Sunday, 26 February 2017 15:04

Huawei Mate 9 delivers a whole lot of phone (review)

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From the moment you see the dark chocolate “Huawei Design” box adorned with the subtle red Leica Dual camera logo, to the unboxing of a gorgeous Café/Mocha Brown phablet you know you are in for a treat – this phone may change the choice of smartphone you covet this year.

Mate 9 mochaEverything about this phone builds anticipation that it is something special. I don’t want to go overboard on looks but it something desirable that you (well, I) would wolf whistle at – really, it is that stunning.

But I digress – the Café/Mocha “Soul-Mate” that captivated me is the dual SIM unlocked “retail” model and lesser mortals may only see the single SIM, space grey version at Optus and Vodafone. Beauty is skin deep – but what skin!

As a spoiler alert – it is a 9 out of 10 simply because there is no such thing as perfection in our flawed world. It succeeds in performance, battery life, camera, and value, all in a svelte, beautifully made, metal chassis. It loses that one point from perfection for the HD LCD screen (a variant called the 5.5” Mate 9 Pro has a UHD AMOLED screen), no IP rating (although Huawei says it has some), and no wireless charging – none of which are deal-breakers.

Out of the boxHuawei Mate 9 MHA-L29

I have already described the unboxing experience and Huawei really have it right – the colour co-ordinated box is as attractive as the phone. It comes with the phone, premium headset buds/mic, USB-C to USB-A cable, USB-C to micro-USB adapter, a fast charger, and a clip-on, colour matched, back cover.

It is a big 5.9” phone – and I like that – at 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 x 190g. For comparison, the smaller screen 5.7” iPhone 7 Plus is 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 x 188g.

Set-up is simple – the usual Android 7 start-up and as it is made in China you can completely avoid Google’s apps etc. That means Huawei provide a range of mail, calendar, scheduler, phone, message, health, clock, music and camera apps that you can replace if you want to.

It claims to have a Phone Clone app and the ability to use HiSuite and HiCloud to copy from other devices (not tested).

The User Experience, called EMUI 5.0, is a very light touch over the Android 7.0 material design.

Despite being big, it feels good in the hand and more comfortable than the iPhone 7 Plus

Specifications

  • Screen: 5.9”, 373ppi, 1920 x 1080, IPS, LCD, screen with an amazingly high 77.5% screen to body ratio and covered in Gorilla Glass 3. While AMOLED would have been nice, and there is a model with that, this screen is bright and clear. It comes with a pre-applied screen protector.
  • Processor: Hisilicon Kirin 950, octa-core, 4 x 2.4GHz and 4 x 1.8GHz in Big/Little configuration to switch in and out as power is needed. Has an i6 co-processor for off-CPU work like context. Offers a 30% performance and power efficiency over the previous 950. While “non-Qualcomm” chips may have been seen as second grade this is proof that life exists nicely outside the Snapdragon universe.
  • GPU: Mali-G71 MP8 with native Vulcan support. It supports Google DayDream but HD resolution is not the best for VR.
  • RAM/Storage/micro-SD: 4GB LPDDR4 RAM, 64GB storage (49GB free), up to 256GB micro-SD (uses second SIM slot).
  • Rear camera: Dual lens Leica designed/optics; Sony 20MP mono +12MP RGB colour; BSI, f/2.2, 27mm; OIS; 6x hybrid zoom; 4-in-1 phase detection, laser autofocus, contrast and depth sensing; dual-LED (dual tone) flash; HDR; 4K @30fps record; there is a small camera bump.
  • Front camera: 8 MP, f/1.9, 26mm, 1080p.
  • Comms: Wi-Fi AC, dual band, Wi-Di, hotspot, Bluetooth 4.2; GPS; NFC; USB-C V2.0 (480Mbps); OTG.
  • SIM 1, Cat 12 (600/150Mbps) 3CA LTE: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/9/12/17/18/19/20/26/28/29/38/39/40/41; VoLTE (cannot confirm Wi-Fi calling).
  • SIM 2: 2G/3G.
  • Sound: stereo L and R down firing speakers; earpiece speaker; active noise cancellation with dedicated mic; 4 microphones; 3.5mm audio jack on top.
  • Battery: 4000mAh non-removable; 82-hour endurance rating; 22.5W USB-C charger 5V/2A or 4.5V/5A, or 5V/4.5A.
  • Other: Fingerprint reader on rear (Like LG and easy to use), IR port, premium Aluminium body.
  • What it is missing (in comparison to some others): Wireless charging; IP rating; FM radio.

