Much has been written about how the flashiest smartphones have only become more expensive over the past months, a trend set to continue, unfortunately. The good news is the cheaper end of the spectrum has also changed over the same period of time. Low-cost phones haven’t become less expensive, they’ve simply improved. You get more for your money than ever before. A prime example of this is the new Honor 9 Lite. It costs just 200 British pounds (about $280), and there’s a strong case to be made for buying it over the slightly more expensive Honor 7X and other competitors in this price range.
Ticks all the boxes
For a phone to be desirable, almost regardless of the price, it needs to tick a few boxes. The Honor 9 Lite ticks the following: Design, screen, software, and camera. That’s a lot of ticks for any phone, let alone one at this price.
Honor, a Huawei sub-brand, said the Honor 9 is a premium phone because it’s made from metal, and the Honor 9 Lite is a mid-range phone because it’s made from glass. Pick the Honor 9 Lite up and you may disagree. It feels great in the hand — solid, lightweight, and cool to the touch. The glass does make it slippery though, and it was hard to grip it confidently in our brief time with the phone; you may want to nab a case.
Performance is where you notice the difference between this and a more expensive smartphone.
The glass rear panel is smooth, flat, and connects to a metal chassis. There’s real depth to the shine, enhanced by a special process used by Honor to create the different colors and a sparkling finish. There’s a fingerprint sensor top center, and a pair of camera lenses in the top left. The fingerprint sensor is fast, instantly waking up the phone from a black screen. There isn’t a face unlock feature, despite the presence of a dual-lens front camera. This separates it from the Honor 7X, which will receive a software update to introduce face unlock in the near future.
The Honor 9 Lite doesn’t look like its price. It looks like a slightly smaller iPhone 8 Plus. The screen is actually larger at 5.65-inches, but the thin bezels around it help make it compact. The bezel-less design makes the phone look modern, and the 2160 x 1080 pixel resolution is attractive and very bright. We did notice the screen didn’t represent photos we took very well, with images appearing dull and lower quality than the final results.
It’s the camera set up that makes the Honor 9 Lite stand out. It has the same dual-lens 13-megapixel and 2-megapixel cameras on the front and the rear, with improved software for HDR shots, wide-aperture pictures, and the beauty mode.
We took a handful of photos, and we’re pleased with the results. The Honor 9 Lite handles most situations adequately, but it does struggle when faced with varying lighting conditions, such as overcast skies. Just don’t expect a monochrome mode, or any Leica improvements on the camera — they’re reserved for more expensive Honor and Huawei phones. Selfies are excellent, and you can use a bokeh portrait mode effect, and the beauty mode isn’t overtly aggressive.
Latest software, sluggish performance
The Honor 9 Lite runs Android 8.0 Oreo with Huawei’s EMUI 8.0 user interface, making it more up-to-date out of the box than the Honor 7X, matching the Honor View 10. Performance isn’t as fast or fluid as either of those two phones, despite the same Kirin 659 processor as the Honor 7X. There’s 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, compared to the 4GB and 64GB on the 7X. A MicroSD card slot does allow you to increase the amount of storage. The stuttering and sluggish performance we noticed on our phone may be fixed by a software update ahead of release, and we’ve reached out to Honor to confirm.
Performance is where you notice the difference between the Honor 9 Lite and a more expensive smartphone with a faster processor. A quick game of Reckless Racing 3 confirms this — the game is perfectly playable, but the frame rate suffers. If you’re an occasional gamer, this won’t bother you. It’s certainly not slow, but you do notice the pauses and slight slowdown. But to change all that, you’ll need to spend twice what the Honor 9 Lite costs, so compromises are to be expected.
We’ve only spent a few hours with the Honor 9 Lite, so we can’t judge battery life. But disappointingly, the phone has a MicroUSB charging port, not a USB Type-C.
Price and availability
The Honor 9 Lite will go on sale in the U.K. on February 6 through the HiHonor online store and a selection of other retailers including Amazon. There are no plans to release it in the U.S. yet, according to an Honor representative. We recommend the Honor 7X, which is available in the U.S. and the U.K., but we’re genuinely surprised — and happy — we have the chance to try a phone that costs even less, but still appears to deliver the goods. We’ll be bringing a full review your way soon.