The Huawei P9 is the tip of the spear of the Huawei smartphone lineup. Designed with the latest technologies that Huawei can field to the market, the P9 has a thin and light design, an innovative dual-camera setup in the back and a fast Kirin 950 chip from HiSilicon. With a rising worldwide market share, and an equally rising brand recognition, how far this the Huawei P9 handset pushes the envelope? Let’s find out.

Industrial Design

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The Huawei P9 represents the next evolution of a Huawei design language that has been used in the Huawei Mate 8, just to cite a recent one. Right off the bat, the 2.5D glass curvature is noticeable, thanks to the reflection around the soft, rounded, edges of the screen. It’s one of the subtle (but expensive) things that makes a smartphone look more “premium” at first sight.

The white material underneath the glass has a nice texture to it. It makes the material feel richer and not plastic-looking. The speaker grill design is comparable to what Huawei has used before on its higher-end phones, and so are the front camera and sensor.

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The Huawei P9 is very thin – just a hair thinner than an iPhone 6s (P9 dimensions are 145x71x7mm, the iPhone 6S: 138x67x7.1mm), although for practical purposes, they are comparable. Unlike other Huawei handsets, the sides of the P9 are curved, which makes it nicer to hold in the hand. Again, this is a sign of good (and more costly) industrial design that requires tighter parts and fitting. On the right side, you will find the Volume Rocker and the Power button. On the left side, there’s a metal tray for the nano-SIM and the microSD card (128GB max).

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The back is brushed metal, with a few prominent features. First, you can see a small recessed square: that’s the fingerprint sensor. Above it, there’s the camera module, sensors, and the dual-LED flash. You will notice that the P9’s camera is flush with the back, which is a rarity these days since most camera modules protrude.

The metal body can sometimes pick up a bit of dirt from being in the pocket, and isn’t as easy to clean up as a glass design, but it’s less prone to crack, and I typically wipe with a bit of alcohol to give it a brand new look.

The Huawei P9’s chassis doesn’t feel as “organic” in the hand as the HTC 10 or the LG G5, but it does feel much thinner (7mm) than either of those, so there’s something for everyone. It is also very light, in case you like to slip it in a dress shirt pocket.

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The camera modules are under a 2.5D glass layer, just like the front. Somewhere in there, there may be an antenna as well, since glass would let the signal go through. On the right side of the camera module, you can see the Leica branding, a partnership that Huawei has been promoting very strongly. More on that later.

At the bottom, there’s a distinct line that seems made of plastic. It is another antenna. This kind of design was invented by HTC, then popularized by Apple, and used by many phone OEMs because metal blocks radio signals. Huawei has opted for a USB-C connector on this phone.

Fingerprint sensor ‘Level 4’

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The Huawei P9 fingerprint sensor is very efficient and ranks among the best sensors out there. I didn’t have a lot of false-negative as long as my fingers are dry and clean. Huawei points out that it has a “Level 4” fingerprint sensor, and many people wonder what that means. Each “level” represent the ability to detect an additional set of unique features, thus making the reading more accurate.

Level 1 and 2 fingerprint sensors can detect basic fingerprint features, such as the general orientation of the fingerprint ridges and singular points. Level 2 is about detecting Ridge ends and Ridge bifurcation. Level 3 adds enough resolution to see skin pores and other details on the ridge themselves. Level 4 can detect the depth of edges, making the fingerprint somewhat 3D and harder to fake.

Learn more: How do Fingerprint Scanners Work?

Camera

mobile-camera-dual-lens-heroThe Huawei P9’s camera system is one of the most interesting aspects of the phone, so let’s get to it. The theory is this:

The P9 has two identical camera modules (same lens, sensor), each of which features a high-quality Sony IMX286 sensors. One is setup to capture color, while the other is used to capture light intensity (brightness) — the data from the two sensors are then “fused” into making a final image.

The dual-cameras system a very interesting concept, and in theory, it should yield very good results. In some ways, the future of digital photography will without a doubt happen through the addition of more cameras and additional computing, to produce better images within the same internal volume. But does it work in the P9?

Learn more: What’s a Great Mobile Camera Experience?

