Huawei's CEO Richard Yu took the wraps off the new Mate 9 and Porsche Design Mate 9 flagships at a press launch in Munich on Thursday. Packing a 5.9-inch display, the latest octa-core Kirin SoC, Android 7 and twin Leica cameras, the Mate 9 represents Huawei at the top of its game. With the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 -- previously everyone's favourite phablet -- having recently been withdrawn thanks to it combusting on a regular basis, the timing for Huawei couldn't be better. I suspect it was the death of the Note 7 that was responsible for the Mate 9 officially making it to the UK: just a few weeks ago it wasn't scheduled to make an official appearance in the British market, and the UK was still missing from the press release.
Powering the Mate 9 is an octa-core processor with four 2.4GHz Cortex A-73 and four 1.8GHz Cortex A-53 cores. Couple that with 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and the Mali G71 GPU and you have more performance on tap than you will ever actually find a use for. It's no surprise then that in use the Mate 9 feels very fast indeed. We'll have to wait for a thorough benchmarking to put numbers on this one way or the other, but I'm beginning to suspect that with this HiSilicon Kirin 960 SoC Huawei (HiSilicon is basically Huawei's in-house chip fab) may finally have matched the best from the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung. For what it's worth, Huawei reckons that compared to its predecessor the Kirin 960 boasts a 40 percent improvement in energy efficiency.
A combination of the world's first octa-core GPU and the Vulkan graphics API apparently results in a 400 percent improvement in graphics performance. I'm not quite sure what it's 400 percent better than, but the Mate 9 should still prove to be a very capable gaming device.
The display is a 1,080-by-1,920 IPS affair. Some may bemoan the absence of a qHD matrix, but I quite literally saw no issues with the 373ppi pixel density. It was as crisp as you could ask for. A sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 4 should keep the screen scratch free. Visually the display is pretty impressive: bright, colourful and with nicely robust viewing angles. Like the Huawei P9, the Mate 9 uses an IPS-NEO display from Japan Display Inc. You can read all about exactly what that means here, but in a nutshell it makes blacks look blacker. I reckon you won't find a blacker black on any non-OLED display.
Huawei deserves plaudits for getting the Mate 9 to market with Android 7 Nougat rather than 6 Marshmallow. Of course what you actually get is Android draped in Huawei's Emotion UI. Like Xiaomi's MIUI it's an acquired taste, but unlike many Chinese iOS-like Android overlays (including MIUI) you get the option to have an app tray, and in my book that makes all the difference. One significant boast of EMUI 5 is what Huawei calls its Machine Learning Algorithm. This apparently has a major effect on system degradation by keeping file fragmentation and such like under control so after eighteen months your Mate 9 should run just as quickly as it did on day one. Time will tell if it will actually work, but Huawei claims that because it has designed both the SoC and the UI, it has managed to integrate them at a pretty basic level.
Developing its partnership with Leica, the Mate 9 packs colour 12MP and monochrome 20MP cameras at the back with 4x optical zoom and optical image stabilisation. At the front there's an 8MP camera. When the P9 was launched many observers, myself included, wondered if the Leica deal was anything more than a branding exercise. Apparently not. According to Oliver Katner, CEO of Leica Camera AG, Leica had some serious engineering input into the design of the Mate 9's camera module. The optical image stabilisation and optical zoom seem to work a treat and, as with the P9, you can create fake bokeh effects either live in the viewfinder or after the event. Again as with the P9, having one of the cameras shoot in monochrome makes for very impressive black-and-white images. If the sample images taken with the Mate 9 on display at the launch are anything to go by, this is a very capable photographic device. As you'd expect, the Mate 9 can shoot 4K video.
The days when Chinese smartphones looked or felt cheap are long since gone, but that should in no way detract from the feeling of quality that radiates from the Mate 9. An elegant unibody assemblage of glass and metal, it's a thing of some elegance. It's been laid out sensibly too. The power and volume buttons are easily accessible despite the handset's size, while the 3.5mm audio jack and Type-C USB port are at the top and bottom respectively. The camera assembly doesn't protrude and spoil the profile, which was a surprise considering how much gadgetry is stuffed inside it. Taken in the round the Mate 9 makes the iPhone 7 Plus look rather dated. That said, the Mate 9 doesn't really move the game on in terms of design.
