huawei-mate-9-review_16Huawei is launching its large-display flagship Mate 9 phone before many expected it. Its Mate 8 predecessor was announced at CES 2016, and it’s coming to the U.S. The Mate 9 is mostly an incremental upgrade to the Mate 8, and keeps everything that made the success of its predecessor, but improves on points that customers care about: performance, camera, battery life, user interface. Let’s take a closer look at how the phone performs.

Quickspecs

Note: Before you read the rest of this review, please note that we have a pre-release unit, which means that the firmware will change to some extent by the time this product hits the shelves. It should, however, be representative of the final product in general, and we will update the review if there are significant changes.

  • 4000 mAh battery
  • 5.9” FHD display
  • USB-C
  • Kirin 960 Processor, 64GB / 4GB

Here’s how Huawei’s is pitching this new phone:

Industrial design

huawei-mate-9-review_17At first glance, the new Huawei Mate 9 look very much like last year’s Mate 8 smartphone (don’t miss our Mate 8 review), but there are some design differences, along with internal and software changes of course. From the front, the phone is slightly smaller due to the change in display size from 6.0 inches (Mate 8) to 5.9” inches (Mate 9). Although the visual difference is minimal, the size change can be felt immediately upon holding the phone. Despite featuring the same thickness (7.9mm), the overall volume is obviously down and it feels better in hand.

huawei-mate-9-review_12

The camera module in the back is the most visible change. The Mate 8 now uses a dual-camera system based on the same idea as what the Huawei P9 introduced: increase the image sensing capability, without increasing depth (we explain it all in our Huawei P9 review). More on the camera module later, as for now we’ll point out the visible differences such as the Dual-LED, and what seems to be another sensor, probably an IR sensor for white-balance controls.

The fingerprint sensor has seen some changes as well: it’s not as deep and large as it used to be, but the finish is better, while mostly maintaining the sensing surface. It’s not immediately clear if it’s the same sensor (level 4) as the Huawei P9, but it works well enough, so we may enquire for more data later.

Huawei Mate 9 has a very different, more comfortable, feel when compared the to Mate 8. To some users, especially those with small hands, the Mate 9 will be a vast improvement. If you have the opportunity to pick both in your hands, try it, and you’ll see for yourself.

Still, the Mate 9 remains a hefty phone, and it will benefit from the disappearance of the Galaxy Note 7 (5.7”) as the leading large-display smartphone, even if the design isn’t as nice in my opinion, but “existence is always superior to perfection” as one might say.

Huawei Mate 9 Porsche Design

huawei-mate-9-porsche-officialIf you have followed the Ubergizmo Mate 9 news coverage, Huawei has also been working with Porsche to have a limited edition of the Mate 9 that features a 5.5” Quad HD display with curved edges. That phone also has 256GB of storage and 6GB of memory. At 1395 Euros, we don’t expect most of you ever to get your hands on it, but if you’re curious, it’s the same phone, except for the differences listed above.

Display (1080p, LCD IPS)

After peaking at 6.3” with handsets like the Galaxy Mega 6.3, large phone displays have largely gone down to 5.7” or so. With a diagonal of 5.9”, the Huawei Mate 9 is one of the rare high-end phones that hovers close to 6 inches. That could help secure a market that has been left untapped for the sake of addressing a more mainstream market.

Huawei is sticking to its policy of using FHD/1080p/1920×1080 screens, instead of QHD/Quad HD/2560×1440 high PPI displays. The main reason cited is that lower resolution is better for battery life in general. While this is true, we would also point out that it does so in a relatively marginal way and that there are many strategies to keep the extra power consumption in check.

The brightness of 677 NITs (measured) is exceptionally high, and would bode well for outdoor usage. Under certain conditions, one could even start claiming HDR status, although color-gamut and other factor may have to be met as well. Mobile HDR is still a muddy area, but if you’re using the phone in a bright day, this will help a lot.

We suspect that lower costs and lower volume production of 5.9” Quad HD displays are also contributing factors to this choice. In reality, FHD is mostly fine, but there is a difference if your sight is good enough, and if you deal with small text, or simply HD photos, which everybody does at some point.

