I finished writing my review of the Huawei P9 on Friday. Today’s Tuesday, I have a Galaxy S7 and two iPhones in my immediate vicinity, and I’m still using the Huawei P9.
Have I taken leave of my senses?
Two years ago, Chinese networking giant Huawei sent me an unrequested Ascend P7 for review — an Android smartphone that keenly reinforced all the prejudices about Chinese copycats. The software was a tacky iOS ripoff, the industrial design echoed Sony’s Xperia Z line, and the battery life was nonexistent. But two years is a mighty long time in the tech realm, and today’s Huawei is a fundamentally different beast.
Having built the excellent Nexus 6P for Google last year, Huawei returns in 2016 with its most beautiful design to date and a partnership with Leica that promises to “revolutionize smartphone photography.” The P9 has a dual-camera system, which I think represents the first steps toward the future of mobile photography, however the Leica branding is mostly just hype. It’s not really the reason why my SIM continues to make a happy home inside the P9.
I just really enjoy using this phone.
The P9 is a flagship phone in every respect but the price. In the UK, this smartphone costs £450, which is less than Samsung’s regular Galaxy S7, less than LG’s G5 without any modular extras, and a lot less than HTC’s 10. I’ve spent ample time with each of these devices and I can say with confidence that Huawei’s cheaper price doesn’t translate into a poorer design. Purely in terms of ergonomics, my favorite phone from this bunch is Huawei’s.
Measuring just 6.95mm in thickness, the Huawei P9 is easily the slimmest from among the recent cadre of big-name Android releases, and it manages to accommodate two cameras on its rear without any extra protrusions. At the same spot where Samsung and HTC have camera bumps, Huawei goes the opposite way with a shallow valley accommodating the P9’s fingerprint sensor1. This phone is light enough to be effortless, but not so slight as to be insubstantial. It is encased in an aluminum unibody, after all. The sides are straight and regular, but they’re not sharp and don’t dig into my palm. The USB-C port at the bottom is finished with perfect smoothness, whereas I’ve experienced many phones, the iPhone among them, that have a sharp edge to their charging ports.
Huawei's fingerprint sensors have consistently been ahead of the competition, and the P9's seems to be the best one yet. No other phone has been as reliable and consistent in recognizing my fingerprint as this one. It's as good as, if not better than, Apple's Touch ID and Google's Nexus Imprint.
I look at the P9’s design, ask myself how it could be improved, and I find no easy answers. Even the chamfers of the metal body are perfectly judged. This is an exceedingly common design feature these days, but on the P9 it’s somehow done better. No, this isn’t an empirical measure, but yes, it will be something you notice and enjoy while using the phone.
The biggest spec compromise that Huawei makes to hit its lower price point is in the resolution of the P9’s screen, which is a 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD. I’d make the same choice any day of the week, as none of the Quad HD alternatives present a tangible advantage to their greater resolution. That might change once mobile VR content becomes enticing enough for me to care to get a headset — those things benefit immensely from higher resolution — but for general smartphone use, the P9’s display is perfectly sufficient. To be fair to Samsung, HTC, and LG, their displays are more vibrant and prettier to look at, but that’s a matter of higher-quality components rather than having more pixels crammed in.
The battery doesn't last as long as its size would suggest
Huawei keeps pace with its more reputable competitors by offering storage expandability via microSD card — the slot for it sits on the same tray as the nano-SIM card — and a 3,000mAh battery. Only the Xiaomi Mi 5 can compete with the P9 for the title of being the thinnest and lightest smartphone with a battery of that size. Unfortunately, the P9 differs in one important respect and that’s the actual battery life.
Even with its large battery, this phone consumes a lot of power when connected to LTE and runs out of juice comparatively quickly. On one particularly intensive day out at meetings — where I took notes on Google Keep like a true Born Mobile millennial — I found myself needing to recharge the P9 by the afternoon. I’m usually an extremist when it comes to power management and not being able to complete a productive day’s use without recharging came as an unhappy surprise. I shot photos, browsed the web, tweeted some wisecracks out into the ether — but I don’t think I did anything that would have tripped up, say, the HTC 10 in quite the same way. The Huawei difference? It uses the Chinese company’s own Kirin 955 processor rather than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 that has quickly become the flagship standard this year.
Like any other smartphone, the Huawei P9 is great at idling and lasts for a good couple of days if only connecting to Wi-Fi, but unlike its 2016 rivals, its efficiency when actually doing things is not impressive. This is one aspect of Huawei’s product design that hasn’t improved: I felt similarly let down by the Kirin chip inside 2014’s P7. One note of optimism for prospective US buyers: if the P9 makes its way to American shores, it’s highly likely that it will do so with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 powering it. In that case, you can probably expect battery life similar to that of the Xiaomi Mi 5, which has the same battery size and display specs.
My feelings toward Huawei’s dual-camera system fluctuated from initial disdain — yet another imaging gimmick to avoid talking about how much better Apple and Samsung are — to substantial enthusiasm once I started taking pictures with it.
