Big smartphones are pretty much the norm rather than the exception today. Huawei’s big smartphone series, the Mate series, has a new member. Actually, several members if you have been following the tech news media machine recently. There’s the Mate 9, the main man and a coterie of other devices centred around it to serve various interests.
There is, for instance, the premium, very pricey Porsche Design Mate 9 that was unveiled alongside the Mate 9. Lately, we’ve seen the Chinese device maker attempt to provide something for everyone with the Mate 9 Pro, a cheaper Porsche Design Mate 9 without the Porsche Design branding and most recently, the Mate 9 Lite, a bespoke mid-ranger that is essentially a rebranded Honor 8, that benefits from its association with the Mate 9 brand.
The Mate 9 spin-offs are not exactly a verdict on the Mate 9 not being a device that aligns with multiple use cases but rather an attempt at addressing the dynamics of the market.
The standard Huawei Mate 9, which was unveiled in Germany at the start of November and goes on sale in Kenya this December, is a work of art. It is the Mate 8 that we looked at earlier in the year but made better in every imaginable way while keeping its palm-filling frame intact.
In the box
The bundled headsets, while staying similar to those one gets with the P9, have an updated design that brings with it metallic chrome accents where glossy plastic usually runs its course.
|Size and weight||156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm, 190g|
|Display||5.9-inch full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) IPS LCD|
|Processor||Octa-core Kirin 960 backed by a Mali-G71 MP8 GPU|
|Memory||4GB RAM; 64GB internal storage (expandable via microSD)|
|Camera||12MP+20MP rear with f/2.2 aperture and dual-tone LED flash; 8MP front with f/1.9 aperture|
|Operating System||Android 7.0 Nougat with EMUI 5.0|
|Network||3G, 4G LTE|
|Connectivity||USB Type-C, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac|
|Other||Nano dual-SIM (hybrid), fingerprint sensor (at the back)|
Huawei’s phablet dons an Aluminium unibody design just like its predecessor and pretty much every premium smartphone we’ve seen from the company in recent years. The front is all glass with only the well-hidden earpiece at the top and the Huawei logo at the bottom breaking the monotony.
Unlike in the P9 where the headphone jack moves to the bottom, it stays up top on the Mate 9 alongside the infrared blaster.
The bottom still sees the usual stuff: a dual speaker grille setup whereby only one actually has a speaker behind it. The other houses the bottom microphone and is in place just for the eyes’ pleasure. Aesthetic.
Even then, the device does have an inferior dual speaker setup of its own that is not quite bad. The sound is good. Really good. So where is that other speaker? The earpiece also doubles up as a speaker; you just won’t get the dual surround sound you may expect.
Also at the bottom, sandwiched between the two grilles is a new addition to the Mate family of devices which we were expecting, USB Type-C. Sidenote: I have found myself using the bundled USB Type-C to microUSB adaptor alot.
While the device does have a set of two SIM slots, you’ll have to opt for just one if you are to also use a microSD card as Huawei is keeping that hybrid approach in place.
One of the things one notices about the Mate 9’s back (at least on the Space Gray unit I have) is the absence of the antenna bands that were so prominent on the Mate 8.
Surprisingly, the device, which you would expect to be a bit heavy is light. Its metallic build can also get quite cold when temperatures are low and make no mistake, even playing a game or connecting the power cable so that it can charge won’t help matters much as the device hardly heats up thanks to Huawei’s new technologies that keep such at bay.
Sporting an all-metal design and being as wide as the Mate 9 is spells doom for those of us with average-sized hands and I find myself using the plastic case included in the box in order to have a more firm grip on the device than is provided by the device’s curved back.
One of the things that Huawei has held out on is amping up the resolution on its devices from Full HD to Quad HD like everyone else. Granted, the Mate 9 goes on record as the first smartphone from Huawei to feature a Quad HD display, it is not the standard Mate 9 that gets that honour. That honour specifically belongs to the pricier and smaller limited edition Porsche Design Mate 9. The standard Mate 9 that you can walk into a store and buy is stuck at 1080p.
While that is not necessarily a bad thing as it means even lesser pixels to push hence some savings when it comes to power consumption, it means that the Mate 9 still leapfrogs the competition and its futureproofing is questionable when it comes to this little detail, at least on paper because the display is still the best Huawei has ever put on a smartphone when we set aside the Porsche Design Mate 9 and the Mate 9 Pro.
Clear, crisp and vivid. That’s the Mate 9 display in one sentence. The viewing angles are excellent and the software has been tuned to prevent accidental mistouches in at least 65 instances since the side bezels of the device are so narrow they are bordering the curved edge display territory inhabited by the Porsche Design Mate 9.
Talking about the software…
The software is one of the Mate 9’s most standout features. This is because from the first moment you interact with the device you can’t fail to notice the difference if you have used other Huawei smartphones before.
