The Honor 9X looks great, but small frustrations will make you cross

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I’ve always liked Honor’s phones, especially the Honor View 20 and, more recently, the Honor 20 Pro too. The Honor “X” series is the brand’s mid-range category, and the newest member is the Honor 9X. An eye-catching rear panel grabs your attention, the presence of Google services — despite Huawei’s troubles in this area — is a win, and a technically-impressive camera made me hope for another winner.

But the Honor 9X struggles to keep up with the competition. Honor needed to do just a little more to make it stand out. Let me explain.

Body compromises

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The Honor 9X is the first Honor X phone with an identity, granted by the attractive rear panel with a pixel-art style X design. It’s surprisingly subtle and only really shows up in bright light. When it does, the 9X is impossible to mistake it for anything else and I really like the look. When Honor added the V shape to the back of the View 20, it became recognizable and individual, and it’s excellent to see the company do the same for its other devices.

But what Honor giveth, Honor also taketh away. The back of the 8.8mm thick Honor 9X feels like plastic, and not a nice plastic either. It makes a hollow sound when you tap it or set it down on the table, and it does not feel as high quality and pleasant as a glass phone. Perhaps understandable when the Honor 9X is expected to cost around 300 British pounds, or about $380, but a disappointment after the glass-backed Honor 8X. It does win some points for durability, though.

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Set in the back is a fingerprint sensor. It works very well, is suitably fast, and is easy to locate with your finger. But it feels rather old. A bit 2018. I have lost count of the number of times I pressed the Honor 9X’s screen expecting to unlock the phone before I remembered the sensor is on the back. Sure, this will be a problem unique to someone who uses a lot of phones, but it’s also evidence of how fast companies are moving away from the traditional rear fingerprint sensor.

If it sounds like I’m being quite harsh, it’s because I expect Honor to deliver strong devices at all price points, and because the Honor 9X doesn’t feel fantastic in the hand, initial impressions aren’t strong. The Motorola One Vision is considerably more pleasant to hold and makes the rear fingerprint sensor on that phone less of an issue; the same rings true with the Nokia 7.2. Honor hasn’t quite managed to do the same with the 9X.

Screen compromises

There’s no notch on the 6.59-inch LCD FullView screen, making the Honor 9X the first Honor phone to come with a motorized, 16-megapixel pop-up selfie camera. This nets a 91% screen-to-body ratio, and genuinely gives the 9X a large display. But there’s a compromise, and that’s the speed with which the selfie camera rises out of the body.

Obviously it doesn’t take hours, weeks, or months, but it takes longer than I expect, certainly in comparison to other pop-up cameras on phones like the OnePlus 7T. I believe that if it’s noticeable, then it’s a problem, and it’s probably a good thing the 9X does not have a face unlock option. To get the notch-less screen, there had to be a trade-off, but here I’d have settled for the notch instead of a slow pop-up camera.

Otherwise, the screen is pretty, with a Full HD resolution, strong colors and decent contrast levels. I’ve enjoyed watching video on the Honor 9X, apart from one other thing, and that’s the number of fingerprint smudges the front attracts. The flat screen has a factory-fitted screen protector over the top, and this may be the cause. Regardless, the Honor 9X’s screen quickly gets messy.

Software and battery

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There’s good news on the software side, as the Honor 9X comes with Google services installed, unlike the Huawei Mate 30 Pro. According to Honor, the 9X has been in development for a while and it squeezed through before Google’s apps could be kept out of the phone. This is great news, and although it’s Android 9 and EMUI 9.1 onboard, Android 10 with EMUI 10 will also arrive in the future.

Key specs

  • Screen: 6.59 inches, LCD
  • Resolution: 2,340 x 1,080
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Storage: 128GB
  • MicroSD Card Slot: Yes
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • OS: Android 9 Pie with EMUI 9.1

Take a look at the bottom of the phone and the good news continues, as the MicroUSB charging port from the Honor 8X has been replaced by a more modern USB Type-C connector. This charges a 4,000mAh battery which has easily lasted me for two days with moderate use. There’s plenty of storage space too, with 128GB in the phone and an additional 512GB possible with a MicroSD card. That’s excellent for the price, and many will be pleased with a 3.5mm headphone socket on the bottom of the phone too.

Camera

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Honor has upgraded the camera on the 9X over the 8X, adding an additional lens and increasing the main lens to 48-megapixels. It’s the same sensor as found on the Honor 20 Pro and the Honor View 20 too, and it’s joined by an 8-megapixel super wide-angle lens and a 2-megapixel depth assist lens. Features include the same artificial intelligence-enhanced night mode, plus a portrait and aperture mode for bokeh shots.

How does it do? It’s good, although the one common complaint about some Honor cameras remains: The artificial intelligence will over saturate photos, but turn this off (it’s easy to do) and the final image takes on a more natural tone. Aperture shots are excellent, with decent edge recognition and strong background blur and foreground detail. Use night mode and the results do suffer from noise and a distinct lack of detail. Overall though, it’s great performance from a mid-range camera phone.

You have a wide-angle camera mode to enjoy, but the photos it takes have a heavier blue tint than photos taken with the standard lens. Sadly there is no optical or hybrid zoom function, which lessens the creative fun you can have with the camera. Like all Huawei and Honor phones, the editing suite in the Gallery app is comprehensive and easy to use, and remains one of the best you can get as standard on a phone.

The selfie camera, despite the high megapixel count, isn’t so great. Use some of the AI portrait modes and edge recognition is really bad, for example. The beauty mode is turned off by default, as is the AI scene enhancement. Activate the AI and the phone does adjust settings quickly and efficiently, but this doesn’t make up for the drab and sometimes noisy selfies it takes.

Price and availability

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The Honor 9X will make its debut in Russia and other parts of Europe on October 24, followed by a release in the U.K. later on. No U.S. release date is set, and it likely will never make it. The price has yet to be confirmed, but approximately 300 British pounds is what we’re expecting. The price will be confirmed during the launch event and we will update here when we know more.

The Honor 9X isn’t representative of what Honor can do when it’s at the top of its game, and it’s further hampered by the range of tempting, reasonably priced phones that are out there this year. The Nokia 7.2, the Google Pixel 3a, the Oppo Reno 2 and Reno 2Z, the Motorola Vision, and the Moto G7, and many more are all vying for your attention. That’s before considering the Honor 20, or even the Honor 20 Lite. Sadly, the pretty X design, the decent camera, and strong battery life aren’t enough to compensate for the frustrations and make the Honor 9X the pick of the bunch.

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