Honor 9 is the sum of many incremental upgrades, and that’s just fine

The biggest upgrades in this year’s Honor flagship will be software, camera, and audio.

The Honor 9 won’t be announced in Europe for another couple of weeks — a launch event is scheduled for June 27 — but thanks to the standard early Chinese launch, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the handset.

It’s the direct successor to the Honor 8, one of our favorite mid-priced flagships of 2016, and packs much the same internal hardware as the recently launched Honor 8 Pro. To wit:

  • Kirin 960 processor
  • 4GB or 6GB RAM
  • 64 or 128GB storage + SD
  • 12MP (color) + 20MP (monochrome) rear cameras, f/2.2 lenses
  • Laser AF + PDAF
  • 8MP front camera, f/2.0 lens
  • 4K video support (main camera only)
  • Dual SIM support
  • 5.15-inch 1080p IPS LCD with DCI-P3 color space, 2.5D curved glass
  • Front-facing fingerprint scanner

Despite similarities, Huawei and Honor aren’t competing so directly anymore.

In other words, similar — but not identical — to the P10 phone released by the Huawei mothership a few months back. But in contrast to last year’s arrangement, where the Huawei P9 and Honor 8 were very closely matched, there are some key spec differences. If you ignore the ongoing oleophobic coating issue, the Huawei P10 mostly comes out ahead on specs.

The Honor 9 has:

  • No OIS
  • f/2.0 lens for the front camera, down from f/1.9
  • 9V/2A quick charging, not the faster Huawei SuperCharge
  • And Gorilla Glass 5 isn’t mentioned on the spec sheet, so presumably the Honor 9 will use version 3 or 4 of Corning’s hardened glass.

That’s alongside the obvious external differences, which mostly amount to a matter of personal taste. Once again, Honor’s flagship phone features a glass and metal chassis, with curved “3D glass” on the back, formed of 15 layers of the material. The curved rear panel should give the Honor 9 a more comfortable in-hand fit, while tighter joins between the metal and glass should hopefully eliminate the unfortunate “hovercraft” effect that caused the Honor 8 to slide its way off flat surfaces.

The greater differentiation between the Honor 9 and P10 line are important in that it allows Huawei’s two brands to avoid competing so directly with themselves. Based on the Chinese pricing, the Honor 9 will land at a price tier below the P10, and so the slight spec downgrade is to be expected. That’s in contrast to the situation last year, where the Honor 8 was both ahead on specs and priced below the P9 at many retailers.

Upgrades in important areas across the board — but nothing revolutionary.

The jump from Honor 8 to Honor 9 doesn’t bring about any revolutionary changes — and that’s fine, because it doesn’t really need to. Externally, the most noticeable shake-up is the relocation of the fingerprint scanner to the front of the phone. (And from what we’ve seen of the software so far, we can expect the P10’s optional swipe input on the fingerprint scanner to carry across as well.) On the inside, the upgraded Kirin 960 CPU and ARM Mali-G71 GPU should bring performance improvements across the board, most notably in gaming, where the older Mali-T880MP4 lagged behind a little.

The camera hardware lands somewhere between the Mate 9 and Honor 8 Pro — so expect good photos, if not the very best. The Honor 8 Pro conjured up impressive pics out of a similar hardware setup, so hopefully the new 12+20MP combo will build on that without sacrificing low-light performance. The new Honor phone also inherits the Mate’s “hybrid zoom” function, which uses the secondary sensor to bring out more fine detail in zoomed photos.

And Honor is plugging its new “HiSten” 3D Surround audio system in its Chinese promotional materials for the phone. The new Hi-Fi audio chip is tuned by Grammy Award winner Rainer Maillard, who makes a cameo on the product page. (And yes, the increasingly rare headphone jack is included.)

What’s far, far more important than any of those hardware changes is the Honor 9’s software. EMUI 5.1 is an enormous upgrade compared to the old, clutzy version 4.1, and having this software at launch is important. In contrast to the relatively low-key, online-only Honor 8 Pro, a lot more attention (and marketing money) will be given to the Honor 9, so it’s important that a great software experience is present from the get-go.

So that’s what we’re expecting from the Honor 9 based on what’s been revealed in the Chinese marketing materials so far. A sharper take on a familiar design, some predictable internal hardware upgrades and a focus on improved camera and audio quality. You still don’t get wireless charging, water resistance, Super Charging or a 2K display, but then you wouldn’t necessarily expect those things in a handset at this price point.

The Honor 9 might still undercut the OnePlus 5 on price.

Incidentally, incremental spec bumps and an improved camera system are also what we’re expecting to see from the Honor 9’s principal rival in the affordable flagship segment, the OnePlus 5.

Price-wise, the base model 4GB + 64GB Honor 9 will sell for the equivalent of $340 in China — but a word of warning that Western prices for Honor phones almost never match the super competitive Chinese pricing. I’d expect something around the $400 mark to be a more realistic target. Nevertheless, with rumors pointing to a $500 price tag for the OnePlus 5, Honor could still bring plenty of fight to its main rival at a lower price.

Keep it locked to Android Central over the next couple of weeks. We’ll be live from the European Honor 9 launch event in Germany to bring you the final details — in English! — as they arrive.

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