There’s Android 7.0 Nougat underneath and all the optimisations and features it comes with but that is not all. The real story is the remake of EMUI, Huawei’s custom overlay. It has been bumped up to version 5.0 from the version 4.1 that runs on the Huawei P9 and the difference is very clear.
The app drawer, for instance, makes a comeback to Huawei devices for the first time in 4 years. Yes, it has been 4 years since Huawei introduced its Emotion user interface and entered the murky waters of excessive Android customization that mostly end up greatly varying the experience from smartphone to smartphone and taking users far away from Google’s vision of Android.
Applications are no longer sandboxed and forced into icon pack setups on the home screen that they were never meant to adapt to while the settings app has undergone a complete makeover that makes things a bit easier to find.
That protected apps setup I have always bemoaned? It is gone. At least in name. Users will still need to dig into the battery settings to specify which applications they want to continue running long after the screen has been turned off and the device entered sleep mode. Even without doing that, the system does a good job of policing apps that are constantly draining the device’s juice (like Facebook and Messenger, always the top culprits) and telling on them to the user. That is if you don’t mind the constant notification alerts.
The biggest update to the software in the Mate 9 is the switch over to machine learning algorithms which monitor user behaviour and adapt. You will hardly notice it but the more you use the device, the more some things subtly switch positions to better serve you. This is mostly evident in the options one gets when they search for something either in the app drawer or in the settings app.
You can find out more about EMUI 5.0 here.
The smart algorithms don’t end at the software level. After all, there would hardly be anything interesting if the hardware and the software were not tied end-to-end. That is what Huawei says it is doing by optimising the device’s memory, storage and processor (task allocation) based on usage. You cannot see this but you can feel it. Unless an app has been shut down by the system because you specified so, going back to it is always an instant action.
That, coupled with the advancements made with the new Kirin 960 processor means that there isn’t much that you can throw to the Mate 9 that it won’t be able to handle and as such, on that front, I have no complaints to make.
Games fly, scrolling between screens is smooth and no frames are dropped during video playback.
Huawei promises that I’d still be able to say this about its device even after one and a half year of use. That I won’t need to factory reset the device occasionally just so that I can get rid of the sluggishness that usually sets in with time. I’ll see whether the Mate 9 actually lives up to its tag line of Born Fast, Stays Fast going forward but for now, what more could I ask for?
The Mate 9’s cameras do not disappoint.
The camera at the back has been upgraded to include two Leica-designed lenses; one with a similar pixel count to the P9’s camera, 12-megapixels. This is the camera meant for taking coloured images (RGB sensor). The one meant for monochrome images sees its pixel count bumped up to 20-megapixels for better low-light performance and added depth of field information. The (coloured) image size won’t be limited to that, though. It can be amped up to 20-megapixels from the camera app’s settings though doing that automatically disables the zoom function as the end product is already meant to be ready for zooming in all its 20-megapixel glory.
This is because, under normal circumstances, the two cameras pair up (Image Fusion technology) to produce sharp and crisp images that can also have more depth of field information.
Wide aperture mode can be enabled via a single tap and the end result is some beautiful bokehs even though they are not the most perfect.
It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, you’re guaranteed better quality photos. While low-light performance is great, the Mate 9 will still forever live in the shadow of the Galaxy S7 in that regard, just like the P9.
On the video front, Huawei has finally brought Ultra HD video recording capability to its mobile cameras. The Mate 9 supports 4K video recording.
There are tonnes of options in the camera app that are meant for users keen on getting the most out of their Mate 9 camera. The Pro mode which allows users to set their own parameters, for instance, can be enabled by a simple swipe up the screen from the device’s bottom when the viewfinder is on and so on and so on.
Huawei has gone out of its way to introduce a couple of features all aimed at providing the best possible battery life on its high-end smartphone. There are things like Super Smart (being able to detect the current flow from the power source and adjusting accordingly), Super Fast and Super Cool which really don’t matter that much in name up until you start using the device itself.
As already noted, the Mate 9 hardly heats up when plugged in (Super Cool). What I have not already stated is that the device does charge up real quick (Super Fast) thanks to Huawei’s own take at Qualcomm’s Quick Charge, OnePlus’ Dash Charge and Oppo’s VOOC, SuperCharge.
From my own observation, the device adds up 50% of the charge within just 20 minutes of being plugged in. Things then slow down a bit as it will take another hour to fill up.
In keeping up with the Mate lineup’s reputation of having the best battery life, the 4,000mAh sealed battery unit on the Mate 9 is supposed to last at least 2 days, on paper. I guess that is with moderate usage. Being a heavy user, I am usually plugging in the device at the end of the day. That is mostly when I have also been taking lots of photos as that camera app does drain the battery a lot. When I am not taking so many photos or recording random videos, I still have at least 30% left by the time I call it a day.
