The P9 is the first device Huawei's created with input from high-end optics outfit Leica. At this stage in their relationship, Leica "approved" the lenses for the P9 and helped redesign the camera software. Sticking two cameras on the thing was definitely Huawei's idea, though, and one the company first explored with the Honor 6 Plus.
But the arrangement is altogether different on the P9, as it uses two 12-megapixel sensors: one color and one monochrome. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the monochrome camera allows you to take native black-and-white images, and damn, do they look good. I really, really like this feature, but a fellow tech journalist did put it into perspective for me somewhat. We were discussing its merits, and I was gushing about how much better these black-and-white pictures looked in comparison with filtered color images. He agreed -- kind of: "But is it a feature anybody asked for?"
Perhaps not, but then I'm the kind of tool who has an ancient Pentax permanently loaded with 35mm Ilford film, so I'm exactly the type of person it would appeal to. That said, I could never ditch my manual cameras for a smartphone replacement, monochrome sensor or not.
The real reason for having a monochrome sensor doesn't have much to do with native black-and-white snaps. Primarily, it's there to play assistant to the color sensor. Huawei's image-processing alchemy uses the lighting and contrast of the monochrome picture as a sort of data to enhance the quality of the final color image. And having two cameras instead of one means the P9 can simulate a whole range of aperture settings, just like HTC's Duo Camera feature that debuted on the One M8.
While the color sensor actually takes the picture, the monochrome sensor is capturing depth information. This means that you can simulate the aperture of a bona fide camera lens, from f/16 all the way to f/0.95 (a nod to one of Leica's most premium lenses). The aperture shooting mode therefore lets you take close-ups with the kind of bokeh (background blur) you get from proper cameras. And after the fact, you can edit the same snap to change the aperture size and the focal point of the image.
Because this is all done with software, though, there's an obvious cutoff point at which images go from having a nice, believable amount of bokeh to looking a bit ridiculous (think: that Neo-versus-Smith army fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded where real Keanu so obviously becomes CGI Keanu). The f/0.95 setting looks more like someone's gotten way too smudge-tool-happy in Photoshop, for instance, rather than the image looking like it's been shot with a real f/0.95 lens.
Cramming two cameras into a smartphone is nothing new, and it might not be the killer feature Huawei wants it to be. After all, why would HTC ditch its Duo Camera unless it discovered users weren't all that fussed about it? Still, even if Aperture mode is tantamount to a gimmick -- and one that's been pinched from another manufacturer -- the P9's camera is still pretty great, and versatile at that.
You can leave everything on auto and quite easily get some really crisp and detailed 12-megapixel shots out the P9. Exposure, white balance and color saturation are on point pretty much all of the time; rarely have I taken a shot with the handset and not felt it to be a faithful representation of what I can see behind the viewfinder. It adjusts to artificial light well, and focusing is rapid to the point of being practically instant, which Huawei puts down to its hybrid laser-, depth- and contrast-informed method.
Like autofocus, shutter response is just as instantaneous, almost regardless of lighting conditions; burst capture is so rapid you might as well be shooting a 30fps video. On that note, the P9 is pretty handy in low-light situations. It seems to capture most of the natural light available to it without too much artificial enhancement by way of jacking up the exposure. It can't work miracles, but moonlight alone is sometimes enough for at least a distinguishable image. And when it's not, you can rely on the powerful two-tone flash for a synthetic burst of illumination.
If you want to delve beyond the simple point-and-shoot interface, there are a bunch of shooting modes to play with. Serious smartphone photographers might want to head straight for the "Pro" mode, which lets you tweak every setting manually, even the focus, and outputs RAW images. There are three different "Film" modes of Leica's design that subtly change the texture of colors -- standard, smooth and vivid -- the latter being a kind of lighter HDR mode, which is also available to add that familiar high-contrast pop to images. The panorama mode is also worth mentioning because it does a fabulous job of stitching images together.
The exploration continues with various video toys, including time-lapse and slow-motion modes. Video quality does leave something to be desired, it has to be said. Full HD clips are a little too noisy for my liking, even in favorable lighting conditions. Colors are flat, and audio has a muffled, distant tone to it. But you can't have it all, I guess, and who needs good video when you've got so many photo modes to dip in and out of? To conclude: At some point during my time with the P9, I stopped "testing" the camera and just started having fun with it, which is probably the best endorsement I can make.
