Saturday, December 3, 2016
Huawei P9 review: New Phone Familiar Tricks

Huawei P9 review: New Phone Familiar Tricks

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Huawei still isn’t a household name in every corner of the world, despite having ousted Microsoft last summer to become the world’s third-largest smartphone manufacturer. The company might not have the pedigree of LG, Sony and others, but there are few greater endorsements than being recruited by Google to deliver a Nexus device. That was more than six months ago, but it’s with that kind of exposure in mind that we welcome Huawei’s latest flagship, the P9, and see what it has to offer.

Huwei P9

Pros
  • Fun, versatile camera
  • Excellent performance
Cons
  • Unexciting design
  • Lacking in standout features
  • Questionable value for the money

Summary

If there’s one feature that will convince you to buy Huawei’s P9, it’s the clever camera. Two separate sensors let you take gorgeous, native monochrome images and play around with depth of field, not to mention other fun and useful shooting modes. Performance is also one of the P9’s strong suits, but otherwise you’re getting a fairly iterative upgrade lacking in flagship finesse. Considering its price, the P9 ultimately fails to strike an appropriate balance between feature set and cost.

Hardware

You can usually tell at a glance when a smartphone is of flagship lineage. By that I mean: iPhones look like iPhones, the Galaxy S series hasn’t changed all that much in recent years, and so on. Huawei, too, has settled on a common design language for its top-end P line. Put the P9, P8 andAscend P7 side by side and you’ll notice more iterative changes than considerable transformations.

As the years have passed, Huawei has veered further toward an angular, clean-cut design for its P series. There’s no doubt the P9 is the best-looking of the bunch so far, and yet I can’t help but feel that it’s rather …indistinctive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That said, the P9 has all the characteristics you’d expect of a £450 (or roughly $650) smartphone. It’s thin, light and wrapped in aluminum, and the build quality is impeccable. The unibody has a strange tacky texture to it, feeling more like plastic than “aerospace-class” metal, though this does help with grip. Then there are the soft corners, the thin chamfered edges and the slight curvature of the glass borders: all the little details that mellow an otherwise sharp form.

The only edge that perhaps hasn’t been buffed enough is the elevated rim around the fingerprint sensor. It can feel a bit scratchy under your fingertip, and, speaking of the sensor, it’s the first time Huawei has included one on a P series device. It registers contact as quickly as any fingerprint sensor I’ve used, and sits in a convenient position high on the back of the device (where your forefinger naturally rests).

Huawei P9 Back

Everything else is pretty much where it should be, and I’m thankful for the tiny, multicolor notification LED hiding behind the earpiece. The volume rocker and power key (which has a nice bumpy texture to it) lie on the right-hand edge, with the micro-SIM/microSD tray on the left and a loudspeaker grille, headphone socket and USB Type-C port on the bottom.

Personally, I wish Huawei hadn’t bothered with Type-C. It doesn’t charge the device any quicker than regular micro-USB would — the company never promised any kind of fast charging, to be fair — and it means the absurd number of live cables I have scattered around my house for tablets, Kindles, phones, Bluetooth speakers and console controllers are useless. Instead, I have just one lonely wire I basically need to carry around with me.

The P9’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly its Leica-endorsed, dual rear camera system. Just like the entire front of the device, the panel of glass that protects the two cameras is made of Gorilla Glass 4, and sits atop a black background with a subtle gray pinstripe effect. As you’d expect, Leica’s name is visible, alongside a mix of numbers and letters I assume to be specs of some kind. Using a slab of glass seems a bit lazy to me; I feel that machining out individual holes for the lenses and flash might’ve made for more elegant and striking unibody design.

I have my hands on the titanium gray model, which pairs almost purplish aluminum with a black underlay wherever there’s glass. Plenty of other color configurations are out there if you can find them: two with similar gold finishes, ceramic white, mystic silver and, of course, rose gold. Their availability varies based on the market and model, however, including whether the P9 in question is a single- or dual-SIM variant, and whether it’s kitted out with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, or 4GB/64GB. In the UK, for example, I can find only the titanium gray and mystic silver options (3GB/32GB) for sale.

