Honor 9X Pro (China) Review: a great phone with a great burden
For years, Honor has been carving out an identity separate yet connected to parent company Huawei. On the one hand, it naturally uses Huawei’s technologies and resources, particularly the silicon and Android UX that runs on it. On the other hand, Honor has risen up as a mighty name that even managed to outperform Huawei’s phones when it came to sales numbers by offering nearly the same or equivalent smartphones at half Huawei’s price tags. The Honor 9X Pro announced just last July has the makings of a great mid-range device but, unfortunately, its fate lies in forces beyond Honor’s direct control.
Elephant in the room
The unit that Honor provided for review is the Chinese model and there is no official word yet on when exactly the Honor 9X and Honor 9X Pro will launch in global markets. When it does arrive, however, the two will almost be identical, especially in one crucial aspect: both won’t have Google Play apps installed. Not much of a problem in China where smartphone owners are used to it and are perfectly comfortable using Huawei’s own AppGallery. There’s no going around the fact, however, that it will hurt the Honor 9X Pro’s chances elsewhere.
In fact, it already adversely affected this review, as access to the usual apps, tools, and even games was extremely limited. Fortunately, the Huawei AppGallery does include the most common benchmark apps and Firefox, depending on what region you set it. So while the overall experience was limited by this consideration, this review is able to evaluate the phone on its core values. And, fortunately, it definitely has a lot of them.
It is hardly arguable that the Honor 9X Pro is striking both on the back as well as on the front, presuming you have the screen turned on. Honor loves giving its phones’ rears a lot of character and this one is no different. Just as the Honor View 20 bore the unmistakable “V” pattern on its back, the Honor 9X Pro uses carefully crafted “3D” gradients to let the eyes delight on the “X” that marks the spot. Even if you ignore that pattern, however, the play of light on the metallic Phantom Purple review unit is enough dazzle even for just a short while.
Flip the phone over and you have a rare treat for a mid-range Honor phone. Not only won’t you find any notch here, you won’t even see a hole. Admittedly, there’s still the unavoidable chin but bezels are in short supply all around. The only other Honor phone to be granted that distinction is the premium Honor Magic 2, making the Honor 9X Pro and its sibling a cut above the rest.
After having reviewed a number of Honor smartphones over the past years, one common design trait seems to pervade all generations. No matter the materials used or the design trends applied, Honor phones always have a certain amount of solidity and heft to them. In other words, they often feel slightly heavier in the hand than their peers. On the one hand, that sometimes imbues the phone with a certain confidence to its built. It’s also inevitable that one would worry about the strain it will incur after prolonged use.
Specs and Performance
Fortunately, that heft is not for naught and the Honor 9X Pro is packed with hardware, not least of which is that motorized camera that may actually be giving much of its weight. The phone might be rated as a mid-range phone simply by virtue of its processor or other specs but it would be a grave mistake to write off because of it.
Granted, the 7nm Kirin 810 is more directly pit against the Snapdragon 730, just as Huawei is positioning its latest Kirin 980 as a Snapdragon 855 rival. It is squarely a mid-tier processor just by the benchmark scores below. The reality beyond benchmarks, however, is that the Kirin 810 is more than enough for practical everyday mobile use, especially with the heaping serving of 8 GB RAM inside.
AnTuTu & Geekbench
3DMark, AIDA64, CPU-Z
In practice, the Honor 9X Pro had no issue dealing with multi-tasking and resource intensive tasks. The Mali-G52 graphics unit was quite enough even for taxing games like Asphalt 9 set to High Quality and 60 FPS (with a warning about potential instability that never happened). The phone might indeed experience some trouble dealing with non-trivial photo editing or Huawei’s Desktop Mode (if it were available), but, again, that is beyond the common use cases of smartphone users.
The Honor 9X has plenty of well-loved features to go around. There’s still a headphone jack for audiophiles, for example. The 4,000 mAh battery has lasted a little less than two days of regular use, definitely a lot less if you go binging on videos or games. And the side-mounted fingerprint scanner may actually be a better spot for the sensor than either front or back. It is fast and accurate as any nearly-perfected optical sensor can be. Unfortunately, the global version is rumored to place it on the back.
