Huawei Mate 9 review: The best big Android phone of 2016

The quick take

Huawei has finally come of age — the Chinese company's enormous new flagship phone is a huge leap ahead in software terms — backed up by top-notch hardware and epic longevity.

The Good

  • Top-notch build quality
  • Big, attractive screen
  • Fast performance throughout
  • Great battery life and super-fast charging

The Bad

  • Lower screen resolution than rivals (regular Mate 9)
  • Camera not quite effortless as GS7/Pixel
  • Finicky capacitive buttons (PD Mate 9)

Big deal

Huawei Mate 9 Full Review

With the spectacular failure of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 comes an opportunity for everyone else with a big-screened Android phone to sell. A major competitor in the world of "phablets" has been taken out of the game, and China's Huawei stands to benefit handsomely from Samsung's misfortune.

The company's long-running Mate series — itself a reaction to the success of the Note line, back in the day — has carved itself out a niche among consumers who appreciate its metal construction, enormous displays and long battery life.

The new Mate 9 continues the family line — a slightly slimmer, smarter version of last year's Mate 8, with upgraded internals and a new dual camera setup courtesy of imaging partner Leica. Just as important as any hardware upgrade is the new EMUI 5 software, which is the biggest overhaul to Huawei's UI in years, bringing with it Android 7.0 Nougat.

But there's more than one Mate 9 model this time around. Alongside the vanilla 5.9-inch Mate 9 (with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage), Huawei will release a limited edition Porsche Design Mate 9, with a 5.5-inch curved AMOLED display, and a capacious 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

Get the best price on the Huawei Mate 9

See at Jet.com

We've had a little over a week to get to know both the sensible and ludicrous Mate 9 models over the past month. And while it's easy to dismiss the "PD" model as an expensive sideshow, the regular Mate 9 shines through as the best big-screened Android phone of 2016.

About this review

Update: This review was originally published on November 15, 2016, and updated with impressions from finalized software — and our video review — on December 13, 2016.

We're publishing this review after around six weeks with the regular Huawei Mate 9 (dual-SIM, MHA-L29), and the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9 (dual-SIM, LON-L29). We used both devices on the EE and Vodafone UK networks while in the UK, and on Telekom.de and Vodafone Germany networks while roaming in Germany.

For our first month with the Mate 9, both phones were running pre-production software (build B109SP02). On November 30, we received an over-the-air update to B126 on the regular Mate 9, and B124 on the Porsche Design model, bringing them up to retail-quality software. As promised, we're updating our review to reflect the changes in the final Mate 9 firmware. Before we begin, a few main points on what's changed and what hasn't:

  • Low-light performance in the camera has been significantly improved.
  • The software issues surrounding the notification area (and notification icons) have been fixed.
  • "Ghosting" on the capacitive buttons of the PD model has improved, but we're still seeing occasional missed taps on the home key.

And with that, on to the review!

Press play

Huawei Mate 9 Video Review

It's big

Huawei Mate 9 Hardware

There's nothing unexpected or particularly extravagant about the Mate 9's external design. Most of what makes up the outside of the device hasn't changed a whole lot since last year's Mate 8. However, Huawei has worked to make the phone a little bit more compact and ergonomic — and given the fact that we're still dealing with a gigantic display here, that kind of attention to detail is important.

The Mate 9 is big, but not unreasonably huge.

Huawei Mate 9

The Mate 9's slim profile and equally svelte horizontal bezels combine to make for a 5.9-inch phone that doesn't feel particularly huge. Compared to the Nexus 6P, a 5.7-incher, the Mate 9 is fairly easy to wrangle one-handed. This is a big phone, but not anywhere near as unwieldy as some of its predecessors. (2014's Mate 7 feels comically huge, by comparison.)

The basic physicality of the phone draws from Huawei's established design language. There's a curved unibody, furnished in soft-feeling matte aluminum, broken up by relatively discrete plastic antenna cutouts at the top and bottom.

The top, bottom and sides have a subtle polished effect to them, along with a barely noticeable brushed pattern, and a very slight curve of their own. Despite this, the front and back chamfers make the Mate 9 easy to grip onto, even with its relatively large footprint.

The combination of lustrous chamfers, subtle brushed patterns on the sides, and a softer matte back give just enough visual flair to what might otherwise have been a dull design.

