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Huawei Mate 9 review:

Miss your Note 7? This is the big-screened phone to buy

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The Good The Huawei Mate 9 has more power than you'll need, a camera that's great for arty shots and a battery that won't quit on you by dinner.

The Bad Its screen is only full HD and its design is utterly forgettable.

The Bottom Line It doesn't have the flame-prone Note 7's beautiful lines and curves, but if you're after a high-performance big-screened phone that won't set your pants on fire, the Mate 9 is a great option.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.4 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 10.0

Review Sections

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.

huawei-mate-9-launch-11.jpg
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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

  • 156.9x78.9x7.9 millimetres (6.17x3.1x0.3 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.

huawei-mate-9-launch-6.jpg
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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
  • 1,920x1,080-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 2,560x1,440 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.

huawei-mate-9-launch.jpg
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.

Huawei Mate 9 benchmark scores

Huawei Mate 9
27,832
6,158
1,941
Samsung Galaxy Note 7
29,332
3,845
1,699
Google Pixel XL
28,256
4,201
1,556
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
28,896
4,062
1,724

Legend:

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)
Geekbench 4 (Multi-core)
Geekbench 4 (Single-core)

Note:

Longer bars equal better performance

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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