It is worth noting that I have been using the Mate 9 with all two SIM cards inserted, something that results in further drain as one switches from one network cell to the other. When there is little to do and cellular data is only on by demand, the battery lasts and lasts and there is no need to bring with you the charging brick wherever you go or even a portable charger, for that matter.
But, just how heavy is this usage that I am describing that drains a 2-day battery in just a day? Well, I have been clocking 7 hours of screen-on time since day 1 so there’s that. A solid 7 hours of staring at angry tweets, playing Re-Volt 3 and Asphalt Xtreme, Joe Biden memes, emails and more are guaranteed daily. That’s much more than I signed up for and there are hardly any devices that can guarantee the same while not compromising on the feature set that the Mate 9 brings to the table (there are up to 17 sensors that are always on, for instance, if the data from AIDA64 is to be believed).
At this point in time, we have become accustomed to how fast the fingerprint sensors on Huawei smartphones really are. The Mate 9 is no exception. Its always-on fingerprint sensor is FAST in every sense of the word. It is actually the fastest I have used on any smartphone this year and I am glad that Huawei chose to leave the fingerprint scanner on the standard Mate 9 at the back of the device where it feels more natural and at home than on the front physical home button where it sits on its pricier sibling, the Porsche Design Mate 9. It can be used to wake the device from its sleep state and unlock it as well as secure compatible apps among other little novelties like bringing down the notification dropdown or taking selfies.
The only other smartphone I have reviewed this year that has an IR blaster is the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2. While I did get to review the Huawei P9, it is its bigger sibling, the P9 Plus that packs an IR blaster. Adding devices to control with it is as simple as opening up the Smart Controller app, nothing more. And it won’t just control your home theatre system and living room television. Set-top boxes, projectors, air conditioners and cameras are supported as well.
Huawei’s signature Wi-Fi+ feature that automatically turns on Wi-Fi and connects to known networks when one is within their range then switches to cellular data (while automatically turning off Wi-Fi) when one exits their vicinity is still one of the best features that one can find on a smartphone. What’s more, it will report back with the exact amount of data used when one has been handed over to their carrier’s cell towers.
— E. Chenze (@echenze) November 20, 2016
Gimmicks like using one’s knuckle to take a screenshot still live on (we first met the feature in the Mate 8, remember?)
Overall, network reception be it for calls or browsing (3G, LTE, Wi-Fi) is fine, no issues.
- Excellent premium design.
- The IR blaster is a great inclusion.
- Great camera. Even though the Mate 9 won’t be taking home the crown of “best camera on a smartphone in 2016”, it does more than enough to guarantee its users quality snaps all round which is what I ask of any smartphone worth its name.
- Good battery life. Show me a device that packs features similar to the Mate 9 that can guarantee me 7 hours screen-on time and I will show you a beast. The Mate 9 is one such beast.
- Performance is above board. Everything feels and acts fast. The camera, the fingerprint sensor, when you are playing games… name it!
- It’s still a Full HD panel. Don’t get me wrong, the display is great and coupled with that near side-bezel-less design, couldn’t have looked more stunning. However, we have to be alive to the fact that in 2016, 1080p panels, no matter the advantage they have in battery savings or whatever else their advantage is, are far outweighed by the demands of a new age like viewing content in virtual reality which the Mate 9 proudly supports as it is Google Daydream-ready. Also, with the world imminently shifting to 2K and 4K displays, a 1080p panel doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence as far as future-proofing goes when users can also a get device with the same at the same price as the Mate 9, maybe less.
- While EMUI 5 is the biggest redesign to Huawei’s custom software since it was launched, it is not without its quirks. By borrowing Android Nougat’s whites, some notifications may not be visible on the notification shade unless one takes a very close look thanks to the white background.
In the absence of Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, someone else has risen up to try and fill its shoes. While the two, the Galaxy Note 7 and the Mate 9, are different products with different missions and visions, the latter still fills up the former’s big shoes as a choice for those willing to spend a little more on a large smartphone.
The Huawei Mate 9 brings to the Kenyan market the latest in camera and imaging technology from the Huawei-Leica collaboration, the best in battery tech and Huawei’s latest advancements in its chip-making business while not blowing past the Kshs 70,000 ceiling. When it starts selling in Kenya next month ahead of the holiday season, it will be one of the earliest devices in the market that arrive with Android Nougat out of the box.
*The Mate 9 I have been using is running pre-production software since I received it from Huawei on the launch day. As a result, some of the things pointed out may have been fixed or not relatable to what one may find on the Mate 9 after buying it. It should receive an update to bring it up to the same level as the software running on the final release models that one can buy in shops, soon.