Introduction and design
Huawei wants to play with the big boys. The Chinese company wants to be taken seriously as a competitor to Apple and Samsung, but right now it’s rooted firmly among the second tier of Android manufacturers, competing with the likes of Sony, LG and Motorola in western markets.
A reputation for pairing high-end specs with lower prices than some of its competitors, backed up with some solid marketing, has enabled Huawei to start standing out a little from the crowd. And now the company hopes the P9, plugged with an ad campaign starring none other than Superman (Henry Cavill) can take it to the next level.
But Huawei still needs to impress people. No one buys a phone from a manufacturer they barely know without doing a little research first. Huawei knows it, and the P9 has the specs on paper, and a focus on camera technology, that will catch the eye of even the most discerning prospective purchaser.
The promotional campaign and launch event for the Huawei P9 focus mostly on the camera, but the real question on most lips is whether it holds up as a smartphone in 2016.
The price is certainly a highlight of the Huawei P9. While it’s not as cheap as flagships from competitors like OnePlus or Oppo, then handset is still cheaper than an iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S7 or anything from Sony.
It comes in at £449.99 (about US$690, AU$900), which is roughly what a Huawei P8 would have cost you when it launched in May last year.
The Huawei P9 has taken the design of the P8 and refined it into a much better-looking device that feels comfortable to hold. It’s compact compared to other Huawei devices (like the Mate 8), and that works in its favor.
The P9 is a similar size to the iPhone 6S, but Huawei makes better use of the real estate by packing in a larger screen. The Huawei P9 has dimensions of 145 x 71 x 7mm while the iPhone 6S is 138 x 67 x 7.1mm. So there’s just a few millimeters in it, yet Huawei manages to include a 5.2-inch screen while the iPhone 6S only has a 4.7-inch display.
The P9 is a little taller than the iPhone, but that’s not a problem. The bezels along the top and bottom of the display are still slim, but allow Huawei to pack a lot of tech inside without compromising the look of the handset.
Before starting this review I was using a Nexus 6P, which is a larger phone made by Huawei, and the P9 is noticeably smaller. Personally I prefer larger phones, but if you’re one for a smaller handset with a large screen this is one of the best-designed phones you’ll find today.
The back of the handset is made with an aluminium unibody and the metal does feel premium, although sometimes I would tap the back of the phone and it echoed a little, which didn’t make it feel as high-end as, say, the Nexus 6P.
The overall look of the phone is great though, and I particularly like the rounded corners and edges, with the latter making the P9 look even slimmer than its 6.95mm.
On the right hand edge of the phone is the volume rocker with the power button just below it.
I found myself rarely using the power button as the fingerprint scanner turns the phone’s screen on anyway. The slight grated effect on the button made it easy to identify when in the pocket though. I regularly find myself reaching into my pocket to adjust volume controls and on some phones you can hit the wrong button, but there’s no excuse for that here.
On the back of the phone at the top sits the dual-camera sensor, which I found made some onlookers perk up when they spot it, as right next to it is the Leica logo.
I personally wasn’t a fan of this at first, but I’ve come to terms with it, and it does highlight the fact that Huawei has tapped into Leica’s 100 years of photography expertise to develop the camera setup on the P9. Huawei has been pushing this feature at every turn – and with some justification, as we’ll see later in this review.
It’s also worth noting that Leica and Huawei have managed to make the back of the camera sit flush with the rest of the phone. Camera bumps have been a trend on a lot of flagship phones in recent years and it’s good to see a company fighting against it without sacrificing camera technology.
Color choices for the Huawei P9 are aplenty with three types of gold available as well as silver and grey. Sadly, in the UK you can only buy the silver and grey versions and it isn’t quite clear which will be on sale in Australia or the US yet.
There’s also a ceramic white version of the phone knocking around somewhere, but no-where seems to be stocking that model yet.
We haven’t managed to see it in the flesh either, but Huawei assures us it has a metal body with a ceramic coating on the back to give it a different feel.
Huawei is selling the P9 on the camera abilities of the phone, but though it’s got a great snapper this handset isn’t all about the camera capabilities.
