A giant screen in a modest package
It sits very comfortably in your hand. Yes, you still have to stretch your thumb from one side of the screen to the other, but it’s not an impossible task. It takes no more effort to do so than on “normal” phones like the iPhone 7 Plus or the Pixel XL. The use of on-screen Android menu keys only helps, too. Huawei smoothed the sides of the metal body, but left enough of an edge to give the phone some “bite,” lowering the chances of it slipping from your grip.
While it’s relatively compact and comfortable, it is quite heavy at 190 grams. It’s a big, all-metal phone, with a very large piece of Gorilla Glass over the display, so the extra weight isn’t a shock. This whopping size doesn’t apply to the fingerprint sensor, which is below the camera lens on the rear. It’s actually quite small and is completely obscured by my fingertip. It’s no bad thing, and we can’t fault the accuracy.
What the Mate 9 isn’t is very pretty. The design has barely changed from the Mate 8, which was a bit faceless to start with, and although the dual-lens Leica camera gives it some character; the Mate 9 is all business and not much play.
Software tweaks add features
Huawei has always frustrated us with its software. It covers Android in its own Emotion user interface (EMUI), which in the past has been intrusive, sometimes buggy, and often awkwardly frustrating. No more so than many other third-party user interfaces, but it usually let the overall phone experience down in a way that seemed unnecessary.
The screen may be massive, but Huawei used some form of magic to squeeze it into a small body.
The Mate 9 still has EMUI, but it’s version 5, and it has been refined. Huawei tells us it’s the company’s biggest software revision to date, with more than 400 alterations, many of which remove older elements we didn’t like. The great news is it’s built over Android 7.0 Nougat, and our review phone has the newest Android security patch installed, so it’s about as up to date as Android phones can get.
Huawei was always a great fan of spreading apps across multiple home screens, Apple-style, rather than giving Android users an app drawer. Rejoice, Android purists, because the Mate 9 has an app drawer. It’s an option hidden in the menu system, but it’s there. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with putting apps on home screens, but having the chance to clear them, highlight key apps, and show off some cool wallpaper is great.
The notification shade now offers a more standard Android experience. Before, EMUI made you swipe about to reach the shortcuts for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other options. On the Mate 9 with EMUI 5, you swipe down to open the shade, then again to reveal all the shortcuts. Just like standard Android on phones like the Pixel and Nexus devices. It’s excellent news.
There’s still a range of pre-installed apps, including Huawei’s own music and video player, game centre, notepad, weather app, calculator, clock, file manager, compass, download manager, and many more. A Booking.com, WPS Office, Todoist, and News Republic app are also onboard, the latter of which insists on sending breaking news alerts as notifications, until I made it stop by uninstalling it. The majority of the pre-installed apps can be removed, so if you can’t stand the sight of them, it’s easy to clear them out.
Huawei included a few notable additional features. App Twin allows you to run two different accounts from a single app. For example, you can run a personal and work version of Facebook or WhatsApp on the same device. Use is limited to supported apps, though. To minimize the negative effects on sleep caused by blue light from the screen, there’s an eye-comfort mode with a scheduler, and there’s a sound recorder that makes great use of the multiple microphones.
Although it’s too early to tell, Huawei has used some clever algorithms to stop Android from slowing down over the length of time you own it. Huawei also uses this machine learning system to monitor how you use the phone, and what apps you frequently use, to try and predict what you do on a regular basis. With these insights, it funnels system resources to those apps and features automatically, in theory making the phone faster in the places you want it. It’s difficult to say if this works, but the phone’s really fast, regardless of how it achieves it.
The changes made to EMUI are interesting. It’s a vast improvement over previous models, and no longer a reason to avoid a Huawei phone, but it’s still different and unique enough so as not to lose its Huawei identity. That’s clever, and shows the effort that has gone into the software. The Mate 9’s EMUI fills a pleasing, usable space in-between stock Android and Huawei’s previous extreme customization techniques. We’d still prefer the Pixel’s clean, standard version of Android, but Huawei has taken a giant leap forward here.