These are premium specs commensurate with its $999 price.

Power/Performance

As mentioned earlier there is life outside Snapdragon and Huawei own Hisilicon – another smart move to ensure that it controls more of its supply chain. This 16 nanometre Kirin 960 blitzes Apple’s iPhone 7Plus, Google Pixel (Snapdragon 821) and Samsung GS7 (Snapdragon 820) in multi-core use. Its Mali-GPU also edges out the Pixel XL and GS7.

But being based on 16nm means it is two generations behind what we will see this year in the 10nm Exynos 9 and Snapdragon 835.

It has plenty of power for the average user's needs. I did not experience any lag despite loading it to the limit.

Battery

4000mAh is big and gets easily over a day's very hard use but it is good form to charge every 24 hours. The fast charge requires the use of the supplied cable and charger and you can go from zero to 100% in about an hour.

Otherwise, using a standard USB-C 5V/2A charger takes over two hours. The Mate 9 USB-C cable has four extra pins which suggest it is like OPPO’s VOOC charge that uses two separate batteries.

Huawei has implemented machine learning (MLA) to improve battery life over time.

Huawei Mate 9 battery

Screen

While AMOLED is preferred for lower battery draw, this IPS, LCD, produces brightness and colour on a par with the iPhone 7 Plus or the LG V20. The two custom screen settings — warm and cold — only serve to decrease colour density over the default setting. It has blue-light reduction.

Daylight readability is adequate but you probably need to ditch the automatic brightness and set that level to suit.

Comms/sound:

The dual SIM (only the first is 4G) is a nice touch, but the microSD card takes the place of the second SD card.

Hands-free is extremely good – crisp, clean converstions (at both ends). You can select the mics to be omnidirectional (360°) or unidirectional sound (120°) if you need to cut out noise.

Music pumps out loud and clear from the dual bottom firing speakers although they are too close for any serious separation.

Although it does not claim hi-res sound, the quality of output via the 3.5mm audio jack and Bluetooth is impressive – almost perfect sound.

User interface (UI)

EMUI is a light touch over Android. You can use it or select the usual Android interface.

It downloads/adds a new wallpaper every time you unlock it (not sure how much data that uses), and has a pleasant, uncluttered layout. The Huawei apps are a good substitute for Google apps, and it has a private space area fingerprint setup for secret stuff. App twin could be used for two users.

I never really worry too much about UI – I will tell you if it or the apps are awful (as I have seen in the past on many Asian phones) – this is one of the better interfaces and everything is where you expect it to be.

The IR app is interesting and can control hundreds of TVs and more. It can also learn functions.

I mentioned MLA – the test was too short to meaningfully assess this, but Huawei says the phone will actually run faster over time and get better battery life etc. Huawei says the MLA will offer 20% increase in smoothness of performance, 20% increase in graphics, and 50% improvement in system response.

Camera – The Leica look

The Leica look has been described as reminiscent of film photography – no oversaturation or excessive post-processing sharpening.

It is certainly possible to achieve the Leica look if you are a professional photographer but leaving all settings on auto — idiot proof — there is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the Mate 9 photographs just that little more realistic.

As a precursor, the Huawei P9 was the first with a dual camera using two different sensors – one colour and one mono (LG V20/G5 uses one sensor) and while it gave some very good shots, it did not live up to the hype. iTWire’s review stated, “It is excellent value but the camera will take a determined photographer to reach nirvana.”

It is no surprise then that the Mate 9 was touted as having the “second-generation” Leica dual camera that fixed any issues in the P9. To a large extent, it does!

The theory is that the 12MP lens captures the colour and the 20MP captures the definition – these are overlaid (several times in HDR) to produce a higher definition shot. But the two lenses and sensors also capture more light, creating more vivid images.

