​Huawei Mate 9 full in-depth smartphone review

The perfect Android phone. Almost

Huawei Mate 9
  • Huawei Mate 9
  • Huawei Mate 9
  • Huawei Mate 9
  • Expert Rating

    4.50 / 5

Pros

  • Great battery
  • Very fast
  • Good value
  • Potentially-amazing camera

Cons

  • Potentially-disappointing camera

Bottom Line

It succeeds in the three key areas required of smart phones: battery, performance and camera. As such it's great value at $999. However, the camera can struggle in basic low-light conditions. We hope this will get fixed down the line.

Would you buy this?

The Huawei Mate 9 Camera review

Read more: ​ZTE Axon 7 review: Is ZTE dumping old stock on Australia?

Last year we raved about Huawei’s P9 phone. This was nicknamed the ‘Leica phone’ because the outstanding dual-camera system was created in conjunction with the legendary camera brand and the results it produced pulled the rug from every cameraphone that came before it. The Mate 9 uses the second generation of the Leica system that is on the P9. As such it promised to be even better. This got our attention.

Even a dull image like this can be made more striking using the Mate 9's aperture-related Depth of Field effects.
Even a dull image like this can be made more striking using the Mate 9's aperture-related Depth of Field effects.

Once again there are two cameras with two different sensors. There’s a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor which doesn’t just excel at capturing black-and-white images but records more lighting information than regular colour sensors. This works in conjunction with the standard 12-megapixel colour camera in a few ways.

The 20-megapixel monochrome sensor will allow for some serious black and white photography.
The 20-megapixel monochrome sensor will allow for some serious black and white photography.

Firstly, the additional image and lighting information captures more colour and lighting detail than rivals which results in more-vibrant images. The dual lenses also allow for more-diverse focusing. Regular cameraphones have a wide-angle lens set at a default to let in as much light as possible at all times. With these two sensors, however, more focusing and aperture-related effects can be achieved making pictures come to life more than elsewhere.

The wide-aperture Bokeh effect, which makes subjects jump out from the image thanks to a shallow depth of field, speak for themselves (and are much better than we’ve seen with the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual camera system):-

Flat lighting on a hot day produces more natural colours in neutral mode.
Flat lighting on a hot day produces more natural colours in neutral mode.
The aperture effect makes for striking images. You may also like to set the default colouration to 'Vivid' to make the colours pop.
The aperture effect makes for striking images. You may also like to set the default colouration to 'Vivid' to make the colours pop.

With the P9, the forced blur of the effect could go wrong on some occasions. It’s improved with the Mate 9.

By pressing the aperture icon all information in the image can be captured so that you can refocus it later. This feature never ceases to surprise and delight with the effects it achieves and it also rescues many potentially-great shots that at first seemed to have been captured chronically out of focus.

Being able to refocus and add aperture effects later on (very easily) not only rescues many shots but regularly makes throwaway images stunning.
Being able to refocus and add aperture effects later on (very easily) not only rescues many shots but regularly makes throwaway images stunning.

There are many manual settings to play with and they’re easily accessible. Simply adjusting metering is simple – you tap where you want to focus and then slide your finger up and down next to that point. Adjusting the aperture involves a slider (which is now) at the side of the screen but if you’re using this feature it’s easier to do it after you’ve taken the shot than before.

Panoramas were relatively sharp and usable.
Panoramas were relatively sharp and usable.

The dual lens system also means that you can get an enhanced 2x zoom happening without resorting to simply enlarging the digital pixels as with other cameras’ digital zoom functions. It’s not quite an optical zoom, but it’s impressively sharp.

The Food filter enhances food shots for fine dining fans. By zooming in a little you also get a better perspective from the usual wide-angle distorted phone pictures.
The Food filter enhances food shots for fine dining fans. By zooming in a little you also get a better perspective from the usual wide-angle distorted phone pictures.
Widening the aperture up close is another great way to enhance food and still life shots.
Widening the aperture up close is another great way to enhance food and still life shots.

