HUAWEI P9 review: An impressive Android flagship with a gorgeous design and an innovative dual-lens camera
PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW
HUAWEI took to the stage in London in early April to announce the widely anticipated (and hugely leaked) HUAWEI P9, the latest Android flagship with a dual-camera arrangement never seen before on a phone. We've put the HUAWEI P9 through its paces and here's our full review including price, release date, design, hardware, cameras and specifications. Also launched was the HUAWEI P9 Plus, which we've also reviewed.
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: UK PRICING AND AVAILABILITY
The question on everybody’s lips right now is “When can I buy a HUAWEI P9?” And for those of us in Europe, the answer is (officially) 16 April 2016. However, that date has now passed and although retailers will be stocking the smartphone, most say it won’t be available until Friday 6 May 2016. That’s not a surprise when it comes to HUAWEI, a company that announced the Mate S in September 2015 but had very limited stock available to buy before the end of 2015. If you're in the US, bad luck: there are currently no plans to bring the P9 or the larger P9 Plus to the US market.
You can pre-order the P9 right now from Vodafone and contracts start at £30 per month with no upfront cost - and you get a free HUAWEI W1 Classic smartwatch. Similarly, Carphone Warehouse is offering a free HUAWEI Active watch with the P9, and you can pre-order the black and white versions immediately. The P9 will also be available from EE and Three, and we'll add prices and more deals when they appear. In terms of a UK SIM-free price, the P9 will cost £449 - that's the 32GB, 3GB RAM model which is the only one coming to the UK.
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: DESIGN AND BUILD
HUAWEI has a history of releasing top-end smartphones at a much cheaper price point than its rivals, and the HUAWEI P9 is no exception. While its design is reminiscent of the HUAWEI P8and Mate 8, the P9 has a number of changes including a brand new fingerprint scanner on the rear (similar to many other HUAWEI smartphones, including the Mate S) but with more advanced technology inside. There are two Leica cameras on the rear, but we’ll come to those in a bit more detail below.
The 6.95mm thick HUAWEI P9 has a 5.2in screen and an all-metal body which makes the phone feel reassuringly expensive, with a gorgeous polished brushed metal finish on the rear of the device. The brushed metal finish stops grubby fingerprints from showing up on the rear of the smartphone, although the same can’t be said for the display. It measures in at 145x70.9x6.95mm and weighs a fairly lightweight 144g, an impressive feat when you consider that similar 5.2in smartphones like the recently announced HTC 10 weighs 161g and is 2mm thicker at 9mm.
However, it’s the smaller details which complete the premium feel of the P9, from the chamfer around the edges to the slightly curved front glass which makes swiping in from the edge of the display a more comfortable experience. It also means that the HUAWEI P9 is nice to hold and is comfortable to use over long periods, a key factor for a smartphone with a large display. As we've seen from HUAWEI before, it also has near-invisible side bezels only 1.75mm thick, producing the illusion of an edge-to-edge display and helping to keep the dimensions of the smartphone as small as possible.
Instead of the same colour options as the P8, HUAWEI has decided to make the P9 in six colours: Ceramic White, Haze Gold, Rose Gold, Titanium Grey, Mystic Silver and Prestige Gold. If some of those sound familiar, they're actually subtly different to Apple's hues. Still, it would have been nice for HUAWEI to come out with its own colours instead of copying Apple.
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: DISPLAY
Let’s get down to the specs of the HUAWEI P9. Although HUAWEI unveiled two models of the P9 at its event in London, we’ve covered the HUAWEI P9 Plus hands-on review separately.
The first thing you’ll notice is the gorgeous display - a 5.2in IPS panel. Its resolution of 1920x1080 may be lower than you'd expect - the HUAWEI-manufactured Nexus 6P has a 2560x1440 screen - but the P9's display still looks sharp and is bright, with a claimed maximum of 500cd/m2. We found the display to be incredibly bright, so much so that we used it in direct sunlight with no issue. In fact, we found ourselves turning the display down on occasion as it was too bright for our eyes.
The HUAWEI P9 display boasts 96 percent saturation, and while we were initially impressed by the vibrant colours produced by the display, we now feel like the display is almost too saturated. It’s most apparent when looking at photos taken on the HUAWEI P9 – the vibrant, high saturation display makes the colours of the photo ‘pop’ but when viewed on a standard computer screen, it’s not as impressive. The high saturation also means that the colours displayed aren’t ‘true to life’, which may be an issue for some, and unlike the Galaxy S7, it doesn't feature an always-on display for the time and notifications.
