Honor 9 review: Affordable flagships never look this good

Huawei’s budget conscious e-brand, Honor, has been building up quite the reputation in recent years for producing affordable smartphones with a high level of specifications, especially so in Europe. Last year’s Honor 8 was a stunning example of how a phone doesn’t have to cost the earth to be both beautifully designed and feature rich.

This year the Honor 9 launched with Huawei’s flagship Kirin 960 processor providing the grunt, 4GB or 6GB of RAM, upgraded optics, and a glass rear panel that somehow looks even more impressive than the one found on the Honor 8. The burning question is, does the Honor 9 match up to the standards that its predecessor set? The answer, as you might have guessed, can be found after the break. 

Design

Let’s take a long look at that rear glass panel. It’s stunning, right? The phone is more comfortable to hold than the Honor 8, those rounded edges and the ever-so-slightly smaller 5.15-inch display make a subtle but noticeable difference, with the Honor 9 being a tad thinner, narrower, and taller. Holding the Honor 9 in one hand is a cinch, and reaching to the top of the display is barely a stretch.

Is it still as slippery as its predecessor that used to slip off flat surfaces just because someone looked at it? You betcha, the Honor 9 is a handset that you’ll be wanting to slap a case on straight away. Mind that you put a clear case on, though, you don’t want to deny yourself the view of that glass panel as it catches the light.

It may be a slight case of design over function because the culmination of the 15 coats of glass on the rear panel is a slippery surface that is a magnet for fingerprints. But. You’ll never get tired of looking at that stunning glass back when the light hits it, especially in the Glacier Grey or Sapphire Blue colors.

On the front is a helping of 2.5D glass that helps the display meld seamlessly into the chamfered edge of the aluminum frame, achieving a gapless finish. No one would ever say that the Honor 8 lacked design chops, but the Honor 9 is more refined with its curved rear panel, 2.5D glass, and chamfered edges. as well as being more comfortable to hold.

The big change in design from last year’s Honor 8 is the relocation of the fingerprint reader from the rear to the front of the phone where it now doubles up as the Home button. Unlike the Huawei P10, where the fingerprint reader switched over to the front of the handset with wasted space where the recent and back keys should have resided, the Honor 9 makes use of the spare real estate by placing a key either side of the Home button, customizable depending on your preferences. We’ll discuss the relocation of the fingerprint reader later in the review.

On the bottom, you’ll see the 3.5mm audio jack on the left, with the USB Type-C charging port in the middle, with the speaker chamber to the right.

On the top, you have the IR blaster along with a microphone hole next to it.

The power and volume buttons are in the usual places on the right-hand side, with the hybrid SIM tray on the left giving the choice between a second SIM or a MicroSD card.

Hardware

 Honor 9
AnnouncedJune 12, 2017
ReleaseSummer 2017
Display5.2-inch (1920x1080) IPS LCD
ProcessorKirin 960
RAM4GB/6GB
Storage64GB w/ microSD card
Rear Camera12MP RGB + 20MP monochrome
Front Camera8MP
Battery3200mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C w/ fast charging
SoundBottom-facing speakers
SoftwareAndroid 7.0 Nougat w/ EMUI 5.1
ConnectivityBluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, GPS
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, fingerprint
Measurements147.3 x 70.9 x 7.45mm
Weight155g
ColorsGlacier Grey, Sapphire Blue, Midnight Black

Performance

The display has been pared down slightly from the 5.2-inch panel seen on the Honor 8 to a 5.15-inch LCD panel, albeit with the same Full HD resolution and IPS technology. The display is certainly bright enough to see when outside with vibrant colors, as you would expect from an IPS display, and you can adjust the colors to be warmer or cooler in the Settings.