Considering the 5.9-inch display, the Mate 9 is surprisingly compact. At 78.9mm by 156.9mm by 7.9mm, it gives very little away to either the 5.5-inch iPhone Plus or the defunct 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 7. At 190g it's not the lightest of phones, but it has a satisfying heft to it. Single-handed use with devices this size always requires a bit of adjustment, but there's nothing insurmountable here. If you do struggle there is a facility to shrink the UI into either the lower right or lower left hand corner of the screen to mimic a 4.5-inch display.
Huawei is making a lot of noise about the Mate 9's battery life, which it says will be good for a full two days of pretty intensive use. In the absence of a thorough rundown test and final firmware (Google Play Services was making some intense power demands on my review handset), I can only give general impressions. The battery is rated at 4,000mAh and comes with Huawei's own SuperCharge fast-charging technology, which can juice the Mate 9 up at 5v/5amp. Huawei reckons 30 minutes will pump a 58 percent charge into a dead Mate 9. A full charge takes about 90 minutes.The grin on CEO Richard Yu's face when he said that all the Mate 9's charging and battery technology had been optimised to not heat up and explode was worth the trip to Munich. Battery optimisation is another apparent feature of EMUI 5, but again that will have to wait on a full review with final firmware.
If you hoped those two grilles on either side of the USB socket mean stereo sound, you'll be disappointed: only the one on the right covers a loudspeaker. It's still not a bad-sounding device though, with plenty of volume on tap and no absence of composure at the top end. Everything sounded good when I plugged my reference Sennheisers into the audio jack. With four microphones the Mate 9 boats the ability to record sound and then you edit out sounds captured by certain of those mics. The idea is that you can improve audio capture from meetings, concerts and such. This setup also benefits the in-call noise reduction system. Calls made with the Mate 9 do sound very clear.
To appeal to compulsive messengers, Huawei has cooked up something called App Twin. Akin to Xiaomi's Duel Apps arrangement, App Twin lets you log into two Facebook or WhatsApp accounts at the same time. In effect you will running two iterations of the same app. EMUI 5 is frankly rammed with other subsidiary features. Some will be of use and interest, others won't. Turning from software to hardware there's also a handy array of accessories including a 5-amp SuperCharge car charger, a rather funky magnetic dash mount and a 'traditional' Leica-branded leather case. The Mate 9 has also be designed as a truly global device -- it supports just about every network under the sun. As is typical of modern Chinese devices, it can run two SIMs or you can replace the second SIM with a MicroSD card of up to 256GB capacity. Incidentally Huawei bundles a fast charger with the Mate 9 along with a decent pair of earphones, a bumper case and a MicroUSB/USB Type-C adapter.
We were beginning to wonder why Huawei's CEO arrived on stage in a 911, and then all became clear. The curvaceous Porsche Design Mate 9 has a smaller but higher-resolution display (5.5 inches and 1,440x1,560) that's curved at the edges, 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It's available in black, is a strictly limited edition and costs an arm and a leg. Other than that it's technically the same as the Mate 9. It's a lovely bit of kit (the design is an example of something called fluidic geometry apparently), even if it looks rather a lot like the Samsung Galaxy S7 right down to the oblong multifunction button below the screen. If it wasn't a cracker the CEO of Porsche Design wouldn't have been on stage to wax lyrical about it.
At €1,395 the Porsche Design Mate 9 is really aimed at the 'more money than sense' brigade. Yes it's a lovely bit of kit, but...Thankfully the Mate 9 proper is considerably cheaper than the Porsche Design variant. At €699 it's not cheap, but I'd still call it solid value for money when a 32GB iPhone 7 Plus will set you back £719. Keep in mind that the Mate 9 packs 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM as standard.
In his opening pitch CEO Richard Yu reckoned the three bugbears of modern smartphone ownership are crummy cameras, poor battery life and midlife system degradation. The Mate 9 certainly addresses the first. More testing will be required to see of the second and third points issues have been significantly addressed. Either way the chips have fallen nicely for Huawei. The sudden and all too public demise of the Galaxy Note 7 has left the Mate 9 with a huge potential market. Granted there's no stylus, but the Mate 9 is cheaper, has a larger screen and it runs Android 7 out of the box. Even if the Note 7 hadn't self-immolated so spectacularly, the Mate 9 would probably have been a winner, but as things stand Huawei may well have problems keeping up with demand.