REVIEW: Huawei Mate 9's price is right for a huge screen all-rounder

Huawei Mate 9. (Source: supplied)

Huawei is fast closing in on Samsung and Apple in global market share. As such, Business Insider was keen to try out the Mate 9 flagship smartphone when it was released in Australia last month.

The Mate series used to be an upper mid-tier phone, but this year’s 9 model is priced at $999 outright. This takes it into the premium realm, playing against +$1200 models like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Google Pixel XL and the iPhone 7 Plus. Perhaps an appropriate allegory for Huawei’s rise against the big boys?

The unit I tested was the single-SIM version sold through Optus and Vodafone. There are dual-SIM variants sold unlocked through non-telco outlets.

It feels heavy

This can be a strength or a weakness depending on personal preference, but the Mate 9 feels heavy in the hand. Some people like their handset feeling like it wouldn’t blow away in a gust of wind, while some prefer lighter units. Officially it’s about 190g against Apple iPhone 7 Plus’ 188g.

Huawei does well by including a plastic back-and-corner cover for impact protection and a thin film protector factory-fitted to the screen. The back cover is thin enough that it doesn’t bulk up the phone, but feels sturdy enough to protect the hardware against damage to the back and corners.

The Mate 9 is not water resistant, which may become a competitive drag as the feature becomes more standard in the high-end of the market.

Massive screen, if you like that sort of thing

The Mate 9 has a 5.9-inch screen, which is noticeably larger than the more expensive Galaxy S7 Edge (5.1 inches) and iPhone 7 Plus (5.5 inches). However, the trade-off is that the screen is only at high-definition (1920×1080 at 373 pixels per inch) compared to the Samsung’s superior Super AMOLED (2560×1440) and iPhone 7 Plus’ retina (same resolution but at 401ppi).

Is a larger screen preferable to superior picture quality? I know many people find the modern smartphone too bulky, and a 5.9-inch screen would be stretching their tolerance. I certainly found the Mate 9, at times, awkward to handle with one hand.

But maybe dropping it is less of a concern these days, with Huawei providing free no-fault screen replacement warranty to Australian customers. The manufacturer has promised that customers that bring in a cracked screen within three months of purchase will have the screen replaced for free, no questions asked. There’s no word on whether Huawei will pay for any trouser pockets torn from squeezing in the jumbo-sized handset.

Camera is terrific but…

Huawei’s main selling point for the Mate 9 is the Leica camera. There are in fact two cameras on the back – a colour and a monochrome one, designed to work together for narrow field of vision shots and better optical zoom.

Outdoor shot on Huawei Mate 9 – file downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)
Indoor shot on Huawei Mate 9 – file downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)

At Huawei’s presentation to journalists, a professional photographer was at hand to demonstrate the remarkable photos one could take with the Mate 9. And indeed they were stunning, but such demonstrations always bring up the question of whether the average Jane or John have the know-how, or the patience, to take such shots with the automatic settings turned off.

As well as this practicality, I found that the lower resolution screen probably didn’t do the 12 megapixel camera justice. Lower light shots often didn’t look 100% sharp, which left me wondering whether it was a bad photo or if the screen was just not capable of showing off the full fidelity that the camera captured.

Low-light indoor shot on Huawei Mate 9 – file downsized due to website limitations. (Image: Tony Yoo)

Excellent battery life

The 4000mAh battery provides great performance for a smartphone with such a large screen. It was typical to have more than 60% power left after a full day of use that included photo taking. The Mate 9 also has a useful “machine learning” feature that analyses all the software that’s sucking up the battery – and allows you to shut down the most power-hungry apps.

Huawei Mate 9 and its USB-C port. (Source: supplied)

Huawei, via the Mate 9’s USB-C port, is also touting fast charging — which is now becoming a standard feature on premium phones. The manufacturer is claiming 20 minutes of plugging in for a day’s worth of normal use, although I found it was closer to 30-40 minutes for a more satisfactory charge in the real world.

The backside fingerprint sensor is just the best

One of the features I enjoyed the most on the Mate 9 is, believe it or not, the fingerprint sensor. The back positioning is a Godsend compared to the sometimes-awkward front thumb readers that many of its rivals have. But the most noticeable thing is the lightning speed at which the phone recognises your fingerprint. You barely have to touch the sensor before the phone unlocks itself — it’s absolutely brilliant in the modern world when no one has any patience for anything.

Huawei Mate 9 and its fingerprint sensor, deconstructed. (Source: supplied)

App twins are cool

Huawei has deployed a feature called “app twin” that impressed journalists at the Mate 9 demonstration. The function allows you to install multiple copies of the same app to run independently with different logins.

In practice, the excitement was tempered with the realisation that only certain apps are capable of a twin – for example, Instagram is not yet able to be “twinned”. And even those that are compatible, such as Facebook, seemed to sometimes be confused as to who is logged in to which app, which made me think that the twins are not completely separated in the background. It’s an excellent idea with huge potential, but may require some more refinement.

Software and performance

Performance was generally nimble enough to satisfy the $1000 price tag. The only time I saw the phone struggle was when the keyboard response rate ground to a halt as a result of high memory usage. The problem seemed severe enough to make me think it was not so much a performance issue but a bug in the keyboard software.

I did miss some notifications on vibrate-only mode as the vibration was not quite vigorous or loud as I liked. While the operating system doesn’t vary hugely from the vanilla Android 7.0 Nougat, the lock screen did miss some integrations – for example, WhatsApp notifications, when set to “hide sensitive content”, failed to appear on the lockscreen.

Huawei Mate 9. (Source: supplied)

But perhaps the most potentially annoying software feature for some will be that the back, home and switch icons are not hardware buttons, but appear on the bottom of the screen as software buttons. If you’re used to having a hardware button even just for the home screen, this takes getting used to. It’s especially frustrating when app functionality and visibility overlaps with the three buttons.

Verdict

Despite its shortcomings, the Huawei Mate 9 is good value at the $1000 mark, especially for those seeking a big screen. None of the flaws are deal breakers and its pros — like the big screen, battery life, fingerprint sensor and no-fault screen replacement — are certainly very attractive. With the disappearance of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the Mate 9 is well-placed to fill a big-screen niche in the market.

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