Monday, 01 August 2016 18:49

Huawei P9 – flagship specs at affordable prices (review)

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The P9 has the paper specifications that help it stand out in the crowd. It is not the top flagship but at two-thirds its price, it is exceptionally well-specified and well-built.

I have been using it for about a month in between other smartphone reviews. Two things keep reminding me that it is very good – its price at $799 is amazing value, a few hundred below its main competitors, and all the necessary features you could ask for including a Leica dual lens camera, are present.

It also proves that Huawei can do a “proper” flagship at a lower cost. The P9 is a big leap forward in build quality and design over previous models. Look out when the P10 arrives next year!

My P9 review unit, the EVA-L09 for Australia, was in Titanium Grey with the slightest hue of pink in the grey very attractive with 3GB RAM and 32GB storage. There are two other models – the EVA-L19 (same but for other markets) and the EVA-L29 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (not sure if this works in Australia). So on with the review. Spoiler Alert – I did warn you it is very good value for the price.

Let’s start with specifications.

  • Elegant aluminium body with rounded edges, sandblasted alloy back.
  • Screen: 5.2”, IPS-NEO LCD, 1980 x 1020, 423 ppi, 72.9% screen to body ratio, Gorilla Glass 3.
  • Processor: HiSilicon Kirin 955, eight-core, 4 x 2.5GHz and 4 x 1.8GHz and Mali-T880 MP4 GPU.
  • 3GB DDR3 RAM, 32GB storage, microSD for up to 256GB - does not support Android M Adoptable storage feature; USB OTG compatible.
  • Camera Rear: 2 x 12MP Sony IMX296 BSI CMOS; 2 x Leica lenses; one colour and one mono, f/2.2, 1.25 µm pixel size, 27mm, phase detection auto-focus, hybrid laser, depth and contrast focus; HDR, video 1080p @60fps, dual tone/dual flash. No image stabilisation (OIS or DIS).
  • Camera Front: 8MP, f/2.4, 1080p @30fps.
  • Noise-cancelling dual mics, 24-bit/192kHz audio, single speaker.
  • Wi-Fi AC, dual band, Wi-Di, Hotspot, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, NFC, GPS.
  • Cat 6 LTE 18 bands.
  • Battery: 3000 mAh, USB-C charger, 5V/2A, 75-hour endurance rating, Optional fast charger at additional cost can provide 44% in 30 minutes.
  • Fingerprint reader – latest level 4 technology.
  • Android Marshmallow 6.x with Huawei’s Emotion UI 4.1 (Android 7 promised).
  • Size/Weight: 145 x 70.9 x 7 mm x 144g.

Its specifications are a match for most other flagships, particularly the iPhone 6S – but that is due for replacement soon, and it is not fair to compare iOS and Android ecosystems, just the hardware.

It does not have 2/4K OLED screen, glance screen, non-removable battery, wireless charging, 4K video recording, OIS or DIS, or waterproofing – that will cost 30-40% more.

Out of the box

It comes in a nice, large retail box in elegant, premium cream finish with a discrete Leica red camera logo. Let’s face it, Huawei are selling Leica – one of the better cameras.

The box contains the 5V/2A, standard USB-C charger – it is not the quick charge version that is available as an option. The buds and in-line mic are of reasonable quality.

The phone is made from aerospace-class aluminium with a nice brushed aluminium back – it is certainly a flagship build quality and one of the most attractive smartphones at present.

It has a rear fingerprint touch sensor – it was accurate and unlocked almost every time bringing the phone instantly to life. Touching and holding the sensor can be used to activate functions such as taking a photo, answering a call or stopping an alarm. It can also recognise swipes, for browsing photos, or opening the notification panel.

Camera – Leica design shows

Huawei claims “Capture brilliant colour, striking black and white and the emotional appeal of Leica images. Capture more light with two sensors, one RGB and one monochrome. Get incredible shots with the Huawei P9’s merging algorithm, which intelligently combines the colours taken by the RGB sensor with the detail of the monochrome sensor … ”

Tech specs include 2 x 12MP at 4:3 ratio (9MP in 16:9), Sony IMX296 BSI CMOS sensors with 1.25 µm pixel size; 2 x f/2.2 lenses; dual tone, and dual LED flash.

The rear camera has one colour lens and one black and white. The B&W does not have a Bayer filter (RGB) so it captures up to three times more light. They work together to provide a better colour shot – allegedly more detail is captured by the B&W lens to overlay on the colour shot.

