Honor 9 Lite XDA Review – A Budget Phone Done (Mostly) Right
Honor, a subsidiary of China-based Huawei, faces fierce competition in the budget sector. With the likes of Xiaomi to contend with, the company has had trouble gaining a foothold outside of developing markets such as India. Indeed, its expansion into the West has been slow. But it is ramping up with the release of the Honor 9 Lite.
The Honor 9 Lite recently launched in western Europe, bringing with it some great specs at a low price. You can check out our hands-on of the handset here where we gave our initial impressions. You can also check out our unboxing, too, if you’re interested in the presentation and packaging of the device.
Simply put, the Honor 9 Lite is a budget phone with unmatched potential in the budget sector right now. The device is excellent for the price, flexing its muscles by way of raw processing power, great battery life, and solid build quality. While budget devices usually cut corners in the camera department, the Honor 9 Lite certainly did not. There are a few key areas where the competition has it beat, but they are few and far between.
To put things into perspective: for a brief period of time, I considered using the Honor 9 Lite instead of my OnePlus 3. I realize the OnePlus 3 is a couple of generations behind now, but consider for a moment that the Honor 9 Lite is a budget-oriented mid-range device while the OnePlus 3 is a flagship. It’s amazing that it can stand up to it.
Disclaimer: Honor sent XDA this device for review purposes. The opinions in this article are our own.
Design and Build Quality of the Honor 9 Lite
The Honor 9 Lite’s design is classy. It feels premium thanks to a glass-coated front and back. It’s comfortable in the hand and it isn’t slippery despite having a completely smooth front and back. Maintaining a grip on the device is made easier by the glass-sandwiched plastic chassis, and the rear cover is completely flat, sans the camera bump, which adds about a millimeter of thickness that’s unnoticeable when the phone is placed on a table. The back of the device largely resembles an iPhone 7. The dual camera’s positioning and LED flash follow the same arrangement as some of Apple’s offerings. This has led friends to ask me if the phone I had was an iPhone.
Coming in at 5.65 inches with minimal bezels, the phone is neither too big nor too small. The phone isn’t too tall, which is something I worried about given that the aspect ratio is 18:9 and I have smaller hands. It has a pretty neat one-handed mode that makes it easier to use in portrait mode. I’m not a huge fan of the “Honor” logo on the bottom of the screen at the front, which looks cheap. The same logo can also be found on the reverse of the device, which makes much more sense — I would have much rathered it stayed there.
Onto the screen: you won’t notice the bezel like you might on other phones. The front of the device is almost all screen and doesn’t have a notch. It’s nice to look at and even nicer to use. The symmetry between the bezel at the top of the device and the bottom of the device is also appreciated. Overall, I found the ergonomics and navbar reachability to be excellent– the device’s dimensions get the bezel just right and ensure everything’s at your fingertips, no matter how you’re holding the phone. The power button and volume rocker are also well-made: their location is intuitive, and there’s a nice tactile feel to them. The micro-USB port feels just as sturdy as the rest of the device.
In terms of wear-and-tear, the device is a mixed bag. While I suspect it won’t shatter as easily as other devices when dropped, that’s only because the glass appears to be extremely soft. I kept my OnePlus 3 in my pocket for the best part of 2 years with some very, very minor scuffs on it. Using the Honor 9 Lite has left the glass worse for wear. It’s scratched, especially at the corners on the back and just in general looks like it’s taken a beating. This appears to be because of the lack of Gorilla Glass. Honor opted to use an in-house method of protecting the screen. It works, as the screen is in better condition than the back of the device, but it’s something to keep in mind. I would definitely recommend sticking this phone in a case, or at the very least slapping a plastic protector on the front and back.
As for miscellaneous features of the phone, there’s a rear-facing fingerprint sensor which I found to be perfectly placed. It sits right where I would place my finger when holding the phone, which has led to me to absent-mindedly unlocking the phone. That’s not a knock against it – it seems like a natural placement. There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack, which sits at the bottom of the device on the left-hand side beside a microphone. The speaker grill is to the right of that. One last thing: the vibration motor in this phone is amazing — you can feel every tap, and when you get a text message, you won’t miss it. It is truly excellent.
Software and UI on the Honor 9 Lite
Emotion UI (EMUI) is a far cry from AOSP, but unless you’re an Android purist, that’s not such a bad thing. EMUI is packed full of features but skirts the edge of what you could call bloatware. This is one of the heaviest skins I’ve ever used and it sometimes impedes performance, which I’ll get to later. These modifications give the device some uniqueness. EMUI is based on Android 8.0, so it comes with all the latest Android features, including Picture-in-Picture mode and battery saving improvements like background application restrictions and some aggressive throttling.
