Hands-on with what could be Huawei's best _phone_ to date

At a special event in London, Huawei has just taken the wraps off what could be its best _phone_ ever.

It’s called the P9 (there’s a larger, much more expensive version available too called the P9 Plus) and it follows up the very impressive Huawei P8 from 2015.

I was a fan of the P8, but the P9 really ups and ante in a number of important areas and shows that Huawei really could be a viable competitor to the Android big boys this year.

First impressions are great. The device looks, and feels, like a shrunken down Nexus 6P, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the Chinese brand teamed up with Google to craft the phone of 2015.

Video: Check out our hands-on impressions of the Huawei P9

It’s not particularly original, you’ll recognise the black bar surrounding the camera sensors from the Google-phone, but the sides are nicely curved and fit perfectly well in my palm.

It’s roughly the same size as the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S, making it perfect for anyone who doesn’t want a phablet. It’s much slimmer than those two competing devices though, at just 6.95mm.

Now, being thin is great but holding the P9, I feel we might have reached peak ‘thin’. It’s teetering on the edge of being too thin. I’ve only had about 30 minutes with the device so far, so I can’t really tell yet how it’ll feel in daily use, but at some point phones are going to have to start getting a bit thicker.

Recent Huawei phones have all really impressed with their fantastic attention to detail, so it’s no surprise the P9 follows suit. The back is metal, with the antenna lines kept a minimum and the front is covered in Gorilla Glass 4. It’s a ‘premium’, high-end phone that’s a long way from Huawei’s budget device roots.

It’s a simple and familiar design, especially if you’ve held either the P8 or Nexus 6P, but that’s far from a bad thing.

The real headline feature, and the thing Huawei spent about 90 minutes of a two-hour press conference talking about, is the camera.

Well, I should say cameras as there are two sensors sitting side-by-side on the phone’s back. Having a dual sensor set-up isn’t anything new, HTC tried it a few years ago, LG is using it right now for the G5 and there’s even rumours Apple will try something similar in the iPhone 7.

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Huawei P9

Huawei handles things a bit differently, though. First off, both these lenses are crafted by Leica – a classic brand that’s renowned for its stunning, and rather pricey, cameras and lenses. Having a name as well-known and well trusted as Leica attached to your brand is a massive boon and it makes me very excited about the camera on the P9.

Specs-wise, this thing has two 12MP Sony IMX286 sensors, a typical LED flash and hybrid auto-focus. But one of those sensors is focused on just capturing monochromatic images, while the other captures the more traditional RGB colour shots. They can be used together too, and Huawei says this improves low-light performance because the black and white lens can let in as much as 300% more light than its more colourful brother.

Huawei also says the sensor itself lets in 270% more light than the iPhone 6S, so I have high-hopes for the phone’s low-light prowess.

I’ve only had a quick play around the camera and does seem impressive, but something like this needs a lot more testing before I can give a proper verdict. In the dark demo room it captured pictures almost instantly, switching the focus point was smooth and the app seems fast.

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Huawei P9

While the camera has seen major improvements, the screen stays largely the same as the P8. It’s 5.2-inches, with a 1080p resolution and 423 pixels per inch. It’s close to being a ‘bezel less’ display too, with the edge sloping off and mixing with the metal sides.

Huawei has once again decided to forgo quad-HD displays, and at 5.2-inches I don’t really blame them. It’s still very sharp and the 500 nits peak brightness is more than adequate. Viewing angles seem good so far and even though I was using it in a room filled with bright, neon blue lights, glare was kept to a minimum.

Under the metal body is a Kirin 955 processor and, depending on whether you plump for 32GB or 64GB of storage, either 3GB or 4GB RAM. I was using the 3GB version and it seemed very fast, with zero lag being visible during my limited time with the phone. 4GB RAM is always nice, but realistically 3GB is enough.

That base storage can be improved with a microSD card that takes the place of the second nano-sim.

Huawei P9

Software has always been, for me anyway, the biggest factor in holding Huawei phones back. EMUI is full of ugly icons and those pieces of Android I’m so familiar in using – the lock-screen, notification panel etc – feel too different.

EMUI 4.1 might be built upon Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but the beauty and style of Google’s OS is all but gone. This is about as far away from a stock experience as you can get. Maybe it will win me round, but I really wish Huawei would lay off the software customisations.

It seems the networks are on board with Huawei's new phone too. Vodafone has announced it'll be offering both devices, and you'll bag a free Huawei Watch too, and it'll be available on Three too.

First impressions

Teaming with Leica could be a massive win for Huawei and not just in the camera department. The links to such a respected brand gives the whole phone a bit more stature. The design is great, it seems fast, the camera has serious potential and the big 3,000 mAh battery should easily last the day. My software issues are still lingering, but this could be Huawei’s best phone yet.

Do you plan to buy the Huawei P9? Let us know in the comments below.

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