Display and Audio
The laThe large screen on the Honor 9X is absolutely stunning. It is bright and vivid and one of the best examples of a bezel-less design that doesn’t sacrifice usability and ergonomics by curving edges off to the side. Given its LCD technology, it’s not surprising that it reaches max white brightness higher than the excellent Galaxy Note 9 (which seems to be plagued by a yellowish tinge). That would, of course, be scorching but Honor’s, or rather Huawei’s, EMUI does offer a few controls to tune the display to your liking and comfort.
But while Honor definitely paid close attention to the visual aspect of the phone, it may have given audio less of a thought. Mind, Honor 9X Pro can be pretty loud, which is an accomplishment for a single speaker, but it lacks the depth and bass to give it volume. It can even be tinny when cranked up to full though, fortunately, there is no distortion at that level. It is serviceable when you need it but you’ll probably reach for your favorite headphones for quality listening.
If there was any confusion on which tier the Honor 9X Pro really stood on, its cameras don’t help dispel that. On the back, you have a 48 megapixel shooter, most likely Sony’s IMX586, that, by default, is set to take photos at 12 megapixels (Quad-Bayer filter). You can set it to use all 48 million pixels individually but that will kick off Huawei’s AI Ultra Quality mode, which requires you to hold still for a few seconds while the camera app composes the shot.
There’s also an 8 megapixel wide-angle camera and a 2 megapixel depth sensor, the latter really mostly for bokeh simulation. It’s hard to describe them as exceptional but they get the job done and do it quite well. One of the highlights of Huawei’s and Honor’s phones have been the dedicated Night Mode. Again, Honor doesn’t fail to impress taking a clearer shot of city nightlife at the expense of staying still for a few seconds.
For the Honor 9X Pro, however, the real camera highlight is the one that you don’t see all the time. The popup camera has, fortunately, become less uncommon now that you can pretty much expect certain features to be there. There is, for example, the new fall detection that immediately pulls the camera back into the body when the sensors report a sharp and fast decline. You can also push the camera down and it will retract rather than force its position and break.
Almost perfect except for one thing. It takes around 1.45 seconds from the moment you switch to the front-facing camera to the moment you see your face on the viewfinder. That’s true even when you’re launching the camera app straight into selfie mode. Compare that to the almost instantaneous switching with normal front-facing cameras. It’s the price you have to pay for an unbroken full-screen experience.
As for the camera itself, it has a 16 megapixel f/2.2 fixed-focus camera, no flash save for the screen itself. It is by no means terrible but it does leave quite a lot to be desired. Bokeh simulation is problematic around edges, which is to be expected given the lack of a depth sensor. And, as always, the beautification mode, now with AI, depends on one’s taste.
So far, the Honor 9X Pro has proven to be an impressive smartphone with quite the orchestra of premium specs, give or take a few points. But a phone isn’t just the sum of its hardware parts. The overall experience is naturally made or broken by the sum of software parts, and this is where the phone’s problems begin.
It isn’t that EMUI 9.1.1, based on Android 9 Pie, is a terrible skin. It does have its fair share of modifications but doesn’t stray that far from the core Android experience. And, yes, it does come with bloatware, much more on the Chinese model than other international Honor phones I’ve tested, but that is squarely aimed at Honor’s target market. Despite those details, EMUI is actually pretty responsive, even if the animation and effects overload can sometimes feel, well, overloaded.
The problem is, as stated at the very beginning of this review, the lack of the Google Play Store. Huawei and Honor have tried their best to compensate but even the AppGallery won’t have the staples of the Android app experience. And, yes, you can install third-party app sources, like F-Droid, or even sideload at your own risk, but only a few will go to the trouble if they can buy a different phone with Google Play installed right out of the box.
The Honor 9X Pro is a great phone that transcends the definition of what a mid-tier smartphone can do. With is dependable specs, full-screen display, serviceable cameras, and accessible price, it straddles the fine line between mid-range and premium phones. It is what mid-range phones should perhaps aspire to.
Unfortunately, the Honor 9X Pro otherwise grand entry into the market is marred by forces beyond it. It is, fairly or unfairly, tied to the fate of its parent company and the ever-changing whims of politics and trades. If Huawei and Honor ever overcome this challenge, then the Honor 9X Pro could very well rise to the top. But, by then, it might already be time for an Honor 10X Pro.