Honor 9A Review: Great Hardware, let down by software.

Honor’s A line up has, for a while been just a bump above entry-level, but this year, they seem to have taken that a bit further. With a slight bump in price to £130, should you even consider the Honor 9A or look at alternative from Nokia or Motorola with Google Play Services to boot?

Honor 9A
+ FOR
  • Solid Hardware
  • Very decent performance
  • Stellar Battery Life
  • Gorgeous screen
  • NFC
  • Android 10
- AGAINST
  • App Gallery still missing too many apps
  • Lots of apps rely on Google back end
  • MicroUSB charging

Buy on Amazon UK – £129.99

Disclaimer

Honor UK provided this phone for review. The Honor 9A I was using is running pre-release non-commercial firmware version 3.1.0.74. I used this device for 10 days as my primary device on the Three UK network in the Southeast of the UK. The device received no software OTAs in my time with it. Honor is not seeing this review before it goes live and no money has exchanged hands between either entity.

Honor 9A Review
Honor 9A Specifications

  • 6.3” IPS LCD
  • 1600×720
  • MediaTek Helio P22
  • 4x Cortex A53 @2.0Ghz
  • 4x Cortex A53 @1.5ghz
  • PowerVR GE8320
  • 12nm TSMC
  • 64GB eMMC 5.1
  • 3GB RAM
  • 5000mAh Li-Po
  • 13MP main camera (F1.8)
  • 5MP Ultrawide Camera (119 degrees, f2.2)
  • 2MP Depth Camera (f2.4)
  • 8MP Front camera (f2.0)
  • 2.4Ghz only WiFi
  • NFC

For a more complete spec list, head on over to GSMArena

Honor 9A Hardware

As is nearly always the case, even on less expensive hardware, Honor knocks this out of the park. Despite being all plastic there is no flex, creaks or wobbles either. It’s just a nice device to hold in your hand.

Honor 9A Review
Taking a hardware tour starting at the front, we have a 6.3-inch IPS LCD screen which is astonishing for the price. It has got a tiny waterdrop notch at the top for the 8MP selfie camera, and the chin is a bit larger than I’d like but nothing egregious. Once again, the quality of this screen is amazing. Colours pop, it is nice and bright and viewing angles are great. It also seems to have a higher-touch response than some of the much more expensive phones I’ve tried. It’s still a 60Hz panel, you’ll have to spend £70 more for a Realme 6 to jump to a 90Hz panel. Honor also pre-apply a screen protector which is thankfully properly applied, and just above the screen in the border between the panel and the plastic frame is the earpiece. This has in recent years been getting more and more hidden, and this goes to show it has trickled down to even the low end of phones.

Honor 9A Review
Going to the left-hand side of the device we have the MicroSD and NanoSIM tray, this is one of those 2+1 trays that are super long, meaning you can have 2 NanoSIMs and a MicroSD card, whereas other Dual-SIM setups make you choose between 2 NanoSIMs or a NanoSIM and a MicroSD card, the downside with this is that the SIM removal tool needs to be longer, so use the one in the box, not that old one you have on your keys. Flipping to the right-hand side is the power button and above it the volume rocker. Both of these have a tad more wobble than I’m used to from Honor devices but they don’t require too much force and thankfully aren’t mushy.

Honor 9A Review
On top of the phone is the secondary microphone for the noise-cancelling whilst you are on a phone call or recording video. On the bottom we have from left to right, the 3.5mm audio jack, the main microphone, the MicroUSB charging port (eurgh) and the speaker grille. I need to moan about the MicroUSB port because in this 2020th year of our lord Beebo I am struggling to justify MicroUSB ports on sub £100 phones, but on ones above £100 it is just not acceptable in my opinion, especially not when the charger tops out at 10w and you’re trying to charge a 5000mAh battery.

Honor 9A Review
Lastly, to the back of the phone, we have the camera cluster in the top left, with the fingerprint scanner in the centre of the top of the phone, with the new Honor logo on the bottom. It is a nice clean design. Honor tout this as having no camera hump and that’s mostly true. There is a raised lip, but I wouldn’t class it as a full on-camera hump. The panel is plastic, which some may not like, but I’m actually fine with. It won’t crack like glass, and if you ever need to get into the phone, it’s a whole lot easier to open a plastic-backed phone as you can bend the panel instead of cracking it.

Honor 9A Review
As I said, hardware isn’t an issue for Honor. It’s solid, both physically and metaphorically. There are just a few choices that I’m not a fan of; the MicroUSB port and the camera configuration (please banish these depth cameras) but otherwise, pretty nice.

Honor 9A Software

This is, sadly, not the section I want to write because try as I might, I can’t find a way to make it sound appealing.

Honor 9A Review
Visually, Honor gets a lot right here. MagicUI 3.1 based on EMUI 10.1 has a lot going for it. It’s not the visual mess that EMUI was back in the 4.X days. It’s also a lot faster and more fluid than it used to be. Apps now have consistent user experiences between them; a visual aesthetic that carries across and feels cohesive in a way that it just didn’t for a very long time.

