Huawei’s Mate 9 is a phone that’s equal parts Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (minus the fire) and iPhone 7, mixed in with the brand’s own design sensibilities both inside and out.
It’s a Note in that it’s a large-screened device, which instantly pushes into the realm of ‘power user’ and the enterprise space, a claim backed up by the fact it features the newest, most powerful chipset also from Huawei.
But it’s also aiming for the consumer-friendliness of the iPhone, offering strong cameras, long battery life and increase day to day usability in the long term, something Huawei is keen to talk up.
The reason for the comparison to those two phones isn’t just coincidence, as Apple and Samsung are the two brands ahead of Huawei in terms of world smartphone market share.
The Chinese brand has strong designs on taking the top spot – but while the Mate 9 is impressive in some areas, it’s not going to be a device that gains ground in key markets.
One of the most impressive things Huawei has done over the years is move from a brand that stuck in technology for the sake of it (although that’s still lurking there in its DNA) into one that makes phones that look and feel well-made.
The metal design of the Mate 9, while large at 79mm x 156.9mm, is smaller than that of the iPhone 7 Plus, yet features a larger 5.9-inch screen thanks to everything being packed a little tighter inside.
The fingerprint scanner on the back again rests nicely where your digit lands, and the sharp combination of metal and glass that makes up the frame of the new Mate feels pretty solid in the hand – it’s not the most premium in the world, but it’s jolly hard to find fault with it.
The lack of bezel is sure to impress those that hate the extra black bars all around the iPhone, and with nicely-machined buttons for operating the power and volume, there’s not a lot that one can find fault with in terms of the way Huawei has created its latest flagship phablet.
It’s not waterproof, as Huawei told us that it believes that will add too much thickness to the device.
While it’s true that adding in the barriers to water ingress does mean more space taken up, it’s a problem that rival companies have managed to solve and would have been nice to see here (although it’s possible that the extra space was used for battery capacity instead).
The screen will be something of a disappointment for spec fans, given that it’s ‘just’ 1080p rather than the QHD offering that some would have hoped to see at 5.9-inches. It’s also LCD rather than Super AMOLED, another hope from many, but neither of those things diminishes the impression when using the phone.
The color reproduction, something Huawei has talked up during the release of the handset, seems rather muted (although that could merely be the result of the less-dramatic color palette used by the brand in its new EMUI 5.0 software).
However, even watching video didn’t make the colors necessarily pop out, despite the overall quality being decent.
The large size obviously makes the Mate 9 almost impossible to use one-handed, but that’s not something many people drawn to this phone will have much of an issue with.
In fact, the compact nature of the screen within the size of the handset makes this less of an issue than you might ordinarily expect.
What’s it like to use?
While it’s hard to properly put the Mate 9 through its paces in just a few minutes of testing, it was hard to find anything that would properly slow the phone down.
This is down to a couple of things: firstly, the high performance of the new Kirin 960 chipset and the 4GB of RAM combining under the surface.
But Huawei has pushed things a little further with its latest attempts to improve long-term performance of the handset. It’s claiming to use machine learning to work out our behaviors when using our phones, deciding which apps gain priority of use at certain times.
The issue with current Android phones, according to Huawei, is that too many apps will request the highest priority of access when in use, which ends up with multiple programs all vying for the limited resource.
This means over time the phone will begin to slow as we fill it with apps and content, all of which demands more on the system resource. Huawei’s AI within the Mate 9 will apparently keep only the most-used apps front and center, so the phone should in theory stay much snappier.
In terms of the software used, this is Android 7.0 running underneath Huawei’s divisive Emotion UI. The user interface has been upgraded once more, to a more Android-Material-like mix of cleaner icons and more curved, nature-inspired shapes throughout.
The color scheme has been altered to be more infused with blue and white shades (something to do with being inspired by some Mediterranean village somewhere – or so the promotional video made out) and the theme of nature permeates further throughout, with the music player being doused in water during playback.
While there are still multiple design elements within the user interface that irk (such as repetitive notifications on how much power is draining) it’s completely unfair to say that Emotion UI is the terrible experience that plagued earlier models, as early elements like the lack of app drawer are now a user toggle, so you can choose between a familiar experience or the more iPhone-like single level for apps.
Visually, the Huawei Mate 9 interface is clean and easy to understand – it’s complex in certain places, but that’s a by-product of Huawei wanting to pack as many functions into one phone as possible.
That’s evidenced by the ‘optimization’ app, where you can clean system resources, see what’s hogging your battery and generally clean up the performance of the phone.
