Huawei's Mate 9 is a great choice for those looking for a big phone. Almost two days of battery life, an innovative camera, and a price tag that undercuts the competition make it a perfect device for those still mourning the loss of their Note 7.
Outright Cost: $599
What Is It?
The Mate 9 is big. Big to the point where it might seem imposing. And thanks to the 5.9-inch display, it can be be.
Despite the stature of Huawei's flagship phablet, the actual phone itself is roughly the same size of the iPhone 7 Plus - just with a larger screen. In addition to the big screen, the Mate 9 packs a hefty 4,000mAh battery. Depending on exactly how hard you push the Mate 9, it should be enough to comfortably get you through two working days.
One other standout feature is two rear-facing cameras "co-engineered" with luxury camera manufacturer Leica. Unlike the iPhone 7 Plus. where two cameras with different lenses as used to simulate zoom, the Mate 9 has two of the same lenses - one with a colour sensor, one with a black and white sensor - to capture additional information. This benefits lowlight photography, can result in more detailed images, and can also be used to simulate bokeh (an out of focus background effect).
Since the Mate 9's 20MP monochrome sensor is a higher resolution than its 12MP colored sensor, the Mate 9 is also able to use data from the large sensor to enhance digitally zoomed images (at least, up to two times magnification).
The Mate 9 doesn't really break any boundaries from a design perspective, but it’s a nice, clean design with a premium edge. There is only a small amount of bezel around the screen so that the Mate 9 is smaller than you'd expect from a phone with a 5.9-inch screen. Subtle curves on the sides and rear help the Mate 9 feel comfortable to hold. But make no mistake, this is not a small phone.
The Mate 9 packs a top-tier camera (well, cameras) "co-engineered" with Leica. It's fast to launch, takes detailed photos, and holds up in adverse lightning.
Thanks to the dual lens setup, there's a few neat tricks you can pull off. A favorite is the ability to replicate DSLR-like bokeh using what Huawei calls "wide-aperture" mode. The camera uses both image sensors and uses the extra information captured through the monochrome sensor to create shallow depth of field in images.
While this is generated via software, it looks convincing in most cases. Portraits and macro images provide the best results, while photos taken of glasses and liquids can trip up the algorithm and screw up your shot. Since the bokeh is created digitally, you're also able to modify the intensity and the focal point of an image even after you’ve taken it. You can end up with a weird glitch from time to time (like a missing ear), but for the most part, it's a fun and fresh approach to smartphone photography.
The other major feature uses the slightly larger monochrome sensor to add in detail when you zoom in using the color sensor. Dubbed hybrid zoom, you're able to crank up to two-times magnification before zooming becomes 100% digital. The resulting effect isn't quite as good as an optical zoom, but it's a noticeable step up from pure digital zoom.
Lastly, there's a mode that lets you shoot just using the Mate 9's monochrome sensor. The monochrome sensor is able to capture more light information and detail than colored lens, and as a result, can net you unique, stylized shots.
While the Mate 9 can take lovely photos in most situations, the phone's autofocus can be a little hit and miss in lowlight situations. I found I typically needed a few attempts to get a sharp, in-focus photo under challenging light situations. Lowlight images are also a little more prone to visible noise in the final result.
As expected from a flagship smartphone, the Mate 9 is a zippy little thing. I didn't experience any hitches during my time with the device, and performance on more demanding apps is silky smooth. The superfast rear-facing fingerprint reader doesn't hurt either.
Huawei says the Mate 9 can last for up to two days on a single charge, and depending on how hard you push the phone, that's definitely possible. On a good day, I woke up to find the Mate 9 still with about 55% battery remaining (after a full day of usage the day before), which then comfortably lasted until the evening on day two. When I've pushed the Mate 9 harder, I've still gotten about a day and a half of charge before I needed to top the phone up, which is much better than many competing devices. When charged with the included USB Type-C "fast-charger", Huawei says you can get a standard day of usage in 20 minutes.
