Huawei Mate 9 full review

Huawei has come leaps and bounds in the UK market and despite launching a number of smartphones in 2016, from the flagship Huawei P9 and P9 Plus to the mid-range Huawei Nova and Nova Plus, but that wasn't enough. The company took to the stage in Munich in November 2016 to show off the latest in the Huawei range, the Huawei Mate 9. We’ve spent some time with the Huawei Mate 9, and here’s what we think of it including design, build, features, spec, cameras and software. Read next: Best smartphones

Huawei Mate 9 review: UK pricing and availability

So, before we get into what makes the Huawei Mate 9 so impressive, it’s worth mentioning the pricing and availability of the latest smartphone. While Huawei initially announced the smartphone wouldn’t be available in the UK, the smartphone became available to buy from Three and Carphone Warehouse in mid-January 2017 both on contract and pay as you go. 

In terms of pricing, the phone ranges from £549.99 from Three (unlocked, although you'll need a Three SIM with £10 credit to buy it) to £599 from Carphone Warehouse. The price tag puts the smartphone in line with other flagship smartphones including the Samsung Galaxy S7, Sony Xperia XZ, Google Pixel and more.

Huawei Mate 9 review: Design and build

The first thing you’ll notice about the Huawei Mate 9 is the impressive display, measuring in at 5.9in. While many will read that and instantly write off the phablet for having a larger-than-life display, Huawei has done what it does best and managed to fit a large display into a small body with incredibly tiny bezels. In fact, the screen-to-body ratio is an impressive ~77.5 percent. What does this mean?

It means that in the hand, the Huawei Mate 9 is similar in terms of dimensions to the 5.5in iPhone 7 Plus, measuring in at 156.9x78.9x7.9mm compared to 158.2x77.9x7.3mm respectively and proving that it’s not as uncomfortable to hold as many of its 5.9in rivals. In fact, during our time with the Huawei Mate 9, we’ve found that we could reach from one side of the display to the other with our thumb quite comfortably and easily – an impressive feat for a smartphone with such a large display.

Anyway, surrounding that large display is an aluminium body which, in typical Huawei fashion features an incredibly high-end finish, from the slightly curved edges that make the smartphone ‘sit’ in the hand more comfortably, to the subtle chamfers that run along the edges of the smartphone. The Huawei Mate 9 is gorgeous, there’s no doubting it, and will be available to buy in two colours in the UK – Space Grey and Moonlight Silver. There are other options, including Ceramic White, Champagne Gold and Mocha Brown, but these won’t be available to buy in the UK.

There are a whopping four microphones dotted across the device (2x at the bottom, 1x on top of the camera on the rear, 1x inside earpiece) for active noise cancellation when calling and for directional sound recording. There are three modes to choose from – meeting, interview and normal – with users able to play back audio from a specific direction or microphone once the recording has finished. This was also featured in the Mate S, although slightly underwhelming, but it seems the Mate 9 variant has been improved.

Along with directional sound recording, you’ll find an IR blaster to control your TV and other devices and, as specifically pointed out by Huawei, a 3.5mm headphone jack – take that, Apple.

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Huawei Mate 9 review: Features and spec

So, let’s delve a little deeper into the features and spec of the sleek and sexy Huawei Mate 9. The 5.9in IPS display is only Full HD resolution (1920x1080), which may seem slightly underpowered when compared to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which features a resolution of 1440x2560, however we found the display to be bright, crisp and frankly gorgeous without the extra pixels.

With that being said, having a FHD screen has its benefits, mainly with regards to battery life: it takes considerable battery power to power the pixels on the display, which means that in theory, the QHD resolution of the Galaxy S7 draws four times the amount of power of the Mate 9 display. Not so bad now, is it?

Besides, it’s what is beneath the display that is most impressive. The Huawei Mate 9 features the brand new Kirin 960, an octa-core processor with four A73 2.3GHz cores and four A53 1.8GHz cores, and is Huawei’s fastest processor to date. Along with the Kirin 960, users will find 4GB of RAM and the new Mali G71 GPU, which Huawei claims enhances mobile graphics by a whopping 400 percent – but we’ll come to that in more detail in our benchmark section.

Other features include a rear-facing fingerprint scanner, which features a 4-level security system (like the Huawei P9) to make sure it’s blisteringly fast and accurate. It also features a whopping 64GB of built-in storage with the potential to be boosted to an incredible 2TB thanks to the Hybrid SIM slot, which offers 1x SIM tray and 1x MicroSD card slot.

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Huawei Mate 9 review: Benchmark results

During our time with the Huawei Mate 9, we found the smartphone to be blisteringly fast in general use. We’ve not seen this kind of responsiveness and speed from any Huawei smartphone in the past – even from the flagship Huawei P9 – so we’re very impressed with Huawei’s latest offering. Apps open instantly, as does the camera, and we couldn’t produce the slightest bit lag – even when trying.

But let us back that up with stats from our benchmark results. We ran three benchmark tests; GeekBench 4, GFXBench and JetStream, which tests the CPU performance, GPU performance and browser performance respectively, with a higher score reflecting a better score.

Let’s start with GeekBench 4 results; the Huawei Mate 9 boasts the highest test scores we’ve found since we’ve been using the updated GeekBench software, boasting a single-core score of 1924 and multi-core score of 5986. It beat the likes of the Google Pixel XL (1581 and 4067), Sony Xperia XZ (1582 and 3807) and the OnePlus 3T (1875 and 4257) in processing power, and this is evident in the everyday performance of the smartphone.  

