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Huawei P9 and P9 Plus review: Huawei takes aim at the top spot

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Huawei is taking no prisoners with its latest pair of flagship phones – the 5.2in Huawei P9 and its big brother, the 5.5in Huawei P9 Plus. Fusing luxurious high-end smartphone design with novel dual rear-facing Leica cameras, Huawei’s new arrivals are hoping to land a decisive blow in the high-end smartphone war. 

Huawei kindly gave Alphr a P9 to play with at launch, so we’ve been busily testing and benchmarking that over the last couple of weeks (you’ll find all the juicy details on the following two pages), and we’ll be adding further benchmarks and our final verdict on the larger P9 Plus once one lands on Alphr’s desks. 

Huawei P9 and P9 Plus: Design & key features

It’s fair to say that Huawei has done a sterling job with the design. You’d expect nothing less than gorgeously-crafted metal and glass on a flagship phone in 2016, and the P9 and P9 Plus don’t disappoint.

Both share a full aluminium body, fronted with a layer of glass that curves gently towards the edges, and measure a dainty 6.95mm thick. There is perhaps something of the iPhone 6s to the design – which is no bad thing – and the handsets feel rock-solid and sturdy in all the right ways, with nicely clicky buttons falling easily under the finger and a balanced yet none-too-weighty feel in the hand. The rear-facing fingerprint reader is superb, too, and although it seems awkwardly placed at first, it soon becomes second-nature – and in my time with the P9, it proved lightning quick and super reliable, even with greasy fingers. 

“Both phones have USB-C ports for charging and data transfer.”

Up front, you get a 5.2in Full HD display on the P9, while the P9 Plus ups the screen size to 5.5in but swaps the P9’s IPS panel for a Super AMOLED one and adds Huawei’s take on Apple’s pressure-sensitive 3D Touch technology, dubbed Press Touch. 

Battery life promises to be pretty special, too. The P9 has a 3,000mAh battery while the P9 Plus has a larger 3,400mAh power pack, and Huawei are claiming up to a day and half of battery life for the P9. Meanwhile, the P9 Plus gets a rapid charge mode which provides six hours of talk time after 10 minutes of charging. Whichever you choose, both phones have USB-C ports for charging and data transfer and support up to 128GB of expansion via micro SD.

Turn the P9 around, however, and this is where things get interesting. The aluminium rear comes in mystic silver or a darker titanium grey finish – sadly, the gold and rose gold versions are limited to the Asian markets – but the big news is that there are two cameras out back, both of which are “endorsed” by Leica.

Huawei P9 and P9 Plus: Cameras

“The P9 lashes together a pair of 12-megapixel cameras.”

The P9 lashes together a pair of 12-megapixel cameras, one of which uses a colour sensor, and one which uses a dedicated black and white sensor.

Unlike other handsets which have used twin cameras for 3D snaps and depth of field trickery, these work in tandem to produce colour photographs, with a dedicated Image Signal Processor and Digital Signal Processor each handling the steps of combining the output from the two sensors and then refining the final image. And of course, if you just want a great quality black and white photo, then the dedicated sensor handles that side of things.

If you’re wondering why you need two cameras, then the answer’s simple: two cameras are better than one. Three times better, in fact. As the black and white sensor doesn’t need an RGB filter in front of the sensor, Huawei claims that the twin camera arrangement is capable of gathering three times more light information and bumping up image contrast by 50%.

Meanwhile, Huawei’s Hybrid Focus combines three camera focusing techniques – contrast, laser and depth calculation – and claims to choose the best method depending on the shooting conditions.

As you’d expect given the involvement of the legendary camera marque, Huawei has worked with Leica to refine the P9’s camera app. A dedicated pro mode allows you to tweak the focal points, adjust the ISO range from 100 to 3200, adjust the shutter speed from 1/4000sec to 30 seconds, or manually tweak the white balance from 2800K to 7000K.

Huawei P9: Camera testing

I’ve spent the last week or so with the P9 in my pocket, and it’s safe to say that the Huawei P9 is capable of serving up some pretty impressive snaps – even if it’s some way from smartphone camera perfection.

The good points are obvious from the very first snaps. Where even competent cameras such as the iPhone 6s tend to blow out highlights in awkward low-light conditions, the P9’s dual sensors manage to dig out just as much shadow detail while keeping bright highlights impressively under control. Autofocus is much more reliable, too, and where the iPhone SE in my back pocket struggled in some conditions, the P9’s ability to call on a trio of autofocus options paid dividends.

You can compare the two in the images below, where I’ve mirrored the output from the Huawei P9 (left) with the iPhone SE (right).

Black and white shots are beautifully dense and solid, thanks to the oodles of contrast served up from the dedicated sensor, and everyday photography duties are handled well, with the P9 serving up shots that are rich and detailed in, mostly, all the right ways. 

I say mostly, though, as there are some tell-tale traits which aren’t so impressive. One bugbear is the P9’s insistence on pushing up the ISO settings and cranking down the shutter speeds to the point that the slightest hand-shake robs images of crisp focus and leaves colours looking rather washed out compared to its rivals. Granted, it is possible to manually tweak these settings using Huawei’s Pro controls, but while that can help in certain situations that can’t change the physical limitations of the P9’s hardware: where the Samsung Galaxy S7’s sensor has larger 1.4um pixels, the P9’s twin sensors have to make do with 1.25um pixels. In low light conditions, this seems to give the S7 a noticeable edge over the P9’s ingenious twin-sensor arrangement.

The biggest downside I’ve noticed so far is the occasionally heavy-handed image processing in the Huawei P9’s shots. Indeed, where the iPhone tends towards softness rather than risk sharpening or noise artefacts, the Huawei’s over-zealous processing can leave textures such as fabric and brickwork looking smeared and unnatural – and that’s something I’ve noticed more than a few times. 

All told, is it a good camera? Yes, it most definitely is. Is it the best? It certainly has its moments, but it’s got some hugely capable competition on its hands. The HTC 10 serves up some delicious RAW images with pleasingly little in the way of image-enhancing artefacts, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 is a veritable tour de force in the smartphone camera camp. It’s a pretty close run thing, though, and I suspect that most people will – like any good photographer – learn to work with and adapt to the P9’s limitations. 

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