Located right in the middle of that metal unibody is the Mate 9's fingerprint scanner, which is just as fast and accurate as we've come to expect from Huawei. Setup takes around half a dozen taps per finger, and the fingerprint sensor also comes with some neat shortcut gestures, like swiping down to open the notification shade.

Around the front, there's little going on besides a 5.9-inch sheet of 2.5D glass, which tapers into the metal unibody, giving it an organic quality. Despite its mere 1080p resolution, it's actually a fantastic looking panel. Colors appear a little on the cool side by default, however that's easily remedied in the Display settings menu.

Don't worry too much about 1080p at 5.9 inches.

Ideally, I would've preferred Huawei make the jump up to Quad HD here, especially as the smaller Porsche Design Mate 9 manages this resolution without breaking a sweat. But faced with the reality of a 1080p panel at 5.9 inches, I can't say I'm too disappointed. It looks just fine.

The Mate 9's audio capabilities are equally beefy — up to a point. The phone combines a rear-firing loudspeaker with the main earpiece in a dual-speaker setup, similar to the HTC 10 or Huawei P9 Plus. At max volume level, the output is louder than you'd ever want it to be, which is great if you're showing someone a video in a crowded bar. But above around 50 percent volume, playback becomes increasingly tinny, with some distortion creeping in.

Fortunately, we've found that wired audio output is excellent with this phone. The 3.5mm jack (yep, it has one of those) is capable of driving demanding studio headphones with just as much power as the HTC 10.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategoryHuawei Mate 9Porsche Design Mate 9
Operating SystemAndroid 7.0 with EMUI 5.0Android 7.0 with EMUI 5.0
ProcessorHuawei Kirin 960
4x A73 @ 2.4Ghz, 4x A53 @ 1.8Ghz
Mali-G71 MP8 GPU
i6 co-processor
Huawei Kirin 960
4x A73 @ 2.4Ghz, 4x A53 @ 1.8Ghz
Mali-G71 MP8 GPU
i6 co-processor
RAM4GB6GB
Display5.9-inch 1920x1080
IPS LCD
2.5D glass
5.5-inch 2560x1440
AMOLED
curved glass
Rear Camera20MP (monochrome) + 12MP (color)
f/2.2
OIS
20MP (monochrome) + 12MP (color)
f/2.2
OIS
Front camera8MP, f/1.98MP, f/1.9
Video4K capture4K capture
Battery4,000 mAh
Non-removable
4,000 mAh
Non-removable
ChargingSuperCharge
3.5-5V / 5A
9V / 2A
SuperCharge
3.5-5V / 5A
9V / 2A
ConnectivityUSB Type-C, Bluetooth 4.2USB Type-C, Bluetooth 4.2
Fingerprint sensorYes, on rearYes, on front
Storage64GB256GB
Expandable storagemicroSDmicroSD
Dual SIMYes, dual nanoYes, dual nano
ColorsSpace Gray, Moonlight Silver,
Champagne Gold, Mocha Brown,
Ceramic White
Graphite Black
Dimensions156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm152 x 75 x 7.5 mm
Weight190 grams169 grams
Price€699€1395

As you'd expect from a Huawei flagship, the Mate 9 is packed to the gills with the latest high-end internals from the Chinese manufacturer. The centerpiece is its new Kirin 960 processor, which is the first mass-market chip to use ARM's new Cortex-A73 core design. (A step up from the Cortex-A72s used in the Mate 8 and P9 in terms of both power and efficiency.) The Mate 9 pairs four of these A73s — running at 2.4GHz — with four lower-power Cortex-A53 cores for less demanding tasks. (Once again, Huawei's using a 16nm manufacturing process, same as its Kirin 950-series chips.)

Huawei's also the first big phone maker to ship ARM's new Mali-G71 8-core GPU, with the Mate 9 using the next-gen graphics processor that's expected to feature in the Galaxy S8 next year.

The Mate 9's cutting-edge internals power an experience that's flawlessly smooth.

Between the speedy new CPU, lightning-fast UFS 2.1 storage and an upgraded GPU, the Mate 9 absolutely flies. Performance has been flawlessly smooth during our first week with the phone, whether browsing the web, juggling photos or doing a bit of casual gaming. Even more demanding titles like Asphalt Xtreme were silky smooth.