The HUAWEI P9 is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4, glass that the manufacturer claims is up to 2x stronger than the “leading competitor” (although we’re not quite sure who that is). While we didn’t specifically run any drop tests with the HUAWEI P9, we can confirm that it survived a ~1m fall screen first onto gravel with only a couple of small scratches on the display (much to our relief!).
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: PERFORMANCE AND BENCHMARK RESULTS
Inside the P9 is the all new HUAWEI-manufactured octa-core Kirin 955 CPU (a slight tweak on the 950 in the Mate 8) coupled with 3GB of RAM. And if you're familiar with the Mate 8, you won't be surprised to hear that the P9 is a brute when it comes to performance. We’ve put the P9 to the test over the past few weeks and we found it to be very responsive with no real signs of lag, even when firing up the camera - a stumbling block for many other smartphones.
If the P9 does start to show signs of lag, users can run the built-in optimiser standard on many HUAWEI smartphones to close running background processes and speed up the performance of the smartphone with a single tap.
Anyway, it’s time to talk specifics. We ran a number of benchmark tests to test the various features of the HUAWEI P9, and here’s what we found out. In Geekbench 3, the P9 scored 1789 in the single-core test and 6505 in the multi-core test. That's a little behind the Galaxy S7, but ahead of LG’s 2016 flagship, the LG G5 (in the multi-core test anyway). In AnTuTu, it scored a brilliant 97,584, which put it ahead of the Mate 8 (92,746) but considerably behind the Galaxy S7 (129,077).
For gaming, it's not the best option on the market. We saw results of just 19fps in GFXBench Manhattan, 36fps in T-Rex and only 7fps in the new Car Chase test. The Galaxy S7 was faster in all three tests, despite the higher resolution 2560x1440-pixel screen, with 27fps, 53fps and 8fps respectively. With that being said, we found no real issues with gaming on the P9 in our real world tests – it may struggle with high-end 3D games, but it can more than handle standard mobile games like Slither.io and Faily Brakes.
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: STORAGE AND CONNECTIVITY
In terms of storage, there's 32GB onboard but you can supplement this using a microSD card up to 200GB. That's an odd limit, but you can buy 200GB microSD cards for around £100.
Along with improved internals, the HUAWEI P9 has a 3000mAh battery that HUAWEI claims will last around 1.2 days with "extreme" use, and over a day and a half with standard use. We ran a battery benchmark during our time with the HUAWEI P9 and it scored 4305 with a runtime of 7 hours and 10 minutes, putting it in line with the Galaxy S6 (4136 and 06:53) but way behind the Galaxy S7 Edge (6855 and 11:25). In the real world, we found that the P9 would comfortably last all day with normal usage, but we wouldn’t go as far as to say it lasts up to a day and a half.
Though there was no mention of QuickCharge technology, the P9 has a USB-C port which the company claims should allow for fast charging - specifically, 10 minutes of charging time should produce up to five hours of use. However, in our real world tests, we found the charging time to be average for a 3,000mAh smartphone. In terms of connectivity, the P9 has dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth and 4G LTE. There's confusion over whether the UK model will support two SIM cards or not, but we can confirm that the phone is not dual-SIM in Blighty.
HUAWEI P9 HANDS-ON REVIEW: LEICA CAMERAS
The highlight is the rear-facing pair of cameras which were developed with Leica, a high-end camera specialist. Unlike similar setups we've seen on other phones, this one is different to others on the market because it uses one standard colour sensor and one monochrome sensor. Here's how it works: the standard 12Mp camera takes the primary photo and the 12Mp monochrome sensor also takes a photo. When combined you get up to 300 percent more light and 50 percent better contrast when compared to other smartphone cameras (there were many comparisons with the iPhone 6S at the launch).
We’re quite impressed with them – the photos taken are vibrant and crisp, and the cameras capture a great amount of detail (see our sample photos section below) in well-lit conditions. However, while HUAWEI claims that the P9 can take in up to 300 percent more light than other smartphone cameras, we’re not blown away by the quality of images taken in low light. Take a look at the below unedited image, taken at sunset (click to enlarge):
Photos taken in low-light conditions generally lack definition with visible levels of noise, and look relatively flat in terms of colour, even when showcased on a heavily saturated display.
