Being first matters. It gets your name in the history books, lets you register those billion-dollar-earning patents and provides supremo bragging rights. Huawei likes being first.
The Huawei P9 is the first phone to feature a dual-camera setup where one of the cameras is black and white, but the other is colour. Yes, that means you can take a seriously gorgeous black’n’white shot - but there’s a lot more to it than that.
This phone’s problem is that while it has tech on the verge of blowing our tiny little minds, the results don’t actually set any new standards. Those same old Huawei niggles are still here too, and are harder than ever to deal with given the Huawei P9 costs €599, or S$915.
The P9's camera is a Big Deal. It's easily one of the most interesting we've seen recently, and that's because it offers something genuinely new.
Actually, we should be talking about the P9's 'cameras' plural - it has two. Yes, we've seen dual-camera setups before in phones such as the HTC One M8, but the concept here is different.
To date, dual-camera setups have used one normal camera and a second weakling one that exists only to gather depth data. This lets the phone create a rough 3D view of a scene, separating background from foreground. Here you instead get two high-quality 12-megapixel Sony sensors, each with an f/2.2 lens. They harvest depth data, but the twist is that one of the sensors is monochrome.
Sure, the Huawei P9 can as a result take black and white shots that look moody or arty, sure to net you a few extra Instagram likes. However, the real reason this tech is included here is to reduce noise.
How a camera works: light passes through the lens and hits the photosensitive sensor, which then uses that light to make an image. However, before it hits the sensor it passes through a colour filter that splits the light into different colours. There are red, green and blue elements. Think about it a bit like a stained glass window: only the right colour gets through, but that also means less light gets through. The P9's trick is to get rid of the colour filter in one sensor, which means that the resulting B&W sensor therefore registers a lot more light. That can in turn help reduce noise while the regular colour sensor fills in the colours. Classic teamwork that in theory should radically boost image quality.
This is an example of something called computational photography, and it’s almost certainly the future for phone cameras. Without being able to fit in gigantic sensors, it’s the most obvious way forwards. But does it work? Right now I’d say not well enough. This is a good camera, but I’d rather have the Samsung Galaxy S7 or the LG G5.
In theory the black-and-white sensor should help improve low-light performance, but in practice results aren't all we'd hoped for: the Huawei P9’s indoor shots are still quite noisy, and there’s a fizziness to fine detail that’s less apparent in the big rivals.
It’s also not that great at bringing up the light level in truly dark shots either. This should be exactly what the dual-sensor array is about, but it doesn’t quite supply the goods.
There are some obvious reasons why - namely that the Huawei P9 camera’s lenses are not very fast and it lacks stabilisation. On the first issue, both of the P9's lenses have apertures of f/2.2, whereas the Galaxy S7 family have f/1.7 lenses and the LG G5 has an f/1.8 lens; the lower the number, the wider the aperture, the more light gets in.
Huawei has tried to hide this by co-branding them with Leica’s name, but at the price these appear to be totally unremarkable lenses. They’re sharp but then so are all other phones at the top end of things.
It's the second issue that's the real killer, though. To compensate for the fact that the sensors aren't stabilised, even in the darkest conditions the P9 will only slow its shutter down to 1/17 of a second. Given that the iPhone 6S Plus and Galaxy S7 will slow to half this speed - and therefore gather twice as much light - the extra light-sucking benefits of the monochrome sensor seem distinctly diminished.
Huawei has jumped on this tech early because, quite rightly, it knows others are going to. But I get the feeling we’re going to see a better take on this idea before 2016 is done.
Shoots and scores
Check out that blurry background
The other top-level mode is aperture simulation, and it’s a pleasant surprise. This is the ‘blurry background’ mode I’ve called a worthless gimmick more times than I can remember, but the Huawei P9 gives it the best shot yet.
Thanks to a combo of it having much higher-fidelity depth data - owing to those two high-res, high-quality sensors - and a much smarter algorithm, much of the awkwardness we're used to seeing from these ‘fake’ depth-of-field shots has been banished. Now, wide-aperture photography can make even the most mundane subject look arty, so being able to do it on your phone can only be a good thing.
