When it comes to high-budget phones, that’s a roost that has been ruled by Samsung and Apple for quite a few years now. But lately, something is changing in that scene. There’s an increase in choice, an uptake in brands who realise that there’s a market out there with the cash to spend on other devices that don’t rely on being mere iterative upgrades year in and year out. And Huawei just may be leading the pack with its P9 flagship device this year, a smartphone that is capable of some impressive regicide.
Huawei has always been linked with budget phones, phones that may not boast the latest hardware but certainly some impressive bang for your buck. But the Huawei P9 is going to change all that, thanks to the cost-cutting mentality of previous devices being kept far away from this device to create something that is equal parts smartphone and a DSLR camera-killer.
At face value, there’s not much about the design of the Huawei P9 that really stands out. A big screen is bookended by an 8 megapixel front-face camera and a logo. Look around the device and you’ll find minimal protrusions for the SIM and SD card slot, volume, power button and volume control. The rear is even less prominent, with two 12 megapixel cameras and a recessed fingerprint scanner completing the package. And sweet Sally, I like that.
I’m a big fan of the entire mantra of “less is more”. And for a device with some sizable high definition screen real estate that comes in the form of a 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD, the Huawei P9 is remarkably subtle with its overall design. It’s got some premium metal to protect the rear, an aluminium body that hides all the seams to create a uniform look. Not too square to be confused for the unhippest of phones, but not too rounded on the sides overall as it sits in sweet spot middle-ground.
It’s a design that isn’t exactly rare looking at most smartphones these days, but the Huawei P9 probably pulls it off the best out of all them to create something that just feels right in your hand. Even the fingerprint sensor feels like the end product of solid design and market research. It’s deep enough to find with some muscle memory in your finger, but not too shallow so that it can avoid being needlessly flicked on.
The twin Leica-developed cameras at the rear are also a marvel, but more on them later.
Huawei to bells and whistles
That 1080p screen is going to draw some criticism from more savvy smartphone veterans, but I quite like it as well. The visuals are sharp enough to put your eye out, with the screen projecting a full selection of 1080p at your face at any given time. Yes, Samsung and LG do have more pixels being beamed straight into your eyeballs, but I honestly think the Huawei P9 does more with less to create something that is just as vibrant or sharp to gaze at. I’d even wager that the difference is hardly noticeable, at least until we can see some apps actually make use of the extra pixels.
All of this is powered by 3 entire gigabytes of RAM and eight cores of processing power on an Android 6.0 skin that Huawei refers to as EMUI. It’s certainly a capable operating system, having taken advantage of several iOS functions and put its own spin on them to create an experience that does what it needs to do, whether that be surfing the web, taking phone calls from Edgars sales representatives who just won’t leave me alone or running some games.
It’s solid stuff, and I genuinely can’t complain considering that I spent most of my afternoon effortlessly playing the new Suicide Squad game while a dozen other applications ran in the background and I had to flick away Matty’s errant emoticons from WhatsApp. There are some minor niggles at play here, such as the standard bloatware that most Android smartphones come with these days and audio apps occasionally bleeding into each other, but nothing that would derail the experience overall.
It used to be that your cellphone would boast a battery life that would outlive cockroaches after the nuclear apocalypse, because I’m pretty certain that the emergency Nokia 5510 I keep in my drawer still has my Snake high score saved on it. These days, you’re lucky if any smartphone can survive the day, let alone the weekend before you shove a charging cable into it. The P9 doesn’t fall too far from that tree, but it’s not all bad news.
With a 3000 mAh battery inside, the P9 will easily last a day of heavy use, something I can testify to as I spent most of Friday hunting Pokémon while other apps were running, my roaming network charges were bankrupting me and even Google’s GPS had no idea where the hell I had wandered into later that night, although a shady deal with Russian Bratva may have been involved. It’s standard stuff, familiar to anyone who has a smartphone on contract.
On the other side of the assault and battery spectrum however, the P9 is rather excellent for anyone who isn’t addicted to Nintendo’s latest pocket monsters game or has an urge to tweet every few seconds. The standby bleed of battery power is excellent, dropping a few percentage points of power at the most while I snoozed with the WiFi enabled. Even when I went full Howard Hughes and refused to leave home for days, this exact setup made the battery last for entire days. Further options to save more power, add even more life to this option.
So in summary, it’ll guzzle juice when in action but the Huawei P9 is a master at hibernation.
I think we’re spoiled for choice these days with photography. It used to be the domain of DSLR devices, mirrorless cameras and lenses which usually required you to wake up in a seedy Mexican motel bathtub full of ice and with an ache in your side to afford. But thanks to the last year or so of smartphone releases, the average Joe on the street can take photos of any situation with the eye of a trained professional.
