Huawei P9 Review: A Premium Mid-Ranger

Huawei P9 Review

It’s hard to deny that the Huawei P9 is a thing of beauty. The chamfered aluminium, the 2.5D glass, the glossy black camera island have all been done before, but there’s a certain holistic sense of ‘completeness’ that’s exuded by Huawei’s latest flagship. The P9 is certainly up near the competition from Samsung and LG but it’s also not quite as inexpensive as we’re used to seeing from this Chinese brand, so you’re going to want to read right through this review before thinking about opening up your wallet.

Huawei’s ‘P’ range is effectively its flagship line, perhaps ‘P’ for ‘Premium’, and the P9 follow on from where the P8 left off, impressing hugely in the hand by being thinner and lighter than a smartphone has any right to be. Especially considering the specifications here, including a full 3000mAh battery and a realistic time between charges of up to two days.

 

We’ve seen aluminium-framed phones before (note that this isn’t an aluminium unibody, i.e. milled from a single piece of metal, unlike some of the HTC designs, for example), but Huawei has produced a stunner here. The combination of curved glass (at the very edges, for ease of swiping), neat chamfers front and back, plus gentle curves on all four corners, all make the P9 a pleasure to hold securely and comfortably.

Huawei P9- corner detail, showing chamfers on aluminium frame

The fingerprint sensor is well positioned on the back and very fast in operation from (typically) an index finger, to power on the screen and unlock in a split second. Plus, this being Huawei, there are some neat gestures that you can do on the sensor with any finger – the usual swipe down for the notifications shade or swiping left/right when in the built in Gallery application, perhaps while showing off some of the photos you’ve taken – and this cleverly adapts appropriately when you’re in landscape mode.

Huawei P9 - back view, showing fingerprint sensor

The side buttons are well positioned, with texturing on the power button (Motorola-style) to help locate it without looking (should you not want to use the fingerprint sensor – maybe you just want to know the time?)

The bottom is host to a USB Type C port – this is (thankfully) starting to come into mainstream smartphones in a big way now and I’m all for it. Type C is so much more capable, usable and robust than microUSB. The P9 is nominally rated at charging at 2A/5V through this port (and comes with an equivalent charger) – this charges fast enough but I note that other Type C-equipped devices (e.g. Nexus 5X) can go up to 3A/5V – it’s not clear whether this is a software, a budget or a hardware limitation on the P9.

Huawei P9 - bottom view, USB Type C and speaker

Also down at the bottom is a speaker grille covering a mono loudspeaker of decent volume and depth – I had no complaints when using it for sat-nav or while listening to podcasts, though it’s still very evidently a ‘phone speaker’ in terms of fidelity (unlike the Marshall London).

The principal distinguishing feature of the P9 though is the camera island, similarly styled to that on the Nexus 6P, also made by Huawei. Except that here there are two camera lenses, each f/2.2 (so not that ‘fast’ by 2016 standards) but one with a monochrome sensor behind it and one with a standard colour unit. The theory here is that the extra detail and luminance data from the monochrome sensor (thanks to not needing a light-restricting Bayer filter) is used to enhance the clarity and accuracy of images from the colour sensor.

Huawei P9 - camera island

But… now for the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ moment: in my tests (alternately covering the monochrome unit and then exposing it again) I couldn’t tell any difference and I’m not convinced by Huawei’s marketing here. Maybe there are software updates needed – these are common to fix imaging defects in smartphones, so wouldn’t be unexpected? I suspect that the monochrome sensor is only really currently used when taking explicit monochrome shots and when using the interesting ‘shallow depth of field’ mode. Here each camera is preset with an optimised focal point (typically 30cm and a metre) and then the distance between the two lenses and some clever imaging software is used to combine the two images to ‘focus’ (almost in real time) on a specific point and with a slider available to vary how much parts of the image away from this focus point are artistically blurred.

Screenshot from the Huawei P9
With both cameras engaged in ‘shallow depth of field’ mode, you can tap to ‘focus’ (in software) on any point, adjusting the virtual aperture with a slider….

And, cleverly, the twin underlying JPGs are preserved, so you can ‘refocus’ these ‘Shallow’ shots after the fact. Yes, the P9’s dual camera focussing system is a software kludge, but it’s a much better done kludge than the one on HTC’s One M8, which was amateurish beyond belief.

Focussing in all standard modes is pretty fast, thanks to a combination of laser and phase detection auto-focus (PDAF), this works well, albeit far short of what Samsung achieved with the whole-sensor PDAF in the Galaxy S7.

The ‘Leica’ branding is intended to inspire some confidence – and it does – though the lenses here aren’t made by Leica but rather just at a ‘Leica-approved’ factory somewhere in China, so make of that what you will. There are also supposed to be a couple of Leica-inspired ‘film’ modes, but on my review (retail) handset these were nowhere to be seen.

