Huawei P9 review: Stepping up to the plate

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This year appears to be the one that Chinese companies achieve mainstream status in western markets. While we were all greatly impressed with Huawei’s collaborative effort with Google in 2015 that produced the Nexus 6P, the launch of the P9 in London back in April was a huge event, with journalists and tech bloggers being flown from all over the globe to provide coverage. Even Superman‘s Henry Cavill was in attendance. It was a big deal for Huawei.

Was it worth all the fuss?

Hit the break for our review of the Huawei P9.

Design

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One of the first things you notice when holding the P9 is how sleek and comfortable it is. The phone’s aerospace-grade aluminum unibody meshes seamlessly with the 2.5D glass that covers the front. Unlike the LG G5, the rear panel and sides feel like they are made out of metal. The glass that is present on the front and the strip on the rear features faint stripes that provide an added dimension to the design. The 2.5D glass on the front tapers off to the edges, giving a really luxurious feel to it. It really does feel good to the touch.

The P9 has dimensions of 145 x 70.9 x 6.95mm and weighs in at 144 grams, making it ever so slightly longer. It’s wider and heavier than say the Galaxy S7, but the phone is slightly lighter than Samsung’s offering.

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The Huawei branding is tastefully understated beneath the on-screen navigation buttons. There’s a thin beveled edge on the rear of the phone that takes away any hint of sharpness when holding it. Unlike some other flagships, the P9 doesn’t have a camera bulge on its rear panel, with the dual-cameras and flash unit being housed in a glass strip at the top end and the fingerprint scanner just below. The ubiquitous plastic antenna strips are present top and bottom.

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A microphone pinhole is present on the top edge of the P9, with the 3.5mm audio jack and loudspeaker sitting on the bottom edge, along with the USB Type-C charging port that sits in the middle between two pentalobe screws. The multi-purpose SIM tray that also houses the microSD card is on the left-hand edge, with the volume and power buttons in the right. All-in-all, the P9 is both easy to hold and navigate. The quality of the construction materials gives it a premium feel, while the 5.2-inch display helps the P9 sit comfortably in the hand. My only criticism is that it can be a tad slippy, so it’s best to get a case that will add some grip. For the most part, I’ve used a cheap TPU case, but I’ve also tested it with the official Huawei P9 Smart View flip case for a couple of weeks as well.

Hardware

 Huawei P9
AnnouncedApril 6, 2016
ReleasedApril 2016
Display5.2-Inch Full HD (1920x1080) IPS Display
ProcessorHiSilicon Kirin 955 octa-core
RAM3GB
Storage32GB with microSD card slot
Rear CameraDual 12MP sensors, laser focus, dual-tone LED flash
Front Camera8MP
Battery3,000mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C
SoundBottom-facing speaker
SoftwareAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow with EMUI 4.1
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, compass, fingerprint
ConnectivityNFC, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, WiFi 802.11 /b/g/n/ac, fingerprint scanner
Measurements145 x 70.9 x 6.95mm
Weight144g
ColorsWhite, grey, silver

Performance

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While some may scoff at the notion of a flagship only having a Full HD display, the P9’s IPS panel with its 423 pixels per inch performs superbly. The automatic brightness function is probably on of the best iterations I’ve experienced, definitely a lot more intuitive than on my Galaxy S6 Edge Plus. The only time I’ve actually had to fiddle with the auto-brightness is on the rare occasion where I’ve been running low on battery. The display works well in sunlight, and while it isn’t the absolute best display you will ever see on a phone because Samsung probably has that area covered for the moment, it’s still pretty good. Because it’s using IPS technology, viewing angles are decent, and the colors pop out nicely without being over-saturated. If you find the display’s temperature too warm or cold, you can adjust it in the settings.

I recently reviewed Huawei’s MediaPad M2 10.0 tablet which suffered from performance issues, or jank, if you prefer, caused by the combination of being burdened with EMUI 3.1, Android 5.1.1 Lollipop and a dated processor. Happily, this was not the case with the P9. The handset’s HiSilicon Kirin 955 octa-core processor along with the Mali-T8880 GPU has the power to burn. Navigation of Huawei’s EMUI 4.1 skin is generally smooth and lag-free. As is common with most Honor and Huawei devices,  standby time and battery life are pretty good.

