Huawei Mate 9 review:

So you’ve got to send back your Galaxy Note 7 before it explodes, but you still want a high-performance giant phone in your pocket. Come and check out the Huawei Mate 9.

It’s a beefy thing, with a 5.9-inch display that edges out the 5.7 inches of the now-dead Note 7. It’s wrapped in an all-metal body, packs two cameras on the back and is stuffed with powerful components.

Apart from the lack of a stylus, the Mate 9 has pretty much everything you’d expect from the Note plus one. And, if you live in the US, it has the Amazon Echo’s Alexa voice assistant. That means you’ll be able to ask for basics with your voice, like setting an alarm and getting a weather report. And Alexa will be able to control other smart devices, too.

Huawei released the Mate 9 in the U.S. on January 6. It is now available for $599 in both grey and silver from Best Buy, Amazon, Newegg and B&H. We’re checking to see whether (and when) Alexa support might be offered in other countries beyond the U.S.; we’ll keep you posted.

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Huawei snuck out an even better-sounding version of the Mate 9, called the Mate 9 Pro. With a curved-screen design that looks identical to the Note 7, the Pro packs a meaty 6GB of RAM, up to 256GB of built-in storage and a fingerprint scanner set into a physical home button on the front. It’s really the phone that the Mate 9 should be.

Huawei told me that this supercharged variant is only for China, but the product does appear on the UK website, so I can’t say for certain that the UK, US and Australia won’t see this model at all.

There is also the Mate 9 Porsche Design, which has the same high-end internal specs as the Pro, but has a different aesthetic, thanks to the hands at the Porsche Design house. It’s available now in Europe, but it will set you back 1,395 euros (about £1,180, $1,485 or AU$1,980). I’d suggest simply waiting for the Pro, which I imagine will cost about half that.

I’ve asked Huawei whether the Pro version will hit shelves outside China and will of course update this review with information as we get it.

Full metal jacket

  • 156.9×78.9×7.9 millimetres (6.17×3.1×0.3 inches)
  • 190 grams (6.7 ounces)
  • USB-C charging port
  • 64GB storage
  • MicroSD card slot

Squashing in such a big display has made the Mate 9 a big guy to hold. If you’ve got hands the size of moons then holding it in one hand won’t be an issue, but even then, it’s tough to stretch your thumb across to type. Bashing out a long email? Use both hands.

The metal body feels sturdy and has none of the flex in the back that you’d find on cheaper handsets. That said, it lacks the luxurious, slick design of the curved glass and metal Note 7. It may be an alternative in specs, but in looks, the Mate 9 is no match for Samsung’s phone.

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The back of the phone is home to a fingerprint sensor, which works quickly and rarely misreads your prints. It charges through a USB-C connector at the bottom of the phone and there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top — ideal if you’re not willing to give up your headphone cable for the iPhone 7 Plus.

The phone comes with a generous 64GB of storage as standard, which you can expand further with a microSD card.

A vibrant display that needs more

  • 5.9 inches
  • 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution
  • 373 pixels per inch

The display’s large size helps it show off images and movies well, but I’m disappointed to only see a full HD resolution here. While full HD is sufficient for everyday tools like Twitter, WhatsApp and so on, it doesn’t have quite the same clarity as you’ll find on higher resolution panels, like the Note 7 with its 2,560×1,440 pixels.

Indeed, the Mate 9 has a pixel density of 373 pixels per inch. The Note 7 packed more pixels into a smaller space, resulting in a much more impressive 515ppi and Google’s Pixel XL beats them both with 535 ppi. High resolutions are particularly important if you ever want to use your device with a VR headset like Google’s Daydream — when the screen is right in front of your eyes, you’ll really notice the extra pixels.

The Mate 9’s screen is at least bright enough to counter the worst of CNET’s overhead office lights, and its colours are rich and vibrant. Colourful games like Riptide GP look great. If you don’t care a bit about VR then a full HD display like this one will suit you just fine.

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A powerful beating heart

  • Octa-core Kirin 960 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • Android 7.0 Nougat with Huawei Emotion skin

The phone runs on Huawei’s latest octa-core Kirin 960 processor, which is backed up by 4GB of RAM. It’s a potent processor that blitzed through our benchmark tests (see results chart below) and it’s helped along by a handful of software tweaks. At the phone’s launch, Huawei explained that a whole host of behind-the-scenes software changes help the phone manage its memory and background tasks more efficiently.

