The Best Phablet Right Now? Huawei Mate 9 Review

Asian manufacturers have been creating some really good handsets at prices which bring into question, the cost of traditional flagships. They're really giving the consumer a lot of phone for entry-level pricing. So, what happens when one of those manufacturers puts out a flagship, with flagship pricing? Can it compete with the likes of a Pixel, or V20, or S8+? We're taking a look at Huawei's Mate 9.

Check out our video review:

The Mate line from Chinese manufacturer Huawei was a direct response to the popularity of the phablet. In particular, Samsung's Note line of phablets. And now, with the Note 7 having gone out in a ball of flame, the market is ripe for the 5.9" Mate 9 to become the go-to choice for those who want a big screen. But it still has some stiff competition from large screen phones like Google's Pixel XL and LG's V20. For this review, the phone was also connected to a Fitbit Blaze and various pairs of bluetooth headphones for hours at a time.

The Huawei Mate 9 is a good looking phone. Although there's nothing that really stands out about the design- as I've stated before, what more can we really iterate with a metal slab- the phone looks nice. It has a 5.9" display which sports a resolution of 1920x1080 at 373 pixels per inch and thought that's a lower resolution than some of my current favorite phones, it wasn't a hindrance at any time. There have been phones I've reviewed which had lower than QHD resolution which I wasn't at all impressed with but not this one. The colors pop, the images and text are crisp, and the Display menu options allow me to tailor icon, text and image size exactly to my liking; very small. Another item to note is that the phone comes with a screen protector and case right out of the box. Nice touch!

The front of the phone also features some small-ish Huawei branding, speaker and 8MP front-facing camera with 1.9 aperture and auto-focus. Around the right side of the phone you will find a power button and volume rocker, the left side is where you'll find the dual SIM slot. Good news is that dual SIM slot doubles as a Micro SD so you can expand the storage capacity of the phone by 256GB. Around the phone you will also find not two, but four total microphones to ensure callers can hear you now. The big "feature" of the Mate 9 though is found around back! Huawei worked with Leica to provide users an optical image stabilized, backside illuminated dual camera setup with dual-tone flash and uber auto focus. We'll get into that in a bit more detail later. Actually, the camera is not the only big feature found around back. The battery power supplied by the Mate 9 is nothing short of Atlassian. Yes, your phone's battery literally carries your world on its shoulders these days and yet that's the one part of the phone whose technology has progressed slower than most everything else, leaving people hugging walls for replenishment. There will be a lot less of that with the 4000MAh battery found inside the Mate 9. I was able to get two days out of one charge. And speaking of charge, you'll get about 8-10 hours out of a 20 minute charge from dead. Of course, your mileage may vary and you will definitely shorten your life between charges if you're a heavy talker and in low signal strength areas. That said, I consider myself a fairly heavy user, though I don't actually talk much, and my results have been fantastic. On the bottom of the phone you'll have a USB C port but Huawei didn't delete the 3.5mm audio port up top. What they did do is give you a pair of stereo speakers on the bottom which are so loud for notifications that in certain spaces I've had to turn them down. And that's pretty much it for the hardware.

The software experience is nothing to sneeze at. The phone is fast. Real fast. Thanks to the new Kirin processor, GPU, and 4GB of RAM. The fingerprint reader allows you to control the notification shade up and down, and the tool center slide up from the bottom is well laid out and thought out, even if derivative. Though there were some things I wasn't particularly a fan of, or thought could be added to the overall experience, generally I found Huawei's overlay EMUI 5.0 to be peppy and not get in the way of Android Nougat. And that's important. Google Assistant, Google Now, many of the features in Android, they're well done and overlays can have the potential to confuse the user experience on an Android device.

The Twin app feature allows you to run two instances of an app at a time. If you're a social media manager, or content creator, this can be a cool function to have. The other item I actually do like is the tool center which can be accessed by swiping up when the phone screen is locked. EMUI also has a split-screen mode which will allow you to run two apps, splitting the screen. Activating the split-screen function is actually quite simple and intuitive for anyone having owned a phablet from any other manufacturer. I think Huawei's implementation is more user friendly than others.Simply press and hold the fast-app switching button while already in an app, then choose the app you want to run concurrently with the one you're already in.

Navigation is pretty well thought out in Huawei's EMUI 5.0. Going into the Settings menu, most settings and features are no more than two or three menus deep, as opposed to previous iterations of EMUI where you could go several menus deep to get to a function you were looking for. Being able to swipe from left to right to bring up the entire settings menu, from inside of any menu is a very intuitive, very efficient inclusion to the menu navigation. One of my pet peeves when it comes to phones from Asian manufacturers is that they often forgo the inclusion of an app drawer in their interfaces, but not so with Huawei's Mate 9. You can use the phone with or without the app drawer, but if you do, you'll also get an app search field at the top of the apps screen, as well as letters on the right to allow you to jump to your apps whose names correspond to that letter.

Many smartphone cameras don't handle low light too well. There have been some standouts which do, but you're better off going into almost any smartphone purchase assuming your low light images will be just "ok." This is an area where the Mate 9 shines (no pun intended). The phone partnered with Leica to include a dual camera setup which has a 20MP monochrome lens and 12MP RGB lens with an F2.2 aperture. Equipped with various focus technologies, the Leica shooter on the rear of the Mate 9 produces images that look great in low light and have a beautiful bokeh (the parts of the image in the background are soft focused/out of focus).

Both Samsung's phones and Apples are generally held up as the gold standards in smartphone imaging, but I have to say that the Mate 9 is pretty darn close to providing pictures which are as good as both, in varying conditions. The way this is supposed to work, according to my understanding is that the RGB camera gets you your color images, while the monochrome camera picks up greater detail in the images and the two combined are what produce sharp, blur-free images in varying lighting conditions. Take a look for yourself at the last few photos in the gallery above to see what low light photos taken with the Mate 9 look like. In the photo that I took looking at the computer monitors in what is a very dark room, you can see the ceiling spotlights in the background are nicely soft focused.

The camera app itself is peppy and gives you a manual mode so you can adjust settings to be even more creative with the images you're capturing. And if you're worried about missing that perfect moment, you can turn on the feature which allows you to quick launch the camera app by pressing twice on the volume down rocker. Works well and the camera focus and shutter was fast enough, even in low light, that I was able to go from screen off to an image capture in a second or less.

Although the vast majority of my experience with the Mate 9 has been positive, there were a couple items which were knit picky but annoyances nonetheless. If you're coming from a different phone, Huawei's phone cloning software requires you to be connected to the 'net in order for you to transfer your content over. Nope. I want a phone-to-phone connection if I'm transferring all of my data and photos. I don't want them going up to someone's server. Another thing I'd like to see added to all phones which have rear-facing fingerprint scanners is a "knock on" feature similar to what LG first introduced. Tap the screen and it wakes so that you can see your notifications. Sure, you can turn on a feature in the Mate 9's settings which will wake the screen every time you get a notification, but that quickly becomes a battery drain if you're getting a lot of notifications.

With that said, it's quite the nice touch that the phone comes out of the box with a screen protector and a case that protects the back, camera lens, and corners of the phone. At the price we're paying for these flagships, it's always nice to have more included in the box than less. If I'm paying laptop prices, I think companies should include some accessories in the box. I'm just saying.

Disclosure: Huawei provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.