Affordable phones aren't what they used to be. But that's a good thing. Instead of corner-cutting, feature-shedding, design-compromising handsets of little more than financial convenience, they've become well-rounded, desirable devices in their own right.
This step change has sparked renewed competition, and the Huawei P9 Lite is the latest device to try and crack one of the most competitive parts of the market.
A scaled down spin-off to the Chinese manufacturer’s high-end , the Lite steps back in some places but stays true to its flagship sibling’s roots with a near identical design and a set of specs far better than you’d expect from a phone that’s around half the price.
Huawei P9 Lite price and release date
- Out now
- Around $200/£200/AU$300
Available now in the UK, the Huawei P9 Lite is affordable, but not exactly cheap. Its £249.99 SIM-free asking price makes it a sort of halfway house device, though shop around and you can find it for roughly £200.
The Huawei P9 Lite isn’t as widely available in the US, but SIM-free international models can be found on Amazon and elsewhere from around $200, while in Australia you can pick it up from around AU$300.
With a price higher than the Moto G4 but similar to the Moto G4 Plus it’s affordable compared to many phones, but no cheaper than those it considers rivals.
So does it do enough to stand out, especially when you can get the Honor 6X – a quality offering from Huawei’s own sister firm - for just slightly more?
More than an entry-level smartphone
- Near mid-range specs at a much lower price
- Integrated fingerprint scanner
- Well balanced feature set
As budget phones have beefed up their specs sheets, expectations of what a budget phone should offer have risen rapidly. An 8MP camera is no longer enough, nor is 1GB of RAM.
Fortunately, the Huawei P9 Lite doesn’t come up short on any of these fronts. It features a near mid-market array of specs and, unlike so many devices before it, hasn’t been built around a single headline-grabbing feature. Instead, it has a balanced specs sheet doesn’t come up short in any one area.
To this end, an octa-core Kirin 650 chipset is bundled with 3GB of RAM to form a phone that will handle everything you ask of it without charging you for performance you don't need.
With 16GB of internal storage, expandable via microSD to 128GB, there’s also enough space to keep you comfortable, even if you’re taking the phone out on a 24-month contract.
You won’t worry about the cameras either. A 13MP, f/2.0 primary camera is joined by an 8MP front-facing camera capable of upping your selfie game.
What might be a little more concerning, however, is the phone’s software. Despite Android Nougat having been doing the rounds for more than four months, the Huawei P9 Lite still runs Android 6.0. Worse than that, it’s been skinned with Huawei’s Emotion UI, an Android overlay that’s never quite inspired like TouchWiz or Sense.
And despite ticking all the core boxes, that’s where the P9 Lite’s spec sheet ends. There are no luxury add-ons, no cost-increasing gimmicks. There’s what you need and nothing more.
That list of requirements now includes an integrated fingerprint scanner though, with the biometric sensor having filtered down from the flagships to the more affordable end of the market.
The Huawei P9 Lite ticks this box too, with a fingerprint sensor that sits on the center of the device’s rear. It’s brilliantly quick, but is prone to the occasional misread of your finger, forcing you to go back for a second fondle.
This location is great when the phone’s in your hand, but it's less helpful when lying screen-up on your desk.
Design and display
- Metal framed design is just 7.5mm thick
- Features a pleasingly bright 5.2-inch Full HD display
Huawei is a former king of flimsy plastic. The company has changed though and has made some beautiful phones over the past couple of years. Pleasingly, the Huawei P9 Lite continues this trend.
Yes, there’s a bit of the iPhone copycat about the phone’s metal framing that’s intersected by a couple of bold antenna lines, but it’s hardly the only phone to pinch this design detail.
Although easy on the eye, it’s not all luxury, and compared with its big brother, the Huawei P9, the Lite is visibly the more affordable option.
