(Pocket-lint) - With top-spec phones typically costing several hundred pounds, you'll be relieved to know there are increasing numbers of affordable options that don't scrimp on the design - such as the Honor 9 Lite, which retails for a penny shy of £200.
A couple of years back that might have been a warning sign for a not-so-hot smartphone, but times have changed rapidly. Indeed, the Honor 9 Lite - which we've been using for a long weekend as our day-to-day phone - has many of the design cues, features and attractive hallmarks of a phone several times its price.
Is it the phone to plump for at this price point, or are there a few too many compromises to consider?
Design & display
- 5.65-inch FHD+ (2160 x 1080) 18:9 FullView display (428ppi)
- Glacier Grey, Sapphire Blue, and Midnight Black finishes
- 3.5mm headphone jack, in-ear headphones included
- Rear-positioned fingerprint scanner
- 151 x 71.9 x 7.6mm; 149g
Keeping in with the 2018 trend, the Honor 9 Lite has an 18:9 ratio screen - meaning it's slender in the hand, not nearly as large as the 5.65-inch (diagonal measure) might read on paper.
One-handed holding is no problem, it won't weigh down your purse, nor rip an unwanted hole in your jeans. As size goes, it's hit the sweet spot in our view - and it's even more trim than its bigger brother, the original Honor 9, which is an added bonus for this less-powerful newcomer.
Other than its size, however, it's the finish of the Honor 9 Lite that immediately grabs attention. Honor has been experimenting with different finishes over recent years, with its choice of blue becoming an almost hallmark for the brand.
We say almost, because it's never quite consistent: there was the ultra-shiny finish of the full-fat Honor 9; the matte and soft-touch blue of the Honor 8 Pro, which lacked the same sheen; and the more subdued palette choice of blue for the Honor View 10.
The Lite shifts things up again, delivering a glossy rear that's similar to its bigger brother, but not quite as hardcore with its mirrored reflections. The front is embellished with a million micron-scale flakes, but they're so minute that we don't think they add anything of genuine use to the product. Ditch it and perhaps some manufacturing costs could be saved.
Fortunately the Lite hasn't ditched one feature that's been increasingly disappearing from phones: yup, there's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug in headphones and listen to your tunes, no problems. There are in-ears included in the box, too, so no need to buy extras if you don't have any (our review sample didn't included any, however).
Logging into phones is rarely by PIN or pattern these days, with new-fangled tech allowing easier biometric methods from face recognition to fingerprint scanning. In the Lite it's the latter which finds its way onto the device, nicely positioned to the upper rear portion of the product. We think this back position is far more logical in use than on the front - as found in the Honor 9, where it's too easy to accidentally strike the Android home key instead, so the Lite one-ups its bigger brother in this regard.
In the photos of this review we had to dumb-down the Lite's screen brightness to get a better exposed picture, so while our shots don't show the screen at its brightest, you'll be pleased to know there's ample illumination from this panel (although auto-brightness can be overly conservative). And with a Full HD+ resolution, it's higher resolution than its bigger brother Honor 9, plus many of its 18:9-ratio competitors.
That's the thing about the Lite that's impressive: despite this strong design it maintains that affordable price point. And with former champs of this space now gunning for far higher brackets - think OnePlus, with its £450-500 OnePlus 5T price tag - there are seldom few other phones to rival at this price. Sure, you could look to the larger-scale Moto G5, but its price has been slowly creeping up to similar levels.
Hardware, software and battery
- Kirin 659 octa-core (4x 2.36GHz & 4x 1.7GHz), 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, microSD card slot
- Android Oreo 8.0 running Huawei EMUI 8.0 operating system
- 3,000mAh battery; Micro-USB charging
At this price point something has to give, though, so don't expect top-tier power. Not that the Lite is a write-off by any means, thanks to a octa-core mid-level Kirin processor, 3GB RAM, 32GB on-board storage and a microSD slot (or SIM slot two, depending on how you look at it) to further expand that if you want.
We've been using the phone for all manner of tasks and have found its ability mixed overall. For the usual emails, web browsing, calls and so forth there's no drama at all. For games, however, we've noticed some oddities: some in-game graphical textures are very low; for more demanding titles the phone can run rather hot to the upper right edge (facing); and battery life seems to take a particularly big hit as a result. We also get the sense that the screen can lack touch-responsiveness once in a while, making for inconsistent use.