In all, the P9 is by no means an ugly device, but it’s not particularly exciting either. And that sentiment doesn’t just apply to its looks.

exciting either. And that sentiment doesn’t just apply to its looks.

HUAWEI P9
Dimensions 145 x 70.9 x 6.95mm (5.7 x 2.8 x 0.27 inches)
Weight 144g (5.1 ounces)
Display 5.2-inch IPS LCD (1,920 x 1,080)
Pixel Density 424 ppi
Glass Gorilla Glass 4
Processor Octa-core Kirin 955 (4 x 2.5GHz, 4 x 1.8GHz)
RAM 3GB
Storage 32GB (expandable)
Primary camera 2 x 12-megapixel BSI (one monochrome, one color)
Secondary camera 8-megapixel
Battery 3,000mAh
OS Emotion UI 4.1 (Android 6.0 Marshmallow)
Cellular Cat 6 LTE
WiFi Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.2
NFC Yes

Display and sound

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On paper, there’s nothing about the P9’s display that’s going to make your mouth water. Huawei has opted for a 5.2-inch, full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS LCD panel — the same one you’ll find on the year-old P8. While I think 1080p is a perfectly acceptable resolution for a 5.2-inch device, I can’t ignore the trend toward denser displays, particularly on Android flagships. Quad HD screens are almost the norm now, and top-tier devices from LG and Samsung haven’t dipped below this spec for some time. Even the Nexus 6P has one of these 2,560 x 1,440 panels, leaving the P9 feeling a bit behind the times.

Nevertheless, you do get a great 1080p panel. Colors are vivid, blacks are as deep as I’ve ever seen on an LCD display, and whites are the perfect temperature (you can tinker with this in the settings if your eyes don’t agree). There’s also plenty of power behind those pixels, making the display easy to read on the brightest of days. Glare isn’t entirely eliminated under direct sunlight, so you may not want to head to the park to stream a movie on your phone, but the screen is bright enough for every other outdoor-use scenario. The auto-brightness setting is usually pretty accurate, but it can falter in strong sunlight, meaning I’ve found myself turning it off in certain situations to get the most out of the display.

Huawei P9

Considering how small the P9’s speaker grille is, I’m surprised by the volume and quality of the audio that comes out of it. Not exactly built for lighting up a party, given it’s lacking in the bass range, but perfect for some crisp and clear hands-free calls. At a push, you can get away with watching an episode of Family Guy or a succession of YouTube clips if you’ve forgotten to bring your headphones to bed with you, but it’s not really cut out for enjoying a feature film. I have discovered that, for whatever reason, the P9 doesn’t support AC3 audio, which is a common enough format for videos. Pick the right files, though, and this shouldn’t cause too many problems.

Headphone audio quality is something of a mixed bag: The P9 isn’t the best phone I’ve rocked out with, but it’s not the worst either. You get a decent amount of clarity and bass coming through, especially when the DTS audio setting is switched on, but things can start to get raspy and abrasive at the high end. Volume is something of an issue too. I can still hear myself think at maximum power, and if you tend to use leaky in-ears like I do, then the P9 won’t do a great job of cutting through the ambience of a noisy train.

Software

Huawei P9

The P9 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box, not that you’d really know without checking the phone’s settings menu. That’s because of Huawei’s Emotion UI (EMUI) overlay, now at version 4.1. While it’s a major re-skinning of stock Android, it’s at least free of unnecessary animations that slow the device down to any degree. Compared with vanilla Android, EMUI is a bit cartoony, with flat, basic icons that make the skin look a bit antiquated.

EMUI does serve as a platform for third-party skins, though, giving you a high level of customization. Jump into the Themes app and you’ll find plenty of different veneers to download to your device — some more comprehensive than others — from clean to wacky and everything in between.

