A good smartphone camera is hard to come by in the budget segment. Here, manufacturers usually try to offer the best processors, RAM and storage because specifications stand out. We've seen some smartphones that claim to be camera-focused, such as Xiaomi’s Redmi Y1 (Review), part of its Y series, which didn't turn out to be great when we reviewed it.
Now, Huawei's Honor brand hopes to do one better with its new Honor 9 Lite - a reasonably priced smartphone that boasts of four cameras. This isn’t the company’s first attempt at a quad-camera smartphone - we first saw it attempt to wow buyers with the Honor 9i (Review). However, the company is now taking this feature a bit more mainstream as the 9 Lite enters the market priced at just Rs. 10,999. The 9 Lite doesn't rely solely on its cameras; it also seems to check all the right boxes in terms of specifications. Our first impressions of it were fairly positive, and it’s now time to see if the Honor 9 Lite can indeed raise the bar in the budget segment.
Honor 9 Lite design and build quality
The Honor 9 Lite reminds us a lot of the Honor 8 (Review), which was the company’s flagship in 2016. The 2.5D curved glass on the back has a mirror effect, which looks really good. However, according to Honor’s website, this effect is limited to the Sapphire Blue and Glacier Gray versions only, and not the Midnight Black one. It's similar to what we’ve seen with the Moto X4 (Review). There glass for the display in front is curved similarly, and thanks to this and the phone's rounded sides, you get a very comfortable grip. The downside to having glass is that it can be incredibly slippery and is most certainly a pain to keep free of smudges. The frame is plastic though, instead of metal, which was probably necessary to keep costs down. This also makes the phone quite light, and it’s sometimes easy to forget you have it in your pocket.
We would have liked the SIM tray to have had the same colour and finish as the rest of the body, but unfortunately it sticks out a bit. Other than that, we don't have any complaints with the build quality or finish. The volume and power buttons are plastic but they do have a nice tactile feel. The SIM tray on the left accepts either two Nano-SIMs or one SIM and a microSD card (up to 256GB). The 3.5mm headphone socket and Micro-USB port are on the bottom, along with a speaker grille. Once again, it’s disappointing to see Honor not adopting the newer Type-C standard here. It seems as though Honor is only using it for its higher end offerings.
The display is another aspect of the 9 Lite that we liked very much. It’s a Full-HD+ IPS panel, measuring 5.65 inches diagonally with the newer 18:9 aspect ratio which the industry seems to be embracing with open arms. The taller display paves the way for thinner borders all around, which gives the phone a good aesthetic. There’s just enough room for the front camera above the screen, and a company logo below it. The panel has good brightness and colour reproduction too. The taller display might be hard to reach with your fingers but there are gestures to assist with that such as being able to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor for the notification shade. There's also a navigation dock (like Assistive Touch on iOS), and a one-handed mode.
The Honor 9 Lite has a circular fingerprint sensor at the back, which is quick at authentication. In addition to unlocking the screen, you can use your fingerprint to secure apps and create a virtual safe for private files. The sensor can also be used for gestures such as taking a photo, answering a call, snoozing an alarm, and browsing through photos. These gestures aren’t locked to your enrolled fingerprints and work with any finger. In the box, the 9 Lite ships with standard accessories including a charger, data cable, SIM eject tool, and warranty information. There is no headset.
Honor 9 Lite specifications and features
Honor hasn’t crippled the 9 Lite in terms of specifications, and it shares many of the same internals as the Honor 7X and the Honor 9i, both of which are priced higher. To start off, we have Huawei’s custom in-house octa-core processor called the Kirin 659. The phone comes in two RAM and storage variants. There’s one with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and another (which we have for review) with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The phone uses about 2GB of RAM on average throughout the day, leaving you with about 2GB free (for the 4GB version), which seems like plenty. Other specifications include FM radio, Bluetooth 4.2, single-band Wi-Fi b/g/n, 4G with VoLTE, USB-OTG, an ambient light, sensor, a proximity sensor, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope.
What’s interesting is the Honor 9 Lite scored better in benchmarks than the similarly configured 7X (Review) and 9i. AnTuTu and PCMark Work 2.0 returned scores of 67,914 and 5,079 respectively. GFXbench gave us a score of 19fps which is more in line with the others.
Just like Honor’s recently launched flagship, the View 10 (Review), the 9 Lite ships with Android 8 Oreo out-of-the-box. Of course, buyers only get to experience Android 8 through Honor’s custom skin called EMUI 8. Here, you can have a single-layered interface or an app drawer; you can modify the animations when switching homescreens; and swiping right takes you to Google Now. Huawei Share is sort of like Apple’s AirDrop for Huawei devices, and it works in a similar manner.
The Wi-Fi+ feature will automatically switch between Wi-Fi and mobile data, depending on which connection is better. When we tried connecting to a freshly rebooted router, we noticed the Wi-Fi+ at work as it tried to evaluate whether our mobile data or Wi-Fi connection was stronger. Eventually, it settled on Wi-Fi once it detected an Internet connection.
The Settings app is designed well and even though some of the sub-menus have been moved around, it’s not too difficult to find them. You also have the option to use Huawei’s cloud services for backing up contacts, calendars, Wi-Fi credentials, SMS messages, and call logs (again, similar to Apple’s iCloud), although there’s no mention of how much storage space you get for free. You also can't back up data from third party apps.
You get a host of preinstalled trial games, which thankfully can be removed, and some apps which are essentially links Honor’s websites and community forum.