Learn more: What is PPI?
Learn more: High PPI displays: do you really need them?

Cameras: dual-camera, improved

Main dual-camera

huawei-mate-9-review_13With the Mate 9, Huawei continues with its 2-camera strategy, once again with Leica. There was some previous controversy about how much Leica contributed to the Huawei P9, but in general you should expect them to have worked on the “Image Quality Tuning” (IQ Tuning), which is the part where all tweaks/settings in the software processing has to be decided. To better understand what we consider to be a great phone camera experience, read the article below:

Opinon: What’s a Great Mobile Camera Experience?

Digital photography, and particularly mobile photography, uses an incredible amount of image processing, and the filter settings have a huge impact on the final image quality. IQ Tuning can be more important than the camera hardware itself (to a point). The same happens in the audio world when Bose or Bang & Olufsen “tweak” the audio settings for handsets or laptops.

Talking about the hardware, the dual-camera setup is a little different from the P9 because the Mate 9 has two different lenses and sensors, while P9 had two identical ones:

Because the monochrome camera has a higher resolution than the color one, Huawei says that it can do a “hybrid zoom.” While some people are equating this to the iPhone 7 Plus optical zoom, that is not the case. Let’s be clear: Huawei’s hybrid zoom is based on sensor cropping, which is a technique that has been used by the likes of Sony. It can help with zoomed image, but should not be equated to optical zoom.

It’s a well-established fact now that this kind of dual camera setup allows for instantaneous bokeh effects. Bokeh refers to the blurring of out-of-focus parts of the scene. On a large camera, the blur happens naturally as light converges and diverges from the surface of a lens that is several inches in diameter. Phone lenses are simply too small for that to happen, so camera software can approximate bokeh by computing a depth map of the scene to figure out what’s in and out of focus.

Image quality: uphill battle, but sharp progress

In broad daylight, the Huawei Mate 9 does well, and I think that most people will be reasonably satisfied by the photo experience, even when compared to the Galaxy S7 Edge or the Pixel XL, the top shooters of the moment. I did however notice that the camera is more prone to glare and lens-flares when strong light is coming from behind the subject, or when shooting in high contrast scenes.

huawei-mate-9-photo-sample_003

Very good performance, on par with the S7 Edge or Google Pixel

The photo is strangely hazy and doesn't represent the scene

The photo is strangely hazy and doesn’t represent the scene

Captured by the S7 Edge

Captured by the S7 Edge

In low-light, the Huawei Mate 9 has made some noticeable progress over the Huawei P9, but it is still a bit of an uphill battle when pitted against leading phones. Here are some cropped photo samples to show you what I’m talking about. Note that I’ve shot photos in HDR mode with all phones.

However, the Mate  HDR photography is a “special mode, ” and not an always-on setting (S7/S7 Edge), or an “automatic” feature (iPhone 7/7 Plus) is not an optimal setting. Most users will just snap a photo, and never use HDR – we highly recommend Huawei to change this. The Google Pixel and the iPhone have HDR on “auto” at all times — this is a better setup than asking users to decide when to use HDR.

huawei-mate-9-low-light-pastis-001 huawei-mate-9-low-light-pastis-002

This poster I shot in a restaurant is a good example. It’s in low-light, there are some text, sharp contrast, and some color variations. As you can see, there are lights fixtures nearby (see reflection), so this is not a “night shot,” but a “moody” one which is your typical night out scenario.

You can see that the S7 Edge photo is less noisy. And a crop shows even more differences, including sharpness, that explain the overall difference in quality. Looking at the technical details of both shots, the data explain everything:

  • Huawei Mate 9 shot using an 1/4 sec exposure time, ISO 1250, and an f2.2 aperture
  • S7 Edge shot using an an 1/10 sec exposure time, ISO 1000 and an f1.7 aperture

The higher Mate 9 ISO setting explain the higher noise level, and the longer exposure time (more than double) makes it very difficult to have a sharp image.

