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Review: Huawei P9 Plus

Review: Huawei P9 Plus

Introduction, key features and design

The Huawei P9 Plus is a top-end phone. It’s bold, it’s pricey and out to offer features the company couldn’t even fit in the normal Huawei P9, already an expensive device.

A pressure sensitive Press Touch screen is at the top of the list, along with an ultra-flashy metal finish. Even without the various show-off finishing touches, the Huawei P9 Plus is a top-quality phone whose battery life is stronger than a lot of its peers.

At £549/AU$899 (around US$730), though, it has stiff competition from the Samsung Galaxy S7, and even the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

Key features

Like almost all high-end Huawei phones, the P9 Plus has a top-quality fingerprint scanner on the back. If you’re used to a front scanner it may take a little getting used to, but is about as intuitive to use as any.

It’s designed to sit roughly where your index finger lands, and as it sits in an indent there’s no searching about needed. A top feature of the P9 Plus’s scanner is that it works near-instantly when the phone’s asleep, even though there’s no button-press involved: it’s a static pad.

The real stand-out feature is the pressure-sensitive screen, though. This is something Huawei first experimented with in the Huawei Mate S Premium, although that model was not widely distributed.

This one, with any luck, will be. The use of the technology is fairly similar to Apple’s in the iPhone 6S, and far more useful than it was in the Huawei Mate S.

Huawei P9 Plus review

A harder press on most of Huawei’s app icons brings up a little menu that lets you zoom right to a specific part of an app. You can head right to the Display part of Settings, to the Monochrome mode in the camera, or to a favorite contact in the Dialer app.

It’s hardly essential, but can save you a few seconds if you train yourself to actually use the feature. Pressure sensitivity can also be used in the gallery to zoom in and out of images just by applying more or less pressure. It’s a decent way to check for perfect focus, or to see how much detail is really in that night shot you just took, without having to get two fingers involved.

The Huawei P9 Plus’s problem is that these pressure-sensitive features aren’t applied at Android OS level. They’re a part of Huawei’s custom interface, and that means we won’t see any (or at least not many) uses for pressure sensitivity in third party apps until it’s adopted by Android and its system-level APIs.

Huawei P9 Plus review

We saw the exact same situation with fingerprint scanners. They were used years before they were officially brought into the Android fold with 6.0 Marshmallow, which standardized how scanners were used, making it much easier for developers to add support for such features.

Huawei is a bit of a trailblazer here, its efforts are likely to inform how Google employs ‘official’ support in a future version of Android. The Huawei P9 Plus doesn’t make pressure sensitivity seem essential, but it hasn’t messed up either.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Big screen bliss

The part you should care about more is pure display quality. It’s very good, if not quite a match for the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

The Huawei P9 Plus has a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display of 1080p resolution. That gets you a nice big canvas for films and games without the phone seeming remotely impractical, and an AMOLED panel guarantees superb contrast.

Unlike an LCD, OLEDs use emissive pixels. This means it can leave parts of the screen pitch black even while other areas are lit, while a phone LCD’s backlight actually covers the whole screen whenever it’s on. You won’t necessarily notice the difference in daylight, but there’s a huge difference if you like to watch a bit of Netflix before bed.

Huawei P9 Plus review

OLED blacks are simply blacker than LCD blacks. This panel also gives the Huawei P9 Plus almost perfect viewing angles, with virtually no brightness loss at an angle. Whites go a tiny bit blue at an extreme angle, but you get this effect even with the latest Samsungs.

Some OLED phones suffer from very clear color oversaturation, as phone makers often get a little overexcited by the sheer depth of color these screens can put out. Huawei has done well here, though. While you can’t get the extreme sRGB color accuracy on offer in the Galaxy S7 family, you do get a choice between ‘normal’ and ‘vivid’ modes.

Normal is a smidge oversaturated, while vivid lets loose a little more, making tones look a bit more energetic. A good way to tell how your own phone responds to color is to look at some of Google’s app icons. Where YouTube uses a pretty vivid red, the Chrome and Gmail tones have a more pastel-like tone. Check it out: if they both look radioactive, you know your phone doesn’t have full control over its display.