Having two lenses also allows it to calculate the precise distance to a subject – Laser Autofocus and Hybrid AF.

Leica designed three colour modes  standard, vivid and smooth  and standard is best and the most natural in daylight.

It has dual-tone, dual LED flash. It is one of the few cameras that can create a high-quality optical background defocus effect (bokeh).

It shoots in RAW or JPEG. The camera app is one of the most comprehensive I have used including settings for HDR, watermark, document scan, adding audio notes, panorama, slow-mo, time-lapse and more. But it is also more complex, and you need to master it to get the best results.

The rear dual lens is located at the top, left back of the phone like the iPhone and you need to be careful not to put your fingers over it when shooting 16:9 (landscape). There no camera bump – the lenses are flush with the back plate.

With still shots, it offers 12, 9, 8, and 6MP with and without HDR, in 16:9 or 4:3 ratios. With Video it offers 1080p (30/60fps), 720, 640, 320, in 16:9 and 4:3.

I have developed a series of reference shots tested with flagship cameras including the Lumia 950 XL, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, LG G5, Sony Xperia X, iPhone 6S Plus, and an ever growing range of review camera shots on file. Tests are all at default settings and include:

  • Daylight, no flash, with HDR

I was initially a little disappointed by the muted colours and tried all colour modes – normal was the best. But then I realised that I was viewing them on the phone’s IPS screen in the daylight which is not as vivid as an OLED!

Back at the office comparing the reference shots on a colour calibrated monitor the colour comes up nicely, but shots are not as crisp, or full of detail as the GS7 or LG G5; but they are superior to the Phone 6S and Sony Xperia X – and Sony is supposed to have good cameras.

It is only when you have some current smartphones to use to compare reference shots that you see these differences. I give it a 7.5 out of 10 for daylight shots – still very acceptable for a flagship camera.

  • Daylight, no flash, without HDR

The best way to describe this is what you lose without HDR – highlights, shadows, definition and details are markedly less. Use HDR but without image stabilisation you can take a blurry shot!

  • Indoors, no flash, with HDR

Reasonable low light capability from its f/2.2 lens and 1.25 µm pixel size but not as good as others with lower f-stops or larger pixels.

  • Indoors, no flash, without HDR

In a darkened room it lost almost everything – no image definition at all. By comparison, the GS7 could pick up the outlines and reasonable tone.

  • Indoors, low light, flash, with and without HDR

While it will take respectable flash photos with HDR, it can be grainy, noisy, and produce off colours without it.

  • Speciality shots like panorama, time-lapse, slo-mo, etc.

Daylight panorama was good as it stitches the shot together producing an accurate, seamless image of around 3000 pixels high.

  • Video

HD, 1920 x 30/60fps (17/34Mbps). Best in daylight. It has poor dynamic range and loss of detail in low light.

  • B&W photography

Using the same lens type as the colour means similar lens performance except where low light is concerned – it is better. B&W photography is all about the mood and while I would like to say that it is a major selling feature it is not. It is fun for a while but not as useful as LG’s G5 dual lens that uses one for normal photography and the other for wide angle colour photography – great for holiday snaps.

  • Selfies

The 8MP, F/2.4 was good and has screen fill (no flash), which is fine for selfies and Skype.

Camera Summary

The Pro mode allows you to alter almost every parameter, and I suspect that is where the strength of this camera lies.

DXOMark gives it an average pf 80 out of 100 good but not the best it is certainly not the image quality Huawei led us [journalists] to expect at launch, but it does provide acceptable images under most circumstances. By comparison the DXOMark averages are Samsung S7 (88), LG G5 (86), and iPhone 6S (82).

Lack of 2/4K Video is a slight concern but this generates huge file sizes so it is not a deal breaker.

The camera is capable of so much more, but it is going to take a determined photographer to reach nirvana.

Display

1080p, 423ppi, is more than enough for a flagship – let’s face it 2 or 4K uses more battery for no appreciable difference on a 5.2” screen. It uses an IPS-Neo LCD with 500 nits brightness and >1000:1 contrast.

Colour, however, was initially a little off. It offers three modes of colour – Default, Warm, and Cold plus an infinitely adjustable colour “circle”. By comparison to an OLED (Samsung/Lumia/OPPO) screen that has a black rating of zero (the best), this has a rating of .46 (iPhone is .36). Still it is visually as good as any other IPS screen I have seen.

