With its latest flagship, can Huawei upset the Apple cart at Cupertino? It’s all out war as we take the Huawei P9 and iPhone 6s head to head!
“If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win numerous battles without jeopardy.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War (translated)
It’s perhaps important that we begin with one of the seminal quotes of The Art Of War; the famous Chinese military treatise, penned by Sun Tzu, that dates back to the 5th century. The work, which is thought to be one of the definitive tomes on military strategy and tactics, is still read today; though, arguably, its insight on tactics, battle plans and stratagem has migrated from the dirt and muck on the ground into the pristine, sterile atmosphere in boardrooms.
I don’t know if anyone heading up Huawei’s device divisions has read The Art of War. But I believe it’s likely someone has; if we look at once again at the above quote, it’s easy to see the parallel between Huawei and it’s local, international, or perhaps more aptly – Western rivals. Read: Huawei P9 Review: Breaking new ground
Huawei has taken time to study and perfect its offerings, and has launched out of China with several precise attacks which have only grown swifter and stronger. What began with offensives such as the P7 grew in chorus into the P8, and were refined by the likes of the Mate S and Mate 8.
In 2016, we arrive with the Huawei P9 in hand. This is the culmination of years of work, sweat, toil, and a savvy partnership with Leica. Together, this amounts to a swift, decisive blow.
The question is, will that strike find its target?
Across distant waters, Apple has conquered realm after realm with its mobile products; the iPhone – which appeared on the global stage nearly a year ago – has captured imaginations to the point that it has become a household name.
The situation is a neat reversal. As Apple continue to make difficult inroads in China, Huawei consistently assaults the rest of the world with its latest products.
Now, we arrive at a precipice; two principle products which can fight in the same arena. Has Huawei learnt the Art of War? Can Apple mount a sizeable defense? Which flagship is best?
It’s time to get down to it.
Design and Build
Traditionally, some of the best Android flagships have broken the mould and cast off design traditions to find something new. Take, for example, the likes of the Galaxy S7 or S6.
Huawei, instead, has practised refinement. The P9 introduces a svelte form factor which has been refined since its introduction aboard the P8. On its rear panel, the Huawei P9 bears a flat metal sheen which gives away to gentle contours that sit comfortably in the hand. At the top, a bespoke dual-camera module rules over the rest, 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. The P9’s size – at 5.2″ – is ever so slightly bordering on the cumbersome side of the equation that it becomes easy to obscure sound entirely through a misplaced palm. This is a larger offering designed to satisfy a media experience rather than prioritising a comfortable fit in the hand.
Conversely, Apple have had an equal amount of time to produce a product that is designed to sit neatly in the hand. The 4.7″ iPhone 6s sits comfortably in the center of one palm; a narrow, thin sheet of aluminium, the iPhone gives way to rounded corners which are slippery in one’s grip. On its front panel is its iconic fingerprint scanner and home button, while on its rear are the divisive antenna lines, Apple logo, and, of course, that protruding camera fixture.
Granted, the iPhone does feel far more natural in one’s hand than the P9 does. There’s a quaint feel, a well-balanced tone reminiscent of a bastard sword. However, it’s twice as likely to slip from one’s grip; an idiosyncrasy that no swordsman would wish upon his blade.
The placement of both device’s fingerprint scanners are unique, as well. Whereas Apple’s fingerprint scanner encourages users to wrap their fingers around the bottom half of their device, the P9 lends itself to a seductive wraparound. One could picture oneself gripping a sword hilt as they would a P9; four digits wrapped around the bottom, with an index finger reaching out for control.
Incidentally, one’s index finger naturally reaches the fingerprint scanner, leaving the P9 ready-to-go from the second it has been picked up.
Were we to compare this as a contest of beauty and ‘holdability’, the iPhone 6s might well win. Apple’s offering is thin, light, and precise; a dagger to the heart rather than a bludgeoning assault.
Yet, the Huawei P9 has a unique character. Light but powerful, this is an offering which looks as elegant yet dangerous as Bond in his best outing.
It’s an odd compliment to make, but where Apple excel at making an iPhone a great iPhone, Huawei have done the same with the P9. The latter product feels not just like an iterant evolution, but an inevitable one; and while Android demands a different solution to iOS, both are as uniquely handsome as one another in their own way. Design is subjective, as is look and feel; yet Huawei earn bonus chops for arriving at what feels like a breakthrough design in half the time it took Apple to arrive at the same principle. Where Apple have moulded clay to form a larger and better weapon, Huawei has sharpened its blades to the very cutting edge.
Put simply, the Huawei P9‘s screen is a highlight. While most Android flagships arrive nowadays sporting a 1440p resolution, the P9 remains behind at 1080p instead. However, this is fantastic for one simple reason.