The P9 Plus ‘normal’ screen mode has a good balance, with a rich, poppy look but just enough restraint. It’s a lovely screen.

Huawei P9 Plus review

There’s another side to the display customization too. The Huawei P9 Plus lets you fiddle with the color temperature of the screen, lightly tweaking the white balance.

A lot of phones let you choose a warmer (orange) or cooler (blue) character, but here you can even make the display lean slightly towards a more purple or green hue. We’d recommend sticking to a warm/cool or neutral tone, though. A warm one can reduce eyestrain a little too.

You can even switch the rendering resolution to 720p rather than 1080p, although this is just a power-saving measure. There’s no other benefit when Android apps are designed to scale between resolutions. We’ll take a look at whether it affects stamina later.

Design

The desired effect of the Huawei P9 Plus is that classic "no expense spared" feel. It’s a slim brick of metal and glass. The only plastic invited to the ball is seen in the little strips near the top and bottom that let the antennas breathe.

In this respect, the P9 Plus is quite a lot like the normal Huawei P9, except this phone has a much shinier finish. Both handsets are made of aluminum, but this one is buffed to such a high sheen you can see your reflection in its rear.

It’s the sort of over-the-top bling factor we were glad to see Huawei tone down in the P9, but it does manage to come across as expensive rather than gaudy. The finish does also show up scratches rather clearly, though, and is prone to picking them up. After being kept in a pocket for a couple of days it had earned a couple of fine scratches in the top-most shiny layer.

Huawei P9 Plus review

You won’t be pleased if you do the same after spending all that money.

The Huawei P9 Plus design is similar to that of P-series phones of previous years. It’s a tight, dense, skinny rectangle, just 7mm thick. The edges are bevelled and rounded off, lending the phone a soft feel even though its back doesn’t taper or curve. It’s very manageable for a phone with a 5.5-inch screen. If you don’t like the silvery version we’re using, there are gold and pink P9 Plus phones too.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Like almost all top-end handsets, there’s no access to the battery in the P9 Plus, and the SIM fits in a tray that pops out of one side of the device. The Huawei P9 Plus also has a memory card slot even though the phone has 64GB of inbuilt storage.

Huawei P9 Plus review

That’s a great combo. Huawei also keeps a feature almost all other top manufacturers leave out these days: an IR blaster. This is the little black dot on the top edge of the phone. It’s used to mimic the signals of remote controls, and there’s an app pre-installed that lets you teach the P9 Plus how to control your TV, your home cinema receiver and so on.

This is a feature that sneaks in under the radar, but may even be enough to nudge some of you into a buy.

What’s it like to use?

Interface and reliability

The Huawei P9 Plus runs Android 6.0.1, but also has Emotion UI 4.1, the latest version of Huawei’s custom interface at the time of writing,

Emotion UI (EMUI) receives a lot of flak because it’s quite different from normal Android, and has quite a few little oddball bits popular among Chinese manufacturers. The most obvious change is that the Huawei P9 Plus does not have an app drawer.

Like iOS, all installed apps end up on a home screen. If you don’t put any effort into arranging them, they end up sitting in roughly the order they were installed. To avoid flicking between home screens a lot, you’ll want to start using app folders. With a plain Android Marshmallow phone, you simply don’t have to bother with all that.

Huawei P9 Plus review

What you won’t hear quite as often with talk of EMUI is that it’s actually also very simple, visually. There’s a good deal of useful customization too, particularly handy for a larger phone like this.

You can tweak the home screens so they fit in five columns of icons rather than four, for example. And if you want to make your Huawei P9 Plus look totally naff, you can customize the screen transition animation. As you can probably tell, we don’t advise it.

Huawei P9 Plus review

The Huawei P9 Plus also features themes, which alter wallpapers and icons to give the phone a new look. You can normally download scores of the things from the Themes app with a Huawei mobile, but during testing we’ve only been able to access a half-dozen inbuilt ones.