In broad daylight, the Huawei P9 is very competitive and takes very good pictures. It’s not quite the best, but most people would be challenged to see the difference at first glance. If you are the person who took the photo, you could see color-balance differences or how the camera handles lens-flares or challenging light conditions, when compared to the best out there.

This is a very challenging shot for metering/color-balance/AF systems. The P9 did very well

This is a very challenging shot for metering/color-balance/AF systems. The P9 did very well

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The colors are very life-like, maybe a bit propped up by software, but it’s very good.

In low-light, the P9 is supposed to shine with its dual-sensor setup. As a reminder, the two sensors are identical, and one is dedicated to capturing the brightness (light intensity), while the other captures RGB colors. Both are the same kind of sensor, but each has a specific job.

Huawei has published material claiming that its “monochrome” sensor can gather 300% more light than a regular mobile camera. I assume that this is because a normal camera splits the luminance between red/green/blue and now it is configured to capture only “white light” (hence the 300%) — but in reality, the low-light performance is definitely not looking like it is 3X better.huawei-p9-vs-s7-edge-b

The low light photos of the Huawei P9 are very good too, but I was expecting something better, given the premise of the dual-camera pitch. For the purpose of this review, I compared it with the Galaxy S7’s camera, although I’ll go back and take low-light shots with other phones (closer in price?) if I can.

In the images below, you will notice that the level of noise, overall clarity (sharpness) isn’t as good as the S7. Also, the color balance is a bit off (too red), but you would never know, so it’s not as important (but still is)

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Bokeh, the visual quality of the out-of-focus area, is something that the Huawei P9 excels at. Although sharp details are typically seen as the most important thing in reviews, the out of focus aspect of imaging is also extremely important and helps focus the attention on the subject of the photo.

"FOR BOKEH THE P9 HAS THE TREMENDOUS ADVANTAGE OF HAVING TWO SENSORS"

The blur if the out of focus area typically happens because the light signal blends in the out of focus area. The effect is also stronger with a large aperture lens (large hole) because the larger the area, and the more blending happens. A large-enough lens and sensor surface area are difficult to do on a tiny phone lens, and even harder because the P9 lens does have a particularly large aperture anyway (f2.2).

For bokeh the P9 has the tremendous advantage of having two full-resolution sensors. By using the ~8mm distance between the lens, the difference of perspective helps estimate the distance of each pixel to the lens. From there, it can add an extra process to blur out of focus pixels. The bokeh of the Huawei P9 is done instantly and is comparable to what the Google Camera app takes many seconds to compute.

Normally, single-lens cameras can also do something like this by rapidly taking two shots one after the other. Because your hand moves slightly in between shots, the tiny difference of perspective is already sufficient to make a distance estimation (I think that the Google Camera app does something like this). The Huawei’s P9’s is just much better because the lenses are farther apart, and the distance in-between them is known. With better data, comes better blurring — all for the sake of art.

The Huawei P9 can produce better blur instantaneously, almost as good as the slow processing on the 6P

The Huawei P9 can produce better blur instantaneously, almost as good as the slow processing on the 6P

P9 Camera still a challenger, despite dual-lenses

Mobile photography is an extremely difficult task because it goes against everything that should make it easy to capture good photos: small lenses, small camera module, the ultra-short distance between lens and sensor, constrained computing power, etc.

Huawei’s dual-lens idea is sound, the Light Camera is a technical proof that merging data from many camera modules can work. But in reality, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Fusing the information obtained by both sensors makes it more difficult to obtain sharp images because there’s invariably data alignment problems when merging data between two sensors.

It would be even more difficult to have Image stabilization with two independantly stabilizaed cameras because they would be slightly out of phase. This probably explained why the Huawei P9 does not have OIS. Read: what is image stabilization.

"DUAL LENS IS A BOLD APPROACH BUT NOT ENOUGH TO CHANGE THE STATUS QUO, YET"

Most people also don’t realize that image processing software quality is as important as hardware. Given the same hardware, it’s possible to spot some huge quality differences that are 100% due to software processing of the image. Just take Sony’s example: they make the best mobile image sensors, yet that company has not been able to establish themselves as the de-facto best camera (the XPERIA Z5 being the top at Sony at publishing time).

In the Huawei P9, it seems to be that HDR photos are made up of two consecutive shots (instead of a single shot), so this increases the chances for ghosting and slight blurriness.