The P9’s aluminum unibody design has been traded in, with a smooth, flat plastic back instead adorning this device. It’s not a bad looking phone, far from it, but neither does it have the wow factor, even in this price bracket. This plastic back feels robust, but it’s also a bit slick, offering little in the way of grip.
It’s also a step back from some of the competition. The all metal bodies of the Wileyfox Swift 2 X and Honor 6X blow the P9 Lite away. In terms of overall visuals and ergonomics, the P9 Lite has a few details that give it an edge though.
Despite featuring a 5.2-inch display, the phone doesn’t feel particularly big. It carries its 147g evenly across its body, features minimal bezels and at a mere 7.5mm slim is barely any thicker than the 7.1mm thick iPhone 7. It also makes the 9.8mm thick Moto G4 Plus feel positively plump.
That 5.2-inch screen doesn’t just make the P9 Lite comfortable to hold, it’s impressively sharp too thanks to a 1080 x 1920 resolution.
With screen quality historically one of the first corners to be cut when keeping a phone’s price low, pleasingly that hasn’t been the case here. As well as the film-friendly resolution, there’s proper punch to this screen. Bright and vibrant with colors that catch the eye, the IPS panel really pops.
It’s not perfectly balanced though. It struggles slightly with more nuanced images and we’ve seen better contrast levels. Some bright colors can be a bit peaky and overblown, but, for the most part, this is a screen, like the phone’s design, that’s more than you’d expect for the money.
Interface and reliability
- EMUI 4.1 isn't best looking or usable
- Android Nougat and EMUI updates coming ‘early 2017’
Android Nougat has been doing the rounds for several months now but you won’t find it here. Instead, the Huawei P9 Lite is a bit behind the curve.
The phone runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow skinned with EMUI 4 - a relatively recent version of Huawei’s own Emotion interface. This is a combination that although functional isn’t the most inspiring. Unlike the near stock Android that powers the Moto G4, or the Cyanogen UI that currently runs on the Wileyfox Swift 2 X, it’s not as clean or refined.
If you’ve used a Huawei or Honor handset before, you’ll know that EMUI, unlike Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense UI, is less about finesse, more about being a big, bold and heavy overlay.
The skin’s overly bright, cartoony design has been toned down in recent years, and now it’s more muted. It also hides plenty of customization options, with the ‘Themes’ app letting you give the phone a whole new look and feel.
Whichever theme you opt for, however, it’s not particularly clean. EMUI introduces many of Huawei’s own apps for features Google’s stock Android already offers, such as the video player and music app.
There’s a fair bit of bloatware too. As well as the welcome pre-installs of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there’s plenty you’re not going to want, including a whole folder of games you’ll likely have no affinity towards - including Puzzle Pets and Ice Age: Scrat-ventures.
Despite all these additions, EMUI 4 doesn’t feature an app drawer, meaning all your apps are laid out across a range of home screens. It’s a design that will be familiar to former iPhone users, but one that could be a pain point for more traditional Android owners.
All this isn’t to say there’s aren’t some nice UI elements. There are, plenty of them. As well as EMUI being one of the most customizable skins going, it’s got a few simple features that are missing elsewhere.
These include the phone’s ability to track your steps and relay the information to the lock screen as standard. It’s a nice touch and one that’s surprisingly accurate.
Movies, music and gaming
- Speakers lacking at higher volumes
- Screen great for gaming and movies
- Traditional 3.5mm headphone jack remains
With plenty of grunt and a solid screen, the Huawei P9 Lite makes a decent gaming companion.
Launching Hill Climb Racing 2, the game is quick to load and smooth to play thanks to the phone’s Kirin 650 chipset. It also looks great, with the game’s bright, bold colors displayed perfectly by the 5.2-inch Full HD panel.
More demanding games were handled with similar ease. Taking to the track with Asphalt 8, the P9 Lite didn’t stutter once. It does have a fault though - sound.
The phone’s speakers don’t encourage out-loud listening. As soon as the volume starts edging up, output quality works its way down, and pretty quickly. Overall, sound is tinny and lacking depth.