Personally I think the display is a real highlight of the Huawei P9. It’s large considering the compact size of the phone as a whole. It features a 5.2-inch 1080p screen that some have seemed disappointed in as it didn’t follow through with the 2K jump the Nexus 6P began.
Instead it’s opted for Full HD and I think that’s a big help. Huawei has decided to focus on getting a better battery life rather than upping the pixels on this phone, and I barely noticed it wasn’t a 2K one.
The screen offers up 423 pixels-per-inch and I never felt let down by the quality of image on show.
I was especially impressed with how bright the screen can be– the Huawei P9 makes a gorgeous picture when watching video. It’s not as stunning as the Nexus 6P screen, but that phone suffers for the luxury by offering poorer battery life.
The camera is certainly one of the highlight features on the Huawei P9. I’ll go into more depth later in this review, but what you need to know here is that a lot of the hype is deserved.
The two sensor set up makes this one of the best camera phones you can buy right now. Huawei made a big deal out of it by including a lot of professional photographers at the launch to highlight its powers, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.
You’re going to get a great shot out of the Huawei P9 no matter what you’re shooting and if you use the auto mode it’s still impressive. There are a lot of pro features within the camera when you’re looking for something a little more complex and want to dabble in the professional world too.
It’s worth highlighting the USB Type-C support on the P9. Not every phone manufacturer has embraced the new connection technology but the P9 uses a USB-C port for charging and data transfer.
It can prove a little irritating if you’ve got accessories with microUSB connectors, but it makes it much easier to fit the charger in as it works either way up.
Then there’s the fingerprint scanner. If you’ve ever used a Huawei phone before you’ll know the company makes the strange decision of placing them on the back of the handset rather than below the display. It may be odd, but I prefer it here.
A lot of Android manufacturers choose to put it within the home key under the screen or even on the side of the phone, but on the rear it’s a much more natural position.
Your index finger is already on the back of the handset ready to tap it and I like the simplicity of that. It does mean you end up entering your PIN or pattern to unlock it when the phone is laying down though, which can get annoying.
The fingerprint scanner on the P9 is what the company refers to as “Level 4”. Huawei hasn’t made it clear exactly what that means apart from it’s meant to be better than the “Level 3” scanner from the Huawei Mate 8.
All you really need to know is that it’s fast and it’s going to get you into your phone very quickly. It’s something you get used to using and when I have to slowly enter my PIN it really highlights how quick the scanner is to register my print.
Specs, performance and interface
Huawei produces its own processors to use within the P series and in the past they’ve been quite hit and miss. That means whenever I take a Huawei phone on as my own I’m always a little unsure on how it will perform under strenuous testing.
The good news is the Huawei P9 is a powerful phone. I’ve been quite surprised by how strong it actually is, in fact.
It features a HiSilicon Kirin 955 processor, and this is the first phone to do so. The truth is when looking at raw benchmarking results this handset holds its own against some of the big hitting phones you can buy right now.
One of the strongest phones on the market at the time of writing is the Galaxy S7, which got a multi-core score of 6542 when using the Exynos version of the handset. The Huawei P9 came out with 6400 in benchmarks.
That’s only a small difference and in general I’ve been very impressed by what the Huawei P9 can do.
Gaming especially took me by surprise. Graphically it managed to make Real Racing 3 look fantastic and there was absolutely no lag at all.
There’s also 3GB of RAM in the P9 for high-end gaming, while multi-tasking proved to be an absolute breeze. I never experienced any problems when multi-tasking and swapping between some very high-intensity apps.
In some markets you can also purchase another version of the phone with 4GB of RAM, but I haven’t had the chance to test this out yet. Looking at the performance of the 3GB version I think it highlights how adding more RAM into a handset isn’t always the answer and 3GB actually suits the P9 well.
The 3GB of RAM version comes with 32GB of storage and the 4GB RAM model comes with 64GB of storage. If you’re after more space you can use a microSD card of up to 128GB. It is a shame Huawei hasn’t embraced the trend of 200GB microSD support, but you’re still going to have enough here unless you’re a very heavy duty user.
The interface is my biggest problem with the Huawei P9. It looks childish on most Huawei phones and it’s a real issue for me as soon as I turn one of them on.
