Review – Huawei Mate 9 – A Powerful & Impressive Phablet

Huawei, and their junior brand Honor, continue to make strides in the US market.  The Chinese manufacture has rolled out several phones and tablets over the past year and one of the latest, the Huawei Mate 9, is nothing short of impressive.  The 5.9″ phablet has a stunning display, powerful specs and is running the all new EMUI 5.0, Huawei’s user interface based on Android Nougat 7.0.  Couple this with a dual-camera configuration that leverages Leica optics and a beefy 4000mAh battery, you end up with a device that not only can handle your mobile computing needs but can take some seriously impressive photos while lasting you all day.  It is a pretty complete package and a far cry better than the 2015 Mate 8 (which wasn’t all that bad).

I recently had an opportunity to use the Mate 9 and I’m sold.  If you are in the market for a larger device that can meet your phone and small tablet needs, this phablet should be on your shortlist.  Here’s my review of the Huawei Mate 9.

Specifications

The Mate 9 is every bit phablet when it comes to the physical size of the device.  It measures 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm or 6.18 x 3.11 x 0.31 in in old money and weighs in at 190g (6.7 oz).  I’ll talk more specifically about the form factor of the phone later in the review but even at this size, the Mate 9 is quite comfortable to hold.  The display dominates the front of the device, measuring 5.9″ in size and protected by Gorilla Glass 3.  It displays at Full HD, rendering at 1080 x 1920.  All in, that gives you about 373 ppi so the display is easy on the eyes for long periods of viewing.

Huawei Mate 9

Huawei Mate 9

The phone’s processor is the Huawei built Kirin 960.  This octa-core processor has four cores running at 2.4GHz and the other four running at 1.8GHz.  It is coupled with the Mali-G71 MP8 GPU and 4GB of RAM.  Onboard storage is 64GB with expansion of up to an additional 256GB thanks to the MicroSD slot.

The cameras in the Mate 9 are both impressive.  The rear, main camera is a 20MP shooter at f/2.2.  It is a dual camera configuration that has Leica optics, phase detection and laser autofocus as well as OIS (Optical Image Stabilization).  It is married up with a dual-LED flash for more natural and warm flash photos.  The front facing camera is 8MP f/1.9 with both cameras having touch focus and face/smile detection built-in thanks to the Huawei camera app.

Like other Huawei phones, the Mate 9 is sold unlocked and works with a wide range of carriers here in the United States.  Unfortunately the US version does not support CDMA so those of you on Verizon or Sprint would have to order the dual-SIM international version (which should work but not guaranteed).  That said, for GSM carriers here in the US like AT&T, T-Mobile and others, the Mate 9 should have no problem providing 4G and LTE coverage.  As always, check with your carrier but here are the frequencies that are supported:

  • HSDPA:  800 / 850 / 900 / 1700(AWS) / 1900 / 2100
  • LTE band:  1(2100), 2(1900), 3(1800), 4(1700/2100), 5(850), 7(2600), 8(900), 9(1800), 12(700), 17(700), 18(800), 19(800), 20(800), 26(850), 28(700), 29(700), 38(2600), 39(1900), 40(2300)

The phone can give you up to 42.2/5.76 Mbps on HSPA while on LTE, you can get up to 600/150 Mpbs

Coupled with the mobile antennas is dual-band Wi-Fi that supports 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth LE (Low Energy 4.2) and the normal array of accelerometers, gyroscopes, NFC, proximity and barometer sensors that you would expect in this caliber of phone.

Powering all of this is a built-in 4000mAh battery that is charged via the USB-C connector at the bottom edge of the phone.  Finally, the Huawei Mate 9 has a rear mounted fingerprint scanner for security.

Form Factor

There is little mystery that the Huawei Mate 9 is a big phone.  The hints abound including the 5.9″ display.  That said, the phone doesn’t feel like a gigantic slab in your hand.  It actually feels quite comfortable with all the controls easy to access and reach with one hand.  Indeed, if you compare the Mate 9 to the iPhone 7 Plus, you will not see much of a difference in size.  The Mate 9 is just slightly wider but not dramatically.  If you have seen an iPhone 7 Plus then you can give yourself a good idea of the size of this phone without seeing it.