Whereas last year’s Honor 8 made do with the Kirin 950 processor which wasn’t the newest silicon that Huawei had available, the Honor 9 is powered by the best chip that the company has, the HiSilicon Kirin 960. It’s the same processor that we’ve seen running in the P10 and Mate 9, which, combined with 6GB of RAM, results in a slick experience. Whether you are browsing or playing games, performance is also helped by the inclusion of the Mali-G71 graphics processor that supports the Vulkan graphics API. The pre-installed Asphalt Nitro opens up speedily and runs as smooth as anything.

In the UK, the Honor 9 will come with 4GB of RAM as standard, while selected European countries will be able to grab the 6GB version. For the sake of clarity, the review unit has 6GB of RAM. There is 64GB of internal storage which you can augment via the included MicroSD card slot.

The internal speaker has been tuned by Grammy Award winning engineer Rainer Maillard and features Huawei’s HiSten 3D audio system. It sounds pretty much the same as many other smartphone speakers, perfectly fine at low-to-mid volume levels but edging towards tinny at the top end. Honor also partnered up with Monster for the software tuning of music through the 3.5mm audio jack, and I’m happy to report that the output was clear with a goodly amount of bass.

Swinging back to the fingerprint reader, as with other Huawei handsets, it’s as quick and accurate as you like, unlocking the handset in a split second regardless of how your fingertip is aligned. The Back and Recent capacitive keys on either side aren’t demarcated as such but they do house little blue LED lights that either switch off after 5 seconds or when the display turns off. It’s a much more user-friendly and intuitive arrangement than experienced on the P10. Fans of the on-screen navigation keys will be disappointed to find out that they have been omitted from the Honor 9, although you can navigate the home screen by holding or tapping the home button.

Battery

The Honor 9’s battery 3200mAh, which is up from the Honor 8’s 3000mAh, and it will get you through the day with a bit to spare. Normal usage would see the handset with around 10-20% charge left at bedtime. When I say normal usage, that means checking email, social media, streaming music via Bluetooth, some gaming, and viewing YouTube. On average, I would get around four and half hours of screen-on-time per charge.

While the Honor 9 doesn’t offer Huawei’s ultra-fast SuperCharge technology, charging is pretty quick nonetheless with Honor’s 9V, 2A charging solution. You’ll get hours of use out of 30mins of charging time, with a full charge taking around 2 hours.

Software

Every time we review a Huawei or Honor device with EMUI, we likely as not say something akin to “It’s like Marmite, you’ll either love it, or you’ll hate it”. Because the Honor 9 is running Huawei’s EMUI 5.1 interface on top of Android 7.0 Nougat, it’s pretty much the same story. If you’ve used the custom interfaces found on Samsung and LG devices, you’ll get along with EMUI just fine. If you prefer stock Android, you’ll probably be reaching for a third-party launcher at some point.

It has to be said that with each new iteration of EMUI, Huawei is slowly stamping out the annoying bugs and quirks. Aesthetically, EMUI has come on in leaps and bounds, gone is the garish design found in version 4 and older, instead, we have a color scheme that is said to be inspired by the Aegean sea. Regardless of how it came about, the resulting flat white backgrounds and Aegean blue color makes for a refreshing experience. EMUI may not be to the taste of Android purists, but it has tons of handy features.

EMUI 5.1 includes features such as App Twinning that allows the user to have two instances of WhatsApp, WeChat, or Facebook accounts running simultaneously. It’s handy because this means you can run both your personal and business accounts on the Honor 9 without having to sign out and sign in every time you access them.

There isn’t terribly much difference from what we experienced with the P10 that runs essentially the same software. The power of the Kirin 960 processor, combined with the lighter EMUI 5.1 skin results in a slick experience, perhaps not Pixel quick, but definitely nothing to complain about.

Thanks to Huawei’s dabbling with machine learning, EMUI loads up your most used apps quicker than the lesser used ones. For example, if you’re addicted to Twitter, then that app will load faster than say the Google Plus app that you haven’t used in 6 months. The idea is that more commonly used apps will be pre-cached, which means less time waiting for the app to open.

