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A razor-sharp Leica lens lets Huawei's P9 slice through competing phone cams

The Huawei P9 is going to change smartphone photography forever — at least, that’s what Huawei says. It’s a serious claim, so how does Huawei hope to accomplish this revolution? The P9 has a dual-lens camera co-engineered by photography experts Leica. Although we’ve seen dual-camera setups before, and industry partnerships aren’t new, either; Huawei took its partnership with Leica to the next level. The two companies worked closely together to build the P9’s cameras and the app experience.

Huawei’s P flagship line has always focused on pushing the boundaries of smartphone design, and the P9 continues that tradition with its stunning looks. Plus, Huawei has rigidly stuck with a 1080p resolution and a processor of its own design.

None of these decisions would be considered safe choices. Huawei faces a daunting task: Convincing people that its P9 has what it takes to challenge the superb Samsung Galaxy S7 and innovative LG G5. It’s a risky move. We tested out the P9 for a couple of days to see how it holds up against the competition. We’ll update this review with more details as we put the P9 through the paces.

Huawei has been making great looking phones for a while, and the company doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. That should change with the P9, because it’s a jaw-dropping beauty. This is a phone that needs to be seen, handled, and admired. Take a good look at the back of the P9, notice anything? That’s right, those two camera lenses are flush with the body. No hump, bump, or bulge. The all-metal P9 is very sleek indeed.

The camera lenses are contained in a Nexus 6P-like panel made of glass, that covers a subtly lined sheet underneath. This motif continues around the front, where a piece of glass covers the 5.2-inch screen and unfeasibly thin bezels, gently rounding at the edges. Don’t fret about the 1080p resolution, either, you’ll not notice the difference between it a 1440p screen under normal circumstances, plus it’s another factor in the lengthening the battery life.

The P9 is compact, comfortable to hold, and it’s a visual masterpiece. The P8 was pretty, but this phone is stunning. However, there’s a problem. For some, the P9 is going to feel a bit small. It’s not tiny, obviously, and the screen is a reasonable size, but the whole thing is just so well put together and designed, that there’s no excess to grab on to. It’s all very familiar, just on a smaller scale. Many will love it, but others will want something chunkier.

Huawei offers a solution in the shape of the P9 Plus. Yes, for the P9 Huawei’s dropped the previously used Max name in favor of Plus, and we simply can’t imagine why (ahem! iPhone 6S Plus). The P9 Plus has a 5.5-inch screen with force touch technology, but it only works in a selection of native apps, a slightly bigger battery, and the same camera setup. Surprisingly, the P9 plus isn’t much larger than the regular P9, but it’s got a screen that’s big enough to keep those of us used to larger displays happy.

If the rest of the P9 is an utter disaster, then not even a good camera can save it. We’re pleased to say that this isn’t the case. The P9 is an impressive and powerful phone. Huawei doesn’t use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that LG and Samsung use in their phones. The Chinese company relies on its own Kirin 955 processor. General use, music, streaming video, and messing around with the camera didn’t phase the processor at all, and playing a selection of games showed it’s powerful enough to keep pace with Qualcomm chips. There’s 3GB of RAM, which is slightly less than we’d expect these days. The lower amount of RAM did initially cause concern, but our preliminary tests didn’t reveal any weaknesses. The frantic shooter Danmaku Unlimited usually exposes performance issues, but there was no slowdown on hard mode with HD graphics activated.

We tested it with a few benchmarks, in case you’re curious. Huawei’s P9 scored 98,261 on the Antutu benchmark. In comparison, the Galaxy S7 Edge scored 134,704, the LG G5 hit 133,054, the Nexus 6P got 60,007, and the Moto X Style managed 53,692. The P9 ranks lower than the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 in this benchmark, but it’s still leagues above the Nexus 6P or the Moto X Style, both of which are similarly priced.

The Kirin 955 has a co-processor that drives a fitness-tracking mode, and step count appears on the lock screen and in the notification shade. Huawei’s Health app is relatively basic, but does provide a step goal and the chance to track specific activities such as cycling, walking, and running.

On the rear of the phone is a square fingerprint sensor, which is an evolution of the sensor used on the Mate 8. This time, it offers a new layer of security. It’s very fast, and rarely misread our print, but even though it’s better with damp digits than the iPhone 6S, it still won’t react if there’s more than just a hint of moisture on your finger. The speed of the sensor makes up for the moisture problem, and the P9 goes from black lock screen to home screen in the blink of an eye. It’s up there with the OnePlus 2 for reaction time, which is to say, it’s very, very fast.