The issue here though is the lack of Google apps and Google Play services framework. About a year ago, Huawei was put on the United States’ “Entity List” and to not take too much of your time, the results of being on the list mean that Huawei cannot work with a US-based company without the company gaining explicit permission from the US government. The way this relates to mobile is that Google, the owner of Android and the company that certifies devices for use with google play services and the google play store, is a US company. Meaning Huawei cannot get it is devices certified and cannot ship with the play store, or any Google app. Honor, being a subsidiary of Huawei is also subject to these rules and it makes using these phones a lot more difficult.

Honor 9A Review
There are a lot of applications that are installed on many phones, that just don’t exist here. YouTube, Google Search and Google Maps are all absent. Even non-Google Apps that are usually installed by default, like Twitter and Facebook are harder to get than on a normal Android device. Huawei has been building out its own app store, called the App Gallery, for a few years now. The speed at which the App Gallery is growing and the types of applications it is getting is truly impressive. The experience is still not as polished as using the Play Store. Let me give you an example.Honor 9A Review

Facebook is a great example. If you search ‘Facebook’ in the App Gallery, the top search is “Facebook – official app download”. You would think that pressing the “get” button would download and install this app in the App Gallery. How wrong you’d be. In fact, it opens up the Huawei Browser and takes you to the Facebook website where the Facebook APK is downloaded. Once downloaded it opens up the default Android “install from unknown sources” installer. Next, the file is scanned for security vulnerabilities and displays the permissions required by the app. If you are updating the app, what new permissions this version requires then, are then displayed.

This is for Facebook, an app that for many, is a default app. This is made even worse due to the lack of auto-updates. The App Gallery will tell me there is a Facebook update, and clicking on the button takes me to the Facebook site to download the updated APK and repeat the installation steps. Whether this is at al difficult is not the point. Huawei has made this as easy as it can without getting Facebook into the App Gallery natively. The problem is just that; why the hell hasn’t Huawei gotten Facebook into the App Gallery already? Facebook isn’t a new app, and the App Gallery has been around since 2018 with the Huawei P20 series. With an app as large as Facebook I would have expected it at launch. Instead, 2 years later, Huawei is still trying to position HMS and the App Gallery as a legitimate competitor to the Google Play Store.

Honor 9A Review
This is made worse by the fact that this ban doesn’t just stop you from getting the Play Store, but stops you from getting certified for Google Play Services. What do Google Play services do? Well, pretty much everything. Location data requests, Single Sign-on, Payments, Casting, and Push Notifications. That last one is the most important user-facing one. Even if you get an app, not in the App Gallery,  installed, such as Twitter, if that app uses Google Play Services for Push Notifications (like Twitter does) then you won’t get notifications from that app unless you open the app. This is far from a good user experience!

Well, what if every app you use is in the App Gallery or doesn’t use Google Play services, what’s the experience like there? Actually, pretty good. There are a lot of big apps in the App Gallery, such as Snapchat, TikTok, Zoom, Tinder, Microsoft Office suite and using those apps works exactly as you’d expect it to work, you press the install button, it gives you a percentage of how far along it is, and once it’s installed, it turns into an open button launching the app as you’d expect.

Honor 9A ReviewHuawei has also made finding apps easier with their Petal search app, an application that, if an app is not in the Ap Gallery and won’t link out you can still search for an install. Petal search is, for lack of a better term, an application repository search engine. It will go out and search for Applications from the developer’s site, APKPure and most recently APKMirror and each repository is vetted by Huawei before it goes live on Petal Search, so you aren’t going to be downloading that BBC iPlayer APK from a random dudes Google drive.

Honor 9A Review
Petal Search also keeps a list of everything you’ve downloaded through it, and when apps have updates available, they’ll be in the updates tab. However it once again doesn’t auto-update these apps, so you’ll need to make it a habit of checking for app updates in Petal Search. Not a perfect user experience, but about as good as can be without having access to the platforms largest app store.Honor 9A Review
The App Gallery is growing every day, and it is moving forward with getting new applications like the premier league app. But I still think, in places like the UK, the app gallery is a bit too sparse for me to recommend to normal people. Without many banking apps, without social networks, without a compelling browser, and heck, without Casting, something that has become second nature to so many of us, it gets harder and harder to recommend a google-less device, because even if you don’t use any of the Google applications, the applications you do use may use Google services, and there isn’t really a way to figure that out beforehand.

Honor 9A ReviewHonor 9A Cameras

This is actually another positive note. Over the years Huawei and Honor’s camera processing has gotten really good even on it is lower-end hardware, and for what is a small step up from entry-level, the camera experience on the Honor 9A is actually quite good. The main 13MP sensor, in good light, is able to pull out a fair amount of detail and reproduces remarkably accurate colours, it doesn’t fall into the trap of boosting saturation to the point where every photo looks like a 13-year-old has tampered with it on his first Lightroom endeavour. The Ultrawide, whilst not exceptional still does better than the underwhelming smudge fest that was the TCL 10L’s Ultrawide camera. Lastly, the depth camera is, well it’s there.