The P9 is lucky enough to be running the latest in Android 6 Marshmallow software, but it’s hard to tell with the amount of overlays Huawei has put on top of it. Even for the most seasoned Android fan it’s difficult to tell what version of the OS this phone is running without heading into the settings and looking it up.
If you take a look at the apps within the screenshot below, you can see exactly how the style takes over how they look on your phone.
Huawei has its own way of making the apps into a square and it means the dynamic looking icons from stock Android don’t look as good on the Huawei P9 as they could do.
WhatsApp, for example, has a big white box around it and in 2016 it shouldn’t look that bad on my home screen.
Emotion UI 4.1 is a bit better than the Huawei interfaces of the past, but it’s still lacking an app drawer. That means the only way of organizing your home screen is by placing your apps into folders. It’s not something I’m a fan of doing and I’d rather Huawei made an app drawer an option within the settings of the phone.
Like previous Huawei products, there is also a lot of bloatware on the P9.
It comes with a lot of unnecessary Huawei based apps that Google services (which are also readily available on the phone) do better anyway.
There’s a calendar app that doesn’t offer anywhere near the functionality of the Google Calendar, for example.
If you want to change the design of your phone interface you can do so within the Themes app where there are free and paid for options. Personally I don’t really find much difference here apart from the color of the pages and the background images it supplies, but some people like it.
Then there are a load of games in a folder as well. Most of these are pointless additions to the phone that you’re never going to play.
As you can tell, I’m not a fan of the Huawei P9’s interface. Every time I bring the subject up to Huawei reps I’m always told that it works in China and it doesn’t need changing.
Personally I think it wouldn’t be much of an issue for Huawei to offer its hardware in the western markets with a slightly less invasive version of the software, but it doesn’t look like Huawei is going to change its mind anytime soon.
The camera technology is the big selling point for the Huawei P9. The Chinese company is focusing on the dual-sensor set up as the focus of the phone, but is it really good enough to make you buy this handset?
It’s not the best camera phone out there right now, but it’s still great.
Huawei has partnered with famous German camera company Leica to work on its smartphone photography and this is the first handset to come directly from that partnership.
The long and short of it is that it was worth Huawei making this partnership. It works wonders compared to the camera technology found on other Huawei phones.
On the back of the handset are two 12MP sensors that work together to create higher detailed images on the fly. Zooming into some of the shots I took I was surprised by the amount of details I could get from the camera.
The phone features a 12MP RGB sensor to pick up the color of images, while the second sensor is also 12MP but monochrome (black and white) to get the detail of the image in a better quality.
The camera will then use this to ensure the photos are even more detailed than you’d find on other Huawei handsets.
Take this picture of Big Ben for example, you can zoom in to the clock face at this distance and still make it out with phenomenal quality. The best part of this is it’s all done through the auto mode as well.
There are a variety of pro features on the Huawei P9, but most phone users won’t be playing with those and just want the auto mode to be the best it possibly can, which it is here. You’ll be getting the highest quality image from the camera possible by just pressing the button to take it.
You can take photos just using the monochrome sensor if that’s your bag, but you need to use both sensors to take photos in color.
When just using the monochrome sensor I didn’t notice a drop in the quality and it worked a lot better than taking a normal image and putting a black and white filter over it for social networking.
There are also larger pixels on this phone compared to the P8, which according to Huawei means the phone will have better low light shots.
Night shooting with the P9 is better than I found on the P8, but I still wasn’t that impressed with night shooting overall. A lot of the image quality seemed to be lost in low light and I didn’t manage to get any of the quality shots that Huawei claim you can at night.
My favourite mode on the Huawei P9 is the wide aperture effect. This is useful for when taking photos with items in the foreground.
It uses both the camera sensors to add depth allowing you to focus on either the foreground or the background of the image.
When I first began to use this feature it felt like the camera was just blurring the background, but you can edit these on the fly and after a while I began to get the hang of it. It means you can put the focus of the image onto the item in the foreground and you can come up with some very creative shots.
These are easy to create by just tapping on where you’d like to focus, how blurred you want the other areas to be and then taking the photo. The interface is simple and you can even edit the wide aperture effect at a later date, as long as you took the photo in that mode already.
