The market is saturated with mid-range, upper mid-range, budget flagship and many other descriptive terms for what boils down to smartphones that can achieve whatever 99% of the population would want them to, at a more agreeable price than ‘actual’ flagships. We’ve spent a month with the Honor 9, one of the latest of these upper mid-range devices (we’ll stick with that moniker for now). Read on to see what we thought of the Lightcatcher!
When Honor launched the Honor 9 on the 27th June 2017 in Berlin, it was hot on the heels of the OnePlus 5 launch, and whilst that might be a coincidence of scheduling, it’s really rather apt. The Honor 9 attempts to deliver on some similar selling points as the OnePlus 5; aesthetically pleasing, powerful enough to cope with modern demands whilst also being at a more palatable price for the masses. Here’s where the Honor 9 would win right off the bat in a straight smackdown between the two however coming in at £379 vs OnePlus’ £449 for similar variants.
So this is Honor’s raison d’etre and it’s within that light that we took an extended look at one of slickest (meant in so many ways) smartphones available.
Specs – Honor 9
- 5.15 inch, 1.920×1.080 FHD display, 428 ppi, 2.5D glass front
- Kirin 960 octa-core (4x 2.4 GHz + 4x 1.8 GHz)
- 4 GB RAM, 64 GB ROM + microSD card up to 256 GB
- Android 7 (Nougat)
- EMUI 5.1
- 12 MP RGB + 20 MP monochrome dual-lens camera
- 3,200 mAh battery with Fast Charging Technology
- Bluetooth 4.2
- USB Type-C supporting USB OTG
- Dual Nano SIM or Nano SIM + microSD
- 155 gramsd
Performance & Design – Honor 9
The design is clearly the first place to start here. It’s incredibly slick thanks to the 15 layers of glass Honor have put into the back side design of the device. It looks astonishing under lights and it certainly earns the name “Lightcatcher” which was emblazoned over every surface at the launch event.
The Honor 9 has a diminutive frame compared to a number of 2017 devices with a svelte 147.3 x 70.9 x 7.5 handprint. This, coupled with the rounded brushed aluminium edges makes for a very nice and comfortable in hand feel and for better than average one-handed use. The only downside to this is that in some one-handed operations, the palm can rest against that strikingly smooth surface and slips can be more frequent. Luckily this only happened to me once or twice during the review period, and I was actually happy to be using a smaller device – it made a change.
Along those brushed aluminium edges you’ll find a volume rocker and power button on the right edge, a speaker grill, USB Type-C port, and 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom edge, finishing off with the dual SIM card tray on the left with an IR blaster and pinhole mic up top. It’s still nice to see the 3.5mm audio jack on devices.
The front face is adorned with a 5.15″ IPS LCD display with a 1080p resolution. Interestingly, as recently as April 2017 Honor released their Honor 8 Pro that debuted with a QHD display, but have reverted to type with the 9. This is some 1080p display however. Good maximum brightness and vibrancy in the panel, and the 1080p might well help the battery along.
Sitting above the display is the 8MP front facing camera and proximity/light sensor, with a front facing fingerprint scanner to the bottom. The front facing fingerprint scanner divides opinion in the tech community, with many preferring the rear placement. In truth, it didn’t change my usage of this device. Finally up front, alongside the camera, centred is the earpiece.
It’s around back that things get interesting. First and foremost there are those 15 layers of glass to content with, and the essence of the ‘Lightcatcher’ hashtag coined during the launch event. It really is beautiful, but it’s also a huge fingerprint magnet so neat freaks will be reaching for clothes every other second. Up top is the dual camera setup with dual LED flash. The combination of a 20MP monochrome sensor and a 12MP RGB one is straight out of Huawei’s playbook and is nice to see here. Those who enjoyed the Huawei P10 will enjoy the camera setup here as it’s near identical.
The Huawei Kirin 960 chipset is here once more, having debuted in the Honor 8 Pro and with its 8 cores, it handily destroys day-to-day tasks such as browsing the Internet, email composing, gaming and social media consumption. We’re not big on benchmarks here at MTT but you can check out some of the scores below.
Storage speeds are quickly becoming the most effective way of delivering performance to a device, with a plethora of performing CPUs out there.
In real word use however, there is nothing, save some gamers, that ever taxed this device. The Mali-G71 GPU did struggle on occasion with the highest settings on some of the games we tried, but I’m nit-picking here. Gone was the Android jank of some 2016 devices and all that was left was clean app transitions, speedy installs thanks to a high performing storage setup, and good memory management. You don’t need 6GB or even 8GB of RAM for Android to be silky in multi-tasking, 4GB will suffice for the Honor 9 although you can plump for the 128GB storage version of the Honor 9 and get 6GB RAM if you really want it.
Battery is an area that made me incredibly thankful that Honor stuck with a 1080p display. I tend to get less than 4 hours of screen on time with almost any Android device, and I am still clinging on to the fact that one day I might be able to get 6 hours with a 24 hour idle. We can hope right?