Thanks to its cinema-grade colour profile, the Huawei P9 is left with a warm tone which one can find throughout media, apps, and menus, and makes the most mundane video capture look gorgeous. While many Android phones leave their screens an unmaximized prospect, one gets the sense with the P9 that this is a design element which has been studied acutely. Not only does the P9’s screen complement the imagery it can capture (more on that later) this is a sizeable offering that stands very much distinct from manufacturers such as Samsung (who often oversaturate their displays) or Sony (who conversely allow users to determine the warmth of their screens).
The problem with the iPhone 6s’ display is that it is one we’ve seen before. Beyond the addition of 3D Touch (which the P9 Plus also supports) there has been no change to the iPhone’s display since the introduction of the iPhone 6. That means we’re still trundling about with the same 750p display.
I’ve often found one doesn’t pay to much attention to the iPhone’s screen; it is simply optimized for the human retina (hence its name) and is frankly so good it runs the risk of becoming mundane. One becomes privileged after using a retina display in the sense that it almost becomes a standard of quality.
Apart, these flagships are roughly comparable, and one wouldn’t miss the other if a choice had to be made. However, when placed together, the comparison is chalk and cheese.
Huawei’s offering is brighter, crisper, and a tad more romantic than the iPhone’s. Thanks to a higher resolution and warm cinema tone, media is that much more joyful to watch on Huawei’s offering than it is on Apple’s. Apple might have the present monopoly with Night Shift, its brightness control setting which eliminates white light, but altogether the P9 offers a screen for any occasion. Further, it’s one that only amplifies the media one can capture.
Ah, the great Huawei stumbling block.
Where Apple have had years – and their own operating system – to tailor their user experience to the Western world, Huawei have the converse experience. EMUI (Emotion UI, its custom Android skin) is an offering tailored primarily for Chinese markets. Certain features on Emotion UI (such as its iOS-style manicure, or pre-installed apps) make sense in the Chinese market, but fall flat outside of the country, especially in regions where many Google services effect the same result in any case.
This is a lopsided contest in many respects, but it’s arguably one of the most important aspects to consider when purchasing a phone.
iOS remains rock solid. The mobile operating system receives Apple’s full attention, is now receiving major features in minor updates, and has a bustling app ecosystem. The system remains intuitive, and most people who pick an iPhone up can begin using it in seconds and work out ‘advanced’ features as they go. Android, conversely, is an operating system which I would argue is only hitting its UI stride now thanks to its overhaul in Lollipop. EMUI, however, doesn’t benefit from that addition thanks to its use of visual preferences one might not find elsewhere.
The P9‘s home launcher is one that’s 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. Further, Huawei‘s custom notification center serves a chronological view of notifications with options to have persistent notifications ““ such as step tracking ““ enabled.
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.
iOS, similarly, makes use of pre-installed offerings which can’t be removed; yet these are not offered by any other manufacturer and only third party apps rival their effectiveness. iOS has never had an app drawer – as such, Apple devotees have never known what they’re missing – and features throughout remain synchronised and effective.
iOS beats EMUI easily; this isn’t a surprising contest. Huawei will require years of market experience before refining its UI into something truly appealing for Western markets, however exciting the possibility of a theme engine might be. However, it remains to be said that were the P9 issued running close-to-stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow, this would be a contest for the ages indeed.
The Huawei P9 – despite its aforementioned lack of a stock Android feel – is a great paragon of the performance value Android smartphones offer consumers; especially at the high-end.
Considering that the P9 relies on an operating system from another source, employs Huawei’s custom skin atop of that and makes use of sourced components as opposed to manufacturer approved production components,the result is amazing. 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 P9’s fingerprint scanner is as fast and effective as a cavalry charge; one need only place their index in the correct space to begin the onslaught.
The iPhone 6s is a different beast; one that’s been around for a while longer. It’s true that the iPhone doesn’t bear the same level of technical specification the P9 does, and, yes, it can technically do less with more thanks to Apple’s rigid control over the production process.
In this breadth, the P9 needs a great deal more to satisfy its Android operating system and place itself on the same rung of the ladder as the iPhone.
The iPhone seldom stutters, and is in total control of itself; not unlike what many of Sun Tzu’s maxims suggest. Should one encounter an issue, only a quick tap on and off of the power button resolves most crises; a benefit most Android phones don’t enjoy short of a good reboot.
But, would you believe me if I told you I found little-to-no discernible difference between the two? The P9 is the honed, piercing equivalent of the iPhone in the Android world. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this is one of the most reliable offerings on the market next to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7.
Both devices rely on different equipment here, and it’s a surprising revelation to find that both are as deadly as one another. A surprising draw in technical terms, but a symbolic victory for Huawei amongst of field of Android devices that stutter, slow, and often fail.