Honor 9 Lite performance, camera and battery life
Honor’s new build of EMUI based on Android Oreo runs fairly well, but it’s not as snappy as stock Android or even some custom builds such as OnePlus’ OxygenOS. It’s a different take than Google’s Material deign language but it still looks good and is functional. Even with the 4GB RAM version, we did run into brief slow-downs with simple tasks such as digging around the Settings app. However this is not an issue we were able to replicate consistently.
The touch response of the display is good, and we didn’t have any issues with call quality. The processor is powerful enough to offer a smooth multitasking experience, and simple games run fine, but heavier titles like Asphalt 8: Airborne run with choppy framerates. However, this phone does get warm pretty easily. For instance, downloading an app from the Play Store and listening to music at the same time caused the upper portion of the Honor 9 Lite to get a bit warm.
Apps running in full-screen mode aren't handled very well. In the Display sub-menu of the Settings app, there’s an auto-generated list of all installed apps that aren’t ‘optimised’ to run in full-screen mode. You can force them to stretch by flipping a toggle. In some apps, you get an option to force them to run full-screen, while others that are optimised do so automatically. In apps from Google and Huawei, the navigation bar often adapts to the colour of the app, but in others like Facebook, you get a black strip at the bottom and there’s no option to auto-hide it. We did notice that some games such as Asphalt 8: Airborne ran full-screen by default but appeared stretched, and there was no option to force them to run at the standard 16:9 aspect ratio.
The 9 Lite ships with some redundant apps including Honor’s own music and video players, in addition to Google’s offerings. The music player lets you use audio enhancements like Huawei’s Histen sound effects, which didn’t really seem to improve actual audio performance when we tried it out. The mono speaker gets loud but quality isn’t great. Low frequencies sound flat and there's a tinny overall sonic signature. Video playback is smooth up to 1080p and even our high-resolution test files had no trouble playing smoothly. The default video player has options to resize video to fill the screen, without stretching it.
The big feature that Honor is touting is the fact that this phone has four cameras. There are 13-megapixel primary sensors for the front and back of the 9 Lite, with the difference being that only the rear one supports PDAF. Both cameras have additional 2-megapixel sensors for calculating depth and applying bokeh effects when you use the Portrait and Wide Aperture modes in the camera app.
Photos taken during the day look good on the phone's display, going by mainstream smartphone standards. Autofocus is quick and details in landscapes are fairly distinct. However, colours are a bit dull, and zooming in to images reveals mild noise in darker portions. In low light, the 9 Lite suffers from the same issues as nearly every mainstream smartphone camera. Focusing is slow, and details are blurry, especially the edges which are over-sharpened quite a bit.
Wide aperture mode lets you adjust the aperture value (f/0.95 - f/13) before and after shooting a photo, so you can adjust the depth of field. However, the blur effect isn’t always applied accurately and we found that anything below f/2.0 looks like a poor Photoshop job. There is also a Portrait mode, which essentially does the same thing. You can’t adjust the level of blur while or after taking a shot, and there is a bokeh toggle which doesn’t seem to have any actual impact as the bokeh effect is applied regardless of its state. The effect is better as compared to the Wide Aperture mode, but edge detection is still a bit of a hit or miss, and focusing is slower. There's a beatification option as well.
You also get a bunch of shooting modes including Professional and Panorama, as well as filters and HDR. These work decently well and come in handy at times. You can also enable ‘touch capture’ or have the app automatically take a picture when it detects a smile.
Video recording maxes out at 1080p and the quality of recorded video is strictly average. There’s no option for electronic stabilisation so video is shaky, and low light footage lacks detail. The front camera manages to captures good selfies. The screen flash is quite effective, and coupled with the beauty mode, you can get some pretty usable pictures even in very low light. Video recording maxes out at 1080p for the front camera as well, unless you have the beauty mode enabled, in which case it’s limited to 720p.
There are additional gestures such as the ability to use your palm or your voice to capture a selfie. You can either say 'cheese' or have the phone take a shot when you shout at a certain volume level. Portrait mode works well for the front camera too.
Battery life was a bit of a concern for us with the Honor 9 Lite, considering that both the 7X and the 9i didn't fare too well in this department, and they had slightly bigger batteries. In our video loop test, the 9 Lite managed 10 hours and 3 minutes of continuous HD video playback, which is not too great. In terms of our real-world experience, we managed to make one full charge last from morning to night by keeping usage light, with some music streaming and a little use of the cameras. On the other hand, we noticed a dip of around five to seven percent in battery life after running Asphalt 8 for only about 10 minutes, which is concerning. There's no fast charging, and the bundled 10W adapter takes you up to around 60 percent in an hour. You also have the option to drop the screen's resolution to HD+ in order to save power.
The base variant of the Honor 9 Lite is one of the better options currently in the market, with a reasonable starting price of Rs. 11,000, and an 18:9 display. If you're interested, you should note that the 9 Lite overlaps with Honor’s existing offering, the 7X, which lacks the extra cameras but does have a metal body, a larger screen, and a slightly bigger battery.
The 4GB RAM version that we reviewed feels a bit too expensive considering it’s not an all-rounder. This phone looks good, but battery life isn’t great and the camera performance isn’t anything to get excited about either. At roughly, Rs. 15,000, you’d be better off with the Xiaomi Mi A1 (Review) or even the Moto G5S Plus (Review). The latter two lack the newer taller screens which are in style, but offer solid performance in nearly every department.