Huawei P9 Plus review: Bigger isn’t always better
The Huawei P9 impressed us when we reviewed it earlier in the year, and not least because its novel Leica-endorsed cameras produced excellent photos at a price that didn’t break the bank. Despite some minor performance hiccups, the P9 emerged as a genuine alternative to the rest of the year’s top-end flagships. Now, Huawei’s given it the super-size treatment with the newly released P9 Plus.
It shares the same cameras and Kirin 955 hardware as its smaller 5.2in stablemate, but the P9 Plus’ display has swelled to a hefty 5.5in. The resolution hasn’t changed, mind, as Huawei’s chosen to stick with a 1,920 x 1,080 AMOLED panel rather than bump up the pixel count. It also comes with 64GB of storage as standard (of which 54GB is available to the user), rather than 32GB, and has a larger 3,400mAh battery. Otherwise, you’re more or less looking at exactly the same handset.
Of course, a larger screen, more storage and a bigger battery are exactly what you’d want from a ‘plus-sized’ phone, but those improvements have sent the price soaring. At £550 SIM-free or around £35 per month on contract, the P9 Plus is substantially more expensive than the regular P9, which is available for £440 SIM-free or nothing at all on a £24-per-month contract. At this kind of price, the P9 Plus is right up there in flagship Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5 territory, so it needs to work a lot harder to stand out compared to its little brother.
Huawei certainly doesn’t need to worry about the quality of its 5.5in Full HD display. As the panel covers 100% of the sRGB colour gamut, photos and videos look wonderfully rich and punchy, and the ultra-high contrast levels from the AMOLED screen tech ensure there’s plenty of detail from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights.
The backlight is reasonably potent, too, and reaches a peak brightness of 399cd/m2. This is around 50cd/m2 more than what I usually see from AMOLED displays, and it makes using the phone in direct sunlight that bit easier. Even Samsung’s Super AMOLED panel on the S7 only manages just over 350cd/m2 on manual brightness, so at first glance you could almost say the P9 Plus’s screen actually surpasses that of Samsung’s.
Those figures are a little misleading, though. The S7’s adaptive light sensor is able to push the screen brightness up to around 470cd/m2 when the brightness control is left on auto mode, which actually makes it more readable outdoors than the P9 Plus. Huawei’s done a great job, but it’s still a whisker behind the best here.
The dual 12-megapixel camera continues to be one of the P9 Plus’ highlights. Just like the original P9, one camera is a regular RGB sensor while the other is monochrome-only. You can read our P9 review for an in-depth look at how it works, but Huawei claims that the additional monochrome sensor allows the camera to capture up to 200% more light when they’re used together to improve contrast.
Of course, this is somewhat hampered by the size of each sensor’s individual pixels, as these only measure 1.25um compared to the S7’s considerably larger 1.4um camera pixels. It doesn’t have any optical image stabilisation either, which can make low-light shots very blurred if you can’t keep your hand steady.
However, the novelty of shooting in proper monochrome (as opposed to an add-on filter) will probably be enough for some users, and I was certainly very impressed with the quality of my test shots. There was oodles of detail in evidence, and the strong contrast between light and dark areas was very striking indeed. The same goes for its regular RGB sensor, which produced fantastic photos in bright, summer sunshine. Colours were rich and natural, and exposure levels were very well judged.
^ With high detail and excellent contrast, the P9 Plus’ monochrome lens will be a boon for photography fans
^ Just like the regular P9, the camera’s monochrome lens is one of its best-selling-points
^ The P9 Plus takes brilliant pictures outdoors, as colours look great and exposure levels are excellent
It certainly makes for an excellent outdoor snapper, but my indoor shots were less convincing. Just like with the original P9, low lighting conditions proved a particular challenge, as noise levels were very high throughout. Colours were generally accurate, but finer details weren’t particularly crisp or well-defined. The flash helped even this out to some extent, but it was only when I switched on our studio lights that picture quality really improved, with noise largely disappearing and details coming into sharper focus.
^ Indoor lighting conditions, however, proved very challenging for the P9 Plus’ camera, as noise was present throughout
^ Images looked better with more light available, but this won’t always be possible when you’re out and about
It’s a shame the P9 Plus’ low light performance isn’t better, as its dozens of additional modes are sure to please photography fans. These include an Aperture mode to adjust depth of field, and a Professional mode that lets you adjust the ISO, exposure, shutter speed, autofocus and white balance. You can even take photos in RAW for editing later. However, when other flagship cameras such as those on the S7 and G5 have very similar features and have better low light performance, it’s really only the Plus’ monochrome lens that gives it an edge.