How much work Huawei has really done is impossible to say, but regardless I’m happy to report that the phone is indeed buttery smooth to use. It has none of the lag and stuttering when swiping around the Android interface as I’ve seen on many of Huawei’s previous phones. Apps load quickly too, and rarely crash while in use — something I can’t say about the previous Mate 8.

The powerful processor was able to tackle photo editing in Adobe Photoshop Express and Snapseed, Netflix streamed without any problem and demanding games like Riptide GP: Renegade and Asphalt Xtreme had consistently high frame rates for smooth gameplay.

I’ve not enjoyed Huawei’s software in the past as it changes so much of the stock Android interface that it ends up feeling bloated and clunky to use. The changes have been toned down a touch this time round, though. Most notably with the return of the Android app tray. While previous versions removed the app tray, forcing you to keep your apps scattered across the homescreens, the Mate 9 gives you the option of putting it back. It’ll help experienced Android users feel more at home.

The software still isn’t perfect, though. The settings menu is needlessly complicated and while you can change the themes on the phone, I can’t figure out how to download others beyond the pitiful six “local themes” that come preloaded. Huawei’s custom skin has been tweaked just enough to make it that bit more pleasant to use overall.

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Two cameras are better than one

The back of the phone is home to the same Leica-branded dual-camera setup that we’ve seen already on its P9 phone. One 12-megapixel sensor takes photos in colour, while the 20-megapixel sensor is specifically designed to only shoot in black and white. I was impressed with the P9’s black and white shots and the Mate 9 delivers similarly satisfying results.

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Mate 9 outdoor camera test (click to see full size)

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The Winter colours really came through on this close-up shot of these leaves. The resolution helps make the veins on the leaves look crisp.

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Mate 9 outdoor camera test (click to see full size)

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The Mate 9’s camera has done a great job of capturing detail in the shadows on the pillars, while still achieving a rich blue sky above.

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Mate 9 indoor camera test (click to see full size)

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In low-light conditions inside, the camera still did a good job. Colours are vibrant and accurate, and there’s not too much image noise.

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Mate 9 black and white camera test (click to see full size)

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The dedicated monochrome camera takes really great looking black and white shots, which deep contrast and plenty of detail. I much prefer the look of the B&W shots from the Mate 9 than simply using a filter on a regular colour photo.

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Mate 9 black and white camera test (click to see full size)

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CNET video producer Jonathan Garnham was born for black and white.

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Mate 9 front-facing camera test (click to see full size)

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There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the front for you selfie-lovers. Shots are sufficiently crisp for Facebook or Instagram, and the lens has a wide enough angle to let you get your face in the frame without needing to stretch your arm out too much.

Battery life

There’s a meaty 4,000mAh battery stuffed inside the Mate 9, which is sufficient to easily get you through a day of use. On our battery rundown test, the Mate 9 lasted 18 hours and 35 minutes, which is among the best results we’ve seen this year.

Like all phones though, your actual battery results will vary wildly depending on how much you use it. The screen is the biggest drain on power — particularly when it’s as big as this one. Keep your screen brightness down if you want to eke out the hours, and avoid demanding tasks like gaming or video streaming until you’re near a plug.

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That said, it’s one of the few phones that you can comfortably use throughout the day and not be too afraid about having battery left to call a cab home at night.

It’s not the Note, but it’s a close comparison

The death of the Galaxy Note 7 really is a big loss to everyone who enjoyed wrapping their excited hands around massive, powerful phones. While the Huawei Mate 9 doesn’t have the stunningly beautiful design of the Note 7, nor the super high definition display, it makes up for it elsewhere.

It’s loaded with more power than you’re ever likely to need, the battery puts up a hell of a fight, and Huawei’s software tweaks now seem to speed up the phone, rather than slow it down. The Mate 9’s monochrome camera on the back lets you pretend to be one of those cool arty types, but without needing to grow a stupid moustache.

If it’s a big-screened bruiser you’re after, the Mate 9 is a solid option to consider.