Stop sobbing over the flaming Note 7 and buy a Mate 9 (if you can find one)

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Although it wasn’t the only big-screen smartphone released in 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 will be the device everyone remembers, and not for the right reasons. Samsung’s next big thing turned out to be a big disaster, and what was almost the Android phone everyone could heartily recommend, became the Android phone we told people to run screaming from.

It left the crown for best trouser-pocket-stretching phone up for grabs, and while we love the LG V20, the company stumbled when it decided to limit its release to a select few markets, especially in light of the Note 7’s disappearance. What phone should people who find a 5.5-inch display just too restrictive buy?

Huawei swooped in to save the day with the Mate 9, the follow-up to last year’s well-received Mate 8. It has a massive 5.9-inch screen, a strong processor, and a new version of the superb Leica camera we adored on the Huawei P9. Samsung’s misfortune may turn out to be Huawei’s opportunity to wow smartphone fans in the U.S.

Here’s a surprise: The Mate 9 isn’t a big smartphone. The screen may be massive, but Huawei has clearly used some form of magic to squeeze it into a small body. Is the Mate 9 related to Doctor Who’s Tardis? Very possibly. It’s shorter and the same width as the LG V20, which has a 5.7-inch screen, and just 2mm longer and 3mm wider than the 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Probably not coincidentally, it has a nearly identical footprint to the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.

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 the accuracy can’t be faulted.

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.

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 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 November 2016 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 uninstalled, 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 time, meaning the phone should remain the same speed demon it is now, for 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. Through this understanding, 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. 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.

Huawei doesn’t use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, or any Qualcomm chip, in its flagship phones. The Mate 9 introduces the Kirin 960 octa-core processor, which is the first to use ARM’s new A73 design, bringing it right up to date. It’s a monster. Regardless of the task, game, or app, the Mate 9 sprinted along, never showing any signs of fatigue.

Put the phone through the usual benchmark tests, and it comes close to Snapdragon 821 devices, such as the OnePlus 3T, depending on the test. It’s worth remembering the Mate 9 has 4GB of RAM, rather than the OnePlus 3T’s 6GB. On AnTuTu, the Mate 9 scores 132,922, which is way below the OnePlus 3T’s average 166,000. Geekbench 4 is more interesting, as it records 5,893, considerably more than the OnePlus 3T’s 4,390. Gaming benchmark app 3D Mark returned a 2,389 score on Slingshot Extreme.

Most importantly, the tiny stutters and pauses we’ve seen in older Huawei phones, almost certainly caused by EMUI, are gone on the Mate 9. They were never hugely intrusive, but remove them and the overall experience is cohesive, smoother, more mature, and speeds up work flow in subtle ways. The Mate 9 is a phone primarily aimed at people who wear suits and carry briefcases, and this is important for productivity fiends.

The Huawei P9 was the first to feature a Leica co-developed dual-lens camera, and it remains an amazing camera phone. The Mate 9 brings the second-generation sensor with it, along with a lot of expectation. Early builds of the software didn’t bring out the camera’s best, and we held off reviewing the device before the final version that will be installed on the phone you buy was released.

It changed everything for the better, and we’re extremely pleased to report the Mate 9’s camera is every bit as fantastic as the P9’s. The top lens shoots in color and has 12 megapixels, while the monochrome lens underneath has been boosted to 20 megapixels. There’s optical image stabilisation, phase detection, laser autofocus, 4K video recording, and a f/2.2 aperture.

A headline feature often reported is the inclusion of a 2x optical zoom. This feature actually uses the two lenses together to create a digital zoomed in 12-megapixel picture, without a loss of quality. It does a good job, although zoom in on the already zoomed in picture and there’s a definite loss of quality when you compare it to a standard, non-zoomed version.

More: Huawei tries to make a splash in the U.S. with the Mate 9, but carriers may foil plans

The camera can also create pictures with a bokeh effect, where the background is blurred around a single subject, reproducing an effect usually seen on DSLR cameras. It’s becoming more common on smartphones, including Huawei’s own P9, the Honor 8, the iPhone 7 Plus, and Xiaomi’s Redmi Pro. It’s every bit as fun to use as on the P9, and is more versatile than the iPhone’s Portrait mode, thanks to the ability to alter the focal point after the photo has been taken.

Cameras should inspire creativity. At least, the best ones should. The Mate 9 is more inspiring than a TED Talk given by Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, when each is introduced to the stage by The Rock. It makes you look at things differently. It doesn’t matter if the subject is near or far, in the light or the dark, would look better if captured in black and white, or shot bokeh-style. The Mate 9 will take that picture, and it’ll look brilliant.

Monochrome mode is a real joy. I took a picture of a deserted train station platform that in color was nothing special. Switch to monochrome, and it becomes a minutely detailed, moody shot where one expects to see Harry Lime emerge from the shadows. It’s all so easy to use. A slide-in menu adjusts modes, and there’s a simple touch-and-swipe method of adjusting focus in bokeh shots. There’s plenty for the more serious photographer as well, including a manual mode, and the option to save those shots in RAW format. If you’re messing around with the shutter speed, you’ll need to use a tripod unless blurry shots are your thing.

