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Honor 9X review: A smartphone that could’ve been ‘perfect’

We have been using Honor 9X’s 6GB RAM and 128GB storage variant of the smartphone that costs 16,999. Here’s our detailed review.

Read our Honor 9X review
Read our Honor 9X review (HT Photo)

Brand: Honor
Product: Honor 9X
Key specs: 6.59-inch full HD+ LCD full display ,up to 6GB RAM and up to 128GB internal memory, 48MP+8MP+2MP rear cameras, 16MP selfie camera, 4,000mAh battery
Price: 13,999 (base model)
Rating: 3/5

 

When the US ban was imposed on Huawei, amidst everything else all that really seemed bleak was the future of its smartphones. While there haven't been enough Huawei handsets in India, the brand that had more presence here and found itself in dire straits was Honor. But guess what, Honor kicked-off its 2020 with the Honor 9X in the country, indicating no intentions of giving up just yet. Honor 9X is no spring chicken as it is already out in China and is now up for challenging all the Xiaomis, Realmes and Vivos in the sub- 20,000 segment in India.

We have been using the 6GB RAM and 128GB storage variant of the smartphone that costs 16,999. You also get 4GB RAM and 128GB storage version for 13,999. Honor 9X's claim to fame is its pop-up camera, screen, and 4000mAh battery. So, after putting the smartphone through its paces, here's what we found.

Design and display

For the most part, Honor 9X makes sure it gets your attention. The Midnight Black colour variant is glossy and thus makes smudges more visible. Fortunately, there's a clear case in the retail box so there's hardly anything to worry about. That said, we found the Midnight Black version more premium-looking than the Ocean Blue variant. This is subjective and some might prefer the gradient finish instead of all black, stealthy look.

A closer look reveals that the material used at the back is a tad bit different from what's on the sides. Since the smartphone has a metal strip running on the sides, it adds to the overall aesthetic if not anything else. The triple rear camera setup is vertically aligned on the top-left corner and yes it wobbles the smartphone a bit when you type on it while it's kept on a table.

Honor 9X
Honor 9X (HT Photo)

But then the in-hand feel is what everything boils down to. And some may like it, some may not. Although Honor 9X is 8.8mm thick, its sides are curved from the back. And due to this, the smartphone goes all sleek on the sides, which indeed makes it a bit difficult to handle. It not only makes the 9X slippery but cuts down the grip.

9X is slightly on the heavier side as well at 196.8 grams. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 and even the Realme 5 Pro that fall in the same price range, weigh less. Yes, they both have slightly smaller screens and overall height but while Redmi Note 8 has an extra camera at the back, Realme has more battery. At this point, it may seem like we are nit-picking but at the end of it, we did find Honor 9X slightly bulky. But end users may not even notice this.

The power and volume buttons are on the right side but are prominent enough to make you recognise which one is which and are easily accessible. Thumbs up to the fingerprint sensor placement at the back that is placed exactly where the fingers fall naturally.

All-in-all, the smartphone is not bad when it comes to in-hand feel. However, it may seem like it's another sheep in the herd given the overcrowding of the segment with similar-looking phones. It's nowhere close to Honor 8X in terms of looks and rather takes clues from the recently launched Honor smartphones, for instance, Honor 20i. And like we said in our first impressions, it has a Redmi Note 8 vibe going to it and may look similar at first go.

The front is nothing but a 6.59-inch FHD+ IPS LCD screen without a notch, which Honor calls as the 'FullView' display. We're happy not seeing a notch in a smartphone under 20,000 for a change. Notch-laden screens do grow on you over time but not having one in the first place leaves you nothing to get used to. Streaming Netflix, playing PUBG or CoD Mobile, and even general navigation gestures get a boost with more screen estate.

Honor 9X
Honor 9X

Mind you, Honor 9X shows three navigation buttons at the bottom to move back, access the home screen and the multi-window screen by default. These stay on the screen for most apps. But they can be removed from the Settings app and replaced with the gesture navigation options, something that results in more screen space, especially while browsing web pages or scrolling through messages.

Since it's an IPS panel, don't expect it to be as vibrant or have as saturated colours as AMOLEDs. But Honor 9X's screen is not bad by any means. We streamed Netflix for hours, played games and the colours were really nice to look at. You won't get a chance to complain until unless directly compared with Samsung's AMOLEDs. Of course, the Black is not as deep but that is also shown even when the screen brightness reaches its peak. You could see the entire panel being lit while using Black wallpapers. But that is pretty much expected from an IPS LCD panel, isn't it?