That’s because the speakers are not all that they seem. Despite two speaker grilles being on the base of the phone, only the one to the right of the micro USB charging port pumps out sound, the other is there purely for aesthetics
It’s a trick we’ve seen on a number of devices. Fortunately, the 3.5mm headphone jack is still present and very much real. Found on the top of the phone, this joins Bluetooth as the preferred listening options, with Huawei’s own music player making audio sessions a pleasing experience.
Completing the entertainment triangle, the P9 Lite is a fine companion for streaming sessions.
Watching episodes of Uncle on BBC iPlayer, the screen made viewing an enjoyable and immersive experience. It’s not the biggest, but it’s bright, detailed and ultimately engaging.
Benchmarks and performance
- Octa-core chipset paired with 3GB of RAM
- Strong Geekbench benchmark results
Keeping things in the family, Huawei has fitted the P9 Lite with its own Kirin 650 chipset, a 64-bit octa-core offering with the speediest four cores clocked at 2.0GHz. This is paired with 3GB of RAM to create a phone more than capable of tackling whatever apps or games you throw its way.
It’s not going to trouble the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or OnePlus 3T when it comes to raw power, but it’s fast enough. App launches are, for the most part, responsive and speedy, there’s the occasional hesitation, but these are rare and minor.
The P9 Lite is already behind the curve though. The similarly affordable Honor 6X has now dropped with the 2.1GHz Kirin 655 chipset at its core, an on-paper improvement.
The on-paper specs don’t always tell the full story though. Running the Geekbench 4 tests, the Huawei P9 Lite averaged a multi-core score of 3361. This puts it marginally ahead of the competition, as the Honor 6X managed a score of 3275, while the Moto G4 Plus is further back with a score of 3047.
In real world tests, however, there’s little to separate the three, or the Wileyfox Swift 2 X that, despite a lowly Geekbench score of 2016, gave us no issues when we tested the device.
- Same 3,000mAh battery as flagship P9
- Nightly charges a must
One area where the Huawei P9 Lite matches the flagship Huawei P9 is battery capacity, with both devices running 3,000mAh power supplies. Sadly, the Huawei P9’s battery life was particularly average, and the P9 Lite has followed in this vein too.
Just 12 minutes of playing Hill Climb Racing 2 took 8% off the P9 Lite’s battery. Although the phone’s entertainment skills are enough to make it a commute killer then, you’re going to want to watch those battery levels in order to make sure you’ve still got something in reserve for your journey home.
That can be said for a lot of devices though, and compared with handsets in a similar price bracket, there’s little to separate the P9 Lite from the rest.
Using the phone heavily, we were always able to eke out a full day’s use with the dreaded ‘low battery’ warning not kicking in until sat at home, enjoying an evening Facebook browse.
Like the Wileyfox Swift 2 X, nightly charges will be a must for all but the lightest of users. The Moto G4 is a touch nicer on its battery, but whatever you pay you’re not going to get more than a couple of days on a single charge.
Running our standard battery test - which involved playing a 90-minute video on full brightness with notifications enabled - the Huawei P9 Lite lost a sizeable 23% of its battery.
To put that into context, the Moto G4 Plus lost just 17% of its power during the same test and the Honor 6X only 15% of its battery life. The only rival handset to have fared worse is the Wileyfox Swift 2 X, which lost 27% of its charge.
Recharge times are underwhelming too, with no quick charge features, meaning you’ll need to plan pit stops rather than plugging your phone in for 10 minutes to secure you a half days’ worth of power.
- 13MP primary camera paired with 8MP selfie snapper
- Extensive shooting options
- Huawei’s Beauty Mode is still creepy
When flagship phones birth affordable spin-offs, one of the first features to usually fall onto the chopping block is the camera. Sadly, that’s still the case here. The Huawei P9’s dual-lens, Leica-enhanced camera was the phone’s main talking point, the P9 Lite, however, is a little bit more ordinary.
A 13MP camera has been squeezed on to the phone’s rear, with an f/2.0 lens joined by the now customary autofocus and LED flash skills. It’s a step down on the G4 Plus’s 16MP offering, but pixel count isn’t everything.
In ideal shooting conditions, the Huawei P9 Lite’s 13MP camera is accomplished but far from the best snapper we’ve seen, even at this price. Focus can be slightly off, with edges often washed out rather than razor sharp.
The phone is more than capable of capturing share-worthy shots, but you’re not going to get away with printing many snaps out or making this your only camera.
These issues are only further compounded when the lights come down too. A night time-friendly camera this is not. In the hours of darkness, images are often overly noisy and areas of light overblown and lacking in punch or clarity.
What the P9 Lite’s camera lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in shooting options. There are loads of them. Swipe in from the side of the camera view and you’re treated to more than a dozen shooting tools and camera configuration options.
As well as being able to tinker with brightness and contrast levels, and activate object tracking and a smile shutter, the camera can be controlled via your voice and there’s a burst mode.
Dynamic range is what’s lacking though. Areas of light and dark blur in the middle to create shots that lack detail and definition. These issues are compounded by the lack of a dedicated HDR (high dynamic range) shooting mode.
Things get better though. Upfront, the P9 Lite features an 8MP selfie shooter with an f/2.0 lens. This is one of the better offerings in the price bracket, capable of impressively well rounded shots.
It’s let down by Huawei’s Beauty Mode though. The smartphone version of plastic surgery and an addition best left alone by the majority of users, this manipulates your vanity shots to worrying levels. You can disable it or reduce the levels, but it just creates an unwanted layer of faff around taking a simple photo.
The Huawei P9 Lite is a well-rounded and accomplished phone, but one that feels without a place. It’s affordable without being truly great value for money, and features a set of specs and overall performance that is good without ever troubling the realms of greatness.
In such a competitive part of the market, it’s a phone that fails to stand out from the competition without ever doing anything wrong.
Who's this for?
A phone for the masses, the Huawei P9 Lite is for those who are after an affordable phone that focuses on style as much as substance.
It’s a phone that will please those upgrading from a device more a couple of years old, and who aren’t as aware of how standards have risen in the affordable phone sector.
Should you buy it?
If you’re after a phone with a solid screen and decent design, the Huawei P9 Lite is a credible option. It’s not the best though. Devices such as the Moto G4 Plus and Wileyfox Swift 2 X are similarly affordable, and arguably better.
If you want a phone that looks like it could be a flagship device, it’s worth considering. It packs all the features you’ll want and need, just without ever truly wowing.
The Huawei P9 Lite has plenty of similarly priced competition, including some from Honor - Huawei's sister company. Here are three prime alternatives.
Moto G4 Plus
Similarly priced and with a better battery life, the Moto G4 Plus is a brilliant alternative to the P9 Lite.
It might not come close on a design front, but beneath the surface this is a cleaner, less cluttered phone and one that hits all the right feature list check points.
- Read our full Moto G4 Plus review
Wileyfox Swift 2 X
One of our favorite affordable phones right now, the Wileyfox Swift 2 X is a checklist of everything you could want and need from a smartphone, all wrapped up in a body that won’t break the bank.
It has a better camera than the Huawei P9 Lite and an even nicer design, yet won’t cost you any more than Huawei’s offering. It’s a star from a little-known manufacturer.
- Read our full Wileyfox Swift 2 X review
A phone that fails to compromise, the Honor 6X is possibly the P9 Lite’s closest comparison. It’s got the edge though with a slick metal build partnered with a beautiful 5.5-inch Full HD display.
Just slightly pricier than the P9 Lite and with a similar spec and identical UI, it’s the 6X’s dual-lens camera that could give it the edge for certain users.
- Read our full Honor 6X review
First reviewed: February 2017