Huawei Mate 9 Review: Dual Cameras in a Solid Smartphone

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  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Service, Warranty & Support
      • 7
      • Ease of Use
      • 7
      • Design
      • 9
      • Performance
      • 9
      • Value
      • 9
      • Total Score:
      • 8.20
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Great build, sharp look
    • Top-of-the-line performance
    • One of the best smartphone cameras
    • Ships with adapters and smartphone bumper
  • Cons

    • Not dust-proof, not waterproof
    • Limited US carrier support

Quick Take

The Huawei Mate 9 looks great and performs just as well. We love the dual-camera setup. We wish it were dust-proof and waterproof, but it’s still one of the best for early 2017.


The Huawei Mate 9 has three features that could well define 2017’s smartphone crop: barely-there display bezels, AI, and a dual camera.

There’s nothing revolutionary about the implementation here. Bezels have been shrinking for years, as smartphone makers balance larger displays with small builds. Dual cameras are quickly becoming the norm, with Huawei itself having multiple devices with them. And between Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, voice-powered AI is NBD.

But combined in a decent piece of hardware with high-end specs, they make for a quality smartphone. That’s what Huawei is going for with large the Mate 9, a follow-up to last year’s Mate 8.

Did Huawei succeed in creating something decent for its latest and greatest? Find out in this full Huawei Mate 9 review.

Huawei Mate 9 Build & Design

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Huawei makes great hardware, so it’s no surprise the Huawei Mate 9 is a sharp and well-built smartphone. It measures 6.2 x 3.1 x .3 inches, and weighs .42 pounds. The phone has an all-glass front, with aluminum back and slightly rounded sides.

It looks like a slightly smaller version of the Mate 8, which we praised as “excellent,” and feels just as solid. (Huawei thankfully sticking to the “if it ain’t broke…” hardware philosophy.) Aluminum and glass are the best smartphone combo going, making any device cool to the touch and resistant to smudges and fingerprints. The Mate 9 also has Gorilla Glass 3, and should survive the occasional drop. If that’s not good enough, it ships with a clear plastic rear bumper for a small bit of additional protection.

Unfortunately, it’s not waterproof or dustproof. All flagships should be, not because we want to take them swimming, but because spills happen and sometimes we get caught in the rain.

Looking at the Huawei Mate 9 head on, the front sports two thin bezels above and under the display, with the top housing an ear speaker, sensor, and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. The bottom sports Huawei branding. The back sports a slight round bulge, with a pinhole mic, dual cameras (20 megapixel monochrome and 12 megapixel RGB, f/2.2 lens), flash, sensor, and round fingerprint reader.

Huawei Mate 9 audio input

Huawei Mate 9 speaker

The 3.5mm audio input and an IR blaster sit on the top, while the speakers sit on the bottom, surrounding the USB Type-C input. A single-piece volume rocker sits on the right side, just above the power button, while a dual-SIM/microSD tray sits on the right. Huawei claims the Mate 9 has four microphones, so there must be some hidden in the speakers and maybe the headphone jack.

Huawei Mate 9 side

Huawei Mate 9 button side

It’s a good layout, with the fingerprint sensor especially easy to reach in one-handed use. The only complaint is a common nitpick: having the power button and volume rocker on the same side too often results in accidental power button presses. Most devices add texture to the power button, making it easier to distinguish blindly, but Huawei didn’t do that for the Mate 9.

Huawei Mate 9 Display & Speakers

Huawei Mate 9 display

Huawei Mate 9 display

The Mate 9’s 5.9-inch LCD IPS display has a 1920 x 1080 resolution, resulting in about 373 pixels per inch. While other flagships have more pixels, and ppi counts exceeding 500, the Mate 9 has more than enough pixels for day-to-day use. VR-ready headsets benefit from the added pixels, and the Mate 9 has two smaller variants in the the Mate 9 Pro and Porsche Design Mate 9 with curved 5.5-inch AMOLED displays that each have 534 pixels per inch. These two support Google Daydream, while the standard Mate 9 does not, at least as of this writing.

