Huawei P9: the most iPhone-like Android device yet
One of the most striking things about Huawei's P9 is its similarity to the iPhone 6 and 6s. The device represents the Chinese company's first major attempt to break into the Western market for high-end Android devices by attempting to compete with Samsung, HTC and Sony.
But where these OEM’s have tried to forge their own stylistic paths, Huawei has just shamelessly opted to make the P9 look as close to the iPhone as possible in order to associate it with the perceived ‘premium quality’ of Apple’s devices.
Where Huawei has really tried to differentiate the P9 from its rivals, is with its unique dual-camera system. The phone comes equipped with two 12MP Sony sensors, one colour, one monochrome, that are supposed to pick up more light than a typical smartphone camera because the cumulative size of both sensors is larger than average. In theory this allows for higher quality low-light and night shots, as well as superior quality black-and-white shots with the native monochrome sensor.
While the P9 might not have the most original design, it certainly succeeds in its attempt to copy the iPhone as closely as possible, even down to the pentalobe screws adorning the bottom edge of the device next to the speaker grille. The whole device feels very streamlined and sturdy, nothing flexes and the purely glass and aluminium body gives it a distinctly premium feel. Like the iPhone, the only disruptive elements are the antenna bands which stretch along the bottom and top of the phone but even these fit very naturally into the design as a whole. The device feels slim at just under 7mm thick, skinnier than the iPhone in fact, while still managing to fit a relatively large 3000mAh battery into its slender frame. However, the largely metal and glass design means that the phone isn’t especially lightweight, but this adds to its ‘premium’ feel.
There are only three physical buttons, composed of a volume rocker and a power button, that have a solid, clicky feel and look right at home in the aluminium casing. The back panel features an embedded fingerprint scanner that looks great and performs with impressive accuracy. After a few days of use, unlocking the phone by placing your index finger into the little nook becomes habitual and the speed at which the fingerprint is recognised is phenomenal. It’s placement on the back is actually very convenient, perhaps more so than the front facing scanner found on most other high-end phones, while also maintaining the clean, uninterrupted front panel.
Display and performance
The display is integrated into the front glass and features an impressively thin bezel on first appearances. However, when the screen is turned on, a thin black border actually surrounds the screen; it’s only about 1mm thick on either side, so it’s not a major deal, but when looking at Huawei’s marketing materials, it’s quite clear that the company has added a touch of Photoshop to remove this black border entirely or to show it as slimmer than it is. The marketing materials are actually quite inconsistent on whether the border even exists or not.
The 5.2inch display itself looks great though, even if not best in class. It’s an LCD panel with 1080p resolution, a lower pixel density than the QHD displays featured on rival Android phones, but denser than the iPhone 6s. The LCD looks good, colours look natural and are not oversaturated. It also performs well in daylight with text remaining very readable. It doesn’t hold up so well in darkness however (unlike Samsung’s AMOLED screens), with even the minimum brightness being quite uncomfortable to look at in a pitch black room. This is especially noticeable on white screens as expected which are unfortunately prevalent on all the settings menus. While the pixel density may not quite reach the heights of many other flagships, the pixels themselves are still basically invisible unless you hold your face right up to the device. Higher resolution displays also tend to use more battery by nature because they push more physical pixels and put a higher strain on the GPU.
The day-to-day performance is pretty good, apps open and close smoothly and quickly and the UI rarely suffers from any juddering. A 2016 flagship should not really suffer from these issues anyway; mobile processors have come on in leaps and bounds to the point where they should be able to power a mobile operating system without stuttering. Anything less is lazy coding on the part of the manufacturer, not the fault of the processor.
However, the P9’s Android skin, known as Emotion UI (EMUI), suffers from its desperate attempts to copy the iPhone. There is not even a hint of stock Android left and a lot of iOS styling forcibly injected into areas where it has no right to be. Android’s bouncy card system has been totally abandoned in favour of iPhone-esque translucent overlays. While it is certainly subjective as to whether Android or iOS is more visually appealing, the P9 suffers from its attempt to ape the iPhone at a system level, only for this to fall apart when opening Google apps and others designed around the ‘material design’ guidelines. Since Huawei has no control over Google’s design aesthetics in-app, the decision to stick so closely to iOS doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Holding the power button brings up four options: aeroplane mode, sound mode, restart and power off. This is the one element where EMUI actually fares well in comparison to stock Android. It looks clean and is an easy way to switch the phone from loud to vibrate to silent without having to worry about priority notifications and alarms being silenced unlike stock Android. However, the power options completely cover whatever is on screen at the time despite only having four buttons. This seems like a missed opportunity to have a few user-customisable app shortcuts at the bottom of the screen so that users could immediately open apps such as a web browser, music player or dialler without having to go back to the home screen. Even if it didn’t look quite as clean, it would certainly add some utility to the wasted space.
EMUI definitely falls flat in the notification area. Pulling down once takes you straight to notifications which are laid out similarly to iOS, swiping to the right reveals quick toggles including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc. It’s a bizarre, slightly dated callback to KitKat era Android (4.4) that is just not as compelling as the material design implemented from Android 5.0 Lollipop and onwards. The iPhone comparisons don’t stop there. Pulling from the bottom of the lock screen reveals a few simple toggles like the torch or calculator that are ripped straight out of Apple’s design handbook. The phone’s stock launcher – the program that defines the look and feel of the home screen – has also gone for an iOS look that completely gets rid of the app drawer in favour of having all apps appearing in a long list, a’ la iOS.