The P9 runs Android 6.0 with Huawei’s EMUI 4.1 user interface over the top, and it’s a fast, fluid experience. Huawei has continued to refine the UI, and the latest version is less intrusive than older ones. No, it’s not stock Android, there are too many pre-installed (but easily deleted) demos, and there’s no app drawer. However, we do like the enhanced notifications when you pull down the shade at the top of the phone. There, you can interact with notifications without having to jump into an app. You can also choose different themes if you want to personalize your phone even more.

The main downside to having a unique user interface is that it slows down the speed at which a company can update their devices to the latest version of Android. Although Samsung, LG, HTC, and others aren’t any better about issuing timely updates, Huawei’s skin will likely ensure that updates to the P9 aren’t nearly as quick to arrive, as they would be on a Nexus device. Software updates are important because they often serve to close security holes and protect your smartphone from dangerous malware and other exploits like Stagefright and Heartbleed. It’s a shame that Android manufacturers don’t take updates as seriously as they should.

Huawei isn’t the only one with plenty invested in the P9’s success. Leica didn’t just pop its name on the back of the phone and put a few filters in the camera app. The famous camera maker is deeply involved in the creation, engineering, and tuning of the P9’s dual-camera setup. How deep does Leica’s involvement go? Open the camera interface on the P9, and the icons, fonts, and even the shutter sound are all from Leica. It may not sound like much, but that’s a confident move. Leica wants camera aficionados to feel right at home using the P9.

Both six-lens, wide-angle cameras on the back of the phone were co-developed with Leica, and Sony makes the 12-megapixel camera sensors. One camera shoots in color, and the other captures detail in monochrome (black and white). Meanwhile, the wide-angle lenses provide post-shot depth-of-field adjustment.

Huawei proved it could make a good camera with the Huawei P8, but Leica’s technology elevates the camera quality on the P9. Last year, the P8’s camera wasn’t as good as the one on the LG G4 or the LG V10; but this year, the P9 is ready to take on the LG G5 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7.

Let’s start with the camera interface on the P9. Huawei made big improvements to the camera app on the P9. It’s much easier to use than the camera app on the P8, the Mate S, and the Mate 8. Every feature is accessible, but the interface isn’t cluttered, either.

Swipe right, and a selection of modes appear, ranging from HDR and video, to time-lapse and night shot settings. Swipe left, and less often used features come up, such as a timer, camera grid settings, and GPS tagging. The manual mode, called Pro, appears when you drag up a small menu on the main screen. When it’s hidden, the phone is in auto mode. It’s easy, convenient, and intuitive to use the manual mode on the P9. It’s not without fault, though. Annoyingly, the Pro mode menu doesn’t rotate when the phone is in landscape mode, so the settings are not easy to read. Luckily, things like that can be solved with a software update.

We like a camera that encourages us to use it. A smartphone camera should be like a friend who’s always suggesting fun things to do. Although having a simple camera user interface is important, the camera’s performance is even more important. The camera’s hardware, features, and special modes need to produce extraordinary photos, too.

Huawei billed lowlight photography as one of the P9’s strong points, so I put it to the test after the sun went down. It was 10 p.m. before the rain subsided enough to venture out into the night, and a chill wind was blowing hard enough to freeze my fingers. What normally would have been a ten-minute excursion turned into 45 minutes of experimentation. The P9 was so fun to use that I didn’t want to stop playing around with it. After I went home, I knew I’d end up playing around with the P9’s camera the next night, too. I don’t think I’ve had that strong a reaction to a camera since the LG G3. In other words, it’s a joy to use this phone’s camera and experiment with its many special features.

Over the top? Perhaps, but this is a Leica camera, and photographers often say that to take great pictures, you should become one with the camera, in the same way drivers need to feel connected to a great car. Shooting in monochrome is an excellent example of how the P9 encourages you to experiment, and opens up a new creative avenue in smartphone photography. The monochrome lens is a revelation, producing deep, true blacks and stark, beautifully sharp whites and greys. Taking photos on a longer exposure at night returned spooky, atmospheric shots. No, a roundabout and a gas station aren’t the ideal subjects, but the potential is obvious. I wanted to find a house that resembled the one in that classic Exorcist movie poster, because I’m sure the P9 could recreate that amazing image.