Even compared to these two, the Mate 9 is no slouch. These days it’s near impossible to tell the difference between AMOLED and LCD on smartphones, and the Mate 9 has all the hallmarks of both: deep blacks and bright whites, with heavy contrasts and colors that pop. It’s bright enough to cut through glare as well as any other smartphone. Huawei sets itself apart with deep display settings, allowing users to tweak the color temperature, and it includes and “eye comfort” shortcut that cuts out the blue tones for yellow.

We’ve never bought into this feature, particularly in regards to smartphone use at night before bed, but others swear by it. Either way, we won’t knock Huawei for including added controls.

The Mate 9 has no buttons, and all controls are on the screen. In addition to the insanely-thin left and right bezels, the display glass protrudes slightly above the body. Huawei and others refer to this “floating” effect as “2.5D,” and it adds a bit of style to a strong display.

The speakers are also very good, at least grading on the smartphone curve. They are loud and produce relatively robust sound — certainly more robust than most other smartphones — with limited tin on the high end and some mud on the bottom.

Huawei Mate 9 Performance

Huawei’s Kirin 960 processor keeps the Mate 9 running. It’s the latest from the Chinese mobile maker, based on the premium ARM Cortex-A73. It’s quad-core, with four A73s running at 2.4GHz, and four A53s running at 1.8GHz for simpler tasks. It pairs with an i6 co-processor, octa-core Mali-G71 GPU, and 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM.

This is a potent combo, and our Huawei Mate 9 review unit rivals the Google Pixel XL as the best performing smartphone we’ve tested to date. It ships with Android 7.0, and runs it extremely well, with no hiccups, stuttering, bugs, or crashes. The Mali-G71 handles 3D gaming especially well, including the demanding Riptide, Modern Combat, and Asphalt titles.

In addition, Huawei claims the Mate 9 has a “cutting-edge Machine Learning algorithm,” which “delivers consistent performance by automatically prioritising CPU, RAM and ROM resources based on user habits.” Basically, it learns user habits and prioritizes accordingly, all within the device, and not through remote servers on the cloud.

The benefit should be zippy performance through the Mate 9’s lifespan, and it’s unfortunately impossible to test based on the few weeks we used our Huawei Mate 9 review unit.

This feature extends to storage, with the addition of UFS 2.1 flash memory, which Huawei claims has “data transfer speeds that are 100% faster than eMMC 5.1.” The Mate 9 ships with 64GB storage, of which about 48GB is available out of the box. The Mate 9 comes with plenty of bloatware (News Republic, Booking.com, TripAdvisor), along with some useful tools (Smart Controller, Sound Recorder, Phone Manager). Just as it is with previous Huawei smartphones, all of it can be uninstalled.

All this is backed up in the benchmarks. Our Huawei Mate 9 review unit either outperforms every other smartphone on the market, or closely matches. We ran into an issue with Geekbench 4’s GPU test, with the Mate 9 crashing during every attempt to run it. This is likely due to conflicts with Mate 9’s very new chipset.

Geekbench 4 is a cross-platform benchmark that measures overall performance. Higher score is better.

AnTuTu is a cross-platform benchmark that measures overall system performance. Higher score is better.

AnTuTu 3D is a cross-platform benchmark that measures graphical performance. Higher score is better.

AnTuTu CPU is a cross-platform benchmark that measures complex app and multitasking performance. Higher score is better.

AnTuTu RAM is a cross-platform benchmark that measures system speed. Higher score is better.

AnTuTu UX is a cross-platform benchmark that measures experience. Higher score is better.

As with general performance, storage performance is lightning fast. Apps open and close very quickly. The fingerprint sensor is also very quick and reliable. Huawei continues to have best overall on any device.