The way it works is straightforward: both rear cameras fire at the same time, with one taking a regular color image and the other taking only a black-and-white snap. Because it has no color filters, the latter sensor is able to absorb twice as much light and thus it provides useful contrast information that is integrated into the composite 12-megapixel image. This manifests itself nicely with some extremely sharp and noise-free closeups.
Co-branded with Leica2, this camera system produces above average results that exhibit some pleasing post-processing. Like the iPhone, Huawei’s P9 punches up saturation and contrast — it makes strawberries redder, skies bluer, and twilight scenes brighter than they truly are — which serves to liven up images. It’s the Beats headphones of cameras, sacrificing a faithful reproduction of reality for a less accurate but actually more pleasing image.
Huawei and Leica have been frustratingly evasive about the specifics of their partnership. One thing they’re on the record with is that the P9 uses some of Leica’s image processing expertise.
What I don’t like about the P9’s camera is its inconsistency. Sometimes I’ll get a shot that makes me marvel at its precision, but on other occasions I’m greeted by disappointing mediocrity. Huawei isn’t shy about obscuring image noise with the help of blurring and post-processing, which tends to discard a lot of the finer detail in less than ideal lighting. I do like the way that the company has designed its image processing; I just happen to think others do this trick better than Huawei. Apple, Samsung, and LG retain more detail while still amping up the images to look more exciting. I consider the P9’s camera above the "good enough" threshold to satisfy most smartphone users, and it does take some lovely black-and-white shots with its monochrome sensor.
Huawei’s EMUI has been the butt of many jokes about horrible Android software skins, so maybe you should grab a seat before reading what follows. I actually like EMUI on the P9. Like Xiaomi’s MIUI, this is a wholesale reorganization of Android, offering Huawei’s own notifications panel, quick-launch shortcuts, menus, settings, and extra functionality like a memory cleaning utility. At a time when LG and Samsung are relying more and more on Google’s default Android interface elements, and HTC has gone almost completely stock, Huawei takes the old-school approach of tweaking everything.
I actually like this Android software skin
Notifications on the P9 are more refined than Android’s default. A Telegram message on the HTC 10 or Galaxy S7 drops in a big Material Design card from the top of the screen, which is no more informative than Huawei’s subtler sliver alert. I get much more information when reviewing notifications on the P9 because Huawei favors density — something that LG and Samsung could learn from. There are also granular app permissions and I’m alerted to apps that consume power in the background. That might be an annoyance to some, but it actually helps my obsessiveness with maximizing battery life, alerting me, for example, about Google Docs’ clandestine power draw.
In past years, Huawei’s gimmicky gesture inputs might have been the only thing to distinguish its software. But now the company has truly useful add-ons like its Wi-Fi+ connection manager. It automatically switches the phone’s Wi-Fi radio off when I leave my home and back on when I return. And it ranks wireless sources by strength of connection, switching between them faster than any other smartphone I’ve used. You’ll appreciate this feature if, like me, you have multiple Wi-Fi access points in your house.
The Kirin processor that undermines the good news around Huawei’s big battery also plays the spoiler with respect to the P9’s performance. Small traces of lag and animation stutters are apparent on this phone that you won’t find on its Snapdragon 820 competitors. There’s clearly enough power here to handle intensive tasks — photos shot with the two cameras are processed almost as swiftly as a single capture on any other phone — but there are tiny delays and imperfections that detract from the smoothest user experience. If the Huawei P9 were that little bit faster and its camera were that little bit better, it could have been my favorite phone.
How far Huawei has come. This time last year, the Chinese company’s flagship P8 was barely a blip on the mobile radar, leaving me unimpressed with its bland design and gimmicky software. But in the months since the P8, Huawei has been responsible for 2015’s best Android device, Google’s Nexus 6P, and some of this year’s best battery life, courtesy of the Mate 8 phablet. Now second only to Samsung in Android smartphone shipments, Huawei has designs on assaulting the US market in 2016, and the flagship at the vanguard of that raid might well be the P9.
I don’t care for the Leica fanfare surrounding the launch of the P9, but this smartphone’s existence will certainly have a positive effect on how the Huawei brand is perceived. The P9 proves that Huawei can make great phones outside of Google’s Nexus program, and it extends a budding tradition of excellence at Huawei.
The design of Huawei’s new flagship is terrific. For its specs and capabilities, the P9 is a ridiculously thin and light phone, and it has the fit and finish of a true premium device. It has some compromises, as all phones do, and for many people it might not really have a unique advantage to make it stand out. But for me, this smartphone is just a joy to use. I have been using the P9 for a month and my feelings toward it have only grown warmer over that time.
Over the full term of owning a phone, the better cameras, performance, and battery life of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Apple’s iPhone make them preferable choices ahead of the Huawei P9. This new smartphone has important limitations that must temper my enthusiasm. But for now at least, I remain enamored with the P9’s perfect proportions, unfailingly fast fingerprint sensor, and intelligent software additions. Should Huawei release a version of this phone built around the Snapdragon 820 processor, my biggest worries about battery life and performance will perish into nothing. The Huawei P9 is a major stride forward from a smartphone maker on its way to competing with the very best.