Huawei Mate 9

Update: Huawei has now released both the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro, which replace the Mate 9 from its top end line up. That means the price of the Mate 9 may drop down soon too.

Original review: 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 it into the realm of 'power user' and the enterprise space, a claim backed up by the fact that 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 increased day to day usability in the long term, something Huawei is keen to talk up. 

This is Huawei's big effort to break into the US market, and push itself from being the world's third-biggest phone manufacturer to second place by the end of 2018.

Whether it will succeed is yet to be seen, but this is the phone the company hopes will help dislodge Apple from its runner-up position behind Samsung when it comes to phone sales.

Huawei Mate 9 price and release date

  • Out now in the US, UK and Australia
  • At launch it cost $599.99 (£579, AU$999)
  • Now price in the US has dropped to $499.99, but it's still £579/AU$999 elsewhere

Huawei's Mate 9 launched at $599.99 or £579.99, while in the rest of Europe it cost €699. Those in Australia can also buy the phone for AU$999, but if you shop around you may be able to find a slightly cheaper deal.

Those in the US can now also get the Mate 9 for only $499.99 after it received a permanent price drop but there's no word of a price cut in the UK or Australia.

If you'd rather spend money each month on the Mate 9, we've seen good deals in the UK offering 4GB of data for around £30 a month and an upfront cost of £100. 

Key features

  • The Huawei Mate 9 is Daydream VR-ready
  • We're not certain this will be the best phone for Google's VR platform
  • Designed to speed up over time with Machine Learning Algorithm

Huawei has tried to improve every element of the Mate 9 to keep the Mate series relevant in a market that's full of impressive phablet devices.

A key selling point is that this is one of the world's first Daydream-ready phones. That means it'll be ready to work with the Daydream VR platform when Google launches its Daydream View headset at the end of 2016.

The phone is set up with a strong processor to ensure it can run the apps and games it will need to, but we haven't yet been able to test it out with Daydream.

Considering it doesn't feature a 2K display, however, we expect the Huawei Mate 9 won't be as good for VR as, say, the Pixel XL with Daydream or the with a Gear VR.

Another big selling point of the Huawei Mate 9 is its durability. If you only upgrade your phone once every few years, you don’t want the processing power to drop off after only six months of use.

To that end Huawei has included its own Machine Learning Algorithm in the Mate 9, which is designed to ensure your phone gets faster over time.

It adapts to the way you use your device, and will use this information to prioritise the performance of features you use most often over apps and services you don’t use as much.

The Mate 9 has more than 1,000 different functions that can be tweaked, and Huawei says MLA can offer a 20% increase in smoothness of performance, a 50% improvement in system response times and a 20% boost to the graphics read/write speeds.

We haven’t been able to try out this feature yet, as we’ve only had the phone for a week of testing, but Huawei is certainly confident that this phone is only going to improve the longer you own it.

Design and display

  • Full metal uni-body, but not an exciting design
  • Fingerprint sensor on the back, USB-C port on the bottom
  • Only a Full HD display, when we'd hoped for QHD

If you’ve used a Huawei Mate 8, you’ll recognize much of the design language used on the Mate 9. Huawei hasn't seen fit to update it much for the new phone, but it's still a well-built handset.

There's a full metal unibody design, which feels premium in the hand. There are very slightly curved edges on the front and back of the phone, which helps it to sit in the hand better than the Mate 8 did.

It's not as comfortable to hold as some other phablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, but it's better than the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium.

If you’re used to smaller devices the Huawei Mate 9 may not be the best choice for you, as it’s a larger phone, and some will find it unwieldy.

It measures 157 x 79 x 7.9mm, making it a very similar size to the iPhone 7 Plus. You get more screen on the Mate 9 compared to the iPhone 7 Plus, though, as the bezels aren’t as thick.

There’s a fingerprint scanner on the back of the device, underneath the Leica branded dual-lens camera. It’s a comfortable location when you’re holding the phone in your hand, but if you regularly lay your phone down on a desk you may find it irritating – you’ll need to pick up the phone to unlock it, or press the power button and unlock the phone on screen with your PIN or password. 

On the bottom edge are two speaker grilles, either side of a USB-C slot for charging and data transfer.

