Huawei P9 preview : Monochrome is the new black

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Huawei has announced its latest flagship handsets as it keeps up its assault on the smartphone world, unveiling the Huawei P9 and Huawei P9 Plus at a lengthy launch event in London.

There are three models of this new handset. There’s the conventional P9 (under the microscope here), there’s an enhanced model that comes with exclusive colourways, and there’s the larger P9 Plus, which is the powerhouse of the P9 family offering a plus experience in a number of areas.

But this conventional model isn’t lacking in its own appeal. We’ve been kicking back with the Huawei P9 to see what it has on offer.

The design of the Huawei P9 may now be familiar, sticking to an aluminium unibody that’s rapidly becoming the norm for flagship smartphones. The P9 doesn’t deviate too greatly from previous Huawei devices, retaining the strip across the cameras at the top, the rear fingerprint scanner and neat antenna breaks.

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Finished here in the titanium grey, it’s a well-built handset that feels good quality. The design perhaps isn’t the most exciting, lacking the flourish that you’ll get from Samsung’s latest phones, but then this is markedly cheaper.

There’s a pretty close resemblance to the HTC One A9, a handset which was seen as a close resemblance to the iPhone 6, but this seem to be the circle of smartphone life in the world of metal unibodies. The Huawei P9 measures 145 x 70.9 x 6.95mm, weighs 144g and it feels solid enough, free from flex or creaks.

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One of Huawei’s boasts is the nearly invisible bezel, so at the sides of the display you don’t have a frame that’s not doing anything. That’s all well and good, and yes, it’s impressive how the screen to body ratio has panned out on the P9, but we have to question whether the pursuit of having the thinnest handset or the narrowest bezel is enhancing the device, or to gain bragging points on the spec sheet.

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This regular P9 has a 5.2-inch display with 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, for a pixel density of 423ppi. That’s a pretty typical display for a sub-premium handset, as many have now stepped beyond that resolution offering Quad HDinstead.

Whether that difference in resolution matters to you very much comes down to what you want to use the phone for. In many ways, at 5.2-inches, full HD is perfectly adequate for your daily needs. Your emails, Netflix movies and favourite apps won’t look much different from a higher resolution display. However, if you’re planning on using it for VR with Google Cardboard, then it’s not so well suited.

For us, that’s a minor point and our first impression of this display is that it is bright and vibrant, looking good from a wide range of angles. It’s not as punchy as the display on the Samsung Galaxy S7, but it’s pretty good.

Sitting at the heart of the Huawei P9 is a Kirin 955 octa-core chipset with 3GB of RAM. Huawei claims that this is faster than the predecessor in the P8, which offered reasonable performance. Our first impressions are that the P9 is a slick operator. We’ve not had enough time to fully assess its performance, but in regular tasks it seems fast enough.

In the past we’ve seen that some of Huawei’s devices aren’t quite as adept at handling complex graphics and we suspect that’s the case with the P9 too. We need more time to fully assess this device, however, before we can draw any definitive conclusions.

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There’s a fingerprint scanner on the rear of the P9 and this is very fast to unlock the phone. It’s in the same place as previous Huawei devices, as well as the Nexus 5X and 6P and we don’t might the location, as it’s easy to press as you’re pulling the phone out of your pocket, for example.

This is enhanced with additional fingerprint powers, for example being able to use it as a selfie trigger, or to pull down the notifications shade or scroll through pictures, just by swiping on the scanner.

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There’s 32GB of internal storage on this regular P9, with microSD card support. Unfortunately there’s no support for adoptable storage, the Marshmallow feature that lets you use an external storage card like internal storage, fully integrated.

There’s a 3000mAh battery, offering fast charging via the USB Type-Cconnection on the bottom. We’re yet to have long enough with the P9 to gauge its performance over an extended time period, but previous Huawei devices have performed pretty well.

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With those formalities out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the camera. This is Huawei’s big sell, pulling in optics experts from Leica in a partnership designed to give you a smartphone camera that’s even better. Huawei is coming from a pretty strong starting point, as previous cameras have been pretty good.

The big unique factor on the P9 is the arrangement of two cameras. This isn’t the first handset to offer two cameras, but in terms of hardware this is different to other dual-camera devices. Firstly, there are two 12-megapixelSony IMX286 sensors, with 1.25µm pixels. (Quoting pixel sizes seems to be the new trend in smartphones.)