The Huawei P9’s dual-lens trickery is its chief proposition. 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.
The results are often stunning; 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 are vivid and accurate. Post-capture refocussing through aperture effects are great, and for portraiture, this can result in DSLR-worthy captures which can easily be tweaked later on. Take a look through our video review to see our sample shots:
The 8-megapixel selfie camera offers crisp detail, while the real let down is the absence of 4K video. Only one of the Huawei P9’s 12-megapixel lenses performs video duty, and only at a murky, oft-over-exposing 1080p at 60fps.
Similarly, the iPhone has long staked its reputation on the success of its camera. The iPhone’s sole 12-megapixel camera does an admirable job of measuring exposure and shadows, and often performs that function twice as fast as the P9 does. However, the iPhone can easily be overwhelmed in broad daylight, an advent the P9 doesn’t concern itself with.
Capture aboard the iPhone remains staggeringly fast, while Live Photos remains Apple’s best parlour trick – even if there are only a few platforms which support viewing them; further, 5-megapixel selfies aboard the iPhone lack the same detail and breadth of attention as one can achieve on the P9.
The iPhone does, however, chalk up a win with video; Apple’s smartphone is capable of capturing 4K video with great detail and excellent exposure.
While the iPhone remains a great offering for image capture, the Huawei P9 edges out in terms of raw quality. The potential for image-editing thanks to refocusing an image, in addition to black and white control, places Huawei ahead. However, the P9 loses out in overall speed and is left behind as far as video capture goes.
The irony is that, after using both, I wouldn’t want to rely on one versus the other. The iPhone’s speed and ease of control makes it a natural contender for busy shots, while the P9 is better served to those who prefer creativity with pause.
As a person and photographer who likes both, why can’t we have it all?
Android and iOS have forever been positioned as altogether different foes when it comes to battery life.
Whereas Android phones come in all shapes and sizes – and, thus, sport different batteries – iPhones have traditionally relied on software optimization to get through the day. It’s a funny way to cross swords; one might be thin and light but keen, while the other dull but large and weighty.
Truthfully, as an iPhone user by day, I’ve never written home about the iPhone’s battery life. I’ve long advocated that Apple need to maximise their device’s internal structure to accommodate a larger battery than a wee 1,715mAh unit. The iPhone will get one through a day and a half, but seldom more than that.
The Android world has learnt that lesson well, and much of that has actually been pioneered by Huawei, who’ve become renowned for cramming the largest batteries they can find into their devices. That’s true of the P9, as well; the device bears a massive 3,000mAh battery.
In turn, battery life is great. I 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.
As much as iOS earned the iPhone a solid victory in user experience, all that effort is undone in battery life with the inverse effect. The Huawei P9 – despite being slightly larger than the iPhone – wins out by cramming in a battery nearly double its rival’s size.
Size does matter, right?
As we round up, I’d like to close with another Sun Tzu maxim. It reads, translated, something like this:
“œIn the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity“.
I feel this speaks to something significant, especially in relation to the Huawei P9. While most Android manufacturers are too busy trying to out-do one another, most have lost sight of what made tech such a fun place for so many years; taking on Apple’s iOS and proving why Android can be believed to be the better platform.
Some would argue that Android has already done that; I love the platform, but I’m too much of cynic to throw my hat behind either one. I feel this leaves me in a unique position as I sit and watch the pitched arena battle unfold.
While that battle has raged on, Huawei has taken a step back out of the arena. It’s considered its arms and armor, and has refined its weapons into lethally sharp tools.
Some kinks remain it’s true; a bad reflex, an old wound. Yet, its time apart has crafted something unique; the P9. This is a smartphone with altogether different angle; a focus on dual-lens cleverness and a well-rounded, toned suit of armor, so much so that I believe it’s one of the most distinct offerings on the market right now.
That premise also leaves it uniquely situated to do battle with Apple, who – apart from the dual-lens trickery (up until now?) – have staked their claim on the same territory.
As an iPhone user in my day to day, I’ll be the first to say it. I could switch to the Huawei P9 without much of a second thought.
There are several things I love; the P9’s camera, design, fingerprint scanner and screen. There are several things I don’t; its solitary speaker grill and custom skin. Yet the point is that I could forgive those faults and learn to love them. That, I believe, is the grounding for any successful relationship.
To bring a close to a new chapter in a bitter rivalry, I believe the Huawei P9 is, for now, Android’s chosen competitor. Not because it offers a better all-out experience than the Galaxy S7, or because it’s more fun than the LG G5. I believe this is the case, because Huawei has learnt the art of war; as Sun Tzu wrote, “œLet your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.“ Watch: Huawei P9 Video Review: One Great Leap
Have your say!
What are your thoughts? Would you buy the iPhone 6s, or the Huawei P9? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA