Hands-on with the gorgeous Leica camera-toting Huawei P9

Posted on 09/10 22:58 in | 0

Huawei took to the stage in London to announce the widely anticipated (and hugely leaked) Huawei P9, the latest Android flagship with a dual-camera arrangement never seen before on a phone. We've had a short time to play with the phone, and here's our hands-on review including price, release date, design, features and specifications. Also launched was the Huawei P9 Plus, which we've also reviewed.

The question on everybody’s lips right now is “When can I buy a Huawei P9?” And for those of us in Europe, the answer is 16 April 2016. That’s a fairly quick turnaround for Huawei, a company that announced the Mate S in September 2015 with only very limited stock available before the end of 2015. However, those in the US may be a bit disappointed by the news that there are currently no plans to bring the P9 or the larger P9 Plus to the US market.

You can pre-order the P9 right now from Vodafone and contracts start at £30 per month with no upfront cost - and you get a free Huawei W1 Classic smartwatch. Similarly, Carphone Warehouse is offering a free Huawei Active watch with the P9, and you can pre-order the black and white versions immediately. The P9 will also be available from EE and Three, and we'll add prices and more deals when they appear. In terms of a UK SIM-free price, the P9 will cost £449 - that's the 32GB, 3GB RAM model which is the only one coming to the UK.

Huawei has a history of releasing top-end smartphones at a much cheaper price point than its rivals, and the Huawei P9 is no exception. While its design is reminiscent of the Huawei P8 and Mate 8, the P9 has a number of changes including a brand new fingerprint scanner on the rear (similar to many other Huawei smartphones, including the Mate S) but with more advanced technology inside. There are two Leica cameras on the rear, but we’ll come to those in a bit more detail below.

The 6.95mm thick Huawei P9 has a 5.2in screen and an all-metal body which makes the phone feel reassuringly expensive, with a gorgeous polished brushed metal finish on the rear of the device. However, it’s the smaller details which complete the premium feel, from the chamfer around the edges to the slightly curved front glass which makes swiping in from the edge of the display a more comfortable experience. It also means that the Huawei P9 is nice to hold and should be comfortable to use over long periods. As we've seen from Huawei before, it also has near-invisible side bezels only 1.75mm thick, producing the illusion of an edge-to-edge display.

Instead of the same colour options as the P8, Huawei has decided to make the P9 in six colours: Ceramic White, Haze Gold, Rose Gold, Titanium Grey, Mystic Silver and Prestige Gold. If some of those sound familiar, they're actually subtly different to Apple's hues. Still, it would have been nice for Huawei to come out with its own colours instead of copying Apple.

Read next: 20 best smartphones of 2016

Let’s get down to the specs of the Huawei P9. Although Huawei unveiled two models of the P9 at its event in London, we’ve covered the Huawei P9 Plus hands-on review separately.

The first thing you’ll notice is the gorgeous display - a 5.2in IPS panel. Its resolution of 1920x1080 may be lower than you'd expect - the Huawei-manufactured Nexus 6P has a 2560x1440 screen - but the P9's display still looks sharp and is bright, with a claimed maximum of 500cd/m2. Unlike the Galaxy S7, it doesn't support an always-on portion for the time and notifications.

Inside is the all new Huawei-manufactured octa-core Kirin 955 CPU (a slight tweak on the 950 in the Mate 8) coupled with 3GB of RAM. And if you're familiar with the Mate 8, you won't be surprised to hear that the P9 is a brute when it comes to performance. We found it to be very responsive and experienced no real signs of lag, even when firing up the camera (a stumbling block for many other smartphones).

In Geekbench 3, the P9 scored 1789 in the single-core test and 6505 in the multi-core test. That's a little behind the Galaxy S7, but ahead of the LG G5 (in the multi-core test). In AnTuTu, it scored a brilliant 97,584, which put it ahead of the Mate 8 (92,746) but behind the Galazy S7 (129,077)

For gaming, it's not great. We saw results of just 19fps in GFXBench Manhattan, 36fps in T-Rex and just 7fps in the new Car Chase test. The Galaxy S7 was faster  in all three tests, despite the higher resolution 2560x1440-pixel screen, with 27fps, 53fps and 8fps respectively.

In terms of storage, there's 32GB but you can supplement this using a microSD card up to 200GB. That's an odd limit, but you can buy 200GB microSD cards for around £100.

Along with improved internals, the Huawei P9 has a 3000mAh battery that Huawei claims will last around 1.2 days with "extreme" use, and over a day and a half with standard use. Though there was no mention of QuickCharge technology, the P9 has a USB-C port which the company claims will allow for fast charging - specifically, 10 minutes of charging time should produce up to five hours of use. Again, the specifications don't list wireless charging, so until Huawei tells us otherwise, it doesn't have it. In terms of connectivity, the P9 has dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth and 4G LTE. There's confusion over whether the UK model will support two SIM cards or not, but the phone certainly will take two nano SIMs.

The highlight is the rear-facing pair of cameras which were developed with Leica, a high-end camera specialist. Unlike similar setups we've seen on other phones, this one is different to others on the market because it uses one standard colour sensor and one monochrome sensor. Here's how it works: the standard 12Mp camera takes the primary photo and the 12Mp monochrome sensor also takes a photo. When combined you get up to 300 percent more light and 50 percent better contrast when compared to other smartphone cameras (there were many comparisons with the iPhone 6S at the launch). Though we couldn’t put the camera through its paces, we’re excited to see how this impacts low light photography - the stumbling block for many smartphone cameras.

It also has a hybrid focus system, using a combination of laser, depth and contrast focus which is said to deliver perfectly focused images almost instantly. We were impressed with the new autofocus system, it’s much faster and more accurate than what we’ve seen with the iPhone 6s (and possibly the Galaxy S7) - although we’ll confirm this once we've tested it properly in the real world.

Along with a redesigned camera system, the camera app has been completely redesigned with Leica. At first glance, it looks pretty basic with a lack of buttons, but that's becayse the app relies heavily on gesture control. You can swipe in from the edge of the display to access your camera settings and a variety of shooting modes, but our favourite was the Pro mode (activated by swiping near the camera trigger). Why? It offers complete control over the dual-camera, providing users with an opportunity to tweak settings including the ISO, shutter speed and even the autofocus area to capture the perfect photo.

At the front is a 8Mp camera, which doesn’t feature autofocus like the P9 Plus but offers a variety of photo and video modes, though not as many as the rear-facing camera.

No surprises here: the Huawei P9 will ship with the latest version of Android, Marshmallow. More specifically, it will come with Android 6.0 in the box, but with the Emotion UI (or EMUI for short) overlay. This has extra features when compared to stock Android along with a heavily tweaked interface, including a redesigned notification centre that displays notifications in a timeline view.

It also offers Wi-Fi+, a service that automatically analyses the quality of your internet connection and, if necessary, switch to a mobile data connection. Wi-Fi+ will also detect that you’re near a known Wi-Fi network and will toggle Wi-Fi on if switched off, and won’t connect to known Wi-Fi networks that have no Internet connection.

Huawei’s EMUI overlay does take a little bit of getting used to because, for example, the Settings menu has been redesigned and there's no quick access as you get with stock Android. Plus, there's no app tray, so all your apps have to sit on homescreens like iOS.

We'll update this review shortly when we've run benchmarks on the P9.

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