Before Huawei’s P9 was even announced the rumour mill was hard at work, spotting what appeared to be two camera sensors sitting side by side and prompting speculation that the smartphone would have two cameras.
Then in April, along with the hashtag #OO, it was confirmed by the Chinese manufacturer that the smartphone would feature lenses engineered with the help of German optics experts, Leica.
Our assumption when we saw this news was that the camera would be superb, and that assumption has proved to be correct, by and large.
Sadly however, the rest of the P9 feels like it was created around that camera, on a budget that feels like it was largely spent on adding that Leica name to the box.
Lens by Leica, sensors by Sony
The Leica logo emblazoned on the P9’s box is rather misleading, as only the lens was engineered by the German camera maker – Sony’s people are responsible for the rest of the camera. To that end, the Summarit H1:2.2/27 ASPH lens system has been paired with the Sony 12MP IMX286 sensor, which actually does the picture-taking. Interestingly, the marriage works really well.
The camera options are extensive, offering users the ability to adjust shutter speed, exposure and even the focal length of the shot. That lets enthusiasts get artsy photos where the foreground is focused and the background is blurred, or vice-versa.
The front-facing 8MP camera packs quite a punch for its small size, and images look decent enough, provided you aren’t cranking the beauty filter up to 10. Seriously, don’t do that unless you want to look like an anime character.
At the end of the day however, it is still a smartphone camera and even though it is good, it’s not going to be replacing a good ol’ DSLR anytime soon, no matter how much Huawei tried to convince us it could at the launch.
So while the camera is pretty good, the biggest problem we have is that the rest of the P9 feels just “okay”.
Mutiny on the flagship
A retail price of R12 999 and the moniker of “flagship” has placed the P9 squarely in the sights of the crowd that loves the Samsung Galaxy S series, the iPhone and LG’s premier G5 handset. The trouble is that the P9 is barely able to get its fists up before it’s knocked to the ground.
Our Antutu benchmarks score revealed the P9 to be the first 2016 flagship to run through the review pit that didn’t earn itself a score above 10 000. However the results are not all bad: the P9 managed to score incredibly high when it came to document editing, video watching and web browsing on the PCMark for Android “Work” benchmark.
On paper this is a problem, because the much cheaper Mi 5 manages to handle every benchmark we threw at it in its stride, and retails for nearly R5 000 less.
Benchmarks such as Antutu only measure synthetic performance under load, and they often don’t reveal how well phones work under real world conditions, so we’ll say this: during everyday use, we noticed a bit of lag when switching between tasks and while trying to type a message and use Google Maps at the same time. It is a bit of a pain, but we eventually grew accustomed to the P9’s languid pace.
Gaming is fine, but take note that extended play sessions heat the P9 up considerably (to the point where your palms are sweaty, mom’s spaghetti) and the battery power starts to leave the phone faster than attendees at a week-night concert.
Thankfully however, Huawei knows its customer base and has given them a lot of internal storage to work with, which is why P9s have 32GB of internal memory to fill before an SD card is needed.
My opinion at the end of the day is that the main focus of this smartphone is its camera, and if you’re more concerned with using your smartphone to Snapchat than you are with using your phone as a GPS/phone/internet machine/instant messenger then the performance will suit you just fine.
A day in the battery life
Huawei’s marketing department will have you believe you can squeeze a day and half worth of battery from the P9, and they’re close to correct.
Using the phone to browse Twitter and Instagram while taking photos and instant messaging, we got a day and a bit of power from the P9. While not terrible, that “bit” proved to be quite a problem on days when I left its USB Type C 3.1 cable – the only cable that can charge the phone – at home.
“Just carry your cable around, fool,” you may jeer at me, but this is a fact: USB Type C cables are still much less common than micro USB cables, and carrying around a spare (which costs R199) is an inconvenience we would rather avoid altogether.
At this moment it’s a rather inconvenient problem, but one we need to point out until USB Type C 3.1 cables become more wide-spread.
The take-away from this then, is that you’ll need to charge your phone every night or carry your rare charging cable around with you.
When the power is gone, however, you can expect the P9 to be juiced up in around two hours as long as you’re using a 5V/2A plug.
The 5.2inch Full HD (1920×1080) display could do with a bit more brightness in direct sunlight, but you can still use the P9 on a bright day without having to resort to finding some shade.
There is a bit of back-light bleed, but it doesn’t negatively impact the picture on the display; in truth we only noticed it during benchmarks and when looking at the P9 from a weird angle.
Toward the back of the phone Huawei has once again fitted its incredibly fast and accurate fingerprint scanner. As with the Mate 8, users need only touch the scanner to unlock the phone. The scanner works well with wet hands, though we had to try twice. A greasy hand was tried and that failed, so we used the PIN code you need to set up when enrolling your fingerprint as a backup mechanism to gain access.
When comparing it to our top three smartphones at the moment, the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, the LG G5 and the Mi 5, the P9 falls short in too many departments.
Yes it may be cheaper than the S7 edge but it lacks the premium feel of the edge’s polished glass back and sloping curves.
It’s around the same price as the LG G5 but (and we know we wrote this off, but in comparisons it does matter) you could remove the battery and swap out the bottom bezel for a camera grip or a DAC.
The Mi 5 was able to offer us the base line features of both of those phones at a cheaper price and not sacrifice performance or build quality.
Credit where it’s due though, the P9 does have a phenomenal camera for a smartphone, and if that is all you care about then perhaps the P9 is the right phone for you. If you love Huawei and you want a decent high-end smartphone, then you should definitely consider the Mate 8.
If you’re just looking for a really good, value for money flagship however, the P9 shouldn’t be the first place you look.