No, it’s not close to what you can do on a proper camera with a wide-aperture lens, and yes you still get the edges of objects looking blurred-away when really they shouldn’t, but overall it's a massive improvement over what I’ve seen before.
Why? Well it’s just far more believable. You can also alter how wide you want the virtual aperture to be after shooting, and fiddle with the point of focus. It’s fun to play around with, although we should caution that it can be a bit slow to load; every little annoying delay makes you less likely to want to use it again.
Continuing the trend of the P9 being all over the place in terms of its abilities, it can’t shoot video at 4K resolution right now, maxing-out instead at 1080p @ 60fps. Still, the selfie camera, which has a now-standard 8MP sensor, is fairly good for something that doesn’t try to pull focus, dealing with indoors lighting pretty well.
Finally, I’m really not sure about the font used in much of the camera UI. It’s a bit like the computer font you might see in a straight-to-video Terminator spin-off. I just don’t get Huawei’s style choices some of the time.
Taking the P
Which brings us neatly on to its design.
If the P9's camera is the most distinctive thing about it, its looks are far less novel. Indeed, long-term Huawei acolytes will instantly recognise the P9 because it heavily resembles the Huawei P8, which in turn was - no prizes for this one - a clear descendent of the P7.
This is an ultra-slim metal phone with curves at the edges to caress your hands rather than borderline stabbing them. It feels and looks expensive, and as it has a 5.2in screen rather than something bigger, is easy to handle.
Put the Huawei P9 next to this year’s other top phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7, and I get the sense it’s the kid with fancy clothes who doesn’t quite know how to wear them. These days Huawei uses all sorts of fancy processes to make its top phones, but in the P9 I still think there’s a missing style element. There’s something a little stiff about its lines. The Huawei look works much better with phones with a flat-out nerdy edge such as the Mate 8.
This could all be a problem with my eyes, of course, and it’s arguably not as serious as the LG G5’s plasticky feel. Every part that goes into making the P9 is ultra-high quality: it just doesn’t add up to a phone that’ll make you forget the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6S.
There are some great little hardware extras though. The fingerprint scanner is terrific. Apparently it’s even more advanced than the one on the Mate 8 - something about scanning the actual depth of your finger ridges like a NASA engineer scanning the surface of the moon - but all you really need to know is that it’s dead fast, sits on the back and sends the P9 from sleep to awake without a button press in a fraction of a second.
A microSD card slot and a secondary SIM slot earn it a couple of extra nerd points, too.
The Huawei P9's screen is impervious to major criticism unless you’re one of those people who thinks two million pixels isn’t enough for a 5.2in screen. I think it is.
This is a 1920 x 1080 pixel Neo-IPS LCD display, just like the ones on the last two P-series flagships. It goes uncomfortably bright and has good contrast and poppy colours that, while pretty energetic, don’t look horribly overdone. Huawei brags about how it aimed for a cinema-grade colour palette rather than the plain old sRGB one most phones (including current iPhones) gun for, but it hasn’t over-egged the thing any more than the Sony Xperia Z5. I even switched to the Google NowUI for a while just to check this wasn’t a custom software trick: it isn’t.
You get a little control over the look of the display too, with temperature options in the Huawei P9’s menu. Viewing angles are just as impressive. Is the Samsung Galaxy S7's screen better? Of course it is, but then it’s better than every other phone this size. Sorry… everyone else.
If my criticisms of the P9's design and screen can be dismissed as pure taste issues - and to a certain extent they can be - the P9's software is a bigger problem.
As usual, Huawei's pasted the latest version of its EmotionUI on to Android, version 6.0 in this case. While it does include recent Android features such as Now on Tap, the look and feel of the system is pure Huawei. So for instance, it doesn’t have an apps menu - a feature (or rather lack of one) that’s always a crowd-splitter, with more people usually ending up in the “I’m not a fan” camp.
Like many Android users, I’m a bit lazy. And that means my home screens are usually little more than app dumping grounds; I rely upon the apps drawer to keep everything nicely organised. Its absence here forces you to be more active about keeping your home screens in check, which will possibly be beyond some people (including me). Fortunately, you can at least set up apps folders to hold the various shades of nonsense you download on your mobile.
