Huawei Honor 9 Review: Watch out, OnePlus

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Huawei Honor 9 Review: Watch out, OnePlus
THE GOOD
  • Great battery life
  • Smooth performer
  • Compact and shiny
  • Smart software
THE BAD
  • Fragile back
  • Jittery video

Our Honor 9 review takes an in-depth look at the performance, battery life, camera tech and smart features of the 2017 Honor flagship phone. At China just $299, is this really the affordable mobile we’ve all been waiting for?

The Honor brand by Huawei continues to offer solid tech at a great-value price, with the release of the shiny Honor 9. In fact, take a look at this handset’s specs and you’d be forgiven for confusing it with the Huawei P10, and not too surprising given Huawei manufactures the Honor blowers.

What is surprising is this mobile’s cost. While the P10 will still set you back over £550/$715 SIM-free, the Honor 9 is priced at just £380/$494. That’s quite a saving, given the near-identical specs.

In fact, the Honor 9 is considerably cheaper than its biggest rival right now, the OnePlus 5- which again offers premium specs for less cash than other flagship handsets.

So is the Honor 9 as good as it sounds, or does something dark lurk beneath that shiny surface? Here’s our full Honor 9 review.

DESIGN

Honor fans who own last year’s flagship phone will find the Honor 9 immediately looks familiar. That same seductive blue tint has been used, along with a silver or black finish if you so prefer, and we’re still big fans. When it catches the light just so, that glass rear dazzles with a kaleidoscope of flickering lines. Particularly fascinating when inebriated.

However, this time around the backing is pleasingly curved, for a comfortable fit in the palm. Considering that dinky 5.15-inch display, the Honor 9 is well designed for one-handed use. In fact, you even get a special one-handed mode which shrinks the desktops, if you still need a little extra help.

Like most mid-range mobiles (including the rather good OnePlus 5), the Honor 8 isn’t water resistant. If that’s an important factor, check out the also rather good Samsung Galaxy A5 2017 instead.

This handset needs to be handled with proper care as well. I was hoping that the glass rear would still be tough enough to soak up a little bit of punishment, like the HTC U11and Samsung’s latest Galaxy handsets. However, a hairline fracture appeared in the bottom left corner after less than 24 hours with the Honor 9. That’s without any drops or bangs either, so god only knows where it came from.

Honor does at least bundle a transparent case in the box, which snaps on to protect the back and edges. We recommend using it.

SCREEN AND MEDIA

One area that hasn’t really changed at all compared with the Honor 8 is that display. At 5.15-inches, the IPS LCD panel is only a fraction smaller, while packing the same Full HD 1920×1080 pixel resolution. What you can expect is crisp visuals, no matter what you’re up to.

Image reproduction is as good as you’d hope, as Huawei/Honor rarely lets us down when it comes to screen tech. Colours are punchy (with the option to tweak the colour temperature in the display settings), while brightness levels cope well with harsh glare. In fact, there’s even an option to increase readability under sunlight, which admittedly didn’t seem to make much difference.

You have the usual Eye Comfort mode on board too, for late night viewing. This filters blue light to reduce eye strain, a feature that’s now common on Android handsets.

Audio is pumped out of the dinky solo speaker mounted on the bottom edge of the handset. This actually gives out a decent sound for a smartphone, with only a little distortion on those high-pitched notes. Of course, you’ll want to employ some decent earphones when listening to music all the same. Luckily there’s a 3.5mm jack, stuck there alongside the speaker.

If you want to carry around a massive collection of downloaded songs and movies, that’s no problem. You get a generous 64GB of storage packed inside the Honor 9, expandable via microSD up to a further 256GB.

FEATURES AND OS

Android Nougat is lovingly topped with Huawei’s own Emotion UI overlay, in its latest form – EMUI 5.1. This means you get loads of cool features stuffed into the Honor 9, most of which are genuinely useful in some way (although not all).

Android itself offers split-screen multi-tasking, efficient resource management, smart notifications and lots of other great built-in bits with Nougat. With every iteration it grows stronger and the Honor 9 should get a full upgrade to Android O at the end of the year.

EMUI 5.1 adds some cool bonus modes and features, which neatly complement the existing Android OS. For instance, you now have more gesture support, including lots of shortcut options for quick-loading the camera, opening your favourite apps, muting calls and so on.