Camera modes
Camera modes available, plus a look at the ‘swipe up’ ‘PRO’ interface, here adjusting exposure…

Overall though, the camera ‘bar’ for smartphones is already set very high by the S7, the LG G4, the newest iPhones and (on Windows) the Lumia 950 range – and the P9 doesn’t get close to these competitors. As you might expect, given the relatively small aperture(s) and the lack of OIS (which would help enormously in low light).

Here are some sample P9-captured photos, with 1:1 crops and comment:

Photo sample from the Huawei P9 - here in sunny conditions
1:1 crop, showing very decent colours and detail, though just about any 2016 smartphone camera should nail this shot, in fairness!
1:1 crop, showing very decent colours and natural detail, though just about any 2016 smartphone camera should nail this shot, in fairness!
Photo sample from the Huawei P9 - here in sunny conditions
1:1 crop, again the P9 camera does well. Not shown here, but it makes a mess of digital zoom, producing very blurry results. Watch for a software update from Huawei!
1:1 crop, again the P9 camera does well. Not shown here, but it makes a mess of digital zoom, producing very blurry results. Watch for a software update from Huawei!
Photo sample from the Huawei P9 - here in cloudy conditions and trying HDR (which is manual on the P9)
1:1 crop, this time trying HDR to bring out some colour on a cloudy day. Nothing special, but at least the P9 keeps its images natural at all times!
1:1 crop, this time trying HDR to bring out some colour on a cloudy day. Nothing special, but at least the P9 keeps its images natural at all times!
Photo sample from the Huawei P9 - here indoors in low light
1:1 crop, showing great control of noise in low light and accurate colours on this LED-lit fish gargoyle!
1:1 crop, showing great control of noise in low light and accurate colours on this LED-lit fish gargoyle!
Photo sample from the Huawei P9 - here at night
1:1 crop, the P9 does some accelerometer trickery to take very low light shots at the 'optimal' (non shaking) moment.
1:1 crop, the P9 does some accelerometer trickery to take very low light shots at the ‘optimal’ (non shaking) moment. It can’t match OIS (which lets the shutter stay open much longer), but at least night time shots will be reasonably crisp!

The front facing camera is high resolution at 8MP and proved very competent. Video capture maxes out at 1080p (though with stereo audio), not a showstopper in my book given that this is still everyone’s preferred resolution out in the real world (in terms of use/playback), but with no facility to (for example) extract 8MP shots from 4K video or to match the bullet point specs of most 2015 flagships, the P9’s looking weaker than it should in this area. The lack of OIS isn’t an issue when shooting video, since there’s good digital stabilisation, albeit inexplicably turned off by default.

The front of the Huawei P9 is pretty, though unremarkable in 2016. The screen tech used is quoted as “IPS-NEO”, designed to stop backlight leakage and to approximate the contrast levels from AMOLED screens. It does this well indoors, the default dark theme on the P9 looks stunning, at least head on – at oblique angles it washes out rather disappointingly (unlike AMOLED, which usually looks ‘painted on’).

Huawei P9 - oblique view of display and bottom logo

Outdoors, in the sunlight, contrast isn’t as good as on the Samsung (etc.) flagship competition, but the P9 screen is never terrible, even under the fiercest sun, for example when taking photos.

Out in the sun!

The 1080p resolution looks low for a flagship, but remember that this is LCD, not AMOLED, and so the screen pixels are in full RGB layout – on AMOLED you lose half the resolution, arguably, because of the pentile nature of the layout. So 1080p is absolutely perfect on the P9, with a 5.2” diagonal. As I said earlier, the choices of materials and components in the P9 are good across the board.

Onto the internals then, the engine inside the smartphone. The chipset used here is one of Huawei’s own, the Kirin 955 – it’s in the same sort of performance class as a Snapdragon 810, but it’s hard to benchmark exactly. With 3GB of RAM on the review handset though, it flies, in many days of testing I can’t remember a single stutter. The P9 in some parts of Asia apparently gets 4GB of RAM, as well as a 64GB internal disk (this one’s 32GB), along with the option to use dual SIMs (though at the expense of microSD support) – it’s all a little complicated, but the P9 here is the one that most people reading this will be seeing, I suspect.

As intimated earlier, battery life on the Huawei P9 is great with a largish capacity cell (3000mAh) and the usual variety of Huawei power modes: Performance, Smart, and Ultra-power-saving. 99% of the time, ‘Smart’ is used and games and HD videos played fine in this mode, so you’d have to be desperate for every last ounce of horsepower in a game in order to need ‘Performance’. ‘Ultra-power-saving’ is, naturally enough when your phone is almost exhausted and you’re out and about and need to eke out every last mAh – here only basic telephony and messaging is allowed, along with a basic single home screen offering the same.