On the front of the phone there’s an 8MP selfie shooter camera. Other Chinese brands have put a big focus on the front-facing camera in recent months by upping the sensor to even 13MP, for example in the case of the Oppo F1.
8MP is more than enough for the front of a handset though and as long as the lighting was good I didn’t struggle with getting a high-quality selfie.
But then there’s beauty mode. This comes on all Huawei phones and if you don’t know about it already you’re in for a treat. It smooths out your skin within selfie shots – the photo above is without it on and then below I’ve turned it up to 10.
It makes your eyes bigger and smooths out the blemishes on your skin. I don’t personally find it a useful feature, but you may do if you’re more into selfies than myself.
Here this is enough for what you really want from a selfie camera. The truth if you use the selfie camera to take a photo for your Snapchat feed or to upload to Instagram. You don’t need the professional elements on the front-facing shooter and the 8MP sensor brings out satisfactory detail for your narcissistic shots.
Comparing the Huawei P9 to some other phones on the market highlights how the camera features aren’t as great as Huawei wants them to be. Huawei wants this to be the best camera phone you can own right now, but the truth is there’s a lot of stiff competition out there.
Compared to the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge this is struggling to keep up – but that said, I still love what the Huawei P9 is capable of. There are a lot of different modes to play around with on the phone and most are fun to use.
You can also go a lot further in depth with the pro mode to fiddle with the ISO and other features, but personally I just want to point and shoot my camera.
The Huawei P9 doesn’t struggle with that even though it has a professional focus, as the auto mode is still good enough.
The Huawei P8 wasn’t exactly known for stellar battery performance, so it has been interesting to see how the P9 can handle everyday life.
Huawei has upped the cell from the 2600mAh version in the P8 to a 3000mAh cell in the Huawei P9. That jump seems to have paid off well for the new phone, but it’s still not amazing.
Huawei is claiming over a day battery life with the P9, but personally I never got much over a full day. I found myself getting to the end of the day regularly with a few drags of battery left and a few times I had to charge by the middle of the day as I saw it dropping much quicker than I’d hoped.
I do think “normal usage” may mean something a little different to Huawei as I wasn’t always putting this phone through its paces and it was still struggling to make it to the end of the day.
I ran our video test on the Huawei P9, which consists of a 90-minute video running with the phone screen on full brightness and it got to the end with 85% battery left over. Compared to the competition, the Galaxy S7 with an Exynos chip lost 13% while the Galaxy S7 with a Snapdragon lost 16% and the iPhone 6S lost 30%.
When playing video, the Huawei P9 came out with an impressive score, but it’s still not great for everyday use.
While the cell itself is larger and offers more charge that way, Huawei hasn’t taken steps to include any extra features to improve battery life.
Close competitor Oppo is making a big step by using VOOC fast charging technology within its phones but there’s no sign of that here on the P9.
Fast charging means you can plug in your handset and get up to a suitable amount of juice much quicker. For phones with average battery life this can be a savior to power users.
There’s also no wireless charging on the Huawei P9, a feature which is becoming a much bigger focus and is sure to grow in the coming years.
I feel Huawei should have included either wireless or fast charging to future proof its device. As wireless technology becomes more readily available in pubs, coffee shops and even household furniture it does feel like Huawei hasn’t future proofed this phone by not including it.
If you’re buying this on a two-year contract, you’re likely to be disappointed when people in 2018 are buying new phones and placing them down on wireless charging spots while you’re out for dinner.
But the real problem with the Huawei P9 battery is just that it’s not stunning.
It’s just kind of OK, and in a world where the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge are offering great all day life it’s a bit frustrating to get to the end of an average day and still have your phone drop out before you get into bed.
Music, movies and gaming
How does the Huawei P9 stand up when you’re consuming media? The answer is pretty well, but we’re going to break it down here to music, movies and gaming and see if this is the phone for you to get your entertainment on.
The Huawei P9 isn’t selling itself on its audio capabilities. The speakers at the bottom of the phone are fine, but they’re not going to impress most people. I would have preferred front-facing speakers on this handset as I found myself blocking the sound sometimes when holding my hand over the phone.
The speakers are not particularly bad as such, just in an awkward position. They hit a high level when you need them to and it’s only going to cause a problem when you’re holding the phone tightly in your hand.