Some parts of the UI are drastically different from stock Android, but others not so much.
Full disclosure: I consider myself to be an Android purist, but I actually like EMUI. I found it had a number of useful features not present in AOSP, including a theme engine, which is a whole lot more robust than I initially thought. It can theme applications along with multiple system UI elements. Other features like built-in one-handed-mode, accessed by simply sliding along the bottom of the screen, are surprisingly intuitive. There’s also dual apps (for making a copy of an application to log into two different accounts), ultra battery saver, full-screen display and more. There are a number of Clean Master-esque features as well, but they’re out of the way and you’re never forced to use them.
One of the best features I found in EMUI was also one of the simplest: fingerprint gestures. Being able to swipe down my index finger to open my notifications quickly became second nature and will be something I’ll miss on other phones.
None of the features were really shoved in my face. You can easily use the phone normally without ever running into EMUI features, and that’s just the way I like it. Sticking with an AOSP theme meant I could use my phone and only the EMUI features I wanted while ignoring the ones I didn’t.
EMUI doesn’t just deliver on features — there’s a lot of attention to detail. When a camera app is open, for example, the flashlight toggle in quick settings will grey out because the LED flash is in use and it won’t work.
What I didn’t like was the location of the clear-all buttons, both for multitasking and notifications. The button sits just above the home button and is to easy to press accidentally.
Performance-wise, I felt EMUI hampered what could have been a top performer for a low price. With an AOSP Project Treble ROM, the device flew. It was crazy — performance was top-notch, and it made me realise just how EMUI might be impacting the device’s performance. There are a few other things I don’t like, such as the fact the flashlight can’t be used at 5% battery or lower. I get the idea, but I frequently use the flashlight at lower battery levels to look for my charger. What’s more, at 3%, the device shuts down. It’s annoying having my device shut down despite having (in theory) another few minutes of battery.
What also worries me is that I have not gotten a single software update yet, despite the fact that the phone launched months ago. For enthusiasts, that’s not so much a problem, because the bootloader can very easily be unlocked. But the average person is at the mercy of Honor’s firmware update cycle.
Performance of the Honor 9 Lite
While I recorded benchmark results for the Honor 9 Lite, I want to stress the fact that they are not indicative of the device’s performance in any way, shape or form. The Honor 9 Lite is extremely fast. Performance is quick and game performance was smooth (though I don’t tend to game much on my phone) in my testing.
There are of course some hiccups, many of which are software-related rather than hardware-related. Using the camera on this device is a painful experience, so much so that I almost opted to keep two phones on me simply because of the poor experience on the Honor 9 Lite. It’s sad, given that advertising for the device focused on its quad cameras and superior photography experience. Images are good (more on those later), but the camera app is anything but. The camera application and its libraries seem to require about 1GB of RAM, which is a tall order given that the European variant of the device only comes with 3GB of RAM – there is no 4GB of RAM option. As a result, camera launch times are abysmal. I’m talking 6 or 7 seconds minimum to a shockingly high maximum of 30 seconds. I discovered that these launch times are caused by the high RAM requirements, as apps are killed in the background in order for the camera app to function – not to mention that the system seems to insist on having about 900MB of RAM free at any given time. Things were so bad that I initially thought I had run into a software bug and factory resetting the device only to find that no, this is just how things are on EMUI. I feel that if Honor made the choice to launch the 4GB RAM version in the West, we’d be telling a very different story.
That aside, overall system performance is pretty smooth. My day-to-day usage includes Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Instagram. Every now and then, I experienced a major lag spike or an app crash, but they were few and far between. Snapchat performs as well as you’d expect, but interestingly does not suffer from the same lag issues as the default camera application – likely because the camera processing libraries are not being loaded into memory. I’ve also had multiple issues with Bluetooth, where enabling it crashed my device on three separate occasions. It, too, is likely a RAM issue. Setting up my Wear OS device also proved a pain, given the Bluetooth issues I faced. What’s more, my watch doesn’t always receive notifications – likely due to the Wear OS application being shut down in the background. Nearly every issue I’ve faced with this device performance-wise appears to be caused by aggressive RAM management.
As for benchmarks, I wasn’t expecting great results, and that’s exactly what I got. The device is remarkably average, scoring 74,685 in AnTuTu. It’s not bad, but it’s also not good, scoring around a similar level as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 did in devices. It’s not a head-turner in terms of performance, but the price-to-performance ratio is above what you’d expect at this price range. You’ll run into some hiccups, but performance is decent and it will handle a lot of what you throw at it. Don’t expect to use the likes of Snapchat or Facebook Messenger without some slowdowns, but it’s completely usable. App launch times can be painfully slow over extended usage, and interestingly the device’s data partition is formatted to F2FS, which has shown performance gains on other devices in the past. I believe the slowdowns are caused by thermal throttling, and when using the device in subzero (Celsius) temperatures I noticed the device’s true potential. With a glass back the thermal dissipation is excellent, but even over a long period of time, it can heat up to surprisingly high temperatures.
Storage benchmarks were also pretty abysmal, which I guess is to be expected thanks to the eMMC storage type on-board. It’s about what you’d expect from a lower-end device and is likely partly to blame for the huge slowdowns I experienced. When you have to clear RAM to make way for your applications to load, then launch them off of a slow storage medium, launch times of applications can skyrocket.
As a result, the Honor 9 Lite changed some of my usage habits. I no longer use my phone as much as I used to. Still, it’s a budget phone, if you’re using it that intensely, then you’d likely want to get another phone.
Battery Life of the Honor 9 Lite
Battery life is a mixed bag on the Honor 9 Lite, with some amazing feats followed by some shocking lows. That’s not to say the battery on the Honor 9 Lite is bad, but at times it fell short of my expectations and often felt inconsistent. This wouldn’t be so bad if the phone employed any kind of quick charge technology, but it doesn’t, and the two and a half hour charge time doesn’t make things any better. Despite that, PC Mark’s battery test put the device’s lifespan at about the 7-hour mark – something I feel to be a bit of an overstatement on some occasions.
Other times, 7 hours actually felt like an understatement.Take a look at the screenshots I took below.
I understand the fact that screen-on-time isn’t everything when it comes to battery life, but it’s an often used metric for comparisons against other people’s devices. To help give an idea of my device usage, I have also included screenshots of my battery usage statistics and mobile network signal complete with device awake times, which should help paint a better picture of how I’ve been using my device. I’m constantly on the go and having a phone which can last all day is extremely important. Not to mention that my constant usage of Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp would deem my usage as some of the heaviest that you can put through a mobile phone.
I do continuously top up my battery throughout the day, but it tends to be in small amounts and usually lasts me the full day when I do that. The slow charge times don’t allow me to go up more than 2% or so at a time, regardless. Something funny I noticed as well is that the device charges so slow that when I charge it on the train to university every day, the battery still drains because of the fact I am on mobile data (often with weak signal) and using my phone at the same time. That’s how slow this phone charges. It’s definitely no QuickCharge or Dash Charge competitor, that’s for sure.
Picture, Video and Mic Quality of the Honor 9 Lite
While I mentioned my numerous camera woes in terms of performance above, the actual quality of the camera is uncharacteristic of its speed. At this price point, the camera quality is quite impressive – especially in loud environments such as concerts. I’ll allow a number of photos and videos taken with the Honor 9 Lite’s dual cameras in various different settings to do the talking. This phone is primarily being advertised for its camera, and despite its poorer start in the performance aspect I decided to put it through the ringer and see just how well it does in some extreme situations.
These photos show a great range of scenes that I have used the phone’s camera in. While it struggles somewhat with low light, that’s not that bad considering the price. It’s advertised for its camera, and with good reason as well. The performance issues do detract from the experience, but once opened the camera app works excellently. The camera, like most cameras, is at its best in good light. In darker scenes, it does require a longer shutter time than I am used to, which can lead to some blurring pretty easily. As for video and audio performance in loud environments, I have taken a number of videos at concerts which should showcase just what the camera is capable of. I didn’t expect much to begin with given the performance issues I faced and the camera quality being poor in some (especially low light) instances, but I was positively surprised. Take a look below.
Bell X1 – Eve, The Apple of My Eye recorded on the Honor 9 Lite.
The Front Bottoms – Au Revoir recorded on the Honor 9 Lite.
Tigers Jaw – Chemicals recorded on the Honor 9 Lite.
My terrible music taste aside, the audio quality hugely impressed me. If you frequently go to concerts and want to record your favorite songs live, then the Honor 9 Lite may be worth the price simply from the quality alone. While the camera was a letdown in some aspects, it’s definitely at a level above what the price point would suggest. I was particularly impressed with how well it handled Tigers Jaw (the final video) given where I stood was extremely close to the stage and I questioned if the phone would be able to handle such a loud volume. The video quality appeared to suffer in this environment, which is strange given that I was so close to the pretty well-lit stage. The video quality at The Front Bottoms was much better, and I can only assume that is because the whole view is well-lit while at Tigers Jaw there are some very prominent dark spots.