The loudspeaker is quite loud, although if you push the volume to its limit distortion creeps in, like most phones. HTC BoomSound it is not, but it performs well enough for watching videos and chatting for short periods.

After using the Honor 5X as a daily driver for a few months preceding the P9’s launch, I’m almost getting to the point of taking Huawei’s excellent fingerprint scanner for granted. The P9 has a level 4 fingerprint scanner, and it’s as accurate and fast as you would like, and because the scanner is on the rear panel, it’s really easy to use while holding the handset normally. While you can use the fingerprint scanner to take pictures answer calls, stop alarms and to show the notification panel, it isn’t possible to use it to quick launch your favorites apps like you can do on the Honor 5X. For its main purpose of keeping the phone secure from prying eyes, though, the fingerprint scanner on the P9 is second to none.

Battery

In recent years, if a phone managed to get through to the end of the day without needing a top-up, you were either doing extremely well or your handset hadn’t been used. While the P9 doesn’t set any records for battery life, it’s by no means terrible. On average, I managed to through a normal day of tweeting, emailing, and browsing before the P9 began begging for a charger. Gaming took around 18-22% of charge per hour while streaming video ate roughly 13% every hour. When I taxed the P9 to its limits, taking photos, gaming, plus my normal daily routine, I usually had to top it up 4PM. Thankfully, charging the P9 is no hardship with the handset taking around an hour to get back to a full charge when connected to a fast charger.

Software

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While Huawei usually gets the hardware side of things right, software is an area that the Chinese handset maker traditionally slips up on, with its heavy custom EMotion UI skin often being the cause of great frustration. In previous versions of EMUI, the notifications system was a mess, and there were numerous software bugs and glitches combined with some iffy UI design.

Thankfully, I can report that this is the best version of EMUI yet, and while that could be viewed with cynical eyes as being a back-handed compliment, it really is much better than previous iterations. Yes, it’s still a heavy-handed UI, there’s still a whole host of added features that aren’t present on your stock Nexus device. Yes, the app icons are still spread around the home screen willy-nilly with no real way of putting them in any sort of order unless you put them into folders. Grr indeed. I found that the keyboard wasn’t quite as accurate as I’m used to, although that could be down to my sausage fingers being used to a larger handset with bigger keys.

EMUI 4.1 is a lighter skin than previous versions, although it’s still not where we would like it to be, with the settings really needing to be sorted out because they are all over the place and sometimes duplicated. As for the additional functions, well, they add a boatload of useful functionality that simply aren’t available in stock Android. Much like Marmite, you’ll either appreciate them or not. I found the lock-screen features to be handy, with its a swipe-up menu including media controls as well as voice recording, calculator, torch and camera shortcuts.

Just like the Honor 5X and the MediaPad M2, there’s a Phone Manager app that lets you optimize the system by cleaning up the memory, cache junk, app cache, and app packages. The latter is a neat feature if you are trying to conserve storage. The Phone Manager app will also let you decide on which apps can access the network as well as duplicating the WiFi Hotspot settings. The apps Notification section lets you control how apps send notifications via the status bar, banners, and even the lock screen.

The Harassment Filter section that lets you block calls and messages, while the Dropzone section lets you manage apps that ‘pop’ things up on to your display such as Facebook’s Messenger app. Finally, the Phone Manager app has a battery section, where you can choose how aggressively you want the P9 to perform; the Performance plan offers full throttle, while the Smart plan gives a more balanced option. The Ultra power saving option is a tad more aggressive, keeping only basic functions such as calling and messaging features active.

Another way to save power is to choose to lower the P9’s resolution to 720p from Full HD, which will theoretically allow the graphics processor to scale down its energy consumption. In real life, I never really noticed much more than a few minutes difference when I activated this feature. Your mileage may vary.

