Two completely different phones with very similar outcomes.
I have a problem. See, there are two phones in front of me, and they're both very good. I've literally been switching between them every day to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, and have been assiduously noting the differences to get a sense of what a large "phablet" flagship should and shouldn't do.
These two phones are the Huawei Mate 9, which recently arrived in the U.S., and the LG V20, which debuted at the tail end of 2016. Despite the obvious similarities — they're both big phones with great specs, etc. — I have been left with a strangely bitter taste in my mouth, as I can't decide which one I like better.
|Category||LG V20||Huawei Mate 9|
|Operating System||Android 7.0 Nougat||Android 7.0 with EMUI 5.0|
|Display||5.7-inch IPS Quantum Display
2560x1440 (513 ppi)
Second Screen 160x1040
Gorilla Glass 4
|5.9-inch 1920x1080 (373ppi)
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core
|Huawei Kirin 960
4x A73 @ 2.4Ghz, 4x A53 @ 1.8Ghz
Mali-G71 MP8 GPU
|Expandable||microSD up to 2TB||microSD up to 2TB|
|RAM||4GB LPDDR4||4GB LPDDR4|
|Rear Cameras||Main: 16MP f/1.8, OIS
Second: 8MP f/2.4 wide-angle
Laser AF, Phase-detect AF, Contrast AF
|20MP (monochrome) + 12MP (color)
|Front Camera||5MP f/1.9 wide-angle||8MP, f/1.9|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2LE, USB 2.0, NFC||Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2LE, USB 2.0, NFC|
|Audio||32-bit Quad DAC|
Quick Charge 3.0
Huawei proprietary quick charge
|Security||Rear fingerprint sensor||Rear fingerprint sensor|
|Dimensions||159.7 x 78.1 x 7.7 mm||156.9 x 78.9 x 7.9 mm|
|Weight||173 grams||190 grams|
The differences between these two devices couldn't be more stark. The LG V20 is taller and narrower, with slightly larger bezels and a more streamlined appearance. It's not what I would call an attractive phone, but in its quirks there are hints of beauty. The Huawei Mate 9 is far more imposing and, for better or worse, considerably more stately — like an old schooner. Much of that grandiosity is thanks to its 190 gram weight, which is nicely spread through its all-metal chassis. The metal on the Mate 9 feels more substantial — thicker — than the V20, but at the end of the day they're made of aluminum and glass, and are alike in many ways.
To me, despite the Mate 9 feeling more solid, it's also more generic.
Perhaps the most interesting design decision on the V20 is the removable back plate which, while metal, still lends the phone a slightly more DIY look and feel. The plate latches with a satisfying click, but on my two units actually getting it to do so takes a bit of finagling. And while removing the rear is not going to be too common — the battery is replaceable, and you need to remove it to get to the SIM card — it's still a design issue that, over time, may be exacerbated.
Still on the back, both phones have two camera sensors, though the Mate 9's is arrayed vertically and the V20's stays horizontal — and as we'll see later, their purposes are quite different.
To me, despite the Mate 9 feeling more solid, it's also more generic — the V20 has an awkward style, and I enjoy its dual-toned color scheme a bit more than Huawei's uniformity. It's also slightly narrower than then Mate 9, which makes it easier to use with one hand in spite of it being slightly taller. I also prefer a few minor things about the phone: the placement of its volume buttons on the left, separate from the power button (which is on the back in this case); and the headphone jack on the bottom.
The screen on the V20 is also better, not just owing to its higher QHD resolution but its color reproduction and overall calibration, though the Mate 9's 1080p display is comparable in those areas.
Audio is another area the two phones differ: the V20's single downward-facing speaker is softer but comparatively full compared to the much-louder but thinner, sibilant profile of the Mate 9. Audio from the V20's headphone jack is also slightly cleaner — an obvious benefit of the Quad DAC — though I'd have to defer to our resident audiophile for line-out testing.
Obviously, the biggest aesthetic difference between the two phones, at least up front, is the V20's Second Screen, a sliver of additional screen real estate just above the main display and to the right of the selfie camera. In my time with the V20, I've learned to appreciate, if not love, the extra functionality, though in the course of a day I'll probably only interact with it a handful of times.
The screen on the V20 is also better, not just owing to its higher QHD resolution but its color reproduction and overall calibration.
That it's there to show notifications and provide quick access to favorite contacts, apps and shortcuts is a nice bonus, but it's not an essential feature. Instead, the Mate 9's slimmer bezels allow for a physically larger screen — a 5.9-inch display fits into a smaller space — which many people will prefer. Your mileage may vary.
My brief love affair with Huawei's EMUI 5.0 didn't last long. Based on Android 7.0, I came to it immediately after using a Google Pixel for a few weeks, and though there are similarities, Huawei's tendency to mess with fundamental aspects of Android — like notifications — still grates.
LG, on the other hand, uses a much lighter hand with its changes to Android 7.0 Nougat, and I've grown to appreciate most of what the company has tried to do — with one exception. See, I love Huawei's fingerprint gestures: in particular, the ability to swipe down on the sensor to bring down the notification shade. While there are apps that can imitate this feature for devices like the V20, it doesn't come close to matching the real-time nature of Huawei's implementation.
