9s’ but it’s not slow or as laggy as many rivals.
Android 7 is included but it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that are on Google’s Pixel phones – submenus aren’t there when you hold down app icons, for instance. But you can at least enable the App Drawer in the settings menu by choosing the Home Screen Style setting. The new quick app switching system is present and there’s also a multi-window feature.
Indeed, Huawei’s EMUI 5 software lies on top of Android. For the most part it lurks without causing a fuss or acting like bloatware and there are some neat features like ‘App twin’ launching which lets you install two versions of apps like Facebook to have, say, work and personal versions open at the same time. There’s also a useful health app with a pedometer. Under the hood, Huawei’s bespoke File System is supposed to be more stable than Android’s. In our time with the phone it did actually crash twice though and reset some features; that hasn’t happened with a phone we’ve used for ages. Whether we had an early sample or were just unlucky – only time will tell.
All in all, under general usage, we found the Mate 9 to be very quick and responsive for whatever we threw at it. There were some issues with the camera which are listed below. But first we need to mention battery life.
We were relieved to see the huge 4,000mAh battery in the relatively-svelte chassis on the Mate 9. Huawei reckons it can last as long as four days but more like two in moderate use. We absolutely punished the phone during testing; taking hundreds of photos, gaming, web-browsing and navigating. It always managed to last a full day when starting off fully charged and we saw this just about stretch to two when we used it less.
There’s also machine learning at work so we expect matters to improve over time: by monitoring our usage of all apps, it can improve performance over time. A standard Power Saving mode reduces background activity and a particularly-useful Ultra Power Saving mode reduces the phones functions to just the few apps you select.
We were impressed when the Mate 8 managed to take photographs for an entire day at a conference – while performing browsing, social media and navigating functions so we were keen to see that the Mate 9 would follow in its footsteps. We weren’t disappointed. On a family beach day we captured over 450 images and were left with half the battery left. This is made more impressive because, as you’ll see, the (potentially) amazing camera offers some extra features that require significant processing power: it will take many more snapshots if you turn this processing off.
All in all, though, this is the best battery in any premium phone on the market – apart from the Mate 8. We’ve seen even longer from the likes of the Moto X Force but that’s not a premium phone in today’s market.
Next: Just how amazing is the camera? Plus, Conclusion
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