Huawei P9 review – Leica or no likey?
The Huawei P9 was launched almost three weeks ago and GadgetyNews was there. Since then, I have been living with the phone that packs Leica camera smarts and no fewer than three snapper sensors – one up front and two around back.
Huawei is still trying to win over the Samsung and Apple returning customers. It’s not like they’re unheard of either. Google for one used Huawei to design and build their Nexus 6P, which is an amazing mobile.
With all the chat about the P9’s photographic credentials, has Huawei got it all wrapped up with their latest flagship phone?
Huawei P9 design
The Huawei P9 is a 5.2-inch smartphone. This places it nicely betwixt and between 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 and the 5.3-inch LG G5.
The P9’s aluminium unibody construction gives it a nice cool touch.
The sandblasted finish on the rear not only helps with traction and less accidental slips, it also makes it less of a fingerprint magnet. The gently rounded edges also adds to the premium feel of this smartphone.
The finish to this phone can only really be described as high-end. Everyone that has looked at it as had to pick it up and this is probably the only time I’ve seen Samsung-ites and Apple fan-folk agree – they all say it’s a well made and a lovely thing to hold.
Almost underlining this collaboration between the famous camera people and Huawei is the Leica name displayed proudly, yet subtly at the top right-hand corner of this side of the phone.
Those incredibly skinny bezels gives an above average screen-to-body ratio at the front. In fact, the cheap clear rubbery case I bought for the phone makes it look like it has an edge to edge display!
Despite the phone’s thinness of less than 7mm, Huawei has managed to shoehorn a 3,000 mAh battery inside. Some people might complain about this cell not being replaceable, but I’ve never replaced a phone battery since my 90s Philips brick.
There’s a combined SIM and microSD slot housing and, apart from that, the Huawei P9 has no moving parts.
Huawei P9 performance
Huawei P9 display
The 5.2-inch display is a Full HD LCD panel.
This gives decent contrast and good sharpness. Saying that, the competition out there is strong and can not only bring to the table brighter screens but higher resolutions, as well as more contrast and saturation.
On the rare sunny days we’ve had thus far, the P9’s IPS panel sometimes lacks the luster to shine through but colours are vivid with blacks as deep as I’ve ever seen on an LCD display. Whites are displayed at the perfect temperature and, should you need to make adjustments, you can do so through the settings.
Where Huawei trumps the others on the market is the P9’s almost-not-there 1.7 millimeter-wide edges of the display which have a soft feel to them thanks to the 2.5D design.
Huawei P9 power
The revised HiSilicon Kirin 955 processor is largely the same as in the Huawei Mate 8. The P9 achieves comparable performance with that of the Galaxy S7, however, gaming-wise the P9 will be left in the rear-view mirror of S7.
LTE performance is above average in the Huawei P9. The connection is swift and the signal jumps seamlessly from antenna to antenna. This might be at least in part due to the Huawei P9 packing multiple antennas that enable parallel Search and Smart Switching via quick changeover from transmission tower to transmission tower.
Storage space is a fairly standard 32 GB but this can be expanded via microSD card. More on that later.
Huawei P9 audio
Audio from the bottom mono speaker performs well enough during hands-free calling and sound from the ear speaker is balanced and clear enough to work even in noisy environments.
Plugging in my NAD VISO HP50 and Oppo PM-3 I was really impressed by the P9’s headphone output. Bass is clear and powerful and nuances that I usually rely on my Oppo HA-2 to pick out on my other portable devices seem to be all present and correct without assistance on the P9.
Huawei P9 camera
The double Leica Camera is no doubt the star of the show.
Like many other smartphone cameras, the Huawei P9 also offers quick launch functionality. Pressing the volume down button twice takes a picture immediately. It might just be me but these instant pictures are often pretty shaky though. Perhaps I am too eager to snap in the moment.
When the camera is running, the volume down button is defaulted as the shutter release trigger – but you can assign it other duties via the settings.
Both main cameras have 12 MP sensors with an aperture of f/2.2. The selfie camera has a resolution of 8 MP with a slightly smaller aperture to f/2.4. These are not industry-leading specs but, in practice, deliver better pictures than what you might expect of a smartphone.
Both cameras come equipped with a ‘Leica Summarit H 1: 2.2/27 ASPH’. The Summarit H is Leica’s special lens brand name for Huawei smartphones. The numbers 1:2.2 stand for the lens aperture, while 27 is the equivalent of the focal length of a full-frame camera in millimeters. ASPH denotes that it is an aspherical lens. I thought I’d let you know as I found all that out.
The idea behind doubling-up on cameras is quite obvious. In a smartphone’s small body there is not enough space for the large sensors that are used in SLR cameras. So two sensors have been used in the P9 to make up for this, and the images from both are then combined by the software. The best parts of both images are used to give an overall better image than what’s possible with only one lens.
The lens setup of both cameras is identical with each utilising 1:25 micrometre pixels. The difference comes in that one of the P9’s sensors shoots only in monochrome to measure the contrast of its subjects. The second sensor converts available light into RGB information with 16.7 million colours.
When the information from both sensors’ are combined this gives 90% more information per picture than is in a photo shot by the Galaxy S7 (apparently).
All that tech stuff aside, I am really impressed by the detail and dynamic range that can be captured by this smartphone camera. The downside is that you have to become more aware of what you’re shooting and how steady your hand is as I have found it all too easy to blur snaps.
