If you are in the market for a new high-end smartphone, then you are spoilt for choice. There is no shortage of smartphones that can match your dollar for dollar, pound for pound or shilling for shilling to guarantee you a nice premium finish, good camera, good display and good battery life. With the Huawei P9, Huawei is not only making a good case for itself as having come of age when it comes to delivering quality devices but also crowning the many years of trying to break to the top.
Being a top 3 smartphone brand in the world, Huawei is in a position where most Kenyans would say “it has arrived”. Having used its 2016 flagship smartphone over the last one month, I think I can nod my head in approval to such a statement.
In the box
Huawei spoiled us with the P8’s packaging. The P9’s packaging picks up from there even though it is a little underwhelming. Maybe it is because the novelty of the P8’s packaging from a year ago has worn off and we yearned for something new. Still, everything is as meticulous as it could ever be even though I can’t erase the words “Porsche Design” (from the BlackBerry Porsche devices) every time I see the “Huawei Design” inscription on the box.
There’s a USB Type-C to USB 2.0 cable, a wall adaptor, a SIM ejector, some documentation (user manuals and warranty card), a pair of headsets (really good ones by the way), a clear plastic case and the Huawei P9 itself.
Display: 5.2-inch IPS-Neo 1920×1080 pixels (423ppi) LCD
Processor: Octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 955 with a Mali-T880 MP4 GPU
Storage: 32GB internal storage (expandable); 3GB RAM
Camera: Dual 12MP with f/2.2 aperture and dual-tone flash at the back; 8MP with f/2.4 aperture on the front
Battery: 3000mAh (non-removable)
Connectivity: USB Type-C, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2
If last year’s P8 was a “winning cameraphone” then the P9 is that winning cameraphone made better
The P9, clad in all metal, has those chamfered edges that have come to define today’s premium smartphone.
At 6.95mm, the Huawei P9 is noticeably thinner than other recent flagship smartphones. The iPhone 6, the LG G5 and the Galaxy S7 are all behind it when it comes to just how thin the device is. And guess what? Huawei managed to squeeze, in that tiny Aluminium unibody frame, two back camera sensors and a fingerprint sensor without adding a camera bump as can be found on other devices like the Galaxy S7.
The power button is located almost centrally on the left side of the device with some texturing to make it more tactile. But, thanks to the superfast fingerprint sensor at the back, you are unlikely to rely on the power button that much. Being always on, the fingerprint scanner ensures that you’ll pick it over the power button to wake the device every other time.
Save for the addition of the fingerprint scanner at the back, the whole device looks and feels just like the P8. There’s the same display (albeit with some minor improvements) on the front, the device is still as light and even though there are those dual cameras at the back “co-engineered with Leica”, they are still placed in the same upper strip as the 13-megapixel sensor was in the P8.
There are other noticeable changes too. For instance, there is only one speaker grille at the bottom of the Huawei P9 unlike in the P8 where there were two. As recent as the Mate 8, Huawei had maintained that dual speaker setup even though operation-wise there was only one speaker. Which is why it is not surprising that the company did away with the second grille to make room for the 3.5mm headphone jack which moves to the bottom of the device from the top where it was located on the P8.
The microUSB port has been replaced with something new: a USB Type-C port, a welcome change since the world has since moved to the new USB standard for obvious purposes, faster charging and better data transfer speeds.
Instead of the headphone jack, the top houses a single microphone.
On the front, other than the expansive display, there’s the earpiece, a proximity sensor and an 8-megapixel selfie camera. From that arrangement, you will quickly notice that there is something missing: your usual notification indicator. This mostly comes in the form of a LED or in some cases, some rather interesting implementations like the so-called breathing light in recent Tecno budget smartphones or the famous Skyline in Oppo’s Find 7 smartphone. For the P9, Huawei decided to incorporate the LED notification in the earpiece and it makes for an interesting implementation.
Huawei seems to have settled on 5.2-inches as the sweet spot of the standard version of its flagship smartphone’s display. Like last year, Huawei went with an IPS-Neo LCD panel for the P9’s display even though it preferred an AMOLED panel for the P9’s bigger sibling, the 5.5-inch P9 Plus.
While a full HD display on a flagship device is not likely to excite anyone in 2016, it serves as a reminder that despite everyone making the jump to Quad HD panels with four times the resolution, there’s still not much you are missing out on. Eer, unless you have a virtual reality headset in which case a 1080p display won’t do you any justice.
The display is vivid, vibrant, saturated and with very good viewing angles. Colour saturation and accuracy may be subjective, though.
I did not have any issues using it both indoors and outdoors. In the event you need more tampering to please your eyes, Huawei lets you change the display’s temperature and more just so that you can be comfortable.
The camera is the Huawei P9’s most important feature. The Huawei P9 has three camera sensors. There is the 8-megapixel camera at the front for all your selfie needs and then there are the two cameras at the back that have the blessings of renown German camera-maker Leica.