Although this may be the most offensive element of EMUI, any vaguely knowledgeable Android user will know it is not insurmountable. Alternative launchers, such as Nova, give the home screen and app drawer a stock Android look with lots of additional customisability. Google Now Launcher also works if the additional functionality of Nova is not required. The multitasking screen again eschews any nod towards stock Android’s card system and instead replaces it with a rather clumsy attempt to copy iOS’s multitasker.
A few elements of EMUI actually improve upon stock Android. Fine, granular permission controls can be accessed from the settings menu which can prevent apps from auto-launching, or even being allowed to run when the screen is off. This is very useful for some commonly used apps such as Facebook which are notorious for unwanted data collection and the resulting impact that this has on battery life. EMUI is far from the most satisfying Android experience, but it has been widely reported that a rumoured refresh to be released later this year will restore Google’s original design ethos. If such rumours come to fruition, many of the complaints here will become old news.
The P9 is a perfectly capable gaming device, producing good frame rates on GTA: San Andreas even on the highest settings with lots of action onscreen. Real Racing lacked anti-aliasing, leaving some jaggy textures here and there, but was perfectly playable and Banner Saga ran well except for a few lengthy loading screens that were probably due to the game itself. The phone did noticeably heat up during more taxing tasks but in game performance did not appear to suffer as a result.
Running an Antutu benchmark showed that the P9 didn’t quite reach the same heights as the Galaxy S7, reaching a score just below 100,000 compared to the S7’s 130,000, or other phones powered by the latest generation Snapdragon 820 processor. But it still performed better than last generation devices placing it somewhere in the middle of the two. Unless achieving the maximum gaming performance is a real priority, daily usage will be largely equivalent to other current generation phones.
Battery life is also great, at the end of a long day it typically still has 50 per cent remaining meaning that it could be stretched to two days of usage in a pinch. Inevitably long bouts of gaming, or heavy camera usage drags this down, but not faster than the typical drain experienced on other smartphones. The P9 can achieve around four hours of screen on time before it needs a recharge.
The P9’s camera really excels even in a smartphone market dominated by acceptable point and clicks. Huawei has partnered with famous camera manufacturer Leica who worked with them to design the camera setup and the software. The mere fact that such a revered company in the sector is willing to apply their branding to the device speaks to the camera’s quality. The two sensors perform admirably in very low-light situations, although significant grain is sometimes apparent in these conditions, the photos are serviceable, not something that can be said for the majority of its rivals. It also uses a laser to detect the distance at which objects appear in the shot. The camera software can then adjust the focus of the image after the shot has been taken so that either the foreground or background can become the primary subject. When taken to extremes, some post-processing artefacts are apparent, with edges blurring, but when used subtly, it can create macro shots that looks almost as good as an SLR to the untrained eye.
The camera software itself is simple and easy to use for those who just want to document their daily lives on social media. But nuanced settings are revealed with a few swipes that allow more accomplished photographers to do some interesting things with the dual camera setup. Smartphone cameras are still tangibly improving between each successive generation in a way that many other elements of the devices, such as the battery and the processor, are not. The P9 certainly produces some impressive shots, and some of the included software, especially the ability to alter the focus in post-editing, really brings something exciting to the table.
While the P9’s most significant weakness is its attempt to ape the iPhone through its EMUI Android skin, some of these complaints can be alleviated by loading third-party apps onto the device to replace those which come with the phone by default. In addition, if the rumoured EMUI update does make a showing later this year bringing with it a more stock Android feel, then many of these issues will be eradicated.
But the attempt to copy everything about the iPhone also extends to its exterior, which is actually a very good thing. The phone boasts really impressive build quality, feels great in the hand, and hardware elements such as the fingerprint scanner and the camera really excel. The camera in particular makes some impressive shots given the right conditions and is versatile enough to pull off some shots in lower light conditions that other devices struggle with.
Overall, despite some of the device's shortcomings, it performs well and looks great. It can be found online for around £350 in a pinch which is actually a fair amount cheaper than flagship devices from other manufacturers. On a pound per pound basis it is one of the best high-end Android devices out there for any user, but photography enthusiasts especially will benefit from the dual sensor setup and the clever software.
Dimensions: 145 x 70.9 x 7 mm (5.71 x 2.79 x 0.28 in)
Weight: 144 g
SIM: Single SIM (Nano-SIM) or Dual SIM
Display: IPS-NEO LCD capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors, 5.2 inches, 1080 x 1920 pixels
Chipset: HiSilicon Kirin 955
CPU: Quad-core 2.5 GHz Cortex-A72 & quad-core 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53
GPU: Mali-T880 MP4
Memory: 32gb internal, microSD support, 3gb ram
Cameras: Back facing- Dual 12 MP, f/2.2, 27 mm, Leica optics, phase detection autofocus, dual-LED flash; Front facing- 8 MP, f/2.4
Battery: Non-removable Li-Ion 3000 mAh
NFC, USB Type-C reversible connector, rear-mounted fingerprint sensor