Here, on the Honor 9 we managed a very similar set of numbers to that of the OnePlus 5 that I recently reviewed. I averaged around 3.5 hours of screen on time and could easily make it through 16 hours of idle time along with that. For me, that is a good set of numbers! Would I have expected more from the 3200 mAh battery? Perhaps, but I would have preferred they included the 4000 mAh battery from the Honor 8 Pro in here to get maximum performance. I’m sure there is a reason but I doubt it would be good enough an argument to avoid me grimacing at the decision.
Software Overview – Honor 9
The Honor brings with it EMUI 5.1, again available first on the Honor 8 Pro, and EMUI now looks more stock than ever, whilst maintaining it’s ability to deliver added value flourishes behind every screen. The main screen can be customised to have an app drawer or not, to display widgets or not, and to look just like any stock-ish Android device. This is news to many early EMUI adopters who bemoaned what they might have seen as an over-bearing skin atop their beloved OS. No longer. However, EMUI does still have a plethora of tricks up its ample sleeves.
There’s memory management, colour temperature configuration, floating docks, data use permissions, navigation bar tweaks, network speed displays, gestures, motion control and one-handed UI options just waiting beneath the surface to be tinkered with. These are easily accessible, but not required reading for those that just want their device to work for them without spending time fiddling. That’s not to say that everything within the software is well thought out. For example, the Draw gesture setting that allows a knuckle drag in the shape of a letter to launch a particular app, whilst a neat idea, only works when the display is on which is near useless, and the sheer amount of bundled software is a little be galling. Thankfully whilst some of this can be considered useful in some use cases, most if not all the bundled applications can be removed save for Honor’s own apps.
EMUI has come a long way in my opinion. I have been a fan of Honor’s for some time but their software has, for me, always teetered on the edge of usable, but with their last two generations I have no qualms using the device and the software. If I don’t want to use the built in apps now, I no longer need to thanks to the more polished front end of the skin, and that sits well with me, as I’m sure it does with many others too.
Camera – Honor 9
In almost all of my smartphone reviews this is the area people tell me they skip to most often. I’m not surprised. Smartphones have become synonymous with social media interaction and the number one form of that interaction is no doubt imagery. Whether it’s selfies for your Instagram feed, or Facebook live at the concert you’ve just rocked up to, the cameras are ingrained as one of the most important features of a smartphone, perhaps even more so than performance now. If an application takes 2 seconds instead of 1 second to open, that might well be more acceptable to ‘digital natives’ than a smartphone that fails to capture their duckface properly.
To that end, I took extensive photos and videos with the Honor 9 to try and understand whether the auto mode (which is what the majority of individuals shoot with) actually delivers. I expected it might due to the heritage of the P10 within its chassis, but you never know do you? Feast your eyes upon the gallery.
One of the cools things about this particular optical package is the lossless 2x optical zoom courtesy of the telephoto lens. The gallery below shows how that can be put to good use to get closer to a subject and crop in without losing detail. I thought it did a pretty decent job, although the use case for me is limited. I was always told the best zoom you can get in any camera is one you already own; your feet. It’s nice to be lazy sometimes however and the Honor 9 helps!
The optics aren’t perfect however with some blow outs in the usual smartphone areas such as deep and complex red colours, as well as being prone to wash out a little. As you can see on the selfie images also, whilst there is a cool bokeh effect that can be employed, it doesn’t always fit snuggly around your form, albeit I found that it worked better when using the rear facing camera for this particular scenario. Likewise, the selfie camera is prone to over exposure which is a common occurrence throughout the camera experience (in auto), albeit the rear facing cameras do a much better job of keeping this under control. Manual mode pictures can be truly breathtaking, and you can get close to that with some auto’s with some luck also. The best advice here is to spam that shutter button and make sure you get a few shots to see in which one the exposure fits best.
Conclusion – Honor 9
The Honor 9 is an excellent device at an excellent price and the timing of its launch couldn’t have been better. Where OnePlus have been leading the charge of flagship killers for some time, Honor have been slowly but surely creeping up that market segment with performance and aesthetics that can be a compelling option versus anything that the upper mid-tier or even the flagship tier can produce in real world use.
The performance of the device is great and only in really demanding, GPU intensive games will you see anything like lag, and the storage and RAM is speedy enough to deliver good in app performance. The move to 64GB/128GB storage options and accompanying RAM options is something I’m not overly keen on, but I don’t complain at the increase of storage options in general. Nobody needs 6GB of RAM on an Android device currently, and I’m not even sure Android can accurately deal with RAM of that size, a position I held during my OnePlus 5 review also.
Optics are great on this device. I’m not the best smartphone photographer, but I managed to get some great auto shots. When I took to pro mode I could really get some excellent shots. I’ve specifically omitted them from this review so as not to slant it, but I feel the difference is big enough to include it as a reference.
I fully expect the Honor 9 to sell well, and I think they’ve already gotten off to a great start with over 1 million units shipped (that’s not sold though necessarily) in month one. The price is great for a smartphone in 2017 that isn’t a complete waste of time, and I have to say, even as a OnePlus fan, I’ve had to really think about which device to use moving forward as a daily driver. In my opinion that’s a compliment because OnePlus are known for disrupting the status quo, and Honor are quietly coming up on the inside. They’re almost neck-a-neck now, and I full expect them to continue on their current path.