Huawei has become one of the largest phone makers on the planet, and it's done so without too much help from the US market. The company has dabbled mostly with mid-range phones here, including some from the Honor sub-brand. The Mate 9 is the first phone Huawei has brought to the US that isn't explicitly going after the budget crowd. It's running the latest version of Huawei's in-house Kirin SoC, has an all metal housing, and the Leica-branded cameras are present too.

The hardware side hasn't been Huawei's problem in western markets. It's the software. I've always had trouble using Huawei phones for very long because of the many, many annoyances present in the EMUI Android skin. I was intrigued when Huawei announced the Mate 9 would ship with Nougat and a new version of EMUI. The software turns out to be a big step forward for Huawei. The Mate 9 isn't only "good for the price" or "good for Huawei," it's actually just good.

Specs

SoC Octa-core Kirin 960
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB with microSD card slot
Display 5.9-inch 1080p LCD
Battery 4,000mAh
Camera 12MP RGB + 20MP monochrome, OIS, laser autofocus module; 8MP front-facing
Software Android 7.0 with EMUI 5.0
Measurements 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9mm, 190g

The Good

Design Clean, understated aluminum unibody shell with some nice accents. Extremely small bezels.
Battery Fantastic battery life. Almost three full days of usage for me.
Cameras The Leica-branded dual cameras are better than previous versions and produce overall excellent shots. The 2x optical zoom is cool too.
Fingerprint sensor It's lightning fast and accurate. Rear sensor placement is my favorite and it should be yours too.
Display While it's only 1080p, the Mate 9's display has great black levels and it's extremely bright.
Software Ships with Android 7.0. Huawei has made big improvements with EMUI 5.0.

The Not So Good

Software again There's a bit of bloatware pre-installed, and Huawei still needs to fix the EMUI lock screen.
Charging The Mate 9 uses a Huawei-specific fast-charging tech called SuperCharge. It's fast but not compatible with other fast-charging standards.
Display again It's only 1080p, and many buyers would prefer the extra pixels to the extra battery life.
Design again No water-resistance.
It's heavy 190g is pushing it.

Design and display

The Mate 9 doesn't rewrite the book on Huawei's design language, but it does give it a little tweak. The phone is still encased in an aluminum unibody shell, save for a plastic inlay at the top and bottom of the rear panel. Fully aluminum phones tend to look somewhat boring to me—I've long since gotten over the novelty of a metal phone. You can tell Huawei knows what it's doing in the hardware department because it managed to add a little flair without going overboard.

The back of the Mate 9 has a slight curve as you get toward the edges, but whereas a phone like the OnePlus 3T has a sharp demarcation between "back" and "side," Huawei has narrow chamfers that ease the transition. This makes the phone feel nicer in the hand and look more attractive when you set it down. The phone is a little on the heavy side at 190g, though. One notable omission here is water-resistance. That's becoming a common feature in phones that cost this much.

Toward the top of the back is the dual camera array (more on that later) and the fingerprint sensor. The design of the sensor is very similar to the Nexus 6P—a small aluminum cut-out with a chamfered circumference. The setup process did not exactly inspire me with confidence. The Mate 9 has you line up different areas of your finger as indicated on the screen, and the reading fails if it doesn't think you're doing it right. It really forces you to get a solid imprint, and the results are incredibly good. This is one of the fastest and most accurate fingerprint sensors I've used. It's as good as the OnePlus 3T, which is already great, but it's on the back of the phone. I vastly prefer that location to the front.

On the top edge is the headphone jack (yes, we need to point that out now) and something you don't see much anymore—an IR blaster. So, you can use the Mate 9 to control your TV, air conditioner, stereo, or anything else that uses IR. The included app for it is fine, but I think most people will ignore this feature. On the left side is the SIM/microSD card slot. The Mate 9 is a dual-SIM phone, but using a microSD card means you'll have to lose the second SIM. Over on the right are the volume rocker and power button. They're clicky and delightful without any hint of wiggle.