Some good news, if you were concerned about Huawei following Apple’s lead, is that the Mate 9 features a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s on the top edge of the phone on the right hand side, which makes it easy to listen to music when the phone is in a pocket.

The power button – which you probably won’t reach for that often if you’re using the fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone – sits on the right-hand edge.

The Huawei Mate 9 isn’t an exciting-looking phone. It looks premium, but it doesn’t have that distinctive look that phones like the more powerful and pricy Huawei Mate 9 Porsche Design, or the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, offer.

It’s just more of the same again, although for most people that won’t be an issue.

Huawei notes that the Mate 9 is Daydream VR-ready, but a higher-resolution screen would make for a far better virtual reality experience

Some Huawei watchers were disappointed when it was announced that the Huawei Mate 9 didn’t have a QHD panel, and it would certainly have been better if the company had upgraded the screen rather than keeping it Full HD.

The Mate 9 Porsche Design features an incredible QHD screen, which the Mate 9 would have really benefited from. It is unclear why the company didn’t see fit to upgrade it for the ‘standard’ version of its new phone.

It would have been nice to have a QHD screen for watching video and looking at photos, but it’s a particular let-down given the recent launch of Google Daydream and Huawei VR headsets.

Huawei makes a point of noting that the Mate 9 is a Daydream-ready VR headset, but a higher-resolution screen would make for a far better virtual reality experience, and it feels like Huawei has shot itself in the foot by limiting its latest flagship to Full HD.

For general use, though, the 5.9-inch, 1920 x 1080 screen will suit you just fine. It works out to a relatively meagre 373 pixels per inch, but when viewing general content it looks similar to most other phones you can buy right now.

If you’re looking for a higher-quality image when watching video, you might be better off going for a Sony Xperia Z5 Premium with its 4K screen, or even a Google Pixel XL.

The viewing angles with the screen are impressive, though, and it has a real impact when you turn up the brightness on the display.

There’s an auto-brightness mode, although most of the time we were using the phone we kept it on full brightness for maximum effect.

Interface and reliability

  • Brand new Emotion UI 5 based on Android 7 Nougat software
  • Lighter skin than previous versions, but there's still no app drawer
  • Lots of Huawei-based apps, but they're quite useful
  • Amazon Alexa integration, but only for those in the US

One of the biggest criticisms of Huawei phones is usually the software setup, which many say doesn’t work in the Western world as well as it does in Huawei’s home country of China.

The company does seem to have listened to a lot of the criticisms from the past versions of the software, though, and addressed them with the new Emotion UI 5 upgrade.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t look as good as, say, TouchWiz UI on Samsung phones, but it does improve on what we’ve seen in the past from the Emotion platform.

The themes available on the Mate 9 are nicer looking than on older Huawei phones; they tended to be angular and ugly-looking designs, but the options available here are much easier on the eye.

All the usual customization options are present too, meaning you can change the way each of the icons looks within the Themes app.

Emotion UI 5 is based on Android 7 Nougat, meaning you get all the latest features from Google’s new software update – for example, you can now run two apps side-by-side in multitasking mode.

Like an iPhone, the Huawei Mate 9 doesn’t have an app drawer. This means all your apps will sit across a number of home pages, but you can easily switch apps around, or add widgets to break up the pages.

Your Mate 9 will also remind you if you’ve got intensive apps running in the background, and advise you to close them if you’re wasting battery or not making the most of the phone’s potential power.

There are a lot of bloatware apps installed on the Mate 9, including Todoist, Booking.com, OneNote and WPS Office. There are more useful apps too, such as Facebook, but if you want these on your phone you can easily download them yourself, and you’ll probably find yourself uninstalling a few of the options Huawei has included to get more space.

Amazon's Alexa

In the US, Mate 9 owners have received the Alexa update, which brings Amazon's artificial intelligence bot to the forefront of the experience.

Most have had even a little bit of experience chatting with one of these intelligent virtual assistants, so this addition begs the question "what's new here?"

First off, compared to the Google Assistant, Alexa isn't baked deeply into the EMUI layer at all. You can't beckon her from the home screen, nor will she awaken if you shout across the room like you would with the Amazon Echo.