Samsung chose to stick with a one-lens setup that has been “beefed up”: larger aperture to let more light in, and a better sensor, bigger sensor pixels, and excellent image processing.

Huawei has a bold approach and I give them credit for it, but that is probably going to require more work before it unleashes its full potential. Huawei may also have bumped into design constraints because the cameras had to be flush with the back surface, hit a certain cost, etc. This is very hard stuff.

Camera interface and features

As usual, Huawei has done a lot of work on its Camera app. It works very well out of the box and is intuitive. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find some optional features that are worthy of your time and attention:

Pro Mode

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It’s fair to say that few people switch to “Pro” mode, but the Huawei P9 may entice one to do it more often. Pro mode features are enabled by swiping the little vertical bar near the virtual shutter button. Note that any other “auto” or “effects” mode will be switched off as soon as you enter “Pro.”

From there, it’s easy to select a property (ISO, Shutter Speed, Exposure Value, AF mode, Color Balance) and tweak it with a virtual rotary dial. The user interface layout is efficient, and I like it in general. The only thing that Huawei needs to change is that any “Pro” settings should automatically be copied from their “auto” counterpart.

For example, if I choose to tweak the Shutter Speed, and the current “auto” value is 1/30, the “pro” user interface will start from the lowest value: 1/4000. This causes a huge change in value, and it would be much simpler to tweak relative to what we were starting from with the auto-values. It should be a very easy change. Also, the icons are always in portrait mode.

A ton of options

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The Huawei P9 comes with a whole lot of options and modes. Just to mention the most interesting ones, I like the automated watermarks which can feature the time and place. I wish that Huawei would give us the option of using customizable text, or our logo!

You can also, set the AF to track an object, take photos only when the camera sees a smile, or even set adjustments (saturation, contrast, and brightness) if you find yourself doing the same editings most of the time.

Ultra Snapshot Mode

The Ultra Snapshot mode is activated by a double-press on Volume Down. By default, the camera turns on and takes a shot right away without further intervention. It all happens in about 1 second. It is possible to set it only to open the camera, and let you decide when to shoot. I highly recommend this setting since that’s what you would want most of the time.

Camera conclusion

The Huawei P9 does quite well in still photography, but there are details that Huawei needs to improve to climb to the top spot: first, the autofocus (AF) is hunting more often than I’d care for and low-light could be better. Secondly, the general capture action could be faster, although it is not slow, it is not the fastest. This is very important because mobile photography is more about speed and quality — at the same time.

The P9 is good, and could end up as one of the best still Phone Camera when we update our list. However, the expectation was that it would be “the best” out there, and it’s not the case for this generation of phones. The idea of having 2 lenses is good, but an edgy classic configuration can still beat it.

If the Camera experience is a big deal to you, read our Best Phone Camera article before making a decision. We update it a couple of times every year.

Display

huawei-p9-review_03Despite having a body that is roughly comparable in size to the iPhone 6s, the Huawei P9 features a 5.2” display instead of a 4.7” for the iPhone. This is a tremendous difference!

"A VERY NICE DISPLAY, NOT QUITE THE BEST"The Huawei P9 display is an LCD display with a resolution of “only” 1080p or 1920×1080, which is similar to the iPhone 6s, but other Android Phones in this price range often have a 2560×1440 pixels (QHD) display.

The difference in crispness (measured in PPI) is typically not very noticeable during regular app usage, but looking at high-resolution photos and small text can feel noticeably better on a sharper screen. Because the display is 5.2” and not 5.7” or 6”, the perceived sharpness remains high, even though it’s not the absolute best.

Learn more: What is PPI?
Learn more: High PPI displays: do you really need them?

I like the thin bezel design very much. If you turn the screen on, you will notice that the image doesn’t go all the way to the bezel, but the industrial design looks like.

Not optimal for VR

The one obvious downside of a 1080p resolution is that it is not sufficient for virtual reality (VR) applications where a much higher pixel density is required. The lower resolution is why the iPhone is not VR-ready yet. Since VR headset magnifies the screen pixels, a 1080p VR experience is more pixelated. That said, the Huawei P9 can still run VR apps, and Huawei even has a VR Headset for it.