On the bottom is where you'll find a speaker, a microphone disguised to look like a speaker (an old trick), and the USB Type-C port. That's not technically the only speaker on the Mate 9. The earpiece acts as a second speaker for stereo sound. It doesn't sound great or anything (I think HTC did it better), but it's louder than most phones. If you just want to play a YouTube video for people to see or blast a couple tunes, it's acceptable.

The display situation here is interesting. The Mate 9 has a 5.9-inch LCD, which is quite large. The overall device doesn't feel as big as you'd expect based on that. Huawei did a good job eliminating bezel and squeezing the display into a slimmer frame (insert Pixel bezel joke here). The display itself is only 1080p, which I was concerned about going in as that puts us under 400PPI. My fears were mostly unfounded.

That's a Pixel XL (5.5-inch screen) almost completely obscuring a Mate 9 (5.9-inch screen).

This is an LCD, so it has a full RGB matrix. An AMOLED at this size and resolution with a pentile array would most likely display some visible fringing around the edges of shapes and text on the screen. This display isn't the sharpest I've seen, but you won't be disappointed unless you scrutinize it. The black levels are also uncharacteristically good for an LCD. The brightness seems on-par with the Galaxy S7's AMOLED, which is to say it's very good. The lower resolution also means improved battery life, which I'll get to later. It's worth remembering that this phone won't work with Google Daydream as it's an LCD. Even if it was AMOLED, the pixel density isn't good enough for VR.

Camera

The Mate 9 has another one of Huawei's dual-camera arrays, allegedly developed in partnership with Leica. This is different than previous versions—it's using new, higher resolution sensors. Past Leica cameras on Huawei phones were based on a 12MP RGB and 12MP monochrome sensor. This time it's 12MP RGB and 20MP monochrome. The idea is that the RGB camera captures the color and the monochrome captures details. They're merged together in software, and you get some pretty nice images. The camera also uses both phase detection and laser autofocus.

Both camera modules have an f/2.2 aperture, which is lacking compared to most other phones. However, there are two lenses. That theoretically means double the light. You might not be able to get those really crisp-looking shallow depth of field shots as easily as you can with other phones. In practice, I found the Mate 9's camera to perform a bit behind the Pixel and the Galaxy S7. It's not bad by any means, but noise seems more noticeable in diminishing light. Additionally, the white balance leans too warm at times. I'm being picky, though. It's better than most other phones in low light. Bright light performance is top notch with extremely crisp details (check out the USB cable in the gallery below) and accurate colors. Whites do sometime look over-exposed to me, but that's a minor quibble.

The dual camera setup also offers 2x optical zoom. Well, it's sort of optical. The lenses don't physically move, so what's actually happening is the two cameras are used to create a cropped 12MP image that doesn't lose quality like a regular digital zoom. Even past that, I think the digital zoom comes out better than most other phone cameras. With a steady hand, you can use this to take some impressive photos. And I say a steady hand because Huawei's optical image stabilization seems slightly inferior to other high-end phones. It's nice they included it at all, I suppose. The last two photos in the gallery below show the sorta-optical zoom feature in action.

Huawei's auto images are captured as quickly as the Pixel. It's a little slower when you turn on HDR. The regular photos look good enough that I rarely bother turning on HDR mode. It's not that great and the slower capture means you'll get noticeable blurring on anything moving. The monochrome shooting mode is really fun, though. It (obviously) uses the monochrome sensor rather than filtering an RGB output like other cameras do. You end up with sharp images with a film noir vibe.

The video resolution goes as high as 4K. The 4K looks alright; maybe a bit too grainy when it's not very bright. I think the 1080p60 setting is the sweet spot—it's sharp, low noise, and playback is very smooth. Again, the OIS could be better on this phone, but it's passable.