At the bottom of the phone is the 3.5mm headphone jack, toward the left hand side with the USB-C connector and speaker sat next to it.
Bluetooth 4.1 is here to help use wireless headsets and I found myself being able to easily connect to speaker set ups in my home.
In terms of music playing apps I found myself instantly downloading Spotify to get the best streaming experience on my phone, but there are already a few apps installed to help you play music.
Google Play Music is here ready and waiting as you’d expect from an Android phone and that allows you to sign up to 3 months free streaming if you’ve never used it before. I do sometimes feel the catalogue can be a little limited though, so it’s not for everyone.
Then there’s the Huawei Music app, which allows you to play files that are waiting on your actual device. If you’ve got a large MP3 collection this is likely the app you’ll be using and it’s intuitive in the way it works.
The playlists are easy to set up and play, while the pause and skip buttons on the lock screen work well too. The screenshot above shows the way the buttons work on a lock screen and that’s the same no matter what app you’re using.
In terms of headphones, Huawei will consistently notify you that you have a headset attached to the phone. I personally find this irritating as there’s nothing you can do with the notification apart from swipe it away.
That’s just one of those little traits that make the Huawei Emotion UI really frustrating to use though.
The large yet compact screen on the Huawei P9 makes it the perfect phone to watch TV and movies on. I really enjoyed watching video on the Huawei P9 and found the screen to be one of the best looking 1080p options I’ve used recently.
Watching video is simple on the P9 with a Videos app designed specifically for those videos you shoot on the phone. It’s a simple app without many options to fiddle with but makes sense when you’ve got a quick clip to watch over.
Google has also installed its Play Movies application so you can stream content here. This is where you can buy films and TV to watch, it’s simple but can get quite expensive.
And then you can download a number of other applications to watch video too.
I spent quite a bit of time watching BBC iPlayer on the phone and it managed to buffer quickly and gots me right into the content as soon as possible.
The processor in the Huawei P9 is impressive. It’s just as good as our favorite phone in the world right now – the Galaxy S7 – and for a cheaper device I really didn’t expect this kind of power in this phone.
I’ve been playing a number of different games on the Huawei P9 during my time with it, but I’ve yet to come across any troubles in terms of performance.
Miitomo, the latest craze to hit techradar HQ, took no time at all to load and that was an issue I found when using a Nexus 6P sometimes.
Asphalt 8: Airborne was another strong choice on here with the rendering taking no-time at all. This is one of the best phones I’ve found for playing such graphically intensive-games.
The Huawei P9 also comes with a number of games pre-installed, which can be irritating but for some is a pleasure to find when they take the phone out of the box.
All of these have been done in partnership with Gameloft, so the titles are things like Puzzle Pets, Dragon Mania, Spider-Man: Ultimate Power and Ice Age Scrat-Ventures.
Most of these are useless to the average phone user. You can just download the games you want to install, but that said it’s easy enough to delete these if you’re in need of the space.
Don’t feel like the Huawei P9 is the phone for you? Here are a few alternative handsets that I think you may want to look at.
Huawei Mate 8
After a bigger version of a Huawei phone? The Huawei Mate 8 is the way to go. It features a 6-inch screen, making the phone much bigger than the P9 and it includes some equally impressive high-end specs, including the Kirin 950 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 16MP rear-facing camera.
The camera is good for the phone, but it doesn’t give you the benefits of the double camera the Huawei P9 does. There’s a fingerprint scanner on the back and all in all it looks like a larger version of the Huawei P9.
It’ll cost you £429 (about $611, AU$876), so it’ll set you back a little less than a Huawei P9. It mostly comes down to whether you want that brand new camera technology and if you need a larger screen though.
Throughout the launch of the Huawei P9, the company continued to highlight how the phone fared against the iPhone 6S. It’s certainly a key competitor if you’re considering a Huawei P9.
You should know an iPhone 6S is going to cost you quite a bit more than the Huawei. But if money isn’t an object it may be worth handling both phones to see which you prefer. The iPhone 6S is the same size as the Huawei P9 but only features a 4.7-inch display, so you lose some screen real estate.
