Honor 9

The "affordable flagship" segment — occupied by Huawei's Honor brand and rivals like OnePlus and ZTE — is one of the most exciting areas of the smartphone market right now. It's never been easier to get hold of a great high-specced phone without paying Galaxy or iPhone money. And while Honor might not have the instant recognition of the bigger names, it's tough to argue with performance and build quality of its latest offering, the Honor 9.

For £379, you get most of the internal specs of the Huawei P10, encased in a beautiful metal and glass chassis, running software that's light years beyond what you might remember from the Honor 8 at launch. It's easily the best Honor phone yet, and it's coming to Europe in July.

The design of last year's Honor flagship has been refined and trimmed into an even more impressive slab of metal and glass.

First off, there's a LOT of Honor 8 DNA in this phone — which is mostly a good thing. The rear is clad with a stunning 15-layer glass panel, which is now gently curved at the edges. The headline color for the UK is sapphire blue, with black and silver variants also available for the color-averse. This splash of color in continues through the aluminum side walls around to the front, where it spruces up the tapered 2.5D glass of the display.

The updated design hasn't changed a whole lot compared to last year's model, but subtle tweaks like the removal of a plastic rim between the metal and glass parts make it feel significantly more premium. And the curved back, of course, helps the Honor 9 fit more comfortably in the hand. The sharper joins between metal and glass also make it less slippery in the hand than I remember the Honor 8 being, helping with one-handed gripability.

The Honor 8's hockey puck-like tendencies make an unwelcome return.

Unfortunately though, this phone remains decidedly slippery on... well, things that aren't hands. The smooth glass rear will manage to slide its way across flat surfaces given the opportunity — one of my least favorite characteristics of the Honor 8.

Regardless, it's a gorgeous-looking design, and a lustrous counterpoint to the unremarkable visuals of its main rival, the OnePlus 5. Sure, there are undeniable Samsung influences — the curved glass rear will remind a lot of folks of the Galaxy Note 5, and some of Xiaomi's recent offerings. And from the front, it could just as easily be a Huawei P10 or either of the past three OnePlus phones.

While we're mentioning OnePlus, the Honor 9's button layout now mirrors that of the OnePlus 5, with a central fingerprint scanner that doubles as your home key, flanked by swappable capacitive keys. No more on-screen keys. No more rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. Both are matters of personal taste — and personally, I'm fine with the new direction Honor's taking here.

Honor 9

On the front is a 5.15-inch 1080p IPS LCD panel which, while it's not as pixel-dense as still looks fantastically vibrant, and is easily visible out in bright daylight. The smaller size may be a turn-off for some — it's actually pretty rare to find high-end specs like this in an Android phone that's so friendly to one-handed use. Yet after using a lot of phones at 5.5-inch and up lately, including this phone's main rival the OnePlus 5, it's kinda refreshing to go back to a smaller handset like the Honor 9.

It's refreshing to see flagship-level specs paired with a display as small as 5.15 inches.

Sound is also a big focus for the new Honor flagship, with audio tuning by Grammy-winning engineer Rainer Maillard, and sound profiles inspired by Monster. (Part of the new partnership between the smartphone brand and the headphone giant that's spawned new earbuds.) The verdict on sound quality is going to remain out until I've spent more time with the Honor 9, but at the very least the built-in loudspeaker seemed suitably punchy — if a little distorted at very high volume levels.

When it comes to internals, the Honor 9 is almost a carbon copy of the Huawei P10. Running the show is a Kirin 960 octa-core chip, a proven 16nm processor combining four ARM Cortex-A73 cores for power-hungry tasks with four efficient A53s for lower-powered stuff. There's also 4 or 6GB of RAM depending on which country you buy it in — more on that later — and 64GB of storage plus microSD. There's also an ample 3,200mAh power pack with quick charging — pretty capacious for this size of phone.

All the major internal specs from the Huawei P10, with a few exceptions.

Notable P10 features you don't get in the Honor 9 include Huawei's faster Super Charging tech, and Optical Stabilization in the main camera. I'm inclined to think neither is a huge deal, especially considering the price point.

Once again, Honor has gone with a dual rear camera setup, with a 12-megapixel color sensor and 20-megapixel monochrome sensor, behind f/2.2 lenses. Unlike the Huawei P10, there's no Leica tuning in this camera, but it really doesn't seem to be worse off for it. In my brief time with it, the Honor 9 was quick to capture images with vibrant colors and excellent dynamic range. And thanks to that 20-megapixel sensor, you also get the same hybrid zoom feature and portrait mode that we've enjoyed on the P10.

Honor 9 camera

But we'll have to wait and see how it shapes up in darker conditions, where the new low light mode with pixel binning is designed to produce clearer night shots. The current generation of smartphones — handsets like the LG G6 and OnePlus 5 in particular — is all about using software processing to pull great photos from run-of-the-mill sensors. Given what we've seen from the Honor 8 Pro already, I'm hopeful the Honor 9 will deliver in this area.

Software-wise, the Honor 9 runs Huawei's EMUI 5.1 firmware, based on Android 7.0 Nougat — and Honor is already promising an update to Android 8.0 when it's release, but there's no timeframe for that yet. (Based on the track record of the Honor 8, early 2018 is a good bet.)

Honor 9

You'll find more on EMUI 5.1 in our Huawei P10 and Mate 9 reviews, but the quick version is that it's Huawei's best software yet, though still highly differentiated compared to what you might be used to from Samsung, Google or HTC. However it is a vast improvement on earlier versions of Huawei's software, as we saw on the Honor 8 last year. Nothing is broken, everything is fast, and nothing is too terribly offensive to the eyes.

Out of the box, EMUI 5.1 feels a lot more like Android than prior versions, and there's a pleasant blue and white theme running through Huawei's own apps — while other parts of the software can be endlessly themed and customized.

For just £379 in the UK, the Honor 9 is highly competitive.

The Honor 9 is shaping up to be one of the best affordable Android flagships available, delivering great specs, speedy software, a promising camera and a sharp design. And it does so at a highly competitive price point: All this stuff is yours for £379 in the UK, or €449 in Europe. (The UK and most other countries will get the 4GB RAM model, France and Italy will score an Honor 9 with 6GB of RAM, likely with a proportionally higher price tag.)

That balance of specs, design, feature set and price is truly impressive, and the Honor 9 looks set to give OnePlus a run for its money in the always-interesting "affordable flagship" space. Time will tell which one will come out on top.