If there's a downside of the Mate 9's camera, it's that the app is rather confusing. There's so much going on, and it's not organized in the most logical way. There are two slide-out panels, one with modes and the other with settings. However, the settings panel is sometimes very different depending on the mode you have selected. The same is true when you toggle on pro mode, which is a swipe up from the bottom of the viewfinder. I've found myself in a few situations where I knew I'd seen a particular setting someplace, but I couldn't figure out which mode I was in when I saw it.

Performance and battery

The Mate 9 is running on a Kirin 960 with 4GB of RAM. The Krin chips are designed by Huawei, and the 960 is the latest and greatest. It's an octa-core chip with four Cortex-A73 cores (the latest from ARM) and four Cortex-A53 cores. It uses a variant of the ARM Mali G71 GPU. I've got some benchmarks below for you to obsess over, but my general impression of the Mate 9 is that it's very fast.

 

So, the raw numbers are close to the Snapdragon 821 in most places. I don't put too much stock in that. What matters is that the Mate 9 doesn't bog down during heavy usage and apps remain in memory reliably. It doesn't have quite the same immediacy as the Pixel, which is extremely well-optimized. However, the Mate 9 is definitely faster than the Galaxy S7. I've only had the Mate 9 for a few weeks, so I can't say if it'll stay that way.

The real story here is the battery life, which is absolutely phenomenal. But first, the customary battery life disclaimer: my usage pattern may differ from yours, so you may get more or less usage per charge than me. I have three Gmail accounts syncing and use my phone mostly for messaging, browsing, photos, some music over Bluetooth, a bit of gaming, and I have one Android Wear device connected. I'd consider it a fairly typical usage pattern.

With moderate usage, the Mate 9 ran for nearly three full days—about 70 hours. It was plugged into my car briefly to test Android Auto during that time, but I could have made it through three work days with no charging. During that time, I saw almost 6 hours of screen time. That's excellent, by my reckoning. With heavier usage, the Mate 9 ran for about 16 hours with nearly nine hours of screen time. This is the best battery life for a phone in its class. The Moto Z Play is better, but it also has much more modest hardware. The 4,000mAh battery is coming through for this phone.

  

Left two: Regular usage, Right: Heavy continuous usage 

The Mate 9 does feature fast-charging technology, but it's not standard Quick Charge or USB-PD. Huawei has its own fast-charging tech called SuperCharge. It runs at 4.5V and 5A. I assume the proprietary charging standard is thanks to the use of a Kirin chip. I do wish the Mate 9 had standard fast-charging, but SuperCharge is every bit as fast as the competition. However, the phone will charge at normal speed with all the other chargers you have around.

Software

This is where all past Huawei phones have fallen apart for me. The hardware is usually very impressive, but the software is too annoying to use long-term. That was EMUI 4.1, and the Mate 9 ships with EMUI 5.0 based on Android 7.0 Nougat. With this, Huawei is finally getting software right. It's not perfect, but EMUI 5.0 is a huge improvement over 4.1.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Huawei's home screen now defaults to using an app drawer. I vastly prefer this, and I think most of you do as well. If you hate good things and want to turn the app drawer off, that's an option. The rest of the home screen is fairly inoffensive. The tiny, paginated widget list is annoying, and I can't say I'm in love with the squircle icons. Still, it's fast and usable.

 

Notifications have been a sticking point for me on older Huawei phones, and this is another thing EMUI 5.0 cleans up. The notifications actually work like standard Android notifications now. No more of that weird timeline UI, and they expand in standard Nougat fashion. The status bar icons are white instead of full color now, as well. The rounded corners on notifications look a little retro to me, though. And what's this above the notifications? A standard quick settings panel? It's still themed in not the most attractive way, but it works perfectly. Just like stock Nougat, you get the top quick settings titles above the notifications (with the helpful addition of a brightness slider), and you can expand the quick settings with a swipe down. Apps that add quick settings tiles work as expected here. This surprised me—Samsung and LG got this right, too, but they weren't far off from the stock Android behavior previously. Huawei is clearly paying attention to come so far so fast.

