In some ways, the smartphone business resembles the movie business. The general public knows more about the major releases from big companies because that's what the companies push and the media writes about. But in both the phone and movie industries, there are hundreds of smaller releases targeted at very specific markets -- and if you're not in those markets, you may never hear about them.
As a result, the majority of smartphone reviews you'll read about are for top-of-the-line flagship phones selling for roughly $800. It's a little unusual for a manufacturer to make a big deal about phones in the second or third tier of the market. Yet that's just what Huawei is doing with the Mate 9 and Honor 6X, two phones that represent good-to-excellent value but would otherwise not set the world on fire.
Huawei, as you may already know, is a Chinese company that's a global leader in telco-grade and big industrial-grade networking gear. Around the world, it has a nearly 10% share of the smartphone market, behind only Apple and Samsung, but has less than 1% of the U.S. market. One reason you're hearing about the Mate 9 and Honor 6X is that Huawei announced them and made them available at this year's CES show -- one of the world's largest technology stages but an unusual place these days for phones to be unveiled.
Huawei thinks these phones are a big deal. And they are, in a targeted-market kind of way.
The first thing that strikes you about the Mate 9 is that it's big. Very big. At 6.2 x 3.2 in., with a 5.9-in. diagonal screen, and weighing 6.7 oz., it's about a quarter-in. larger in both dimensions than the disgraced Samsung Galaxy Note7, although it's 0.7 oz. heavier and has a screen that's 0.2 in. larger. (Unlike the Note7, the Mate 9 has no stylus.) That's a substantial phone.
Build quality is very high. The case is aluminum, nicely curved to the touch but with a couple of edges that keep the phone from sliding out of your hand. The bezel is thin, with nothing on the chin of the phone but the Huawei brand. The top of the phone has a headphone jack; the SIM tray -- which can either take two SIMs or one SIM and a microSD card -- is along the left edge; the power button and volume rocker are on the right; and the USB-C port and surprisingly robust stereo speakers are along the bottom. The back has a dual-lens camera (about which more later) and a speedy fingerprint scanner.
It's interesting to see the compromises that Huawei has made. Chief among them is the screen: Rather than the high-resolution AMOLED screen typical of a flagship, the Mate 9 features an IPS LCD with 1080 x 1920 pixels.
Huawei uses its own Kirin 960 processor with eight cores rather than the typical Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 with four. Overall, the Antutu benchmark suite scores the Mate 9 at 138623, in the same ballpark as the Note7's 141159 or the Google Pixel XL's 140747 (which may be a fairer comparison, since you can actually buy the Pixel XL).
If you care about screen quality, you'll notice the lower-spec display. But there's no obvious performance lag about the phone.
Notable is a 4000mAh battery, which in testing took 5 hours to drain from 100% to 20% percent, at which point the battery savings algorithms kicked in and required an additional 6 hours to drop to 10%. At no point did the battery get warmer than 110 degrees F; it was typically around 70 or 80 degrees. That's exceptional battery life and safety.
Huawei has put some interesting camera technology into the Mate 9. The company has put Leica optics in front of the 20-megapixel/12-megapixel dual camera. There are more camera modes and manual settings than you are ever likely to use -- everything from HDR to document scanning. To get at them, though, you need to remember to swipe left or right while the camera app is open; you're told the first time you start the app but there's no clue after that.
The 20-megapixel camera mode is pretty terrific - as sharp and detailed as you could want in a smartphone -- until you realize that you can't zoom with it; you need to step back to 12 megapixels to get access to zoom. The camera can be set to snap when it sees a smile, when it hears to the word "cheese," or when the sound level gets high enough.
Huawei's EMUI user interface has come in for lots of complaints from Android purists, but version 5.0 on the Mate 9 (based on Android 7.0) is about as flexible as can be. You can switch between the standard Android presentation of apps, with apps hidden in a drawer, or the EMUI/iOS style presentation, with all apps on the home screen. You can change the home screen navigation buttons -- Back, Home and Recent -- to account for handedness, and even add a button to pull down notifications. The fingerprint sensor supports gestures, so you can touch to answer calls and snap a photo, or swipe to view notifications or photos.
As befits an unlocked phone, there's no bloatware on the Mate 9, unless you count the mandated native Google apps that come with every Android phone.
