Review: Huawei P9, premium phone at a sharp price

Huawei’s latest flagship phone scores on build quality, camera and fingerprint scanner.

Huawei P9: At a glance

For: Design, high-quality build, camera, USB-C.
Against: Android skin
Maybe: Battery life, screen resolution
Verdict: A top-notch Android at a competitive price.
Price: NZ$9001

 

IDC says Huawei New Zealand phone sales jumped after the May launch of its flagship P9. That makes sense. The phone has top notch hardware with beautiful build quality, an excellent Leica camera and a fast fingerprint scanner.

On paper the P9 almost matches the current top models from Apple and Samsung while costing much less.

Huawei’s phone ambition

Huawei is the world’s number three mobile phone maker. It says it wants to challenge Apple and Samsung for the top spot. Huawei doesn’t just want to win the most sales, it wants to equal or better today’s leaders on quality and prestige.

The P9 isn’t going to get Huawei into that league. Not this year. It comes close. The P9 is the best phone yet from a Chinese brand. But it is let down by its software.

If Huawei had gone with stock Android software, as it did with the excellent Nexus 6P, the P9 could be a world beater.

Looks good, feels right

Put the P9 next to an iPhone 6S and you’ll see there’s not much of an external difference. Huawei’s logo sits where Apple puts its fingerprint scanner, but otherwise the phones are lookalikes.

Huawei has gone for smooth, clean lines. Nothing fussy or distracting. There’s no disappointing lens bump like on Apple’s iPhone 6. The Huawei fingerprint scanner is tucked away on the rear. For an unpracticed user, it can be tricky to find at first, but not a problem over the long haul.

The P9 looks great and feels good in the hand. The case is metal, but it’s not slippery. The 5.2 inch 1080p display goes right up to the edge of the case.

Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge has a flashier design. Huawei resisted the urge to use gimmicks and stuck with a more classic design. Yes, it’s a matter of personal taste. Your sense of style may differ.

The phone is thin and light. It weighs about 145g and is about 7mm thick. When it comes to the external physical design, Huawei is ahead of Samsung and on a par with Apple.

Performance

Huawei uses its own eight core processor in the P9 and includes three gigabytes of Ram. The result is smooth operation at all times. Nothing seems to stress the phone’s power plant, but you wouldn’t expect that in a 2016 premium phone.

In practice it matches anything from Apple or Samsung. In use the phone doesn’t seem to heat up.

Battery life is fine, but maybe not up to what you’ll find on an iPhone. The P9’s 3,000mAh battery has the same capacity as the Galaxy S7 and more than the iPhone 6S, yet, if anything, it doesn’t last as long. Even so, it will get you through a working day and into the evening.

At a pinch, you can stretch the P9 battery life by using the phone’s power saving mode, but this reduces functionality. If you’re not busy, you’ll get more than 24 hours. If you push the phone hard you may run out of juice in the evening.

Leica dual camera

The P9’s signature feature is a Leica dual camera — which delivers arguably the best phone camera experience at the moment.

Having two cameras might seem odd. Rumour has it other phone makers are readying their own dual camera models, so Huawei is ahead of the pack here.

Both the cameras on the back of the phone are full resolution. One is a 12-megapixel colour camera, the other has a monochrome sensor.

Huawei P9 photography

In use the two work together. They boost low-light performance, which is important for phone cameras and does wonders to improve picture quality in difficult conditions. You’ll get lovely balanced pictures with plenty of detail.

If you love photography, the P9 isn’t going to replace an SLR. On the other hand, it will let you take better phone pictures. All phone makers go out of their way to emphasise the quality and features of their cameras, but it’s rare for buyers to make their phone choice based on this.

There are a huge number of built-in camera features. If you like, a professional mode will even let you adjust the ISO and shutter speed. That’s great if you want to play, but most of the time everyday photographers would do better to stick with the automatic settings.

