Honor scored a surprise hit this time last year with the Honor 8. Here was a phone that looked almost as good as the Samsung Galaxy S7, yet cost less than £400. Its only shortcoming was performance, but now that the Honor 9 is here, it looks as if that barrier has been well and truly removed.
Inside its glossy, glassy shell sits a HiSilicon Kirin 960 chip, the same speed demon you’ll find in the Huawei P10, and it’s a chip that when we tested it earlier this year very nearly matched the best Qualcomm had to offer. Combined with a newly improved dual-lens camera and a SIM-free price of £380, the Honor 9 looks set to take on the OnePlus 5 at its own game.
Honor 9 review: Key specifications
|Screen||5.15in, 1,920 x 1,080 IPS|
|CPU||16nm HiSilicon Kirin 960 (quad-core 2.4GHz / quad-core 1.8GHz)|
|Rear camera||20MP, f/2.2 monochrome wide-angle; 12MP, f/2.2 RGB telephoto (2x)|
|Battery and charging||3,200mAh|
|Software||Android 7 Marshmallow and EMUI 5.1|
Honor 9 review: Design, key features and first impressions
In terms of its design, there’s simply no competition for the Honor 9 at this price. While the OnePlus 5 is nice enough, the Honor is much more attractive. It has curved 2.5D glass edges on the front of the phone and full 3D glass edges on the rear and the result is a phone that, straight out of the box, looks like something you’ve spent £600-plus on, not less than £400.
In fact, I’d say it looks and feels like nicer than the Honor 9’s range-topping cousin, the Huawei P10, which this phone shares many specifications with. In particular, the way the metallic blue finish beneath the glass at the rear catches the light is captivating and it’s a big step up on most phones around this price point. There are other colours on offer, of course, but this Sapphire Blue is the nicest-looking.
The one key difference between the Honor 9 and the Huawei P10 is that the Honor 9 has a slightly smaller 5.15in display. The resolution is the same, though, so it’s just as sharp, and first impressions are that quality is excellent, with deep, inky black response and vibrant, solid colours.
Elsewhere, the Honor 9 retains many of the features that made Honor 8 so popular last year. It still has a 3.5mm headset socket (on the bottom, next to the phone’s USB charging port) and it has either microSD expansion or dual-SIM support via a dual-purpose double SIM card tray.
The one thing that might irk some potential buyers is the position of the fingerprint reader. That’s because Honor has shifted it from the rear of the phone, which is where it was on the Honor 8, to the front below the screen. For me, this is a more convenient position since it means you can unlock with your finger without having to pick up the phone from your desk.
Some people prefer the rear-mounted position as it’s easier to unlock one-handed; on balance, though, I still think front-mounting your fingerprint reader is the best way to go.
Honor 9 review: Camera
Another feature retained from the Honor 8 is the dual-lens rear camera: one with a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor; the other with a 12-megapixel RGB sensor. The configuration is slightly different this time around, though. Rather than having two lenses with the same focal length, Honor is copying both Apple and OnePlus in offering a pseudo zoom on the Honor 9, with the RGB camera providing a telephoto view over the wide-angle lens on the monochrome camera.
Despite the change in tack, the camera still operates in a similar way to its predecessors’ snapper. When you hit the shutter button, the camera captures images from both sensors simultaneously, using the monochrome sensor to provide the detail and the RGB sensor to inject colour data. The result, says Honor, is you get greater dynamic range, superior low-light photography and more detail than from a regular, single-sensor image and with improved algorithms, photos ought to look better on than last year’s Honor 8.
In my experience, even the Huawei P10 with its Leica lenses struggles to match the best Android handsets for image quality. However, I had the opportunity to compare this camera side by side with the Google Pixel XL at a prelaunch briefing and I was mighty impressed with the results.
In good light, detail capture almost matched the Google Pixel XL and it was only by looking very closely that I could discern any kind of difference. The Honor 9 does crush the darkest of grey tones into black and the result is a less natural-looking image, but the difference is minimal. I haven’t had a chance to evaluate low-light performance yet (Honor says this is improved as well) but it’s clear the Honor 9’s camera is very, very good.
One thing you can’t deny, either, is Honor’s ingenuity when it comes to the camera’s autofocus accuracy. Not only does its camera use phase detect to focus, but it combines this with contrast detect, infrared “laser assistance” and depth focusing to make sure your subject is locked on and sharp as a tack.
As for video, the Honor 90 now has H.265 encoding for more efficient use of storage, 4K recording and electronic image stabilisation (EIS). Plus it integrates GoPro’s handy Quik software into the onboard gallery app.
Honor 9 review: Performance, battery life, display
As usual with a hands-on review, I haven’t had time to fully benchmark the Honor 9 and I can’t say how good battery life is yet. However, it is possible to draw some fairly solid conclusions on speed and potential benchmark performance.
That’s because the Honor 9 runs the same software (Android 7 and EMUI 5.1), and has the same chipset (Kirin 960), RAM (4/6GB) and screen resolution as the Huawei P10. Here’s a rundown of how the P10 compares with the OnePlus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S8.
Now, I’m not saying the Honor 8 is going to score exactly the same as the P10, but it should be roughly in the same ballpark. What that means is that it won’t be far behind the very best in the business.
The one thing I can’t guess at with any degree of reliability is battery life, purely because there are so many different variables affecting performance. Hopefully it’s acceptable, though, because the rest of the phone looks fantastic.
Honor 9 review: Software
The Honor 9 runs Android 7 with the same Huawei Emotion 5.1 skin stuck on top of it. It’s a divisive combination: some fans love the way you can customise it with themes; others bemoan the way it unnecessarily fiddles with essential parts of the Android UI such as the app drawer and the notifications menu.
It’s not as bad as it once was, though, and colleagues of mine who have been using Huawei phones as their daily smartphones are quite happy with it. It feels snappy and responsive on this handset and the weird-looking icons of the past are long gone from EMUI’s homescreen.
But the big annoyances of EMUI still remain in place. There’s no app drawer – just like on an iPhone you have to manage all your apps on the desktop, which is clunky.
And, although the pull-down notifications menu has improved, with Honor adding the ability to respond to messages inline and swipe away notifications, it still doesn’t look as elegant or neat as it does on stock Android.
It is possible to improve things, though, by installing a third-party launcher such as Nova, which reintroduces the app drawer and cleans up the interface a lot.
Honor 9 review: Early Verdict
I haven’t had long with the Honor 9 so far, but at this stage it’s looking like a strong contender for best mid-range phone of the year, OnePlus 5 notwithstanding.
The one fly in the ointment could be battery life, but if Honor can overcome that hurdle and deliver a phone that reliably lasts a day like the P10 does, we could be looking at the firm’s best smartphone yet. Watch this space for the full review.
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