If you live in America, you probably don’t know about Huawei. If you do, you were either very into the Nexus 6X, or you watched “60 Minutes” around the time US officials expressed concerns over the firm’s potential ties to the Chinese government.
Now, though, it’s time to start paying attention. Those security fears have largely died down. The company itself is now the third-biggest smartphone maker in the world, behind only Samsung and Apple, and gaining ground at that. It’s starting its heaviest push yet to compete here in the West.
Most importantly, it now has a phone that can actually compete with the iPhones, Galaxys, and Pixels of the world. The Mate 9, as it’s called, won’t be outselling those behemoths, but it is a strong, high-end choice for Android fans, particularly those aching for a big-phone replacement for their Galaxy Note 7. (RIP.) If you need an especially beefy display and battery, it’s near the top of its niche.
At $600, it’s anywhere from $50–150 easier on the wallet, too. Let’s take a closer look.
The Mate 9 looks boring, but that doesn’t mean it’s built cheaply.
On the contrary, its all-metal frame is both smooth and solid. It’s also restrained — there are no gaudy logos on the back, and the bezels on its front are thin, letting that big screen sit there without making the phone too huge.
To be clear, though, this is a big fella. The 5.9-inch display here puts the Mate 9 squarely in the “phablet” category. I wouldn’t call it “lightweight,” either. But for what it is, it’s not as chunky as it could’ve been. To give a point of comparison, the iPhone 7 Plus, with a display 0.4 inches smaller, is only 2 grams lighter and 0.2 inches thinner. If your hands are on the larger side, it’s not impossible to get around the phone with one hand.
One thing that deserves special praise here is the fingerprint sensor on the back. It’s at a natural spot on the back, it’s accurate, and it is extremely fast.
The big downside? It’s not water-resistant. At this point, that’s hard to accept.
The 5.9-inch, 1080p display is solid. It’s not as vibrant as the OLED screens of the Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel, or as sharp (not that you’ll notice), but it has good contrast, and it can get very bright, which keeps it easy to read outdoors.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, though, there are some issues with color accuracy. If you stare closely enough, you’ll see that whites assume more of a greenish hue than they do on the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7. This gets worse when you look at the screen at an angle. Huawei has some color-adjustment settings you can tinker with, but they don’t do much.
That said, those are really complaints for hardcore users. Huawei has more or less tried to recreate the look of an OLED screen without actually using OLED tech here. Black tones are good and dark, which makes the whole thing look lively. Most people won’t have many issues with it. You can just do better.
The Mate 9 is lightning fast. It scores higher on some benchmark tests than any other Android phone currently on the market.
That’s probably going to change once phones using Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 start rolling out over the next few weeks, but for now, the Mate 9 and its Huawei-made Kirin 960 chip have zero problems opening apps, installing new apps, running multiple apps at once, or flipping through menus. It’s impressive.
Graphics performance is a plus, too. The Mate 9 doesn’t score quite as high in testing there, but newer games like “Deus Ex Go” run without much of any issue. There’s nothing here you can’t play on high settings.
Still, this is an Android phone that’s not made by Google. It’s not immune to the occasional bit of stuttering in Chrome. Technically speaking, the Pixel isn’t as fast, but it’s a bit more bulletproof when it comes to overall smoothness. Any difference is slight, though.
For phone geeks, the big story here is the visual overhaul of Huawei’s software. It’ll probably confuse iPhone owners, but it should make immediate sense for those who are familiar with Google’s OS.
Huawei is a Chinese company, so past iterations of its “EMUI” software have reflected what Chinese customers buy — namely, wannabe versions of iOS. With EMUI 5.0, it’s gone a long way to appease the West, where people generally prefer Android to look, well, like Android.
The result is something that’s cleaner and easier to understand for anyone coming from another Android phone. The design of some Huawei apps more closely resembles those from Google. You can actually stash your apps in an app drawer instead of stuffing them in folders. The “recent apps” button shows your open apps rolodex-style rather than laying those apps in a horizontal line that’s slower to scroll through.