To activate Alexa, you need to physically boot into the Alexa app. Huawei makes it easy to turn on knuckle gestures that can boot the app from any screen, but it's still a drag that Alexa isn't more intuitive to access.

However, once you do get her attention, she's at the ready to help you find what you're looking for. We were able to successfully set up a reminder to send a text message at a later time in the day. Alexa knew that North Carolina clenched the title over Gonzaga in the NCAA basketball championship.

She even was able to tell us the movies showing in our area, complete with showtimes. We got as far as asking her to book us a ticket for one of those days, but then she stopped being able to keep up with the conversation on a contextual basis – this is so important for these assistants and is something that Google's Assistant trumps Alexa in.

Where Amazon's voice assistant gets ahead is with its connected services. If you have IoT devices, you can control them all by voice with the Mate 9. Not just that, Amazon's own massive online store is available to shop at by voice, as well as other experimental micro-services, like Restaurants, that allows you to execute unique commands, such as ordering all types of food straight through the app. Of course, you need to be signed in on the Amazon Alexa app to go through with this sort of stuff that involves a payment.

All in all, Alexa can do most of what the others can, with the exception of finding points of interest via your preferred map application. Huawei told us that it is working to build out Alexa's list of abilities as time goes on. It did now, however, explain how its offering on the Mate 9 will differ from what's seen on other devices with Alexa launches elsewhere.

There isn't much new here for those looking for the next evolution in voice assistants, but it's really cool to see Huawei taking a proactive step to bringing new features to consumers instead of being reactive to change after others have done it first.

Music, movies and gaming

  • You can use wired or Bluetooth headsets with the Mate 9
  • The speakers are good, although not the best around
  • There's a ton of storage, but you may still need a microSD card

For listening to music on your Mate 9 there’s a good old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone. Music quality through headphones is good, and you get a pair of earbuds in the box.

If you want to go wireless we found it easy to connect the phone to both speakers and headphones over Bluetooth.

The speakers output through the two grilles on the bottom of the phone, and sound quality is impressive. The Mate 9 isn’t going to sound as good as the HTC 10 with its BoomSound front-facing speakers, but if you’re just playing the odd track or podcast they perfectly adequate.

You’ll likely want to watch a fair bit of video on the Huawei Mate 9, and its large screen is good for this. It may only be Full HD resolution, but the picture quality is good – you won’t notice any pixels, and the screen is bright.

Watching video one-handed is fairly easy, although if the phone’s in landscape orientation you’ll need your other hand to hit the play/pause button.

You can watch videos that are on the phone via Huawei’s Gallery app. Videos you’ve recorded are displayed along with your photos in your picture library, and also in a dedicated folder.

If gaming is your thing, the processor setup on the Huawei Mate 9 will be able to play almost anything you want it to.

We played a number of high-end games, and found it simple to hit the on-screen controls when using two hands. Real Racing 3 in particular worked well, and loaded speedily.

Huawei has included a generous 64GB of internal storage on the Mate 9, and there’s also support for microSD cards up to 256GB; if you’re happy to buy a card you’ll really struggle to fill this phone up, no matter how much media you consume.

You get a respectable 53GB to play with out of the box too, as the pre-loaded software takes up just 11GB of the storage.

Spec and benchmark performance

  • Huawei claims this is "the most powerful smartphone in the world"
  • We've found the Galaxy S7 Edge is more powerful in benchmarks though
  • The Mate 9 will be able to perform any intensive task you ask of it

Huawei has called the Mate 9 the “most powerful smartphone in the world”, which is a hard claim to prove. In our testing we haven't found it to be the fastest or most powerful phone, but it's still impressive.

The Mate 9 will comfortably perform any task you ask of it, thanks to the brand new Huawei-made Kirin 960 chipset and supporting 4GB of RAM.

Benchmark-wise the Mate 9 returned a multi-core score of 5815 – that trails behind the Exynos-powered Samsung Galaxy S7, which scored 6542, but it’s still an impressive result.

Throughout our time with the phone we found it performed quickly and reliably, and we didn’t experience any app crashes.

