Honor 9 review

The best sub-$450 phone in the world – no contest

04 October 2017
by Stuff Staff

PRICE: US$435

Most of us have friends who, let’s be honest, can be gits. Pull an Honor phone out of your pocket and they’ll act like you’ve just served up an off-brand spaghetti hoops on toast for their birthday meal.

The Honor 9 is a phone that proves it’s their problem, not yours. It’s their problem that they are happy spending US$700 on a Samsung Galaxy S8 when the Honor 9 gets them 90% of the gloss and substance for just over half the price. And claim that’s a valid reason for not buying a round of drinks.

Make no mistake: this is one of the best high-end phone deals of 2017 so far.

DESIGN: SHINY, SHINY SHINY

The Honor 9 is simultaneously both strangely conventional and eye-openingly bold.

This is one of the shiniest mobiles in the universe. Looking at its back is a bit like peering through a kaleidoscope, and the way it reacts to light is dynamic, creating laser-like lines across its rear. Is it a bit much? Perhaps, but it doesn’t half make the Honor 9 stand out.

The phone comes in blue and grey colours, and every part of it feels high-end. Its front and back panels are curved glass, and the colour-matched part in the middle of this sandwich is aluminium. The only plastic parts are the little antenna cut-outs in the metal, which you might not notice until you look closely. As long as you can handle the sheer dazzle factor, it’s a good-looking phone.

With all that said, it still manages to have a far more conventional design than the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 or LG G6. Those phones are on their way to obliterating their screen surrounds completely, but the Honor 9 is more like the Galaxy S7 in its dimensions. Actually, in style terms it’s almost weirdly similar to the Galaxy S7 all round. Take away the Honor’s glossy finish and they could be siblings. None of that is a criticism, by the way.

The Honor 9 is easy to handle too. Rather than going too far down the giant-screen route, the 5.15in display makes it a sensible size for normal folk with normal-size hands. And there are also loads of extras worth noting. Under the central panel below the screen, which is just an indent in the glass rather than a button, sits a finger scanner. It’s among the fastest we’ve used: seriously quick.

You also get a fantastic 64GB storage, microSD expansion and – who knew these were still around – an IR blaster on the top. This lets you control a TV, or just about anything with a normal remote control, using the Honor 9.

SCREEN: KEEPING IT SENSIBLE

Honor has obviously made some compromises to keep the price so low, and one of these compromises comes with the screen resolution: it’s ‘only’ a 1080p display, meaning it has around half the number of pixels as a Samsung Galaxy S8. While you can notice the difference if you look closely, it’s not a big deal. The Honor 9 screen is still very sharp, and bear in mind that it’s pixels-per-inch count is still far higher than that of any iPhone. Nor is 1080p an unheard of resolution even in 2017: the Huawei P10, a phone which shares much of its DNA with this one, likewise has a 1080p screen, as does the OnePlus 5.

Unlike the OnePlus 5, the Honor 9 uses an LCD panel, but it has an OLED-like colour punch all the same. We found the colours slightly overdone, but make no mistake, this is a fantastic-quality LCD, which you can look at from any angle without it appearing dim or the colours going a bit weird.

The Honor 9 can hack sunny days too, and you can also tweak the look of the screen a bit: there aren’t saturation controls but there are colour temperature ones. Like previous Honor phones, you also get than Eye Comfort mode designed to reduce eyestrain later in the day; this makes the display look orangey, reducing the blue tone which supposedly makes your eyes tired.

SOFTWARE: GOOD EMOTIONS

So far, there’s nothing to put you off the Honor 9 unless you’re afraid of being blinded by its blingy back. And, while software has traditionally been an area where a few potential Honor buyers might peel off, there’s nothing to be afraid of here either.

The Honor 9 runs Android 7.0 but also has Huawei’s Emotion UI on top. This is an interface that changes how Android works, zapping the apps menu and flattening the system into a bunch of homescreens. Like an iPhone, basically. Don’t let that put you off, though, because there’s a simple option to restore the more standard Android setup of multiple homescreens plus app locker, if you prefer.

It’s not as good-looking as iOS, but Emotion UI is a lot faster here, and a lot less weird, than some older versions. You can manually iron-out most of the remaining quirks too. For example, as standard the Honor 9 has a lock screen whose image shuffles every time you unlock, cycling between photos you might see bundled with picture frames in IKEA. Dig a bit deeper and you can choose your own pics to go in here, or switch to a much more familiar static lock screen by installing a different theme.

There’s an app that lets you download and apply these themes, and they change backgrounds, icons and the look of your lock screen. Fonts don’t change, though, to avoid you ending up with something borderline unusable.

You also get the option to use Emotion’s one-button operation, which loses the onscreen Android navigation keys and instead uses the fingerprint sensor/home button for all three shortcuts: tap to go back, hold to go home, swipe to see your recent apps. This is liable to either be your favourite smartphone innovation of the year or drive you totally mad, but if you do hate it you can disable it and use the familiar onscreen controls.