All that said, the performance at this level is perfectly decent - and faster than some other budget phones can manage. It just needs sharpening in a few little areas to bring it up a notce.
The same can be said of the battery life. While the capacity is fairly large and can give good innings - light use can push through 16 hours - we've found more typical use, with a mixture of gaming and other day-to-day tasks, is a squeeze on performance. Typically, we've been barely getting through a day on this battery, which is surprising.
Charging is also a bit of an issue: as the Lite uses a Micro-USB socket, not the more recent USB Type-C connection, its charging speed isn't the latest and greatest. Which means longer at the plug to deliver on top-ups, which is time you might not have. We're not surprised there's no fast-charging, given the affordable price point, but having become so used to this feature it feels notably absent.
The software arrangement in the Honor 9 Lite is the same as parent company Huawei puts into its phones, meaning there's the usual Google Android operating system in the background, over which is EMUI 8.0 to add some additional features and, well, quirks too. In this latest 8.0 guise that has benefits such as double knuckle-tap for screen grabs, app-by-app permissions and notifications controls, display colour temperature adjustment, and more besides.
Unlike earlier versions of EMUI software it's less "fussy" in its deliverance of constant notifications, so while some will find it a tad quirky we think it's reached a point that's almost in-line with Android expectations. It's not a barrier that'll make the phone hard to use if you're coming from a different kind of Android device.
- Quad cameras: 13MP & 2MP front-facing cameras front and rear
Then there's the Lite's headline feature: the quad camera arrangement. That means two lenses on the rear, two more on the front. Each pair doesn't use both to capture actual imagery, however, as there's a 13-megapixel and 2-megapixel duo in each instance - the lower-resolution one used entirely for capturing depth data, which can be used in software later to apply faux "bokeh" effects for blurred backgrounds in Portrait mode.
This Portrait mode can apply an ultra-wide f/0.95 aperture for ultra-soft backgrounds, but the software application of the blur has limitations in its accuracy - just as all manufacturers' versions of this idea do, to date - and we feel the full-fat Honor 9's 20MP and 16MP colour and black & white sensor arrangement is an altogether more exciting proposition.
That 13MP camera can produce reasonable quality in good light, but we've found autofocus can be inconsistent, missing close-up focus in particular. Low-light quality isn't nearly as good, with focus being slower off the mark - and the lag in the shutter firing can therefore be significantly delayed, which can mean missing the shot.
If you want that something extra then there are multiple modes - accessed via a left-to-right swipe from the edge from within the camera app - including a Pro Photo mode, which unlocks the ISO sensitivity, white balance, focus type, exposure compensation, shutter speed and metering.
Whether you care much for a dual camera on the front of the device will depend on how much of a selfie fiend you are. It sounds like a fun feature to have but, realistically, makes very little difference in use. There's no touch-to-focus, Portrait mode is non-existent meaning you'll need to select Beautification instead, and these front optics aren't all that. Which undermines the concept of necessity for quad cameras, really.
In many ways the Honor 9 Lite sets a new standard for sub-£200 phones. Its striking looks are well beyond its asking price, delivering a degree of flagship at an affordable price. That 18:9 screen, too, is of the utmost quality and makes for great one-handed use.
There are some quirks, though. The occasional blip with touchscreen responsiveness, some in-game graphics being squashed to low resolution renders, battery life being squeezed far more than we'd anticipated, and no fast-charging due to the Micro-USB charging port. The headline feature, those quad cameras, isn't as exciting as it may sound either, with so-so performance overall. These are the kind of compromises you'll have to accept at this level.
If you want a good looking and decent performing phone that you can buy outright, without getting locked into a contract, then the Honor 9 Lite is a genuine contender for the best budget phone we've seen. It sets a bar that its competition will struggle to beat.
The alternatives to consider
The G-series has a strong history of owning the budget phone market, coming in with a slightly shrunken price tag compared to the Honor. That said, the Moto is chunkier, less powerful and doesn't look quite as standout... but it is due for a G6 update in the near future.
Read the full article: Moto G5 review
Vodafone Smart V8
In the Smart V8, Vodafone has managed to launch a phone that costs just £160, yet one which looks and feels like a much more expensive device. It's locked to Vodafone, of course, and we think the Honor is better looking, but if those extra pennies make a big difference then this is a savvy choice.
Read the full article: Voda Smart V8 review