Huawei Mate 9 review: A giant phone with a small frame and big ambitions

Huawei’s first U.S. flagship takes aim at Samsung with a ton of screen packed into its svelte, slim body.

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Sweet spin on Nougat

But of course, none of this matters if the OS is unusable. We spend a lot of time navigating our phones and jumping in and out of settings, and the mileage can vary greatly between Android versions. I’m happy to say that Huawei hits it out of the park with its EMUI 5.0 interface.

mate 9 emui Greenbot

From the settings to the customization, EMUI 5.0 on the Mate 9 is a pleasure to use.

Now, Android purists will still probably pitch a fit, and I’m generally right there with them. I’m a big proponent of stock Android, and had read enough about the Marshmallow-flavored version of EMUI to know that Huawei tends to take extensive creative liberties with its design, and Nougat is no different. From the icons to the animations and gestures, EMUI 5 may be based on Android 7.0, but it reimagines just about every aspect of it. And it works.

mate emui Greenbot

EMUI 5.0 on the Mate 9 adds subtle touches throughout that enhance the Nougat experience.

There’s a certain sweetness to EMUI 5, with little touches throughout the add a new intuitiveness to the interface. For example, there’s a plus icon after the last app in a folder that lets you quickly select one of your recently used apps without needing to drag it in. There’s an address book-style index alongside the right of the app drawer that lets you jumps to a specific letter. And when you enter the multitasking carousel, a small box will show you how much RAM you are using and let free some up by close all open tabs with a tap. And all throughout there are subtle transitions and unexpected animations that give the interface a fun, light feel, and make it a joy to use.

Alexa advantage?

It’s as smart and it is customizable, and the thoughtful navigational touches and gestures actually help make the Mate 9 feel smaller than it is. My only real quibble (other than the bits of removable bloatware in the form of third-party apps like Lyft and New Republic) is that some of the icons are a bit too skeuomorphic for my tastes, but the ease and elegance of the interface more than makes up for it.

mate 9 gnow Greenbot

The Mate 9 includes support for Google Now, but the real test will come when its Alexa integration arrives.

Unfortunately, the model of the phone I tested didn’t come equipped with what’s sure to be its most compelling feature, Alexa. The first phone to build in support for Amazon’s digital assistant, Huawei is betting that Alexa will translate well from our living rooms to our pockets, but there are a lot of questions: How well will it work with Google’s services? Will it be able to talk to third-party apps or just Amazon’s? Will it sync with the skills we’ve loaded onto the Echos or Dots in our homes? Will we be able to summon it by saying “Computer”?

Digital assistants are rapidly becoming one of the most essential components of the smartphone experience, and Alexa could very well make or break the Mate 9.

Should you buy it?

This is a tough question to answer. While the Mate 9 is undoubtedly among the top phones in its class, a few things give me pause. For one, the lack of support from Verizon and Sprint puts it at a significant disadvantage. And it’s one that’s likely to plague phones coming out of China for years to come, as neither manufacturers nor CDMA carriers show much desire to work together.

mate 9 full Christopher Hebert

The Mate 9 is available in the U.S., but Verizon and Sprint customers won’t be able to use it on their networks.

But priced at about $250 less than the Note7, the Mate 9 is a heck of a phone. While it’s hard to call a $600 phone a bargain, Huawei has built a handset any manufacturer would be proud to call its own, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another 5.9-inch handset that provides a better big-phone experience. It’s a phone that could easily cost upwards of $800, and likely would if it had Samsung’s or Google’s name on it.

But ultimately, the Mate 9 will be defined by its Alexa integration. If Huawei gets it right, it will bring a compelling feature that will set the Mate 9 apart from its competitors and give Verizon subscribers a reason to consider jumping ship.

But if it’s gimmicky or glitchy, the Mate 9 could just end up being another great phone from China that ends up in the bargain bin. Or rather, a super bargain bin.

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At a Glance
  • Huawei's Mate 9, the company's first U.S. flagship, looks to take on Samsung and Google with a thin, light handset that brings a huge screen and a ton of power.

    Pros

    • Small bezels put focus on the screen.
    • EMUI 5.0 adds some character, charm to Nougat.
    • Excellent battery life.

    Cons

    • Button/Fingerprint sensor placement creates some fumbling.
    • No support from Verizon, Sprint, and other CDMA carriers
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