The Honor 9 Lite’s bezel-light design and twin-lens camera tricks are eye catching, but it’s perhaps too quirky to fully take on the Motorola G-series at the top of the table. A good affordable phone, but the Motorola is better.
- All-screen design for less than £200
- Crisp 5.65-inch 18:9 display
- Camera reasonably proficient
- EMUI doesn’t show Android at its best
- Glass back questionable design decision
- Second camera only partially successful
- Review Price: £199
- Screen: 5.65-inch HD+ 18:9 Full
- CPU: Kirin 659
- Memory: 3GB RAM
- Storage: 32GB
- Camera: 13MP + 2MP front and rear dual
- OS: Android 8.0 Oreo
What is the Honor 9 Lite?
The Honor 9 Lite is yet another feature-packed budget smartphone from Huawei’s affordable sub-brand.
Available in the UK for around £199, the Chinese brand is clearly hoping to appeal to budding photographers and serial Instagram sharers on a budget.
Editor’s Note: Due to the recent retraction of Huawei’s Android license, future Huawei and Honor phones won’t be able to access Google Play Services and as a result many Android apps including YouTube and Gmail. Both Huawei and Google have confirmed Huawei and Honor phones, like the one in this review, will continue to have access for this time being. Until we know more about the situation we’re leaving the scores on all our Huawei reviews, however as the situation changes we’ll revisit this.
Honor 9 Lite – Design
Similar to the Honor 7X that came immediately before it, the Honor 9 Lite seeks to provide the bezel-light appeal of modern flagship phones but at a more affordable price. Honor calls its approach FullView, which basically refers to devices with a higher screen-to-device ratio.
The Honor 9 Lite is far from bezel-free. Its screen doesn’t go edge-to-edge at the sides as seen on the Samsung Galaxy S9, nor do its top and bottom edges fill out the frame as they do on an iPhone X. But despite the additional presence of a black border around the active part of the screen, the front of the phone is undoubtedly dominated by its 5.65-inch display.
So much so, in fact, that there’s no space for a fingerprint sensor on the front of the device, which is where the full-fat Honor 9 places it. Rather, the sensor is sensibly positioned around back, three-quarters of the way up the phone.
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It’s a reliable and appreciably snappy biometric system, granting access to the phone without fuss. I was impressed with the Honor 7X for this component, so it’s good to see similar performance here in even cheaper form.
The rest of the phone’s rear isn’t quite so sensible or functional. Honor has opted for a highly reflective, tinted-glass covering, which is practically begging for smudges and cracks. In other, more premium phones, such a design decision has the practical benefit of enabling wireless charging. There’s no such mitigating factor here.
You could view this as a bonus feature relating to the Honor 9 Lite’s photographic focus. One of our subjects during testing noted that the phone’s reflective back enabled them to check out their appearance before we took a portrait shot.
Either way, the Honor 9 Lite undoubtedly stands out, and it looks a great deal more premium than it actually is. It feels classy too, thanks to that glass back – although it’s also incredibly slippery. Place it down on a slightly uneven surface – such as a wooden bench or a couch arm – and it will gradually slide its way to the floor.
The Honor 9 Lite’s glass front and back sandwich a slim 7.6mm-thick aluminium frame, although a glossy finish makes it look and feel curiously plasticky. A relatively light weight of 149g may add a little to that sensation – not that we’d ever complain about a phone manufacturer trimming the fat.
Honor 9 Lite – Screen
Making the front of your phone even more about the display than usual places extra pressure on the quality of the screen itself. Thankfully, the Honor 9 Lite isn’t found wanting in this respect.
This is a nicely sized 5.65-inch IPS LCD screen, with decent viewing angles, contrast and strong brightness when you need to crank things up. You’d need to spend considerably more money to find something much better. Meanwhile, a 2160 x 1080 (FHD+) resolution ensures that individual pixels can’t be picked out, to the tune of 428ppi.
If that pixel count looks a little off to you, it’s because the Honor 9 Lite adopts a stretched-out 18:9 aspect ratio rather than the typical (albeit decreasingly so) 16:9.