Mate 9, iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei P10

Mate 9, iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei P10

The display on the front of the phone takes up almost all of it.  It has a 77.9% body-to-screen ratio and the side bezel is almost non-existent.  There is a small area at the top and the bottom of the display for the speaker, microphone and front facing camera.  On the right side of the phone as you look at it is where you will find the volume control rocker and power button while the top edge you will find the 3.5mm headphone jack.  On the bottom you will find the stereo speakers flanking the USB-C connector for charging.  The corners of the phone are rounded nicely, making it comfortable to hold it in your hand while it has a good, solid feel to it.  This phone feels premium when you pick it up.

The smooth aluminum back of the Mate 9 is uninterrupted save the dual-Leica optics camera configuration and the fingerprint scanner directly below it.  Despite the size of the device, it is quite easy to find and use the fingerprint scanner, even if you are holding it with one hand.  That speaks well to the overall design of the phone.  Huawei has a big phone in the Mate 9 but it doesn’t feel overly big.

Overall Performance

I will say it now and we can all debate it:  The Kirin 960 processor may be the best mobile processor in the market today.  It is stunningly fast and when you couple it with a solid GPU, 4GB of RAM and the performance improvements Huawei made in EMUI 5.0, you have an experience that is lag-free and incredibly snappy no matter your activities on the device.  Using the Benchmark OS II app, the Mate 9 scored an impressive 3280 which outpaces last years Mate 8 by some 1200 points.  It crushed my Huawei built Nexus 6P by nearly 1000 points.  I’ve never felt that my 6P was slow but when you compare it to the Mate 9 or the new P10, it suddenly looks very slow.  A lot of this comes down to the improved Kirin processor that is running the Mate 9 as well as the software optimizations that Huawei has done in EMUI 5.0.  In my more real world testing, I ran my normal range of scripted activities:  YouTube video watching, playing Real Racing 3, playing Angry Birds 2 and watching a podcast in Pocket Casts.  In all of those activities, I experienced no hesitation or lagging in using the Mate 9. Transitioning between Home screen pages was smooth and lag-free too.

Wi-Fi performance and mobile carrier coverage also performed flawlessly.  Most of my testing was done on T-Mobile but I also tested it with AT&T and had no issues with either.

Display Performance

The display on the Mate 9 is equally as impressive as the overall performance of the device.  While it is slightly warmer than I personally like, color accuracy was good and the touchscreen was responsive.  I experienced no lag in rapidly drawing games such as Real Racing 3 or Angry Birds 2.  With the high PPI count of ~373, viewing the display for extended periods of time was no problem and I did not experience any greater eye fatigue than I do on devices with a similar PPI.  Because of the size of the display, the Mate 9 could quite easily serve as a small tablet for many readers.  It is large enough to comfortably watch movies and television shows for extended periods of time.  Equally, it is a great gaming device because of the screen.  I used the Mate 9 to play Real Racing 3, a game that has a high draw rate and is generally graphic intensive.  On this device, I experienced no hesitation and game play was remarkably smooth.

Camera Performance

Huawei Mate 9 Photo

Huawei Mate 9 Photo

With a main camera using Leica optics and rated at 20MP, you would expect the camera in the Huawei Mate 9 to be fantastic and it doesn’t disappoint.  Color accuracy was excellent on photos taken with the phone and I found the camera app to be quick and responsive.  The Huawei camera app can be a bit overwhelming when you first use it as it has a plethora of photo taking options.  These options include portraits, landscapes and night shooting. My recommendation is that you shoot with the camera and enjoy it before deep diving into the various settings of the app.  Once you get to that point, you are going to find a solid performing app driving an exceptional camera configuration.

