Huawei P9 Smartphone Review
This new smartphone focuses on photography
"What's that? Oh, this is just my new smartphone. Yeah, it totally has two cameras on the back of it. Cool, huh?"
Cool, indeed. The Huawei P9 (MSRP $634.99) is the newest Huawei phone to make its way stateside, and yes—the first thing you're bound to notice (other than its sleek build) is the fact that this thing has two rear-facing cameras that feature tech certified by the imaging gurus at Leica.
Cameras are one of the key areas manufacturers focus on when trying to set their smartphones apart from one another, and it's easy to understand why. Now that just about everyone's ditched point-and-shoot cameras in favor of the one that's already in their pocket, smartphone camera performance is one of the easiest points of reference when potential buyers start sizing up their options.
Unfortunately, all of the head-turning coolness of dual Leica-branded lenses can't help the P9 take the kind of pictures that would be worthy of the aforementioned coolness. What you're left with is a fantastic, beautifully-crafted Android phone whose camera is good enough for most people but not good enough for the type of people that actually care about things like Leica optics.
That said, it'd be shortsighted to underestimate the P9 based on its camera alone. For most people, the P9 will be a fun, sleek phone that performs at a high level and looks good doing it, and that's all that really matters.
About the Huawei P9
Unlike the Huawei GX8, which rather sneakily put first-class design on top of middleweight hardware, the P9 has the looks of a premium phone and the hardware to back it up.
Display: 5.2-inch LCD (1080x1920)
Memory: 32GB/64GB, 3GB/4GB of RAM, microSD slot for up to 128GB of expanded storage
Processor: HiSilicon Kirin 955
Primary camera: Dual 12MP, f/2.2, Leica optics, with phase detection autofocus and dual-tone flash
Charging cable: Reversible USB Type-C
Obviously the standout here is the P9’s dual, rear-facing cameras, which we’ll discuss in a bit. USB Type-C makes an appearance, as well, which we’ve previously seen on the Google Nexus 6P, the Nexus 5X, the Nextbit Robin, and the HTC 10.
What We Like
It's one of the best-designed Android phones on the market.
Pick up the P9 and there's a good chance you'll let out an involuntary "oooh." Everything about the phone's design feels intensely labored-over, from the button placement to the nearly non-existent bezels surrounding the display.
If something kind of Apple-y comes to mind while you admire Huawei's latest handiwork, you're not crazy—the P9 is eerily similar to the iPhone 6s. Both phones favor aluminum and glass, both have rounded edges to fill out super-slim profiles, and Huawei's even adopted a similar antenna, speaker, and headphone jack placement.
But you know what they say about imitation and flattery. The truth is, while some people might roll their eyes at Huawei's, ahem, loving homage to Apple's smartphone design, the P9 looks and feels like a top-shelf luxury product. As far as Android phone design goes, the P9 gives the Samsung Galaxy S7 a run for its money when it comes to my personal favorite.
Fantastic performance suitable for most people, and pretty decent battery life, all told
The P9 is sort of like the kid in your class who has a cool set of PF Flyers instead of Converse All Stars; its Kirin processing chip might not be as popular as a Snapdragon 810, but it still accomplishes basically the same thing.
Coupled with either 3GB or 4GB of RAM (depending on the model), the P9 has just enough horsepower for most people's purposes. You're not going to get the same blisteringly fast speeds that you would with a Galaxy S7 or an HTC 10, but day-to-day use, the P9 gets the job done with no trouble whatsoever.
The P9's 3000 mAh battery certainly isn't one of the longest-lasting batteries we've ever tested, but it's impressive enough to land the P9 in the upper-tier of our battery test standings. Even with a heavy amount of use, the Huawei P9 got me from morning to night with about a third of its battery to spare. If you find yourself in the middle of a particularly relaxing, smartphone-free day, you might be able to squeeze a day and a half out of the P9.
Like the rest of the phone, the P9's battery isn't going to outclass the heavyweights, but it's a reliable performer that will satisfy most people.
What We Don't Like
You might miss some of the cut corners.
Huawei did a decent job covering its bases for a phone that's not quite as powerful as higher-priced premium smartphones, but there's still a handful of features you might miss.
The biggest concessions come in the camera department, where both 4K video and OIS (optical image stabilization) are no-shows. While 4K video is admittedly still kind of an esoteric feature, the absence of OIS shouldn't be taken lightly. Without it, capturing sharp video and low-light photos is going to be somewhat of an adventure.
The camera isn't as good as it should be.
Despite the dual cameras and the Leica optics, photos taken on the P9 just aren't as good as they ought to be. Don't get me wrong—this isn't a bad smartphone camera experience, it's just not the level of performance you'd hope to expect from a phone with dual lenses and Leica optics.
Pictures taken in low-light conditions lack depth, and the P9's noise reduction software tends to squash a good amount of detail. While the lack of optical image stabilization certainly plays a role in the softness of low-light shots, it's worth noting that we've seen OIS-lacking smartphones pull off low-light photography quite gracefully. The Nexus 5X is a good example of decent imaging software picking up the slack when there's not a lot of light to go around.
The P9 also tends to over-expose its shots more often than not, so using the camera software's manual settings to adjust on the fly is often essential.
I do appreciate some of the outside-the-box thinking that went into designing the P9's camera experience. Having dual cameras, for instance, allows you to retroactively shift the focus of pictures after they've been taken, so long as they were originally captured by both lenses.
But features like this don't amount to much if the fundamentals aren't handled well, and unfortunately, the P9 doesn't take pictures as well as you'd expect from a phone whose biggest selling point is its fancy cameras.
Should You Buy It?
The Huawei P9 is a great smartphone with its head in the wrong place. It's not that its cameras and imaging software are bad, but for a device that hangs its hat on photography, it's not nearly as impressive as it ought to have been. To put it bluntly, the Huawei P9 is not worthy of the Leica branding that it proudly wields.
But if you start to look at it as more than just a phone with a slightly disappointing gimmick, the P9 starts to make a little more sense. After all, the camera isn't that bad, and there's enough power under its hood to justify it's relatively steep asking price. And this is to say nothing of the P9's spectacular design, which is seriously the stuff that tech journalist dreams are made of. Yes, we have pretty boring dreams.
So if you're considering buying the P9, don't do it because the word "Leica" is emblazoned on the back of it; the camera's fine, but it's not good enough to justify the hype.
Instead, think of the P9 as a terrifically-designed, reliable smartphone whose dual cameras are more of a conversation starter and less of a radical, game-changing feature.
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