Published on February 15th, 2017 | by Bhavishya Kanjhan0
Two months with the Huawei Mate 9 – an extended review.
Huawei releases two flagships during the year – the P series, a small(er) but very powerful smartphone, and the Mate, a phablet-style large-screen device that features Huawei’s latest and greatest engineering capabilities.
The Mate 9 was launched late last year by Huawei. A successor to the Mate 8 (try saying that 5 times rapidly), the new Mate 9 brings a lot of improvements, most notable of which is the Leica-powered dual-camera setup. I took the phone on an extended test run. Really extended. 2 months extended. All of this to see how the phone fares once the sheen wears off. My extensive review of the phone follows below. Spoiler alert, though, I come off extremely impressed.
Build and Size
There’s no doubt that is a big phone. It features a 5.9” screen after all. However, the phone is not as big as you might think it is – one of the few times when that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s marginally shorter than the iPhone 7 Plus which features ‘only’ a 5.5-inch screen. The Huawei Mate 9 delivers an impressive screen-to-body ratio of 78%
The body itself is made of premium aluminum and that story is told by its weight of 190g. If you’re coming from a particularly light phone, you’re definitely going to notice the weight. It isn’t difficult to get used to all and I feel the weight is telling of the phone’s solid build.
The review unit I received was the beautiful Mocha Brown. Bored of the standard affair Grey, Silver, White, and Gold phones, I decided to pick an uncommon color and I wasn’t disappointed. The phone features three different shades of brown but they blend and complement each other rather well. What little is left on the front of the phone besides the screen has the darkest shade of brown. The back features a matte finished brown with the lightest shade reserved for the sides. The color on glossy sides sits between gold and brown.
As has become the norm, don’t expect to see much on the front of the phone, the back and the sides are where the action is at. The right features the volume rocker and power button, while the left features the dual-sim/SD card slot. At the bottom of the phone are two grills (one for the speaker) and the USB-C charging port; at the top is the headphone jack and the IR Sensor – yes, this phone has an IR sensor! Flip the phone over to the back and you see the star feature – the Leica-powered dual-camera, along with a dual-LED flash, and the fingerprint sensor.
The Mate 9 on paper is very different from the phone in real-world use. On paper, it features a huge, possibly unmanageable 5.9” screen, with an IPS-LCD display (not AMOLED) that has a 1920 x 1080 resolution (not 2K). The resolution, in particular, is not very flagship-like. In reality, however, Huawei has done an excellent job with the screen. For starters, the 5.9” screen is definitely manageable and pocketable due to the small bezels. More importantly, though, despite its resolution, the phone delivers an impressive display, a lot of the credit goes to its 1500:1 contrast ratio that makes the images really pop on the screen. Now an AMOLED display would certainly be preferred, given the deep black and vivid color the screen technology offers, but Huawei has done really well here.
The screen can also get really bright, as high as 655 nits ensuring visibility is not compromised in sunlight. I’m more excited by the lowest point of 4.2 nits though as it lets me use the phone in complete darkness without having to worry about replacing my retinas the next morning. As for the low resolution, its pixel density of about 373 is again not the highest found on smartphones, but it certainly helps with battery life. The great challenge of this resolution will be when the phone is used for VR.
And now for the camera. Huawei announced a partnership with Leica last year and the P9 was the first phone to feature technology from that partnership. Huawei has continued to build on that partnership – the two companies have set up a joint lab in Germany and the results are evident. The dual-camera on the Mate 9 is nothing short of impressive.
It features two sensors – a 12 MP Color sensor and a 20MP monochrome sensor. The monochrome sensor brings the hard details from the image while the 12MP color fills in the color. The aperture on the lens is f/2.2 which is higher than the f/1.7 found on the Samsung Galaxy S7. Huawei, however, argues that there’s more light being brought in since two lenses are being used.
Huawei has also brought in tremendous improvements to its post-shot refocus capabilities and the simulation of low depth-of-field. The phone goes as wide as f/0.95 and as narrow as f/16. Now the effects at the extremes definitely appear artificial and the cutoff point between in-focus and out-of-focus areas in the photo are very pronounced. However, at an aperture of f/2.0, you can produce a rather beautiful soft focus shot. A lot of the times, the camera app would do this automatically. You can also enable this manually by choosing the wide aperture mode on the camera app.
Once you’ve shot the picture in wide-aperture mode, you can go back to the gallery at any time and readjust the focus. The results aren’t always great, you’ll be successful more often than not at producing a great shot. In fact, wide-aperture aside, the camera produces great shots in normal mode too. The monochrome pictures, in particular, stand out; the details and clarity in those pictures are jaw-dropping.
The Mate 9 also impresses with video. The camera features Optical Image Stabilization which results in pretty smooth videos. More importantly, the 4K resolution means you have a very sharp end result. As for the front camera, the 8MP sensor along with an aperture of f/1.9 is what you get. The images are excellent in daylight but lack a certain sharpness in low-light situations.
