Huawei’s reputation in the smartphone market has been improving by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, as they’ve transitioned from budget phones to premium flagships meant to contend with the likes of Samsung, LG, and HTC. Introducing new premium phones alongside cheaper options has propelled Huawei into the number three spot in global smartphone market share for 2015, according to IDC.
In other words, Huawei has plenty of cash on hand to make their flagship phone a whole lot better every year. This year, they’ve introduced the P9, an updated version of last year’s P8. The P8 was one of Huawei’s first premium phones, using glass on the front and back with a spec sheet meant to rival the best the Android world had to offer. That phone was received as something between mid-range and premium, but since then, Huawei has released a pair of very impressive, if slightly flawed, smartphones in their Mate line — the Mate S and the Mate 8. The P9 takes after those expensive phones in terms of specs, but uses a lighter build and a new, Leica-backed camera system to make itself stand out from the crowd.
The result is yet another impressive Huawei phone — to an extent. While the P9 represents yet another step forward for the company, the P9 still suffers from some flaws that have held back entries in the Mate line, too. Those flaws are minor, but they become exaggerated at the price Huawei is asking.
Note: This review is of the 32 GB storage/3 GB RAM configuration of the Huawei P9. We won’t be discussing the larger P9 Plus or the cheaper P9 lite in this review.
The Huawei P9 is a 5.2″ phone, which puts it on the smaller end of the flagship spectrum. As always, size is a matter of personal preference, but it’s nice to see another strong phone at this size alongside the Galaxy S7. While some fairly won’t like the decreased screen size, others will appreciate that the P9 is comfortable to hold and easy to use with one hand. It’s also one of the thinnest and lightest phones on the market, at 144 grams and 6.95 mm thick. Usually I don’t like phones this thin, as they start to sacrifice ergonomics, but it feels OK at the 5.2″ size.
The aluminum shell has a semi-rough finish that really hits the sweet spot — it’s still soft to the touch, but can be gripped securely. It’s surprisingly comfortable to hold considering that it doesn’t have a slightly rounded back like many other flagships. It’s flat, with chamfered edges on the front and back and a rounded outer frame. The only problem with the build is that the metal might be too soft and delicate for its own good — without a case, the back will get dinged up and scratched if dropped. Other flagships, especially the HTC 10, are a little better at taking punishment. The lack of water resistance is a bummer, too.
On the back of the phone, you’ll see one antenna line running along the bottom, while the upper line blends into the dual-camera rig, which takes up the whole top edge of the back and has its own glossy finish. There, you’ll see both rear camera lenses (we’ll discuss those more later), along with the dual-LED flash and the conspicuous Leica branding. Below that is the fingerprint scanner. One side has the dual-SIM/Micro SD card tray, while the other has the volume rocker and a slightly recessed power/wake button. The microphone is up top, while, like the iPhone, the audio jack is on the bottom edge along with another microphone, the USB Type-C charging port and a small speaker grille. On the front of the phone, the top end has the front camera and a small speaker grille. That front speaker grille has a tiny LED light that flashes when you receive notifications, which is a lot gentler than other phones that use full-blown LED flashes.
There’s nothing that necessarily distinguishes the P9 in terms of physical design. On the one hand, it’s hard to care too much about that, since the phone looks pretty good and fancy design doesn’t make a phone more useful. On the other hand, with flagship smartphones so similar to each other internally, design all of a sudden has an exaggerated importance in the market as one of the few features that can be used to differentiate your phone. The P9 isn’t going to stand out on store shelves, which is too bad, because it’s a pretty good phone.
Performance has been the Achilles heel of premium Huawei phones. They use in-house chipsets, which is a blessing and a curse — their HiSilicon Kirin SoCs tend to be great raw performers, but their graphics processors have lagged far behind the rest of the flagship Android world. The P9 uses the brand new HiSilicon Kirin 955 SoC, which unfortunately only has made improvements to the CPU. The octa-core CPU now has four cores at 2.5 GHz instead of 2.3 GHz, with the other four cores staying at 1.8 GHz. The Mali-T880 graphics processor is unchanged, which means that Huawei’s strengths and flaws have remained the same.
In the utilitarian PC Mark for Android Work test, Huawei once again shines. My P9 scored 6,221, but the 4 GB/64 GB model has been known to score near 6,800. As we’d expect, that’s a little better than the Mate 8 and eclipses all other 2016 Android flagships, most of which run on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC. That means the P9 is a terrific phone for web browsing and other basic tasks, especially if you need to run a lot of those tasks at once.