WATCH: Honor 9X First Look 

We would have liked an AMOLED panel here considering Galaxy M30s at 12,999 and Realme XT at 14,999 have them. This definitely pushes the Honor 9X slightly back in the queue. But as we mentioned above, the silver lining is the notch-less screen with roughly 391ppi, which is not an impressive number per se. The panel can go bright enough so you can view the content easily in daylight. While streaming videos we noticed a slight change in colour tones when viewing from different angles. That's a common behaviour in IPS LCD displays though and you should better be prepared for this if you are hell-bent on buying the 9X.

But the biggest bummer here is that despite supporting Widevine L1 certification, the smartphone is not in the list of supported devices that can stream Netflix videos in high definition (HD). Yes, you heard that right. The Honor 9X runs nothing more than SD quality videos, as learned by the Hindustan Times tech. However, Honor says that there might be an update coming in the future that makes HD support possible in Netflix.

On the software side of things, you get some basic functions and nothing extraordinary including colour modes and temperature settings, 'Eye comfort' which is the blue light filter, auto-brightness, and others. Also, there's a feature to force apps to open in full-screen view. So you have got the basics covered here.

Camera

Honor talked at length about the cameras of the 9X and how powerful they can be, at least on paper. This is also the company's first in the 'X' series to get a pop-up selfie camera, which is quite late in the market but at least it is there.

Getting all the specifications out of the way, Honor 9X has triple rear cameras that comprise of a 48MP primary CMOS sensor with f/1.8 aperture and 1/2inch size, an 8-megapixel super-wide-angle camera with 120-degree coverage and a 2-megapixel depth-assist camera. The front pop-up camera uses a 16MP sensor with f/2.2 aperture. There are a bunch of camera-laden features as well, about which we will talk in a while.

To start with, Honor 9X's camera stays on 12-megapixel by default and you would have to visit the camera app's settings to change the resolution to 48-megapixels. Fortunately, it stays at 48-megapixels even after you close and re-open the app. The smartphone is pretty fast in clicking such a high-res image (8000x6000 in this case). In artificial and low light situations you will often find the smartphone asking for a second or two more after the shutter button is tapped, just to sharpen the shot. On the brighter side, the 48-megapixel shot processing is almost immediate and you don't have to wait for the image to show up after you tap the preview from the corner.

Honor 9X
Honor 9X

There's an AI mode as well that enhances the images taken by the camera. You can use it only while clicking 12MP images. It doesn't work in lower or higher resolution modes. Adding to the not-so-brighter side, there's no zooming ability when clicking in 48-megapixel mode and in artificial lighting conditions the corners of the image lose details. So much so that it's visible from the naked eye. Also, in case you are clicking in 48-megapixel mode, do keep an eye on the storage space as one image usually takes around 8-10MB.

In general, we found the colours good looking and something that users will like. The Reds can be more saturated and vibrant than what's seen in real life, while the yellows, greens and blues are well balanced. While the shots are mostly well captured, Honor 9X's camera often fills in more light with ISO even in slightly dim situations. It doesn't make the shot look natural but dramatic enough so it can go on your social media accounts. For natural shots, you always have the 'Pro' mode, which works well but with a tad bit more contrast than what's visible in real life.

While the camera autofocus is nearly spot on when it comes to auto locking on a subject, the camera's 8-megapixel super wide-angle camera also works well and delivers a good balance of ISO while maintaining some level of detail. You won't notice this right away though. While a user will most probably search for a wide camera mode in the carousel near the shutter button, the feature is actually hidden in the '1x' icon seen on the side. Tapping on it will switch between wide-angle and 1x. You can also drag the '1x' icon for a more precise zoom-in or zoom-out.

Portraits are a kind of hit or miss with the Honor 9X. Yes, it clicks good portraits (when it does) and does an appreciable job in cutting out corners and even hair strands for that matter but the mere fact that its unreliable, keeps us from calling it a 'perfect' feature. Majority of the time we saw the portrait mode failing to recognise the foreground and background and hence blurring subjects that are not required to be blurred.

The night mode does a decent job. It does not just retain the sharpness and details to an extent but also the colours. We notice Honor 9X throwing up more of Chrominance Noise than Luminance Noise. What's annoying is that the shutter takes around 2 seconds after you tap, to capture the image in different brightness levels. In those two seconds, it asks you to keep your hands stable for a sharper image, which is annoying at times.

As for the videos, the overall performance is above average but not the best in class. You get the option to shoot full HD (1080p) videos at 30fps and 19.2:9 aspect ratio. There's also an option to shoot FHD videos at 60fps and 30fps and 16:9 aspect ratio along with the option to shoot HD (720p) videos at 30fps and 16:9 aspect ratio. And for some reason, the smartphone sets the video settings at the lowest possible option (720p at 30fps) by default. The videos are shot in H.264 encoding and users get the option to select H.265 encoding as well. But a couple of drawbacks here is that the Beautification effects are only available in 720p resolution while the Wide-angle mode is not supported in FHD at 60fps option.

