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Huawei P9 review: A great camera is the best thing about the Huawei P9

The great camera and slim design are in the Huawei P9's favour, but not the clunky Android software.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon
Andrew Lanxon headshot

Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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6 min read

Huawei's flagship P9 is perhaps best seen as a camera with a smartphone attached.

huawei-p9-launch-london-11.jpg
7.6

Huawei P9

The Good

The dual-lens camera takes great photos, particularly in black and white, and the phone's slim design makes it easy to carry around.

The Bad

Huawei's Android skin is awkward to use and loaded with bloatware. The screen resolution should be higher, given the price.

The Bottom Line

It might take fancy photos, but the Huawei P9's high price means it's not a good choice over the similarly priced Samsung Galaxy S7.

Sporting not just the Leica brand name -- one of the most well-respected names in the photography industry -- it also has not one but two cameras on its back. One lens shoots exclusively in black and white, while the two together provide a DSLR-style shallow depth of field.

It can take some great shots, and those of you who love taking those moody shots of your morning latte will relish playing around with the black-and-white mode.

But that's where the excitement ends.

6 cities in Asia put Huawei's P9 to the test (pictures)

See all photos

Huawei has loaded the phone with the same clunky, bloatware-laden Emotion UI it's used on previous handsets. The display's resolution is lower than most other flagship handsets, too, which is disappointing, given that the P9 comes with a high-end price tag.

In the UK, you can pick the phone up, SIM free for £450 ($656), putting it only marginally below the superb Samsung Galaxy S7 (£485 on Amazon UK, $615 on Amazon US) and LG's modular G5 (£490, $650). In Australia you won't get the P9 until July 5 when it'll cost you AU$799.

Two cameras

  • Dual 12-megapixel rear cameras
  • 8-megapixel front camera
  • Dedicated black-and-white mode

I was immediately excited by the fact that Huawei has the Leica brand name on the camera. Leica is one of the most trusted names in photography, making as it does some of the best cameras money can buy. The partnership however doesn't go too far beyond the name though. Leica hasn't provided any hardware for the phone, but Huawei explained that Leica has confirmed that the materials and manufacturing methods used are of a good standard.

Both cameras have 12-megapixel resolutions, but only one of them shoots in colour -- the other is for black and white. While LG's G5 uses a two-lens camera, LG's phone uses the lenses to swap between wide-angle and close-up views. As well as being able to take more impressive black-and-white photos than simply converting a colour image, the P9 is able to combine shots from both sensors, resulting in a rich colour photo with plenty of contrast and detail.

While that does sound like a whole heap of marketing nonsense, it does actually work and quite well.

Shooting in the monochrome mode, I've been able to snag some gorgeous-looking black-and-white shots, with deep black levels and rich contrast across the whole scene, without needing to do any kind of editing. I've spent most of my time in this mode and have thoroughly enjoyed walking London's streets capturing everything in black and white.

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Huawei P9 black-and-white camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei P9 black-and-white camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei P9 black-and-white camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It does do an impressive job with colour, too. Shots are vibrant and rich with a natural colour balance to them. Exposure is good, and the HDR mode works well when you stumble across a scene containing very bright and very dark areas.

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Huawei P9 colour camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei P9 colour camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei P9 colour camera test (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Another benefit of the two lenses is that you can artificially change the depth of field for your shots -- the effect is similar to what you'd achieve by changing the aperture on a DSLR. It mostly works well, though it can create an unrealistic blur with some subjects.

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Huawei P9 camera test, depth of field effect (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Huawei P9 camera test, depth of field effect (click to see full size)

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Ho hum design

  • 145x70.9x6.95mm
  • 144g
  • All-metal body
  • MicroSD card expandable storage

I'll be honest, the P9's design does nothing to excite me. It's skinny and easy to hold, and the all-metal design feels reassuringly premium, but the plain matte back is yawn-inducingly generic. It would be going too far to call it ugly, but it looks nowhere near as luscious as Samsung's sumptuous Galaxy S7. Nor does the P9 have the water-resistant components of the S7, so keep it far away from water.