Huawei doesn’t seem to have added many notable new features to EMUI for the P9, but there are a couple of oddities here worth highlighting. Firstly, you can start recording whatever’s onscreen by pressing the Power and Vol Up buttons at the same time. I can only think of intensely sketchy and intensely nerdy reasons to use this feature, but each to their own, eh?
The totally bizarre knuckle gestures Huawei made for the P8 also return in the Huawei P9 - but with an improvement: this screen can actually tell the difference between a fingertip and a knuckle, and when you use the latter it takes a screengrab of whatever you circle around. Stroke of genius? Utter nonsense? Despite the fact that I use Android's screenshot feature all the time, I can’t imagine getting ever having a need to do it with my knuckles. Still, at least it doesn’t get in the way.
What’ll grate more consistently is quite how much rubbish Huawei has shovelled on to this rather expensive phone: for instance it's pre-loaded with a whole mess of Gameloft games. This sort of deal will usually earn a phone maker a few quid, which I find totally acceptable when a phone is cheaper and really pushing the hardware-to-quids ratio, but that's not the P9. It’s not cheap at all. Yes, you can delete them, so any anger should be about the principle of the thing rather than something that should necessarily stop you buying. But it does feel cheeky.
The Cortex Equation
Next to EMUI, the other key homebrew element of the Huawei P9 is its processor. Huawei produces its own phone chips under the Kirin brand, and the P9 indeed has one of them inside - a very powerful Kirin 955 CPU. This is an ever-so-slightly less advanced CPU than the one in the Galaxy S7, using four Cortex-A72 cores and four Cortex-A53s instead of fancier ‘Mongoose’ cores. But when it comes out with a Geekbench 3 score of 6480 points, you can’t really argue with its raw power.
It’s probably this level of power matched with 3GB DDR4 RAM and moderately fast (97MB/sec write speeds) storage that lets you record a high-end game while you’re playing with it. But equally you could argue it’s overkill for a 1080p phone. The Huawei P9 is fast no matter what you’re doing, and while it gets a bit warm when using mobile data with the screen on, there are no major overheating issues.
The cell sell
One part of the Huawei P9 that is just flat-out solid is battery life. The phone has a 3000mAh battery charged using the a new-style USB-C port, and has fast-charging. That means a mere half-hour will get you from flat to almost-full in well under and hour. This isn’t down to the USB-C cable, but that connector does mean you don’t have to worry about putting the cable in the wrong way when you’re tired and bleary-eyed; it’s reversible.
The Huawei P9 lasts comfortably through the day even if you spend a bit of time web-browsing. I’m looking at moving flat later this year, and despite poring over properties for a while on the P9, it made it to midnight before dying. A battery run-down test shows it’s not spectacular, though. The Huawei P9 lasts almost dead-on 10 hours when playing back a 720p video on loop, whereas the last phone I reviewed, the Oppo F1 Plus, made it well into the teens with 15.5 hours.
Huawei P9 Verdict
The Huawei P9 is a bold phone in at least one way. Just as the Mate S showed off pressure-sensitive screen tech before anyone else, the P9 makes a case for multi-sensor computational cameras. This is future tech, folks.
However, just as Huawei didn’t make a Force Touch screen anywhere near as compelling as Apple did, we’re likely to see much better attempts at using this technology before too long.
So, from a pure photography perspective, I’m a little disappointed with the Huawei P9 camera - the new tech in it promises the world but doesn't really deliver. Still, what most buyers are going to be bothered about is whether it takes good B&W and daylight shots. Its high-contrast style means it does. We're also happy to praise, for the most part, its screen, its battery life, its build and the power inside it.
Indeed, no part of the Huawei P9 is bad, but annoyances such as the sometimes frustrating software and somewhat derivative design count against it. And, given that this year’s phone actually gets a £100/€100 price hike over last year’s P8, the fact that the dual-camera star of the show is more Celebrity Big Brother than Ryan Reynolds means it doesn't do enough to challenge the absolute best smartphones out there.