Performance and battery life
You won't find any Snapdragons round these parts. Huawei makes its own processors, and the P9 is kitted out with the best of 'em: the octa-core Kirin 955. That's four 2.5GHz cores and four 1.8GHz cores, if you were wondering. Pair that with 3GB of RAM and you have one potent combination. And that's all I really need to say. From simpler 3D games like Sonic Dash and NBA Jam to more resource-intensive titles like Asphalt 8, Real Racing 3 and Ravensword 2, the P9 handles them all effortlessly. No dawdling on the loading screens, no dropped frames, no problem.
Browsing performance is governed by the speed of your connection above all else, and in general day-to-day use, I haven't seen any strange behavior that would constitute a chink in the processor's armor. One variant of the P9, which I can't see is available in the UK anywhere, has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. The 3GB of RAM and 32GB of space on the unit I'm using doesn't leave me wanting in either department, however, especially since microSD cards are supported for upping memory up to 128GB.
Elsewhere in the performance stakes, there are a few missteps. GPS is inaccurate, for one. Google Maps jumps from my current position to where I was five minutes ago regularly, and there's often a large margin of error even when it is roughly on point, leading to the occasional wrong turn. Also, WiFi takes a while to connect to saved networks for some reason, which is annoying on the London Tube when you have only 30 seconds at stations to get online and do whatever you need to. In terms of connections, you do have everything you could want available to you: Cat 6 LTE, dual-band WiFi (a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC.
Compared with other smartphones that've run our review gauntlet in recent times, the P9 doesn't exactly top the battery-life leaderboard. In fact, in our standard looping video rundown test (720p clip at 50 percent brightness), I managed to squeeze nine hours and 20 minutes out of the 3,000mAh cache. That's more than an hour less than the HTC 10 and LG G5, and way behind the 13-plus hours that the iPhone SE and Galaxy S7 line are capable of.
Outside of lab conditions, the P9 is good for about a full working day of frequent use, but not much more. On one particularly busy Wednesday, I tethered my laptop to the handset for over an hour, and took a bunch of pictures and made several calls, in addition to reading and responding to a constant stream of emails, WhatsApps, etc. Unplugging at roughly 7 AM, the phone was dead by about 10 PM. With less frequent use, you're looking at more like a day and a half away from a charger.
It's probably best to kick this section off with a few editor's notes. Footnote one: The P9 is not officially available in the US, and Huawei's said it doesn't have any plans to launch it there. Second: I'm not an expert on the Asian market, where Huawei is competing with the likes of Xiaomi and Nubia, potentially making the P9 a completely different proposition in that region. All I can reliably comment on is how it fits into the UK landscape, and even then, I'm struggling to see its niche.
Regardless of my opinion, Huawei seems to have wooed UK carriers, with every major network announcing its intention to range the handset the day it was announced. This is the biggest splash a new Huawei handset has ever made by an absolute mile, though it's yet to reach any of these providers. Contract reseller Carphone Warehouse is offering the phone for free from £26 per month. That's more than the Nexus 5X, the same price as the iPhone SE and only slightly cheaper than the LG G5.
An unlocked, SIM-free model will set you back £449 at Huawei's official online store, and therein lies a problem. That's a lot of money. It's more than the most expensive iPhone SE, £50 cheaper than the LG G5, and roughly £100 shy of the iPhone 6S, HTC 10 and Galaxy S7, not to mention that it's identical in price to the Huawei-made Nexus 6P. I could probably dedicate a thousand more words to listing all the potential alternatives and relative pricing, but what I'm basically trying to say is: I don't think the P9 hits that sweet spot between feature set and price.
The P9 is meant to be a flagship device, remember, but for a near-flagship price you're not getting any of the comforts I might expect, like waterproofing, wireless charging, a Quad HD display, a striking design, high-res audio, a long battery life and so on. Apart from the dual camera -- which HTC did years ago -- there's little to elevate the P9 user experience above great little devices like the Moto G or Wileyfox Swift, which you can pick up for a fraction of the price. The P9 is drowning in a sea of competition, and there's no one feature to serve as its life jacket.
The P9 is a perfectly good smartphone, particularly when it comes to performance and camera tricks. I had a ton of fun playing around with all the shooting modes, ogling the gorgeous native black-and-white images, and fiddling with bokeh. But the dual camera is something HTC pioneered yonks ago, and has since sent it to feature heaven. And what else are we really getting?
A nice 1080p display (albeit no improvement over last year's P8), a rather uneventful metal unibody design, a somewhat charming but unfamiliar Android build and a day's worth of battery life. Huawei isn't the only company taking baby steps, mind. Aside from LG's ambitious G5, the biggest smartphone launches of 2016 thus far have largely been iterative.
If I had to take issue with one thing specifically, it would be the P9's price, which is almost impossible to justify. The handset's camera is its only standout -- but not innovative -- feature, and you want me to pay four hundred and fifty quid for that? No deal.