The front-facing camera does its work, period.
Just look at this:
I found that my selfies looked much cooler and more real/natural with Beauty mode turned off than when it was on which, to me, is a little awkward. The opposite should be true. At least that’s what I expected. Selfies taken with Beauty mode on look a bit “manufactured”. Inauthentic. But there should be people who prefer how they look after Beauty mode has done its work. Ok, let me stop.
Where the front-facing camera shines so well is when taking selfies at night. Since there is no front-facing LED flash, the whole screen lights up to act as the camera flash.
As the first product of the Huawei-Leica partnership, the P9 has quite some expectations to meet considering the amount of time Huawei has taken to drum up the dual-camera’s features in advertising. Do they live up to the hype? Short answer: they do, mostly. Long answer, read on.
Dual-camera setups are not new. They’ve been around for a while. In the premium smartphone segment in 2016, besides the Huawei P9, you can find the same on LG’s G5 smartphone. However, unlike in all those devices, Huawei scores a few points for going out of its way and doing something unique with the P9’s 12-megapixel dual-cameras.
One camera is for the usual standard colour photos while the other is exclusively meant for taking black and white shots. However, unless a user opts to capture images in black and white by toggling on the Monochrome shooting mode, the two camera sensors work in tandem to capture the same image albeit with more depth, focus and clarity.
Here’s how that works: in the background, when you snap a picture, one camera captures a standard image with full colour while the other captures another with a black and white image. In the final processing before the end result is presented to you, the two are combined to a single image with the best possible results. At least that is what Huawei says the P9 cameras do.
According to the company, the P9 is able to let in more light when using the monochrome sensor (more than all its rivals) and as such it is able to add more clarity and detail to the images being captured than a standard sensor would.
The P9’s cameras deliver 3968×2976 pixels images in 4:3 aspect ratio by default and also at the highest setting. This can be changed to various resolutions (9MP, 6MP) and aspect ratios (16:9, 1:1).
Here are some sample shots:
There are 14 shooting modes in the Huawei P9’s cameras, much more than an ordinary user is likely to ever use but good for the variety. There’s Panorama, HDR, Monochrome, Beauty, Light Painting, Night Shot etc.
Being a basic smartphone camera user, I was mainly stuck with the camera app’s auto settings and frequently switched between auto mode and the Monochrome mode just to see what all the hype was about.
Images captured in the P9’s Monochrome mode which uses the single monochrome sensor are great. Clear with a lot more contrast and detail. It’s a better way to take black and white shots than using a filter as is the case on other smartphones. Or having to wait to use an app to transform a standard coloured image.
Here are a few examples:
In standard colour mode
In Monochrome mode
In standard colour mode:
In Monochrome mode:
Great as it is, using the P9’s monochrome camera alone is not something I am likely to be doing quite often.
Another of the camera modes I was bound to be using, obviously, is Night Shot. The reason I ended up not being a frequent user is because it takes forever processing images long after I’ve shot them and I found that I could still get much better results in my auto mode or cranking up the ISO level in Pro mode once in a while for the perfect night shot.
I was able to capture some really great images during the night using the Huawei P9. I would say that I have captured the best low-light shots with the P9 both in dimly-lit places and out at night but since there’s the Samsung Galaxy S7 which I have been using for a while now, the P9 will have to settle for second best. It’s really good and if this is a sign of what we can expect from the Chinese device maker in coming days then the competition has so much to be afraid of.
Here are more camera samples this time taken at night:
One enters the Pro mode by swiping up from the shutter button and from there, the possibilities are endless for the camera buffs. One can, for instance, crank up the ISO level from 50 all the way up to 3200, play with the shutter speed, exposure compensation, tune the laser-assisted hybrid autofocus, white balance etc.
The best thing about the P9’s camera is how it makes capturing bokehs effortless. You can crank the aperture from f/16 when everything is in focus all the way up to f/0.95 when everything in the background is blurred. With the tap of a button, one is able to blur the background of any surroundings and end up with some awesome shots of items in the foreground.
The shallow depth of field focus is great but for the lack of clear edges in some cases, as one notices when they are on a bokeh shooting spree. Still, by playing with the visual slider to spoof the depth of field, one can come up with something desirable. Else you may end up with such embarrassing results:
The P9 won’t replace your DSLR since it lacks photography-nerd basics like optical zoom, but it will get you half-way there.
The camera samples used in this review have been resized. You can find all of them in their full-size glory here.
While Huawei has managed to release to the market a smartphone with one of the best cameras for mobile photography, it has stuck with the same software that we abhorred last year but still encountered in some of the other devices we have had a look at this year.
I am talking about EMUI, the customized skin/interface that one finds on Huawei’s Android devices.
