Huawei’s P9: First look

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 Above: The P9 captures a 12MP DNG RAW file that’s 22MB on the phone. This 100 per cent crop from an RAW capture of a statue is lit by a mix of window light and incandescent lamps. A gallery of my sample images from the phone and a link to download this 7MB full-resolution JPEG file is here. More of my sample images from the device are being posted to my Instagram feed daily.

BitDepth#1036 for April 12, 2016

Take Huawei’s P9 in hand and it has the sleek, well-machined feel of any modern smartphone. It’s also feels smaller than other phones in its class, though the physical dimensions are only incrementally less than the Samsung S7 and iPhone 6.

It’s a metal unibody style device, with no user access to its internals except for the SIM card slot, which keeps pace with this year’s developments in that tiny space. The slot offers either dual-SIM capability in two trays or a SIM and MicroSD card.

For reasons that quickly become clear, this isn’t a luxury on the new device, particularly if you happen to be interested in getting the best possible photographs out of the new camera that’s Leica has built into it.

Huawei's P9 is available in a range of brushed metal hues. Image courtesy Huawei.
Huawei’s P9 is available in a range of brushed metal hues. Image courtesy Huawei.

The P9, officially the EVA-L09, offers some elegant design enhancements, including a particularly fine bit of metal polishing right along the edges of the device, comfortably rounded corners and a fast octacore processor, the Kirin 955, which doubles CPU and graphics performance over the predecessor P8.

The device ships with Android Marshmallow 6, lightly skinned with an update to Huawei’s Emotion UI and swaps out the USB connector for a USB-C connector, which is likely to throw a temporary glitch into any sophisticated charging and connection suites you may have set up for an older phone.

I’ve got some accessories and connectors that just became suddenly redundant until I can get replacements.

The big changes in the P9 only begin to become apparent when you flip the phone over to find its cameras, yes, plural, staring back at you along with an understated Leica logo in its modernist sans serif style.

You still get the famous red dot swash logo on the box, but on the phone itself, Leica’s partnership with Huawei is characterised by modernist style and practical enhancements.

And then there are those two lenses, which tap into some of the post-digital imaging sorcery we’ve seen cropping up in next generation camera systems like the Light L16 and Lytro.

Photography may always have been about creative light gathering, but when you add computing into the mix, all kinds of interesting things happen.

The new dual lens technology is a key differentiator for the new phone. Image courtesy Huawei.
The new dual lens technology is a key differentiator for the new phone. Image courtesy Huawei.

The P9 moves some of this digital magic into the mainstream, packaging it invisibly into the experience that most people have taking photographs with a smartphone.

In addition to the light gathering capabilities of twin lenses (which inspired the launch hashtag #OO), the P9 also uses two sensors from Sony, one capturing RGB colour information and the other, slightly larger one, gathering monochorome data.

This allows the device to take true black and white pictures with a dedicated sensor that wastes none of its pixel gathering on colour information.

The frustratingly opaque Android camera app gets a quiet but firm overhaul from Leica’s software team that goes deeper than using their font for the interface.

Open the app and you get a straightforward picture taking screen with the standard white button for snapping away.

Touch the screen to focus and you can separate the metering from the focusing, moving both targeting circles around independently.

Tap the little aperture button to the left or top of the screen and you get the option of setting the depth of field for the image.

The P9, like all smartphones, has no aperture system, the lenses are fixed wide open, but the twin lenses allow the device to do depth focusing (Huawei calls it hybrid-focusing) and to gather data from both lenses to deliver optical effects that range from an astonishing f0.95 to f16.

You don’t get more or less light, the lenses are set at f2.2, but you get the image impact of greater or lesser depth-of-field.

New users will grasp this quickly.

Traditional camera users will be freaked out, as I was, by this technology-driven cleaving of the 200-year old link between aperture-based light gathering and depth-of-field effects. My only regret is that you can’t access this feature in Pro mode, though is version one of a substantial rethinking of what a smartphone’s camera can and should do.

Given the relatively slow maximum aperture of the lenses, the camera’s low-light performance is remarkable, which is attributable to the light gathering capacity of two sensors. Huawei claims 270 per cent greater light gathering than iPhone 6s and 90 per cent more than Samsung S7.

A new Imaging Signal Processor built into the Kirin chip powers fast, accurate processing of the image data gathered by the twin lenses.

The pro mode is hidden under a small onscreen tab, giving access to ISO, shutter speed, white balance, autofocus and metering modes, exposure value settings and white balance in a tidy, unobtrusive row.

The pill-shaped tab that reveals the pro features is placed close to the shutter button and large fingers like my own may experience difficulty getting it open without taking an inadvertent photo.

Swipe in from the left to access a range of situation-specific preprogrammed modes and imaging styles, from HDR and Beauty to Panoramics.

Swipe from the right and you get more long-term settings, such as resolution and audio cue settings (which includes the Leica shutter sound if you roll that way) and one more clever trick.

The P9 is the first mainstream camera to offer RAW capture as a user accessible feature (not exactly true, as it turns out. The LG G4 and  OnePlus One phone also have this capability, though it might be a stretch to describe the One as mainstream, though Samsung’s S7 has this feature). Check this option in the settings pane and the camera will take a JPEG image and a DNG RAW image when you tap the white button.

There’s a noticeable but acceptable lag between photos when this feature is active and the 23MB image files (JPEGs are around 3-5MB) will fill a phone’s internal storage quickly, so plan for a big MicroSD card if this is your fancy, the P9 accomodates them in capacities up to 200GB.

Huawei T&T expects to introduce the P9 locally by the second half of 2016.