It is not as strong in daylight readability. To put this in perspective The Samsung S7 OLED is best by a country mile, the LG G5 (IPS) next, Sony X (IPS) is 15% below that, and the P9 (IPS) is about 25% below. That is not to say it is inadequate –– it is a characteristic of IPS/LCD screens and why we will see OLED on most flagship devices once production ramps up.

If you are looking to use it for a VR headset, consider a higher resolution, OLED screen.

Performance

There is some customer resistance to using anything other than a Qualcomm Snapdragon (or Exynos) on a flagship device.

It is not warranted. Its Kirin processor as a multi-core device is up there with the GS7 for CPU performance. But it offers about 30% less of the graphics performance from the GS7, G5 and iPhone 6S. It is more than adequate performance for most purposes.

Battery

It has a non-removable 3000 mAh battery. It has a standard 5V/2A charger. If you want fast charging, you need to buy the proprietary 9V/2A charger. The supplied charger takes about 2.5 hours from zero to full.

It has a theoretical endurance rating of 75 hours compared to the smaller screened iPhone 6S at 62 hours and the larger 6S plus at 85. But the winner is the S7/Edge at 80/98 hours. It is a one-day use device.

Again this makes little difference in everyday use – all smartphones will go a day without a stretch. The P9 does have a ROG mode that cuts the screen resolution to 720p and it will eek out two days without much of an appreciable screen quality difference.

LTE/Phone

It has eighteen Cat 6, 4G bands – a world phone with Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 26, 28, 38, 39, 40.

In tests around Sydney, it was fine – matching for the most part the “bars” of other flagships. Cat 6 LTE is adequate but not as high a data transfer rate as some.

However, some callers complained of low in-call volumes. For my part, calls were clear and, hands-free volume was good.

Apps/UI

Huawei provides a phone manager, Dialler, Contacts, Favourites, Calendar, and other Apps so that you don’t have to use Google’s Android offerings. These are all fit for purpose.

It also has a fitness app – presumably for use with its Huawei Watch.

It has one button (recently used apps button) that clears up memory space by closing the apps.

But I find the UI quirky to use – it is almost unrecognisable from Android M, and it takes a lot of getting used to. Still, I am told the Asian market loves it as it is.

Repairability

iFixit score it 7 out of 10, and that is excellent. Teardown is here.

Conclusion – a lot to Leica

Who are we, Hawaii, Huawei? It is not as well known a brand in Australia as in Asia. It is better known for its Google Nexus 6P. But get used to it – Huawei is a brand that will be here for the long term.

In fact, this Chinese telecommunications company has been manufacturing mobile phones since 1997. It is also the largest telecom infrastructure maker in the world.

On the positive side is

  • Best phone Huawei has ever made
  • Great design and craftsmanship
  • Fast fingerprint reader
  • Good IPS display let down ever so slightly by colour accuracy and daylight readability.
  • The Kirin horsepower proves you don’t need a Qualcomm to compete.
  • A reliable company that has committed to providing Android N for the handset – I would prefer this in Australia to its UI.
  • Flagship class camera although if photography is why you are buying it, then there are better - at higher prices.

On the negative side is

  • User interface is a little quirky until you learn to use it
  • Camera is good but also quirky and needs lots of practice to get the best
  • No image stabilisation – potentially blurry handheld shots especially with HDR

At $799 I would rate it 7.5 out of 10 – and that is pretty good considering that to get more you need to spend up to 50% more.

I have not seen the bigger P9 Plus – it has an AMOLED screen and 3D Force touch (a.k.a. Apple) at $100 more.

Would I buy it? Here is the conundrum?

If I had $800, then absolutely – it is great value for the money and as almost all flagship smartphones (except LG and Samsung) are made in China, then it is right up there. It meets, beats and competes with the current iPhone 6S at $1079 and Sony Xperia X Performance at $999.

If I had less money then OPPO’s 5” R9 at $599 or 6” R9 Plus at $699 offer amazing value with AMOLED screens, 4GB ROM, 64GB storage, fingerprint access, fast charge, huge battery, and 16MP cameras. These would win me over; seriously, these phones are flagship class with no downsides.

If money was not an object, then the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Edge (and coming Note 7) offer so much more at $1149 and $1249 and the LG G5 would be hard to beat at $1099.

Related: Huawei P20 Pro Full, in-depth review

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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