Porsche Design is an easy company to hate. Sharing little more than its name with the renowned carmaker that this year won the Le Mans endurance series, PD’s primary business is in fancying up everyday goods and gadgets and pricing them like exclusive luxury items. The most egregious examples of that, in my judgment, have come from Porsche Design’s partnership with BlackBerry, which produced the $2,000 P’9981, the $2,250 P’9982, and the $2,300 P’9983. They all cost much more and did a lot less than the typical Android or iPhone smartphone of the time.
But times and fortunes do change.
Today, for the first time in Verge history, I get to write positively about a Porsche Design phone. The device in question is officially called the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9, and it still costs a pretty silly €1,395 ($1,500), so I’m not here to try and validate its price. But it does a number of unusual things for Porsche Design handsets. The big one is that it's based on a really great software and hardware platform, running Android 7 Nougat on Huawei’s latest and fastest Kirin processor. The price has come down from previous Porsche-branded devices, and compared to the Mate 9 it's ostensibly based on, this PD phone has a bunch of neat design and spec alterations that make it a significant upgrade.
My favorite phone design of this year was the Galaxy Note 7’s, and although Samsung screwed it up with the whole exploding battery farce, the inherent appeal of a symmetrically curved device of that kind remains. This Porsche Design handset bears more than a passing resemblance to the Note 7. Featuring a 5.5-inch curved AMOLED display with a 2560 x 1440 resolution, it’s only a little shorter than Samsung’s ill-fated smartphone, but is otherwise just as delightful. For my preferences, the Porsche Design even pulls ahead a little by having an aluminum rather than glass back. That makes it more resistant to scratches and cracks, and the way the metal has been brushed leads to some gorgeous light reflections. The finish is a little slippery, mind you, and the handset feels less secure to grip than the rougher surface on the back of Google’s Pixel XL.
Every company endeavors to deliver a premium feel to its devices, but that’s easier said than done — and since it’s a subjective thing, there are no simple metrics for it. Physically, the Porsche Design Mate 9 lives up to its lofty brand name and radiates an assurance of high-end design and materials. It’s elegant. Much of its visual charm comes from the monochromatic minimalism of its exterior, which synergizes very well with the brilliant OLED display’s perfect blacks. But alas, as much as Huawei and Porsche try to carry that on with the user interface, which is replete with on-brand wallpapers and gold-tinted icons, they pretty much fail. Just witness the textual horrors awaiting anyone looking to swap the wallpaper on their Porsche Design phone:
All that precision and attention to detail invested in the exterior design and no one thought to, you know, make sure basic interface elements didn’t bleed into one another. But hey, by Android standards, I’m impressed this thing’s running the latest version and happy to report that it does so with great alacrity. Huawei even claims that its machine learning algorithms will keep the device that way over the long run, going so far as to suggest it will speed up over time rather than slow down, as most Android smartphones do. Either way, the usual disconnect between sumptuous hardware design and sloppy onboard software persists.
One of the standout features of the regular €699 ($750) Huawei Mate 9 is its 4,000mAh battery. That’s generous, but not atypical for a large 5.9-inch device of its kind. The Porsche Design variant, however, somehow keeps the same battery capacity while shrinking down to a size that’s nearly identical to Google’s Pixel XL. I love the XL’s battery life, which is never less than an intensive day’s work for me, but the idea of having an extra 16 percent more juice without any size (or even weight) trade-offs is immensely appealing. Score one clear advantage for the Porsche Design device.
Bundled in the PD Mate 9 box are a couple of chargers, covering both Europe and the UK, a set of earphones, an adapter to make any Micro USB accessories compatible with the phone’s USB-C charging and data port, and a windowed case. I’m not a fan of the "functional" leather that the case is made of (it’s supposedly real leather, but feels unpleasant), but the window is neat and Huawei’s interface surfaces things like the time and your step count, if you want to know it. Oh, and should you care about such things, there’s a credit card-sized certificate of authenticity marking you out as the owner of a prestigious device. Back in 2014, my joke was that it distinguished you as a card-carrying member of the club of people with more money than sense, but there’s no room for such snark here. This is a pretty great phone.
It frankly amuses me that Huawei and Porsche have chosen to name this handset a Mate 9, because its size is so much more convenient and its design is so much lovelier. Even on the specs front, the Porsche Design device bumps the memory from 4GB to 6GB and ups the storage to 256GB. Fitting the same battery in its smaller size is an engineering feat and it also carries over the dual-camera system (12MP color camera plus 20MP monochrome sensor) of the Mate 9. I guess it was more a marketing convenience than anything else, because I see the Porsche Design phone as very much its own device, with its own idiosyncratic strengths.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9. I still don’t think it’s worth the premium markup, but I do believe it’s a very good device that will serve its style-conscious user well. It seems like making bad phones has become so hard these days that even Porsche Design can’t manage it anymore. Good!
Update, December 9: It turns out that Huawei already has a Mate 9 Pro over in China, which is a direct match for this Porsche Design handset. The max spec of 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage is still exclusive to the Porsche brand, but I've revised the article to scale back my praise about this being a unique and differentiated device.