Huawei P9

Actually poking around EMUI isn’t all that different from stock Android, but there are a couple of obvious differences. Everything happens on the home-screen carousel, for example; there’s no separate app drawer. Also, the notification pull-down splits quick settings into its own little tab, and you can access music player controls, the calculator, the flashlight and a few more bits and pieces from the lock screen (like the Control Center on iOS).

There are a bunch of quirks to like about Huawei’s version of Android. I particularly dig that you can swipe downward on the fingerprint sensor to bring up the notification drawer, that you can double-tap the volume-down key to instantly take a picture when the handset is locked, and even some of the cringe-worthy pre-installed ringtones. But there are some things that might annoy.

Maybe a minor point for some, but I can’t find a way to hide contacts that don’t have a phone number in my Google-imported list, which is insanely frustrating. A couple of apps that duplicate the functionality of Google’s also needn’t exist, like an email client and calendar.

Huawei P9

Pre-installed bloatware is relatively minimal: some random games, a PDF reader, the Booking.com app and a couple more. Thankfully, all of these can be purged at your whim, and I can salute the P9 for introducing me to Todoist, which I’m really getting on with. A few of Huawei’s apps are neat enough. “HiCare” is a handy kind of on-device manual and serves as a conduit for customer service and support; “Phone Manager” lets you optimize performance and save a few minutes of battery life by identifying and closing down power-hungry background apps; and “Health” is a basic pedometer app that tells you how far you’ve walked as well as estimating the number of calories you’ve burned on your travels.

Would I prefer stock Android? Yes, I would. Am I unduly offended by EMUI? Not by a long shot, and as I’ve said, there are several enjoyable little features that Google doesn’t offer as standard.

Camera

Huawei P9

On to the main event: the P9’s dual rear cameras. Before that, though, a quick note on the 8-megapixel front-facer. The number alone should tell you that it takes some really sharp, and fairly wide-angle, shots. Selfies and video calls certainly aren’t an afterthought on the P9, and Huawei’s beauty slider will smooth away those blemishes (or make you look like a stubbly child) if you’re having a bad-skin day. Taking a page out of Apple’s book — and when does Huawei not look at what others are throwing at the wall — the P9’s display will serve as a makeshift flash if you need dat club ‘gram.

Huawei P9 camera

Huawei P9 Camera

The P9 is the first device Huawei’s created with input from high-end optics outfit Leica. At this stage in their relationship, Leica “approved” the lenses for the P9 and helped redesign the camera software. Sticking two cameras on the thing was definitely Huawei’s idea, though, and one the company first explored with the Honor 6 Plus.

But the arrangement is altogether different on the P9, as it uses two 12-megapixel sensors: one color and one monochrome. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the monochrome camera allows you to take native black-and-white images, and damn, do they look good. I really, really like this feature, but a fellow tech journalist did put it into perspective for me somewhat. We were discussing its merits, and I was gushing about how much better these black-and-white pictures looked in comparison with filtered color images. He agreed — kind of: “But is it a feature anybody asked for?”

Huawei P9

Perhaps not, but then I’m the kind of tool who has an ancient Pentax permanently loaded with 35mm Ilford film, so I’m exactly the type of person it would appeal to. That said, I could never ditch my manual cameras for a smartphone replacement, monochrome sensor or not.

The real reason for having a monochrome sensor doesn’t have much to do with native black-and-white snaps. Primarily, it’s there to play assistant to the color sensor. Huawei’s image-processing alchemy uses the lighting and contrast of the monochrome picture as a sort of data to enhance the quality of the final color image. And having two cameras instead of one means the P9 can simulate a whole range of aperture settings, just like HTC’s Duo Camera feature that debuted on the One M8.

While the color sensor actually takes the picture, the monochrome sensor is capturing depth information. This means that you can simulate the aperture of a bona fide camera lens, from f/16 all the way to f/0.95 (a nod to one of Leica’s most premium lenses). The aperture shooting mode therefore lets you take close-ups with the kind of bokeh (background blur) you get from proper cameras. And after the fact, you can edit the same snap to change the aperture size and the focal point of the image.