Audio Performance

When you are spending roughly $600 on a phone, there are a few reasonable expectations.  Good sound quality is certainly on the list and the Mate 9 does not disappoint.  The stereo speakers at the bottom of the device provide clean, crisp sound with no noticeable distortion no matter the genre or range.  I played a wide range of music on the phone during my testing, from classical to industrial metal, all of which sounded excellent.  That sound quality also translates to videos you may be watching or streaming.  Watching content on YouTube, there is no disappointment to be found.

Battery Performance

The battery in the Mate 9 is 4000mAh rated and given that it is having to power, amongst other things, a 5.9″ display, the question is if it is enough.  Thankfully the answer is yes.  With normal day-to-day activities, the battery will get you through the day with no problem.  Add a bit of YouTube watching, podcast listening or music streaming, it will impact battery life but not horribly so.  Huawei has made the phone efficient and EMUI 5.0 doesn’t hurt that fact either.  The latest build of Android from the company is far more battery friendly than the 4.0 release.  Huawei claims that you can make it two days on the battery life of the Mate 9.  It is a bit of a stretch as it assumes every battery saving feature is in use and you keep streaming content to a minimum.  But even with “normal” use without all of the battery saving features enabled and a fair amount of gaming and streaming, a full day-plus is not an issue.

EMUI 5.0

With the Mate 8 last year, one of my biggest complaints about the device was EMUI 4.0. The then Android Marshmallow based UI that Huawei built for the phone was clunky at best and simply unworkable at worst.  I had no issue with the hardware but it was overshadowed by the UI.  Thankfully Huawei addressed this with the Mate 9.  The phone ships with EMUI 5.0 which is based on Android Nougat 7.0.  Seemingly, everything that they got wrong with 4.0 they fixed and them some in 5.0.  Now the user experience matches the powerful of the phone.

For the most part, EMUI 5.0 was a complete revamp and comparing it to stock Android Nougat, you won’t find a massive amount of contrast.  Yes Huawei skinned everything and made modifications to the notification panel but all the changes make sense.  Things are no longer buried in the Settings.  Add to that the significant boost in performance that 5.0 has over 4.0 and you have a much more pleasant and dare I say fun experience.  Having used EMUI 5.0 on the Huawei Mate 9 and my upcoming review on the P10, it is easy and fun to use and an excellent update by the team at Huawei.

A key element of EMUI 5.0 is the integrated Machine Learning from Huawei.  In effect, this allows the Mate 9 to learn your behaviors on how you use the phone.  It monitors how you move around the phone, the apps that you use and other things to optimize the experience.  This optimization includes optimizing the CPU and RAM to give you the best user experience possible.  As you use the phone more, it learns more and it speeds up as it anticipates what you will be doing next with it.  It sounds like a great promise and is an excellent application of ML in the real world.

Unfortunately, I did not have enough time with the Mate 9 to fully push this aspect of EMUI.  Like any Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence, it takes time to build the knowledge which was something I did not have with my review unit.

Like its predecessor, this build of EMUI is pretty aggressive when it comes to battery saving features.  Most of these you will be able to adjust to your liking to improve performance.

All this said, there is no requirement that you stick with the launcher elements of EMUI.  You can change to another launcher that meets your needs, like Nova Launcher or the Google Now Launcher (while it is still available) if those are more to your liking.  In fact, if you notice in the feature image and the size comparison shot above, the Mate 9 is running the Google Now Launcher.  Previously, in EMUI 4.0, this was a real trick to make happen as the Home settings in Settings was painfully buried.  That’s no longer the case.

Conclusion & Recommendation

With the advancements in EMUI 5.0, battery performance and camera performance, the Huawei Mate 9 is a nice step up from last year’s Mate 8.  This phablet performs and does so in a stylish package with an excellent display.  The camera performance is outstanding as well as you would expect with a name like Leica associated with the optics.  While I was hesitant to recommend the Mate 8 last year, those reservations are gone with the Mate 9.  If you want a device that can serve your phone and small tablet needs, this device is one that should be on your short list for consideration.

The Huawei Mate 9 is available through a variety of retailers including Amazon.  At the time of this writing, you can pick up in Silver (like the one reviewed here) for $585.

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One Response

  1. Runner March 27, 2017