Huawei Mate 9 first impressions: Dual Leica lenses, big battery, improved UI

Huawei just announced the Mate 9 device, which combines the best of the Mate 8 with the Huawei P9.

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Last week, Huawei announced the Mate 9, and unlike other Huawei smartphones it will soon be sold directly from Huawei in the US.

This phone brings the best of Huawei's excellent fit and finish, an improved EMUI, and the next generation Leica dual-lens camera advancements previously seen in the Huawei P9.

Huawei sent advanced release devices over, with the Huawei PR agency informing us that the final product available for consumers will differ and include a software update. The software update will be sent to these evaluation devices in the coming weeks, but this is not the final hardware.

Thus, I will not be posting a full, formal review of this particular device. I can however offer up some impressions and share my experiences with the understanding that some things may change with the release device.

Hardware thoughts

When I first opened the Huawei Mate 9 package I had to check the label again since I thought that I was sent a Mate 8. The Mate 9 looks almost the same as the Mate 8, but is slightly narrower (78.9 mm vs 80.6 mm). For my usage and comfort, width is more important than height and thickness so moving to a slightly narrower device with about the same size display is a good move by Huawei.

The Huawei Mate 9 will be available in Space Gray, Moonlight Silver, Champagne Gold, Mocha Brown, and Ceramic White. I was sent a Moonlight Silver sample to test out, which is the same color as the Mate 8 unit I have as well. Brown is one of my favorite colors so I would love to see that one some day.

The package contains the SuperCharge A/C adapter, USB-A to USB-C cable, microUSB to USB-C adapter, 3.5mm wired headset, simple clear plastic shell cover for the back of the phone, a SIM removal tool, and a Quick Start guide.

The Mate 9 has the same elegant fit and finish we have come to expect from Huawei's high-end devices with polished dual-beveled edges, 2.5D front glass, narrow bezels around the large display, and a slight curvature to the back so it fits comfortably in your hand.

There is a 3.5mm headset jack, IR port, USB Type-C port, and dual SIM slot with microSD expansion. It has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of ROM too.

The display is 5.9 inches with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. With a ppi of 373, it looks fantastic and you won't really notice any difference between it and a 2K display unless you are using VR. The display looks stunning to me and I couldn't be any more pleased with it. You can customize the font size and also choose from one of three view modes to change the DPI to your personal preference. BTW, the iPhone 7 Plus has the same resolution.

The Huawei Mate 9 is powered by the new Kirin 960 octa-core CPU and it flies. I haven't seen any lag at all and the device doesn't even heat up when watching movies or playing games. Huawei states that the processor comes with an intelligent machine learning algorithm so that it will never slow down or lag, even over a period of time, like we see with many other Android devices.

Since the processor is made by Huawei, Qualcomm's standard QuickCharge 2.0 or 3.0 fast charging technology is not supported. Instead, Huawei includes its own SuperCharge system with five layers of control for voltage, current, and temperature that is designed for a safe charging and battery experience. The technology is primarily contained within the charger itself so you won't feel your phone heat up as it charges quickly.

In addition to the large 4,000 mAh battery and long battery life, I am considering the Huawei Mate 9 because of the Leica dual lens technology. I had a blast using the Huawei P9 with dual cameras and this next generation improves with optical image stabilization (OIS) and more resolution.

I have taken a few photos over the last couple of days and put the originals in this Flickr album that compares the Huawei Mate 9 to the BlackBerry DTEK60 and Apple iPhone 7 Plus. You can judge for yourself, but I find the Mate 9 photos to be the best of these three phones. I will be testing and comparing this dual camera setup against the LG V20 and Apple iPhone 7 Plus in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned for that article.

What's new in EMUI 5.0?

Huawei's user interface is known as Emotion UI, EMUI, and many have written about how version 4.0 was very iPhone-esque. Given that Android offers more customization than iOS, the fact that the default UI functioned much like iOS never bothered me. I found the ability to swipe down and quickly enter a couple characters to find things quite handy.

It seems that the majority of users wanted EMUI improved, so Huawei listened to the feedback and launched EMUI 5.0 on the Huawei Mate 9. I've been using it for several days now and there are a couple improvements that I appreciate, but overall not much has changed.

The first major improvement, for those of us Android users who like an app drawer, is the option to enable an app drawer on the device. By default, the standard style with all apps on home screens, aka the iOS method, is enabled. Just go into the settings and change the home screen style to drawer to have a Nexus/Pixel experience.

The other major improvement I see is the updated notifications and quick settings shade available from the top of the device. Thanks in part to the fact that Android 7.0 Nougat is present on the Mate 9, you will see the ability to reply from the notification shade without leaving the app you are using. The quick settings have a much better layout and the ones you see present are fully customizable. You can also press and hold on quick settings to dive into the details within settings.

The SwiftKey keyboard is loaded by default on the Huawei Mate 9 with the ability to also switch and select the Google keyboard. I like SwiftKey as a keyboard and have installed it on multiple devices in the past. The ability to see your stats, sync your custom library to your Google account, and more make it a preferred keyboard solution. It's also nice to see it available as part of the EMUI 5.0 experience.

Split screen mode is now present on the Mate 9 with EMUI 5.0. My primary experiences with split screen mode were with Samsung devices, but I prefer the Android method used here in EMUI 5.0.

I took the Huawei Mate 8 and set it next to the Mate 9 to walk through various screens and settings as a method to check EMUI 4 vs EMUI 5.0. Other than these few obvious improvements, I don't see other visual changes.

There are deeper changes in the UI though as Huawei states you can now accomplish 50 percent of the core tasks in two taps with 92 percent of the tasks in three taps. Huawei also advertises that the device learns from you as you interact with it so each person may have a slightly different experience.

The evaluation device I have at the moment is not the final production hardware and Huawei has also stated there will be a software update before the product hits the streets. Thus, I will continue to dive into EMUI 5.0 as the Huawei Mate 9 gets closer to release.

Closing initial thoughts

As I discussed yesterday morning on the MobileTechRoundup podcast, I wasn't sure why someone would buy the Mate 9 over other current flagship devices. If it is priced at the European release price, about US$775, then that makes it $100 less than Apple and Google flagships. Given the large capacity battery and unique dual camera setup, the Huawei Mate 9 may indeed be worth consideration.

I thoroughly enjoyed using the Huawei P9 and had a blast with the camera, but was disappointed to see it never launch in the US. The Honor 8 is similar to the P9 and available for a great price, but it doesn't support taking monochrome photos with the second camera. That may not be a concern for you, though, so you may want to consider the Honor 8 if you are looking for a dual camera Huawei experience in a smaller form factor. It even has a more functional rear fingerprint scanner/button and feels fantastic in the hand.

Big phones fit well in my hand and the Mate 9 is big at 156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm and 190 grams. It's very similar in size to the iPhone 7 Plus so if that device works for you, then so will the Mate 9.

It's been a pleasure to use the Huawei Mate 9 so far and I have to say I am becoming a fan of Huawei's stellar design and performance. Water resistance is the only thing missing, but otherwise Huawei's devices are tough to beat. I'll be using the Mate 9 extensively until the US release, so if you have any questions or want me to test out anything, please leave a comment below.

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