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Huawei P9 review: Smart camera has it snapping at the heels of the flagship titans

Written by Steve Ranger on
Huawei P9 smartphone

Huawei P9

$219 at Amazon
  • Dual-lens (RGB, B&W) camera system
  • Excellent fingerprint scanner
  • Good battery life
  • Emotion UI overlay may not appeal
  • Uninspired design
  • Moderate screen resolution
  • Lacks wireless and fast charging
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Huawei's latest top-of-the-range handset, the 5.2-inch P9, certainly looks like a premium smartphone should -- all aluminium, glass and soft curves. But it's also a little safe, lacking the futurist stylings of Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge, for example.

Huawei has opted for slimness over design daring, perhaps: at 6.95mm, it's thinner than both the iPhone 6s (7.1mm) and the Galaxy S7 (7.9mm) and also manages to avoid having an unsightly swelling on the back of the device to incorporate the camera lens, which both its flagship rivals suffer.

Huawei P9 smartphone in pictures

The phone feels good in the hand and light (144g), although I found the aluminium backplate a little too smooth and sometimes hard to keep a grip on. If, like many, you use a case this will be less of an issue.

The fingerprint reader is on the back of the phone, below the camera. At first this seemed a rather odd placement, but I rapidly grew to love it. Unlocking the phone just by resting your index finger on the back seems far more natural than using a sensor on the front.

The fingerprint sensor can also be programmed to take a photo, answer a call or browse photos --handy additions that I used all the time (so much so that I'd like to be able to use the sensor to perform on-screen actions such as like scrolling a page).

The fingerprint sensor is accurate as well as flexible, with a 100 percent record so far. Putting the fingerprint reader on the back also means a smaller lower bezel on the front of the phone.

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Huawei P9 smartphone

The P9's dual cameras and fingerprint sensor are standout features.

Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The P9 has a 5.2-inch FHD (1,080-by-1,920-pixel) screen delivering 423 pixels per inch (ppi), which is well behind the 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 (577ppi) and the 5.2-inch HTC 10 (565ppi). The P9's screen may not be class-leading in terms of resolution, but it's a bright, responsive display that runs right to the edge of the device, with good viewing angles.

The phone has a single, fairly unremarkable, speaker, set at the bottom. This is also where the headphone jack is found -- a slightly unusual position, which takes a bit of getting used to.

The P9 runs Android 6 (Marshmallow), although much of Google's mobile OS is hidden under Huawei's own iOS-like Emotion UI overlay. I didn't find this particularly annoying (although there is the usual excess of unnecessary apps to be found onboard), but those used to a more stock Android approach may feel disorientated.

The P9 has a 3,000mAh battery, which is the same as the Galaxy S7 and considerably bigger than the 1,715mAh battery in the iPhone 6s. Capacity isn't everything of course, but I found that with reasonably heavy usage the P9 would easily last all day: with lighter usage I could go almost a couple of days without reaching for the charger.

The phone runs on Huawei's own Kirin 955 octa-core processor and a quad-core Mali-T880 GPU. The Geekbench 3 CPU benchmark delivered mixed results, with single-core performance lagging behind its flagship rivals but exemplary multi-core performance:

Images: ZDNet

To test the GPU, we ran the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark, which puts the Huawei P9 some way behind the leading handsets:

Image: ZDNet

In practice, I found the P9 plenty powerful enough for day-to-day usage. However, if you are planning to use particularly CPU-intensive apps or enjoy 3D gaming, you might want to consider the alternatives.

The camera system -- 'co-engineered' with camera brand Leica -- is probably the P9's key feature. It's a dual-lens module with both colour and monochrome sensors, the idea being that two sensors capture more light and thus deliver better pictures, particularly in low-light conditions.

The camera has an easily accessible 'pro mode' that lets you play around with many more camera settings than is often the case (although some users may find this level of detail overwhelming). For the less confident, but still ambitious, a left swipe will bring up plenty of different modes to try out.

Huawei P9 smartphone

The volume rocker and power stud are found on the right side of the handset.

Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The dual camera system certainly delivers some nice images: the black-and-white sensor, in particular, is a lot of fun to play with, as is the 'bokeh' effect for images with shallow depth of field (sharp images up close, the background blurred). Although it doesn't seem to be an enormous leap forward, what the camera does is make you more ambitious: while testing out this smartphone I felt much more confident about delving into settings and trying out new things than with other devices, which is an unexpected boon.

So where does Huawei's P9 fall down? For some, the branding won't be enough -- this is really Huawei's first attempt at a flagship smartphone. Huawei might have had Superman-actor Henry Cavill at the launch (and hanging out with Scarlett Johansson in the advertising), but it's still a long way behind Samsung and Apple when it comes to recognition -- even if Huawei is now the third biggest smartphone maker in the world.

The P9 gets a lot of things right: solid design, decent performance and good battery life, a great fingerprint sensor and an ambitious camera system. It's remarkable how over the last couple of years the difference between the flagship smartphones and the rest of the market has narrowed, and a company like Huawei is well positioned to take advantage of that with a device like this.

Huawei P9 specs

145mm x 70.9mm x 6.95mm
5.2-inch FHD
Huawei Kirin 955 (64-bit), Octa-core (4 x 2.5 GHz A72+ 4 x 1.8 GHz A53)
Operating System
Android 6.0 with EMUI 4.1
32GB/3GB or 64GB/4GB
Rear: dual 12MP (RGB and monochrome), Front: 8MP
3,000 mAh

Price: 32GB €599 / 64GB €649

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