Huawei P9 Review: Breaking new ground

The Huawei P9 is a tactful proposition based on cunning design and an innovative camera; but how does this contender stack up against its rivals?

Huawei is a company that is only headed from strength to strength; the company is now the world’s third-largest smartphone vendor behind the likes of Samsung and Apple, and is riding high on the success of devices such as the P8, Mate S, and Mate 8. Now, in 2016, the company has unveiled its coup de grâce in the form of the Huawei P9; its latest flagship which breaks new ground.
The Huawei P9 itself is a lion in a different coat in comparison to its competitors; where Samsung has opted for shock value and Apple proceed conservatively, the P9 arrives with stately swagger.
The premise is simple; the P9 is a bespoke, tailored offering that’s more akin to a refined suit than boardshorts and trainers. With a design that has been refined from the days of the P8 and subtly tweaked from the Mate S and Mate 8, this is a smartphone that, with its svelte form factor and dual-camera system, feels like a breath of fresh air in a crowded market.
Read: Huawei results show strong growth in 2016
Questions remain, however. In a cutthroat, competitive environment, can Huawei craft a smartphone that not only bests its previous offerings, but stand head and shoulders above its rivals?
It’s time to find out.
HUAWEI P9 review

Specifications

The Huawei P9 arrives armed in the same breadth its predecessors where; users are met with a HiSilicon Kirin 955 chipset (an octa-core CPU featuring  four 2.5 GHz Cortex-A72 & four 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53 processors) accompanied by 3GB or 4GB of RAM, 32 or 64GB of expandable internal storage, and sizeable 3,000mAh battery.  For charging, the device supports a USB Type-C connection.
The Huawei P9’s dual-camera system is constructed out of two 12-megapixel cameras; one captures colour, while the other is monochrome and captures black and white only. Finally, the device is completed by an 8-megapixel selfie camera.

Design

We’ve come to enjoy Huawei’s emerging design language over its past several devices; the P8 set the tone for a Huawei flagship with a design that can easily meet the likes of the iPhone or Galaxy S on the field of battle. That’s a premise which was only expanded upon with the Mate S and Mate 8, which – despite arriving in different form factors – iterantly improved on the company’s design trends.
The P9 is, as such, a greatly refined offering that’s best served up in one word: svelte. There’s a remarkably Bond element to the device that perhaps better matches MI6’s best agent than Sony’s Xperia Z5 did.
The proposition is simple; on the back, a flat panel gives away to gentle contours which sit comfortably in the hand. At the top, a black, gold, or white dual-camera panel highlights the device’s biggest selling point, while at its front the P9 is bespoke from head to toe with a smooth display with ever-so-slightly bevelled edges.
If there’s a downside, it’s the fact that users are met with a single speaker found on the P9’s bottom panel. While that’s true of the iPhone and many smartphones on the market today, the unique rectangular form factor the P9 employs on its bottom panel leave its speaker easily obscured; an unfortunate advent which disturbs an otherwise great design.
This is, without a doubt, a handsome phone. Despite its shortcomings, the P9 is a design proposition which grew greatly on us during the weeks we’ve had with it. Akin to the very first iPhone, there’s an intangible aha moment when one unsheathes it from their pocket.
HUAWEI P9 review

User interface

Huawei, as similar to many Chinese manufacturers, opts in for a custom skin atop Android. Whereas its local rival Xiaomi employs MIUI – which, we feel, based on its recent outing needs more work – Huawei makes use of Emotion UI; its own custom Android skin which results in a distinct proposition from stock versions of the operating system.
If you pick up the P9 as an iOS user, you might find yourself far more comfortable than a dedicated Android user might. App icons are served in a distinctive, iOS-style squircle shape while Android’s traditional app launcher is altogether absent. Users instead are to rely on foldering to meet their organizational needs.
The P9’s home launcher is an attractive one replete with several nifty features and some oddities, too. For instance, a pull-down swipe on the middle of the home screen activates an iOS-style search field through which one can find and even locate apps on the home screen. As I found, that’s decidedly useful if you happen to struggle without an app launcher to keep yourself organised.
Further, Huawei’s custom notification center serves a chronological view of notifications with options to have persistent notifications – such as step tracking – enabled. A secondary pane offers quick settings as one might find on near-stock Android devices.
There are several strange additions. The P9 comes equipped with several pre-installed apps; a collection of Gameloft titles and even smaller utilities such as a vanity mirror. For the general consumer these are fun additions, but we were left to feel that these might have been better served as optional installs from the get-go. Emotion UI itself serves an abundance of features, themes, and configurable offerings, and we were left to feel that Huawei’s custom skin might be better offered with as little bloatware as possible.
Emotion UI itself serves an abundance of features, themes, and configurable offerings, and we were left to feel that Huawei’s custom skin might be better offered with as little bloatware as possible. Still, the option to customise and create different themes tailored to one’s personal preference is welcome.
HUAWEI P9 review

