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Huawei P9 Plus review: Bigger, with more RAM and storage, and better speakers

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $439.99

Pros

  • Slimline aluminium unibody construction
  • Dual-lens main camera delivers high-quality composite images
  • Press Touch screen functionality
  • Flexible and responsive fingerprint scanner
  • Stereo speakers
  • Good battery life

Cons

  • Screen resolution is lower than other flagship handsets
  • Huawei Emotion UI may not appeal to everyone

Huawei has gone to town with its new P9 handset family, releasing it in 'regular', Plus and Lite versions. We liked the 5.2-inch P9 when we reviewed it, and in many respects the 5.5-inch P9 Plus is the same handset writ large.

The P9 Plus looks every inch a high-end handset. Its aluminium unibody chassis provides protection, while the handset is (very) thin and comfortable to hold. Sit the Huawei P9 and P9 Plus side by side and it's tricky to spot any differences between the two apart from size. Even this is minimal: the 5.2in. P9 measures 70.9mm by 145mm by 7mm and weighs 144g, while the 5.5in. P9 Plus measures 75.3mm by 152.3mm by 7mm and weighs 166g.

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The 5.5-inch Huawei P9 Plus looks and feels very similar to its 5.2-inch P9 stablemate.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

There are barely any variations in design across the two P9 models. On my two review samples, there was a more brushed appearance to the back of the P9 Plus and a red border to the textured power button that isn't present on the regular P9. These are hardly key differentiators, though.

The P9's 5.2-inch full-HD (1,920 x 1,080) display delivers a pixel density of 423ppi using an IPS panel. The larger 5.5-inch P9 Plus has the same resolution and therefore a slightly lower 401ppi pixel density, and uses a Super AMOLED panel. The P9 Plus's pixel density may not match today's flagship handsets (Samsung's Galaxy S7 offers 577ppi, for example), but the screen delivers perfectly acceptable text and photo/video image quality.

The screen supports Huawei's Press Touch pressure-responsive controls, which allows you to push down on the screen to make things happen. For example, when you press down hard on a home-screen icon a submenu of options pops up, offering choices specific to the app in question. Press Touch, which is not available on the regular P9, also activates the top left and right corners of the screen to launch a couple of user-defined apps.

The fingerprint reader on the back can also be used for a number of shortcuts, including holding down to answer a call, take a photo and stop an alarm.

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And if you find the screen a bit too big for one-handed use, a quick sweep left or right on the navigation bar at the bottom of the display shrinks it to about two thirds of the screen area.

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Press Touch in action: press and hold a home-screen icon and get a submenu of choices (left). Various motion control options (right).

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

All of this only scratches the surface of what Huawei adds to its handset in terms of controls and extras. There's a whole range of motion controls waiting to be toggled on and off, including the least successful of all Huawei's ideas -- Knuckle Sense gestures. You can, for example, knock the screen twice with a knuckle to take a screenshot, or identify a screen area for a screenshot by drawing it with a knuckle, and even use two knuckles to start -- and then stop -- a video recording of what's occurring on-screen.

The P9 Plus has the same CPU/GPU combo as the P9, Huawei's Kirin 955 octa-core processor and quad-core Mali-T880 GPU, but the bigger handset has 4GB of RAM compared to the P9's 3GB. Huawei has also added more internal storage, boosting the P9's 32GB up to 64GB, of which 51.5GB was free in my review sample. There's MicroSD card slot, so more storage can be added if necessary. This sits in the SIM caddy, occupying a slot that in some handsets doubles to cater for a second SIM. Not here, though: this is a one-SIM, one-MicroSD slot device.

As with the P9, the main camera is a standout feature of the P9 Plus. There are dual lenses, feeding two 12-megapixel sensors -- one monochrome and one RGB -- that deliver composite images. Low light performance, in particular, is claimed to be superior, and the whole imaging subsystem has been co-engineered with Leica.

The camera might prove to be a trial for some users. As already noted, Huawei loves its tweaks, and the camera has a wide range of options. What Huawei calls 'pro mode' is called up with a sweep upwards from the bottom in viewfinder mode. This provides access to settings such as ISO, AWB and shutter speed. There are further quick-access settings available from the top of the viewfinder screen, including a rather fun bokeh effect with a slider for controlling just how blurred the out-of-focus areas are.

Sweeping left from the viewfinder brings up a number of one-tap selections for different types of shooting, while sweeping right opens a large number of further settings.

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Camera shooting modes (left) and settings (right).

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

It's a lot for the non-camera fan to deal with, and the front camera adds further flashiness in the form of a range of modes such as 'perfect selfie' and 'standard beauty'. There's even a slider on the beauty mode (how beautiful do you want to be today?) and a series of further settings including 'beauty video', selfie timer, the ability to auto-capture when smiles are detected and...well, you get the idea.

The good news is that the camera does perform well, and its low-light performance is particularly satisfying. How much all the extras will get used in the real world, though, I'm not sure. Many people still just want point-and-shoot-style photography.

Android 6.0 is augmented by a huge number of tweaks and add-on apps provided courtesy of Huawei's Emotion UI or EMUI, now at version 4. Many people criticise this for lacking a separate apps area and instead forcing all apps onto a home screen. I didn't like it myself at first, but am now used to the way it works.

As for the rest of what Huawei has done to Android, there isn't much software bloat, and what's here is, by and large, useful. A file manager comes in handy, and the IR sensor on the top edge can be used to remote-control devices around the house thanks to an app that supports this. WPS Office is useful, although of course there are plenty of other similar apps and online services available for document creation.

Sound quality from the handset's front-facing stereo speakers is remarkably good. Audio is slightly tinny at the highest volume, but otherwise perfectly acceptable for watching video without a headset (when the circumstances are socially acceptable, of course).

Battery life is pretty good. The P9 Plus's 3,400mAh battery is larger than the P9's 3000mAh cell and regularly kept me going for a day and a half between charges, which puts it above average compared to other handsets I've tested with similar mainstream usage patterns. Rapid charge support is welcome too -- but note that the P9 Plus has a USB-C port.

Conclusions

The 5.5-inch Huawei P9 Plus is every bit as impressive as the 5.2-inch P9, while offering more RAM and internal storage, and better speakers. The dual-lens Leica-co-engineered main camera will appeal to many, but the P9 Plus has plenty more going for it, including a flexible and responsive fingerprint sensor, genuinely useful pressure-sensitive screen features, solid build quality and good battery life.

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Specifications

Cellular
Type Smartphone
Operating System Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Display
Diagonal Size 5.5 in
Processor
Clock Speed 2.5 Hz
Manufacturer HiSilicon
Processor Core Qty Quad-core

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Where To Buy

Huawei P9 Plus (64GB, haze gold)

Part Number: P9 Plus 64GB-haze gold