Review | Huawei Mate 9 dual lens smartphone

By Charlemagne Losaria

The year 2016 saw the rise and proliferation of dual camera phones. Actually, it isn’t an innovation for mobile phones. In fact, as early as 2011, Korean technology firm LG and Taiwan’s HTC already came up with the very first dual lens phones — the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC EVO 3D, respectively. Unfortunately for these tech firms, the innovation didn’t catch the interest of mobile users and the dual lens concept was totally abandoned.

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It wasn’t until last year that the dual lens camera concept gained traction again and now it seems all phone manufacturer now have their own versions and implementations. It also helped that US firm Apple jumped in the bandwagon, thus further cementing the dual lens concept as the future of smartphone photography.

Chinese technology firm Huawei came up with their own dual lens phone, the Huawei P9 in partnership with Leica, a familiar name among amateur and professional photographers. In the photography community, there had been long standing debates on weather smartphones would be able to replicate DSLRs or mirrorless cameras in terms of output. Read on to find our answer.

This is our review of the latest result of the Huawei-Leica partnership, the Huawei Mate 9.

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What’s in the box

• Unit with screen protector attached
• Back case
• SIM eject tool
• Micro-USB to USB Type C adapter
• USB cable
• Super charger
• Headphones
• Leaflet and manual

Build

The Huawei Mate 9 exudes premium and the predominantly metal phone definitely looks the price. Even though Huawei recycled the design language of the Huawei Mate 8, the Chinese firm worked on improving the ergonomics of the rather large phone.

The front of the phone features a gigantic display measuring at 5.9 inch. Though large in size, the phone is actually very handy, thanks to the very thin side bezels and the chamfered edges. This makes the phone seems smaller compared to some other similarly sized phone. Personally, I am using an Asus Zenfone 3 with a 5.5-inch display but I am able to wield the Huawei Mate 9 easier with one hand.

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The front-facing 8MP camera, hidden LED notification light, ambient sensor, and the earpiece grille complete the front profile. The top and bottom part of the front display exudes concentric circles similar to Asus Zenfones and is visible at certain angles.

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Flipping the phone over and you will be greeted by the fast fingerprint scanner, LED Flash, laser sensor, and the main attraction of this phone — the dual lens camera co-engineered with Leica.

The placement of the finger print scanner, whether at the front or back, has always been up for debate. Apple and Samsung prefer to put it upfront while most Chinese manufacturers would put it at the back. It all boils down to user preference.

Unlocking the phone straight out the pocket is faster for back fingerprint scanners but if you like using your phone on a table, you will have to pick it up first to unlock it or use the PIN or password instead.

The right edge features the tactile volume buttons and the power button south of it. The left edge has the Hybrid Dual SIM-MicroSD slot while you can find the 3.55mm headphone jack and the IR blaster at the top edge. The bottom part is where you can find the USB Type C port and speaker grille.

The top, bottom, and side edges have a brushed pattern finish while the back part has a soft matte aluminum finish.

Display

The huge 5.9-inch display is protected by a sheet of 2.5D glass and tapers at the side to meet the edges. Surprisingly, the phone only has a screen resolution of 1080P, equivalent to FHD but is good enough even with the panel size.

While some phone manufacturers like Sony has been outing 4K resolution phones, Huawei is sticking with 1080P resolution for the Mate. On a personal standpoint, I don’t find it disappointing and will definitely help preserve more juice. The Huawei Mate 9 has an AMOLED panel but is not yet at par with Samsung’s implementation.

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The screen is bright and color reproduction is great without suffering from over saturation. The transition of auto brightness is smooth and you can actually see the auto brightness slider going from left to right depending on the light condition. QHD or not, it doesn’t really bother me and the Huawei Mate 9’s display is not something to scoff at.

Performance

At the helm of the Huawei Mate 9 lies Huawei’s very own Kirin 960 processor and uses four of ARM’s new Cortex-A73 core and four lower-powered A53 cores.

The new processor also ships with the Mali G71 MP8 GPU, ensuring better gaming performance and graphics handling than the previous Mate 8. The Mate 9 also has 4GB of RAM to spare for easy app switching and multi-tasking.

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Two weeks spent with the Huawei Mate 9 has nothing been but enjoyable. Day-to-day operation is almost lag-free and high-end games load fast and we didn’t experience any frame drops. The lower resolution of the screen actually helps in the performance department as well because there are less pixels to work with.