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It’s great for super-widescreen video and gaming content, although some apps and most videos don’t make use of the extra space. For example, the majority of YouTube and Netflix content will have black borders either side when viewed on the Honor 9 Lite. Both services provide a subtle zoom-in option, but this will cut off some of the video.
When it comes to apps, Huawei’s EMUI skin will offer a prompt to go full screen and stretch out the content the first time you use them. It isn’t particularly elegant, but it works. Which rather sums up EMUI as whole.
Honor 9 Lite – Performance
One of the reasons Honor phones can often appear to offer more features than many of their budget rivals is because they have access to the cheaper processors of HiSilicon, which is owned by parent company Huawei.
In the Honor 9 Lite’s case this means the 2.36GHz Kirin 659 CPU, which is the same chip that powers both the Honor 7X and the Huawei P Smart. It’s accompanied by 3GB of RAM, which is 1GB less than the 7X.
The Kirin 659 is a lower-mid-range chip that appears to sit in the middle of Qualcomm’s entry-level offerings. An average Geekbench 4 multicore score of 3644 pitches the Honor 9 Lite well below the slightly more expensive Moto G5S Plus (with its Snapdragon 625) on 4460, but well above the similarly priced Moto G5S (packing a Snapdragon 430) on 2294.
In day to day use there’s little to complain about here. Moving into and between apps doesn’t cause much in the way of lag, and essential functions such as waking the phone using the fingerprint sensor and opening the camera app are appreciably snappy.
This isn’t a gaming machine by any means, and we noticed a fair amount of stutter when starting out in games of Guns of Boom and Into the Dead 2. The latter never really evened out to a particularly smooth frame rate, but the former online shooter is quite playable if you give it a minute. Continuing along the scale, recent beat-’em-up Tekken plays very smoothly indeed.
With 32GB of storage – plus whatever you choose to add through the microSD slot – the Honor 9 Lite is well equipped for plenty of media downloads should you wish to put its large widescreen display to good use.
Honor 9 Lite – Software
Just like the similarly specced Huawei P Smart, the Honor 9 Lite runs the latest version of Google’s mobile OS, Android 8.0 Oreo. This is a good thing.
Also like that phone, although decidedly less positive, is the fact that you get Huawei’s own EMUI layered on top. We’re at version 8.0 now, yet EMUI remains a curiously half-baked combination of stock Android and iOS elements.
Huawei follows Apple’s lead in ditching the app tray altogether, placing the onus on you to drag and drop apps into themed folders on the homescreen. The notification tray, meanwhile, sticks closer to stock Android, with expandable control shortcuts to the top and clear notification windows below.
It’s far from an outright bad way to use a phone, and you’ll quickly get used to its graceless ways. Crucially for a mobile OS, it’s reasonably fast and reliable, with crisp and unfussy animations.
However, EMUI remains a fairly soulless, tacky environment. It lacks the clear identity and unified design principles of both Android and iOS, not to mention the better custom skins from the likes of HTC and Sony.
One part of EMUI that seems to remain eternally bloated is the pre-installed app provision. There’s the usual Themes app for customising the look of your homescreen and menus, a file management app, and a Phone Manager for dealing with virus scans, battery-killing apps, blocked contacts and the like.
Then there are the home-brewed apps for Music, Videos, and Gallery, which merely duplicate the preinstalled – and far superior – provisions from Google. Even the likes of Health and Gallery have better equivalents from Google and others on the Google Play Store, which you’ll doubtless install as a matter of priority.
You also get half a dozen Gameloft games preinstalled, which range from decent to the downright mediocre. We could probably have done without those, thanks.
On the plus side, text entry is provided by SwiftKey, which is actually one of the better virtual keyboards out there.
Honor 9 Lite – Camera
Rather impressively for a budget phone, Honor has managed to follow the Honor 9 and Honor 7X and equip the Honor 9 Lite with a dual camera setup. In fact, it’s gone one step further and provided a similar provision for selfies.
Both the front and rear of the device play host to one 13-megapixel and one 2-megapixel sensor. Just as with the Honor 7X, the smaller secondary sensor is there purely to provide depth information for the included wide aperture and portrait modes.
