Honor 9 review: An affordable flagship-class smartphone

honor-9-header.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.9 Outstanding

Pros

  • Fast and well specified
  • Good battery life
  • Aggressively priced
  • Eye Comfort mode for easy viewing

Cons

  • Awkward and unnecessary knuckle gestures
  • Superfluous (but easily removed) pre-installed apps

Honor, a Huawei brand, has been steadily chipping away at the mid-range smartphone market for a while now. Last year's Honor 8 earned our praise, while earlier this year the bigger Honor 8 Pro also impressed.

The new 5.15-inch Honor 9 offers decent specifications, including a dual-lens camera, for less than £400 (£379 inc. VAT), providing a more affordable alternative to its high-end stablemate the Huawei P10. It could also give similar handsets like the OnePlus 5 a run for their money.

My Honor 9 review sample, clad in what the company calls Sapphire Blue, has been designed to stand out from the grey, black, and white crowd. Those who want a more demure look from their phone can opt for Glacier Grey or Midnight Black. Whichever livery is chosen, the glass body is one of the few things about this phone that irritates. The way the curved glass back is made from 15 layers that reflect light in an array of shades of blue is, admittedly, very clever. But the overall effect reminds me of Christmas baubles -- and not in a good way. Still, this is a matter of personal taste and some will find it stunning.

honor-9-sides.jpg

The 5.15-inch Honor 9 is a comfortable hold and fits easily into a pocket. This octa-core Kirin 960-powered handset weighs 155g.

Images: Huawei-Honor

The sides are made of a more demure matte-finish sandblasted metal. The SIM and microSD caddy are on the left edge; the volume rocker and power button are on the right; the speaker, headset jack and USB-C connector are on the bottom; and there's an IR port on the top.

The navigation key on the front of the handset is flanked on left and right by Back and Recent touch zones. Their positions can be swapped for personal preference, or they can be disabled altogether and their functions achieved by sweeping the navigation key instead. Their presence is indicated by two lights. The navigation key also contains the fingerprint sensor, so it has to work hard for its keep. I found it responsive, efficient and straightforward to use.

The glass back makes the phone a bit slippery to hold, but its overall size of 70.9mm wide by 147mm deep by 7.45mm thick makes for a relatively comfortable hold, even in relatively small hands like mine; it sits neatly in a pocket, too.

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With almost no long-side bezels, the Honor 9 has room for a 5.15-inch screen that delivers 1,920 by 1,080 resolution for a generous 428 pixels per inch (ppi). Other displays offer higher resolutions and ppi counts, but there's always a trade-off to be made with performance and battery life with very high-resolution smartphone screens.

The screen is amazingly bright and makes for comfortable viewing of all manner of content, from web pages to streamed video to ebooks. When it comes to ebooks, the Eye Comfort mode is really handy. This filters out blue light, making it easier to read the screen at night and more comfortable for lengthy reading sessions. It can be set to kick in on a timed schedule, its colour temperature can be configured manually, and it can be toggled from the quick settings menu.

The Honor 9 doesn't have any waterproofing features, but it does have some excellent internal specifications. The combination of an octa-core Kirin 960 chipset, 6GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage is a small step up from Huawei's flagship £680 P10, which matches the processor and storage but only has 4GB of RAM.

The Honor 9's 3,200mAh battery is the same in the Huawei P10, and it generally delivered a full day's use during the test period -- although it wasn't quite as long-lasting as the OnePlus 5. If you need a battery boost, SuperCharge is available if you're prepared to carry the factory-provided AC adapter. When the battery is at its lowest this can deliver up to 40 percent charge in half an hour.

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There are 12MP (colour) and 20MP (mono) cameras at the back, and plenty of shooting options to choose from.

Images: Sandra Vogel/Huawei-Honor

The cameras are the star of this particular show, and there's a lot here that's reminiscent of the Huawei P10. The dual camera setup has a 12-megapixel colour sensor and a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor. This helps with taking better-quality night shots. There's also a benefit for portrait photos, which use both cameras to provide a sharp subject and a blurred background (what's known as a bokeh effect). There's a 2x hybrid zoom and you can shoot 4k video.

The myriad camera settings -- which include panorama, mono shooting, HDR, light painting, time lapse, slo-mo, and more -- are accessible with a simple right sweep across the screen, making it relatively easy to play with shooting modes. Pro Photo and Pro Video modes provide granular control of manual settings. The front facing 8-megapixel camera has fewer options, but they're accessed with the same right sweep.

The Honor 9 runs on Android 7.0 with Huawei's EMUI 5.1 on top. Inevitably EMUI adds a few bits and pieces to Android. One addition I find difficult to fathom is knuckle commands: you can rap with the knuckles on the screen to take a screenshot or record a video clip, draw a letter with a knuckle onscreen to open an app, or draw a line across the screen with a knuckle to enter split-screen mode. I abandoned these gestures pretty quickly: they require two-handed use of the phone, and I found knuckle-recognition was only successful about a third of the time.

Some apps do augment the standard Android fare, including several games, TripAdvisor, Instagram, and eBay. However, an early task for new users might be to remove some of the flotsam.

These negatives are easily dealt with or ignored, and there's much good stuff to set against them. The £400 handset market has just become more interesting.

Conclusions

The Honor 9 delivers good performance and battery life, a decent 5.15-inch screen and an impressive dual camera setup. But how does it shape up versus its high-end Huawei P10 stablemate and the OnePlus 5, which is ploughing a similar 'affordable flagship' furrow?

The OnePlus 5 leads on battery life and in general just edges past the Honor 9 for me, but it's a fairly close-run thing. The really interesting comparison is between this handset and the Huawei P10. It's nearly £200 cheaper but with similar specifications, and is simply much better value for money. That's bizarre since both handsets come from Huawei, but good news for buyers.

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Specifications

Cellular
Type Smartphones
Operating System Android 7.0 Nougat
Processor
Clock Speed 2.4 GHz
Manufacturer HiSilicon
Processor Core Qty Octa-core
Display
Diagonal Size 5.5 in
Dimensions & Weight
Width 2.79 in
Depth 0.30 in
Height 5.80 in
Weight 5.47 oz

Topics: Smartphones, Hardware, Mobility, Reviews

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