For now, Huawei’s most expensive phone to date is also the best Android phone you can buy.
Huawei Mate 9 Pro at a glance
|For:||Second generation Leica dual camera, Fast processor, Battery life.|
|Against:||Not waterproof, Software glitches, Expensive|
|Maybe:||Improved EMUI Android overlay|
|Verdict:||Classy Android serving notice of Huawei’s ambition to lead the phone market.|
Last year Huawei moved into the phone premier league alongside Apple and Samsung. The Mate 8 sold well in New Zealand.
Huawei’s phones have been first class for a while now. Yet the technology and style was a whisker behind the established leaders.
They sold as a value proposition. Huawei phones offered almost all the function of expensive phones at lower prices.
That’s changed. In technical and style terms, the Mate 9 Pro is at least the equal of any current Android phone. What’s more it has a hefty, Samsung or Apple-like price tag.
The question is whether the brand has the status to attract buyers willing to stump up NZ$1400 for a handset.
Small but beautifully formed
It looks good enough to command a premium price.
There’s more than a whiff of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge about the Huawei Mate 9 Pro design. Both phones have curved screens. Both are beautiful, light slim and powerful. They share an almost perfect combination of screen clarity and handset size.
The Mate 9 Pro shoehorns a 5.5-inch QHD screen with 2560 x 1440 pixels into a tiny, light package. At 170g it is 20g lighter than an iPhone 7 Plus and 10g more than a Galaxy S7 Edge.
All three are about 7.5mm deep. The Huawei Mate 9 Pro is two mm taller and wider than the Galaxy S7 Edge and about 5mm shorter and 2mm less wide than the iPhone 7.
In practice you notice the size when comparing the Mate 9 Pro with an iPhone. You don’t notice it when up against a Samsung S7 Edge. Of the three the Mate 9 Pro is the most comfortable to hold and carry.
On the outside: curved edges and an iPhone-like fingerprint scanner that doubles as the home button.
Two extra capacitive buttons below the screen either side of the home button. They light up as necessary. It’s not always obvious what they do at first, but you soon get used to them.
The review model has a silver cover, there is also an all-white model. On the downside, the silver finish seems designed to pick up fingerprint smears. The upside is that it isn’t slippery, you’re less likely to drop the Huawei Mate 9 Pro.
Although the Mate 9 Pro is not cheap, it is a more affordable version of Huawei’s limited edition Mate 9 Porsche Design phone. The Porsche Design version sold for €1400, well over NZ$2000.
The connection between the two models is so close that the Google sign-in notification refers to the Mate 9 Pro as the Huawei Mate 9 Porsche Design.
Huawei uses its own Kirin 960 processor. In places the marketing describes it as octo-core, but that’s not the whole story. It has two sets of four cores. One set runs at 2.4GHz, the other at 1.8GHz. These work with the Mali-G71 graphics co-processor.
There is 6GB of Ram and 128GB of storage. This is more than enough to run everything an everyday user will throw at a phone unless you own a huge media collection. There’s no SD card slot; this may be a deal breaker for some users.
Leica supplies the camera technology. There’s a dual lens camera on the back. One is 12 megapixel colour, the other 20 megapixel black and white. Both have f/2.2 aperture and 27mm equivalent focal length. There’s also optical image stabilisation.
When you take a picture both work at the same time. Software then merges the results to produce a single picture. Huawei says this approach means the cameras capture more light than usual and this, in turn, means greater detail.
That can work, but not always. You end up with good pictures, but they may not be to your taste. Phone camera picture quality seems to be subjective, some swear one approach is better than another.
As you might expect given the hardware, Huawei’s camera software is complicated. There are lots of short cuts, but getting the right settings is tricky if you’re in a hurry to snap something. You need to put in some work to get great results.
One area that needs more work is the optical image stabilisation which doesn’t always perform as expected.
Huawei’s EMUI 5.0 software runs over the top of Android 7. Much of the time it keeps out of the way.
One problem with the review phone is that the software can override incoming notifications. Sure a lot of these are unnecessary, but others are too important to miss. It may be possible to tweak the software to fix this, no doubt there are readers who can do this for themselves.
Battery life is great. The phone gets through a busy day and evening with ease on a single overnight charge. At a pinch you can get two days so long as you don’t spend a lot of time watching videos.
The most remarkable aspect of the Mate 9 Pro is that Huawei thinks it can sell an NZ$1400 Android phone. That could be a sign of confidence or it could be overreach.
Apple and Samsung can get away with prices in that range. The iPhone has the love-it-or-hate-it Apple ecosystem and obeys its own economic logic.
Despite the Note 7 melt-down, Samsung still owns the premium Android category. The money Huawei wants for the Mate 9 Pro will buy a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with 128GB of storage. It’ll be interesting to see if Huawei can keep that price after the new Galaxy phone appears at the end of this month.
This aside, Huawei has managed to push upmarket deep into lucrative premium phone territory. The company is aggressive and giving Samsung the kind of serious competition it lacked in the Android sector. Fierce competition between these two will have implications for Apple.
For a broad overview of current phones read: The latest mobile phones in perspective.