And, as we’d expect, things get a little rougher when we get to benchmark tests that include graphics performance. My P9 scored 81332 on AnTuTu, which considers 3D graphics alongside CPU and RAM performance (the 4 GB/64 GB model scores around 91000). Once again, the P9 inches past the Mate 8, but lags several thousand points behind the iPhone 6S, the Galaxy S7, the LG G5, and other premium phones — mostly because of 3D graphics performance. The disparity becomes more obvious in the 3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1 and GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan offscreen tests, where the P9 scores 621 and 412.1 frames. That’s way behind other flagships, and while it’s still much better than where Huawei was this time last year, it’s clear they badly need a GPU upgrade.
Normally, I’d accuse myself of splitting hairs here, but there are a couple reasons why this is significant. The biggest one is VR — Huawei is releasing their own VR headset that can use a P9 or a Mate 8, but this GPU isn’t good enough to make the most of the 360-degree videos and VR games that will be shot and developed. Even regular 3D games lag a little bit — if mobile VR really is to be the next big thing, the P9 isn’t ready for it. The other reason is price. At the premium end, it’s reasonable to expect top of the line performance, and Huawei has been putting a very high price on their phones. For the price, the graphics performance is a glaring deficiency.
It’s worth it to back up a little here — during everyday use, the P9 is terrific. Basic tasks are fluid, and streaming music and HD video is smooth. One thing Huawei can hang its hat on is thermal management — their HiSilicon SoCs are still more efficient and run cooler than Qualcomm’s, and it really shows once you start multitasking with the P9. It’s wonderful to be able to work a smartphone hard without it heating up in your hand and becoming uncomfortable.
The 1920 x 1080 display is bright and clear, but this is another place where Huawei struggles compared to its competitors at this price. While glare is minimal, the HTC 10, Galaxy S7, and LG G5 all have brighter displays and perform better in direct sunlight. And, once again, VR is important to consider — while a good 1080p screen is almost indistinguishable from a good 1440p screen during regular smartphone use, the gap becomes pretty obvious when the screen is inches from your face in a VR headset. 1080p isn’t great for VR, and it’s going to hamstring Huawei’s VR headset. If you don’t care about VR, there’s nothing bad to say about the display, except that at this price range it probably should have a 1440p display on principle.
Battery life was never going to be as good as the Mate 8, which remains the undisputed king of battery life on a premium smartphone. Still, it’s not bad — the 3,000 mAh battery isn’t as big as some of the other flagships this year, but the less demanding 1080p display and the more efficient HiSilicon Kirin 955 SoC mean that the P9 can stretch that battery farther. The P9 scored 9 hours and 18 minutes on the PC Mark for Android Work battery life test, which is up there with the Galaxy S7 and a fair amount ahead of the LG G5 and the HTC 10. Battery life isn’t as good the more you play games with 3D graphics, but it still remains one of the top choices this year.
In practice, the battery can pretty easily last an entire day, but not much more. The P9 tracks your steps and logs them in Huawei’s Health app automatically, so if you do want to save a bit of battery life, you can always disable that. Chances are that battery life won’t be a concern for most users, though. Although the P9 did come with a wall adapter with ‘Quick Charge’ written on it, the phone does not have QuickCharge 3.0 technology, so you won’t get 50 percent charge in a half hour like a lot of other premium phones. Still, it’ll charge up that much in a little more than an hour, so you won’t be waiting around forever, either.
With the P9, Huawei has made the move to the USB Type-C connector, leaving Samsung as the only premium Android smartphone maker to stick with the more familiar Micro USB port. Samsung will probably make the switch next year, and that’s a good call — while the multipurpose Type-C cable is ultimately more versatile, it’s still yet to be widely implemented. We’re thinking by next year, enough notebooks and peripherals will have Type-C ports to where this switch will make sense.
The lack of wireless charging is a slight disappointment — slow adoption of public wireless charging pads makes wireless charging limited in its usefulness, but it’s still something we prefer to see at this price.
Like everyone else, Huawei’s big 2016 push was in the rear camera. By bringing in Leica, Huawei nailed the premium branding bit, but as you might have guessed, there isn’t much resemblance between this camera and the professional-grade stuff Leica is known for. Still, that’s not to say it’s bad — the P9’s dual-camera system performs well, and is one of the most enjoyable cameras to use out of the whole lineup of premium phones this year.
The P9 uses a dual-camera system with two 12 MP sensors with f/2.2 27 mm Leica lenses. Why two? The answer seems to be different for every phone that uses a dual-camera system. In this case, one is a color camera and the other is a black and white camera. The idea is that the black and white camera is much better at detecting light levels than the color camera, which needs to devote more processing power to distinguishing between shades of color. Both sensors supply information that is processed into one image.