While it’s good to have this option, you’re still given too much choice: users will feel they should turn off Wi-Fi and location and shut down apps just to save battery, but then that’s going to compromise the experience when they use those same apps regularly.
It’s hard to criticize the user interface of the Huawei Mate 9 too much, but it’s still not the revolution in simplicity you feel this brand needs to start making waves in the western world.
The keyboard, powered by Swiftkey, is great to use as well – in short, while there are still too many options (who knows which apps should be whitelisted in RAM cleanup, for instance?) Huawei has made good strides to making its interface far more global-friendly.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Mate 9 battery performs – because it should be really stellar battery performance in a number of ways.
Firstly, the battery capacity is massive at 4000mAh, so in terms of raw capacity this is one of the biggest on the market.
Huawei has also developed a new charging technology, called SuperCharge, that uses a lower voltage but a higher current (4.5V and 5A) to offer some insane charging speeds, with just 10 minutes enough to gain three and a half hours of movie playback.
Although Huawei didn’t give exact percentages, the graphs showed suggest that it can charge much faster than anything around when connected to its own SuperCharge socket, with the phone intelligently talking to the wall charger to work out the fastest current available.
Given the worry surrounding the exploding Samsung Note 7 devices, the brand was also quick to point out that the phone wouldn’t get hot during charging, with five monitoring points used to work out whether the handset is heating up, and the current dropping if so.
While the SuperCharge technology sounds great, Huawei hasn’t evolved the chemistry of the battery it’s using, which begs the question of how long the battery pack will continue to function effectively when charged at such a speed time and again.
It’s not insane to think that after a year the quality of the battery life will have degraded as Huawei chased ever-greater charging speeds to top up its huge power pack, but only long term testing will confirm that.
One nice element that shows Huawei is working well with its own Kirin chip is the fact that turning on Ultra battery saving mode (which essentially turns your handset into a late ‘90s Nokia phone) is instant to turn on and off, not requiring a reboot or waiting 30 seconds to enable.
The Huawei Mate 9 camera is another dual-lens affair, created in association with Leica.
This time around it’s one 12MP lens, with a 20MP one sitting alongside. The former is the RGB lens, similar to that found in most smartphones, and the latter is monochrome, with the only job of creating a black and white image that can be integrated into the picture to improve brightness and sharpness.
In fact, this higher resolution has meant Huawei is confusingly claiming a ‘true’ 2x optical zoom. It’s hard to say how that’s possible given the magnification doesn’t occur on the hardware level; instead a 12MP image is cut out of the 20MP sensor to give the illusion of getting closer without actually doing so.
It’s the same technique as used in Nokia / Microsoft’s PureView smartphones from years gone by – but they weren’t optical zooming either.
The camera does take some decent photos though, and covering the monochrome sensor does lead to a poorer and less color-balanced snap, so there is is some good image processing and quality enhancement on board thanks to having two lenses on the Mate 9.
The bokeh, background-defocusing, mode is OK – there are still some artifacts present in the subject at the edges, but it’s not a bad option to have (if a little slow).
Pro mode is cool and only a swipe away (although in our test model, the icons didn’t rotate when holding the phone in landscape mode which is odd) with a decent range of tools to tinker to with get the best image.
However, having these two powerful sensors on the back needs to be tested properly to see if Huawei has made an industry-leading camera – the P9 had a decent snapper with a lot of options for manual photograph enhancement, but it wasn’t the very best out there.
But with a larger 20MP sensor on the side, perhaps the Mate 9 can push things up a notch.
Those dual sensors are also enabled to let you get a wider aperture as well – so you’ve got the option to expand and contract the image slightly depending on your whim.
The Huawei Mate 9 is a phone that was launched with a lot of bold claims: improved battery charging speeds, a better camera and the ability to keep phone speed where most Android handsets couldn’t.
While some claims can’t be tested initially (the long-term performance enhancements, for instance) when using the Mate 9 it’s hard to say that anything particularly stood out as an innovative and exemplary smartphone feature.
The Mate 9 feels iterative rather than something bold from Huawei – but then again, it keeps increasing sales of its phones so perhaps it doesn’t need to go big.
However, while the new Mate does offer some high spec (the battery life on this thing could be simply awesome) if it’s to become a major player in the western markets it’ll a) actually have to launch properly in the US and b) start taking on the might of the incumbent smartphone manufacturers by offering better features, performance and design to be a real winner.