The two cameras are required for achieving the depth effects in portrait mode, delivering better low-light performance, and for shooting real black and white photos. The twin f/2.2 lenses are equivalent to twice the light, or effectively an f/1.6 aperture on a single camera.

Added to that the wide-aperture Bokeh effect changes focus from front to back, thanks to a shallow depth of field. It is amazing and you can refocus after the shot is taken. The 6X Zoom is electronic but it is impressively sharp. Note that you can either have HDR or Flash – at night it is flash!

Mate 9 camera

In summary – a very good day camera that captures colour and definition. But in low light, the camera can produce variable results.

Outdoors, bright daylight: Amazing shots, great colours, crisp details. It made little difference with HDR on or off – shadows and sky had definition and it did not impact on exposure times. The absence of “noise” is very good. Ten out of ten for this and it proves beyond doubt that the dual lens on the Mate 9 is superior to single lens camera.

Outdoors, early evening, muted lighting: The dual lenses extracted all the light needed and HDR filled in any washed-out highlights. 10 out of 10.

Indoors, normal office/home lighting: Good detail, good colour, no image shake with HDR (as it does not appear to increase exposure times.

Indoors, low light: With HDR (instead of flash) colours could be a bit muted. Flash, however, gave the best results, albeit losing some detail, to about three metres.

DXOMark  has rated this camera at 85 along with the LG V20. Above that is the LG G5 (86), Sony Xperia XZ (87), Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (88), and Google Pixel (89). I defer to the experts here but I have tested all these wonderful phones and, in my opinion, reference shots are very similar.

DXOMark says some inconsistent exposures and ghosting (on moving objects) kept the Mate 9 from rating even higher and on that point, I agree – most shots are very good then you get some duds without knowing why. Where it excels is detail where it beat the Pixel XL – 91 points to Pixel's 89.

Panorama: 3100 pixels tall, no stitching issues, even exposure – top marks

Selfies: Good daylight shots with a beautification feature that works very well. Low light produces variable results as there is no screen fill flash

Video: It can do 4K @30fps H.264/5 compression but the real star is 1080p @60 or 30fps. Autofocus in fast, OIS works (but as with any video the use of a tripod or selfie stick will improve quality), and colours are accurate. Indoors can see a loss of contrast – I suspect due to the mono lens overpowering the RGB one. The audio was excellent, including noise cancelling.

Summary: This is a camera which with you can take excellent shots – I suspect there is more tweaking to do in the firmware and Huawei will be looking into that.

Conclusion

The Huawei Mate 9 has so much to recommend it so consider it iTWire’s choice of phablets at present. I could not fault it in any way apart from saying it would be perfect with QHD AMOLED, wireless charge, and IP68 – none are deal-breakers and phones with these features cost a few hundred dollars more.

I really like the camera and suspect it will out-pixel Pixel when Huawei firmware catches up with the reviews. Overall you get a lot of phone, literally, for $999. If Pixel XL is the main competition (and it is not, because each has different strengths) then I pity the remaining phablet makers – Mate it is a no-brainer!

Pros:

  • Best battery life of any larger phone.
  • Great performance.
  • The camera has a lot of smarts and can produce near pro results – if you try.
  • Value – at $999 it is outstanding value for a phone this size.
  • Claimed to be able to support Amazon Echo voice soon.

Cons:

  • That great camera can bite if you are not careful. Whereas Samsung’s GS7 or Google Pixel XL have nailed auto-shooting this needs care to get the best shots (and this may be substantially addressed in firmware updates).
  • Not for VR but HD screens were never intended to be.
  • No IP rating.

I am going to give it a 9 out of 10 for the best, most innovative, fastest, longest lasting phablet – the key features people want and represents outstanding value.

Price: Suggested price is $999 outright from major retailers (Dual SIM café/mocha) and Optus and Vodafone (single sim space grey).

Astute shoppers may see it up to 10% lower online, but make sure it is the Australian model with local warranty support.

Huawei Mate 9 all

 

Related: Huawei P20 Pro Full, in-depth review

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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