Huawei was keen to promote its performance optimization tech at the Mate 9's Munich launch event. A combination of machine learning (to work out which apps need the most power) and intelligent resource allocation is supposed to keep the phone running smoothly even after years of use. Obviously we're not in a position to make any kind of judgment after just a month or so, but it's enough to say we haven't noticed any slowdown at all thus far. Everything's been flawlessly smooth, as we'd expect from a high-end Android phone in late 2016.

So far it's a very promising start.

Huawei Mate 9

Porsche Design Mate 9 hardware

The 'Porsche' model really is a completely different phone — at least on the outside.

For all their other hardware similarities, the Porsche Design Mate 9 really is a completely different phone on the outside. The smaller form factor, curved display and pitch-black anodized metal, together with the front-facing fingerprint scanner and capacitive buttons, make it look more like one of Samsung's recent efforts than any previous Huawei design.

But this is more than a Galaxy S7 edge copycat. The left-to-right curve of the display is incredibly subtle — intended to mirror the curve of the metal rear. And the sharper edges of the Huawei device stand in contrast to the GS7's soft corners.

The Porsche Design model's extremely dark anodized paint job also gives it a significantly different in-hand feel. It's a little more fingerprinty than the regular Mate 9, while the surface itself is less slippery in-hand. At the same time, the sharper chamfered edges add not only visual flair, but help by giving you a harder edge to hold onto. Personally, I prefer how the regular Mate 9 feels in my hand, but there's something to be said for the darker aesthetic of the Porsche variant.

The camera modules have also been juggled about a bit too. And around the back, the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner has been replaced by a large embossed Porsche Design logo. (You'll also find some fairly prominent Porsche branding around the front.)

Huawei Mate 9

This isn't as much of a Samsung clone as you might think.

Like the regular Mate 9, the screen in the Porsche Design variant has a fairly cool hue by default. (But just like that phone, you can easily tweak white balance to your own preference.) Aside from that one minor complaint, the curved 2K display looks great. Colors aren't noticeably punchier than the Mate 9's LCD, but the bump in pixel density is appreciated. And it's more than bright enough to see clearly outdoors.

The Porsche Design Mate 9 manages to package all of the Mate 9's cutting-edge tech into a much smaller (or, to put it another way, more "normal-sized") handset. Does it feel like it's worth the €1395 asking price? That's debatable. In a world where attractive metal phones like the OnePlus 3 sell for €450, it's a tough ask. But then, you're missing the point if you think a phone like this has anything to do with value for money. You're also paying for the exclusive Porsche brand, and the jump up to 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

More: Making the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9

EMUI 5.0

Huawei Mate 9 Software

Phone software has long been Huawei's Achilles' heel. If you've read any of our previous Huawei reviews, the whole "great hardware, crap software" thing will be a familiar refrain. With the new EMUI 5.0, based on Android 7.0 Nougat, Huawei promises a brighter, refreshed UI. And with that new version of Android, there's the chance to overhaul traditional areas of weakness for EMUI, like notifications and the recent apps menu.

As mentioned in the intro, the few issues we ran into with notifications in the pre-release software were fixed in the retail firmware, which is great.

Huawei Mate 9

EMUI 5 is a breath of fresh air. It looks — and acts — more like it belongs in the modern Android ecosystem.

With that out of the way, EMUI 5.0 is, for the most part, the huge improvement it needed to be. Most of Huawei's own preloaded apps have been given a complete visual overhaul, with white backdrops, light grey accents and blue highlights. Apps like the dialer, messages app, calendar and settings look more like they belong in the modern Android ecosystem, as opposed to seeming like weird not-quite-right-looking iOS clones.

And the new, darker notification shade, is more customizable than ever, with more icons shown at once than the old grid setup of old.

Aside from the new, optional app drawer (finally!), Huawei's home screen launcher hasn't changed a whole lot. Folders still look a lot like they do on the iPhone, and there's a similar swipe-down shortcut to search apps and other content on the phone. But at least the launcher is fast, feature-filled and highly customizable.