But iOS software is certainly better looking and more intuitive than the Huawei’s Emotion 4.1 UI. It all comes down to the price and whether you prefer iOS or Huawei’s very specific version of Android.
Samsung Galaxy S7
Another phone that Huawei highlighted as a main member of the competition, the Galaxy S7, is a gorgeous piece of kit. The design has been refined for the latest version and if you’re after a truly unique looking phone there’s always the Galaxy S7 Edge.
The camera on the Galaxy S7 is nothing short of incredible and makes for some of the best smartphone photography we have ever been able to take.
It’s also worth noting we gave the Galaxy S7 a five-star review and named it our second best phone in the world, with the Galaxy S7 Edge taking the top spot. That’s hard to beat, so if you have a bit more money to spend maybe it’s worth looking at Samsung’s alternative.
LG has headed back to the drawing board for this one. We gave it 4.5 stars out of 5 with a big focus on its new super great screen and useful wide angle camera. It finally embraces a full metal design, like the Huawei P9, but also comes with another big selling point.
The LG G5 comes with a modular design, which means you can pull out the bottom of the phone and attach in other modules to make the handset even better than before. At the moment you can only include a camera or a sound module though so there aren’t many choices on the market, and they can be expensive.
You’ll have to pay a similar amount for an LG G5, and it largely comes down to whether you like the design of this phone rather than the Huawei P9.
The Huawei P9 is one of the best phones the Chinese company has ever made. It does feel like everything is coming together in terms of Huawei products.
The hardware employed here is fantastic and there are a few really key selling points that stand out as highlights of the Huawei P9.
But there are also a few drawbacks that do make me think twice before recommending this phone to some people.
What we like
The Huawei P9 has an impressive spec set up. The processor and RAM combination is rivaling the big guns of Samsung and Apple now and means you can do any task you’d ever want to on a smartphone without any problems.
With a solid amount of storage as standard and all the spec you’d hope for you won’t be disappointed by what the Huawei P9 can do on a daily basis.
I particularly enjoy the display on the Huawei P9. This is the kind of screen that proves it’s not always worth manufacturers wasting time plugging in extras pixels.
It isn’t as clear as the Nexus 6P display, but this is the perfect size for those who like smaller phones and Full HD is suitable for most things. It only really becomes an issue when you’re looking to do VR tasks, as stick this in a Google Cardboard and the res is suddenly a little too low.
The camera on the Huawei P9 is also another highlight of the phone. The partnership with Leica has improved the technology for Huawei and even though the pro features are largely useless for most smartphone users, the auto mode more than makes up for it.
The two camera idea isn’t as exciting as some may have expected at first, but you’d be hard pressed to find another phone with a camera this good and below the £450 mark.
What we dislike
The Emotion UI 4.1 is still a big problem for me when using Huawei phones. As soon as I booted up the Huawei P9 I was a little disappointed by the look of the screen.
The interface just looks a little bit childish and has too much going on for my tastes.
There are a few useful extra features that if you fully embrace the look will prove their worth, but in general I don’t enjoy the interface.
Especially after coming from the Huawei made Nexus 6P, which is beautiful hardware paired with the good Google stock Marshmallow experience.
The battery life on the Huawei P9 isn’t up to scratch either. It’s not the worst I’ve ever experienced but it also didn’t impress me and I’m always upset for my phone to die off before the end of a day. Plus the lack of wireless and fast charging features is disappointing as well.
The Huawei P9 is one of the best looking and performing phones the company has ever produced. There’s a lot to love here in terms of the design, the spec and how everything comes together to work.
Paired with a kick-ass camera that works perfectly on auto-mode and a fingerprint scanner that boots up the phone in a matter of milliseconds, it’s hard not to recommend the Huawei P9.
But on the other hand, it’s also hard to recommend when the software is still such an issue. I do feel if Huawei offered this with a cut-down or even stock version of Android I’d love it even more than I do now.
With battery life that doesn’t stun anybody, the Huawei P9 is a good, solid phone but it’s just not hit the right level of greatness yet.
If you’re looking for a smaller Android phone experience that needs high-end spec without a high-end price tag or a cumbersome design, try the Huawei P9.
First reviewed: April 2016
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