It also has a hybrid focus system, using a combination of laser, depth and contrast focus which is said to deliver perfectly focused images almost instantly. The new autofocus system is much faster and more accurate than what we’ve seen with the iPhone 6s (and possibly the Galaxy S7). However, we have to admit that there were several occasions where the P9 got the focus completely wrong and required us to retake the photo – we’d recommend tapping on the subject on-screen to focus, rather than relying on the automatic focus all the time.
Along with a redesigned camera system, the camera app has been developed with Leica and uses the familiar Leica font. At first glance, it looks pretty basic with a lack of buttons, but that's because the app relies heavily on gesture control. You can swipe in from the edge of the display to access your camera settings and a variety of shooting modes, but our favourite was the Pro mode (activated by swiping near the camera trigger). Why? It offers complete control over the dual-camera, providing users with an opportunity to tweak settings including the ISO, shutter speed and even the autofocus area to capture the perfect photo.
Another favourite mode of ours is the ‘shallow depth of field’ mode (we’re not sure that’s the official name, but that’s what it’s called in-app). The mode allows you to tweak the "aperture" settings and focus of a photo after it has been taken. This is nothing new - HTC got there first with the Duo camera on the One M8 - but the good news is that it works better. A lot better. Chances are you wouldn't know the photos below were taken on a smartphone.
All the photos below have been shot using the native camera app and some of the effects and controls on offer. No processing or sharpening has been applied - we've simply resized them (click the thumbnails to enlarge).
At the front is an 8Mp camera, which doesn’t feature autofocus like the P9 Plus but offers a variety of photo and video modes, though not as many as the rear-facing camera. The photos taken with the front-facing camera were reasonably crisp, but we feel like it would really shine with autofocus capabilities.
For more on the P9's cameras and to see how it stacks up side by side with its main rivals, see best smartphone camera of 2016
Below you can see the depth of field effect in conjunction with the colour isolation option: it makes the out of focus parts black and white. However, the effect doesn't quite work on this phone box as you can see:
HUAWEI P9: VIDEO RECORDING
Oddly, the P9 doesn't support video recording in 4K. Instead the highest resolution is 1080p, although it's nice you can shoot it at 60fps as well as 30fps. There's also no optical stabilisation, so while 60fps improves smoothness a little, it's still obvious that it's only software stabilisation. If video recording is one of your priorities, there are better choices.
HUAWEI P9 REVIEW: SOFTWARE
No surprises here: the HUAWEI P9 ships with the latest version of Android, Marshmallow. More specifically, it will come with Android 6.0 in the box, but with the Emotion UI (or EMUI for short) overlay. This has extra features when compared to stock Android along with a heavily tweaked interface, including a redesigned notification centre that displays notifications in a timeline view. Essentially, it’s about as far from stock Android as it comes.
It also offers Wi-Fi+, a service that automatically analyses the quality of your internet connection and, if necessary, switch to a mobile data connection. Wi-Fi+ will also detect that you’re near a known Wi-Fi network and will toggle Wi-Fi on if switched off, and won’t connect to known Wi-Fi networks that have no Internet connection.
HUAWEI’s EMUI overlay does take a little bit of getting used to because, for example, the Settings menu has been redesigned and there's no quick access as you get with stock Android. Plus, there's no app tray, so all your apps have to sit on the home screen like iOS. With that being said, we think that even though it may take some getting used to, the extra features of HUAWEI’s EMUI make it worthwhile.
HUAWEI P9: Specs
5.2in FHD display
front facing 8Mp camera
Rear facing 12Mp dual-camera system
Rear-facing fingerprint sensor
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Emotion UI overlay
Oca-core Kirin 955 processor
MicroSD card slot
When comparing the P9 to other flagships, it’s important to remember the £449 price which makes it considerably cheaper than many of its rivals (but not the identically priced Nexus 6P that's also made by HUAWEI). Overall, we're impressed with the phone: it's well built, feels good and looks good. The cameras aren't the absolute best out there, it doesn't top the charts in game tests and the screen isn't Quad HD, but these minor quibbles are outweighed not only by the price but also because, unlike the Nexus, the P9 lets you stick in a microSD card to expand the storage. If you can afford it, the Galaxy S7 is a better phone overall, but this is a great choice if you can't.