The phone’s lead quirk is the default lock screen, which features an image that changes every time you end up there. Other phones from Huawei have put weird images of Despicable Me minions and babies on this look screen, but the Huawei P9 Plus seems to stick to the sort of images you might buy at IKEA to put on the wall: bland but inoffensive.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Despite being one of the most maligned custom interfaces in the smartphone world, EMUI 4.1 really isn’t too bad as long as you can stomach the "no app drawer" policy.

Unlike some other EMUI phones, the Huawei P9 Plus does not feel slowed-down by its software either. At the price, anything less than snappy performance would be a bit of an insult, though.

Huawei P9 Plus review

If you’re the one misguided person buying a very expensive phone for a total technophobe, the Huawei P9 Plus also features a "Simple" interface style that pares the interface down to a series of big colorful blocks. If you’re reading this, you almost certainly won’t want to use it.

Movies, music and gaming

The Huawei P9 Plus is a very good phone for media and gaming, but largely because of some pretty basic factors. It has a large, high-quality screen, 64GB of storage and expandable memory. These alone give it a boost over 90% of phones.

It doesn’t have everything, though. Like the iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7, it has a single main speaker that sits on the bottom edge rather than stereo front-facing speakers. To avoid the impression the sound is coming from one port on the bottom, the call speaker outputs higher-frequency sound too.

While it only makes up a small fraction of the actual audio, the aim is to make it sound as though the sound is directed at you when the Huawei P9 Plus is held in front of your face. It’s mostly successful too, although not a match for proper front speakers in terms of providing convincing stereo.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Of course, many of you will use headphones when gaming or watching videos longer than two minutes anyway. For podcasts or listening to a bit of music while you cook, our most common use for an inbuilt speaker, the Huawei P9 Plus is rather good.

It’s loud, and a good degree of mid-range power lets it cut through noise fairly well even though the speaker driver is a featherweight. Sound quality is up there with the better-sounding Androids.

If you’re going to use headphones instead of the speaker, the Huawei P9 Plus uses a "DTS" processing mode as standard. This attempts to beef-up the sound a bit, but it also inflates the bass. If you already like the tone of your headphones it’s an extra to switch off instantly. The DTS mode is only going to make them less balanced.

However, you may like the effects if your headphones sound a little thin, or if you’re watching movies rather than listening to music.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Huawei doesn’t offer any meaningful software to play your music or video, though. There’s a Huawei music app but it isn’t anything to get excited about.

There’s even an implicit admission it’s a bog-standard app too: it’s one of the few Huawei apps that doesn’t have a pressure-sensitive sub-menu. It’s a little disappointing when this could be one of the better uses for the hardware. We can imagine using a hard press to "resume" our last played artist or playlist, but you don’t get the option here.

Specs and benchmark performance

The Huawei P9 Plus has a processor made by a Huawei subsidiary, HiSilicon. It’s the HiSilicon Kirin 955, the same processor used in the standard Huawei P9. It’s paired with 4GB of RAM, so the message is clear: This is a top-end phone.

However, its architecture is a bit more traditional than what you get in the rival Snapdragon 820. The Kirin 955 is an octa-core CPU, with four Cortex-A72 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores.

Qualcomm has switched from this style of late to using fewer cores, but HiSilicon sticks to the old style, but using the newer A72 performance brains.

There are a few questions here. Which is more powerful? Which is more efficient? And does the Kirin 955 lag behind in terms of the other tech the numbers don’t quite explain?

Huawei P9 Plus review

In Geekbench 3 the Huawei P9 Plus scores 6463 points. Case closed: this is a powerful processor. That score is at a similar level to the Samsung Galaxy S7 brothers, whether you look at the Exynos version or the one using a Snapdragon 820.

Anecdotally, the Kirin 955 doesn’t seem to have the overheating issues that plagued some of Qualcomm’s 2015 chipsets either. We’ve been playing quite a few games on the Huawei P9 Plus, and it simply doesn’t get to the kind of worryingly hot temperature you may have experienced with some skinny phones in the past.

Part of this seems down to hardware design. Under pressure, heat seems to be distributed across the entire top half of the phone, rather than just radiating out of one ‘hot spot’ near the top. The Kirin is also made using a very up-to-date 16nm FinFET Plus process.