The rear cameras have some premium features in phase detection autofocus and dual-tone LED flash, but there are some noticeable omissions. Huawei didn’t add optical image stabilization, which limits the phone’s usefulness when taking video. The P9 is also one of the few flagship smartphones that cannot take 4k video, maxing out at 1080p 60 fps. Again, when the phone is priced this high, these are features that probably shouldn’t be skipped.
For pictures, the P9 performed very well in sunny conditions and for pictures with dark and bright spots. In the latter, the sky didn’t get over-exposed as it does with a lot of other smartphone cameras, while the darker areas had more detail without many artifacts. Pictures in low-light conditions were so-so, but about as good as most other smartphone cameras we’ve used (the Galaxy S7 beats out the P9 here). The autofocus definitely isn’t the fastest on the market, and the camera is slow enough to get some blur in some conditions if you have a problem keeping your hand still while taking photos.
But, some of these problems are mitigated by how much fun you can have with the P9’s camera. Overall, the image quality is good enough to please, and there are lots of different shooting modes to play around with. Because there’s a sensor dedicated to them, black and white shots look fantastic, as do pictures taken in HDR mode. There are also panorama and slow-mo video (720p) modes, along with a time-lapse mode if you have a tripod.
Dragging up from the bottom will reveal pro mode, which opens up shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, and white balance settings. Then, there’s a separate aperture mode for depth-of-field shots. If you want to focus on an object close to the camera, you can use a slider to adjust the amount of blur in the background, something that can still be adjusted after you’ve taken the shot.
A lot’s been written about Huawei’s EMUI overlay over the years, and not much of it has been good. Bloatware and heavy changes to the menus and settings of stock Android have rankled many over the years, but Huawei has been steadily improving. Some of those old complaints still hold true here, but EMUI is overall better than before.
For one, bloatware is pretty minimal. Huawei has removed a lot of their redundant apps, including the web browser. Their calendar and image gallery are still there, but hey, one step at a time. Their native music player also remains, but I’ve always found value in simple manufacturer music players that will just play the music I have stored on my device. Besides that, Huawei has loaded up EyeEm, a camera and editing app, and WPS Office, which can both be uninstalled. Only Huawei system apps can’t be uninstalled, which doesn’t seem too bad. It’s a little worse because there’s once again no app drawer, but with LG also going in this direction with the G5, it seems like there’s a movement away from the app drawer for whatever reason. I can’t understand why, but it is what it is.
Otherwise, EMUI changes up the settings menu and the pull-down notification bar and quick settings. They finally fixed the issue where email subject lines would blend into the background of the notification center, which was overdue. Otherwise, pretty much everything you need immediately accessible is in the quick settings menu by default, including airplane mode, do not disturb mode, and Wi-Fi hotspot. EMUI also includes themes you can use to change up backgrounds, fonts, and icons.
It seems Huawei has left off their KnuckleSense UI, which opened up more controls by tapping on the screen with one or two knuckles. It’s no big loss, although being able to take a screenshot with a couple raps of the knuckles was kinda handy sometimes.
However, the best little feature of all time is back after being left off the Mate 8. You can once again swipe down on the backside fingerprint sensor to pull down the notification center, which is just the best. It sounds like a dumb, throwaway feature, but it is probably the most useful minor design tweak I can think of. It’s perfect for one-handed use, since you don’t need to adjust your grip to pull down the notification center anymore. You can also double-tap on the fingerprint sensor to clear notifications, which is equally rad. I’m not exaggerating when I say I would take this feature into consideration when deciding which 2016 smartphone to purchase.
The P9 is missing is a kind of always-on display, like what the LG G5 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 has. Those phones dimly display basic information like time, date, notifications, and weather at all times, which is great if you frequently leave your phone on your desk while working. The P9 has neither this nor tap-to-wake, like the G5. Again, minor stuff, but most of the differences between phones are pretty minor these days.
The P9 has the full suite of premium connectivity features, including dual-band 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, DLNA compatibility, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, GPS, and NFC. For LTE connectivity, the P9 uses a triple antenna array that guarantees a solid connection regardless of how you hold the phone (if you remember the bad old days of the iPhone antenna-gate). There’s no IR blaster or remote control functionality (look to the LG G5 for that, among others), but we don’t value that feature too highly.
Call quality was as good as the triple antenna array implies. I tested the phone on Chunghwa Telecom’s 4.5G network in Taiwan, and I was able to hear and be heard clearly and consistently. I also used the phone to make Skype video calls, and, when the Wi-Fi connection was stable, found audio and video streams to both be smooth. No complaints here.