You can also fully customise the hardware buttons beneath the Honor 9’s screen. You get the usual array of back, home and recent apps buttons, with the ability to swap the first and last around or even merge them all into the home button (which doubles as a fingerprint sensor). A quick tap of that sensor acts as a ‘back’ command, a long-press takes you home and a swipe across the surface brings up the recent apps menu.

It’s impressive how fast you adjust to this method, although it’s not necessarily a better way of navigating around. You don’t save any time, and it’s no more comfortable. It’s simply a different way of doing things.

That fingerprint sensor is just as pleasing as ever to use. Once your digit is set up, just tap the scanner lightly and you’ll be straight into your desktops with no delay. The sensor is perfectly accurate, very rarely failing (unless your finger is moist or gritty – and even then, it tends to work better than rivals).

One particularly rare feature housed on the top edge of the Honor 9 is the IR blaster, for controlling a massive collection of compatible devices. It’s a cool addition, although not quite so necessary in times of smart home gadgets and speakers like the Amazon Echo.

PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE

A Kirin 960 processor is once again stuffed inside the Honor 9, which comes as no surprise at all. That’s Huawei’s go-to chipset of its own design, found on numerous Huawei and Honor-branded phones since the end of 2016.

That’s no bad thing by any means as the Honor 9 offers dependable performance no matter what you’re up to. Apps load instantly and run smoothly, while 4K video streams with a smooth frame rate. You’ll have no trouble playing the latest games for quite some time as well.

Battery life is just as great, with a 3200mAh cell packed inside that slender frame. Helped along by the general efficiency of the Android and EMUI software, it takes some serious draining.

With the Honor 9 fully charged at the start of the day, I could use it regularly for snapping photos, checking messages, streaming media and jumping online. Come bedtime, the phone was still far from empty. A full charge often gave a day and a half of use, which is only shortened by seriously intensive tasks such as long gaming periods and Skype sessions.

When the phone does die, you can power it back up in a jiffy using Huawei’s own fast charge tech. This is a strong rival to OnePlus’ Dash Charge and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, which does a great job of keeping the Honor 9 cool while filling the battery in less than 90 minutes.

CAMERAS

Like most recent Honor phones, the Honor 9 once again packs a dual-lens snapper on the back. This appears to be identical to the Huawei P10’s shooter, packing a 20-megapixel monochrome lens backed by a 2-megapixel RGB shooter.

Photo quality is solid in most cases, although the Honor 9 isn’t an all-round dependable snapper. Likewise, despite shooting up to 4K resolution video, some improvements could be made when it comes to footage.

HONOR 9 CAMERA SPECS: HAS ANYTHING CHANGED COMPARED TO THE HONOR 8 AND 8 PRO?

One of the only let-downs of the Honor 8 Pro was the camera tech, which was unchanged compared with the original Honor 8.

Thankfully, the Honor 9 has been gifted the same camera tech as the Huawei P10, offering an improvement over the previous generation. You get a 20-megapixel monochrome and 12-megapixel RGB lens on the rear, as well as an 8-megapixel shooter around the front.

That brings a fair few improvements, beyond the obvious increase in detail levels (particularly handy when zooming in for a snap). For instance, the Honor 9 camera can supposedly capture photos that are 200 percent brighter than those taken by previous-gen Honors.

The portrait mode from the P10 and P10 Plus is now available on Honor too, while the Honor 9 also brings ‘moving pictures’ to the series. More on these later.

HONOR 9 CAMERA REVIEW: APP AND USER EXPERIENCE

When you open up the Honor 9’s camera app, not much appears to have changed for this handset. You’re once again presented with a feature-dense interface, complete with many toggles on the main screen.

This means you can add filters, turn on the obligatory beauty mode, toggle the flash and activate Huawei’s wide aperture and portrait mode features. All at a touch.

Actually, that portrait mode is an addition to the existing Honor line-up, previously only found on the Huawei P10 and P10 Plus. Like the wide aperture mode, this helps your subject to stand out against the background, using the likes of bokeh effects as well as colour manipulation.

Another addition is the Moving Pictures mode. When enabled, this apparently captures a second of video before and after your photo was taken, to bring them to life in your gallery – like the living images feature found on the recent iPhones.

I found that Moving Pictures only seemed to capture a slice of footage before each photo, or at least that’s how it seemed when flicking through the Honor 9’s gallery. You get a brief burst of animation, before the subject suddenly leaps ahead in time. It’s slightly disorienting and not quite as smooth a transition as you’ll get on the iPhone.