Other more recent hardware benefits include dual-channel DDR4 RAM. This lets the phone juggle RAM data at 12200MB/s rather than the 8-9000MB/s we were seeing when we were dealing with plain old single-channel DDR4.

Huawei P9 Plus review

You don’t want to leave this phone out in the sun too long, though. As with any all-metal phone, it’s going to get hot.

The GPU part of the Huawei P9 Plus is a little more eyebrow-raising. Like the Kirin 950 it uses the Mali T880 MP4 graphics chip, a four-core version of the 12-core chipset used in the Exynos variant of the Galaxy S7. It’s also far less powerful than the Adreno 530 used in the Snapdragon 820.

Where a Snapdragon 820 device might score upwards of 2000 points in the 3DMark Slingshot test, the Huawei P9 Plus manages just 917 points (1184 in ES 3.0 mode).

The GPU is not that hot then, although as the Huawei P9 Plus has a 1080p screen rather than a QHD one, the real-world effects are minimal with current games. Asphalt 8 runs fine and you can max everything out in Minecraft without experiencing frame rate dips.

Power is much closer to that of the LG G4 than more recent flagships though and this may become more noticeable a year or so down the line.

Battery life and camera

Over the last 12 months we’ve seen a rather disappointing trend for manufacturers to trade on the efficiency improvements of newer CPUs by using slightly lower-capacity batteries than their predecessors.

The Huawei P9 Plus, though, has a fairly large 3400mAh battery. Its stamina is very strong among its peers, and is close to matching the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge on battery stats. That’s one of the longest-lasting phones of the moment.

As with 99% of phones, you can’t hammer it and expect it to last for two solid days. However, with fairly light use it will.

To buy the Huawei P9 Plus for that sort of use is to miss the point of this phone, though. Its real benefit is that this is a phone you can use quite heavily and still almost be guaranteed a full day’s use, with some charge to take you into the second day.

Huawei P9 Plus review

One Sunday during testing, for example, we subjected it to an hour’s browsing during a train journey, around an hour of podcast streaming over mobile data and almost an hour of checking out two of Android’s top pinball games. They are Zen Pinball and Pinball Arcade, if you’re interested.

By 10pm we still had 35% charge left. That’s very reassuring performance if you’ve ever been left banging your head against the wall after owning a phone that seems to drain down to almost zero charge by the time you get home from work.

The Huawei P9 Plus is an easy phone to live with as a result. Our standard video benchmark test supports this too. A 90-minute 720p MP4 video played at maximum brightness took 13% off the battery. That’s one per cent less than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge loses during the same test.

Switching to the 720p battery-saving mode saw the drain reduce ever-so-slightly, from 13% to 12%. It’s likely to be more beneficial when playing games, though, with 720p rendering causing less strain on the GPU.

Huawei P9 Plus review

There are a few hardware features to credit for this good performance. First, and simplest, 3400mAh is a very respectable capacity for a phone like this.

The Huawei P9 Plus also appears to use a recent-gen Samsung OLED screen panel, known for their efficiency. Its processor is efficient too. The Kirin 955 CPU is made using the 16nm FinFET Plus process, a step ahead of the FinFET process used in the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus‘s Apple A9 CPU.

In some respects the CPU doesn’t seem quite as forward-looking as the rival Snapdragon 820, but it is a capable chipset.

The Huawei P9 Plus is charged using a USB-C connector rather than the still-more-common micro USB plug, and it supports fast charging too. Its charger offers two modes, the standard 5V, 2A you’ll get with most larger capacity phones and a 9V, 2A fast mode that almost doubles the potential power transfer.

However, it’s not among the fastest-charging phones around in reality. Where some phones get you well over 50% charge within a half-hour, the Huawei P9 Plus seems to gain about 40% in that time.

Camera

The Huawei P9 Plus, like its more affordable P9 brother, has a very interesting camera setup, as it uses two cameras on the back. This sort of setup was popular a couple of years ago, but Huawei approaches it with a much more technically rich premise.