LG uses a much lighter hand with its changes to Android 7.0, and I've grown to appreciate most of what the company has tried to do.
Elsewhere, the two are comparable once you overcome their rather luckluster launchers — I really recommend switching to something like Nova Launcher or Action Launcher as soon as possible. They're not unusably bad, and both have options to enable app drawers (though they're not on by default), but I increasingly find that even the free versions of the aforementioned third-party alternatives do a lot better.
Performance on both devices is stellar. While the V20 sports a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM, and the Mate 9 the technically more powerful Kirin 960 and 4GB of RAM, both devices have no problems keeping up with the minutiae of day-to-day work. There is an argument to be made that the Kirin 960 will enjoy greater longevity in terms of performance by virtue of its more powerful GPU — it's the same one rumored to be in international versions of the Galaxy S8 — but right now it's a wash.
The reason I continue to prefer the V20's software is that Huawei makes seemingly-arbitrary changes to the way notifications function on the device. Lock screen notifications, for example, are disabled by default, and you have to go in and enable them individually per app. While our own Jerry Hildenbrand, chief bouncer and head of security for Mobile Nations, loves this idea, I don't, and think it runs counter to the way Android was built. I also know that I'm not alone in this, since I've heard from many Mate 9 owners that the extra step seems unnecessary and awkward. Also awkward is the fact that, by default, EMUI calls out what it considers "power-intensive" applications, something that, again, I believe Android should take care of itself.
Overall, though, I really like the software on both of these phones, and think they represent a more restrained and careful approach to Google's Android, which I think is best for all OEMs in the long run.
Both the Mate 9 and V20 have excellent rear cameras — two excellent cameras, to be specific — in distinct formats. The former has a combination of 12MP color and 20MP monochrome sensors in order to eke more detail from shots in addition to facilitating artificial "portrait" bokeh effects, while the latter has a 16MP "regular" shooter and an 8MP wide-angle option for improved landscapes.
Let's first talk interface. Both LG's and Huawei's interfaces are very easy to use and hide a number of powerful modes and features a few swipes or taps away. In particular, Huawei's use of a slider to access the camera's manual mode is a thing of brilliance, but I have to say I'm disappointed in the lack of automatic HDR. And while both phones support RAW capture, only the V20 has peaking abilities that I absolutely adore. Peaking is an overlay that shows where in the viewfinder is in focus, and it's done so well on the V20 it's like I'm using my Sony RX-100IV.
Huawei's use of a slider to access the camera's manual mode is a thing of brilliance.
And while the Mate 9 has so many modes including things like Light Painting and Watermarking, at the end of the day it comes down to photo and video quality, stabilization, audio capture and other fundamentals, and here's where things get a bit tricky. While the Mate 9 defaults to 12MP shots — the same size as the color sensor — it can capture more detail at 20MP, though the differences are negligible. Colors on the V20 are slightly more saturated, though the Mate 9 uses additional post-processing to make the finished product more contrasty.
I capture amazing photos with both phones' rear cameras, especially in daylight. While the Mate 9's main 12MP sensor has comparatively larger individual pixels, the V20 has a wider f/1.8 aperture, which lets in more light in darker situations. The V20 wins here, hands down: while it's possible to eke a decent low-light shot from the Mate 9, more often than not it comes out blurry, grainy and unpleasant. At the same time, the V20's secondary wide-angle sensor is more useful, at least for me, than the Mate 9's artificial-looking background blur, which operates from a farcical f/0.95 all the way up to f/16.
On the video side, the V20 has a distinct advantage: this thing was built to capture great video. The company made a huge splash about the camera's excellent manual video controls, and they bear fruit here: the footage is even and smooth, and the controls are easy to use, though powerful once mastered. Audio capture, too, is superior on the LG phone, and can be adjusted in real time.
If the V20 wins in the camera department, the Mate 9 wipes the floor with LG in the battery department. Despite the 25% larger cell — 4000mAh to the V20's 3200mAh — battery life is often double on the Mate 9, with a day and a half of near-constant usage (in between sleep, of course), compared to just under 16 hours on the V20.
Yes, it's great that the V20 has a removable battery, but like most people I would prefer a larger enclosed cell — and it appears that from the LG G6 rumors, the South Korean company agrees.
Which should you buy? Either one
I love both of these phones. This is the first comparison I've done that has been difficult for me to come up with an outright winner. On one hand, the V20 is, in opinion, better and more originally designed, with a superior camera experience and more thoroughly-regarded software. But the Mate 9 is more robust, with a superior fingerprint sensor, better daylight photos and significantly better battery life.
Here's the thing about the Mate 9: it's not available on any U.S. carriers, so you're forced to buy it outright for $599. That's actually much cheaper than the $700-ish V20, but you can find LG's flagship at any of the four major U.S. carriers, and unlocked at places like B&H — though at a much less palatable $799.