Huawei Mate 9 Review: Sweet and Serious

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The flagship smartphone industry is usually a tough market even though its not the most competitive market. Big names like Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S series are usually the standard choice and its almost impossible to steal the crown away from them. However, this does not stop other brands to be part of the market. Huawei’s Mate line-up is a familiar competitor in the market, behind Apple and Samsung. Even though in 2016 there are new names entering the market from LG and Google, Huawei made sure that their latest entry, the Huawei Mate 9, still shines in the market with its own uniqueness inside and out. So, has it worked? Let’s find out.

We only get 1 version of the Huawei Mate 9 here in Malaysia, which is priced at RM2699 and comes complete with 64GB of internal storage.

Unboxing

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The unboxing experience is a pretty premium feeling. Unlike the MediaPad M3’s classy white box, this comes in a dark brown box for a change. It still looks premium and classy, on a different level. Apart from the phone, it also comes with 2 boxes, both of which contains the usual accessories such as a USB wall adapter, 3.5mm earphone, USB-C cable for syncing and charging, USB-C to microUSB converter and some documentations. As an added bonus, you’ll also get a equally classy hard case right out of the box, as well as a screen protector, which has been applied. While the hard case is premium to look at and feel, it might not offer the same protection as a standard soft transparent case.

Design

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The Huawei Mate 9 adopts the same design language as recent Huawei devices, but hasn’t lost a lot from its predecessor – the Mate 8. It’s slim profile and curved unibody makes it an overall easy to handle device even with one hand despite the large 5.9-inch display, and the choice of materials, which consists of glass front and aluminium back, makes it a premium-feeling device. It weighs 190 grams, which makes the phone solid to use. As far as design goes, the Huawei Mate 9 checks all the boxes being a flagship device, even though it can look a bit understated.

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The front features an almost edge-to-edge design 5.9-inch display. There are still very little bezels on both sides which reduces the chances of accidental inputs when you rest your thumb on both sides, even though it does not fully eliminate. Apart from the earpiece, there’s also a 8-megapixel front facing camera located above it. Huawei adopts on-screen navigation for the Mate 9 like all other recent Huawei devices, and the bottom is just left with the Huawei branding.

The left only houses a removable tray which consists of 2 slots. The primary SIM slot takes a nanoSIM, while the secondary slot takes either a nanoSIM or microSD card for storage expansion. Like the Honor 8, you had to choose between dual-SIM functionality or storage expansion. If the on-board 64GB is not enough for you, the phone will take microSD cards up to 256GB.

The right is where the volume buttons and power button lives, and the USB-C port lives at the bottom for syncing and charging, along with the downward firing speakers. The top is home for the 3.5mm earphone jack and an IR blaster.

The rear of the phone may look like its predecessor, but it is more premium to see and touch. The curved design has aid in holding the phone firmly, and looks clean with no antenna lines running across. It does feature dual-camera which has a bit of budge out a little, along with two-tone LED flash and laser for autofocus on either side. Since there are no physical buttons on the front or room for a fingerprint scanner, the scanner lives just below the camera lens. The scanner is quick and accurate, and its unlikely that it won’t recognise your fingerprint.

In Malaysia, there are only 2 colours on offer – a lighter Champagne Gold and a darker Mocha Brown. Although both colours looked fantastic, we still hope that Huawei Malaysia brought in other colours like Space Grey and Ceramic White.

Specs and Performance

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As one of Huawei’s highest range of products, the specs on the Huawei Mate 9 looks pretty promising on paper. For starters, the processor that it came with is a Huawei’s in-house developed HiSilicone Kirin 960, and it’s the best that Huawei have given us. With 4 primary cores that are able to go up to 2.4GHz and 4 lower-powered ones that are still able to top at 1.8GHz, it is a high-powered processor that is extremely efficient. It really does go head-to-head on Qualcomm’s equally powerful Snapdragon 821 that’s found on other flagship smartphones, like the Google Pixel. Like most smartphones these days, it does couple with 4GB of RAM to work with.

With such flagship specs on paper, does it perform like a flagship should? It certainly does, and is very good at it. There are very minimal lags even when the phone comes with a heavily customised user interface. Performance is not a problem at all, as tasks simply flies by without any problem, at least for built-in apps. This had to be one of the best performing Android devices out there. The built-in lightning fast UFS 2.1 64GB storage also aids in the performance.

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Using the usual Geekbench 4 benchmarking app, it returned a single-core score of 1818, and multi-core score stays at around 4956. Both scores are noticeably lower than the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, but is higher than the more modern Google Pixel XL. This is a really serious player we’re dealing with here.

All the usual specs can be expected in this phone – dual-band Wi-Fi with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, LTE, Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC. An IR blaster is located at the top as well which allows you to use the phone as a remote controller to control IR compatible devices.

Speaker Performance

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Like the iPhone 7, the Huawei Mate 9 does come with stereo speakers, and one of them are not easily visible. There is a downward firing speaker, and the other channel is located in the earpiece. While that seems like a great concept, the sound produced by the speaker in the earpiece is too soft compared to the main speaker, and sounds a little bit tinny. The main speaker on the other hand performs well, its loud and clear even though at maximum volume there are some distortion. We have no problems with external wired or wireless audio output.

Display

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The display on the other hand, is pretty average for a flagship and did not stand out. It still has a 5.9-inch IPS display that goes head to head with the larger flagships in terms of screen size, and it has a Full HD resolution (1920 X 1080). Even though at this price range we would normally expect a quad HD or 4K resolution, with a density of 373 pixels per inch, there’s no complain and cause no problem on a daily use, even though its not as sharp.