The GFXBench test is split into four different sequences, each with varying resolution, textures, particle effects, etc, to test the graphical performance of the phone. We’ll mention T-Rex, GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 and Car Chase here, although you can see a more detailed performance in the below widget. In GFXBench, the Huawei Mate 9 scored 60fps in T-Rex, 31fps in Manhattan 3.1 and 16fps in Car Chase.

While the Mate 9 managed to best the Google Pixel XL (55fps, 17fps and 11fps), the Sony Xperia XZ (60fps, 33fps and 20fps) and the OnePlus 3T (60fps, 32fps, 20fps) performed slightly better. Although with that being said, the minor differences in score means that in real life use, you won’t notice much of a difference when gaming on any of the aforementioned devices.

Lastly, we ran the JetStream benchmark, which tests the speed and general performance of the phone’s default mobile browser. In the case of the Huawei Mate 9, that’s Google Chrome, and again, it came out at the top when compared to other Android devices. It scored 68.5, beating all other 2016 flagship smartphones apart from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which use Apple’s mobile Safari browser and achieved astonishing results of 160.2 and 168.7 respectively.

Huawei Mate 9 review: Cameras and photography

Along with the impressive internals, the Mate 9 is the second Huawei smartphone to feature a dual-camera setup – and much like the Huawei P9, the Mate 9’s rear-facing camera setup has been developed in conjunction with high-end camera manufacturer Leica. Huawei has made a few changes to the setup, including an increase in resolution of the monochrome sensor, now up to 20Mp from 12Mp, and the introduction of optical image stabilisation, although the colour sensor stays the same at 12Mp.

One new feature of the Mate 9’s dual-camera setup is it's ability to provide “lossless zoom” according to Huawei, allowing you to zoom in on your subject without worrying about degrading the quality of the photo. It was an impressive claim considering there’s no telephoto lens like with the iPhone 7 Plus, and a claim we were particularly interested in putting to the test.

As seen in the above comparison shot (click to enlarge), while we expected over-aggressive noise cancellation would ruin the zoomed photos, they provided impressive levels of detail with little to no noise. They weren’t as detailed as a standard photo, but for times where a zoom is required, it’s an impressive compromise.

Along with the Huawei P9, the Mate 9 also offers the bokeh effect, which blurs out the background of an image, although it offers a significant change – the ability to zoom in. While we were initially excited about the ability to adjust the size of the aperture and focus after taking the photo, we found that the camera generally struggled to find the edges of the subject of the photo, as documented in the below photo.

The Huawei Mate 9 also features 4K video, a confusing omission from the flagship P9 earlier this year, and a front-facing 8Mp camera complete with auto-focus and a front-facing flash for those late-night selfies.

We were impressed with the quality of the photos produced by the rear-facing camera setup during our time with the Mate 9, producing clear, crisp and vibrant photos with impressive detail, even when zooming in. Macro shots are equally impressive, as showcased in the below image where you’re easily able to identify and count the number of rain droplets on the leaf. While the Huawei Mate 9 captures a lot of light in low-light conditions, we feel that the photos can become slightly washed out and noisy unless care is taken when taking the photo.

We also found that the UI had changed when compared to the Huawei P9, and the new manual mode is a little more confusing to use this time around. It’s the same story with the shallow depth-of-field mode, which we found much more confusing to use and, more importantly, get decent results with.

Huawei Mate 9 review: Software

So, let’s move onto software – an area that has seen quite a change with the introduction of the Huawei Mate 9. First of all, the Mate 9 comes with the latest iteration of the Android operating system, Android N, although whether the UK variant of the Huawei Mate 9 will come with Google Assistant (a feature announced for the US variant) is still unclear.

However, the bigger announcement comes in the form of Emotion UI 5.0, a completely overhauled version of Huawei’s UI overlay, which has polarised its customers in the past. While some love Huawei’s EMUI, others absolutely hate it, with the biggest issue being an omission of an app tray, offering an iOS-esque Android experience with all apps on the home screen.

That has all changed with EMUI 5, which offers the choice between having an app tray or having all apps displayed on the home screen, along with a myriad of other changes. It offers a unified colour scheme throughout the operating system with a rather attractive white and blue combination, apparent from the redesigned notification centre to the settings menu. It’ also much easier to use, with Huawei priding itself on the ability to access more than 50 percent of the features within two taps.

However, the most impressive part of EMUI 5 is the ability to improve the performance of the smartphone over time. Traditionally, smartphone performance starts to decrease after a year of use but Huawei claims that by implementing five core technologies, it can speed up the Mate 9 by 80% after 10,000 hours (average yearly use) of usage. How? It features a combination of AI based machine learning algorithms, the ability to intelligently allocate CPU resources to apps you use frequently, improve memory optimisation with automatic cleaning when idle and finally, improvement to the I/O storage speed.

Along with this, Huawei introduced App Twin, a feature that allows you to log into both professional and personal apps at the same time, and is ideal for business users. Say, for example, you use Facebook for business and for pleasure, but across two different accounts – App Twin will let you use both side by side. It also offers the option to split the display and run two apps side by side, although we feel that this feature is overrated and we’re not quite sure how many people use the feature in the myriad of Android smartphones available.

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Specs

Huawei Mate 9: Specs

  • 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9mm
  • 190g
  • Single-SIM with MicroSD card slot
  • 5.9in Full HD IPS display
  • Android 7.0 with EMUI 5.0
  • Kirin 960 CPU
  • Mali G71 GPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • Dual 20 + 12Mp rear-facing cameras
  • Optical Image Stabilisation
  • 2x zoom
  • dual-LED flash
  • front-facing 8Mp camera with flash
  • 4K video recording
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
  • NFC
  • Infrared Port
  • 4x microphones
  • USB-C
  • 4,000mAh battery