All that said, the impressive video stabilisation is something that we noticed right off the bat. Honor 9X does a commendable job here, something better than what we've seen in others in the sub- 20,000 smartphones.

Honor 9X
Honor 9X

Selfie lovers will be impressed with the front-facing 16MP sensor. Opening the camera and firing up the selfie mode is pretty quick as the pop-up module takes under a second to show up. There's nothing fancy about the module though, there are now fancy glowing effects like what you get with the Redmi K20 Pro. As for the performance, the module scores well in capturing details but like the rear camera, this too over-saturates Reds. The portrait mode does the job but makes the resulting images look a bit too fake at times. Also, by default, you get the Beautification mode set to 50%, which might work for some but not for all. However, feature-wise you get nearly everything. From gesture capture support to voice-enabled shooting, the sound of the pop-up module and audio control, you have it all.

Performance

Honor 9X runs on Kirin 710F. And to start with, this is not a bad processor at all. The last time we saw this processor was in Honor 20i, which came out last year. We ran our 6GB+128GB variant through some benchmarking apps and while it scored 185107 on Antutu 8.2.2, on Geekbench and 3D Mark it was placed low at 320/1360 for single/multi-core and 868/1128 for sling shot extreme/Sling shot respectively. That's definitely on the lower end of the list but around the same as what the competition would get.

Talking about specs on paper, the octa-core Kirin 710F comprises four A73 and four A53 cores. This combination is definitely weaker than the 8nm-made Snapdragon 730's two A76-based Kyro 470 CPUs and six A55-based CPUs. You can find this processor in Xiaomi's Redmi K20, which is one of the prime contenders of Honor 9X in the given price segment.

Made using a 12nm process, Kirin 710F handled multitasking more easily than what we expected. Using it as our daily driver for days we didn't find anything to complain while browsing through several Chrome and Microsoft Edge tabs and having several apps like Adobe Lightroom, CoD Mobile, and others being active in the background.

It's difficult to call the Android 9 based EMUI 9.1.0 a 'snappy' UI but a rather smooth one. And naturally, you get apps like booking.com, Camera 360, Ride mode, Wego Flights among others pre-installed. Some might want to uninstall them for a cleaner app drawer and to spare some space as well but for some, it might be useful. And like we mentioned in our introduction, it doesn't look like the smartphone will get any major Android update from Google going forward, something which doesn't work well for Honor smartphones' image.

We did notice that waking up the smartphone after a few hours, unlocking it and opening a heavy app does take longer than usual.

Honor 9X
Honor 9X

The battery is one of the strongest suits of the Honor 9X. If you always wanted a smartphone on which you can stream videos while commuting to office, work on emails and other documents, browse social media, watch YouTube videos, play games for an hour or so, stream music, take calls with few Chrome apps running in the background and then coming back home with some battery left, Honor 9X is one of the best in this range right now.

The handset is backed by a 4000mAh battery, which is the new norm with budget handsets these days. However, when it comes to practicality, this definitely delivers more than what it seems. Using it on a daily basis, we were able to comfortably use the device for 12 hours with all the tasks we just mentioned above. Yes, your PUBG Mobile and CoD does consume more battery but for an average user, it should stretch enough to run till the next morning. On the other hand, heavy users may have to reach for the charger by the end of the day while light users can easily stretch it to two days.

If you want to stretch the battery life, even more, Honor 9X gives you the Performance mode, Power Saving Mode and the Ultra Power Saving mode that shut background apps on a different level to extend the battery. There's also the option to switch from FHD+ resolution to HD+, which would also result in more battery for a longer time. And talking about the screen, the average screen on time we got on this smartphone was more than 8.5 hours, which is on the same lines as what the competition delivers.

Verdict

The Honor 9X is one of the most perfectly functional smartphones that checks most of the boxes for a smartphone in the sub- 20,000 segment. The handset is a delight to use with an only major drawback for media consumers, no Netflix HD support. The Kirin 710F is not the latest in the line of Kirin processors but it won't make you feel the performance is sluggish at any point. Add 4GB/6GB RAM to it and there's hardly any hiccups that you will face while switching between apps.

Honor 9X could have been the 'perfect' smartphone in the given price range. But then you get AMOLED screen handsets at this price, devices with 64MP sensors, 4500mAh battery, and better design. All of this is missing here. But the sheer fact that you still get more screen estate, really good battery life and a robust build with a decent performance, makes the handset a 'contender' against the likes of Redmi Note 8 Pro and the Realme XT. The two, however, look better, have a beefier camera setup and a better price is to spec ratio. Yes, you get a notch on both of them but the overall package is more appealing.

And considering that the likes of Xiaomi and Realme are more aggressive in launching budget smartphones, Honor 9X's shine might not be a bright one for long. So, long story short, Honor 9X is strictly for fans because there are better options in the market for sure.