Speaking of which, you can still theme EMUI to your heart's content, only now there are few more limits to what skins can do. For instance, Huawei's own apps, with their new blue-and-white hues, are off-limits. That said, it's a strange point of discontinuity that the default icons for Huawei's own apps don't really seem to fit with its new, flatter, cleaner aesthetic. (In the default "bridge" theme, you're still looking at a lot of embossed, rounded rectangles, which looks a little out of place.)

Huawei Mate 9

The way EMUI looks may have changed, but its expansive feature set hasn't gone anywhere. In fact, finding your way around all that stuff has become a lot easier, with a redesigned settings menu that puts more than 90 percent of features just three taps away. And when you've drilled down into a specific settings menu, a slide-out "hamburger" menu easily lets you hop to another area of the app.

Get the best price on the Huawei Mate 9

See at Jet.com

The battery settings menu is significantly easier to jump to in EMUI 5 — it's now a top-level item, as opposed to being buried three layers down in EMUI 4. And here there've also been some significant improvements. EMUI no longer kills off most apps when you power off the screen. Instead, you have the ability to blacklist individual apps that might be using too much juice in the background, and have them killed off when the screen's powered down. And EMUI will help you track these down by notifying you — though these notifications are a far cry from the constant "power consumption" nags in earlier versions.

EMUI's expansive feature set no longer comes at the expense of a whole bunch of broken stuff.

That's on top of a standard loadout of power-saving options, including ultra power saving mode (for limited functionality only), a regular power-saving mode (which reduces performance) and a low-res mode for additional power savings on longer days. It's a more sensible approach to battery management in a phone which, as we'll discuss later, already has plenty of juice in the tank.

Also new in EMUI 5 is the ability to use multiple accounts with WhatsApp or Facebook through the Twin App feature — something that's achieved by basically running two identical instances of the app at once. It's a niche feature in the West, but something that's sure to be useful in markets where dual-SIM phones are popular.

All in all, EMUI 5 feels more balanced — both visually and in terms of feature set — than previous versions, while also being less at odds with Google's preloaded services. This is by far the most polished software suite we've seen from Huawei.

Huawei Mate 9

Porsche Design software differences

For the most part, the software experience on the more expensive, speccier, Porsche-branded Mate 9 is completely identical to that of the regular model. The biggest difference in day-to-day use has to do with the button setup. The Porsche Mate 9 uses capacitive keys (right now, the home button is a little hit and miss in the current firmware), and thanks to the fact that neither the back nor recent apps keys are labelled (both are just white dots), you can easily swap the order in the Settings menu. It's also possible to disable both buttons and control things by swiping the home key, but we wouldn't recommend doing this.

The two preloaded themes on the Porsche model look tacky. Fortunately, it's easy to download the standard themes from the regular Mate 9.

There are some visual differences too, but these are largely isolated to the Porsche-inspired themes preloaded on the phone as standard. You'll need to grab the regular EMUI themes from Huawei's theme store — and trust us, you'll want to, because the chromed-out Porsche icons used in both preloaded themes are pretty gross.

There's also a "dark mode" under the Battery settings menu, allowing you to save a little juice by switching to an almost completely black UI in Huawei's own apps. (AMOLED screens like the Porsche Mate 9's consume less power when displaying darker colors.)

And elsewhere, the smaller Porsche-branded Mate 9 benefits from slightly higher information density, although UI scaling can also be controlled through the Display settings menu.

So mostly you're just dealing with the same software on a smaller screen, without on-screen buttons.

Huawei Mate 9

Leica camera, v2.0

Huawei Mate 9 Camera

Huawei's partnership with camera maker Leica continues, with a new and improved camera setup in the Mate 9. Like the P9's Leica-branded shooter, it's based around a dual-lens, dual-sensor setup, with an RGB sensor for capturing colors, and a monochrome sensor for enhancing detail.

In the Mate 9, the RGB sensor is a 12-megapixel unit behind an f/2.2 lens — the same as the P9, on paper — with OIS (optical image stabilization). And it's backed up by a 20-megapixel black-and-white sensor, also behind an f/2.2 lens. This setup, Huawei says, allows it to capture clear low-light shots while also picking up enough fine detail to implement a "hybrid zoom" feature.

That's not quite the same as the iPhone 7 Plus's true 2X optical zoom, but it does let you eke a bit more detail out of your shots when shooting at the default 12-megapixel resolution.</