The Mate 9’s Leica camera is superb, and a very strong reason to buy the phone.

Huawei has repeatedly said 1,920 x 1,080 pixel screens are more than enough for smartphones. Except when it’s making phones with other companies. The special edition Porsche Design Mate 9 has a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution, as does the Huawei-made Nexus 6P, for example. Does that put the Mate 9 at a disadvantage? No, not really, unless you start closely examining pixel density — a rather lowly 373 pixels-per-inch here, when phones such as the Galaxy S7 Edge have 534ppi.

The Mate 9’s screen is bright and colorful, with plenty of adjustments to get the look just right. These include the aforementioned blue-light reducing eye comfort mode, plus font size adjustment, color temperature tweaking, and an option for changing the size of images and characters throughout the interface.

Inside the Mate 9 is a 4,000mAh battery, and it’s charged using Huawei’s proprietary SuperCharge system, which means to get the benefits, you need to use the included wall charger and USB Type-C cable. In our tests, the phone lasted two work days without a problem. Power management is excellent, and just doing basic tasks — a few apps, some social networking, and an email or two — barely shifts the battery percentage meter. Benchmark tests and gaming does consume more energy, obviously, but the Mate 9 handles general day-to-day use very well.

The Mate 9 fixes Huawei’s software problems, but what about its availability problems? Huawei has always had trouble reaching the U.S., despite considerable success in China, Europe, and increasingly, the U.K. as well.

The Mate 9 doesn’t break the mould. At least, not yet. Initially it’ll be sold in China, Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and a few other countries, where it’ll cost 700 euros. That converts over to about $745. A release date hasn’t been confirmed yet, and neither has a price or release in the U.K. or the U.S.. However, the Three network in the U.K. has said it’s coming soon, and rumors say the phone will be announced in the U.S. in early January. The Porsche Design Mate 9 will have a very limited release, which doesn’t include the U.S..

Until the phone is confirmed for release in the U.S., we won’t know whether the warranty situation will change. Currently, a Huawei phone is covered for 24-months, with six months on the battery and charger. If the phone has been taken apart, abused, or modified, then it won’t be covered at all. Devices that meet the warranty criteria can be repaired or replaced by an authorised service centre, provided proof of purchase is supplied.

It’s a giant smartphone that doesn’t feel like a big smartphone when you pick it up. We love the camera’s ability to inspire and the sheer processing power, but perhaps most of all, it’s the software alterations that make the Mate 9 the first Huawei phone that’s easy to live with everyday, without any modifications.

Is there a better alternative?

If you want a phone with a screen larger than 5.5-inches, then since the Galaxy Note 7’s demise, your choices are few. The Mate 9 may just be your best option, though we need to know the price and U.S. availability before we can say for sure.

The LG V20 is the next most obvious choice, but it’s very expensive at between $770 and $830 without a contract.

An off-the-wall alternative would be the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, with its 6.4-inch display, and crazy Google Tango camera and features. It’s cheaper at $500 without a contract, but it’s technically inferior to the Mate 9 and the LG V20. It’s also buggy.

It’s  impossible not to recommend the Google Pixel XL. The Mate 9 is likely to cost around the same was Google’s biggest phone, and its super camera, standard Android, timely updates, and great screen make it one of our favorite phones; but if you want a screen larger than 5.5-inches, it may not be a consideration.

Otherwise, turn back the clock and pick up a Galaxy Note 5. It comes with a stylus, has a big, beautiful screen, and won’t explode. There are slim pickings in the world of oversize smartphones at the moment, and the Huawei Mate 9 is well positioned to clean up. We just wish it came with a neat stylus.

How long will it last?

The Mate 9 isn’t especially hard-wearing. It doesn’t have a rugged body, and although it isn’t made entirely of glass, will benefit from being kept in a case. It’s not water resistant either.

Huawei has based EMUI on Android 7.0 Nougat, which is the latest version of Google’s operating system, and our review phone has the November Android security patch installed, keeping it right up to date. Huawei’s dedication to updates has been questionable in the past, so this may not continue forever.

Otherwise, the hardware is exceptional, and the phone has the power and performance to be a strong companion for years.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Here, we could say something about the Mate 9 being an easy recommendation because you can’t buy the Galaxy Note 7 anymore; but that’s not strictly true. While the Mate 9’s release is timely, we’d still recommend it as an alternative to the Galaxy Note 7, even if it was still on store shelves. The reason is simple, the Mate 9’s camera is fantastic, the compact body is a joy to hold, and Huawei has listened to complaints about the software, and fixed the majority of them.

All this progress makes us really warm up to Huawei as a company, and the Mate 9 is a very easy smartphone to recommend.

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