Last year’s Huawei Mate 8 was an all round good egg of a phone, but it really blew us away with its astonishing battery life; in the months since its launch, a few rival devices have come within a similar ballpark of offering its many days of juice on a single charge, but none have exceeded it. It really did set a new benchmark for battery performance. Understandably, then, we’re looking hopefully at the new Huawei Mate 9 successor; is this going to be a major step forward? Can it once again re-define the boundaries of battery performance?
Huawei Mate 9 Review: Design & Display
My first impression upon unboxing the phone is that the Huawei Mate 9 is a pretty cool looking device, and it quickly becomes quite obvious as to why; there are stylistic cues from the HTC 10 and Apple’s iPhone series - in fact it has quite a close resemblance to Apple’s larger “Plus” model devices. Original the design may not be. Derivative, even? Perhaps, to an extent. But even so, it is a sleek, all-metal, premium design that has been very well executed.
Maybe I’m being overly generous, but it doesn’t feel right to me to detract points (hypothetically, of course, we don’t do a points system round here) from Huawei just because there are similarities to similarly constructed smartphones elsewhere on the market. You want a big-screen, premium, metal-built handset? Well this is pretty much how they’re going to look, at least until we enter into the realms of flexible folding displays.
The rear panel appears to be made of some fairly thin aluminium, as there is a tiny bit of give and flex to the shell when gently squeezed, but the rest of the bodywork feels very solid indeed. The power key and volume rocker are both metal and have a really nice, solid, and clicky feedback.
The whole quasi-industrial design is executed very well with the integrated antenna bands and a bare minimum of ports and other visual interruptions, Huawei has clearly tried hard to integrate most needed components as seamlessly as possible. The base plate is rather eye catching and houses a Type-C USB port flanked by a pair of small screws and then a set of speaker grilles; rather than the usual round holes these use nice little rounded lozenge shaped openings.
A second speaker grille sits at the top of the front panel, above the display, it’s very small and discrete with a punched circular mesh design in a black colour to match the surround.
There’s one, flush-fitting card tray on the side and two small round openings on the top; a 3.5mm headphone jack and the other presumably a sensor or microphone.
On the back panel things are neat and tidy, with all the interesting stuff happening towards the top; a large lozenge houses a Leica-branded dual-camera sensor (complete with the Leica name emblazoned on the sensor array); it’s not flush-fitting, protruding from the bodywork by about 1mm, this is then flanked by two smaller lozenges, one a dual-LED flash module, and the other appears to be the hybrid autofocus module. Beneath the camera sensor is a small round circle recessed into the shell, this is of course the now obligatory fingerprint scanner. The recessed design makes it nice and easy to find with your finger by feel alone.
One of the most striking things here is the display, which pretty much dominates the front fascia leaving a bare minimum of space up top and around 3mm of bezel on the sides with a 77% screen-to-body ratio; Huawei’s also got the transition from glass to bodywork along the edges implemented very nicely indeed with a gentle contour and a seamless seal which not only looks good but feels very solid too.
In terms of image quality, it’s pretty accomplished as well, sure, it’s not Samsung’s Super AMOLED, but the 5.9in IPS LCD and its 1080p FHD resolution manages to offer up a respectable 373ppi pixel density which, to the naked eye at normal viewing distances, is not exactly lacking in clarity or sharpness. The contrast is good, and colour is punchy, while viewing angles are also nice and wide.
White purity is ok, though by default I noticed a slight yellowish tint, however, Huawei has sensibly included a software menu which allows you to pick between default, cold, and warm colour settings, as well as to manually pick your own hue on a colour wheel. With enough tweaking it’s not too difficult to get things looking “better” according to your own perceptions, but don’t expect 100% colour accuracy here.
Personally I found the Mate 9 display very satisfying to look at and operate in general smartphone use; it's a pleasing display for colourful games and films with a very high level of image quality. In terms of the exterior design, this is a solid device which is rewarding to handle, though it is on the larger side and you do have to give your digits a good bit of a stretch on occasion - smaller hands many struggle. I am fond of the aesthetic and how things have been kept nice and simple, but it should be noted that the Huawei Mate 9 doesn't keep up with rivals in offering additional practical features such as waterproofing.
Huawei Mate 9 Review: Processor Performance & Hardware
As we've seen from a number of other Huawei devices in recent years, the Mate 9 uses a model from the firm's own HiSilicon Kirin processor family and, being a flagship device, it unsurprisingly uses the very latest and greatest high-end chip; the Kirin 960. To date the Kirin processors have done some pretty amazing work, often besting their equivalent contemporary chips from the likes of rivals such as Samsung, Apple, and Qualcomm, and the Kirin 960 appears no different in being a powerhouse of a processor readily capable of taking on the big boys.
In terms of specs, it's a 64-bit octa-core setup using a 16-nanometre FinFET semiconductor architecture, together with ARM's big-LITTLE microarchitecture. That boils down to four ARM Cortex-A73 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 2.4GHz and 1.8GHz respectively. This is also teamed up with 4GB of LPDDR4 dual-channel RAM and a Mali-G71 MP8 graphics processing unit (GPU) clocked at 900MHz - Huawei claims that the GPU alone has an 180% performance boost over the previous T880 GPU.
When Huawei announced this chip it took steps to demonstrate just how capable the hardware is, showcasing its ability to handle some pretty intensive multitasking of a large array of apps simultaneously. I can confirm through my own use of the phone that this wasn't just talk or a specially curated demo; the Huawei Mate 9 is indeed a highly capable phone when it comes to hefting a significant workload.
You can, quite literally, rack up app after app and not worry about it stumbling over, and app load speeds are also impressively rapid. For those who like to keep tabs on memory efficiency, Huawei's multitasking UI also handily tells you how much memory you're currently using with your running apps, and how much you free up by swiping them away to close.
For general operation and interaction with the handset and the Android software the Huawei Mate 9 is, in short, an absolute joy, with silky smooth screen transitions and menu animations; there is zero lag here to speak of. With higher intensity applications like gaming it's also not going to break a sweat any time soon, it's quite easily capable of taking on the most graphically intensive games on Google Play with no holds barred. I was particularly impressed with how relatively cool the back panel remained despite gaming for longer periods, a testament to the efficiency of the architecture and design.
The Huawei Mate 9 features a single dual-slot card tray which accomodates both a Nano SIM card and a microSD storage card with support for cards up to 256GB. Dual-SIM compatible variants are available in selected regions, but in the UK we don't get those! Onboard storage is 64GB which for me is more than adequate; I will likely never fill that up, but if you're a power user who is used to stuffing 128GB capacity phones with films and photos you may be in trouble here, but at least you have microSD capability.
The rather attractive speaker grilles I mentioned earlier aren't just for show; audio quality from the stero speakers is very high indeed, superb even; it's not quite HTC BoomSound but it's not far off either. The Mate 9 also has the usual selection you'd expect from a high-end device when it comes to 4G, Wi-Fi and other connectivity protocols. The full selection includes Wi-Fi 802.11 dual-band, DLNA, WiFi Direct, WiFi Hotspot, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 LE and Type-C USB, as well as a full suite of GPS capabilites.