This is the effect that a lot of phone manufacturers – most notably Apple – are going for right now, where you get a super-sharp subject and an extremely blurred out background.
That’s the ideal outcome, at least. The truth is that most cameras don’t yet get it quite right, with too much of the edge of the subject lost to the artificial blurring effect.
On the Honor 9 Lite you can get some reasonable results, but it’s far from perfect. Interestingly, in wide aperture mode, you can adjust the aggressiveness of the effect on the phone in the editing phase, from an aperture of f/16 (minimal background blur) right up to f/0.95 (blur city).
The results can verge on the unusable towards the more extreme end of the scale. In general, you’re still best off simply getting nice and close to your subject and relying on a more natural bokeh effect. Nevertheless, it is possible to get some striking results if you take the time over it.
Portrait mode is geared specifically towards close-ups of people, and as such needs to be used between 0.5 and 2 metres. The main difference here is the presence of the dreaded ‘beauty’ effect, which as always makes your subject look like some kind of dolled up mannequin. Fortunately, you can turn the effect right down, or – even better – off.
In terms of general shooting, the Honor 9 Lite is capable of producing good shots in decent lighting, with Phase Detection Autofocus (PDAF) enabling you to take quick shots without worrying too much about whether they’ll be in focus. It’s quick and accurate enough to capture busy street scenes without any blurry limbs, which isn’t always a given at the lower end of the smartphone market.
There’s an HDR mode for those scenes containing extremes of light and shade, but it needs to be deliberately activated in a menu. Even without this, the Honor 9 Lite isn’t too bad at coping with bright skies or shady areas – at least compared to some other budget phones we’ve used.
The front-facing 13-megapixel camera also comes through, with sharp and rich selfie snaps as standard. Again, though, you’ll need to feed it with plenty of light, and you won’t want to push the bokeh effect provided by the secondary 2-megapixel sensor too much post-snap. The effect is distractingly smudgey.
Honor 9 Lite – Battery life
The Honor 9 Lite comes with a 3000mAh battery, which is pretty typical for a phone of this size. It’s a little smaller than the 3340mAh battery of the similarly specced Honor 7X, but that phone has a larger and more demanding 6-inch display.
Perhaps as a result, Honor claims that you can get an extra hour of offline video watching out of the Honor 9 Lite’s battery (13 hours rather than 12). In practice, we found that it ate through a similar amount of battery (14%) when watching a 50-minute downloaded TV programme with the screen brightness bumped right up, which isn’t great.
Conversely, playing 15 minutes of Guns of Boom at half screen brightness sapped just 6% of the Honor 9 Lite’s battery. The same task took 9% from the Honor 7X.
In general use, Honor claims that you’ll get a whole day of use out of the phone, and we wouldn’t dispute that. Just don’t use that big old screen for too much heavy media consumption and you should be fine.
In terms of charging, the Honor 9 Lite is a pretty barebones effort. There’s no USB-C, no fast charging, and no wireless charging – despite the glass back. Of those three, fast charging is the biggest omission. The Moto G5 had such a feature, and that’s a year old and around £40 cheaper.
Why buy the Honor 9 Lite?
The Honor 9 Lite offers a number of strong features for a sub-£200 price tag. Its all-screen design is something we still aren’t used to seeing at this price point, while general performance is reasonably snappy.
While the twin dual-sensor setup is somewhat gimmicky, the Honor 9 Lite’s camera can produce some decent shots in adequate lighting. Go easy on the wide aperture mode, meanwhile, and it’s possible to get quite creative.
You’re still not getting the absolute best budget experience here. Little blemishes such as a lack of fast charging and the presence of Huawei’s ugly EMUI software hold the package back. But for those who want a phone that doesn’t just disappear into the background for their £200, it’s well worth a look.
The Honor 9 Lite’s bezel-light design and twin-lens camera tricks are eye catching, but it’s perhaps too quirky to fully take on the Motorola G-series at the top of the table.
Score in detail
Battery Life 6
Calls & Sound 7
Screen Quality 8