Huawei Mate 9: Australian Review

Image: Huawei

Sometimes bigger is better. When it comes to phones, that's more true than ever -- a bigger screen is easier to read, and a bigger body hides larger batteries and means more battery life. And that means Huawei's massive Mate 9 is one of the best new Android phones you can buy in 2017.

What Is It?

The Huawei Mate 9 is the newest big-screen Android phone to hit the market this year, packing a 5.9-inch 1920x1080pixel LCD into a body that most of the company's competitors would only find home for a 5.5-inch or 5.7-inch display inside. The 156.9x78.9mm phone is just 7.9mm thick, but because of its large cross-section manages to fit an enormous 4000mAh battery, dual cameras, and all the other top-of-the-line tech you'd expect in a $999 handset like a fingerprint scanner, dual SIMs or a microSD slot with space for up to 256GB of expandable space.

The Mate 9 is built on Huawei's latest Kirin 960 chipset, a significant improvement in both efficiency and power over the last Kirin 950 in the Mate 8 and P9; with four 2.4GHz power and four 1.8GHz efficiency cores it's on paper one of the most powerful processors ever shoehorned into a phone, even one with the Mate 9's large aluminium unibody to dissipate heat. That chipset is paired up with 4GB of RAM and a single storage variant with 64GB of onboard memory. It's also great to see Huawei using the USB Type-C connector for fast charging and data transfer on the base of the Mate 9 -- at this rate, it'll be in every Android phone in a couple of months.

The body of the Mate 9 is hewn from metal, just like the P9 before it -- and in Australia, you'll be able to buy it in two colour variants, each with their own small internal differences to boot. The mocha brown version of the Mate 9 is the dual-SIM one, sold through retailers like JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman, and the single-SIM space grey Mate 9 is on sale through Optus and Vodafone. Huawei also ships the phone with a screen protector pre-applied, and with a tinted plastic protective case in the box to protect the rear of the phone from scuffs and scratches through normal use.

What's It Good At?

The camera on Huawei's P9 was great, and the camera on the Mate 9 is somehow even better. Huawei has done dual cameras right on the Mate 9 by opting for two sensor and lens setups with the same focal length, and giving one a 12-megapixel RGB color sensor and the other a 20-megapixel monochrome one. The extra processing power of the Kirin 960 makes it possible for the Leica-branded camera app to simulate faux-wide-aperture depth of field effects surprisingly effectively, and the camera is both quick to operate and produces some seriously nice photos in both bright light and dim settings, even if the f/2.2 lenses let in a little less light than the benchmark Samsung Galaxy S7's f/1.7.

The Mate 9 is consistently quick to operate, too -- there's no lag whether you're switching quickly through apps in the quick launch menu, or whether you're loading up a computationally taxing game like Pokemon Go. It's really gratifying to use a phone that doesn't hang at any inconvenient points and doesn't slow you down. Not having to wait five seconds for the camera app to launch might not sound like the biggest problem in the world, but once you've experienced it, you notice when you don't have it. The fingerprint reader is phenomenally fast to operate, too, which is a Very Good Thing for the Mate 9's general usability.

And battery life. My god, the battery life. The Mate 9 easily lasts through two days of regular use -- it's the kind of phone that you can just forget to charge overnight and have it last through a second day of checking Twitter and Facebook and snapping photos and listening to music and making and receiving phone calls. It charges incredibly quickly using its 22.5 Watt fast charging adapter, too -- so you have that incredible combination of a massive battery that lasts a very long time and takes a very short time to fill back up. This is a phone that should, really, never run out of juice. Range anxiety is just not a thing here.

What's It Not Good At?

The Mate 9's massive screen size is a boon for watching movies or playing games or taking photos, but makes it difficult to use one-handed out of the box, even if you've got big hands and you're more than used to making your way around a large-screened Android phone in the first place. Like our previous experience with the Mate line and Sony's enormous Xperia Z Ultra, this is a phone that you'll almost certainly have to have two hands on at all times. It's hard to reach the opposite side of the on-screen keyboard with an outstretched thumb, and forget about swiping down the notification menu. Thankfully you can swipe the rear fingerprint reader to access this last feature; there are workarounds but living with a huge phone is, at the end of the day, a compromise.

It's also a little disappointing given every other fantastic aspect of this phone to see that the Mate 9's generally beautiful 5.9-inch LCD display only has a 1080p native resolution. When Huawei's premium competitors like Samsung and Google have 1440p displays -- and higher-contrast AMOLED displays, too -- in their big-screened Android phones, the Mate 9's screen doesn't look quite as gorgeous and detailed as it could. It's definitely serviceable, but the screen is the weakest part of an otherwise excellent phone. Internationally the super-premium Mate 9 Pro has a 1440p LCD, but we don't get it in Australia.

Huawei's latest iteration of its EMUI skin upon the top of Android 7.0 Nougat, now at version 5.0, is better than it's ever been, but it's still not as refined as the no-frills Android that Google has preinstalled on its rival Pixel and Pixel XL. There are some great features -- you can choose between an app drawer and a standard display that lumps everything onto the home screen, and the notification/quick settings menu has been rolled into a single one rather than bifurcated -- but it's still a little... nagging. Huawei's power management app aggressively notifies you when other apps are using CPU time or network traffic in the background, and for me -- someone with 120 apps installed -- there's always something there.

Should You Buy It?

Image: Huawei

A great set of cameras, a great battery, and great processing power under the hood: these are the three pillars that underpin Huawei's latest big-screened Android phone. The $999 Huawei Mate 9 is, as its particular corner of the market goes, one of the absolute best that you can buy in early 2017. It's sure to have some tough competition rolling in in the next few months after MWC 2017, but for now we're more than happy to recommend the Mate 9 to anyone looking for a top of the line, bigger than Ben Hur handset running Android.

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