Huawei also assured consumers that the Huawei Mate 9 is a phone that you would be using for a few years and not just months, thanks to the inclusion of an algorithm that learns and adapts with the way you use your phone.

Basically, according to Huawei, it will prioritize performance for apps you frequently use most over apps you don’t open as much. With this, Huawei says, the phone will improve in performance the longer you use it.

For the internal storage, the user has 64GB to work with but can be expanded further via a MicroSD card, at the expense of one of the two SIM slots. The Huawei Mate 9 ships with Marshmallow out of the box but a few minutes after unboxing, we were prompted to upgrade to EMUI 5, which is based on Android Nougat 7.0.

For benchmarkers, refer to the pics below for the Antutu Benchmark results.

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Camera

The Huawei Mate 9’s claim to fame is the dual lens rear camera. Just like the earlier released Huawei P9, the Mate 9’s dual lens camera is co-engineered with Leica.

One lens is a 20MP snapper with a monochrome sensor (black and white) for capturing more details while the other 12MP has an RGB sensor for capturing colors. The fusion of black and white image with colored image is called a panchromatic process and is fairly similar how satellite images are processed. True to promise, the resulting images are very sharp and not lacking in details.

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The Mate 9 performs very well in low light condition even with a f/2.2 fixed aperture opening, thanks to the two sensors at work. It also supports full manual controls, allowing users to set the ISO, shutter speed, exposure value (EV) and white balance (WB).

The Mate 9 is also able to shoot in RAW format, allowing the image to be processed extensively in image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom and the like.

Additional capabilities include shooting 4K videos, integrated Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) to counter shaky hands, and Hybrid Zoom feature which allows you to zoom in to your subject up to 10x zoom.

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There are many camera modes supported by the Mate 9 but none more fun to use than the “Wide Aperture” mode. With it, the Mate 9 is capable of capturing images almost at par with what a DSLR or mirrorless camera can give you.

Adjusting the aperture number at its lowest, it creates an effect of a background blur, popularly known as Bokeh effect. Even after the shot was taken, you can still refocus and adjust the aperture to adjust the Bokeh effect.

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I was amazed with the resulting images and for me, the debate about whether smartphones can surpass DSLRs or mirrorless systems can be put to rest now. Below are some sample shots taken using the Mate 9.

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Audio quality

The loud speaker quality of the Huawei Mate 9 is probably one of the best I have heard on a smartphone. The bottom-firing speaker is loud enough to fill a small room.

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With the Huawei Mate 9 in my pocket, I’d be comfortable leaving my external speakers behind. The 3.5mm jack’s output is excellent as well and paired with a good quality earphone, it can satisfy the cravings of audiophiles.

Battery

The Mate 9 is endowed with a very generous 4000 mAh non-removable battery charged via a USB Type-C port. The phone can easily last you two days on moderate use. But with a phone like this and with a camera it has, it is highly unlikely you’ll use it moderately. Don’t fret if you run out of power as you can swiftly top up the battery using the packaged Huawei Super Charger which can charge the device fully in less than 90 minutes.

Interface

Huawei has its own Android user interface named EMUI, now on its fifth iteration. We have seen the evolution of EMUI from fun colorful UI to a more professional, mature UI. EMUI 5.0 rides on the latest Android Nougat 7.0.

Below are screenshots of the EMUI 5.0:

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The verdict

The Huawei Mate 9 is an all-around performer. It’s a fast phone, has good audio quality, and shoots great stills and videos. However, you probably won’t be picking up the Huawei Mate 9 unless you place photography as the top feature of your soon-to-be smartphone. There are cheaper, similarly powerful phones out in the market right now but only a handful can rival the camera quality of the P9 and Mate 9. Both handsets have specific target audience.

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The Huawei Mate 9 is a phone that will cater to those who are into expressing themselves using photography as a medium. In the age of social media, people who are into it would capture and upload stunning photos, trying to fish for likes or comments. This, along with other phones will probably put an end to the long standing debate of smartphone cameras competing with traditional cameras.

With Huawei and Leica at the forefront, I am quite certain smartphones of the future will give established photography brands like Nikon, Canon, and Fuji a run for their money.

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