These sensors sit behind Leica Summarit lenses, but the two sensors are set up to capture different information. One is a conventional RGB sensor, capturing colour, the other is for monochrome. The idea is that together the information gives you all the colour information and lots of detail for an enhanced overall result.

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But there’s another aspect that’s being pushed, and that’s that you now have adedicated monochrome camera. You probably didn’t know you needed a monochrome camera, but the message from Huawei is that monochrome is the new black. Considering the pairing with Leica that perhaps makes some sense, as Leica has dedicated monochrome cameras in its product line-up.

The two cameras can also be used to enhance the focusing, on top of the laser autofocusing on offer, and capture depth information. There’s a full pro mode that gives you raw capture as well as control over ISO, shutter speed (up to 30 seconds), metering and focusing. That will allow for more deliberate compsitions, although we suspect most people will just point and shoot in the auto modes.

Huawei talked and demonstrated aperture control, but this ins’t part of the “pro” suite. It’s also an aperture effect that you have to use in its own mode, so it feels a lot like the feature offered by the HTC One M8 a few years back. It lets you take a photo and then change the focal point, but also change the “aperture effect”. This will either increase or decrease the depth of field, essentially blurring parts of the photo.

Some of the same images we’ve seen from the Hauwei P9 have been impressive, but we’re yet to really set this new camera to the test. We will, of course, update with a full breakdown on how it performs once we complete a full review.

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The Huawei P9 lands with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with EMUI 4.1 slapped over the top. Software is Huawei’s weakest point, with a general over-working of Android’s charms. Although Marshmallow’s new features are integrated into this Huawei’s handset, such as better notification control and the do not disturb function, everything has been redesigned to Huawei’s looks.

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Our least favourite element is icon theming. Take, for example, the lovely roundel that is the Chrome icon, the WhatsApp speech bubble, or Instagram’sretro camera. Some poor graphic designer put hours into these logos, creating an identity that’s immediately identifiable. Huawei then stuffs them into a generic white box, a blandification that can only be pursuant to making third-party icons look as dreary as the rest of EMUI’s native apps. This isn’t something that can be removed either.

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Huawei’s launcher removes the apps tray – seemingly a growing trend – but you do get access to Now on Tap via a long press on the home button. If you don’t like the Huawei launcher it’s easy to replace, as is the fussy messages app and cluttered calendar.

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That’s a shame, because the software experience across a number of Huawei’s devices clashes with the generally very good build, ample power and good camera experience. It feels as though Huawei is attempting to assert its identity in its phones as HTC did with Sense or Samsung with TouchWiz, but EMUI lacks the charm and maturity of either of those rivals, and doesn’t seem to want to evolve.

We’ve only spent a short amount of time with the Huawei P9 so far and we haven’t fully explored the software, or set it to task on really busy tasks to see how it performs under pressure, but we’re doing so right now.

First Impressions

There’s much about the Huawei P9 that’s safe and incremental. The increases in power and the design step forward without doing anything too dramatic. The Huawei P9 is a well-built phone that feels great in the hand and seems fast enough.

We’re still not sold on the software arrangement, although we still have a lot to explore in this areas. We also have a lot to do to assess the real performance, including the battery life over an extended period. Previous Huawei handsets have been pretty solid, so we’d expect the same.

It’s really the camera where Huawei is looking to shake things up. Undoubtedly Leica is a huge partner for this project. They are perhaps unlikely bedfellows, but with Huawei pushing camera performance as it’s sole concern, it’s found a partner synonymous with quality.

The result is a dual-lens quirk, but we have to question whether the appeal of monochrome is as attractive as that of the LG G5’s wide-angle lens. You can create black and white with a filter, you can’t easily create 135-degree photos, so we’re leaning slightly toward LG’s implementation.

Ultimately, the P9’s success will in many ways be decided by how well it pulls of this dual camera novelty. Having Leica written on your phone is something of a coup, but whether Huawei can live up to that branding remains to be seen.

The Huawei P9 will be available for around £449/$674 from 16 April.

(We’ve included a full run of colour images in the gallery, if you’re not taken with our monochrome homage in this article.)

(pocket-lint.com, http://goo.gl/NYJ4O8)

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