Goondu review: Huawei P9

April 22nd, 2016 | by Wilson Wong
Goondu review: Huawei P9

huawei p9

The Huawei P9, the very first smartphone to have a Leica lens in its slim body, has been creating waves lately.

Some positive, in the sense that it brings the promise of great image quality from the German lens maker to everyday photography. Some negative too, with doubters questioning if Leica had simply lent the use of its brand to a Chinese phone maker.

Is that a hint of snobbery? Well, yes. Should you question the quality of a product even though it comes from a company with great track record? Yes, again.

Ultimately, the image quality matters the most. On this, I’m convinced the P9 is a big step up from current smartphone cameras. In fact, I even managed to fool some friends into thinking pictures taken on the new Huawei gizmo were shot on a DSLR camera.

Leica’s Summarit 27mm-equivalent f2.2. I prefer this focal length for general photography.

At the heart of things is Leica’s dual Summarit 27mm-equivalent f2.2 lens, which is matched with both monochrome and colour sensors.

This dual sensor arrangement is quite different from competitors as it is designed to pick up as much image detail as possible with the monochrome sensor and colour information from the colour sensor.

The controlled colour vividness, smooth transition from dark to bright areas and the ability to retain details are impressive.

Typical landscape shot. I detect a slight flare but this is much better than the competition thanks to the Summarit lens. The flare can be easily cleaned off with the clone tool in snapseed.

With the increase in image data from the two sensors, the phone is able to create a much more detailed and accurate depiction of a scene.

It may sound a little gimmicky but from my extensive photo tests, the colour images from the phone are excellent for both day and night shots. They even tricked my Facebook friends into thinking that the shots were from my DSLR or mirrorless cameras.

I took this in HDR mode, handheld. I’m impressed.

One of the toughest tests for a mobile phone is to do a motion panorama shot, handheld, and do it at night. For lesser cameras there will be micro motion blur when inspecting the image up close. The P9 totally blew me away with this image. 

I took this picture of the super trees in Night mode. This mode necessitates the use of a tripod so that the camera can merge (or blend) the photos using various shutter speeds. The result is sharp and vivid colours.

Shooting monochrome at night with the P9 was a joy too!

The monochrome images too are exquisite in terms of detail, contrast and dynamic range – something unheard of in smartphone cameras. The P9 is certainly perfect for street photography or for those who have a passion for black and white photography.

Normally the straight black and white images in most cameras, including some DSLRs, have more grey and exhibit that ‘washed out’ look. The images from the phone have more contrast and detail in both the dark and bright areas. A welcome and noticeable improvement.

With most cameras, exposing for the dark areas will inevitably mean the bright areas will be over exposed. In this case, the P9’s camera did well to retain the cloud details.

Focus was fast even in dimly lit pubs such as this.

One look and the Leica font is evident in the camera app. Even the shutter sound reminds me of the M.

When it comes to controls, the Leica-font inspired user interface comes with the normal automatic mode, though swiping upwards from the bottom of the screen brings up the Professional Mode.

As you would expect from a full manual camera, there are settings for ISO, shutter speed, exposure value compensation, focusing mode and white balance.

I was so confident of the image quality from the P9 that I took it out to do a cosplay shoot. The result was beyond expectations.

The vivid mode gave that Instagram filter look. To get back the skin tone, I would use smooth colour and de-saturate a little.

Supermarkets are one of the worst places to shoot, thanks to mixed lighting. The P9 handles that well here.

Shot indoors under typical shopping mall incandescent, warm florescent lighting.

This is the image that convinced me that the phone can do wonders if you know how to maximise its potential. I shot this with its Wide Aperture Effect. Even though I shifted the focus points and played with the aperture settings, the image quality remains. It is not perfect since it is a simulation but use it well and the result can be satisfying.

An illustration on how the Wide Aperture Effect mode works. You can change the focal point and then choose the desired aperture effect. It works best with subjects that are 2 meters or less from the camera.

