Huawei Sprinkles Hollywood Glamour on P9 and P9 Plus

UPDATED with some comparative photos from the P9 sample device.

Huawei has been one of the fast moving brands over the last two years. It was early to adopt a dual branding strategy to take advantage of online sales opportunities in its home market. This worked well and the strategy has been extended internationally.

The company backed-up a successful distribution strategy with a growing range of accomplished products. The uptick started with P6, launched in 2013 – a slim and well-designed Android product that sold well in a number of markets. The P7 that followed a year later continued the theme. The P8 family, launched in April 2015 has been the backbone of Huawei’s record 2015 volume of 110 million units. The P8 Lite has been a surprise hit in many European markets as well as in the company’s traditional strongholds of China and MEA.

As confidence and market share grew, Huawei extended its range further with the launch of the Mate series of phablets. The Mate 7 provided a credible competitor with Samsung’s Note series. The Mate S launched in September 2015 was one of our favourite Android products of 2015. The exceptional design and strong imaging performance were let down only by relatively poor power management and minor instability in the way the product handled some applications. With the Mate 8, launched in early 2016, Huawei again pushed quality mark higher.

The P9 and P9 Plus were introduced at Huawei’s most high profile launch yet; Huawei is backing its ambition to be a premium handset maker. The P9’s USP is imaging quality that it is underscoring this claim through its strategic partnership with premium camera brand, Leica. The P9 has three camera sensors – one front facing 8 MP sensor for selfies. The real innovation is the twin camera set-up on the rear of the device. Both sensors are 12 MP with one covering the color RGB range and one dedicated to monotones. The twin sensors enable a range of exciting imaging effects that will be well-received by consumers. However while the Leica brand is well-known among camera aficionados, Huawei will likely have to educate other consumers, especially from the younger age ranges, who may be less knowledgeable about the brand’s venerable 100 year plus history. The strategic partnership could therefore work both ways, with Huawei benefiting from Leica’s considerable imaging know-how and Leica getting a boost thanks to Huawei’s growing profile. The partnership is described by both as long-term, so we can expect more devices to feature Leica co-branding. Leica is known best for still image photography and this is also the emphasis on the P9 – little is made of its video capability.

Huawei P9 range

The P9 is capable of shooting in RAW format, which will enable enthusiasts to do significant post-processing both on and off-board. However Huawei is not including any photo editing software in the package. In addition Huawei has missed an opportunity to partner with photo storage service providers or photo-sharing social media that might have enabled consumers to better demonstrate the considerable power of the devices imaging capabilities.

Huawei P9 Cameras

The P9 includes the latest iteration of the company’s own HiSilicon application processor family. The Kirin 955 is made on TSMC’s 16nm FinFET Plus process node. It is has an octacore structure with a BIG.Little configuration with four 1.8GHz A53 cores and four 2.5GHz A72 cores. Unlike recent high-end Huawei products the Kirin 955 integrates the dedicated image processing engine that was a separate chip in, for example, the Mate S. The ISP has a 960MP/s processing bandwidth that enables, for example, 16 frame per second burst mode image processing.

The base P9 includes a full HD 5.2” IPS LCD display. The company is eschewing the trend toward 2K displays as it believes the incremental power consumed in lighting additional pixels is not worthwhile to support the limited applications where a higher resolution is needed – Virtual Reality being the most obvious. This opens the way for Huawei to include a 2K or higher resolution screen on the next iteration of the Mate series – likely launching in the September time frame.

The P9 Plus, launching alongside the P9, is perhaps the more interesting of the two devices. Sporting a larger 5.5” full HD AMOLED display but in the Plus it incorporates Huawei’s flavour of Force Touch; Huawei calls it Press Touch. The P9 Plus has a slightly different design language. Both are slim at 6.95mm, however where the P9 uses diamond cut edges on its sand-blasted aluminium body the P9 Plus uses a hairline brushed finish and has slightly more radiused edges. Both feel good in the hand.

Question marks remain over the Emotion UI (EMUI). Designed and developed in China, EMUI sometimes causes unexpected behaviour with some applications. It’s not a significant problem but can lead to frustration in some isolated cases. Huawei is aware and is taking steps to diversify the influences in the software design.

Huawei recognises that it has work to do on the brand. Its global spend has been relatively modest compared to players that it is now competing with for global positioning such as Samsung. The P9 launch is being backed with a significant   up-tick in above-the-line spending. The previewed TV commercial features two Hollywood actors that Huawei has persuaded to back its cause – Scarlett Johansson and Henry Cavill; the latter best known for his recent roles as Superman.

Huawei Cavill and Johansson

Pricing is key for products in this category. The P9 is being launched in Europe with a starting retail price of Euro 599, 20% higher than the P8’s starting price of Euro 499 (excluding subsidies). At this price point the P9 is pushing toward Galaxy S7 territory. While the P9 is good it’s likely not quite at that level – lacking the QuadHD display, IP67 rating and star stature that the GS7 has achieved. However the P9 is a step up from the P8 so a small premium is perhaps justified. The P9 Plus is launching with a Euro 749 price tag – very definitely pushing it into the premium category. It may struggle to fly in the rarefied atmosphere at this pricing level, so expect relatively swift repositioning.

Alongside the P9/Plus, Huawei also launched the TalkBand 3 – the latest iteration of its quirky wearable/Bluetooth earpiece hybrid. Huawei claims the B3 has improved sensor performance. We just hope that it does a better job of some of the basic functions, such as being a watch that’s visible in any sort of direct sunlight; something the TalkBand B2 was unable to manage.

In summary we see the P9 as pushing Huawei further toward the premium positioning it has long sought. Its confidence was evident in a, mostly, polished presentation. The English have a saying – ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’. We will be using the P9 over the next few weeks and will be able to better determine if this is a dish that will be hungrily consumed or left to go cold.

We have started to take the P9 into use. The imaging app takes a little getting used to but allows a good deal of manual control and post-processing. For comparison we’re including some shots taken with the P9’s predecessor, the Huawei P8. These were taken about a year ago of similar subjects under similar light conditions:

Taken with Huawei P8

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Taken with the Huawei P9. Manual iris adjustment and vivid color setting.

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Standard color setting and everything set to auto

The two shots from the P9 were taken under daylight conditions, no artificial light at all. The results are astonishingly good for any camera, let alone a smartphone. We did notice that the device became noticeably warm while in the five minutes we were messing around taking the pictures. This is a potential concern and something we will monitor in the coming days of use.

Some further shots taken in very low light conditions:

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This was taken around sunset, but looking east. A 1/4 second exposure and held steady on a bridge parapet, no tripod.

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After sunset, some post processing to enhance the sky.

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Some post processing. Aperture mode used to focus on the bridge parapet.

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Mono-mode. Night time. Only ambient light was from street lights.

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