Despite impressive hardware and good photo editing software, pictures taken on the P9 are not noticeably better than those from a Galaxy S7 or an iPhone 6S. Huawei’s camera matches, but doesn’t beat its rivals.

Software

Phone makers think users would rather have software overlays instead of stock Android. In Huawei’s case, the software is called Emotion UI or EMUI. If you think that name sounds ugly wait until you see it.

On a positive note, The new version of EMUI in the P9 is less annoying than its ancestors. It sits on top of Android 6.0. The animations work more smoothly and the phone is more responsive, mainly thanks to faster hardware.

EMUI isn’t horrible, just a touch ordinary. You can read a lot of criticism of it elsewhere, but that is overcooked.

It’s annoying and takes the gloss off the phone, but it’s not a reason not to choose a P9. If anything Samsung’s software overlay is worse. None of the big Android brands get this right.

The best EMUI feature is called phone manager. It puts power and memory management tools all in one place, which is useful if you are running out of either or both.

Conclusion

The P9 is a clear step up from the P8. It has everything you might need in a phone and plenty of polish. At NZ$9001, the price is right. You get a lot of value. For most Android fans this would be a better purchase than a Galaxy S7.

Huawei is only one or two steps away from phone greatness. To get to the next level it needs to work on the phone software. This may mean dumping EMUI and taking a Nexus-like stock Android approach.

Specifications

Display 5.2 inch FHD screen, 1080p (1920 x 1080), 424 pixels per inch, 16.7M colours
CPU  Huawei Kirin 955 (64-bit), Octa-core (4 x 2.5 GHz A72+ 4 x 1.8 GHz A53)
Operating system Android6.0 with Emotion UI 4.1
Memory 3GB ram, 32GB storage + microSD card slot
Camera Main camera: 12MP*2, F2.2 Leica, BSI CMOS, dual-tone flash

Front camera: 8MP, F2.4


  1. Phone carriers list the Huawei P9 at $900, as John MacGibbon’s footnote below notes, you can buy the phone from JB Hi-Fi for $700.

Huawei P9 review was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

5 thoughts on “Review: Huawei P9, premium phone at a sharp price

  1. It sounds like a great phone. I wouldn’t let Huawei’s UI put me off. Replace it with the Nova home screen system and you’ll have something that beats all Android phonemakers’ UIs, and Apple’s as well. Of more concern to me would be bundled apps that you can’t uninstall – assuming the Huawei has them and I bet it does. Bundled apps are a pain on my Samsung tablet, because it only has16Gb of internal storage. But with 32Gb internal plus a micro SD card, the Huawei would be OK. I’m sure you’d be able to disable the apps you don’t want, even if you couldn’t uninstall them.

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  2. $1100 is way over the odds for this phone. Price Spy has many sellers, including retailers Noel Leeming and Harvey Norman, selling it for hundreds of dollars cheaper. JB HiFi has it for $699.

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  3. There are bundled apps. I’ve loaded so much of my own on the phone during the review I can’t tell for certain how much bloatware there was, but a quick look tells me there is only around 100MB of extra software.

    Most can be disabled if not removed. I just deleted three unneccessary apps to prove this is easy. After installing my standard phone apps there was still 23GB of the 32GB storage free. I haven’t even looked for an SD card yet, but will do so soon when I load in my music.

    The first things I did after reviewing was install the Google Now launcher. I prefer the barebones Android experience on Nexus phones, but EMUI is less intrusive than most overlays I’ve seen.

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  4. “Phone makers think users would rather have software overlays instead of stock Android. ”

    Which is why I avoid anything other than Nexus phones – I have yet to see a UI overlay from any manufacturer that actually improves the functionality of an Android phone. Launchers have their place, but they don’t replace the more regular OS updates that Google supply for their Nexus phones.

    I have a Nexus 6 (Motorola) – I normally upgrade every two years but this phone is so awesome I haven’t even considered changing (besides, I am completely sold on wireless charging and the two latest Nexus phones – 6P and 5X – don’t have this function…

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