Performance

Strangely enough, there’s little to write about the Huawei P9’s performance – and that’s because there is remarkably little turbulence across the board. This is a smartphone that sits down and performs its job without complaint.
During our review period, we were never once met with the slightest stammer or overheating escapade. Apps function smoothly, while app multitasking is quick and effective; a surprising revelation as we’ve often found skinned app launchers can be prone to a laggardly experience.
The benefit of an octa-core processor is that the P9 offers a compelling media experience; videos and imagery load quickly and display without complaint. There is a noted speed and efficiency to core and third party apps which one might find seldom elsewhere.
The Huawei P9’s screen is a highlight as well. Despite being set at 1080p instead of 1440p, the is fantastic with visual media thanks to its cinema-grade colour profile. This results in a warm tone which one can find throughout media, apps, and menus, and makes the most mundane video capture look gorgeous.
The P9’s fingerprint scanner is blazingly fast, and there’s a certain smug satisfaction one gains in using it; by placing their index finger on the scanner while the phone is asleep, one can unlock the P9 immediately and proceed to their home screen. This is a fantastic timesaver, and one which is both precise and accurate even when taxed with an unclear print.
Further, it’s a welcome revelation that the P9 isn’t prone to overheating in a sea of Snapdragon-powered rivals which occasionally become toasty. While Samsung has invested heavily into cooling mechanics to ensure its latest flagships don’t overheat, it’s marvellous that Huawei can achieve the same by carefully optimizing its hardware to software relationship.
HUAWEI P9 review

Battery

Huawei has become famous for somehow cramming in massive batteries into its flagship devices, and the P9 follows this trend by adding a 3,000mAh battery to its arsenal.
While Huawei doesn’t employ specific battery saving modes – which Sony have become famous for, for example – beyond a low power profile, the P9 is astute at balancing its resources and making the most of its available battery level.
We regularly achieved two days of strenuous usage with the device, which were often spent capturing images or enjoying media playback. Further, when left connected to a cellular network or Wi-Fi, the P9 often lasted more than a week in standby mode when left to its own devices.
HUAWEI P9 review

Camera

If you’ve heard anything at all about the Huawei P9, it’s likely been something to do with its dual-camera setup.
Let’s not beat around the bush; for still imagery, this is absolutely fantastic.
To reiterate, the P9 makes use of two 12-megapixel cameras; one is colour while the other captures black and white detail. The P9 stitches captures together to form one single image; while the colour lens replicates natural tones, the black and white lens serves to balance highlights and shadows and replicate black or white surfaces.
HUAWEI P9
The results are often stunning. Thanks to its use of a monochrome lens, the P9 never underexposes or overexposes an image when left on automatic settings; shadows are crisp and crunchy, while highlights never lose detail even on the most sterling white surfaces. Colours, further, are vivid but accurate, and are only highlighted on the P9’s cinema-grade display.
HUAWEI P9 review
Of course, the Huawei P9 is capable of refocusing images post-capture thanks to its dual-camera setup. In a specific aperture-effects camera mode, one can capture an image which a focal point and then tweak the image after it has been captured. A slider allows users to control the simulated opening of the camera’s aperture and allow how much depth of field is shown. For portraiture, this can result in DSLR-worthy captures which can easily be tweaked later on.
For video, however, the P9 is unfortunately a less convincing affair. Making use of just one camera in the capture process – the 12-megapixel colour lens – video is often left without the same detail and balance one is able to enjoy with still imagery. Video is prone to over-exposing slightly, leaving captures appearing more washed out than is desirable.
If you’re bent on taking great selfies as well, the P9 doesn’t disappoint. The 8-megapixel selfie camera captures abundant detail and comes equipped with a ‘beauty’ slider through which one can alter luminosity. In still imagery, the Huawei P9 is a difficult proposition to beat and one that will delight creative users.
HUAWEI P9 review

Overall

The Huawei P9 is a strange device.
That’s not because it is an odd contender awash in a sea of overly-similar smartphones, but because it is a precise, bespoke offering that stands visibly apart from the pack.
Presently, most flagship smartphones offer to cover the basics well. Were one to place the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6s next to each other, one could surmise that the principle selling point of both phones is something along the lines of ‘basics done really well’.
Further, we have the likes of the LG G5 to consider, which we could term ‘the basics done well, but wacky’. Additional purchases might give the G5 a variety of different utilities, but we’re left to feel that this leaves the phone a jack of all trades but a master of none.
The Huawei P9 is precisely what the LG G5 isn’t; it’s a master of what it promises. A svelte form factor, a unique take on Android, and a simply mind-blowing take on still imagery make this a smartphone that is the pinnacle of what it offers.
HUAWEI P9 review

Conclusion

Is the Huawei P9 perfect?
No – I don’t believe anything is. Smartphones are much like food; everyone prefers a different taste.
There are shortcomings to Huawei’s latest effort. Murky video, an easily-obscured bottom speaker grill and oddities in Emotion UI hold the P9 back.
However, there’s much that propels it forward. A handsome design, great display, and amazing photographic prowess leave the P9 a very much distinct offering from the sea of flagship smartphones occupying the market at present.
Should you love basics done well, the iPhone 6s or Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge are likely the smartphones you should consider buying. However, if you’re looking for something completely different which excels at what it promises, the Huawei P9 should be on the top of your list; this is a smartphone which we feel outcompetes the LG G5 and the Sony Xperia Z5 and X.
In my opinion, the still imagery prowess the LG G4 offered in its heydey has been outdone. There’s a new king of smartphone photography in town, and it’s sitting squarely as the jewel in Huawei’s crown.
Read: Huawei Watch Review: Style and substance
At a rough retail price of R11,999 ZAR, this is an expensive offering. Yet, as a photographer, I’ll plainly admit I’ve fallen in love with this as a smartphone; it’s a well-crafted, worthwhile flagship offering which I am left to feel is a product which one would get their money’s worth from.
Score: 8.5/10

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Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithsa