(Pocket-lint) - Huawei has been chipping away at the flagship smartphone block for years now, gradually adding appeal to its seemingly desired western audience with each iteration. But while last year's P8 lost its way with sloppy software and knuckle-based nonsense, this year's P9 - which mimics the same handset design as the last - cleans up its act, pumps up the power and, crucially, adds its point of difference: dual Leica cameras (including one that's a monochrome sensor. No, really).
With Sony notably absent from the flagship table, LG hiding behind its fun-but-fleeting modular build in the G5, HTC only just making titters of its much-needed return to form in the 10, and Samsung essentially smashing it out of the park this year with the S7 edge, the Huawei P9 slots into a unique position in what is a more open playing field than ever before.
We've been rather impressed by Huawei's large-scale Mate 8 model, but in the P9 - which is a more slender flagship, with more than an air of iPhone about its design - does it have the necessary grunt in all the right areas to be deemed master of all? Has getting in bed with the Germans given this Chinese flagship the finesse it so requires, or is it just more folly? After a week with the P9 in the pocket we reveal all…
Huawei P9 review: Design
At first glance the P9 looks a whole lot like the P8. That brings with it some great design flourishes: there's a truly tiny edge bezel around the 5.2-inch screen, the metal body's chamfered edges certainly look premium, while at 6.95mm thick it's a slender phone in hand or pocket (although a tiny bit thicker than last year's P8 due to a battery capacity boost).
The metal buttons feel quality, the 3.5mm headphone jack is positioned to the bottom (Samsung style), while a SIM and microSD tray means potential to expand upon internal storage if you want. In some territories there's a dual SIM option (codename EVA-L29, not the EVA-L09 model we're reviewing).
There are new colour options too: rose gold, prestige gold, titanium grey and mystic silver. We've got the last, which is effectively silver and white, which is the best looking of the bunch in our view. There's also talk of a hairline brushed metal special model, which we've not seen.
But the real moment of greatness is the P9's fingerprint scanner to the rear. It is, hands down, the best one we've used to date. Not only is it better positioned than those on iPhone or Samsung devices, it's considerably more responsive than the LG G5's and positioned in a recessed opening which falls naturally to the finger. It's easy to setup, easy to use and super-quick in response. Plus with NFC it opens the door to Android Pay potential.
The device does fall into some traps though: invariably there has to be antennas for a decent signal, exhibited here as plastic strips top and bottom that clash somewhat with the metal design; we're not keen on the cameras panel housed to the rear either, which has a similarly plastic finish. The addition of a large "Huawei" stamp both front and rear seems unwarranted too, it was just on the rear last time around.
But the biggest issue isn't directly to do with Huawei at all. With every other maker pushing nuance - from the LG G5's subtle screen curve towards the top and always-on display, to the visually arresting screen curves of the Samsung Galaxy S7 - the P9 just looks kind of "normal". Sure, there's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't exactly deliver high on the excite-o-meter.
Huawei P9 review: Power
To the base there's a USB Type-C port for charging and connectivity, which is altogether faster than microUSB and can slot in either way up to make things nice and easy. Don't expect the super-fast recharge speeds of Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 though - not a possibility given the Huawei's use of its home-grown HiSilicon chipset - but that battery can be topped up from near-death to roughly 70 per cent in around an hour.
Which is a good job, as the 3,000mAh cell on board, while sporting a fairly large capacity, doesn't survive for as long as we had hoped. It will get you through a working day, but we've been down to 20 per cent after less than 15-hours (the 26-hours showing up in power management was never realised with real use). It's one that benefits from top-ups during the day if you want to play a bit of Candy Crush while on your commute.
Seeing as the power loadout in the P9 is identical to its larger Mate 8 sibling - it's a Kirin 955 octa-core chipset (made-up of four 2.5Ghz Cortex-A72 and four 1.8Ghz Cortex-A53 processors) alongside 3GB RAM - we had anticipated longer-lasting performance in use. But there are obvious differences: the P9 has a much brighter screen and a battery some 25 per cent less capacious than the Mate 8.
Most flagships these days have all kinds of fancypants processors - whether Qualcomm, Samsung's Exynos, or Apple's A9 - that, if anything, are underused for most apps and games. Earlier HiSilicon setups in Huawei devices were ok, but the graphics tended to mean less-than-perfect motion. Not so the P9, its Mali-T880 MP4 graphics processor works just fine to deliver fluid playback when crunching through games.