There’s a bit of bloat present on the Honor 9, with pre-installed ‘Top’ apps consisting of Booking.com, Instagram, TripAdvisor, Results, and eBay. Most of them I would have downloaded anyway, and you can uninstall them if they are unwanted. There are also a few games preloaded, including Asphalt Nitro, Dragon Mania, Kingdoms, Spiderman: Ultimate Power, Little Big City 2, as well as Assassin’s Creed: Unity (exclusive to the Honor 9) and a short-cut to ‘Top Games‘ from GameLoft. Again, you can uninstall them all quite easily, so big deal.

It’s been confirmed that EMUI 6.0 will launch sometime in the remainder of 2017, probably when the Mate 10 arrives in October/November. It has also been confirmed that the Honor 9 will be updated to this newer version of EMUI at an unspecified time.

EMUI 5.1 isn’t perfect, while it’s easier and quicker to navigate than previous iterations, there is still room for improvement. The menu still needs some tidying and sorting, the battery manager is still a tad too aggressive for my liking, and it’s obvious that EMUI still draws a certain amount of inspiration from iOS, but it is getting harder to pick fault with each new version.

Camera

With an upgraded dual camera setup featuring a 12MP color sensor and a 20MP monochrome sensor, I was expecting great things from the Honor 9, and in good light, you’ll be rewarded with awesome images. When faced with taking pics in low-light conditions such as in a bar or outside after dusk, however, the results aren’t fantastic, with noticeable noise being shown on the photos.

The low-light performance can be blamed on the lack of OIS (Optical-Image-Stabilization) and that the 12MP color and 20MP monochrome sensors both have a f/2.2 aperture with 1.25-microns and 1.1-microns respectively. This result is that the sensors don’t really take in quite enough light. In good light, though, the Honor 9 takes some quality images, with good detail and vibrant colors.

While the camera app doesn’t have Leica branding like it’s Huawei cousins, it does have a nice array of options, including Pro mode that lets advanced users tweak the settings to get better images. Other options include 3D Panorama’s, 3D creator, Monochrome, HDR, Time-Lapse, Night Shot, and Light Painting. The low-depth-of-field mode lets you adjust the position and level of background blur in an image, while Portrait mode automatically zooms in slightly on a person with a pre-determined level of bokeh effect. It’s a little hit or miss, but when it works, it results in an impressive photo.

The Honor 9 also has 2X Hybrid zoom, and while it may not be a match for the optical zoom seen on the iPhone, it is still very capable. Once you go past the 2X limit, though, the images become a little grainy and lose detail. Still, it’s a nice feature to have, and very useful up to the 2X level.

In a nutshell, the Honor 9’s camera may not be competing head-to-head with the Galaxy S8’s camera, but considering its price, it’s more than capable of delivering great shots, so long as you have realistic expectations.

Closing

While the Honor 9 could be dismissed as simply a lesser-specced Huawei P10, in reality, having used both handsets as daily drivers, the Honor 9 simply has more heart, which is an admittedly weird thing to say about an inanimate object. The Honor 9 delivers in just about every area you would want, and despite the camera’s less-than-perfect performance in low-light conditions, it should prove to be another winner for the budget brand.

One thing we haven’t mentioned is how much the Honor 9 costs. In Europe, you can grab the 6GB/64GB variant for €429, while here in the UK you can get the 4GB/64GB version for £379. Sadly, it doesn’t appear as if the Honor 9 will be coming to the U.S anytime soon, which is a shame. The handset undercuts most of its competitors while still packing flagship performance and style, so it isn’t much of a stretch to say that the Honor 9 is absolutely the most stylish handset you can buy for under £400.

Buy it now: VMall EU, VMall UK


About the Author: Peter Holden

I've been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being my first phablet. I currently carry around a Huawei P10 and a Galaxy Tab S2 8.0. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, I'm an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, I love a good Braai (BBQ).