A phone like the HTC One (M8) has two cameras, but only one sensor is used to harvest meaningful image data. The other is a much lower-quality sensor that provides depth information by analyzing how what it sees differs from the main sensor. It’s a dummy.

The Huawei P9 Plus’s two sensors are both high-quality 12MP Sony IMX286 sensor chips, but one is color, the other monochrome.

We need to get a little techy to explain why a monochrome sensor offers real benefits, but it’s not actually that complicated. A normal color camera sensor uses a Bayer filter, which organizes light into red, green and blue streams before it hits the sensor.

Huawei P9 Plus review

However, this actually involves ‘rejecting’ a lot of light, and light is the currency of a camera sensor. By ditching the Bayer array, a monochrome sensor can offer better results at higher sensitivities, with less noise.

While Huawei says the information from both sensors is used to make all photos the phone takes, there’s also a separate Monochrome mode that actually switches to the black and white sensor. You can even see an ever-so-slight difference in the field of view when you switch to this mode.

Taking the Huawei P9 Plus camera out shooting, it can produce some great results. Its color reproduction is excellent for a phone, and its Auto mode is a pro at dealing with tricky daylight lighting conditions.

Not only can it juggle its exposure well, it clearly uses HDR-style optimization even when you do not touch the separate HDR mode. Just shoot away and you’ll get some great results.

Huawei P9 Plus review

The Monochrome mode is a reminder of quite how much black and white photography can add drama and an arty look to your shots without looking remotely like attention-seeking Instagram fodder. Contrast in daylight monochrome shots is fantastic.

However, as with the P9 one of the big hopes for a "next-gen" multi-camera solution like this is that it’ll radically improve low-light performance, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 family cameras perform much better at night.

The Huawei P9 Plus’s low-light focusing is not entirely reliable even though it has a laser focusing aid and phase detection sites on its sensor. The phone also is not great at brightening up very dark scenes and it doesn’t have optical image stabilization (OIS).

OIS uses a tiny motor to counteract the little handshake movements we all make to let a camera use slower shutter speeds in order to reduce sensitivity and improve image quality. More detail, less noise, in other words.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Without it, it’s a little too easy to come out with blurry night shots unless you keep your hands very still. One night we took the phone out to shoot a gig, and our hit rate was lower than it would be with an OIS phone. Sharp shots are noisier and less detail-packed than the best because a minimum Auto shutter speed of 1/17 of a second means the camera has to use fairly high sensitivities in poor lighting.

The lens quality doesn’t help here either. While the Huawei P9 Plus’s lenses may be Leica-branded, their apertures are only f/2.2, which is very slow for a very expensive phone. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge‘s lens is f/1.7, making it able to harvest much more light in the same exposure window. These lenses produce a nice natural bokeh effect, but they’re just not quite fast enough.

There is a Night mode, but it’s not much use for most situations. Depending on the conditions it might take 30 seconds to shoot a single photo. You’ll either need a tripod or somewhere steady to rest the phone. We jammed the Huawei P9 Plus into a corner with some Blu-Tack to test.

With this mode the phone can bring near-pitch-black scenes to life, but it just isn’t practical most of the time, and renders far less detail than a standard 30-second exposure.

Huawei P9 Plus review

There is a full manual mode that lets you use these conventional long exposures, accessed just by swiping up from the shutter button. It’s fully-featured too, although the lack of OIS limits its appeal a little. Start playing with the shutter speed dial and you’re likely to end up with blurry shots again.

Unless you have some way to steady the Huawei P9 Plus, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and LG G5 are better night photo tools. If you’re not shooting landscapes, though, the flash will help. The dual-LED flash on the back looks small, but it packs a punch. Put a finger over it and it’ll get supernova-hot within a few seconds.

There are other features too. Like previous dual-lens cameras, the Huawei P9 Plus has a mode that creates synthesized shallow depth of field effects. This is a bit of a tech cheat, the equivalent of a vignette filter, but you can get some results far better than what we were left with back with the HTC One M9.

