Huawei P9 smartphone: tech spec and teardown
Chinese giant shrugs off its ‘me too’ reputation in handsets with some innovative optics.
Chinese telecoms giant Huawei launched the P9, its new flagship smartphone, in London earlier this year. After years of having its consumer products relegated to the ‘me too’ bracket of mobile electronics, it showed the company aggressively trying to carve out a high-end global niche. Nevertheless, it has been designed primarily for the company’s home market.
Apple and Samsung promote the photographic capabilities of their flagship handsets heavily. Neither can say that it has partnered with one of that world’s near legendary players to put next-generation optics in your pocket.
Huawei has. Huawei has Leica – and the P9’s marketing has leveraged the German company’s logo on its rear panel more heavily than anything else.
Incorporating 12MP main camera sensors is nothing new. They even feature in several decent budget smartphones (2015’s Motorola G3, for example). But for the P9, Huawei and Leica have developed an array that combines two 12MP sensors, one reading black-and-white (with its greater contextual information) and the other RGB colour data. Both also have larger-than-average 1.25µm pixel sizes.
Proprietary algorithms merge the data from these sensors to produce near-professional-quality colour photographs off the automatic settings, B&W images that are striking in their detail and contrast and, for the more ambitious, an ability to adjust depth of field and other values much as you would on a full DSLR camera.
In Europe and the US, this has led the P9 to be seen as an innovative digital camera that happens to have a phone attached. The fact that the handset itself runs Huawei’s widely disliked Emotion UI has also tended to detract attention from the overall package.
But consider the biggest market for the P9. Despite the London launch – and the enlisting of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – this product will do most of its business in Asia, China particularly.
The camera itself is a big hint here. The Chinese marketing campaign for the iPhone 6 family is led by superb images captured with its camera, blown up to billboard size. Imaging capability is a big differentiator in the land known as the Middle Kingdom. In that context, the P9 is a high-end play that blends a well-regarded local brand with expertise from a world-class player in optics.
Let’s now turn to the phone’s more traditional features.
First, consider that Emotion UI/Android Marshmallow build. It gets short shrift from Western critics but at the same time, it is a key sales feature on phones in China from a company that only last October ascended to the top of the local sales rankings.
A couple of interesting things are happening.
First, a major debate has been taking place in China over how Western UIs have become progressively less attractive to the country’s consumers as smartphone usage has moved further into the mainstream. The challenges posed by Chinese character input and differing regional use-models are significant. But most importantly, touchscreen technologies seen as established in the West are still very new to many Chinese consumers. Against this backdrop, Huawei’s Emotion phones have surged in the last year to take a market-leading 16 per cent share in China, according to Canalys, with some 19.1 million shipping in Q2 of 2016.
Nor is Huawei alone in progressively displacing international players such as Apple and Samsung in the rankings. Local rivals such as Xiaomi and Oppo are building sales based not just on competitive pricing but also adapting Android more effectively to the market.
Similarly, Huawei takes a fair few brickbats here for bundling apps within Emotion that duplicate things done better by Google equivalents (email, calendar etc). But again, this forgets that the ban on Google in China extends to its Play Store. Android users there must either download apps at source or from other Android markets (typically run by handset manufacturers). What is bloatware in London is a necessity in Beijing.
We turn now to the design and some of the hardware decisions.
In its P9 teardown, iFixit notes that Huawei has often gone for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and modular components, using spring contacts and easy-to-repair cabling. It rates the smartphone at a very solid 7 out of 10 for repairability.
But at the same time, it is not just the camera assembly that looks to set new standards. The P9’s application processor, the Kirin 955, is an eight-core ARM-based system-on-chip (SoC) that marks one of the first uses of the Cortex A-72 architecture (four of the cores, alongside four Cortex A-53s). It is benchmarking well against rivals from Apple (A9) and Qualcomm (Snapdragon 820). This is doubly important for Huawei as the chip not only helps sell the P9 but was also designed in-house by its Hisilicon subsidiary. With MediaTek also on the scene, the battle for SoC slots across the Asian smartphone market is intense.
The combination of COTS with optics and an SoC at the cutting edge is very much part of established Huawei strategy.
In the UK, the P9 follows a Huawei model of being priced noticeably but not that greatly below its rivals. Unlocked, it costs £449, against £495 for the Samsung Galaxy S7 and £539 for the iPhone 6s. However, Huawei has more aggressively applied this kind of price advantage at home, balancing cost control and innovation (and, it must be said, a far more favourable sales tax regime against imported rivals).
In its true context, and where it is most likely to sell in huge volumes, the P9 is therefore very much both a phone and a camera with a very canny design. Yet it still has plenty to offer the international market – the phone had sold out in the UK as we went to press.
Read E&T's extended hands-on review of the Huawei P9.