So, you want a new smartphone, but don’t want to pay the £600+ it costs to get a flagship. Most high-street shops would suggest that there’s very little filling the enormous gap between flagship and budget and they kind of have a point. If you limit your search to the biggest UK brands, that is. Apple has nothing there. LG has nothing there. Sony has very little there, and it’s a bit overpriced. HTC has some stuff, but it’s under specced. Samsung has the A5 which is pretty good, but surely there’s more than that?
There is indeed – if you’re prepared to go out of your comfort zone, that is. Since Google ditched the Nexus brand in favour of shifting Pixels, this area has been taken over by Chinese manufacturers, which are less well known on the high street but quietly celebrated in tech circles. Think OnePlus, Xiaomi and Huawei.
The Honor 9 is the latest handset attempting to dominate this price. Honor, a subsidiary of Huawei, has been making some quietly super smartphones for some time. With the OnePlus 5 getting another big price jump this year, can Honor beat it at its own game?
Honor 9: Design
The Honor 9 is proof that cutting costs doesn’t mean dropping style. In fact, it’s one of the best-looking handsets we’ve seen in the area, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Samsung Galaxy S7, which even 16 months after its release still goes for around £60 more.
Not only does it come in Samsung-style silver and blue but it’s all 3D curved glass and smooth edges. It’s a mere 7.5mm thick and weighs 155g and it also includes a microSD card slot to build on the 64GB built in (or 128GB if you splash out a little more).
There are three key differences, other than the missing Samsung logo. The first is that it has a dual camera on the back, with one dedicated entirely to capturing monochrome images. The second is a USB Type-C port. The S7 was Samsung’s last phone to support micro-USB charging. It’s also not dust- or water-resistant, which is a shame, but not a deal breaker in my book. I’ve owned the S7 for over a year and it hasn’t come into contact with water once.
One further thing worth noting is that the Honor 9’s fingerprint scanner resided on the front, below the screen; on last year’s Honor 8 it was on the on the back of the handset.
Honor 9: Screen
So it’s an expensive looking handset: where’s the catch? Unfortunately, this isn’t like the Xiaomi Mi6 where there was basically no downside. The Honor 9 makes some compromises to come in at this low price and the screen is the most obvious of them.
For a start, it’s 1080p. That’s not really an issue as far as I’m concerned, given I’m sceptical of the need of anything higher on a screen this size but more expensive handsets tend to have 2K and will look crisper when mounted in VR goggles like the Google Daydream View. The Sony Xperia XZ Premium offers 4K but that’s just showing off for the sake of it.
Neither is the problem with the contrast or brightness, which at 484cd/m2 is good enough for use in all but the brightest conditions. Sidenote: if you wear polarised sunglasses in such conditions, you won’t see anything on the screen. The vertical polarising layer essentially makes content invisible. But no, it isn’t that either. The problem comes with colour accuracy, which over-saturates red, green and cyan tones, as well as bleaching out subtle greys.
How sensitive you are to this will vary from person to person, but it’s worth seeing one in person if you can. Colour accuracy is the kind of thing that will barely register for one person, and be a total dealbreaker for the next, in my experience.
Honor 9: Performance
Here’s where things get a little odd, though. Remember the Huawei P10? That was a handset we liked a lot at the time but criticised for its high price of £550. It was a simpler time; nowadays that’s cheap for a flagship phone. So here’s the strange thing. Despite prices going up all around the P10, we were kind of right about it being too costly. The Honor 9 has virtually the same innards but launches at £175 cheaper than the P10 when it was first released. It’s still nearly £100 more expensive nearly a year later.
Both handsets run on the HiSilicon Kirin 960 chipset and both have 4GB RAM. In fact, you can get an extra 2GB in the Honor 9 if you like. They even have the same battery capacity: 3,200mAh apiece. So as you might expect, the benchmarks are certainly in the same ballpark:
Though oddly, it performs considerably worse in the graphical tests:
Still, it’s worth noting that these are intensive tests. The majority of apps you download from the store will not only run, they’ll run very nicely indeed. All the same, if you do want the very best graphical performance, then the P10 is a good shout, given it now comes at a cheaper price, but really it’s hard to look beyond the £450 OnePlus 5.
That’s especially true when you look at battery life. Although the 3,200mAh battery in the Honor 9 is no slouch, and the average of 20 hours between charges it gave us ample, it’s still a little short of the average 26 hours the OnePlus 5 achieved and continues to achieve day in, day out (figures generated by the excellent GSam Battery Monitor app).
Honor 9: Camera
As mentioned earlier, the Honor 9 has not one, but two camera lenses on the rear. One is a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor; the other, a 12-megapixel RGB sensor. The idea is that they two work in tandem to give you good quality images, even in low light: the former captures the detail, the latter fills in the colour.
That all sounds very clever, but it can’t make up for a lack of raw quality. Not only is there no optical image stabilisation (OIS), but the aperture is also a fairly dingy f/2.2. The result, as you might anticipate, are images that are neither as detailed or as clean as those captured by the OnePlus 5.
While the results are better in brightly lit conditions, they’re still not good enough to close the gap: they’re just not as detailed or as colourful as snaps captured by the OnePlus 5.
It’s also worth noting that, although the camera can record 4K video, image stabilisation isn’t that great with the result being rather shaky handheld shots compared with the best in the business.
Honor 9: Verdict
There’s a dearth of smartphones in the sub £400 bracket, and the Honor 9 fills the space nicely. It’s more powerful than the modular Moto Z2 and the Samsung Galaxy A5, and looks like a handset that costs twice the price.
If £370 is what you have to spend, then look no further. If, on the other hand, you check your wallet again and find an extra £70 you want to add to the phone kitty then look at the OnePlus 5 instead. It’s more expensive, but you get a lot more bang for your buck in nearly every way: performance, screen, camera and battery life. It doesn’t have expandable storage, but that’s a price worth paying.
That should take nothing away from the Honor 9, which is a fine phone and its own right – and considering it takes nearly all the ingredients from a handset that’s considerably more expensive, it’s nothing short of a little miracle. Unfortunately for Honor, OnePlus is even more miraculous for just a little more money.