Huawei P9 Camera

Because this is all done with software, though, there’s an obvious cutoff point at which images go from having a nice, believable amount of bokeh to looking a bit ridiculous (think: that Neo-versus-Smith army fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded where real Keanu so obviously becomes CGI Keanu). The f/0.95 setting looks more like someone’s gotten way too smudge-tool-happy in Photoshop, for instance, rather than the image looking like it’s been shot with a real f/0.95 lens.

Cramming two cameras into a smartphone is nothing new, and it might not be the killer feature Huawei wants it to be. After all, why would HTC ditch its Duo Camera unless it discovered users weren’t all that fussed about it? Still, even if Aperture mode is tantamount to a gimmick — and one that’s been pinched from another manufacturer — the P9’s camera is still pretty great, and versatile at that.

Huawei P9

You can leave everything on auto and quite easily get some really crisp and detailed 12-megapixel shots out the P9. Exposure, white balance and color saturation are on point pretty much all of the time; rarely have I taken a shot with the handset and not felt it to be a faithful representation of what I can see behind the viewfinder. It adjusts to artificial light well, and focusing is rapid to the point of being practically instant, which Huawei puts down to its hybrid laser-, depth- and contrast-informed method.

Like autofocus, shutter response is just as instantaneous, almost regardless of lighting conditions; burst capture is so rapid you might as well be shooting a 30fps video. On that note, the P9 is pretty handy in low-light situations. It seems to capture most of the natural light available to it without too much artificial enhancement by way of jacking up the exposure. It can’t work miracles, but moonlight alone is sometimes enough for at least a distinguishable image. And when it’s not, you can rely on the powerful two-tone flash for a synthetic burst of illumination.

Huawei P9

If you want to delve beyond the simple point-and-shoot interface, there are a bunch of shooting modes to play with. Serious smartphone photographers might want to head straight for the “Pro” mode, which lets you tweak every setting manually, even the focus, and outputs RAW images. There are three different “Film” modes of Leica’s design that subtly change the texture of colors — standard, smooth and vivid — the latter being a kind of lighter HDR mode, which is also available to add that familiar high-contrast pop to images. The panorama mode is also worth mentioning because it does a fabulous job of stitching images together.

The exploration continues with various video toys, including time-lapse and slow-motion modes. Video quality does leave something to be desired, it has to be said. Full HD clips are a little too noisy for my liking, even in favorable lighting conditions. Colors are flat, and audio has a muffled, distant tone to it. But you can’t have it all, I guess, and who needs good video when you’ve got so many photo modes to dip in and out of? To conclude: At some point during my time with the Huawei P9, I stopped “testing” the camera and just started having fun with it, which is probably the best endorsement I can make.

Performance and battery life

Huawei P9

You won’t find any Snapdragons round these parts. Huawei P9 makes its own processors, and the P9 is kitted out with the best of ’em: the octa-core Kirin 955. That’s four 2.5GHz cores and four 1.8GHz cores, if you were wondering. Pair that with 3GB of RAM and you have one potent combination. And that’s all I really need to say. From simpler 3D games like Sonic Dash and NBA Jam to more resource-intensive titles like Asphalt 8,Real Racing 3 and Ravensword 2, the P9 handles them all effortlessly. No dawdling on the loading screens, no dropped frames, no problem.

Browsing performance is governed by the speed of your connection above all else, and in general day-to-day use, I haven’t seen any strange behavior that would constitute a chink in the processor’s armor. One variant of the Huawei P9, which I can’t see is available in the UK anywhere, has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. The 3GB of RAM and 32GB of space on the unit I’m using doesn’t leave me wanting in either department, however, especially since microSD cards are supported for upping memory up to 128GB.