Another feature that sets the Mate 9 apart is the inclusion of an IR blaster. While most smartphones no longer include an IR blaster, Huawei's held strong. Compatibility depends on the exact model of your appliances, but in many cases, you'll be able to use the Mate 9's "Smart Remote" app to control TVs, DVD players, and air conditioners.
What's Not So Good?
Like most Chinese smartphones manufacturers, Huawei is guilty of loading its phones with an overly-customized take on Android referred to as EMUI. While the Mate 9 is no exception, the good news is that EMUI is slowly getting better.
Based on Android Nougat, the latest version of Huawei's custom software has addressed a lot of problems that it had on last year's P9. The notification pane and quick settings are no longer split across two different screens, and you can re-enable the app drawer without having to download a third party launch. All in all, EMUI isn't as intent on aping iOS as it once was.
While Huawei has made improvements, EMUI still has its share of issues. The default apps contradict Android's Material Design aesthetic (and have gaudy icons), there's a few too many pre-installed apps, and there's still too far notifications bugging you about apps using energy in the background. Mercifully, you can turn this off, but the option is so buried in the phone's settings that it took me far too long to find.
I also encountered a couple of issues with app compatibility; for one, I wasn't able to swap the default messaging app. When I tried to swap over to Google's Messenger app, it wasn't able to access my contacts, and wouldn't send messages, despite being set as primary app for text and having the necessary permissions. I then swapped to Facebook Messenger for SMS, and while I could use it to send texts, it wouldn't display my conversations.
Despite being based on Android Nougat, the Mate 9 doesn't support Google's Daydream virtual reality platform, presumably due to the 1080p display (the Daydream-ready Mate 9 Pro has a Quad HD display). The lack of Daydream compatibility is a shame, but the 1080p display is still more than adequate for day-to-day usage.
While the 1080p display might seem like a step down in terms of resolution, it's still a solid all screen. Colors are lovely, it's sharp enough, bright to the point where outdoor usage isn't an issue, and the lower resolution probably helps with the beefy battery life.
The Mate 9's lack of water-resistance is a bummer, given that the feature is increasingly becoming a must-include feature in high-end devices. Unless you're especially prone to dropping your phone in the toilet, I wouldn't call the omission a deal-breaker, but as with the Google Pixel, it makes the Mate 9 feel one step behind the competition.
At 5.9-inches, the Mate 9 can be a little tricky to use one-handed. While it's about the same size as the iPhone 7 Plus, the larger screen can result in some awkward stretches when typing or navigating apps. In addition, the Mate 9 weight seems skewed towards the bottom half of the device, which makes it feel heavier than it is.
Who's It For?
Huawei's Mate 9 is a stellar example of what a phablet can be. While a few software quirks can get in the way of an otherwise great experience, the Mate 9 delivers on performance, camera, and battery life. The fact the Mate 9 is more than $150 cheaper than many other plus-size smartphones on the market doesn't hurt its cause either.
If you're into larger phones, want a device with a unique camera, or just want a phone that lasts all day (and then some) the Mate 9 is worth your consideration.
What Else Can I Buy?
LG's V20 is one the other flagship phablets currently making the rounds. A second screen that can display notifications, app shortcuts, and more is one of the phone's unique selling points. Notably, the V20 is one of the last premium phones to feature a removable battery.
iPhone 7 Plus
If you're not after an Android smartphone, but still want a larger device, the iPhone 7 Plus is pretty much you're only choice. Fortunately, it's a great option, and also has a funky dual camera system.
If you're looking for a smaller version of the Mate 9, Huawei P9 is better primed for one handed usage thanks to a 5.2-inch screen. The Mate 9 and the P9 are quite similar, but the P9 runs an older version of EMUI with a few extra quirks, and uses the first generation Leica dual camera system (which is still top notch) rather than the newer tech found in the Mate 9.