But we can’t say the camera is an outright success. Low-light performance isn’t quite as good as the Pixel XL or Samsung Galaxy Phones or even many others. While the Mate 8’s simple camera managed to snap away accurately all day at trade shows, the Mate 9 really struggles indoors: focusing is inaccurate more often than not, low-light grain and blur are present even in modest lighting. In minimal light, unless you spend time with manual settings, the grainy, over-sharpened results are a mess.

Even in modest lighting, the Mate 9 frequently failed to focus properly when we were taking quick snapshots.
Even in modest lighting, the Mate 9 frequently failed to focus properly when we were taking quick snapshots.
The camera is capable of great low-light shots... in manual mode. For snapshots, grain can be severe.
The camera is capable of great low-light shots... in manual mode. For snapshots, grain can be severe.

The temptation is therefore to always use the aperture- enhanced mode so you can refocus everything later. But this may cause problems in some situations. If you take too many aperture-enhanced shots in a row the phone gets very hot indeed. If you keep on taking them it will shut down in order to cool off. While this only occurred when we were doing a full photo shoot, it was frustrating when it happened.

The second-generation Leica, aperture enhancements are generally better than with the Huawei P9's first generation. But it can still looked forced and wrong occasionally.
The second-generation Leica, aperture enhancements are generally better than with the Huawei P9's first generation. But it can still looked forced and wrong occasionally.

In general usage outdoors and in good lighting, though, it’s usually great. But it’s noticeably not as responsive, fast-focusing or accurate (or as fast to launch) as the Pixel XL. Hopefully this will improve over time: the hardware on this camera suggests it should fare better at the basics than simply excel at the complicated stuff. If we were covering another trade show we’d want to take both the Pixel (or Samsung S7) for quick snaps in mediocre-lighting AND the Mate 9 for more-considered detail. Really we should only need the Mate 9.

We were fans of the Colour Flash feature when Canon raved about it 10 years ago. It's back with the Mate 9.
We were fans of the Colour Flash feature when Canon raved about it 10 years ago. It's back with the Mate 9.
The eight-megapixel front Selfie camera is sharp and accurate and decent in low light. Beauty Mode is available on front and rear cameras.
The eight-megapixel front Selfie camera is sharp and accurate and decent in low light. Beauty Mode is available on front and rear cameras.

In terms of video. We preferred the stabilised 1080p Full HD performance to the 4K capturing which wasn’t particularly sharp and got very grainy in low light. Once again, focusing is faster and more accurate outdoors in good lighting but a bit slower and less accurate in modest light. Sound is captured impressively well. Ultimately, it's still very useable but not the best we’ve seen.

Overall

The Huawei Mate 9 is set to be one of the flagship phones of the year. We’ve already seen HTC’s and, while very pretty, it’s not as good as this. The main threat on the horizon is the Samsung Galaxy S8 which is coming in mid-April. We suspect it will be a cross between the S7 and the Pixel, which is no bad thing. But it will also, likely, cost (about $200) more and have a weaker battery. It also appears to still have the silly bezel-less curved screen Samsung seems to like although it is also likely to be waterproof.

Elsewhere there’s the Pixel XL. We love that phone and we missed the fast, low-light-thriving camera on that, but the mediocre battery gets annoying. It’s also ridiculously expensive. The main rival we’d like to is see is the Huawei Mate 9 Pro but Huawei has said it’s not sure it will be coming to Australia.

Overall, it means that despite some issues with the camera, the Mate 9 is still one of the most innovative and fastest flagship phones on the market and has the best battery life to boot. Those are the main key features most people want from any phone and at $999 that represents outstanding value.

Quite simply, this is the best phone you can buy right now. If they fix the camera issues, it will probably be the best phone for the rest of the year too.

Update: The Huawei Mate 10 is now available, read our full review here.

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