Honor 9X review: Flashy new look for a familiar formula

The Honor 9X is the latest entry in Honor’s inexpensive X smartphone range, replacing last year’s Honor 8X. The core principles of the X range haven’t changed, with affordable pricing, reasonable specs, and an eye-catching design driving the design ethos.

About this Honor 9x review: We reviewed the European Honor 9X over the course of a week running the latest EMUI 9.1.0.232 software version. And before you ask, yes the phone comes with Google apps pre-installed.

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Honor 9X review: The big picture

Honor aims to increase the value proposition of the 9X with new features and fixes to previous problems. There’s finally a USB-C connector for charging, for example, and more storage capacity for media lovers. This is also the first Honor X smartphone to boast a 48MP image sensor, triple rear cameras, and a pop-up selfie camera for photography enthusiasts.

Honor throws a selection of its best technologies into the phone too. The Honor 9X includes the company’s HiACE display dynamic range boosting software, GPU Turbo 3.0 gaming optimizations, and an “AI Signal Enhancer” to switch to the best WiFi or 4G antenna for a strong connection. It’s hard to find such an affordable phone with quite as many features onboard.

Editor’s Pick

With prices likely to be around €300, the Honor 9X faces competition from both the ultra-affordable and more powerful mid-range devices. Camera flexibility, build quality, and software performance needs to be on point for the 9X to stand out in this increasingly crowded market segment.

Dressed to impress

Honor has certainly crafted a striking design in the 9X. The Sapphire Blue finish combined with Honor’s trademark reflective geometric tiles produces a dazzling look in the right light. This year’s pattern is arranged in a staggered X shape, which is a little gaudy for my tastes. But each to their own.

The Midnight Black color option is much more subdued, verging on boring by comparison. Both color variants feature a plastic back cover, a choice that lowers the feel and quality of the device. But this isn’t an unexpected trade-off at this price.

There’s a familiar fingerprint sensor on the back that works well enough. The bottom of the phone houses a headphone jack (much to my pleasure) along with the phone’s single speaker (which is average at best) and a USB-C port (a long-overdue inclusion). Despite the port upgrade, the phone doesn’t sport any nifty fast-charging technology. It takes a painfully long 128 minutes to fully charge the 4,000mAh battery.

Honor’s trademark reflective geometric tiles produces a dazzling look in the right light.

A rather neat design choice is the front-facing, pop-up selfie camera. There’s a satisfying whir when you flip to the camera app’s selfie mode. The pop-up module includes fall and downward pressure detection, which should protect it from damage. Including a pop-up camera keeps the top bezel slim and it’s a cool feature not often seen at this price point. There is still a distinctive black border around the display, however, which taints an otherwise quality looking design.

Honor 9X front
Honor 9X USB C port
Honor 9X side 2
Honor 9X pop up camera

Inside is distinctly 2018

A large 6.59-inch LCD display offers a 2,340 x 1,080 (Full HD+) resolution that’s sharp enough for text and big enough for gaming and video. Display colors aren’t the punchiest, but overall quality appears really good for an affordable smartphone. The lack of a notch maximizes the real estate on offer here.

The Honor 9X, just like the 8X, is a gargantuan handset. At 8.8mm thick, it verges on unwieldy in just one hand and it certainly isn’t built for small hands or pockets.

Honor 9X hardware on sale in Europe is a little different from the version previously launched in China. Honor dropped the Kirin 810 for a Kirin 710F. While the 12nm 710F offers four big Cortex-A73 cores, the 7nm Kirin 810 has two newer and more powerful Cortex-A76 cores. The 810 also benefits from the more powerful Mali-G52 MP6 GPU versus the 710F’s Mali-G51 MP4. I would have preferred to see the newer Kirin 810 stick around for the European release, if for no reason than the extra gaming grunt. (Perhaps Honor was prompted by the US trade dispute to keep last year’s internals in order to retain Google Mobile Service certification.) Thankfully, apps are reasonably snappy on the Kirin 710.

The Honor 9X is a huge handset, but doesn’t provide the performance that power users demand.

Other internal specifications remain the same. There’s 64/128GB included storage and up to 512GB more via the microSD card slot. 4/6GB of RAM is also on offer. I’m reviewing the 6GB model and haven’t had any problems multi-tasking. Although 4GB might feel a little light these days.

honor 9x midnight black on desk

Battery life is also a cut above the average in this price bracket. The combination of a low power processor and a large 4,000mAh battery will easily see you through a full day of heavy use, if not two.

The Honor 9X ships with EMUI 9.1 onboard, which is based on Android 9 Pie. EMUI is in a good place these days, with a decent assortment of useful extras, including gesture navigation, App Twin and App Lock security, and power-saving modes. Honor wasn’t able to give a timeframe for an update to the latest Android 10 based EMUI 10.