In Professional Mode you can set ISO, white balance, shutter speed and other settings as you like. In addition, you shoot the images in RAW format. With JPEG compression you might notice some distortion and image quality loss if you are a keen photographer.
There was much said about the Bokeh (background blur) talents of the P9 and it took me ages to find out how to achieve this because, me being me, I was trying to do it via the Pro menu. Wrong!
To take advantage of the pseudo aperture control that will give you this effect, which isn’t based on a real, mechanical aperture, but applied using software – you’ll have to be in the colour camera mode. Here you will find the aperture icon (in orange, bottom left-hand side of the screenshot above).
This then gives you your point of focus when you tap the screen, and then you are presented with a slider that changes the ‘aperture’ setting. You can see the F value and the slider on the screen between my keyboard and the base of my PC rig.
It is a neat thing if used judicially. You have to remember that this is all software-based and is therefore at risk of looking like someone has attacked your shot with the blur tool in photoshop. The upside to this software cleverness is that, once you’ve taken the shot, if you decide that you need more or less on the slider you can alter it after the fact.
There are a couple more Bokeh snaps in the gallery you may have seen earlier.
I think most people will be more than happy with the Auto mode of the P9 – Exposure, white balance and colour saturation seem to be spot on. Moving from natural to artificial light doesn’t seem to confuse it, and focusing is practically instant. The latter is thanks to the smartphone’s hybrid laser-, depth- and contrast-informed method.
Like autofocus, shutter response is just as instantaneous, almost regardless of lighting conditions; burst capture is so rapid you might as well be shooting a 30fps video.
I have been particularly impressed by the P9’s low-light performance. It seems to capture most of the natural light available to it without too much artificial enhancement by way of jacking up the exposure.
Selfies and video calls are certainly not an afterthought for Huawei and its P9. That 8MP snapper is capable of some good quality shots and, thanks to Huawei’s beauty slider, your blemishes can be smoothed away should you be wrapped in anything but perfect skin.
Huawei P9 Software
Huawei provides gesture control both with the fingerprint sensor and the display. The fingerprint sensor can be configured as a menu button as well as using it to access the camera with a swipe.
You can also knock twice on the display with your knuckles to generate a screenshot.
Not everyone likes EMUI but 4.1, which is loaded on the P9, is not really all that bad. I do think that if you’re coming from an iPhone to the P9 you’ll find it easier to live with than from pure Android though.
There are little quirks in Huawei’s skin of Android 6.0 such as the Notifications, home screen settings menu and Quick Settings being structured differently – but, if you jumped from Android to iOS or vice-versa you’d have to still adapt, wouldn’t you?
The design, such as with the launcher, is heavily inspired by the iPhone’s iOS interface. An app draw is not provided, meaning that all apps are displayed and accessed on the home screen. Just as in iOS. So, this means you’ll need to create folders to keep your app collection tidy.
I am in two minds whether I like the fact that the notification pull-down splits quick settings into its own little tab. I am, however, certain that I do like that you can access music player controls, the calculator, the flashlight and a few more bits and pieces from the lock screen (like the Control Center on iOS).
The user interface can be changed with various design packages, which replace app icons, wallpaper and the lock screen image. To download new themes, you just need to log in with a Huawei ID.
I will hold my hand up and admit that I added the Google Now Launcher after the first week as I was jumping from my 6P to P9. I’ve recently taken delivery of the Huawei M2 tablet and intend to leave EMUI on it while it’s in my possession just to get better acquainted.
Under the hood are useful extras such as backup management, but so are features that mean well but sometimes prevent normal service – I’m looking at you energy management.
This is where I really love my Nexus 6P – the lack of pesky additionals that just sit there taking up space. The P9 is full of what I’d class as spam, to be honest.
It’s clear that these are pre-installed sponsored games and apps and, thankfully, most can be completely uninstalled. These apps chew up a significant chunk of memory, so you’re left with around 21 GB from the full 32 GB of internal storage if you don’t ditch them.
Despite running Marshmallow, you can not format the microSD card to be used as internal memory. Therefore, you can only swap photos, music and a portion of your app data onto external storage.
Huawei P9 battery
The battery life of the Huawei P9 is very good and suitable for heavy users. Even after several hours of play or photographing the battery lasts for a decent amount of time. It’ll last you for a full day before needing to be charged.
The 3000 mAh battery is non-removeable and charged via a Type-C connector. At least for the first couple of percentage points, charging is quite rapid. After 10 minutes of charging you’ll get five hours of standby time. Overall, the battery takes about three hours to charge until full.
It seems odd that they fitted a USB Type-C without adding compatibility with Quick Charge 3.0 or other fast charging methods.
Huawei P9 review conclusion
The Huawei P9 is a great smartphone for photography buffs, with its image processing being some of the best you’ll find on any phone.
Yes it is well made, with decent design and performance. Is this enough for a flagship phone though?
The P9 has certainly made a huge splash amongst this year’s new releases but the money being asked for it is also top flight. To buy it outright is more than the top iPhone SE and almost the same price as the Nexus 6P (also built by Huawei) and £50 less than the LG G5. The iPhone 6S and Galaxy S7 are ‘only’ £100 more.
On contract it’s about the same as the iPhone SE and only just slightly cheaper than the G5 – the latter making some very bold changes.
Personally, I go from thinking that this is the best value for money phone out there right now to pining for my 6P.
I think Huawei have built their best phone so far that isn’t a Nexus. The P9 is a very capable phone and does almost everything brilliantly but safely.
Now, it’s down to the public to show Huawei if it has the pricing right.