Huawei Mate 9 Battery

The Mate 9 has a 4000mAh battery, and our Huawei Mate 9 review unit lasted 8 hours and 38 minutes streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with the display brightness set to max. This is about the bare minimum one can expect from a Mate 9, and it’s an average result. Eight hours is the cutoff, anything less than that is bad. The best devices hit 20.

Huawei packs many battery management features in the Mate 9’s settings. So take advantage, and it should easily hit 10 to 12 hours on a single charge with normal use.

Our Huawei Mate 9 review unit charged quickly, hitting 28% with 15 minutes of charging, and 78% with 45 minutes.

Huawei Mate 9 Features

Huawei once took a heavy hand with its Android implementation. Dubbed EMUI, its Android skin “borrowed” elements from iOS in the past, combining them with traditional Android and Huawei’s own branding, creating a garish aesthetic. It never bothered us as much as other reviewers, mainly because it didn’t bog down Huawei’s hardware. But, we’re still happy to see Huawei scale things back with its latest version, EMUI 5.

Huawei finally added an app drawer, and took a more standard approach to notifications, ditching the two-screen alerts/settings setup. Stock apps are less severe, with a brighter color scheme, while EMUI “feels” more like an official Android device rather than an Android-based device, like the Amazon Fire tablets and smartphone.

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Huawei kept its deep settings options, allowing users to tweak the theme, background apps, power settings, button layout, and notifications, to name a few. A new “app twin” feature is a standout, as it enables users to run two instances of the same app with different accounts. As of this writing, it only works with WhatsApp and Facebook, though we’d love to see it expand to other apps like Chrome, Twitter, Hangouts, and any number of cloud services (and ultimately Android to “borrow” it for future updates). Finally, Huawei’s odd knuckle gestures are still present.

Ultimately, even the most ardent stock Android fan shouldn’t be turned off by EMUI, given it’s easy enough to download the Google Now launcher and set it as the default.

In addition to the clear plastic bumper, the Huawei Mate 9 ships with a USB Type-C charger and cable, headphones, and a USB Type-C-to-microUSB adapter. That’s a good haul. We’re suckers for extras, and the bumper and USB adapter are extremely useful, especially since USB Type-C is not entirely ubiquitous yet.

At its CES 2017 event, Huawei made a big deal of the Mate 9 being “the first smartphone with Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service.” That functionality is slated to arrive in February, and wasn’t ready at the time of this review. We’re interested to see how this is implemented, as an Alexa app is widely available in the Google Play Store. Will it just be a preloaded app? Will Alexa be baked in? What about Android Assistant?

We’ll update this review once it goes live.

Huawei Mate 9 Connectivity

In addition to the standard dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi support, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 BLE, and GPS/Glonass/Galileo/BDS, the Huawei Mate 9 is a GSM unlocked smartphone. It’s dual-SIM with plenty of support for worldwide 2G/3G/4G networks, including Cat12 LTE.

In the US, it’s typical of a Huawei unlocked smartphone. AT&T and T-Mobile customers will have no trouble connecting, while Verizon and Sprint customers are out of luck. The Mate 9 actually supports CDMA similar to Sprint and Verizon, though it’s limited to China Telecom.

Huawei Mate 9 Camera

Apple popularized dual lenses with the iPhone 7 Plus, but HTC, LG, and Huawei itself all shipped devices with them beforehand, going back all the way to the gimmicky 3D smartphones from 2011.

These days, the dual lens mainly serves to create a shallow-focus effect in pics — the blurry background kind. It used to be shallow focus, or bokeh, was limited to expensive interchangeable-lens cameras. Through a combination of two lenses and some software trickery, smartphones like the Huawei Mate 9 can do the same.

Huawei differentiates itself in that it has two image sensors: a 12-megapixel RGB sensor for capturing colors, and a 20-megapixel sensor for capturing black and white. Both are backed by optical image stabilization and f2.2 lenses.