There’s a slightly odd extra power saving mode, ‘ROG’, in which the entire device is switched to 720p. The idea is that this will keep battery drain down when playing games, but the mode isn’t quick to apply, doesn’t save that much power and the main curiosity here was to see what 720p resolution looks like on a 5.2”-screened Android phone. As you might expect, you can definitely start to see pixels at 720p and shows again why 1080p was the optimal choice.

The default homescreen on the P9, with the Google folder partly opened up....
The default homescreen on the P9, with the Google folder partly opened up….

Huawei’s EMUI skin over stock Android keeps improving, of course, this is v4.1, every new device and update brings a little bit of polish here, a few extra functions there. The interface changes are pretty painless, aside from the aping of the iPhone and iOS by not having an ‘application drawer’ – instead all app icons are on homescreens or homescreen folders. Most people will be fine with this, I suspect – if you think about it then there’s no real reason why any normal user needs a separate UI area for application icons. Even power users will find that a few minutes folder organisation is sufficient to get them up and running and productive – EMUI supports up to 18 homescreens but no one will get close to this if they want to stay sane.

The second of the default homescreens, along with the notifications shade under EMUI....
The second of the default homescreens, along with the notifications shade under EMUI….

One annoyance from other non-Nexus Android phones persists here – the use by a manufacturer of their own applications while being contracted by Google to also include the official versions. I understand the practical and legal reasons, but it’s confusing for the new user. So we get two ‘Calendar’s, Gallery as well as Photos, Music as well as Play Music, WPS Office as well as Google Drive (and thus Docs, Sheets, etc.) – you get the idea. Oh well.

We’ve seen Huawei’s Phone Manager utility before and it works just as well here. I’m firmly against needing commercial third party software (usually with an eye on profit) fulfilling a cleaning and optimising role, but when the task is written by the manufacturer and included right from the factory then it’s easy to be more lenient with such software, even for an Android purist. Yes, users should know how to manage their own applications and storage but hey, geeks don’t have to use this and other people will probably find Phone Manager a Godsend.

Phone Manager has useful optimising functions for Android newbies...
Phone Manager has useful optimising functions for Android newbies…

Huawei’s also traditionally keen on applications being closed as much as possible, all in a bid to prolong battery life. Some system applications are ‘protected’ against auto-closing (usually when the screen is turned off) but you can add your own to this list through the wonderfully simple UI addition to the multitasking carousel of a slight downwards nudge on any relevant or important applications – these then acquire a padlock symbol and will stay open as long as there’s enough RAM. EMUI remembers your ‘protected’ status for each application too, so even after restarting the phone you can trust it to remember what to do with Twitter, Gmail or whatever.

Screenshot
Nudging a running app down to toggle its ‘protected’ status in the multitasking carousel; and (right) using the very limited “OK, Emy”….

There’s no “OK, Google” voice support by default, but you do get “OK, Emy”. Err.. eh? What? It’s very limited too, seemingly only handling calling and asking the phone “Where are you?” To get the full Google voice stuff you’d have to install the Google Experience launcher, I suspect.

Although you can’t swipe away the virtual Android controls (though they do disappear in appropriate media apps), you can reorder them in Settings, always a nice touch, especially if you’ve been used to a Samsung before!

Just two of hundreds of lockscreen images, presented at random every time the lockscreen is brought up....
Just two of hundreds of lockscreen images, presented at random every time the lockscreen is brought up….

Finally, ‘Magazine Unlock’ brings up a different image every time you see the lockscreen – always making the phone seem fresh, potentially. Though with the speed of fingerprint unlocking via the back sensor, you may never see the images, making the lockscreen itself almost irrelevant. Maybe it will go the way of the app drawer in time?

I don’t want to seem too down on the Huawei P9. If this was an Honor device (Huawei’s consumer brand) and put out at £300 then I’d consider it fabulous value for money and a top buy. At £450 (in the UK, including VAT) though, it’s within striking distance of the top tier devices which out-gun it in terms of screen, imaging, speaker, performance, and brand.

Huawei is more of a contract/business brand these days, and in all fairness the metal build and premium feel should prove attractive to companies wanting (say) 500 smartphones for a high profile sales force, for example. However, the Huawei P9 won’t set the consumer world on fire at this price mid 2016 – maybe they should release it direct, online, as the Honor P9 at £150 less and watch the units fly off distributor shelves?

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  • Death89

    Great review as always Steve. Shame the camera turned out disappointing, I wonder how the B&W photos compare with other phones as someone who occasionally used to use that to minimise the effect of noise on shots from my smaller sensored cameras?

    Given that it’s going to be in a similar bracket to last years flagships on contract I can’t see me going down this route now. Would have jumped if the camera had been all that but I’ll wait to see how the HTC 10 fares against the 950 first.