Pro mode is extensive, with shutter speed, focus, white balance, and ISO adjustments. However, the latter is more effective left on auto, so it can select more points than you can manually. It’s also possible to lock your selections, but this is done with a stupidly tiny button, instead of a long press. Regardless, Huawei’s Pro mode is equal in terms of usability to LG’s manual mode, and it goes way beyond the P8 and OnePlus 2’s limited and less intuitive manual modes.

When the dual camera lenses work together, they produce the much sought-after bokeh effect, and you can manipulate the center of focus after the shot has been taken. We’ve seen these effects before, in phones from HTC and ZTE, but Huawei’s bokeh effects are considerably more robust and adjustable. The P9 also produces brighter bokeh images than the ones we took with the ZTE Axon Elite.

It’s incredibly easy to use the mode, too. Tap a button to activate the bokeh effects, take a photo as usual, and then mess around with the focal point in the gallery afterwards. What makes the P9 stand out is the ability to adjust the amount of blur behind each spot, using a basic slider control. You can also add filters at the end for more cool effects.

Leica added three color modes to the P9 — standard, vivid, and smooth. These modes work like filters, subtly changing the end results. There’s a selection of modes for taking specific photos, including a night mode that leaves the shutter open for 30-seconds, an HDR setting, as well as video modes for slow motion and time-lapse. The light painting mode that Huawei introduced on the P8 makes a reappearance, as well, but it’s only useful in specific circumstances. For the serious photographer, the P9 can shoot in RAW, it offers complex grid patterns for framing and composing shots, and it even boasts an object-tracking mode.

The Huawei P9’s camera is versatile, capable, and fun. Its photographic abilities go way beyond my knowledge and talent. There’s little doubt that experienced photographers will enjoy using the P9. Only a back-to-back test against the G5 and Galaxy S7 will reveal how good it really is, but taken on its own, we’d call this the best camera Huawei has ever produced, and it’s up there with the finest we’ve used on any smartphone, be it the iPhone 6S Plus, the Galaxy S7, or the LG G5.

The combination of a Kirin chip and Huawei’s Android skin has played havoc with battery life in the past. We’re still too early into using the P9 to judge the battery life completely, but early experiences are good. After a day of intensive use that started at 9 a.m., during which we did most of the test photography, gaming, browsing, and app downloads, the battery had 16 percent remaining at about 11 p.m. Huawei popped a 3,000mAh cell inside the 6.9mm thick phone, and so far, it seems to be paying off. We’ll keep you updated on how it fares as we use the phone more extensively.

Buy it in the U.K., and Huawei covers the phone for two years, and the battery for six months, but only under normal usage. Spill something on it, or drop it, and you won’t be covered.

Huawei has been searching for a winning smartphone for years. The Chinese company has come close to perfection before with the Mate 8 and the Nexus 6P, which we called the best Android phone of 2015, but it hasn’t quite landed on the right combination of design and features to woo the masses away from Samsung and LG.

Ironically, it’s Huawei’s partnership with Leica on the P9 that brings the company closest to success in the battle against Samsung and LG. The fight for smartphone supremacy in the first half of 2016 has become a three-way fight. The Galaxy S7 and the LG G5 are our recommendations for discerning, price-is-no-object smartphone buyers, but the P9 is really close to joining the list. Sure, it will be the off-kilter choice for those who like to eschew brand names, but it’s no longer a risky decision. The P9 is a great phone, and it’s a true flagship. It’s got a great camera, sexy design, and lots of power.

However, there is one tragic downside to this story of triumph for Huawei. The P9 will not be available in the United States. If you want a P9, you must like in select European, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets. The device will arrive this May in the U.K., either free with a contract from various networks, or for £450 SIM-free. It’s close to the same price as the Galaxy S7 and the LG G5, but the P9 is a few hundred pounds cheaper. Ironically, the P9 is actually less expensive in the U.K. than the Nexus 6P, which will run you £100 more.

However, the P9 has grabbed our attention like no Huawei phone before it. Although we’re only a few days into testing it, we can confidently recommend this phone as an excellent choice. If you want the experience of a flagship at a lower price and the benefit of a great camera, the Huawei P9 is for you. We’d buy it over the Nexus 6P, unless you’re really a fan of stock Android, and we recommend it over the similarly priced flagship killers from 2015 like the Moto X Style.

We’ll be updating this review in the near future, after longer-term use to let you know our final judgment on how the P9 fares against the Galaxy S7, LG G5, and even the iPhone.

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