That skin is based on Android 7.0 Nougat, Google’s latest major update, and borrows a few of its better features. It still has a few familiar issues, though.
A multi-window mode lets you run two apps onscreen at once. The “quick settings” menu — i.e., the menu you drag down from the top of the screen — is customizable and more neatly laid out. When you’re in the full Settings app, there’s a handy little slide-out menu that helps you get around faster. These are all minor, but useful, perks.
Beyond that, Huawei adds a few features of its own — some good, some bad, some aimless. Being able to scale down whatever is on the display is nice when you only have one hand free. Dealing with bloatware like Lyft, Booking.com, or NewsRepublic (which takes it upon itself to feed you notifications) is annoying. Being able to access apps through gestures with your knuckles is just weird.
The whole skin is still on the heavier side, but it’s fast, it has its perks if you want them, and Huawei’s done well to make it more visually consistent. In the coming months, it’ll also gain support for Amazon’s Alexa assistant — we’ll let you know if that’s useful once it’s live.
The Mate 9’s battery life is among the best I’ve seen, and the number one reason to buy the device.
With no super-high-res display hogging up power, the 4,000 mAh battery here is more than capable of lasting over a day. When I deliberately tried to conserve, I could get through two work days before needing a charge. So it’s superb. Just know that, as with most phones, gaming for any extended period time will cut all of this down.
Like every other recent Android flagship, the Mate 9 charges over USB-C. It’s not the most updated version of the spec, but it does support a fast-charging standard that lets you refill the phone faster.
The only annoyance is that it’s a custom standard, so you’ll have to use the charger that comes in the box to take advantage of it. It’d be easier if Huawei took after a more widely-used standard like Qualcomm’s Quick Charge.
The Mate 9’s 20-megapixel rear camera isn’t class-leading, but still above-average.
To get the comparison out of the way: No, I wouldn’t take this over the shooters on the Pixel (my personal favorite), Galaxy S7, or, to a lesser extent, iPhone 7 Plus. Compared to those, it requires more fine-tuning to get the most out of it, its colors aren’t as vivid, and its HDR mode is just about useless. The optical image stabilization isn’t the strongest, either, so you have to make sure you have a steady hand. Plus, there’s more of a learning curve to the app.
Some of that comes down to personal preference, though. On a technical level, the Mate 9 captures tons of detail, produces very little noise, and is consistently great at getting the right amount of light into a shot. It doesn’t go haywire in darker settings, either.
It’s all good, and I can’t see anyone complaining about it — I just can’t see anyone going out of their way for it, either.
As with the iPhone 7 Plus, the Mate 9’s main camera also has two lenses on the back. That allows you to, among other things, take shots with a “bokeh” effect, which creates an illusion of depth by keeping your subject in focus while blurring out the background.
Huawei even goes a step further than Apple by letting you adjust how blurry you want the background to be after you’ve taken your shot. This is nothing essential, but it’s a fun trick to have in your bag.
It’s not flawless, though. If you don’t take it slow and careful, you’ll often run into situations where too much of the area surrounding your subject isn’t blurred. That can look sloppy.
The Mate 9’s biggest problem has more to do with business than the phone itself. Like most phones sold “unlocked,” it only works on GSM networks, not CDMA ones. You won’t find it in any carrier stores, and you’re stuck with AT&T or T-Mobile if you do get your hands on it. if you prefer Verizon or Sprint, you’re out of luck.
But if that’s not an issue, the Mate 9 is among the best Android phones you can buy. If you specifically want the largest screen possible, it’s worth a very long look.
Google’s Pixel (or Pixel XL) has a more vivid display, cleaner software that gets first dibs on all updates for the next two years, and a camera that is both excellent and dead simple to use, so that remains the Android phone to get today. (Especially since we’re in a limbo period between the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S8.)
The Mate 9 isn’t without its advantages, though. Its battery is better, its design is less wasteful, and, with Alexa on the way, it might play nicer with Echo owners, too. If you’re compelled, don’t let the unfamiliar name scare you away.