If the EMUI interface isn’t to your liking and you’d prefer to install a third-party launcher, then the how-to video below will help you through the process. I did find that the battery life seemed to take a small hit when using a custom launcher, so I ended up installing a third-party app drawer from the Play Store to get around my main complaint the apps being out of order on the home screen.

Regarding Huawei’s update plans for the P9, Android Nougat is undergoing testing, with a beta build (L09C432B040SP11) having leaked on the XDA forums. I’ve installed the beta firmware on my P9, and I’m relieved to say that there is an option to include an app drawer baked into EMUI 5.0, and that the UI as a whole seems more cohesive and less garish than previous versions. While the beta firmware is fairly stable so far, there are still some bugs and glitches present, it is beta firmware after all. Still, it shouldn’t be too long until it rolls out globally and it’s definitely something to look forward to in the months ahead.

Camera

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There’s been a lot written about Huawei’s partnership with Leica in developing that dual camera setup on the P9. Regardless of how close the collaboration was, the end result speaks for itself. The two 12MP sensors, one for color and the other for monochrome, deliver great photos with a minimum of fuss for the average user, while the Pro mode offers some options for the more advanced picture taker.

The dual rear cameras have got f/2.2 apertures, and the P9 really comes into its own when taking black and white images. That should be expected, though, thanks to the dedicated monochrome sensor.

There’s a whole host of easy-to-use options and modes to choose from on the camera app including Photo, Monochrome, Beauty, Video, HDR, Beauty Video, Panorama, Night Shot, Light Painting, Time-Lapse, Slow-Mo, Watermark, Audio Note, and Document Scan.

So how good is the P9 at taking photos? Very good, but not exceptional. The app is certainly easy enough to use and offers enough options for both the average and the more advanced user. The resulting images are very good, but perhaps don’t quite match up to the Galaxy S7 Edge that boasts Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS). Will you be disappointed with the P9’s camera? Nope. Not at all. And you can judge this for yourself as I’ve included a few samples images below, you can check out even more sample images here.

Closing

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The Huawei P9 has been my daily driver since it launched on April 6th, and it’s been a joy to use. Huawei’s latest attack on the premium segment has really hit the spot, offering high-end specifications and an alternative flagship that simply can not be ignored, depending on how much you pay for it. Huawei’s official online store, vMall, has the P9 on sale for £449, which is a little pricey, but you can pick it up for around £380 from O2 and Vodafone on PAYGO, which makes it much better value for money.

As always, the 64-million dollar question – would I recommend the Huawei P9? Yes, albeit with a couple of caveats. So long as you can either get used to the EMUI skin or don’t mind installing a custom launcher, the P9 will serve you well. The dual-camera setup offers something different to most other handsets and the phone is solidly built out of premium materials that feel good in the hand.

If you’ve been on the fence about buying a Huawei handset, the P9 is the perfect phone to start with, a far cry from the hot mess called the GX8 that Brad reviewed a few months ago, and a huge step up from the impressive but flawed Honor 5X. In fact, the P9 is a great example of how Huawei has become a major force to be reckoned with in the smartphone world, and a serious option to consider when buying a flagship handset on a budget.

Buy it now: Huawei, EE, Vodafone UK, O2, Carphone Warehouse, vMall, Three UK


About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Huawei P10 and a Galaxy Tab S2 8.0. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).


  • Goran

    I think that Huawei p9 is a complete mid-range phone, all it’s parts are 100% mid-range… Just priced like a flagship. It’s crazy to say that htc 10 is overpriced. P9 is, even with lower price than htc 10. S7 and htc 10, even LG g5 are flagships. P9 isn’t. Overpriced mid-range iphonish phone with worst software and audio on market from biggest cutting edge company. ZTE axon 7 completely crushes every single Huawei so called flagship, in specs and price. Huawei will learn they are not Samsung.

  • indu taurus

    Good app. So far no problems. I love LEO Privacy it lets you pick what apps you want to be locked. I also really like that it’ll take a picture of someone trying to unlock your phone. Another great feature, it gives you the ability to locate your phone and even clear its data and lock it in case its stolen or lost.