Note also that you can’t have the Moving Pictures mode and the Wide Aperture/Portrait mode activated at the same time.

Tap the shutter button and the nippy autofocus gets to work, capturing your snap almost instantly (as long as lighting conditions are okay). You also have full manual controls available for a very exact shot. To access these, you just need to swipe right into the main Honor 9 camera features menu.

In there you’ll also find plenty of other camera modes. For instance, you can take a panorama, get funky with the light painting feature, shoot timelapse and slow-motion footage and so on.

If you want to shoot standard video, the good news is that the main camera interface offers a button for that. You can record Full HD video at 30 or 60 frames-per-second or jump up to 4K resolution footage, if you want some ultra-crisp clips of your cat licking itself.

HONOR 9 CAMERA REVIEW: PHOTO AND VIDEO QUALITY

It’s not really any kind of surprise that the Honor 9 captures good-looking photos in clear light. Those two lenses work together to produce detailed images, complete with accurate color reproduction. Shutter speed is pretty quick too, so subjects in motion are cleanly captured in most cases, with very little blur to speak of.

Macro shots are just as impressive. Get in close to your subject and the lens doesn’t struggle, reliably capturing even tiny details in a crisp and clean fashion.

High contrast shots are generally well produced. Shoot against a bright sky and you can expect some oversaturation of said sky, while finer details are lost in the other parts of the photo. However, compared to other, similarly-priced handsets such as the OnePlus 5, the Honor 9 holds up nicely. You can always tweak the brightness levels using manual focus and the Pro Mode controls, when needed.

However, the Honor 9 really does struggle compared with its peers when it comes to low-light shots. Try capturing a photo in dim light and you’ll have no choice but to fire up that flash. Else, your snap will be marred with ugly grain. You do get a Night Mode which basically offers a super-long exposure to brighten things off, but it’s completely useless without a tripod to keep the phone perfectly still.

The wide aperture mode and portrait mode do their thang as you’d expect, blurring the background while keeping your subject nice and sharp. It’s not really much different to the effect you get on the single-lens Samsung Galaxy S8 however, with its depth of field cheat mode activated.

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HONOR 9 CAMERA REVIEW: VIDEO QUALITY

The Honor 9’s camera offers a pretty solid performance when it comes to video recording, although it’s not perfect by any means.

Quality levels are decent on the default mode of Full HD resolution, 30 frames-per-second capture. Detail is sharp enough to make your test footage look respectable when enjoyed on a full-sized TV. You also get digital image stabilisation, which effectively reduces the tremble and tremors when you’re moving and shooting at the same time. You’ll only notice a slight, sudden vibration with every step that you take.

However, jack up to 60 frames-per-second or 4K resolution and the stabiliser feature is immediately disabled. This means walking and filming is a bad idea, as you’ll get a lot of shake.

Still, at 60 FPS the resulting video is pleasingly smooth, while our Ultra HD footage was packed with detail.

The Honor 9 also offers full manual controls for video recording, so you can tweak the likes of white balance while shooting. That’s something rarely found on mobiles, so should definitely be applauded.

Note that 4K video samples on the Honor 9 are shot in HEVC format, which compresses the file size so it takes up a lot less space on your phone’s storage (without any real impact on quality). This is great news if you shoot a lot of video, although means uploading to YouTube direct is a no-no. You’ll need a program such as HandBrake to convert the video file before doing so.

KEY SPECS

  • 5.15-inches
  • 1920×1080
  • 155g
  • Android 7 + EMUI 5.1
  • 20/12MP
  • 8MP
  • Kirin 960
  • 4GB
  • 64GB + microSD
  • Yes
  • Fingerprint sensor, IR blaster
  • HUAWEI Smartphones wholesale in China

HONOR 9 REVIEW: VERDICT

The Honor 9 is a great-value handset that offers a similar flagship experience to most other premium phones, yet with a greatly reduced asking price. Sure, you don’t get any jazzy HDR visuals or a ridiculously sharp Quad HD screen – and most users won’t even notice. They’ll be too content with the slick software, lovable design, smooth performance and dependable battery life.

With the exception of a couple of camera flaws and that fragile backing, it’s hard to criticise this phone – especially as it’s £70/$91 cheaper than its closest current rival, the OnePlus 5. If you demand a strong all-round user experience without breaking the bank, the Honor 9 is definitely one to consider.