  • Huawei has impressed us with the battery on the Mate 9
  • It features a 4000mAh cell and charges via USB-C
  • There's also a fast-charging mode to pump it full as quick as possible

Huawei may have cracked the battery life issue with the Mate 9 – we’ve been impressed by how well the phone has performed throughout our testing. 

The Mate 9 comes with a 4000mAh cell, and that has to power a large Full HD screen, a powerful processor and much more.

Huawei claims a power user will experience a full day of battery, and that you’ll get two days out of a charge if you use the phone less regularly.

Most phone manufacturers claim this, and it’s usually not the case, but during our testing, even with intensive use we didn’t drain the battery by the end of the day.

On average we’d get to around 2pm and still have 75% of the battery remaining. That’s almost unheard of for a smartphone in 2016, and it's seriously impressive.

The Mate 9 didn't fare as well as we'd hoped in our video battery test though. This involves playing a 90-minute video at full brightness with connectivity options on, and during that time the Mate 9 lost 17% of its battery, meaning you could watch five hour-and-a-half-long films and still have battery to spare. 

It's a decent showing, but it's not as good as some of the competition – the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge only lost 13% and 14% of their charge respectively.

The Mate 9 is charged via the USB-C port on the bottom of the phone. The phone also supports fast charging, which Huawei claims can get you to a full day's worth of battery in just 20 minutes.

We've yet to test this properly, as our unit had a Chinese adapter in the box, but we'll put fast charging through its paces soon.

Want to see the Huawei Mate 9 battery in action? Take a look at how it compares to the iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei P9 in the video below.

Camera

  • The dual-lens Leica-branded camera from the Huawei P9 is back here
  • There's a 20MP monochrome sensor, and a 12MP color one
  • Wide aperture mode is impressive, but will only work for some shots

The Huawei Mate 9’s camera is the same dual-lens unit that debuted on the Huawei P9. It’s co-engineered with German camera maker Leica, which has been in the business since 1849, so knows what it’s doing.

There’s a 12MP colour sensor and a 20MP monochrome (black and white) one. Combined, these deliver what Huawei believes is a more detailed image than you’d get from a single sensor.

The monochrome sensor specializes in capturing detail, with the theory being that when you combine the mono image with the color one the overall result is very clear and detailed. And the good news is that the Mate 9’s camera will likely impress you with what it can do. 

We shot some fantastic images while using the phone – although it’s still not the best camera on the market right now.

If you want a phone that you can whip out of your pocket and take a high-quality snap with immediately, the best option is undeniably the Samsung Galaxy S7.

We found the Huawei Mate 9 struggled with focusing, especially in low light. Tapping on the screen to focus didn’t necessarily help, and it was difficult to focus on specific areas with ease.

An interesting feature is the option to shoot in pure black and white, using the 20MP camera.

This lends a nice quality to the right subjects, but take note that you won’t be able to change an image to color after you’ve taken it – it doesn’t work like a filter in a camera app, or Instagram.

In good lighting the Huawei Mate 9’s performs extremely well, and you can shoot some highly detailed images using the auto mode; it’s just a struggle when the lighting isn’t great.

There’s also a Pro mode, which you can dive into to tweak shooting settings, but you’ll need to know your ISOs from your f-stops to make the most of it.

One of the highlights of the Mate 9’s camera is a feature called Light Painting, which enables you to create some amazing images in dark conditions using a long exposure – we captured this on Bonfire Night with a sparkler.

It’s only for very specific occasions, but when it works you can get some striking images by just holding the phone still and pointing it at a moving light.

One benefit of having a dual-lens camera is the wide aperture mode. If you take a photo in this mode you’ll then be able to adjust the point of focus post-shoot, days or even months after taking the original photo.

Here’s a shot taken in wide aperture mode – the toy car is in sharp focus, and the background is nicely blurred

It means you can just tap on an object or area on the screen, in the foreground or background, to completely change the focus of the image.

Sometimes this can work like magic, but on other occasions it doesn’t work quite so well, and will make the ‘in-focus’ background of an image appear blurry. We’d recommend using this feature for larger objects or landscapes to get the best effect.

Here’s what happened when we changed the focus point to the background – while the car is now out of focus, the background isn’t particularly sharp

You can record video in 4K, Full HD and 720p, and there are also options for slow-mo video.