The P9 is also equipped with a microSD card slot (for cards up to 32GB) and the latest USB-C charging port. A variety of new phones (including the LG G5, the HTC 10 and Google's Nexus 5X and 6P) already use the new connector, although strangely not the Galaxy S7.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's NFC for contactless payments, and on the back of the phone is a fingerprint scanner, conveniently located where your index finger naturally sits when you hold the phone. It's easy to set up and was fast and accurate in recognising my prints. Its position, however, means that you can't use it to unlock your phone when it's lying flat on the table.

A bold display that needs more pixels

  • 5.2-inches
  • 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution

The 5.2-inch display has a full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 423 pixels per inch. Your everyday apps (Twitter, Instagram and the like) look perfectly crisp, but it's disappointing not to see the same ultrahigh-resolution screens you'll get on the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 -- particularly as there's little price difference between the three.

The screen itself is reasonably bright, coping well under our office lights. It wasn't as easy to see under bright outdoor sunlight, but I've certainly seen a lot worse. Colours are very bold, too, bordering on being a little oversaturated at times. It's a great screen for browsing your photo gallery or playing vibrant games like Candy Crush.

Processor performance and Android software

  • Octa-core Kirin 955 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Emotion UI custom interface

The P9 runs on an octa-core Kirin 955 processor. It's a powerful chip, backed up by 3GB of RAM, and is more than powerful enough for pretty much anything you're likely to throw at it. Apps and games load quickly, streaming from Netflix is buttery-smooth and photo editing in Snapseed was handled very well.

Huawei P9 benchmark scores

Huawei P9 1,566 5,686 19,807Samsung Galaxy S7 2,323 5,429 29,031HTC 10 2,316 5,014 27,724LG G5 2,313 5,345 27,758
  • Geekbench 3 Single-Core
  • Geekbench 3 Multi-Core
  • 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

It put in a great performance on our benchmark tests, achieving a multi-core score of 5,686 on Geekbench 3, putting it slightly above even the Galaxy S7 (5,429). It fared less well on the graphics test 3DMark: Ice Storm Unlimited, scoring 19,253 -- a significant drop from the S7's 28,896. Still, I found Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas played smoothly, and I have no worries about the phone's ability to handle any of the games from the Google Play Store.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The P9 comes with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but you won't really notice as Huawei has heavily skinned the Android interface with its own Emotion UI, something I've never been keen on. Huawei has made some big changes to Android, chief among which is the removal of the app tray, meaning all your apps are scattered across the homescreens.

Huawei still insists on preloading a bunch of apps onto the phone, like its own email, calendar and gallery tools, which can't be deleted, alongside Google's own versions of the same. All of which helps make the phone feel cluttered and confusing right from the moment you first turn it on.

There's a themes tool too, allowing you to customise the look of the interface. There are only six available however and no amount of hunting around the phone revealed any way to download more.

Battery life

Huawei reckons you'll squeeze two days of use from the 3,000mAh battery. I'd say that's pretty ambitious. In my own use, I found that even with reasonably heavy use I was able to get a full day from a charge. Playing games or shooting with the camera does take its toll though, so it's easy to drain power when you're out and about.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It holds its charge well in standby mode, and you could eke out extra hours by turning the screen brightness down and switching off GPS and Wi-Fi. And if you need to save that last few percent, there's an ultra battery mode, which gives access just to calls and texts.

Needs to be cheaper

The Huawei P9 has a lot going for it. It ticks many of the boxes I'd expect of a flagship handset: its excellent camera takes awesome black-and-white shots, it's got a skinny metal design, plenty of power and a vibrant screen. As with previous Huawei phones though, it's the software that lets it down.

Emotion UI is my least favourite of all the Android skins, and I'm disappointed that Huawei has done little to make it easier to use. There's too much bloatware on board, and the radical changes Huawei has made makes it clunky for even Android veterans to use. I'd love to see a stock Android version of the P9 that combines the slick hardware with a much more approachable interface.

Its high price puts it right alongside the Galaxy S7. As it is though, I'd look toward the Samsung Galaxy S7 or the LG G5. Both phones cost little more than the P9 and have similarly great cameras, and both offer a nicer Android experience. Not to mention the S7's waterproof design or the G5's swappable modules.

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7.6

Huawei P9

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8Camera 9Battery 7
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