Keep in mind that the aperture (size of the hole that let light through) difference here is considerable between f2.2 (smaller) and f1.7 (larger). The larger the aperture and the more light comes to the sensor.

f-stop relative aperture size. Photo credit: shuttermuse.com

f-stop relative aperture size. Photo credit: shuttermuse.com

The Huawei Mate 9 could benefit from further IQ Tweaks (Image Quality), but the result is that the Mate 9 does better than the Huawei P9 in low-light or high-contrast situations. But ultimately it doesn’t match the very best phones out there such as the S7/S7 Edge or the Google Pixel.

4K video recording makes an apparition on the Huawei line-up with the Mate 9. The Huawei P9 did not feature it, and it looks like the Kirin 960 SoC (main processor) has an Image Signal Processor and overall compute power sufficient to perform 4K recording/processing/compression in real-time. Here’s a Huawei demo of their 4K capabilities:

Among the improvements that were not communicated about heavily, we did notice that the auto-focus (AF) speed and quality had improved noticeably from the Huawei P9, which was challenged when compared to the best out there. At the moment, the Mate 9 auto-focus performance doesn’t match the Galaxy S7/S7 Edge, the iPhone 7 or the Google Pixel. It can, however, be compared to the iPhone 6S and the Nexus 6P, which are quite good.

Battery (best in class)

huawei-mate-9-review_10With a battery of 4000 mAh, the Mate 9 has one of the highest battery capacity in the high-end Android category. Because the phone is bigger Huawei can pack more energy capacity, without getting into convoluted design challenges. For example, the Galaxy S7 Edge has a 3600 mAh battery capacity for an internal volume which is drastically smaller. The downside is that is size increases, the potential customer base decreases.

Huawei’s Super-Charge: amazing

mate-9-charge-speed-mah-mn

Huawei is also introducing its fast-charging technology called Super Charge. Such technologies typically work under the same principle: the charger and the phone identify themselves and make sure that they are compatible, and determine what is the maximum current the phone can take. Inside the phone, a mix of sensors, power regulators and software will make sure that the battery gets charged at maximum speed without overheating.

"THE MATE 9 CHARGING SPEED IS PHENOMENAL" Huawei claims that Super Charge can push the Huawei Mate 9 battery from 0% to ~%60 in only 30 minutes. If true, that would mean that this phone could charge at a speed of 80 mAh/mn, which would be much faster than most top phones which clock at ~50 mAh/mn, with the LG G5 leading at 54 mAh/mn in our tests. Additionally, Huawei says that it would take 90mn to reach a 100% charge. That’s normal because battery charging slows down significantly after ~80%.

"37% FASTER THAN THE CLOSEST COMPETITOR (LG G5)"We have put Huawei’s claim to the test, and their claim holds true. Charging can effectively go from 1% to 58% in 30mn (77 mAh/mn). The full charge numbers are not clear-cut, as we measured 90% at 104mn and 95% in 130mn — that’s a far cry of the 90mn claim. Yet, as far as fast-charging goes, we consider the Mate 9 to be the top performer for now.

Battery capacity, for the price and weight

mate-9-battery-price

In the high-end phones category, the Huawei Mate 9 has the largest capacity with 4000 mAh. Only the Huawei Mate 8 can rival it. The Galaxy S7 Edge comes in second at 3600 mAh. Because of its relatively high price (699 Euros, ~760 USD) the battery capacity “for each dollar spent” of the Mate 9 isn’t actually that high.

The chart below shows that the Mate 8 or the Nexus 6P have are better “deals” if you want more battery for your money. Actually, even the S7 Edge offer higher capacity for the price.

Software

The Huawei Mate 9 runs on the latest Android 7, but it doesn’t look like it is compatible with Google DayDream, the new VR user experience introduced during Google IO 2016.

EMUI 5.0

On top of the Android 7 foundation, Huawei is using a new version of their EMUI (EMotion UI) proprietary interface layer. I hear people complain about non-Google user interfaces, and although changes can be a bit disorienting/annoying to reviewers that change phones several times a month, I don’t think that it’s a real problem for real users who change phones every couple of years.

