Huawei P9 review: Killer Leica-branded camera earns its place among the 2016 flagships

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The P9 is Huawei's best handset yet, but can it compete with Apple and Samsung? Here's what we found(Credit: David Nield/Gizmag)

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Brace yourselves: Huawei is breaking out of China and looking to take on the might of Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG and anyone else, with the P9 – its most elegant flagship phone yet. It's partnered with famed camera maker Leica on a supercharged, dual-lens camera, as well as promising big things in terms of performance and battery life. Does it stand a chance?

The first thing you notice about the P9 is that this is an exceptionally well made phone: you could put it next to a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 6s and it wouldn't be overshadowed. Any idea that this is a cheap, inferior Chinese phone is instantly dispelled the moment you pick up the P9.

With sandblasted aluminum around the back and smooth, curved glass around the front, it's an eye-catching device (a ceramic version is also available in some parts of the world), and one that feels terrific in the hand. It's light too, without ever feeling flimsy.

Turn the screen on and the IPS LCD display doesn't let down the premium materials that surround it: it's bright, clear and bold, as the supplied lock screen wallpapers do a great job of showing off. A 1080p display is a little behind the curve for a 2016 flagship phone, but it wasn't something that spoiled our experience of the P9.

So let's get to that camera, the headline feature of the P9. Exactly how much input Leica has had here is open to debate, but the official line is that the two companies "co-engineered" the two lenses, even though they were ultimately made by a Chinese supplier and not by Leica itself.

We're less concerned with how "hands-on" Leica's engineers were than whether or not the camera's actually any good, and the answer is a resounding yes. The trump card here is the use of two lenses, one color and one monochrome, and Huawei says the brightness and contrast data from the latter lens helps to sharpen and clarify pictures. Both lenses have 12 megapixel sensors with 27 mm equivalent f/2.2 aperture.

It's one of the best cameras we've come across on a smartphone. Dynamic range is excellent (with or without HDR on), colors are vibrant, and the camera does a great job of balancing brightness with detail. Leica has loaded in three custom filters – Standard, Vivid and Smooth – which offer a simple way for casual photographers to tweak the colors in their images, Instagram style.

Thanks to the integrated hybrid laser-focus assist, changing focus points is fast and accurate, and the bokeh background blur effects (which can be added while shooting photos or during the edit stage afterwards) are genuinely impressive for a phone. As you might expect, monochrome images are top-notch thanks to the dedicated sensor, a step above color photos with the color information discarded.

There are a slew of photo modes to choose from (including night, slow-mo, beauty and light painting), and there's also a Pro mode where ISO, shutter speed and exposure can all be adjusted manually. Combined with the already great results from the camera, this really is a smartphone for photography enthusiasts (or those who'd like to be).

Unfortunately, due to different reviewers on different continents, we weren't able to compare the phone directly with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and HTC 10, which are our current picks for the best smartphone cameras out there. Based on samples we've seen, the S7 and 10 may hold the edge in certain situations (including low light), but the P9's wealth of photo options have to be factored in if you're judging one directly against the other.

We were able to test the P9's low light capabilities against the Nexus 6P and the LG G5. Click through to the gallery and you'll notice the P9 is inferior in standard mode, but holds its own when night mode is activated. In Pro mode (where you can tinker with ISO and exposure) it's possible to get a dark scene looking like broad daylight, but you do get a lot of noise along the way.

You can really lighten up dark scenes (should you want to) but you do need to keep the camera very still and that doesn't really work for those impromptu party shots (some optical image stabilization wouldn't have gone amiss, Huawei). Still, it's good to know the P9 will cope better than most in the majority of conditions, including low light.

It's not just the quality of the photos that the P9 can take but the flexibility in shooting modes and options that make it such fun to use. And if you don't have time for all those settings, just leave it in auto mode and enjoy the results.

Battery life is another key area for any smartphone in 2016, and in general the juice you get between charges on the P9 doesn't feel particularly good or bad. It's around a day and some change of average use, like most other modern flagships, though that's based on our general impressions rather than any official benchmark.

We did put the phone through the Gizmag battery test, involving an hour of streaming video with the display set to a specific luminance. The P9 dropped from 100 percent to 87 percent in that time, which doesn't compare too favorably with the Galaxy S7 (91 percent), the HTC 10 (89 percent) and the LG G5 (92 percent). It did manage to equal both 2015 iPhones, which also dropped 13 percent.

The software, Huawei's own take on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, was one of the weaker aspects of the phone, at least if you prefer stock Android. Huawei's fingerprints are all over the OS, which has ditched the app drawer in favor of iOS-style folders, and it's cluttered with own-brand apps that we don't really want. It's fine to use but we would've preferred a lighter touch from Huawei.

There's not too much else to make the phone stand out. The P9 has a (very fast) fingerprint scanner, USB-C, NFC and support for microSD cards (up to 128 GB in size), as well as dual-SIM trays in some regions so you can use two numbers in one phone. Huawei joins Samung and LG in not supporting Android Marshmallow's adoptable storage feature, where an external card can be blended with internal memory to form one whole.

We've been using the Huawei P9 for a few weeks now, and this isn't a phone that excels in all areas: the software is a little cluttered, and although the P9 can run any game comfortably, benchmark performance is a notch down from the very best phones out there. On the flip side, the P9 excels in terms of its design and its camera, and those are two major considerations for most of us when picking up a new handset.

Is it a pleasure to use? Absolutely, thanks to those appealing looks, nippy performance and a feature-packed camera. We liked it even more after installing the Google Now launcher over the top of Huawei's EMUI skin. It's just not the leader of the pack right now.

There's also the option of the P9 Plus: a bigger, more expensive version of the handset, with extra internal storage, 3D Touch-style functionality, a larger battery, and an AMOLED screen. The P9 Lite, meanwhile, drops the dual lenses and shaves a little off the specs.

We'd recommend the Huawei P9 as a worthy alternative to the big hitters from Samsung, LG and HTC for photo enthusiasts, but availability could be a problem. Right now the "first wave" markets are mainly European, Asian and Middle Eastern ones, and there's no word yet if the handset will ever come to the US (despite Scarlett Johansson featuring prominently in Huawei's advertising).

An unlocked, SIM-free P9 is listed by Huawei as €599 for a 3 GB RAM/32 GB storage model and €649 for a 4 GB RAM/64 GB one, which roughly works out as US$680/$735 in the US (if it ever gets there). Those aren't precise calculations but we're talking the same ballpark as other 2016 flagships, so price isn't going to be a big factor in choosing the P9 over anything else.

We're perhaps more excited about where Huawei goes from here. If it can build on the leap forward it's made with the P9, improve its modifications to Andriod (or lose them altogether) and get distribution in the US arranged (at a reasonable price), then the P10 should be one to look out for.

Product page: Huawei

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