Honor 9A Review
We’re getting to the point that even cheap phones like this in decent light can take rather impressive shots, and that is true here, for the most part, this is a point, shoot and share camera and the result is going to be pretty good. Not the best, but I have camera lenses that cost more than this phone does. For Instagram, WhatsApp video calls, Snapchat etc this is a perfectly acceptable memory catcher, and for a lot of people, that’s all they want, something that can adequately capture memories.

Honor 9A Review
Selfies on the 8MP waterdrop notch are better than I was expecting. Whereas I’ve been conditioned to expect softness, smears and tiny sensors overblown by an incandescent bulb, this is actually quite good, shockingly so. I’d argue it comes somewhat close to the much more expensive Realme 6 in front camera quality which I definitely wasn’t expecting.

Lastly, video. As before, I wasn’t expecting great things, the camera sensor is small, MediaTek’s high-end chips aren’t known for great quality ISPs (Image signal processors) so their entry-level chips weren’t really going to inspire confidence and it was, fine. Just fine. Typical issues such as exposure issues are still prevalent here, but focus seems to be faster and lease peaky than on other phones. Though the bitrate feels laughably low when watching this content back on a computer, 1080p30 is the max video recording on both the front and rear cameras, no 4K here but you really wouldn’t want it.

Honor 9A Performance

Once again, as a surprise to me, the performance here was actually on the better side of acceptable. The Helio P22 from MediaTek isn’t a powerhouse, and let me be clear there were times I still felt the P22 struggle, the Cortex A53s are old shoving more of them at a higher clock speed won’t really change that fact. The best thing that was done with it was the choice to use TSMC’s 12nm FinFET manufacturing node, so they can shove more of them at higher clock speeds without just sucking up juice quicker than an infant after a nap. When the 9A slows down is when it has to use the fixed-function blocks, like the ISP for recording video. If you try to zoom on switch cameras whilst video recording you will feel the lag, but even more so, the longer you record you will notice the viewfinder becomes decoupled by a second or so from the main camera and becomes quite jelly-like.

You will not mistake this for a powerhouse flagship CPU but you might mistake it for a lower end midrange one, and it gets the job done without making you want to pull your hair out for the most part, which cannot be taken for granted with a cheaper device. One thing to note, none of the benchmark applications I downloaded would install, so there are no benchmark screenshots in this review.

Honor 9A Battery

This one is simple. It’s great! With a 5000mAh cell, the Honor 9A lasted me 3 days on a charge. I think this longevity is partly due to it is the software management. For example not having push notifications for one of my most used applications, Twitter, is likely helping the battery. Still, 3 days is pretty stellar. It is helped by the efficient 12nm chip with relatively low power Cortex A53 cores.Honor 9A Review
The issue is with recharging. Charging a 5000mAh battery over 10w is just painful. The MicroUSB port is bad enough. It is fragile and can only plug in one way. Sure there are ways to charge faster over MicroUSB such as Qualcomm QuickCharge. The Honor 9A uses a MediaTek chip so that’s out of the picture. Sure they have their own standard, PumpExpress, but that one is largely dead in the water. If they had gone with USB-C they would have been able to use the new USB Power delivery standard. This is a royalty-free standard with low implementation cost that would allow, at the very least, 15W charging.

Honor 9A Miscellaneous

Let’s touch on connectivity and the Honor 9A’s radios. The 9A has WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, no ac (WiFi 5) and definitely no ax (WiFi 6) due to the lack of 5Ghz support. It’s been a while since I’ve had a phone with no 5Ghz WiFi support and I wasn’t ready for my nostalgia trip. 5Ghz is a lot less congested, meaning fewer devices on it, with less congestion each device, returning more bandwidth and in turn, speed.

Also, the 9A has NFC. This is great as most devices at this price omit it, just as they do USB-C. I use NFC in my phone setup for connecting to my WiFi network. I usually use it for pairing headphones and of course Google Pay also. That first one still works. My NFC tag to connect to my WiFi is a great addition and was easy to setup and speeds up setting up a new phone. Pairing headphones works well also, but if I want more complex features of the headphones to work I need to go look for the APK as it is not in the App Gallery. As for Google Pay, that’s just out of the equation. As far as I know, Huawei/Honor has no alternative.

Final Thoughts

So, with good hardware, a rather respectable camera system and stellar battery I’m recommending this right? Sadly, it’s a no from me, and it pains me to say that because everything aside from the app situation makes this a competitive entry-level phone. If you happen to be a person who doesn’t rely on any Google Apps, doesn’t mind searching for ones you want and living with some general wonkiness, I still think something like the Nokia 5.3 for £20 is a better buy. Not only do you have Google, you’ll also get a faster Snapdragon 665 Chip and USB-C.

Honor 9A Review
This is honestly sad for me. A lot of this is out of Huawei and Honor’s control due to the US ban. They have managed to deliver the App Gallery in an incredibly short period of time and should be applauded. It just isn’t quite there yet and as such, I can’t recommend this phone to anybody unless they know how to fiddle to get the apps they want.

About Domenico Lamberti

Technology has been a big part of my life for years, whether it be ripping the family computer apart to see how it worked, playing with the new phones that Dad brought home from work. Senior Reviewer for MTT.

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