With EMUX 4.0, I found that Huawei’s interface was quite agreeable to use, and there are certainly a large number of small details that are aimed at removing friction points. Also, whether you “love it, or hate it” will depend on personal preferences, but I think that most people will be just fine with it.

Over time, phone OEMs have learned to actually make things better, instead of making things “different”. Today, major OEMs have removed most of the things that alienated mainstream users such as laggy interfaces or ugly designs. Instead, Huawei has identified specific pain points that it addresses.

For example, Huawei says that 50% of the functions are only 2 taps away, and 95% are 3 taps away. This is a simple and clear productivity metric that benefits every user.

That said, Google’s “pure” Android experience remains the smoothest of all, so OEMs should aim to preserve that as they customize their user experience. In general, if you’re a hardcore fan of Google’s “pure” experience, then nothing would sway you away from that. Although I do appreciate that experience, I also don’t mind using non-Google phones because of other things they offer, mainly design, camera experience, better display etc… it’s a matter of priorities and preferences.

EMUI 5.0: what’s new?

For those who know of EMUI from previous reviews or phones, here’s a short list of new. It’s not exhaustive, but we found these to be important:

  1. Multiple Apps instances with “App Twin”: in some cases, it’s possible to use the same app with different account. This is really cool if you manage a personal and professional social media account or email. Great!
  2. The notifications are pretty much “stock Android” now.
  3. The app tray is back. For the longest time Huawei removed the app tray to simplify app management (iOS style), but this is not longer the case. The new experience is closer to the pure experience with top apps at the top, and vertical scrolling for the rest.
  4. Branded Swiftkey keyboard preloaded
  5. Split-screen: yet another Android 7.0 (Nougat) features, so it makes sense to see it here

In addition to this, many of the previous knuckles gestures and Huawei apps are still present, so Huawei users won’t be lost at all. The trend here is that Huawei is listening and knows that customizing for the sake of being different will do more harm than good.

System performance

Quickspecs: Kirin 960 SoC (4 x 2.4GHz cores + 4x 1.8 Ghz cores), 4GB RAM, 64GB storage. Vulkan graphics support.

The Mate 9 smartphone comes with a new Kirin 960 main processor (SoC) designed by HiSilicon, which is a Huawei subsidiary. The Kirin 950 powered the Huawei P9, and the Mate 9 shows notable performance improvements.

Learn more: what is a SoC or System On a Chip?
Opinion: Are benchmarks important? What do they mean?

Game graphics performance (better, still not the best)

mate-9-gfxbench-manhattan-31Huawei claimed a +150% improvement in GPU (gaming graphics) performance, and it’s largely true. In some benchmarks, the improvement is even higher than that, so this is great. However, the P9 was often the slowest high-end phone in graphics benchmarks, so the bar was somewhat low.

"IT IS A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE HUAWEI CAN RIVAL APPLE AND QUALCOMM IN GPU PERFORMANCE"The good news is that the P9 now sits in the middle of the pack of popular phones. The bottom-line is the Qualcomm’s GPU performance still leads and powers nearly all the top handsets. But keep in mind that GPU performance is mostly a function of the chip surface area that the chipmaker is willing to dedicate (and pay for).

That’s because GPUs can scale performance near-linearly with their number of transistors, there are already GPU designs that can equal or outperform the best phones out there. However, the mobile game isn’t about the absolute best performance but the best mix of performance, size and power. In my opinion, it is a matter of time before Huawei can rival Apple and Qualcomm in GPU performance, by allocating the chip area necessary.

CPU performance (single-core improvements)

mate-9-geekbench3-single mate-9-geekbench3-multi

Learn more: Are more CPU cores always better?

As usual, Huawei does very well with CPU synthetic tests because it has an 8-core chip configuration. It’s great, but in the real world, the large majority of apps simply don’t scale that way. That is why looking at both single-core and multi-core performance is key to gage the qualities of a CPU setup in a phone.

