Review

Honor 9X Pro review: Sexy design, great camera, and no Google apps

Can you live without Google apps? You might want to have an answer to that before reading this review. Huawei is on the U.S. Department of Commerce's Entity List, so U.S. companies can't do business with the Chinese firm, and that means no Android licenses from Google on Huawei's newest smartphones.

The Honor 9X Pro is one of the handsets affected by it, and I almost feel bad about using Google apps as the lede since this is such a great phone, but the truth is that it's a big deal. There's no way around that. Even if you don't use many Google apps, you'll need to find some workarounds for the ones that you do. We'll cover all of that later.

Standing on its own though, the Honor 9X Pro is a fantastic device. Once again, the Honor design team put together a beautiful chassis, a triple-lens camera that's one of the best at its price point, and more.

Specs

CPU HiSilicon Kirin 810 (dual 2.27GHz Cortex-A76, hex 1.88GHz Cortex-A55
GPU Mali-G52
Display 6.59 inches, 1080x2340, 19.5:9, 391ppi, IPS LCD
Body 163.1x77.2x8.8mm (6.42x3.04x0.35in), 206g (7.27oz)
Camera 48MP + 8MP + 2MP (wide + ultra-wide + depth sensor), Front - 16MP
Video 1080p - 60fps, Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.4 + f/2.4 Front - f/2.2
Camera features PDAF, motorized pop-up front camera
Storage 128GB
RAM 8GB
Battery 4,000mAh, 10W charger
Price ~$324


Day one

Design

Back when Huawei came out with the P20 series, I really praised its new gradient design. As it turned out, the company's Honor sub-brand had a whole lot more to offer. The Honor View 20 has a 3D Gradient with a 'V' that reflected across the back, while the Honor 20 Pro has a holographic back.

The Honor 9X Pro is back with the 3D Gradient, this time with an 'X'. This is a beautiful device, as are many of the Huawei and Honor phones on the market. The color of this model is called Phantom Purple, so it's a gradient blend of different shades of pink and purple. It's gorgeous.

Despite being a glass sandwich, there is no wireless charging, something that's probably not much of a surprise at this price point. Also, Huawei's selection of phones that do support wireless charging are few and far between, so that's fair enough.

You'll also find a triple-lens camera on the top-left corner of the back. The lenses are vertically aligned in a single housing, so they share a design with the Huawei P-series. Below the camera housing is an LED flash.

On the bottom of the device, you'll find a USB Type-C port for charging, along with a 3.5mm combo audio jack and a speaker. The top is where you'll find the nano-SIM card slot.

On the right side, there's a volume rocker, and below that, there's a power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. The dedicated fingerprint reader is quite good, better than most in-display fingerprint sensors. And more importantly, it's not taking up any screen real estate on what's nearly a bezel-less display.

Display

The Honor 9X Pro has a 6.59-inch LCD with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio and Full HD+ resolution. The big news there is that there's no notch. In fact, Honor phones have been pioneers in the effort to get rid of the notch. The Honor View 20 was the first to use a hole-punch cut-out before Samsung did it with the Galaxy S10.

For all intents and purposes, the display is great, at least as far as LCDs go. Sure, I'd rather have OLED, but I'm not complaining at this price point. It reminds me of the Honor 7X that I reviewed a year and a half ago, where I was amazed at how good the display is on a device that cheap.

However, there are drawbacks, more drawbacks than there normally are when choosing an LCD over OLED. All of Huawei's devices have features built into EMUI that are exclusive to OLED displays. These include both dark mode and the option for an always-on display. If you're used to being able to see the time and notifications at a glance, you can't do that on this phone. This device does come with EMUI 9, but I can assure you that that's not changing in the Android 10-based EMUI 10.

While it does come with EMUI 9 and therefore Android 9, you'll be using gesture-based navigation on it, and it's the same as with Android 10, or with an iPhone, since they're mostly the same. You can swipe up from the bottom to go home, or swipe up halfway to go to the multitasking screen. The one thing that's not the same as on an iPhone is that you can swipe in from the side to go back.

The display is mostly bezel-less, and it's flat, in case you're like me and hate the current trend of curved edges on the sides of displays. The bezels aren't the same size all-around though, as it has a slightly larger chin.

No Google apps

If you're thinking about buying this phone, one thing that you must take into account is that there are no Google apps, and the fact that you'll have to find a workaround for that. That means that there's no Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Photos, Chrome, and most importantly, Google Play Store. Moreover, if an app uses Google Play Services like Maps, Google Pay, and so on, those things won't work.

There's some good news though. I didn't mind the lack of a Gmail or Calendar app because it's easy enough to use a third-party client for those things. I can get by without Chrome because after all, there's still a built-in browser. On top of that, when I used Phone Clone to restore my apps from the Huawei P30 Pro, all of my non-Google apps came right over.

Oh, and that's another thing. Don't plan on restoring from a backup; you're not signing into a Google account, so the only option you have is to use Huawei's Phone Clone.