Still hate Emotion UI? You can always download Google Now and switch to the vanilla look of phones like the Google Pixel. Then only the settings and drop-down menus keep the tangy Honor flavour. The Honor 9 runs like a dream. That’s no real surprise as there’s the same hardware inside it as in the Huawei P10 and P10 Plus phones, which are equally speedy in operation.

PERFORMANCE: SERIOUS SILICON

Speaking of performance, Honor gets all this speed without using one of the most popular CPUs either. The Honor 9 has a Huawei-made Kirin 960 CPU, which as we already noted is the same as that inside the Huawei P10 and indeed the extra pricey Huawei Mate 9 Posche Design.

It’s not new, but it is powerful, particularly if you look at its Geekbench 4 benchmark scores. The Honor 9 scores 6150 points, similar to the results from a Snapdragon 835. So, what’s in this CPU? There are four Cortex-A73 cores and four Cortex-A53 ones. It also has a, eight-core Mali-G71 GPU. Sure, the Samsung Galaxy S8 (Exynos version) uses the 20-core version of the same graphics brain, but this phone has fewer pixels and costs a lot fewer pounds.

It’s a great match for the 1080p screen, too. Asphalt 8 is super-smooth, with the sort of frame-drop-free performance you don’t get with a cheap Android. The Honor 9 can also keep more apps ticking on in the background stored in RAM memory, as there’s 4GB of the stuff. It’s not dual-channel RAM like the OnePlus 5’s, but is fast DDR4.

Once again, not everything matches the $700+ phones, but most of the time you get close enough not to notice the difference, and nothing is outright neglected. The speaker is good, for example. It sits on the bottom of the Honor 9 and is reasonably loud and chunky-sounding. However, it’s ‘just’ a single speaker, and there’s therefore no extra driver on the front to stop it sounding like the sound is just coming from the bottom of the phone.

CAMERA: TWO EYES

The Honor 9’s camera is also very similar to those seen before in top-end Huawei phones.

On the back there are two cameras that work together. One is a 20-megapixel black and white sensor, the other a 12-megapixel colour one. It’s the same kind of rig used in the Huawei P10, but this time it doesn’t have the Leica name splashed over it. More importantly, it also lacks optical image stabilisation.

Using the Honor 9 camera is a great experience. It’s fast to shoot, the focusing is fairly quick and it can snap on to objects even when they’re very close-up: about 6cm away. This is a sign we’re dealing with a higher-end camera, not just a mid-range one with loads of megapixels crammed in to please the crowds.

Image quality is very good, but doesn’t set any new standards in terms of detail capture. The important thing to note is that while the Honor 9 has a 20-megapixel camera, it actually takes 12-megapixel photos, with the 20MP mono sensor instead used to add sharpness and make a few tricks possible. Its results aren’t as noise-free and perfect as the best 12-megapixel cameras though: zoom right in you’ll see a bit of fuzz down at the pixel level. This also seems to vary a bit between exposures and modes.

 

Around the front the Honor 9 has just the one camera, an 8MP one. It’s quick, detailed, renders natural-looking colour and has both Honor’s classic face-smoothing Beauty mode and a newer bokeh feature. This pulls off the same trick as the rear cameras, blurring out the background for a more dramatic effect.

BATTERY LIFE: BIG BATTERY, MID-SIZE STAMINA

Honor has tried pretty hard to make this phone seem up-to-date without using super-expensive hardware. For instance, there’s USB-C charging, and it’s even fairly fast.

The Honor 9 has a 3200mAh battery, which seems pretty large for a just-over-5in screen of 1080p resolution, but I’m not actually blown away by the phone’s stamina. If you use mobile internet a bit, for Spotify streaming perhaps, the Honor 9 won’t last more than a day.

Those who just use WhatsApp and take selfies all day should get better results, perhaps a day and a half, but the HiSilicon brain used in the phone seems to be a little less efficient in certain areas than the best Qualcomm Snapdragon chipsets.

HONOR 9 VERDICT

The Honor 9 is a phone with some serious high-end chops that sells for a mid-range price. It costs the same amount as a mid-range Android phone but has a much more powerful processor, a more versatile camera, more storage and a more eye-catching design. It’s a step up, basically.

Alright, so the design seems a bit more like a flagship phone of 2016 rather than 2017, but when you save cash in the bargain, does it matter? Battery life is a also little ordinary and a stabilised camera would have been a great extra. However, it’s clearly one of the best phone deals around at the moment and a true rival to the OnePlus 5.

All of which means that the Honor 9 is one of the best phones of the year. No, we didn’t see that coming either.

STUFF SAYS

SCORE: *****

High-end hardware at a middleweight price makes the Honor 9 one of the best phone deals around

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