General system performance (excellent)

mate-9-basemark-os-2The more interesting benchmark for the Huawei Mate 9 is Basemark OS II where this phone gets a very high score. While not perfect, Basemark OS II is typically a good proxy for real-world, non-gaming, performance. This is extremely promising that Huawei scores well in this one, and you can see a sharp increase from the Mate 8, than P9.

Avoid “performance erosion”

Performance erosion means that your phone will slow down over time. Every phone user experiences this on a relatively slow scale, but we can all agree that phones are snappy out of the box, and more sluggish later. If you wipe them, they become snappy again.

"THIS IS A VERY INTERESTING STRATEGY"There is a complex web of reasons why this is happening, but it basically has to do with resource management and resource consumption. The more apps and data you have on your phone, and the higher the potential that each of them will consume a little bit more resources. This will take away processor cycle, and could generate interruptions that lead to hiccups and stuttering. Also, they get you closer to the point where you run out of memory, things could become drastically slower.

With the Mate 9. Huawei introduced a software solution to the problem. By using “Machine Learning”, Huawei says that it can identify apps that you actually use, and prioritize resources to these. While file storage can be large enough (32GB-128GB), RAM memory is much more limited (3GB-4GB in general). To extend RAM, Huawei is using memory compression, a technique that has been used in the past on PCs at a time when memory was tighter than it is today.

Depending on the type of data, compression can be extremely effective, and you’re basically trade slightly higher CPU usage (decompression) for freeing up RAM memory. Because the compression is done in low-frequency accessed areas, the CPU usage should be worth it. We’ll see.

I’ve seen people quote Huawei saying “the more you use the phone and the faster it goes”. I’d say that the idea is that Huawei tries to keep performance as close to “clean state” as possible. Obviously, once you install apps, you phone will go a little slower than a “clean” one. Pushing back the point where things go off a cliff is the name of the game. This is a very interesting strategy.

Conclusion: ideal for battery-focused users

The Huawei Mate 9 is yet another snapshot in Huawei’s rapid rise to the top. Huawei is now the 3rd largest handset maker in the world behind Samsung and Apple, and it has done so at an astonishing rate.

"THE MATE 9 IS THE BEST BATTERY-CONSCIOUS PHONE" The Huawei Mate 9 is an ideal phone for people who are battery anxious as it offers a huge 4000 mAh battery capacity and and fastest charging in real-world conditions. That is the wall that no other handset can climb right now, and The Mate 9 is the best battery-conscious phone, and if your budget doesn’t go that high, read our Huawei Mate 8 review too.

The competition remains extremely stiff. We recognize that the industrial design of the Mate 9 is starting to age, and Huawei’s own Honor 8 does look better now. If you are willing to go to a lower battery capacity, the Google Pixel (3450 mAh) would put up a good fight, and in my opinion, the Galaxy S7 Edge which has the most beautiful industrial design, a 3600 mAh battery, and excellent camera — remains a very dangerous competitor.

At this price range, the Huawei Mate 9’s camera performance may be a sway factor since it is the second most-important consideration after battery life, according to consumer surveys. The dual-camera concept is sound, but no OEM has yet proven that camera sensor-fusion can beat a higher-end single-lens setup.

In conclusion, Huawei has yet stepped up its game and offers something unique, while competing fiercely with other contenders in the $650+ phone market. Huawei has understood that without the high-end, there can be no great margins for its handset business, so it intends to compete to win and is making progress at an astonishing speed.

Keep in mind that the official price in the U.S has not been announced. We have used an $760 approximation for the purpose of this review, but this will fluctuate.

Overall product rating: 8/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Android, Android 7.0, Huawei, Huawei Reviews, Mate 9 and smartphone reviews.

Display
5.9"
1920x1080 IPS LCD
Price (approximative)
~$595 - Amazon
Camera
20 MP
Ff/2.2 Aperture Size
Image Stabilization
Weight
190 g
Battery
4000 mAh
Launched in
2016/11/01
System
4GB RAM
Hisilicon Kirin 960 + MicroSD
Storage (GB)
64
Huawei Mate 9 Review
Ubergizmo Rating: 8/10
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