The display is backed by an IPS panel. While its only a standard IPS panel that Huawei puts in their other devices, it is rich in colour, it has wide colour gamut and deep blacks. It’s easy to use even under sunlight and has a wide viewing angle. Despite that, colours are still not as vivid as the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, which is the daddy of the smartphone market when it comes to displays thanks to its Super AMOLED panel.

Camera performance

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The biggest deal of the Huawei Mate 9 is its cameras, especially the primary one. The setup is pretty similar to the Huawei P9 – a dual-lens setup with a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel colour sensor. It’s Huawei’s second collaboration with Leica, and while that does not necessarily mean that it’s using Leica’s lens, it does have some Leica’s technology supporting it. In normal shooting, the 20-megapixel monochrome sensor combines with the 12-megapixel colour sensor to produce a picture that has more colour to it. Both sensors have an aperture of f/2.2, and while that does not sound like much, Leica promises that with two lenses, the light captured are double.

With 2 such amazing and high technology sensor combined, the results are good. While colours are vivid and has a lot of details in it, they are natural and does not look artificial. Details and textures are preserved and rendered in a natural way. There are also rich dynamic range and is very sharp. The Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) works well in making sure there’s no blur caused by hand. Even in low-light environment, they’re working hard to preserve as much colour and details, which produces great looking low-light photos.

The Mate 9 records 4K videos, and there are different other settings to choose from. You can also record 1080p videos in either 30 frames-per-second or 60 frames-per-second. Videos in 4K are smooth, has rich details and slightly higher saturated colours. At 60 frames-per-second, 1080p videos are extremely smooth thanks to its high bitrate. Like most smartphones, both the optical and digital image stabilization works hard together to reduce shakiness in the output video.

Since this phone has two sensors and laser autofocus, it is able to measure, collect and process depth information, which allows it to produce pictures with blurred background (bokeh effect). While it’s a software simulated effect, it’s pretty close to the ones you get from professional DSLRs. It’s able picks up the object quickly with the laser autofocus, measure the distance between the camera and the object, and produce the bokeh effect which is adjustable depending on how blurry the background is. Images produced does look natural. Other features include 2x optical zoom, dual-tone LED flash as well as various other modes.

The front facing camera is a 8-megapixel standard setup, with 27mm lens and f/1.9 aperture. Despite the fact that there are not much technology that goes with it, images produced have vivid colours and plenty of details, and you can rely on this phone for some great selfies. Like most phones these days, it does have software beautification feature where it will pick up faces and apply some artificial beauty effect to it. You can adjust the effect manually, and we recommend staying on the middle, as there’s just ridiculous amount of artificial effects in the higher settings which totally destroys the natural look. Videos recorded using the front facing camera are on the average side, and without any stabilization, its totally different compared to the rear camera.

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The camera app is simple to use at first glance. You’ve got your quick toggles on the left for switching between front and rear camera, colour effects, toggling the bokeh effect and flash. On the right you have your shutter button, switch to video mode button and your previous taken photos button. Swiping the small arrow next to the shutter button shows you your various other technical setting, including adjusting the exposure, shutter time, ISO and various other settings. It will show real time information if a setting is in auto mode. Swiping left in the camera app reveals more settings including picture size, changing the location as well as toggling the Leica watermark in photos, amongst other things. Swiping to the right allows you to switch to the many available modes. Even though these may sound and look complicated, it’s a camera app that’s easy to get used to.

To view samples taken on the Huawei Mate 9, click here.

Software

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The Huawei Mate 9 comes with Android 7.0 Nougat right out of the box, and as with all Huawei devices, it has been extensively modified with Huawei’s on EMUI skin on it. In this new version of EMUI, Huawei introduces more features as well as light design changes. For once, Huawei introduced a more familiar homescreen setup with an app drawer, which looks way better than the ones in the previous versions with all the apps littered all over the homescreen. While many other parts of the software is still the same, its been pulled back to make it more familiar to users from other Android devices. There are very minimal slow downs and lags thanks to its specs. Its not a problem for the processor to handle third-party apps and heavy tasks such as gaming. This is probably one of the best performing Android flagships out there.

Battery life

With 4000mAh battery that is built-in, the battery life of the Huawei Mate 9 is rather impressive. With a single SIM running on a pretty busy day with heavy use of mobile data, it was still able to return over 30% of battery life, which is around what a Apple iPhone 7 Plus could give you at 1000mAh less. The software does introduce a new algorithm which able to track your app usage and decide which apps to provide maximum juice and putting unnecessary apps to sleep. The USB-C port also allows you to supercharge the battery, which Huawei claims it will provide a “full day of power” in 20 minutes.

Conclusion

The Huawei Mate 9 is considered a very solid player in the flagship market. It’s not perfect and there are still rooms for improvement. But even with that’s it is a fantastic flagship smartphone. This phone should be in your list if you’re hunting for a smartphone at this market as an alternative to the Google Pixel XL, Apple iPhone 7 Plus and the late Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Recap:
5.9-inch IPS LED display, 1080p resolution, 373 ppi
HiSilicone Kirin 960, octa-core, up to 2.4GHz
4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, microSD support up to 256GB
20MP monochrome + 12MP RGB sensor, 4K videos
Front facing 7-megapixel camera
4000mAh non-removable battery
Fingerprint sensor

Pros:
Blazing fast and accurate fingerprint sensor
Very good performance
Solid and expensive build quality
Good camera setup
New, simpler and more familiar user interface

Cons:
Not rated for water and dust proof
One channel of the stereo speakers are too soft
Display could be better
Front facing camera action is average
Hard to remove rear body plastic protector