Huawei Mate 9 camera

Huawei Mate 9 camera

It’s “co-engineered with Leica,” and includes Leica Summarit lenses. The Huawei Mate 9 has the second-generation of this particular setup, as versions of it have already appeared on the Huawei P9, Honor 8, and Honor 6X.

We’ve lauded it on those devices, and we’ll laud it here too. The Huawei Mate 9 has one of the best smartphone cameras on the market. A dual-camera setup and the Huawei camera app offer granular image controls that rival consumer-level DSLRs, along with fun and pleasing image filters.

The shallow-focus effect has real potential, and the software/chipset combo does a great job creating an authentic-looking image. It’s still not perfect, however, and some shooting situations will create wonky results with blur bleeding into the subject. Smartphones aren’t replacing DSLRs just yet.

One other issue, which isn’t unique to the Mate 9: a touchscreen is poor for deep camera controls. Adjusting the exposure value and shutter speed with a display slider is awkward. It’s much easier and quicker with a physical dial.

To be fair, it’s a double-edged sword. We like having the control; it’s always frustrating on a touchscreen.

This shouldn’t bother most users, besides. The Mate 9 camera is great in dummy mode, producing clear pictures with accurate, vibrant colors; and it’s fast to focus, too. It’s the best at black-and-white photography thanks to the monochrome sensor. A double tap of the volume rocker launches it from sleep, enabling very quick snapshots.

Low-light performance is also impressive, though not the best. We were disappointed to learn the Mate 9 had f/2.2 lenses, when flagships are going as wide as f/1.7 (smaller number equals wider aperture equals more light hitting the image sensor, as we explained in our Google Pixel XL review). Our Huawei Mate 9 review unit surprised us by matching the current best low-light shooters on the market, the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge and S7 (both have the same camera hardware) in a moderately challenging low-light situation (see example below compared against the S7 edge and a poor low-light performer, the otherwise solid Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10). Much of the credit has to go to the software and chipset for cleaning up these photos.

Huawei Mate 9 low-light photo

Huawei Mate 9 low-light photo

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 low-light photo

Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 low-light photo

Dim the lights, and that changes. Noise creeps in and colors fade on the Mate 9’s pics, while the S7 and S7 edge pump out relatively excellent output. Just as with the bokeh effect, software can only match physical optics to a certain point.

The Mate 9 also has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera with an f./1.9 lens. Huawei’s “beauty” mode returns, as does an automated “perfect selfie” mode. Both are still weird.

Huawei Mate 9 Sample Pics

Huawei Mate 9 review unit sample pic

Huawei Mate 9 review unit sample pic

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Huawei Mate 9 Value

As reviewed, the Huawei Mate 9 costs $600, available at Best Buy, Amazon, B&H, and New Egg.

$600 is a good price for the Mate 9. It’s a flagship-level smartphone, coming out just ahead of new high-end handsets from Samsung, HTC, and LG. Those may have a spec bump over the Mate 9, or have more features, but they won’t perform much better where it counts. And they likely will cost more.

Huawei Mate 9 Review Conclusion

Huawei Mate 9

The common knock on Huawei smartphones: great hardware, poor software. Huawei took big steps to correcting that with the Huawei Mate 9. It’s EMUI is still heavy enough to retain distinction from stock Android, though much closer to the real thing than previous versions. Those familiar with Android will get used to it quickly.

On top of that, Huawei checks all the right marks. The Mate 9 is well-built and designed, features excellent display and speakers, and performs extremely well. The camera is also worthy of the current crop of flagships. It’s one of the best.

The biggest knock against it is the lack of water and dust proofing. Those should be standard on all high-end smartphones. The battery life is only a little better than average without turning to Huawei’s battery management software, and that’s another biggest issue. Both are far from a deal-breakers, but it stand out as a flaws given how well the Mate 9 compares in other areas. We’re also disappointed it doesn’t support Verizon or Sprint.

All that makes the Huawei Mate 9 one of the best smartphones of early 2017, with features we expect to see in competing smartphones set for release in the near future.

 



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