Elsewhere in the performance stakes, there are a few missteps. GPS is inaccurate, for one. Google Maps jumps from my current position to where I was five minutes ago regularly, and there’s often a large margin of error even when it is roughly on point, leading to the occasional wrong turn. Also, WiFi takes a while to connect to saved networks for some reason, which is annoying on the London Tube when you have only 30 seconds at stations to get online and do whatever you need to. In terms of connections, you do have everything you could want available to you: Cat 6 LTE, dual-band WiFi (a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC.

Huawei P9

Compared with other smartphones that’ve run our review gauntlet in recent times, the P9 doesn’t exactly top the battery-life leaderboard. In fact, in our standard looping video rundown test (720p clip at 50 percent brightness), I managed to squeeze nine hours and 20 minutes out of the 3,000mAh cache. That’s more than an hour less than the HTC 10 and LG G5, and way behind the 13-plus hours that the iPhone SE and Galaxy S7 lineare capable of.

Outside of lab conditions, the Huawei P9 is good for about a full working day of frequent use, but not much more. On one particularly busy Wednesday, I tethered my laptop to the handset for over an hour, and took a bunch of pictures and made several calls, in addition to reading and responding to a constant stream of emails, WhatsApps, etc. Unplugging at roughly 7 AM, the phone was dead by about 10 PM. With less frequent use, you’re looking at more like a day and a half away from a charger.

The Competition

Huawei P9

It’s probably best to kick this section off with a few editor’s notes. Footnote one: The P9 is not officially available in the US, and Huawei’s said it doesn’t have any plans to launch it there. Second: I’m not an expert on the Asian market, where Huawei P9 is competing with the likes of Xiaomi and Nubia, potentially making the P9 a completely different proposition in that region. All I can reliably comment on is how it fits into the UK landscape, and even then, I’m struggling to see its niche.

Regardless of my opinion, Huawei seems to have wooed UK carriers, with every major network announcing its intention to range the handset the day it was announced. This is the biggest splash a new Huawei handset has ever made by an absolute mile, though it’s yet to reach any of these providers. Contract reseller Carphone Warehouse is offering the phone for free from £26 per month. That’s more than the Nexus 5X, the same price as the iPhone SE and only slightly cheaper than the LG G5.

Huawei P9

An unlocked, SIM-free model will set you back £449 at Huawei’s official online store, and therein lies a problem. That’s a lot of money. It’s more than the most expensive iPhone SE, £50 cheaper than the LG G5, and roughly £100 shy of the iPhone 6S, HTC 10 and Galaxy S7, not to mention that it’s identical in price to the Huawei-made Nexus 6P. I could probably dedicate a thousand more words to listing all the potential alternatives and relative pricing, but what I’m basically trying to say is: I don’t think the P9 hits that sweet spot between feature set and price.

The Huawei P9 is meant to be a flagship device, remember, but for a near-flagship price you’re not getting any of the comforts I might expect, like waterproofing, wireless charging, a Quad HD display, a striking design, high-res audio, a long battery life and so on. Apart from the dual camera — which HTC did years ago — there’s little to elevate the P9 user experience above great little devices like the Moto G or Wileyfox Swift, which you can pick up for a fraction of the price. The P9 is drowning in a sea of competition, and there’s no one feature to serve as its life jacket.

Wrap-up

Huawei P9

The Huawei P9 is a perfectly good smartphone, particularly when it comes to performance and camera tricks. I had a ton of fun playing around with all the shooting modes, ogling the gorgeous native black-and-white images, and fiddling with bokeh. But the dual camera is something HTC pioneered yonks ago, and has since sent it to feature heaven. And what else are we really getting?

A nice 1080p display (albeit no improvement over last year’s P8), a rather uneventful metal unibody design, a somewhat charming but unfamiliar Android build and a day’s worth of battery life. Huawei isn’t the only company taking baby steps, mind. Aside from LG’s ambitious G5, the biggest smartphone launches of 2016 thus far have largely been iterative.

If I had to take issue with one thing specifically, it would be the P9’s price, which is almost impossible to justify. The handset’s camera is its only standout — but not innovative — feature, and you want me to pay four hundred and fifty quid for that? No deal.

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