These days, it is hard to be a smartphone manufacturer. When budget or mid-end models run the latest version of Android and feature things like fingerprint sensors, what can a flagship model offer to make people sit up?
For Huawei, which launched the Mate 9 last week, this comes in the form of an improved camera. It’s also pulled out all the stops to make the new flagship stand out from the pack.
Despite the pictures telling a clear story, naysayers had questioned if Leica really made the camera. This time, Huawei made sure to have Leica engineers at the Mate 9 launch in Munich last week, to stress the importance of the famed German company’s involvement.
So, does the Mate 9’s camera make a compelling reason to buy the phone this time round? In the few days since its launch, I’ve had the chance to test out some shots with the phone, and here’s what I found.
First, the phone has to pass the test on everyday usage. With a 4,000mAh battery, a new Kirin 960 processor, Mali G-71 graphics chip, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space with a microSD card slot, the phone has the works, for sure.
I have used it for various daily tasks in the past few days and everything feels snappy on the 5.9-inch Full HD screen. That is a good start for the phone.
You can opt for a limited edition of the Huawei Mate 9 if you feel that the specifications are not up to your expectations although you have to pay a hefty €1,395 (S$2,145).
Apart from the beautiful exterior thanks to Porsche Design, a smaller screen at 5.5-inch with 2K resolution and more memory at 6GB and huge 256GB of storage space, most of the other functions and features remain the same.
The ‘normal’ version of the Mate 9, which costs €699 (S$1,075) might be enough for many users. What makes the Huawei Mate 9 so special has to be its image capturing capabilities, both for stills and video.
Let’s start with still photography. The dual lens system has gained much traction over the past few months since the Huawei P9’s launch back in April. During that time, LG’s G5 and Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus have also sported the dual lens system.
Huawei has opted for a colour and monochrome sensor system, unlike the competition, which have each sensor dedicated to a different optical zoom range.
The result, for me at least, is simply stellar in the P9 with its innovative wide aperture effect. The Mate 9’s camera builds on the P9’s system and continues to impress with improvements such as Hybrid Zoom and uni-directional sound recording during video capture.
In the P9, the camera is unable to zoom and Mate 9 has solved this limitation by using its dual lens system to implement digital zoom without sacrificing image quality.
The use of the 20-megapixel monochrome sensor allows the camera to capture more details at very high resolution. Meanwhile, the 12-megapixel colour sensor records the colour information in the scene. Combining the two, the Mate 9 is able to capture a scene at 2x Hybrid Zoom at 12 megapixels.
The resultant image is very good. Expect sharp and accurate colours thought this would also mean you can’t capture a scene at 20-megapixel quality.
Personally, I’d prefer to capture the scene at the highest resolution and crop the image to 12 megapixels during post processing. This gives me more flexibility as well. Of course, for someone who does not really want to do any post processing, this isn’t an issue.
Huawei has also spent some time thinking how to improve its video capabilities. The Mate 9 now has 4K video capturing capability using the H.265 codec standard. What that means is that 4K video files can now be compressed more efficiently without losing image quality.
The other improvement is the uni-directional audio recording capability. What the Mate 9 does is to isolate background noise and focus the audio capture towards the subject.
From my initial tests, I find that sounds that come from the background are sufficiently muffled as I move the music source to the back of the camera and then back to the front. That is definitely handy for recording a quick interview clip.
When it comes to subject tracking in the video, the Mate 9 does hunt a bit even when the camera is stationary. Then again, one of the scenes that I set up using a 9cm tall Stormtrooper toy at macro distance was really challenging and the Mate 9 should perform quite well for most day-to-day use.
I am still happy with the Mate 9’s camera capabilities, which are a huge improvement over the Mate 8’s. Its souped-up Wide Aperture Effect, though still not perfect, is an improvement. Use it well and it can impress.
There are still things to get right, of course. The Mate 9’s inability to save the RAW files on a microSD card is still a pain for discerning users. To be fair, that is not exactly a deal breaker, either.
Huawei generally has taken what Mate 8 had lacked by including P9’s dual camera system and made the Mate 9 an attractive flagship smartphone. Now if we can have the 2K or Quad HD screen on the “basic” version as well, the Mate 9 would be even more attractive.
CORRECTIONS at 15/11/2016 3:49pm: An earlier version of the article stated that the H.254 codec allowed for 4K video capturing. The correct codec is H.265. The article also mentioned the P9’s inability to save RAW files on a microSD card, when it was actually referring to the Mate 9. We are sorry for the errors.