Honor 9X review: Notch-free brings the X factor?

Throughout 2019 we’ve seen an increase in really compelling mid-range phones with attractive buy-outright price tags. The Honor 9X is no different in that regard, but in Europe – following Huawei, its parent company, receiving blacklist and trading bans – the phone doesn’t get a processor boost, leaving it on the same hardware as the last-generation. That’s a necessary evil, though, in order it to arrive with the full spectrum of Google Play functions and features.

Where the Honor 9X sells itself beyond many of its competitors is with its ditching of the notch (that typical black-out dip to the top of the screen). This large ‘Full View’ display instead offers a 91 per cent screen-to-body ratio, with minimal bezel, and a motorised pop-up camera up top. Is that reason enough for the Honor to single-handedly win over the mid-range market?

Design & Display

  • 6.59-inch LCD display, Full HD+ resolution (1080 x 2340 pixels)
  • ‘Dynamic X’ design (reflective ‘x’ shapes in glass rear)
  • Finishes: Midnight Black, Sapphire Blue
  • Size & weight: 164 x 77 x 8.8mm; 197g
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint scanner
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

To look at you wouldn’t think the Honor 9X is an affordable phone. The large screen and absence of bezel allows for a display-forward design, without distractions. We love that there’s no notch in the way, allowing the full 6.59-inch panel to really be the focus.

That screen is an LCD panel, so you won’t get the same degree of rich blacks as you would from an OLED equivalent, but then this is fitting of the price. We find Honor’s auto-brightness control to be sensible, unlike that of Motorola’s latest One series of phones, so things typically look balanced and bright enough.

Resolution is typical of many current phones, at 1080 lines on the vertical, with the elongated 19.5:9 aspect ratio giving the “Full HD+” designation. Any more resolution would probably just affect the 9X’s battery life for the worse. Besides, even with relative close-up use you won’t notice jagged lines whatever apps you happen to be running.

Flip the phone over and it reveals that so-called ‘Dynamic X’ design, where the light catches diagonal intersections in an x-like pattern. It looks great in the blue finish, which isn’t overly garish, or black is also available.

To the upper centre on the back is a circular dip for the fingerprint scanner, which we’ve found responsive. We’ve become more accustomed to using in-screen fingerprint scanners these days, but at this price point we’re not surprised Honor has stuck with the tried-and-tested rear – besides, we couldn’t want a sub-par one as a result in order to the keep the costs down.

With a 3.5mm headphone jack included, rounded edges for a comfortable hold, and the addition of USB-C for charging (not Micro-USB any more, yay) there’s a lot of features to like about this phone. As a flagship alternative it doesn’t offer some of those more premium wants – OLED, in-screen fingerprint – but otherwise you’ll be hard pressed to find too many cut corners here.

Hardware & Performance

  • HiSilicon Kirin 710F (octa-core processor), 6GB RAM
  • 4,000mAh battery capacity, 10W USB-C charging
  • EMUI 9.1 software (Android 9.0 base)

One of the points of contention, of course, comes from the use of the Kirin 710F processor. If you eyed-up the Honor 8X from 2018 then you’ll know this to be more-or-less the same, so why hasn’t the 9X upgraded? Well, it has. But only in China will you find Kirin 810 version. Because the European model of the 9X has to effectively be a reworked version of the Huawei Smart P Smart Z in order to get past the Google ban hurdles, that’s why the older hardware has to be used.

However, this isn’t as big a problem as it might sound, because Kirin 710 works just fine in this context. Paired here with 6GB RAM, we’ve found the Honor 9X to swim along with any tasks that we’ve put its way. Whether browsing, gaming – yes, we’re still a bit obsessed with South Park: Phone Destroyer – or listening to music while crunching through emails, nothing has proven taxing. That’s just the position of so many mid-range handsets these days: the hardware has come on to such a degree that it doesn’t affect many of the main applications you’d want to deploy on a phone.

Backing up this performance is 128GB storage with the option to microSD expand it, should you want more (or the second slot acts as a second SIM). Plus the battery is a capacious 4,000mAh, which is fairly huge by any standards, and paired with this processor and the option of smart resolution (the software drops the resolution when it deems necessary) the 9X lasts for hours. And then some. Indeed, you could call this a two-day phone, as we’ve only been pushing through around half the battery life in a single day.

In Europe, as we’ve alluded to, the Honor 9X comes with the full complement of Google services, so no worries there. It might mean there’s not a huge extent of future software upgrades, however, because the Android 9.0 base on which Huawei’s EMUI 9.1 software runs is as far as the company could offer prior to those US-based sanctions. But if you’re not a total software nerd then we doubt you’ll care much – Android’s ongoing upgrades haven’t offered a huge deal in recent times, other than a dark mode and some tweaks here and there.

Cameras

  • Triple rear camera: Main, wide, depth
  • Main: 48MP (1/2in size), 27mm equiv., f/1.8 aperture, (12MP ‘Light Fusion’ shots by default)
  • Wide: 8MP, 13mm equiv. (120-degree wide-angle), f/2.4 aperture
  • Depth: 2MP, f/2.4 aperture
  • Selfie: Motorised pop-up, 16MP, f/2.2 aperture

Another area where the Honor 9X sounds compelling is with its cameras. There are three on the rear, comprising standard 48-megapixel, wide-angle 8-megapixel, and a 2-megapixel depth sensor to assist that software-based blurred background bokeh in portrait mode.

However, compelling as it may sound, we’ve not found the results from the 9X’s cameras to be all that great. It’s decidedly mid-range, really, which is fitting of the price point we suppose. But we’d come to expect more.

Not that there’s a lack of features. Handy things such as a night mode – which takes multiple-seconds of exposure – can be great for bringing to life dark scenes, although after more than a second you can expect some blur as a result (and this mode is happy to expose for far longer – we’ve got some four or five second exposures, which just don’t work). There’s also Portrait mode (or Aperture mode if you’re not shooting people) for using that depth sensor’s addition.

Verdict

Although Honor has had to use some necessary tactics to be able to launch the 9X in Europe – it’s a different handset to its more advanced Chinese counterpart – the overall result is a feature rich and largely successful handset.

The absence of a notch on that large screen, the eye-catching Dynamic X design – which looks great when it catches the light – and the great battery life all make for a solid affordable handset. The cameras, however, don’t match up to their billing in our view, which is a shame. Some may not like the software approach either – but in order to make this a viable launch with Google services its a necessary one.

Overall, the Honor 9X is a capable handset, its notch-free design being its big sell. Whether it’ll actually sell is another matter, though, with Huawei’s ongoing trade issues and the question over future support for a phone such as this.

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