The only time we've noticed the phone getting particularly hot is when using it as a Wi-Fi hotspot. The metal chassis and Kirin 955 combination really don't seem happy for long in this situation, with the phone becoming hot throughout and the battery taking an inevitable hit. Not that many phones are ideal when used as hotspots, but slender metal ones such as this are particularly averse.
Huawei P9 review: Display
Back to the P9's screen for a moment. Its up-to-500-nits brightness copes pretty well in a variety of conditions without excessive reflections. However, sometimes such brightness can appear overly "pumped" and unpleasant to look at when maxed out. We've sat the P9 side-by-side next to the P8 and it's a little brighter with punchier colours, but not dramatically so. No complaints about viewing angles and contrast though, everything looks peachy enough to us.
When it comes to resolution the P9's 1920 x 1080 pixel 5.2-inch panel isn't exactly low resolution, but it's lower than almost all its flagship competitors, nay iPhone. So we're a bit on the fence about it: the P9 doesn't exactly need more resolution, especially given the absent software support for anything like split-screen (which features in the Mate 8 via a press-and-hold of the square softkey, but not here). If the P9 was higher resolution then we suspect that battery life would deplete even quicker, which would be no good.
The latest feature found in many flagships for 2016 is an always-on screen - which displays quick-view icons of notifications, plus the clock - but that's not the case with the P9. A deal-breaker? Not at all. But these subtle moves from other makers do show forward-thinking. One thing Huawei does have that we can't think of in other handsets is a manual white balance selector (plus warm/cool one-touch options) to tweak the display, which is fun.
Huawei P9 review: Software experience
Now, with the P8 last year we didn't have that many nice things to say about its software experience. That's because, at launch, it was a pretty botched phone, dragged down by the user experience. Things like knuckle controls frequently interrupted use (these are now off by default in the P9; but they actually work in the latest iteration, as they did by the time the Mate S was launched), while the EMUI just didn't feel particularly friendly for an Android handset.
In the P9 things have moved forward. Sure, we're still working on EMUI - in v4.1; and that's "Emotion UI" in case you're wondering - which is built atop Android 6.0. It brings a somewhat Apple-like attempt of operation to the world of Android. Features like swiping down on the screen brings up universal search (a top-down swipe still accesses notifications), and there's no app tray/drawer so icons seem to spill everywhere. But we tend to use personally curated folders on the homepage screens anyway, so don't find this absence a major bother.
Plus there are some useful feature additions: you can have a hidden apps screen - accessible by pinching outward, rather than pinching inward (the latter which opens up the widgets panel) - to tuck away more sensitive apps from view; that already awesome fingerprint scanner also features gesture control, so you can swipe between information (it's switched off by default); and notifications for power-heavy apps aren't as frequent as in the earlier software (they're potentially handy too, as you can switch off battery-heavy apps and control background use per app).
Some other elements are less rosy though. Setting up multiple users just caused repeat crashing for us. The limited nine shortcuts in the notifications panel feels limited, especially when this isn't stock Android. There's Huawei ID, but it does all but nothing. And aesthetically we're still not wild about the moot colour palette and various obscure themes that you can download - although, again, these themes have been given second billing compared to the way they were introduced in earlier versions of the software.
The default keyboard is a dud too. It feels too stretched and elongated with keys that are fussy to strike cleanly and an arrangement that differs from most others. We quickly swapped out the SwiftKey, which works just fine, although the placement of delete/back key next to enter/emoji key are precariously close - all too often we end up with a screen full of emojis when one-handed typing in WhatsApp.
Smart Assistance is one area that offers a mixture of highs and lows. The one-handed user interface, which shrinks the screen display, doesn't feel hugely necessary at this scale; motion control to auto-answer calls when picking up the phone, or rejecting when flipping it over are handy yet nothing new; while knuckle controls, such as drawing the letter M on the screen with a knuckle to load a music player, are fun but we're non-plussed (not that we've left them switched on after testing for a bit).
Overall Huawei's EMUI 4.1 might not be the prettiest going, and it doesn't get everything right, but in this v4.1 iteration it adds some features ranging between quirky to useful, without being too offensive.
Huawei P9 review: Dual camera fun
We've saved the best till last. The P9's calling card is its dual Leica cameras arrangement, consisting of one 12-megapixel full-colour sensor with 27mm equivalent f/2.2 lens and one monochrome sensor with the same lens. But do two cameras mean twice the fun?