Even though the P9 runs on the latest (for now) Android 6.0 Marshmallow, there’s little to differentiate it from the Mate 8 I reviewed a few months ago. It’s different on the outside but almost the same on the inside. In fact, while the device’s bigger battery, fingerprint scanner and dual-cameras have done so much to differentiate it from last year’s P8, the software goes a long way in trying to undo all those gains. And it almost succeeds.
For instance, before one gets to interact with the P9’s powerful cameras, they need to open up the camera app, right? That’s where the experience gets jarring. This is because the app takes a few moments before launching. Some noticeable lag right there. Probably one of those few times that one can say they encountered any form of lag on the P9 because it is a pretty fast device.
My whole bone of contention with the software on the P9 is that while it takes a long departure from the way Google has envisioned Android, it doesn’t do much to make the experience better. It just gets worse instead of the other way round begging the question, what’s the point? Differentiation for differentiation’s sake or value addition? Huawei has some soul-searching to do with regards to its mobile software.
There’s nothing much to say here. The P9 is a fast phone. Huawei has a fast chip in the Kirin 955 which powers the device. It is more well-optimized for just about anything I used the device for and handled itself much better showing how much the company had managed to improve its in-house processor since last year’s Kirin 950.
Huawei bumped up the battery capacity to 3,000mAh from the 2,680mAh in the P8 last year. However, that bigger battery did not translate to any out-of-this-world performance. When pushed, it can easily last an entire day but the key word here is when pushed. Because the device’s battery life is average, at best. It is not as bad as in last year’s P8 but it is not above average either. It’s just there. “Good enough”. No, not that Jussie Smollett song from Empire.
One of the best things about the Huawei P9 is the fingerprint scanner at the back. Not only is it the first time that Huawei has incorporated a fingerprint sensor in its flagship P series but it is also one of the fastest fingerprint sensors I have ever used. Huawei says that the fingerprint sensor on the P9 is a Level 4 while that on the Mate 8 was a level 3 which means that the P9’s should be better and faster. It actually is. One does not need to understand whatever Huawei means by those “levels” to see how fast it is. Thanks to it being speedy, the fingerprint scanner is the best way to unlock the device.
The fingerprint scanner, besides unlocking the device, can also be used to unlock some supported apps. In my case, these are LastPass and Telegram Messenger. However, my favourite use scenario is in the camera app. By default, just placing one’s set finger on the scanner for a moment when the viewfinder is on results in a snap being taken, something handy when taking selfies.
The sound from the bottom-placed speaker is loud enough but can easily get muffled when holding the device in landscape mode when watching video or playing games.
4G network connectivity on the device is great as is the call quality.
- Really good camera. One of the best in the market.
- Good design. This is kind of a cliche since Huawei does not disappoint when it comes to smartphone design but it is still worth pointing out. Double marks for not having a camera bump at the back despite the entire device’s main feature focus being the camera.
- Solid performance.
- Super-fast fingerprint scanner.
- The software is a big letdown. EMUI is the gift that keeps on giving, negatively. There are rumours that Huawei is considering making Emotion UI more stock Android-ish. I’m crossing my fingers that they turn out to be true. I cannot imagine meeting the same interface next year when the P9’s successor comes around.
- No NFC (Near-field Communication). The dual-SIM variant of the P9, like the one I reviewed, lacks NFC. Now, this is not much of a deal breaker to most people save for us geeks and a few others but this in effect means no support for mobile payments like Android Pay in places where it is available and, of course, Android Beam-powered fast file transfers.
- Lack of 4K video recording. Again, not much of a big deal to me since I hardly ever shoot video and when I do it’s just 1080p so that my internal storage doesn’t fill up fast but for a device being advertised as one of the best when it comes to mobile photography, this is quite a noticeable omission.
- Not that this will matter to all people but it is a feature whose absence can be profoundly felt by its fans: the lack of an FM radio app. Huawei was one of the few remaining device makers who cared to enable FM radio transmission on its devices without the need for one to use the internet. After several years of including an FM radio app, Huawei has followed Apple and Samsung and yanked it from the P9.
Unlike last year when I was cautious about Huawei’s future software update plans for the P8, it doesn’t look like P9 users will have to wait much longer to get Android Nougat since there’s already a beta build of the firmware floating around the internet. If anything, it hints at Huawei’s preparedness this time round.
From early on when it debuted a member of its P series with camera sensors with a high pixel count on both the front and the back, Huawei sought to use its flagship device lineup’s camera to set itself apart from the competition. The P9 is sufficient proof that it has managed to do just that. The most interesting bit? It’s done that without making the user spend so much more.
The P9’s Kshs 55,000 price is a far cry from what a typical 2016 flagship from the other top smartphone brands like Apple and Samsung goes for. Of course, you’ll have to part with more if you are to go with the 4GB RAM, 64GB onboard storage model. Or you could be on the lookout for the much larger P9 plus which goes on sale in Kenya this August and boasts of an AMOLED display, a bigger battery and an IR blaster on top of everything else the standard P9 offers.