Another major complaint is that the audio does appear to desynchronize over time when recording video. I haven’t been able to fix this and it appears to happen sporadically. In the Tigers Jaw video, it is particularly noticeable in the final guitar strum. You can clearly see the audio plays about a second before the action. I believe there is something strange in terms of processing happening on the phone, as YouTube was not able to read the The Front Bottoms video either without me first converting it, despite the fact I recorded it with the exact same settings as the other two. These inconsistencies are unacceptable, and desynchronization is a major issue when it happens to a phone advertised for its camera. Still, it appears to be somewhat uncommon as many of the other videos I’ve recorded do not suffer from the same issue. It could be caused by lack of processing power and could be related to the issues I faced previously like the poorer video quality or poor camera performance, but that’s just speculation and in no way confirmed.
In terms of features, I would not call myself a professional photographer but I do enjoy being able to select how exactly I want to take my photos. With a number of different modes, you can set up the camera to take a picture in any way you like. If the stock camera app isn’t enough for you either, OpenCamera was successfully able to access the Camera2 API meaning that I truly had full control over every aspect of the camera. Honor put a lot of work into making their camera great on the Honor 9 Lite, just too bad that the device is plagued with performance issues when trying to use it and videos appear to suffer randomly for no apparent reason.
It’s subjective, but I found my signal to be better on this device than on the OnePlus 3. Having said that, I’d also like to point out that I felt it “lied” a lot more about my current signal state, as despite my signal seemingly being stronger on the Honor 9 Lite compared to the OnePlus 3, my connection speed was extremely poor at times. The WiFi range is longer for sure, though, which is a major plus – I found in the end rooms of my house, my OnePlus 3 struggled to keep a connection while the Honor 9 Lite didn’t. I also found the lack of 5GHz support on the Honor 9 Lite disappointing.
On the mobile network note, my unit did not support one of the 2 LTE bands my network (Eir Ireland) uses despite the fact that they’re listed on the specifications sheet. This meant that I had to disable 4G on the phone, as when it connected to one of the unsupported bands I simply did not have a mobile network connection. This took a while to diagnose, and there was no indication this was the case until I looked into it myself. This could potentially be the result of a difference between the Indian variant of the Honor 9 Lite, which does not support one of my carrier’s bands, and the global variant, which does support it. Given I received an EU charger in the box and the model number matches the European model, I don’t believe this to be the case, so it’s definitely worth noting.
There are no complaints from me in the audio quality department. The device’s audio output is perfect for regular usage and leaves nothing to be desired. It has a headphone jack and it works well, that’s really what matters when it comes to listening to music on your phone.
As for the inbuilt speaker, this is clearly one of the corners Honor cut in the making of this device. It’s tinny and weak and clearly was included just for the sake of having a speaker. It does the job, but it doesn’t do it well and you definitely won’t be enjoying it much.
Conclusion – Is the Honor 9 Lite worth your money?
The Honor 9 Lite is one of the better phones I’ve used, which is an impressive feat considering its cost and the mid-range SoC onboard. It’s certainly not a head turner, and it’s disappointing how easily it’s scuffed and scratched mess in weeks. I found that the Honor 9 Lite is a great camera phone for the price, performance issues aside. As I mentioned above, I was extremely impressed with its capabilities when it came to the camera. When we talk about budget devices, the corners cut usually include the camera hardware and software, with some other cuts along the way. It’s impressive just how well it managed in good lighting, and even in poorer lighting, it achieved its goal of being a decent camera phone. It’s not trying to be the best phone on the market, and definitely not the best camera on the market. It just wants to be good, maybe slightly above average in the camera department, which it absolutely achieves.
But would I recommend the Honor 9 Lite? In contrast to the offerings of companies like Xiaomi, it’s hard to say. You will undoubtedly get more bang for your buck with, say, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro than you will with the Honor 9 Lite, but then you have to deal with Xiaomi as a company as well. If you want to unlock your bootloader it’s not as easy as on the Honor 9 Lite, and that’s not even getting into subjects like the warranty which is harder to avail of when it comes to Xiaomi in the West.
You can buy Honor devices in Europe, you can’t really buy Xiaomi. As a result, there’s a number of aspects of which you’ll have to analyze and compare to your own needs. The device certainly performs, but for those who use their smartphone for productivity based tasks like word processing, I feel that there are certainly better devices on the market. If you’re a user who simply just cares about going on social media, taking some photos (and selfies) and having your battery last the day with moderate usage, then the Honor 9 Lite is a strong recommendation. This phone has been a great companion on nights out. It’s not to say that this is a bad phone – rather that it’s just a phone for a very different type of user than I. I want my phones to be fast, to be able to multitask effectively and to be viable for productivity purposes. The Honor 9 Lite doesn’t provide that, but that’s okay. It’s a budget phone and a very good one at that.