Lower PPI = better battery life?

It’s been advocated that a 1080p display leads to a better battery life. In some ways, it’s probably true that since there are fewer pixels than QHD (2M vs. 3.6M), there’s “less graphical work”, and therefore less energy must be spent.

However, we know since the LG G3 (the first “2K” display phone), that it’s not so perceptible. There are strategies to reduce the amount of work when the screen is idle, or including a refresh processor in the display itself to save power on the main phone chip. In any case, I think that the perceived battery savings less than the perceived image quality difference.

On the other hand, a 1080p could turn into a cost-competitive advantage, and arguably a good trade-off between perceived quality and price.

Display conclusion: good, but could be better

The Huawei P9’s quality is high. The black levels are good, and the colors are nice and vibrant. We measured the maximum brightness of the Huawei P9 at 546 NIT, which is very bright. There are other extremely bright handsets on the market, such as the S7 Edge which clocks at 757 NITS in our test.

Overall, the display can compete well with many phones such as the HTC 10, the One Plus 3, or the iPhone 6s to cite a few pertinent examples. That said, it is not as good as the Nexus 6P display (also from Huawei, for Google) or the Galaxy 7-Series (S/Edge/Note) from Samsung.

The P9 has an option to control the color temperature in the setting, which is rare enough to be pointed out. You can use it to tweak the settings to your taste. For example, you can give a tint that is less “blue” which may be more agreeable to you.

Finally, please note that because the Huawei P9 doesn’t have physical buttons, there is some space at the bottom of the screen dedicated to the user interface (Home, Menu, Back). This space is taken away from the content.

Battery: 3000 mAh

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With a 3000 mAh battery capacity, the Huawei P9 ranks among the phones with the larger battery capacity, especially if you look at it in relation to its light weight (144g).

Within the same OS platform (Android in this case) and given the same display brightness (we test at 150 NIT), the most important factor for battery life is the capacity itself. Obviously, it could happen that a phone manufacturer does something “horrible”, but so far, we have yet to test a popular phone that had something *really* wrong with battery management.

So it comes down to how you use the phone: what apps, brightness, time of use, etc. Although the battery capacity isn’t the only factor, it is certainly the most important factor that is not under your control.

Talking about control, Huawei does a good job of keeping an eye on battery-hungry apps, and will notify you every once in awhile. This will give you the opportunity to prevent the app execution in the background for example. Data usage and display wake up (notifications) are among the most damaging to the battery life. Chat apps are notoriously power-hungry, but they are also real-time apps that most people want to run in the background. In any case, control is a good thing, but don’t expect miracles.

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The Huawei P9 does come with a fast-charge capability, which means that it charges faster than a plain USB 5V 0.5mA would charge. But pretty much every new phone does have this capability, and the real question is how fast does it charge relative to the competition?

Using the charger provided in the box, and turning the phone OFF so that it would consume as little power as possible, the battery went from 0% to 35% in 30mn, which means that it increased by 35mAh/mn. This is not a bad charge speed, but well below the fastest charging phone which topped 52 mAh/mn (LG G5). Most high-end phones hover around 45-50mAh/mn, so I think that the P9 and its default charger have room for progress.

Software: Android 6.0 and EMUI 4.1

huawei-emui-4The Huawei P9 runs on Android 6.0, and benefits from new features introduced with it such as the Deep Sleep (battery saving) and app permission improvements: the user approves an action when it happens, and not at install time, which is much better since there is a context.

The P9 also has a complete skin called EMUI 4.1 (Huawei’s Emotion UI) that is relatively different from the stock Google Android. The general idea is to make things easier, and more efficient, and there are pro and cons to this approach. There are Huawei that I like very much, such as the Timer/Clock, the Compass, Weather, etc… but I don’t think that they would sway me for, or against a specific phone.

Read: Why do Phone Makers Create Custom Android Skins?

For most people, the biggest difference is the absence of App tray; that is a list of apps that is different from the Home screen. Here, every app install lands automatically on the Home screen, just like on iPhone.

Secondly, many icons are different (Music, Calendar, etc…) because apps may come from Huawei instead of Google. The settings design is different as well, but since there’s a search box, I don’t think that I care that much. Being able to search in the settings is a must-have feature, period.