There's a whole lot to say about this primary feature, much of which we assembled into a summary piece of our initial impressions (follow the link below). Since then we've been using the camera a whole lot more and, to our own surprise, have often gravitated to the monochrome shooter. That's just the camera geek in us.
Many have been asking: why not just shoot colour and convert it with a filter after? Because with a dedicated monochrome sensor there's the potential for images with less image noise because there's no colour filter array chopping up the "pixel" size on the sensor, meaning better quality and gradation. And its results are rather sumptuous.
It's not just about B&W versus colour, though, as both lenses can be used in conjunction to aid focusing, by offsetting the two images that each lens "sees". Additionally, and just like HTC was harping on about with its last flagship M-series phones, depth data can be derived and used for isolating areas and producing pseudo wide/small apertures for enhanced depth-of-field control. The software-controlled stuff isn't all that in our view, though, as the maximum "f/0.95" aperture option (derived entirely from software) botches lines, bokeh and sharp/soft patches in some images.
The more we've used the P9's camera (or cameras, plural, we suppose) the more we've come to realise this: don't be distracted by the folly. The cameras, at their core, whether using colour or mono, are both plenty capable. Quality is decent, focus speed is decent, colour is decent. It's a flagship offering for sure.
But is it the best of the bunch? Having used the LG G5, iPhone 6S Plus, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge and other phones within the last few weeks we still don't think the Huawei comes top of the pile. Don't get us wrong, it's good, but its not quite as rapid as the SGS7, the focus in low-light wasn't as accurate for us as the LG G5, and whether you truly, truly want to be paying for a monochrome sensor in a camera is a whole other dividing point.
Then there's the "no bump!" excitement that Richard Yu proclaimed when announcing the P9 on stage at the launch event in London. Ok, it's flat to the rear, which is nice - even if poorly placed fingers do get in the way. But the second he said that we thought "oh, no optical image stabilisation then?". Sure enough, the P9 doesn't have optical stabilisation, nor a class-leading maximum aperture, so it's not the best in dim-to-low-light conditions. It's still very capable, just not the most capable.
Software-wise, Huawei was making it loud and clear that the "co-engineered with Leica" label means great things for software. Funnily enough, though, Leica isn't renowned for having the best or most usable menu systems. If anything it's renowned for having the most finicky ones. Which, at times, shows in use: in the P9 need to swipe right to bring up a full-screen display of shooting options, selecting between Photo or Monochrome here. But it would make more sense to use an LG G5-like solution here and have an on-screen software button to switch between those two critical options (in the G5 it toggles between normal and super-wide cameras).
Not all modes are available from that screen either - to access the P9's "Pro" mode (i.e. manual controls) you'll need to swipe up/down on the shooting screen. To take advantage of the pseudo aperture control - which isn't based on a real, mechanical aperture, but applied using software - you'll have to be in the colour camera and not using said Pro mode.
We've mentioned the two lenses operating to assist focus, but that's not all Huawei is calling on in the P9. For closer shooting there's a laser-assisted focus, much like that of the LG G5, which works really well. We snapped a penny phone box up-close as one example, which worked a treat.
Overall there's a lot to like about the cameras, when ignoring some of the glitchier software stuff. We like that it's easy to switch between manual and point-and-shoot, we like that the speed and quality is up there with the other flagships on the market, we like usability quirks like a horizontal level and grid overlay, and we like the ability to shoot raw files in addition to JPEGs. There are plenty of positives.
The P9 is a step above and beyond last year's P8. It's got cleaner software, ample power, decent (albeit sometimes quirky) cameras, the best fingerprint scanner on the market, and a variety of features that successfully place it in among the flagship runnings. We've even found the monochrome camera to be fun - not that anyone was ever asking for it.
However, there's still some questionable software additions, the cameras are over-reaching in terms of software, the battery life still isn't that great (despite capacity increase since the P8), and the P9 just lacks those design nuances that set the current flagship contenders apart.
Huawei has typically rested on affordability to bring success, but the P9's €599 starting price (UK is yet to be confirmed; the pricier "enhanced" model won't be coming to these shores either) puts it so close to its near competition that we're left wondering what really sets it apart from the competition.
Yes, it's got two rear cameras, but even so that doesn't make it a must-have market leader in all departments. A solid innings, sure, but in among the flagship features there's the folly to match.