2015 was an incredible year for Huawei. No Chinese OEM made as big a dent on the western smartphone market as the Nexus 6P makers did. There’s no denying that it released some fantastic hardware last year, including one of the best Android Wear smartwatches. The year culminated in the launch of the first Chinese-made Nexus phone. With all that success, there’s a lot riding on this year and, arguably, its first flagship of 2016: The P9.

Design

Few phones match the pure elegance and finish of the Huawei P9. It is beautiful. The anodized aluminum has an attractive sheen, and feels fantastic in-hand thanks to the soft finish and the slightly rounded edges. Those polished, shiny chamfers around the front and back of the device, and surrounding the fingerprint sensor on the back, add an element of luxury. Every so often, light catches it in the right way, and you fall in love.

As if that wasn’t enough, the entire front of the phone is covered in a single piece of glass. It’s slightly curved at the edges, ensuring it blends in to the frame, rather than sit awkwardly on top. Weirdly, the black finish has an odd faint pinstripe finish, which I’m not sure if I like, but it’s not awful. Thankfully it’s very subtle and easy to ignore.

This same glass features in the camera panel on the back, helping to hide the top antenna band. And — praise be to the phone gods — the panel doesn’t protrude from the back, and looks like a thoughtfully-placed, deliberate piece of design. It’s amazing that it can feature LEICA’s brand name and two cameras, and still manages to look understated and subtle. It’s glorious.

Design isn’t perfect however. For all the good parts, there is one area of bemusement – the bottom edge. The ports and cutouts don’t line up perfectly, thanks to the headset being closer to the bottom than the top. What’s more, the anodized metal on the back seems very prone to scratches. Having owned it for more than a week, I already have 2-3 fine scratches. That’s without dropping it, or placing it in a pocket with keys. I don’t know how they got there, but I worry for more heavy-handed consumers who buy the phone.

Display

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It may ‘only’ be 1080 x 1920 resolution, but the 5.2-inch LCD panel on the Huawei P9’s front is fantastic. Colors are very vibrant and detailing is sharp. And as a bonus, it’s surprisingly easy to see even in bright daylight.

While blacks aren’t as dark as they would be on an AMOLED panel, they’re still deep enough that you won’t be complaining of black elements being gray or blue.

Gaming and watching video on this panel was a joy, most of the time. The only time I had issue was when the screen was at an angle to my eyes. It’s hard to describe exactly what the issue is, but, at certain angles with the phone closer than arm’s length, it was almost as if I could see the pixel layout (it may have been the touch sensor layout, I’m not entirely sure). This caused some of the content and text to be a little distorted and jagged. It’s like it had some really thin diagonal lines breaking up the icons and graphics on screen.

Thankfully, most of the time when I used the phone I was looking at it head-on, and so it wasn’t a major issue, but still, it’s the first time I’ve seen that happen on any of the high-end phones I’ve tested.

Camera

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Despite all the other major positives of the Huawei P9, its main feature is the LEICA-powered camera, or cameras. In fact, we spent around 90 minutes just listening to the company drone on about it during the launch event. By the end, what should have been an exciting feature turned in to something we never wanted to hear about ever again. At least, that’s how we felt until we tested it.

I’m yet to decide if the dual 12MP camera set up has any real purpose, but it does take some fantastic pictures. One sensor is full RGB color, the other is a monochrome black and white sensor. That means black and white photos should come out really well, and that harsh lighting conditions have little effect on the quality of the image. Pictures come out well, even if you have bright backlighting.

What’s more, because of the LEICA-powered software, it’s easy to get the image you want. It has some very intuitive pro controls which let you manually set shutter speed, white balance, focus, brightness and exposure.

Regular shots taken during good daylight look great. Colors are accurate, and details are sharp. I was particularly impressed by the close up shots. Thanks to the manual focus, you can get really, really close to your subject, enabling the type of close up Macro photos you can’t get on many phones.

As impressed as I was with daylight photography, it’s in lowlight this thing really shines. It has some really fun features, like light painting. But more importantly, the ‘Pro’ camera mode lets you set the shutter speed all the way up to 30 seconds, enabling really long exposures. At night time, this is a huge benefit, since you can set the ISO relatively low (avoiding excessive noise) while still capturing a ton of light.

Video is decent enough too, and fun feature like slo-motion ensure you’ll not be bored by the camera. On the downside, I found that the video slow motion seemed to strip any images of quality. Light was harsh, color was almost non-existent, details were fuzzy and highlights were massively overexposed.