A huge part of the camera experience is the bundled app which gives quick access to functionality without necessarily making it a pain to use. For basic users who are just looking to take a few pictures, the camera app features a clean interface with a clear shutter button at the center bottom and the gallery and video icons on the left and right respectively. At the top are toggles for flash, wide aperture, color intensity, quick filters and front camera. Swipe left and the app reveals a whole new set of presets including HDR, Beauty mode, Panorama, and Time-lapse; users can even download additional presets. Swiping right reveals the settings of the camera where you can enable to more advanced options such as audio control and touch capture. My favorite feature is the Ultra Snapshot which allows users to double press the volume button and the phone wakes up and takes a picture rapidly – it takes about 1 second and comes in quite handy. For the power users, the camera app features a pro mode that is accessible by swiping up on the camera – here you can change settings including Metering, ISO, Shutter Speed, Exposure, White Balance, and Auto Focus.
Battery size and life
The second star feature of the Mate 9 is its battery life. With a whopping 4,000 mAh battery fit into the device, the phone promises about a day and a half of battery life on paper. The Mate 9 delivers on that promise and that too with heavy use. Even with two SIMs connected, WiFi and Bluetooth, I would finish the day just short of 20%. With radios disabled on airplane mode, I was able to get through 3 hours of offline Netflix video and that used up only 10% of the battery. For the times I felt like I was running low, I could enable one of the day battery saving modes. The first, Power Saving Mode, would disable some background activity and reduce visual effects to save power. The second, Ultra, was incredibly aggressive and would shut down all apps and background processes, except for a few whitelisted apps that could be selected. Huawei also lets users identify which apps have been power-intensive in the background and disallow them for staying awake when the phone is on standby.
And if one of the lower power modes won’t do, Huawei’s supercharger offers very quick charging. The bundled charger provides current at 5V / 4.5A which can take you 0 to 100% in just under two hours. The best part is though that if you’re down to 10-15%, the supercharger works rapidly delivering about 30-40% in about 20-25% and then it slows down a little.
Power and Internals
Similar to Samsung and Apple, Huawei is producing its own chip to power its smartphones. The Mate 9 features the new oct-core Kirin 960 processor and 4GB of RAM along with 64GB of internal storage. The processor fast, really fast. There’s very little that slows the phone down. For those feeling a little tight on space, the phone comes with a dual-SIM / SD card slot. This means you can use the phone as a single SIM and use the other slot to expand your storage, or alternately use two SIMs.
In more internals, the phone’s fingerprint sensor is a notable mention. Placed on the back, it’s very fast and extremely accurate. Even with the screen turned off, placing your finger on the sensor will unlock the phone. Huawei has this nifty little implementation where you can configure the fingerprint sensor to be used for capabilities such as bringing down and clearing notification panel and swiping through photos. Another feature that I’m really grateful to Huawei for bringing back is the IR sensor. Most, if not all, smartphone manufacturers are taking these capabilities away but it can come really handy in many situations and I’m glad Huawei has retained it with the Mate 9.
Operating System and Software
The Huawei Mate 9 ships with Android Nougat 7.0 and the EMUI 5.0 overlay on top. Having used the Honor 6X that comes with EMUI 4.0, I can see that Huawei has made significant changes to its newest software. The interface is certainly a lot cleaner and doesn’t get in the way.
EMUI also features a lot of useful features such as App Twin where users can setup Dual WhatsApp and Dual Facebook. In addition to that, the software allows users to scale the screen down for easier one-handed use, multi-window mode, and battery life optimization. Huawei says they use AI to optimize the OS which ensures it doesn’t slow down after extended use. The phone is certainly holding well after 2 months, however, this is hard to prove in a quantified manner.
The Mate 9 did start with some bugs and annoyances, for example, the notifications bar would only display the number of notifications but not the icons of them. Thankfully, Huawei released an update that fixed that. In fact, Huawei has released two updates in as many months displaying their commitment to the phone.
The Mate 9 has a pre-applied screen protector (nice touch) and the box ships with a snap-on back case, micro-USD to USB-C adaptor, and headphones.
What’s missing from this phone is any form of dust or waterproofing. For a flagship phone, features like these are becoming increasingly common and the omission is surprising.
There’s little doubt that Huawei has outdone itself with the Mate 9. The phone’s Leica powered dual-camera setup delivers stunning results in terms of both pictures and videos. The post-shot focus works well most of the time. The battery life on the phone is one of the best and can satisfy even the most heavy users among us. The display, despite being only full HD, is a 5.9” display fit into a 5.5” form factor and a treat to look at; it may, however, be not ideal for VR. Finally, the powerful internal specs of the phone and its expansion capabilities with microSD card deliver ample power to applications that need it.
The Mate 9 is a show of strength by Huawei and a clear indicator that the Chinese manufacturer won’t settle for being perceived as a cheap/mid-range manufacturer only. Its latest flagship plays in the big leagues, and at a price of AED 2299, while not a bargain, doesn’t break the bank either.
No dustproof or waterproof.
FullHD Display may not make it ideal for VR
Premium build and form factor
5.9” screen in portable form factor
Excellent battery life and fast charging.