Another thing to note is that Huawei has not enabled Adoptable Storage (AS) feature on the P9. AS allows users to install apps on a removable microSD card. It’s nice in theory, but in reality, many OEMS don’t want to enable it because people buy cheap, slow, microSD cards, then complain about a poor user experience. Not a bad choice, but it would be nice to be able to turn it ON if you know what you’re doing.

If you want to go back to a familiar interface, you can partially get that done by installing the Google Now launcher, for example. This will bring you back to a more Nexus-like user experience, at least, as long as you don’t start a Huawei app like Calendar, etc… Huawei will be sad to see you go away from EMUI, but EMUI alone shouldn’t discourage you from considering the Huawei P9 hardware.

System Performance

Powered by a HiSilicon Kirin 955 SoC main processor, the Huawei P9 is a very good performer in general. Note that HiSilicon is a subsidiary of Huawei, so it’s a Huawei processor as well.

Learn more: what is a SoC or System On a Chip?

Unlike other high-end SoCs such as the Exynos 88xx and theSnapdragon 82x, the Huawei P9 doesn’t have a balanced performance profile between CPU (general processor units) and GPU (graphics unit). More accurately, its graphics performance isn’t very high, and its support for advanced graphics API is a bit lacking. The good news is that most people don’t play advanced 3D games or use GPU-compute applications, so this really concerns a minority of potential Huawei P9 buyers.

Read: Are benchmarks important? What do they mean?

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The general performance is quite good. For example, the Huawei P9 scores well in system-wide tests (Basemark OS II) and extremely well in CPU synthetic tests (Geekbench multi). The good benchmarks scores compared to chips such as the Snapdragon 820 are partly explained by the presence of 4×4 cores in the Kirin 955 versus 2×2 cores in the Snapdragon 820. This 8-core setup is particularly effective in synthetic benchmarks, although it’s been proven over the years that more cores aren’t always better, it can help.

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The graphics performance (GFXBench) is sharply inferior to handsets in the same price range, so this is not a handset that we would recommend to someone who plans to run a lot of polygonal-3D heavy apps/games. For a general usage, it does offer a very compelling performance/price ratio. If you are curious, we have more Huawei P9 benchmarks.

The Huawei P9 ships with 32GB of internal storage and 3GB of RAM (versions EVA-L19 and EVA-L09), but there is also a 64GB+4GB (EVA-L29). Additionally, EVA-L29 and EVA-L19 have a dual-SIM capability

If you are an NFC user, be aware that NFC is not supported in the P9. I don’t mind, but NFC can be used for payments, Bluetooth speaker setup and a host of other things that you may care about.

Conclusion

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The Huawei P9 (official P9 page) is a very good phone with some advantages: good design, light weight (for a 5.2”), thin design and a very good camera which can produce interesting bokeh without jumping through hoops.

The Huawei P9 is not officially available in the USA (but easy to find online), so we consider it an “import phone”, which is more expensive than it would normally be, which plays against it — but that’s life.

With a street price of ~$500, the Huawei P9 (32GB) competes with the Galaxy S7 (~$565, 32GB) and the LG G5 (~$450). The iPhone 6s retails for ~$700 (16GB…) and runs on a completely different platform, but it’s worth putting it on the price radar as well.

To me, the design and the camera are the best assets of the Huawei P9. Although Huawei has been making astonishing progress in both product design and brand recognition, the Huawei P9 remains confronted to formidable competitors.

To end up on a good note, Huawei also has the Huawei P9 Plus, which is the same hardware platform, but with a 5.5” FHD AMOLED display and a 3400 mAh battery!

Not sure yet? Read our other reviews: Galaxy S7/S7Edge Review, LG G5 Review,

Overall product rating: 9/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Huawei, huawei p9 and Huawei Reviews.

Display
5.2"
1920x1080 IPS LCD
Price (approximative)
~$470 - Amazon
Camera
12 MP
F2.2 Aperture Size
Image Stabilization
Weight
144 g
Battery
3000 mAh
Launched in
2016-04
System
3GB RAM
Kirin 955 + MicroSD
Storage (GB)
32
Huawei P9 Review
Ubergizmo Rating: 9/10
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