If you are into portraiture, the Wide Aperture Effect mode provides that shallow depth of field look that only lenses with f2.8 and wider aperture can provide.

The bonus is that you can select the point of focus as well after the shot is taken. I have seen the same feature in other phones before but Huawei’s P9 maintains the image quality while doing so. It is a feat worth mentioning here.

The P9 is also one of the first phones to provide RAW file format for images, a feature that serious photographers who are into post-editing would welcome. I used the Snapseed app to “develop” the RAW images into JPEG prior to more enhancement.

I also welcome the fact that the P9 saves the RAW images as .DNG (called Digital Negative) files and it is non-proprietary. That means all post editing software should be able to access the files without fuss.

RAW format. Music to photographers’ ears. The only setback is the inability to save the RAW and JPEG in the microSD card directly. The speed of accessing the 22.5MB files may be the reason for such a restriction. 

Not everything is perfect, of course. The phone does run hot while I am happily shooting. Plus, the lack of a duo-tone LED for the front facing camera makes it tougher to shoot selfies in low light.

Plus, the RAW files couldn’t be saved straight to the microSD card right after capture. I believe image access and write speed can be an issue due to the huge file size.

And while shooting RAW allows a lot of leeway for post-editing, the phone’s Wide Aperture Effect and colour filter are not available in that mode.

You also have to think about storage. If you are shooting a lot of RAW images, the 32GB of storage won’t be enough. You will need a large capacity microSD card to transfer the .DNG files to.

With the microSD card taking up the second SIM card slot, you can’t use two phone lines while overseas. This is one issue that manufacturers, such as Samsung and Huawei, haven’t addressed.

Extreme shot with the P9. Taken only with moonlight with 30 seconds of exposure.

Another extreme shot taken just before sunrise. ISO 100 with 30-second exposure. I notice ISO noise for both images even with ISO 100 but knowing that this is a tiny sensor, the result is definitely an over-achievement. I wouldn’t take this phone to shoot in challenging environments anyway.

Understandably, much of the attention on the P9 will be towards the Leica lens. However, the phone itself isn’t too shabby.

You get the expected updates for a phone that succeeds the earlier P8. There’s a 5.2-inch Full HD screen and aluminum unibody constructed with sandblasted back.

It is easy to pocket as well, weighing in at 144grams and measuring just 6.95mm thick. The look reminds you of Apple’s iPhone, and that’s a good thing.

The phone is also fast and typically lag-free with the 3GB or 4GB of memory onboard (depending on configuration). Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 955 processor is similar to the Mate 8 but it’s certainly no slouch.

With a 3,000mAh battery, the phone chugs along fine for a day’s usage with LTE enabled. The way the phone is controlled is similar to the Mate 8 using the company’s EMUI interface. If you are used to Xiaomi or Huawei phones, you won’t feel out of place.

What’s new to the P9 is the fingerprint sensor. You get instantaneous access when your place your finger on it, like with the Mate 8. The new phone also uses the new Type C USB port, which is the next standard for phones.

What I’m not so sure about is Huawei’s positioning of its products. The Mate 8, out in Singapore just last month, is meant to be the flagship phone in terms of the latest technology, but now the P9 has the best camera from the company.

Will the P9 able to match up to, say, the iPhone 6 or the Galaxy S7 edge, if Huawei itself still thinks of the Mate 8 as the flagship? It might do better with a clear hero product that packs in the best of what it can muster.

Still, there is no denying the P9 has a great phone to own if you are an avid photographer. It’s a joy to shoot with and even do some quick editing on the go.

As a user of DSLR cameras for work, I’ll say this – the P9 still won’t win an image quality contest outright with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras with great lenses but the phone can hold its own or even beat many compact cameras.

Huawei’s new phone is expected to go on sale in Singapore in end-May, and though prices are not revealed here yet, in Britain the P9 with a 32GB storage capacity is going for £449 (S$868).

If Singapore gets the phone at that price, that’s a fair deal. It would be more affordable than some of the flagship phones out there, which usually cost closer to S$1,000 or more.


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