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As usual, Huawei went with its own custom processor inside the P9. The Kirin 955 chip boasts eight cores and achieves enviable scores on benchmarking tests. With a single core score of 1769 and multi-core score of  6270 on Geekbench, it sits slightly under the Exynos powered Galaxy S7 Edge.  Likewise, on AnTuTu it comes up short against Samsung’s latest flagship phone, but is still more powerful than all of last year’s most powerful phones, making it a true flagship for 2016.

Scores are one thing, but real life use is what really matters and, thanks to some software tricks, Huawei’s newest phone is able to stay fresh. You can choose which apps aren’t allowed background usage when the screen locks, and there’s a tool to clear the device’s memory of unnecessary and unused data files. This makes a difference to both speed and battery life.

It copes with most tasks quite comfortably. Switching between apps, opening folders, sliding down the notification shade and loading games is all generally speedy. There’s the odd frame skipping in intense and fast-paced games, but it’s not hugely inconvenient.

One element that’s hugely convenient is the fingerprint sensor. In all my time testing phones, I’ve never known a fingerprint sensor that’s as fast and accurate as the Huawei sensor. The time between placing your finger on the sensor and unlocking is virtually instant. Even when you don’t align your finger correctly the first time, by the time you’ve moved your finger, it’s unlocked before you’ve had a chance to read the full “couldn’t recognize your finger” popup warning.

Battery life is more than acceptable too. Although the 3,000mAh battery won’t get you through two full days (unless you’re a very light user), I found it was more than capable of lasting until the end of a full, busy work day with heavy use. With the combination of Android Marshmallow‘s Doze mode and Huawei’s own optimizations (like the ability to kill specific apps when the screen is off), standby time is market leading. What’s more, with Quick-Charge support, it doesn’t take long to fuel up again.

Software

It’s hard to know where to start with the software. Skimming over the basic facts, it’s Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Huawei’s EMUI software on top. But it’s not nice, and getting it to resemble anything close to regular Android takes far more effort than it should. Just basic things like changing the wallpaper on your lock screen, or checking up on your battery status need more steps than there should be.

For the former, because certain Huawei themes in the EMUI software like to enable a thing called ‘Magazine’, it means that even if you choose your own lock screen wallpaper, it changes to another image the next time you unlock your device, and selects new ones at random. So, to change it, you have to head to Settings>Screen lock & passwords and choose a lock screen style that isn’t ‘Magazine’. Now, to change the picture you have to go back to the main settings menu, hit ‘Display’ then hit ‘Wallpaper’ in the ‘Personalized’ menu. Either that, or press and hold the home screen as normal, set both home and lock screens, and hope your theme doesn’t cause the lock screen image to change randomly.

Unlike most Android phones, you can’t just drop down the notification shade and hit the ‘battery’ icon to check battery levels either. You can’t even just open settings and find battery or power management in the first, main settings menu. Instead, your path is Settings>Advanced Settings (which is right near the bottom)> Battery manager. Or find the Phone Manager app someone in the sea of pre-installed bloatware. Here you can view your battery level, estimated time remaining, select apps to restrict in order to save power and even enable a lower resolution screen to help make battery consumption more efficient.

I’m not saying Huawei’s software doesn’t have really useful tools and features. It does, and some of them are really nice to look at. It’s just laid out in a way that brings nothing but frustration. It’s like someone decided to hide things you’d need most, or split features up that should be together, just to wind you up and keep things their way. I’m not a big fan of the lack of an app drawer, or the icon design, but I can change those quite easily by installing a third party launcher like Nova Launcher or a more stock-like Google Now launcher.

Despite all of those complaints, actually using the phone normally, as a daily driver was perfectly fine. In fact, some of the UI elements – like the hardware design – are really attractive. I love the dialer, circular clock, weather app and all the fine lines and animations across the interface.

Wrap Up

With Huawei, for the past few years, devices have always shown great ability to create awesome hardware while the software is awful. This time out, there’s little different. Although the software isn’t as restrictive as it used to be, and has some great features like the camera app, it’s nowhere near perfect.

If your phone needs another launcher to be downloaded and installed to make it bearable, you’re doing software wrong. With that said, there are few nicer pieces of hardware to run your Google Now launcher or Nova Launcher on than the Huawei P9. It has a lot going for it, and it’s considerably cheaper than a Galaxy S7.

 

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