Sadly, the P9 Plus doesn’t improve on its little brother’s performance issues. Just like the regular P9, Huawei’s equipped with the Plus with one of its proprietary Kirin 955 chips, which has four cores running at 2.5GHz and another four running at 1.8GHz. It does have the benefit of an extra 1GB of RAM, taking the total to 4GB, but even this didn’t make a huge difference to our benchmark scores.
In Geekbench 3, for instance, its single core score reached just 1,857, which is around 300 points slower than the S7 and 500 points behind the G5 and OnePlus 3. Admittedly, it picked up the slack in the multicore test, scoring an impressive 6,656 overall. This actually surpasses the S7 by around 200 points and is one of the fastest multicore results I’ve ever recorded. Indeed, general navigation and web browsing speed felt very responsive in day to day use, and it even handled complex media pages, such as the Guardian’s interactive Olympics coverage, with ease.
It’s just such a pity Huawei can’t replicate that speed for equally good graphics performance, as the Kirin 955’s GPU once again produced some of the worst scores I’ve seen from a flagship smartphone. Managing an average framerate of 15fps in the offscreen Manhattan 3.0 test in GFXBench GL, the P9 Plus’s gaming capabilities pale in comparison to the competition. The S7, for instance, rattled through the same test with a smooth average of 38fps, and the LG G5 and OnePlus 3 trumped that with a result of 47fps.
In reality, though, real world games such as Threes are astonishingly smooth and slick, and even more complex titles like Hearthstone are playable bar a few jerky animations. However, when other phones give you so much more for the same price, the P9 Plus inevitably feels a little lacking by comparison.
The P9 Plus does, at least, have a bit more stamina than some of its rivals. It lasted a respectable 12h 31m in our video playback test with the screen brightness set to 170cd/m2. This is over an hour longer than the G5 and beats the regular P9 by an impressive two hours. However, it’s still got a long way to go before it matches the S7 and OnePlus 3, which lasted 17h 48m and 16h 56m respectively.
It’s a shame, really, as the P9 Plus, much like its little brother, is easily the match of other flagships when it comes to looks. With its brushed aluminium chassis, lightly chamfered edges and distinctive black camera bar on the back, the P9 Plus is vastly more attractive than the LG G5, and it’s arguably more comfortable to hold than the S7.
It also retains the P9’s super-fast fingerprint sensor, which can be used for all sorts of different phone functions, such as unlocking the screen, answering calls, silencing alarms and opening and closing the notification bar. However, while I can’t fault the speed of the sensor, I found the touch gestures weren’t always 100% successful. What’s more, using it to open the notification bar still falls foul of Huawei’s frustratingly rigid Emotion UI interface. For instance, Huawei insists on separating your notifications from the settings shortcuts, and switching between them using touch gestures alone just isn’t possible.
Irritations such as these serve to take the premium sheen off the P9 Plus, and I suspect that not everyone will warm to Emotion UI’s lack of an app drawer, either. It’s good to see that Huawei’s fixed the appearance of third-party apps in its latest software update – it’s now brought them more inline with their stock Android counterparts – but the update has done little to alleviate my other major bugbears with Emotion UI. Sorry, Huawei, but I’m not a fan.
The P9 Plus isn’t a resounding success. It has marginally better battery life, more storage and a slightly bigger screen than the regular P9, but at £550 it finds itself comprehensively outgunned by rivals such as the Galaxy S7 or LG G5. The Leica branding and monochrome camera may be a big selling point for some people, but even if that is the case, you’re still better off with the standard P9.
However, while the S7 and G5 are both excellent smartphones, it’s OnePlus that delivers the killer blow. The OnePlus 3 doesn’t just deliver infinitely superior battery life, better all-round performance and a much more reliable camera – it does all that for only £329. With that kind of rivalry on its hands, the P9 Plus simply can’t compete.
£549.50 Buy now
Processor: Octa-core 2.5GHz Kirin 955, Screen Size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920×1,080, Rear camera: Dual 12 megapixels, Storage (free): 64GB (54GB), Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Dimensions: 152x75x7.0mm, Weight: 162g, Operating system: Android 6.0.1