You shoot as normal using the special depth mode, then can alter the exact focus point and virtual aperture after shooting in the gallery. This is how you get these effects with a ‘proper’ camera: wider aperture (lower f/stop) means a blurrier background.

The rear camera setup is much the same as it was in the Huawei P9. However, there is a much-improved front camera.

An 8MP sensor and f/1.9 lens are behind the Huawei P9 Plus’s selfies, and they’re some of the best around. Natural skin tones, excellent detail even with dingy indoors lighting and good white balance judgement makes them a match for the great selfies of the Nexus 6P.

Camera samples

Huawei P9 Plus review

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Verdict and competition

The Huawei P9 Plus is this year’s no holds barred top-end Android phone from Huawei that isn’t part of the palm-stretching Mate range. A lot of the phone is familiar, with nods not just to the standard P9 but also Huawei’s of the past. It’s unmistakably a Huawei phone, for good and bad.

The Huawei P9 Plus is a very good phone. It’s fast. It looks and feels expensive, and its very strong stamina is refreshing when some phones seem to have made regressive steps in this regard.

However, the problem is that this is a pricey device, and it sits in the shadow of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. At this price, you have the best phones in the world to pick from. The Huawei P9 Plus’s expandable memory, IR blaster and pressure-sensing touchscreen may clinch the deal for some of you, but our instinct is to side with the Samsung.

The S7 Edge forgets the tech gimmicks LG and Huawei have gone for, but in turn offers the best phone camera and screen around.

Who’s this for?

There’s a sense Huawei has not just made this phone to offer something for high-end buyers other than Samsungs, Apples and LGs, but for itself too. It’s the first substantial attempt at a pressure-sensitive touchscreen Android device, a way to prove Huawei is at the cutting edge of phone tech even if its brand still doesn’t have quite the clout of some.

It dipped a toe with the Mate S, but here it’s more useful.

Huawei P9 Plus review

Should you buy it?

The P9 Plus offers a good impression of Apple’s 3D Touch with its pressure-sensitive screen, but we’d advise not getting too excited about it.

Its applications are all Huawei’s, so even if pressure sensitivity is the future, this is at best a very good tech demo of what’s to come.

Add in software that many struggle to get on with – much as we’ve grown accustomed to it – and this feels like a phone to hunt down when some sweet deals are available, not while it sells at full price.

Competition

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

Huawei P9 Plus review

It’s no great surprise that one of our favorite phones of the year outdoes the Huawei P9 Plus in a few respects. The screen is that bit sharper, the design more striking and the camera performs better at night. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge’s software is also less likely to prove a turn-off as it includes an app drawer.

What the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge doesn’t have is a pressure-sensitive display. It’s more conventional in that respect at least, though its curved screen is certainly eye-catching.

Huawei P9

Huawei P9 Plus review

How does the P9 Plus differ from its similar sibling? The Huawei P9 has a smaller 5.2-inch screen, no pressure sensitivity and a smaller battery, but is otherwise largely the same.

Much like the relationship between the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, a lot of the difference comes down to size. However, thanks to its larger juice pack the Plus also seems to last longer between charges in this instance.

LG G5

Huawei P9 Plus review

The LG G5 is another phone intent on shaking things up a bit. It’s a modular phone, although at present there’s only a small number of modules available. One improves audio quality, the other adds a battery and some camera controls.

This phone feels a bit less dense and expensive than the Huawei P9 Plus, and doesn’t last as long between charges. However, it does get you a very neat wide-angle camera on the back, as well as a very good normal sensor.

iPhone 6S Plus

Huawei P9 Plus review

Many of you will prefer an iPhone 6S Plus to a Huawei P9 Plus, but Huawei shows Apple up here. The P9 Plus is far smaller than the Apple alternative even though the two have the same-size screen. It’s smaller in every dimension, even thickness.

Apple wins on the application of pressure-sensing 3D touch screens, though. As it offers system-level support, you’ll find uses for 3D Touch in third-party apps too. This is missing from the Huawei P9 Plus.

The iPhone 6S Plus also runs iOS of course, giving it a different feel and a different selection of available apps.

First reviewed: August 2016


Source: Techradar

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