We’re edging closer and closer every year to seeing professional-level cameras supplanted entirely by smartphones and their ability to squeeze more hardware in more handheld-sized shapes. I just so happen to think the P9 is a step in the right direction for phones to digging a six-foot deep pit for a market that is becoming home to an increasingly niche audience.
While the P9 is a more than capable phone, it’s the twin-lens camera setup that Huawei is hyping. A camera-killer designed in partnership with Leica to make every snapshot beautiful enough to be worthy of an exhibition at your local art gallery. Now how much of that hardware is genuinely down to Leica, I can’t exactly say. But, the mentality of Leica has certainly shaped the P9 camera.
To understand that, you have to understand how Leica operates. They’re a camera manufacturer who can sell a photography device that includes absolutely buggerall special features to an audience for a premium price. They’re the equivalent of buying a new Ferrari, and then finding out that sex appeal on four wheels doesn’t come with air conditioning, seat-belts or even seats. And yet, they still make some damn excellent cameras for a purist audience who actually know how to use the device beyond the auto-setting.
And that’s the mindset behind this partnership and camera.
Like I said, you’ve got two 12 megapixel cameras: One lens captures colour, the other can catch images in a monochrome setting. Combining their powers like a pair of photography-themed Wonder Twins results in some truly fantastic photos thanks to generously wide aperture. Standard pictures are sharp, vibrant and full of that joie de vivre that professional photographers look for. With the vivid mode selected, colours are punched up with saturation, but not to the point where reds bleed into magenta territory or yellows lose all details.
Do the Bokeh Pokey
It’s a snappy camera, that’ll satisfy any social media savvy person who has to share images of their lunch at a local Portuguese place (COUGHCOUGHMATTYCOUGHCOUGH), with numerous options available to throw in a few filters or capture the stars at night during their celestial journey. I really, really liked the Huawei P9 camera in its default auto-mode, while the monochrome camera resulted in quicker and artier photos that would make Horst Faas spin so ferociously in his grave that he’d tunnel his way through to Australia if he saw how easy the P9 was to use.
There’s some properly clever engineering at play here with the monochrome sensor, as it adds extra luminance to create more dynamic ranges for images taken. Basically, that extra layer of light provides even sharper images with the ditching of the colour filters, backed up by numerous other options to get the right balance of black and white to your personal tastes.
The caveat here, is that decent lighting was required to get those snaps. At night or in situations where the lighting wasn’t exactly too sufficient, those photos would come out as decent at best and mediocre all too often when the autofocus struggled. It’s a problem endemic to any smartphone camera, but that’s not where the story of the P9 ends.
Because it’s a device that rewards bravery. Specifically the kind of courage to actually not rely on the auto-settings and go for broke with manual.
There’s a certain thrill to adjusting your own white balance, to checking that you’ve got the right shutter speed for the image in motion or that your aperture is allowing just the right amount of light in. It’s an idea that is complemented by a decent selection of options that make shooting a bokeh setup a doddle when you only want your subject in your focus. I actually intended to load some photography apps on to properly make use of the manual mode, but I found that I didn’t to need to…at least not yet anyway.
The selection of features for manual may be somewhat sparse when compared to a DSLR, but they’re the right options to play around when you sit down and examine them. By now, you’re probably wondering if the P9 is the much-vaunted murderer of the prosumer camera market. I don’t think it is, but I do think it has managed to at least stab DLSR’s in the back with a sneak attack that it never saw coming. Et tu, P9?
What the P9 is however, is the best smartphone camera on the market right now. I’ve played with the iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S7, and I think the P9 beats them both as a photography device hands down thanks to it wanting to be the ballsiest smartphone camera of 2016 and maybe even beyond that when placed in the right hands of a consumer who wants to experiment. It’s not enough to just have hardware that pulls in the crowds, but the software needs to match that laser-sharp focus as well. Fortunately, the Huawei P9 ticks both of those boxes.
And that front-facing 8 megapixel camera isn’t bad either, especially if you need to take selfies in a rush. Although no amount of beauty software touch-ups can fix this ugly mug:
Where I think the P9 is a contender for the best photography device of the year, the video side of this equation feels like it was neglected. It’s more than capable enough of capturing any quick clip of your cat being adorable, but capable just doesn’t cut it after playing with that splendid photo mode. Colours can fail to hit a sweet spot, you need optimal lighting to get good scenes shot and there’s a noisiness to the footage that creeps.
It’s hardly a game-breaker and there are several options to play with, but it’s nowhere near as fun as the camera side of the P9. That being said, if Huawei can apply what they’ve learnt with photography to video with their next flagship device, I’ll have my Samsung NX 30 listed on the classifieds as quickly as humanly possible.
The Huawei P9 is a capable device with a few niggles, but it’s an even bigger leap forward in photography technology and the mindset of that culture that has resulted in possibly the best pure smartphone camera available right now.