If you haven't spent time with EMUI in the past, this is going to sound weird: apps work correctly when you install them on the Mate 9. Yay? EMUI 4.1 had you confirm notification access for each individual app you installed, which was annoying. Even worse, the default setting was to kill all those apps when you turned the screen off. This so-called "protected mode" is still in EMUI 5.0, but it's off by default for all apps you install. Thank goodness. I don't feel like I'm babysitting every app I install anymore.

I do still have one major bone to pick with EMUI 5.0—the lock screen is terrible. It's basically unchanged from EMUI 4.1, meaning it only shows your notifications once. After you've unlocked the phone, those notifications will not be shown again, even if they're still in your notification shade. This is a profoundly confusing system. It also prevents playback notifications from showing up on the lock screen. Some apps like Play Music do get custom playback controls on the lock screen, but only when you're actively listening to music. The lock screen displays different photos each time you wake the phone up, which is nice, I suppose. Huawei just really needs to fix the notifications.

The bloatware situation is a minor annoyance. There are a fair number of pre-installed apps like Lyft, Hotels.com, and News Republic. There are about a dozen apps you'll want to clear out, but at least they're fully uninstallable. One thing that isn't included is something Huawei made a big stink about at CES—Alexa. This is going to be the first phone with Amazon Alexa support, but it will come in an OTA update some time in Q1 of this year. That's as much as Huawei will say. In the meantime, OK Google works.

The Mate 9 comes with the usual assortment of Huawei feature additions. You can have network activity in the status bar, use swipe gestures on the fingerprint sensor, customize the navigation bar, and so on. Some of these are more useful than others. I don't personally want to mess with the navigation bar order, but you can do it if you want. The App Twin feature is kind of clever, allowing you to have two different active accounts on the phone for WhatsApp and Facebook. Huawei still insists on doing the "smart screenshot" thing with knuckle detection, but it never works. It's time to give up on that.

Since this is Nougat, you get all the standard features like split-screen apps, the aforementioned notification bundling, quick reply, and various system optimizations. I will note Huawei kept its weirdly small navigation buttons. I'm not really a fan, but considering all the other things that were improved in EMUI 5.0, I can live with it.

Conclusion

The Huawei Mate 9 is currently available for $600. That is a reasonable price considering all you get. The design is understated, but has a very polished look and feel. I just wish it was water-resistant as well. The rear-facing fingerprint sensor might be the best one I've ever used.

The dual cameras perform well enough in all lighting conditions, although some of the processing isn't as flattering as what you'll get from a Pixel or GS7. The simulated optical zoom is pretty cool, though.

The internals are top-of-the-line, and the device performs very well. I didn't experience any slow-downs and the battery life is stellar. Getting through almost three full days is impressive for any phone, especially one with a lot of power under the hood.

The 4,000mAh battery and 1080p display certainly figure into the excellent battery life. The display is an LCD, so you won't be getting any Daydream usage out of this phone, and the colors don't pop like an AMOLED. That said, it's extremely bright and reasonably clear. I think it's a trade-off I'm willing to make in this case.

Huawei's move to EMUI 5.0 is the real story here. Finally, Huawei is paying attention to the software features western consumers expect. The awful memory and notification management features are gone or disabled by default, and the home screen uses an app drawer. Even the notifications and quick settings have been revamped to more closely match stock Android. There are still some annoyances here, like the lock screen and the iOS-style default app icons. It's a bit heavy on bloatware too.

I don't think I'd recommend getting the Huawei Mate 9 over a Pixel or Pixel XL for most people, but it definitely has a niche. If you want a phone with a really large screen, I think the Mate 9 is a better purchase than something like a V20. It's also the best you can get if battery life is your chief concern and the mid-range Moto Z Play isn't your speed. You can get the Mate 9 at Best Buy, Amazon, and other retailers.