Huawei P9

The concept of two cameras in a smartphone isn't new. In the Android world, the trend dates all the way back to the dark ages of 3D phones, with manufacturers like HTC and LG using dual cameras to take 3D images or produce depth-dependent effects. Even Huawei got on the dual-camera bandwagon with 2014's Honor 6 Plus.

The Huawei P9 — the Chinese company's latest high-end offering — goes about things a little differently. The phone is the first developed through Huawei's partnership with German optics Leica, and uses a monochrome sensor behind one lens in addition to a full color sensor behind the other. It's an approach which, combined with a "co-engineered" lens system and a revamped camera app influenced by Leica, has Huawei hoping it can differentiate through photography.

We've taken a quick look at the P9 and P9 Plus ahead of their launch event in London. And here's what we found.

Moving pictures

Huawei P9 hands-on video

It's a phone, first

Huawei P9 hardware

But first, the basics of the actual phone. Like the P8 before it, the P9 is sturdy and metallic all over, with a flat back punctuated by reflective chamfers. The front houses its 5.2-inch Full HD IPS display — a notable improvement from the P8 in the flesh, even if the numbers are pretty much the same.

Two cameras: one monochrome, one color, should allow for brighter pics.

At 5.2 inches, the P9 is large enough to offer an enjoyable big-screen experience without being excessively hefty, and even with a frame measuring just 6.95mm thick, Huawei has packed in an ample 3,000mAh battery.

So we're not dealing with a battery behemoth like the Mate 8, but Huawei still promises a day and a half of heavy use from the P9's internal cell, and the numbers are there to back up this assertion. And in a step up from Mate 8, the P9 packs a new, higher-clocked Kirin 955 CPU, which also includes some ISP (image signal processor) enhancements to make use of the P9's dual camera setup. That's backed up by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, expandable by up to 128GB via microSD. (There's a more expensive version with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, but look for the 32GB/3GB configuration to be the main seller.)

Huawei P9

And in a first for Huawei, the P9 includes the latest USB Type-C port, putting it in line with the cutting edge of current Android phones.

So back to that unique collection of photographic hardware. In addition to color and monochrome 12-megapixel sensors — without OIS, we should note — the P9 packs dual-tone LED flash and a laser autofocus system. This means the phone can focus using a combination of both individual cameras and the laser AF, presumably resulting in quicker snaps.

Although there's no optical stabilization included, Huawei reps in London today insisted its new camera setup doesn't need it. That's because both sensors feature 1.25-micron pixels, and due to its unique monochrome-only sensor, it's claimed, it can suck in more light than the equivalent regular smartphone camera. The P9's camera system can produce 200% brighter images with a 50% improvement in contrast, it's claimed, bringing it up to an equivalent pixel size of 1.76-microns. (By comparison Samsung's Galaxy S7 features 1.4-micron pixels, and Huawei's own Nexus 6P uses a sensor with 1.55-micron pixels.)

The partnership with Leica brings changes to Huawei's camera app.

On the software side, Huawei's camera app is still rich in features, with a bewildering number of modes accessible with a swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen. And thanks to the Leica partnership, there's a new Pro mode that can be activated with a swipe left, giving finer control over ISO, shutter speeds and other settings. What's more, the low depth of field mode from the Honor 6 Plus makes a return, letting P9 owners simulate very-low-depth-of-field in images, based on software processing and data from the two cameras. The bottom level for this setting is f/0.95, at which backgrounds are utterly obliterated — though because software is involved we did notice some potential for the edges of the subject to become blurred as well.

Elsewhere in the software space, the P9 ships with Android 6.0 Marshmallow (the units we demoed were running the March 2016 security patch) and Huawei's latest EMUI 4.1 software. We'll have to wait until we've spent more time with the P9 series in order to get a feel for what's new, but for the most part it looks like minor tweaks to a familiar software experience. If you're not on board with Huawei's way of doing phone software, there's little here to change your mind. But for better or worse, at least you'll know what you're getting.

In addition, Huawei will offer a larger P9 Plus in Europe and Asia — this model will include a larger 5.5-inch AMOLED display at the same Full HD resolution, along with 4GB of RAM, a larger 3,400mAh battery and an integrated IR blaster.

The 3GB P9 will be available on April 16th for €599, while the more capable 4GB version will run you €649. If you're looking for the larger P9 plus, Huawei plans to make it available on the same day for €749.