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Review: Huawei P9 - decent attempt to make perfect camera phone with help from Leica

Despite Leica’s involvement this smartphone is not entirely the success you might expect, but it is competitively priced and will appeal to the casual photographer seeking something different

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 May, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2016, 12:30pm

With Huawei’s latest release, the P9, there is only one talking point and it’s not the star-studded TV commercial featuring Hollywood’s Scarlett Johansson and Henry Cavill but its Leica dual-lens camera. Is this partnership a winning combo or just another megabuck-backed hype from the mainland smartphone maker?

Camera

The fact that Leica – a top optics/camera manufacturer – is attached to the P9 suggests either the company had a hand in developing the camera or it endorses it. Leica has confirmed that it worked on certain parts of the camera with Huawei, but it did not make the camera sensor nor the lens.

The UI (user interface) starts off with a garden variety simplicity, with a shutter button, video record button and camera roll along the bottom. Along the top there’s flash, aperture mode, filters and toggle between front and rear-facing cameras.

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The aperture mode utilises the dual camera to take multiple shots and subsequently allows you to refocus on almost anything you like in the shot. What’s more, you can open (or close) the aperture which changes the depth of field, akin to focusing on one subject or on everything, like an infinity focus.

Provided you’re taking photos as recommended – with a shallow depth of field (like close-up macro shots) – the aperture effects will show up correctly 95 per cent of the time. That is to say, blurring or sharpness is applied correctly according to distance from the camera.

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At the camera UI, it’s also possible to swipe in from the left to access different modes such as beauty, HDR, or light painting. These have already been seen on other Huawei devices. What is new, is the monochrome mode – something Leica is famous for.

Also taking advantage of the dual camera set-up but in a different way – it takes pictures using only one of the dedicated monochrome sensors, leaving the colour sensor out. This is completely different from using a black-and-white filter, as what’s captured by the mono sensor is different to what colour sensors pick up. Indeed, the results speak for themselves, moody pictures that invite you to look at things from a different perspective.

Swipe in from the right and you’ve got settings that are typically unique to whatever mode you’re in. Inside hides another Leica gem known as Film mode. There’s Vivid and Smooth to choose from and essentially they add a very subtle vignette to your photos while applying different adjustments to the colours. This adds a layer of artistic flair to the outcome without announcing you’ve gone rogue with Instagram filters.

Fair warning for manual mode enthusiasts – the P9 tends to heat up considerably quicker in this mode for some unknown reason. Temperatures could reach levels higher than if you were running an intensive app or game. It’s a mystery.

Under general testing, the camera could have benefited from image stabilisation. As shutter speed (exposure) dips, frame rate slows and blur is inevitable. Focus tends to be fast but snapshots are particularly vulnerable to out-of-focus moments. This means it’s always advisable to tap the area you intend to focus on first rather than let the phone decide.

It’s a shame because the camera is capable of incredibly sharp and detailed photos, especially in macro mode.

Another complaint is the lack of a shutter button, which some may argue actually contributes to motion blur. Videos are another letdown. The quality is generally dull and only 1080p (albeit at 60 frames per second) when most others have already made 4K a standard.

Conclusion

The Leica-certified camera on the P9 is not the best camera this side of 2016. Pure and simple. While there is no visible noise, there is very visible grain and light sources in low-light situations are not captured in great detail – they are in fact just a messy blob. More often than not, an unassisted snapshot (no tap to focus) results in an out-of-focus shot.

I can’t fully explain why I like the camera so much. The dual cameras working in tandem (think HDR, with two sensors instead of combining multiple shots from one) is a great idea, with the monochrome and the colour sensor balancing out each other’s inadequacies. It could well be the built-in, easy-to-access fancy Leica effects like the Film modes and Monochrome mode that make an otherwise plain photo interesting.

The Huawei P9 is not a failure as a camera-focused phone. Rather, it’s a very good attempt at a perfect camera phone that just missed. Elsewhere it commands a much higher retail price than it does here, but perhaps Huawei was wise enough to readjust its strategy for Hong Kong.

And at HK$3,880, it’s very competitive. A must-try for the casual smartphone photographer who’s looking for something different.

Price: HK$3,880 standard edition (silver and grey); HK$4,480 pro edition (gold, 4GB RAM)

Dimensions: 145 x 70.9 x 7mm

Weight: 144 grams

Screen size: 5.2”

Screen resolution: 1080 x 1920

Battery: 3000 mAh

OS: EMUI 4.1, built on Android Marshmallow 6

Cameras:12 megapixel x 2, 1x monochrome and 1x RGB

Memory: 32GB

Colours: grey, gold, silver