See also: Honor suddenly fancies itself a gaming brand

What about that triple camera?

Honor 9X AI camera

The Honor 9X isn’t the first Honor phone to boast a 48MP camera. This feature will be familiar to Honor View 20 and Honor 20 Pro owners. However, the 9X doesn’t carry over the same Sony IMX586 sensor. Honor is actually sourcing the sensor from multiple vendors. It claims to vet quality across suppliers, although we’re likely looking at slightly different results depending on the exact model you get.

Click here for full-res camera samples

Sadly, at full resolution, the 48MP camera disappoints. Detail capture isn’t close to warranting the larger file size. There’s a reason the camera defaults to the binned 12MP setting and I suggest you leave it there.

In good lighting, the Honor 9X is a better than average low-cost shooter. Exposure is good in most environments but colors swing from saturated to slightly washed out, depending on the lighting. However, colors can be boosted by using the AI mode. Unfortunately, there’s a noticeable oversharpening pass and grainy post-processing on every image. Detail is poor as a result. The HDR mode is so subtle as to not be worth using either.

Honor 9X 48MP crop
Huawei P20 Pro 40MP crop

Low-light performance is surprisingly passable for a phone in this price bracket. Images certainly aren’t clean, but noise is kept reasonably in check even in very dark shots. The larger 1/2-inch sensor and 1.6μm pixel size help capture decent amounts of light. Night Mode also helps boost the phone’s low light capabilities — providing you have steady hands. The 9X’s extra depth sensor works pretty well at adding bokeh to your shots. However, edge detection falls short on non-straight edges.

Honor 9X Low Light
Honor 9X Night Mode

Honor 9X no bokeh
Honor 9X bokeh & greyscale

The wide-angle camera is, frankly, a disappointment. Its low-light performance is terrible. Lens distortion is also a major issue around the edges of the image, which you can even see in the app’s preview. Lens correction doesn’t do a good enough job at hiding this issue. Artifacts and smudged details are glaringly obvious at the image edges.

Honor 9X camera sample HDR
Honor 9X camera sample HDR dark
Honor 9X camera sample Colors
Honor 9X camera sample Wide Angle
Honor 9X camera sample selfie outdoor
Honor 9X camera sample selfie indoor 1

The selfie camera is hit and miss. It’s good enough in outdoor lighting, barring some overexposure and skin tone issues. But details quickly blur when venturing into less than perfect lighting conditions. Video performance is similarly average. 1080p 60fps low-light video is very grainy and colors can look a bit washed out indoors. However, the phone redeems itself with excellent 720p video stabilization that works with even the shakiest hands.

The Honor 9X bills itself as an affordable camera powerhouse but doesn’t excel at anything enough to fulfill that promise. The main camera performs acceptably, even in low light, but the wide-angle and depth cameras don’t add much value. On balance, the Honor 9X is an average shooter in this price category — just don’t pixel peep too much.

See also: The best Honor phones (October 2019)

Honor 9X specs

 Honor 9X
Processor12nm Kirin 710F
Memory/storage4 / 6GB RAM
64 / 128GB storage
Display6.59-inch LCD
Full HD+ (2340 x 1080)
Battery4,000mAh
5V/2A wired charging
CamerasMain:
48MP f/1.8, 1/2″ main sensor
8MP f/2.4 120° wide angle
2MP Depth Assist Camera, f/2.4

Front:
16MP f/2.2 pop-up selfie

ConnectivityBluetooth 4.2
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/ac/g/n
GPS/GLONASS/AGPS
Dimensions163.5 x 77.3 x 8.8mm
196.8g
PortsUSB-C
3.5mm jack
SoftwareEMUI 9.1
Android 9 Pie
ColorsSapphire Blue, Midnight Black

Honor 9X review: the verdict

Honor 9X back full

Honor handsets always offer eye-catching looks and the 9X is the company’s most distinctive affordable phone yet. Between the “X” design and pop-up camera, the phone is bound to turn heads. However, without a notable boost to processing hardware, the Honor 9X feels like more of a cosmetic change to the 8X than a noteworthy step forward.

Unfortunately, the triple camera setup doesn’t live up to the implied photography capabilities. The 48MP camera takes reasonable snaps, but can’t produce the fine details you’d expect from such a high resolution. Lack of NFC is another drawback, although keeping the headphone jack and including a USB-C port help make up the shortfall. Ultimately, you can’t have everything at such a cheap price point. On balance, Honor makes (mostly) the right sacrifices.

Recommending the Honor 9X ultimately hinges on its price point. For now, we know the phone costs the equivalent of around $300 in Russia, so it’s likely we’ll see it go for around €300 in other European markets. The excellent Xiaomi Mi 9T (€300) offers superior performance, while the Moto G7 Power (€210) is a great go-to for the budget-conscious. The Honor 9X’s price tag should probably slot somewhere in between.

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