Turning to the front camera, it’s business as usual here, with an 8MP front sensor. This does everything you’d expect, with the obligatory beauty mode to get rid of any pesky skin blemishes.

It’s high resolution, but again it struggles in the dark a little more than you’d hope for a phone at this price point. 

We asked Huawei and Leica representatives whether the two firms have considered collaborating on the front camera, and we were answered with nervous laughter at the question.

That means we’d expect some big improvements on the Huawei P10’s front-facing camera.

Camera samples – click the right arrow to see more

The Huawei Mate 9 is likely to have everything you want in a phone, but it's packaged in a way you probably haven’t considered before.

If you're looking for a large, powerful device this is a good option. You don't get a stylus, as with the Galaxy Note 7, but it's still offering all the other features you'd want from a phablet.

Why should I buy the Huawei Mate 9?

If you’re after a phone with fantastic battery life the Mate 9 is well up to the job; you could even get two days of use from a single charge. And for when you do run low, there’s fast-charging to get you going again quickly.

It’s also one of the most powerful phones around, so if you’re a power user this is the perfect setup – and with 64GB of storage and microSD expansion up to 256GB you’ll struggle to fill it up too.

The camera setup is the same as on the P9, but it’s capable of capturing some beautiful image, and if you’re a photography fan you’ll likely find the Pro mode useful and enjoyable.

Another plus point is the software – it’s based on Android 7 Nougat, and right now that’s a rarity on phablets that aren’t made by Google.

Why shouldn’t I buy the Huawei Mate 9?

The price is the biggest downside of the Huawei Mate 9 – it’s not clear why it costs so much when the Huawei Mate 8 was a much cheaper option. That said, it doesn’t cost as much as some of the competition, like the Google Pixel XL.

Emotion UI isn’t for everyone either – you may not like the look of Huawei’s software skin, and if you don’t you should probably look at some the phones we’ve picked out below.

The display on the Mate 9 is also a bit of a let-down, given that Huawei seems to be trying to get in on the virtual reality action.

When Samsung launched its Gear VR project it upgraded its flagship phone to a higher-resolution that was ready for VR. Huawei hasn’t done this, and we think it’s missed a trick.

First reviewed November 2016

  • Looking for a phablet but not entirely sold on the Huawei Mate 9? Here are some other big-screen options to consider.

Huawei Mate 8

The Huawei Mate 9's predecessor is less than a year old, and still has a very impressive spec list with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and a Kirin 950 processor.

Much of the spec inside the is the same as in the Mate 9 – and it’s about half the price after dropping to £319 (about $400, AU$515).

You won’t get such a strong battery, and you also won’t get the upgraded Lecia camera, but it’s still a great choice if you're after a phablet from Huawei and don't want to spend much.

iPhone 7 Plus

Fancy something with an iOS flavor? If so the is the best option for you, with a 5.5-inch screen, a powerful A10 processor and a selection of storage options.

It doesn’t have a headphone jack, but it does boast good battery life, and comes with a dual-lens camera that can take shots every bit as good as those you'll get from the Huawei Mate 9.

It’ll cost you a little more, starting at $769 (£719, AU$1,229).

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

Huawei’s Mate 9 is one of the closest phones you can get to the now defunct Galaxy Note 7, and the biggest Samsung phone you can buy right now is a serious rival to the Mate 9.

It features a curved 5.5-inch screen, and one of the most powerful processors you'll find in a phone.

It's an expensive option, but considering it's now over half a year old and the Mate 9 is so pricey you may be better off opting for this Samsung phone.

Huawei Mate 9 Porsche Design

Be warned: this phone isn't for everyone. Huawei has in the past focused on making phones for a lower price than similar handsets from rival manufacturers, but the is anything but cheap.

It costs a whopping €1,395 (around £1,200, $1,500, AU$2,000). That's a lot of money to spend on a phone, and most of the spec is similar to the Galaxy S7 Edge – and it's not that dissimilar to the standard-issue Mate 9.

The Porsche Design version comes plastered with the German prestige car maker's logo, and has a QHD, slightly curved display and even more RAM that the regular model at 6GB.

If you do fancy splashing out on one, it won't be here until December 2016.

James Peckham
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