In a world where smartphones are becoming increasingly samey – they do all the same stuff, look the same, feel the same – Huawei is making a strike at the premium market with the P9, and the biggest selling point of the device is the dual-lens Leica camera.
Chinese smartphone makers are the unsung heroes of the smartphone revolution. Without the marketing clout or reach of their US or Korean rivals, they have, nevertheless, managed to create a range of really distinct, popular devices that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Leading players in this regard include Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo and OnePlus, to name a few.
When I read about the P9 as being Huawei’s effort to strike at the jugular of Apple and Samsung in the premium marketplace, I thought it was ironic when you consider the high quality of the devices that came before it. Huawei has consistently played a premium game with its devices in the last five years.
Most people probably best know Huawei for its Wi-Fi modems that grace most homes, as well as dongles and other peripherals. The reality is Huawei is an actual telecoms equipment giant that employs tens of thousands of people in China and is of a scale to compete with players like Nokia, Cisco and Ericsson.
But because of a trade ban in the US, which bans Chinese telecoms equipment for reasons as asinine as old Cold War fears around spying, the Chinese smartphone giants have largely confined their efforts to Asia, but have increasingly targeted Europe and the rest of the world.
Huawei is no shrinking violet in terms of growing its global footprint and actually has high-end R&D operations in Ireland.
Look and feel
Like I said, I think when it comes to smartphones Huawei has always had a penchant for the elegant. The last Huawei device I looked at was three years ago and it was the Huawei Ascend P6, then the slimmest smartphone on the block. Since then, Huawei and I have largely become strangers, except for a look at the Google Nexus 6P built by Huawei.
As appearances go, this is probably the most elegant smartphone device I’ve seen so far this year.
The 5.2in aluminium frame is beautifully chamfered and the screen reaches out to the extreme edges of the devices.
The most arresting feature of the device isn’t the fingerprint sensor at the rear but the dual 12MP Leica cameras.
Appearance-wise, and in terms of strategy, it is clear the device is being targeted at Apple’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus generation of devices – even down to the colours it comes in: ceramic white and Huawei’s own take on rose gold; haze gold; titanium grey; mystic silver and prestige silver.
The device feels nice and light in the hand, looks the part and, thanks to Android OS 6 (Marshmallow) and two quad-core processors, it is super fast.
But there is the rub. The device is super slick in terms of camera technology but disappointingly feels quite bare bones in terms of any other features or capabilities to set it apart from the competition.
That said, it is still a powerful smartphone with two quad-core processors and an impressive 1080×1920 display, which you would need to get the most out of the kind of photos you will get from two 12MP lenses.
In terms of external memory, the device comes with capacity for up to 128GB. There are two options in terms of on-phone storage: a 32GB version with 3GB of RAM or a 64GB version with 4GB of RAM.
The P9 is light for its size and surrounding glass and metallic materials, weighing just 144g.
The user interface is pretty enough, uncluttered and very orderly, but features none of the extras you might expect on an iPhone or Samsung device, except maybe for a Health app, suggesting Huawei is planning wearables very soon.
Like I said, the Huawei P9 is much more camera than phone. It shows you just how far we’ve come in the last decade when you think that 10 years ago camera phones were still all the rage, even though we had to make do with blurry 3MP shots if we were lucky.
The P9’s dual-lens Leica camera at the rear is the standout feature of the phone.
In a sense, the work that has gone into this from Leica’s perspective is impressive – almost reinventing the operating system within the camera application.
While no smartphone’s camera will ever replace an SLR, the Leica cameras on the P9 come very close.
The key here is depth perception. This is about creating the effect of focusing on an object and blurring out the background, which is known in photography circles as the Bokeh effect.
Before we talk about the Bokeh effect, the camera app allows you to switch swiftly between pro and ordinary capabilities with a flick of the finger.
The two lenses have distinct functions. One shoots in RGB to produce a colour image and the other takes care of monochrome images. According to Huawei, the monochrome lens lets in 200pc more light, resulting in vivid, lifelike images.
The two lenses come with a hybrid flash unit where a laser figures out focal distances automatically.
In effect, the camera comes with its own robot photographer to help you take good shots.
To achieve the Bokeh effect, use the camera in ordinary mode and look for a lens widget on the upper left in portrait mode.
From here you simply focus your camera on the object you want at the foreground of your picture and snap away. This will enable you to achieve an effect previously only possible on high-end, expensive SLR cameras. So, for the camera phone, this is quite a revolution.
I give the device top marks for its design and performance. The battery is exceptionally good and I’m noticing faster charging and performance from devices that are now using the USB-C connector.
As smartphones go, performance-wise it is as good as any Android competitor and could give the iPhone a run for its money, only for the fact that it is very low on features and feels quite stripped down. Then again, in a world of on-demand apps, you are only limited by your imagination.
The real standout feature is the camera. Huawei has really upped the game in terms of smartphone-based photography and, for people who really put effort into snapping good pictures, the Leica dual-lens camera system makes the P9 stand out.
Appearance-wise, it is also ahead of the competition, probably the best-looking smartphone on the market right now. And that’s saying something in a market where all smartphones look depressingly the same.