Now, the question comes in about obtaining new apps. You have some options here, none of which are optimal. Huawei has an AppGallery store, which has a lot of things, but not much of what I was looking for. Remember, social networks like Facebook and Twitter don't even work in China, so don't expect to see them in Huawei's app store.

Option number two is to side-load apps. This works well enough, and you can use a site like APKMirror to download apps.

The third option is to download a third-party app store. The obvious option is to use Amazon's Appstore, but for some reason, I was unable to sign in. There's a variety of other app stores that you can use, and you're going to have to do your own exploring on that front.

Chances are that you'll have to use a combination of all three of those solutions in your use of the Honor 9X Pro. Like I said, it's doable. It's just a lot harder than if you simply had the Google Play Store.

I've often said that Huawei's inability to sell smartphones in the United States is a huge disservice to American consumers. The American government has done nothing to show that these devices are any kind of security threat, and it seems to have more to do with a trade war with China. On the other hand, I'm not sure if it's any different from how China blocks American companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Camera

The Honor 9X Pro has a triple-lens camera, with a 48MP main sensor, an 8MP ultra-wide sensor, and a 2MP depth sensor. There's no telephoto lens, as you'd typically see from a triple-lens configuration.

The camera is one of the best that you're going to find at this price point. The 48MP sensor uses Quad Bayer technology, combining four pixels into one for better low-light performance. You also have the option to use a 48MP AI Ultra Clarity mode, although you'll probably want to use that in good lighting. This is the best shot you'll get at lossless zoom though, if you use the high-resolution option instead of the 12MP Quad Bayer option.

It has all of the fun features that we know and love from Huawei devices. It has both portrait mode and aperture mode, both of which create a bokeh effect, although portrait mode is only for people. There's AI mode, which detects what you're taking a picture of and adjusts the device's settings accordingly.

And of course, there's night mode, which Huawei was the first to do. It lets light in for up to four seconds, getting you some impressive low-light performance.

For many of the pictures of the flowers above, I took regular pictures and I took one with aperture mode. I really think that aperture mode is one of the best settings on a Huawei device. Use it where you can, because it's awesome.

Low light performance is pretty good, especially given the price point. Overall, this camera ticks the right boxes, again, given the price point.

Performance and battery life

The Honor 9X Pro includes a Kirin 810 chipset and an impressive 8GB of RAM. Performance is solid, as long as you're not looking for premium performance. After all, this isn't a premium handset, but it does quite well for what it's built to be.

It also has a 4,000mAh battery, so all-day battery life isn't a problem. I have to admit though, there were only so many days that I could test this out with real-world usage. Getting by without Google apps isn't really something that I enjoy doing. Also, the Honor 9X Pro comes with a 10W charger, so fast charging is out. Oddly enough, it came with a U.S. charger, but that's neither here nor there.

In my general usage, there wasn't any noticeable lag. Obviously, it's not a gaming phone, but you can absolutely play the games that you want. Like I said earlier, it won't replace a premium smartphone in terms of performance, but you'll be happy with what you get at this price. More importantly, it's way better than a Moto G7.

For benchmarks, I used Geekbench 4, AnTuTu, and GFXBench. Normally, I use Geekbench 5 as well, but I was unable to side-load that one. First up is Geekbench 4, which tests the CPU.

For comparison, the two-year-old premium Huawei Mate 10 Pro only got 1,911 on single-core and 6,646 on multi-core, while the Mate 20 Pro for 3,249 and 9,846, respectively, so it's between those two devices. Perhaps a better comparison is to Motorola's Moto G7, which got 1,259 on single-core and 4,777 on multi-core.

Next up is the all-in-one test on AnTuTu.

Once again, the score falls between the 178,032 score for the Mate 10 Pro and the 273,185 score for the Mate 20 Pro. The Moto G7 got 108,932. Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU.

The scores are most certainly impressive, beating out flagship phones from two years ago.

Conclusion

At around $324, this is one of the best smartphones you can buy, if not the best. But then there's the elephant in the room, which is that there are no Google apps. I come from a background of Windows phones, so this is a struggle that I'm all too familiar with, so the question is if the device is good enough to deal with the workarounds. I'd say probably not. Remember that it's not just a lack of Google apps, which is easy enough to deal with, it's the lack of the Play Store that makes it hard. If this was a Huawei Mate 30 Pro, I'd say that it might be worth the compromise.

It's a shame too, because this really is a phenomenal device. It has a camera that rivals phones that are double the price, and the performance blows away Motorola's comparably priced Moto G7. In fact, the camera blows away the G7 as well.

And boy, does Honor make sexy phones. The 3D Gradient with the X reflecting across the back is just beautiful. I feel like that's something that other companies get away from, but pretty phones are nice to have, and it's nice to see companies doing things that are different.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but it's a real disservice to American consumers that Huawei phones aren't sold here. And now it's a real disservice to global consumers outside of China, because the American government is starving out Huawei on its Android licenses, so this affects everyone now.

This is a great device. If Huawei makes a deal with the U.S. government and Google can start selling Android devices to the Chinese company, you should totally buy the Honor 9X Pro if it's in your price range.

 

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