The Mate 9 is a better-than-good phone that's maybe a notch or behind the best of the best --and it's about the only thing out there for fans of really big honkin' devices. Appropriately, its price is a notch or two behind the top of the market, too: You can find it online for $600 unlocked (Amazon price). Note that this is a GSM-only phone, which leaves out Verizon and Sprint.
At $600 for these specs, it's a good value. A higher-resolution screen might be nice, but whether that's worth the $150 to $200 difference to step up to a big-buck flagship is a discussion you might want to have with your wallet.
Honor is Huawei's youth-oriented brand, and the marketing slogan for the phone is "Double or Nothing." At first, I didn't understand the slogan, because you certainly don't get double the technology of other phones; the Honor 6X's specs are distinctly less impressive than those of its bigger brother Mate 9. A Huawei rep later explained that it is a reference to the phone's predecessor, the Honor 5X.
The Honor 6X is 6 x 3 in., just a touch bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and 0.2 oz. heavier. Like the Mate 9, it uses a 1080 x 1920 IPS LCD screen, although this one is just 5.5 in. diagonal. Its processor is also a Huawei octo-core chip, albeit one that runs a bit slower, and the GPU is likewise a step back from the Mate 9. The phone's physical layouts are the same, except the Honor 6X uses a micro-USB port instead of USB-C; both support dual SIMs or a single SIM and microSD card.
As you might expect from a phone with scaled-back hardware, the Honor 6X doesn't benchmark particularly well. The Anututu suite yields a score of 57055; the next lowest score among close-to-current phones is the Samsung Galaxy Note5, at 80644. This is easily believable; as you scroll through documents, the scroll is not quite smooth. It's a phone that could benefit from some added horsepower.
There are other corners cut. Rather than running the latest Huawei EMUI on the latest Android, the Honor 6X runs EMUI 4.1 based on Android 6.0. Where the Mate 9 includes 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, and the latest Galileo European GPS, the Honor 6X tops out at 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, and no Galileo. The older EMUI on the 6X doesn't use an app drawer or make provision for handedness.
The Honor 6X's battery is 3340mAh, but that's nothing to complain about. Our battery drain test took more than 6.5 hours to bring the power level from 100% to 20%, and the battery never got above 90 degrees. This is an all-day-and-then-some battery.
The main camera is a duo 12-megapixel-plus-2-megapixel unit with a Pro mode and about a dozen pre-set shooting modes. The 8-megapixel front-facing cam can be set to trigger when it sees a smile, hears the word "cheese," and when your voice gets loud enough.
Like the Mate 9, the Honor 6X is light on bloatware, although it does come with a pre-installed (and uninstallable) set of apps including Twitter, Lyft, News Republic, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and CNN. It also comes with an FM Radio app -- unusual and notable, particularly since the circuitry that supports it is inside pretty much every smartphone but rarely turned on by the manufacturer. Maybe that's a feature that Huawei thinks "youth" are interested in, although most of the young folk I know have abandoned radio for streaming apps.
All of that sounds particularly uninspiring. But here's why to consider the Honor 6X: It costs $250 unlocked.
(Note: Like the Mate 9, this is a GSM phone, so Verizon and Sprint fans are out of luck.)
For $250 (Amazon price), this is a remarkable phone. At one-third the price of a flagship, you get performance and capabilities that will more than get you through the day. (For perspective, the OnePlus 3T, the closest thing to a budget top-of-the-line phone, will cost you about $439.) A phone with 3GB of memory, 32GB of expandable storage, a decent camera, and OK processing at $250? It's a steal, even if it is several steps behind the state of the art.
The Huawei Mate 9 and Honor 6X are the first phones from a major manufacturer to come on the market in 2017, although you should expect a flood of announcements in the next couple of months. Perhaps the biggest question facing the smartphone business is whether a top price of $750 to $800 and up is a sustainable in the face of perfectly good -- if not better -- handsets for two-thirds, a half, or a third of that price.
For now, it appears that Huawei -- the Number 3 maker of smartphones in the world -- is trying to find a profitable place under that high-priced umbrella. With the Mate 9 and Honor 6X, it's making a case that maybe you don't have to crack your wallet as far open as you once did to get perfectly good technology.