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Honor 9 review: Can it topple the OnePlus 5?

The Honor 9 joins the mid-market smartphone market at an interesting time. With both OnePlus raising its prices and Google abandoning the middle ground entirely, it’s left an opportunity for rival manufacturers to step in and grab a slice of the action, and Honor has obliged.

Last year’s Honor 8 was a decent first stab – a surprising hit – and the Honor 9 takes it a stage further, offering design standards previously unheard of in the sub-£400 smartphone sector.

Honor 9 review: What you need to know

Make no mistake about it, the 5.15in Honor 9 is the best-looking smartphone you can buy for less than £400, improving on the Honor 8 last year. But where the Honor 8 suffered with slow performance and average battery life, the Honor 9 has no such impediment.

Inside is an octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 960, the same speedy chipset found in the Huawei P10. Aside from that, there’s a choice of either 4GB or 6GB of RAM, and 64GB or 128GB of storage, placing it right up there among the big flagship phones in raw performance terms.

Honor 9 review: Price and competition

The Honor 9 costs £379 which puts it in the same price bracket as the incredibly good-value Xiaomi Mi 6 and the long-lasting, modular Motorola Moto Z2 Play. The OnePlus 5 is £70 more expensive at £450 SIM-free but it remains the benchmark smartphone at this sort of price.

There’s also the Huawei P10, which offers similar specifications and a similar dual-camera setup to the Honor 9 but again costs around £40 to £50 more.

Honor 9 review: Design and first impressions

The Honor 9 is in a class of its own when it comes to the aesthetics. Indeed, its flat glass front, “3D” curved glass at the rear and textured, coloured underlay beneath is reminiscent of the Samsung Galaxy S7, a phone that currently sells for around £440.

It comes in blue or silver and both look far more glitzy and glamorous than the OnePlus 5 with its more functional matte-metal finish. It really does look like something you’ve paid twice the price for and the 5.15in screen size means that it slips into the pocket far more easily than most of the monster flagship smartphones I’ve reviewed recently. As you’d expect from a modern smartphone, it’s slim (7.5mm front to back) but it feels quite heavy for its size at 155g.

As for the practicalities, they’re as you’d expect from any aspiring flagship handset. The front, clad in silky-smooth, easy to clean and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 is dominated by the phone’s IPS LCD display. The volume and power keys sit on the right edge of the phone, a combination microSD (supports up to 256GB) and nano-SIM tray is accessed from the left-edge, there’s an infrared transceiver on the top edge, and a 3.5mm headphone jack and USB Type-C charger socket on the base.

Take a quick look at the rear and you’ll see a slightly different layout to last year’s Honor 8. In the top-left corner is a pair of cameras, accompanied by a dual-LED flash unit and an infrared sensor for ‘laser assisted’ autofocus – no change there – but there’s no fingerprint reader; that’s moved to the front and sits between the phone’s invisible capacitive Back and Recent apps buttons.

It’s a practical design whose only missing feature is dust- and water-resistance. You can argue about the new position of the fingerprint reader: some people will hate the move; some will love it, but there’s nothing inherently problematic about it, and it works perfectly, unlocking the phone in a fraction of a second from cold.

Honor 9 review: Specifications, display and performance

From the outside, the Honor 9 is a very different phone from its cousin, the Huawei P10, but look at the specifications and you’d struggle to pick out a significant differentiator.

The Honor 9 has the same HiSilicon Kirin 960 chipset, is available in 4GB or 6GB or RAM, and runs the same software version (Android 7 and EMUI 5.1). It even has the same 3,200mAh battery, so I expected benchmark results and general longevity to be about the same.

And so it proves. In the Geekbench 4 and GFXBench tests, the Honor 9 performs at the same level as the P10, which is to say it’s good, but not as fast as the OnePlus 5 or the Xiaomi Mi6.

The one caveat here is that in everyday use, the Honor 9 doesn’t feel quite as slick as the OnePlus 5. In particular, there’s a small delay between tapping keys on the onscreen keyboard and phone’s vibration motor responding, and there is the odd slowdown here and there across the Phone’s UI.

The phone’s 3,200mAh battery, in the meantime, is fine but not at the top of the scale. At the time of writing, I’ve been using the phone for about a week and the GSAM battery monitor is reporting an average of around 20 hours between charges. That’s about OnePlus 3 territory – nowhere near the 26 hours-plus of the OnePlus 5 – but it’ll get you through a day of moderate use.

As for display quality, that’s slightly less impressive. The panel used is a 1,080 x 1,920 resolution IPS panel and it’s good in some ways, but not in others. Contrast is up to snuff, with images looking sufficiently eye-popping, while maximum brightness hits a respectable 484cd/m2.

However, colour balance and accuracy are a bit of an issue, with red, green and cyan tones looking over-saturated and there’s a tendency to bleach out the lightest grey tones as well.

That’s perhaps not the biggest problem, though; what could prove to be more irritating is that the screen’s polarising layer, which otherwise does a good job of reducing glare in sunny conditions, is arranged vertically. This means if you’re wearing polarising sunglasses the screen blacks out completely.

Honor 9 review: Camera quality

The Honor 9’s dual-camera setup on the back is, like the internal components, essentially the same as the Huawei P10, except without the Leica branding. This means you get a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel RGB sensor and these work in tandem to produce crisp shots that also look good in low light. The idea is that the 20-megapixel sensor captures the detail while the 12-megapixel sensor adds colour information.

What you don’t get are top-level specifications. The aperture is a fairly dim f/2.2 and there’s no optical image stabilisation so colour photographs captured in low light aren’t quite as clean or detailed as they are on the OnePlus 5.

The same goes for outdoor shots, which even in 20-megapixel mode, aren’t as detail packed as they are on the OnePlus 5 nor as colour rich. Check out the text on the side of the silver van in the centre of the shot above. In the OnePlus shot on the left, it’s blue; in the Honor 9 shot on the right, however, it’s lost all its colour entirely.

The phone is capable of shooting up to 4K but stabilisation isn’t particularly smooth and certainly not as good as it is on the Google Pixel XL.

Honor 9 review: Early verdict

When the OnePlus 5 appeared, it was hands down the best mid-range smartphone ever made. It still is, just, but it has some pretty strong competition, especially with the Honor 9.

And it’s a very close run thing. The Honor 9 looks better than the OnePlus, it has expandable storage and the price is £70 lower. The OnePlus 5, on the other hand, is faster, has far better battery life and a superior camera.

For most folk looking to pick up a phone around the £400 mark, I’d still recommend the OnePlus 5 for those reasons, or the Moto Z2 Play for a phone with better battery life but the same price. However, if you pick the Honor 9 for its slick looks and low price it’s not a decision that will weigh heavily on your mind.

Processor Octa-core 2.4Ghz Kirin 960
RAM 4GB
Screen size 5.15in
Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080
Screen type IPS
Front camera 8-megapixel
Rear camera 20-megapixel, 12-megapixel
Flash Dual-LED
GPS Yes
Compass Yes
Storage (free) 64GB, 128GB
Memory card slot (supplied) microSD
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.2
NFC Yes
Wireless data 4G
Dimensions 147 x 70.9 x 7.5mm
Weight 155g
Features
Operating system Android 7.0
Battery size 3,200mAh

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