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As the year drew to a close, a British anthology series premiered another season of exploring and contemplating the many facets of technology and how they impact our lives. I was reeling off a binge-watch of the season when the Honor 9 Lite dropped (cautiously) in my hands. The name of the series, Black Mirror, essentially means, “the reflection of an unlit computer screen”, and when I noticed the all-glass design of the phone, the whole essence of the phrase became more apparent. Honor’s latest offering is all-glass-everywhere, perfected in a way that when the tall screen turned off, I was left rethinking my life as I saw myself.
Essentially, the Honor 9 Lite is an stunningly good looking phone, but that’s about it. Everything else about the phone is more or less mediocre and something that you would expect from mid-range phones anyway. The new glass design and the quad cameras seems to be just ticks on a checklist to set itself apart from the rest. And while it does manage to grab attention from curious onlookers, you will be left disappointed when actually using the phone as a daily driver.
There are phones that are practical, and then there are phones that just grab eyeballs without living up to the expectation they set. Take the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X in the premium range for example. The Pixel 2 does not boast of a modern design. It’s quite retro in the way it’s built, as compared to the revolutionary iPhone X which comes in an all-glass body. Between the two, the latter will definitely grab more attention than the former, but at the same time, the Pixel 2 will edge out the iPhone in terms of value for money.
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A similar conundrum is now raging in the mid-range segment, now that the Honor 9 Lite is out in the market. It looks like it was carved from a piece of glass which gives a premium feel to the phone. It actually feels quite underpriced for the materials used. But then there are phones like the Lenovo K8 Plus which may have copious amount of plastic in the body, but does the job it’s made to do.
We received the 4GB/64GB storage variant and In our review of the Honor 9 Lite, we come to the conclusion that looks are not everything. It’s the overall package, and a consistent performance that makes all the difference.
The Honor 9 Lite is an exquisitely crafted smartphone. There’s glass everywhere. Front, back, around the edges. It is so well made that it feels more like an artifact than a device you would use daily. The glass-enclosed design will remind you of the older Honor 8, but this one feels more compact thanks to the 5.6-inch Univisium display housed in a 6-inch body. There’s more screen real estate because of the 18:9 aspect ratio.
Phones are no stranger to glass designs. Before the metal unibody design took over phones, glass was used to set premium phones apart from the rest. Phones with glass bodies have a snug and smooth hand feel, but they are also prone to damage. It is primarily because of that reason that manufacturers switched to aluminium bodies that gave phones the longevity glass couldn’t. Yet, more recently, glass made a comeback, not because phones needed to look better, but for wireless charging. It was an acceptable trade-off. But the Honor 9 Lite, despite having an all-glass body does not have wireless charging. So it’s safe to assume, Honor’s choice to use glass was for aesthetics only. And in that regard, the phone just oozes a premium feel. But is the glass durable enough to withstand the daily wear and tear phones tend to go through?
Well, Honor certainly thinks the phone can withstand shocks and scratches. But I wasn’t convinced. Honor claims it has used a 12-layer coating on the glass and a special nano-optical film on top to prevent scratches. Less than a week of using the phone, I had two deep scratches at the back of the phone which was probably caused by the house-keys I was carrying in my pocket along with the phone.
The Honor 9 Lite is a phone that looks stunning, but if you intend to use it as your daily driver, you will have to slap a case on the back of it. What’s the point of having a stunning design if you can’t flaunt it to the world?
Nevertheless, the phone itself is quite compact compared to other offerings in its price range. In fact, the dimensions are similar to Honor’s other offerings — The Honor 9i and the Honor 7X. In fact, the Honor 9 Lite is much smaller compared to the two. It’s not completely bezel-less though as there are distinct borders around the edges and thick upper and lower chins. At the back, the dual camera unit is housed on the top left corner while the fingerprint sensor sits in the upper central coloumn. The power and volume rockers are on the right edge and they are quite responsive and clicky. The phone also relies on a micro-USB port to charge and that’s a bummer.
In a sense, the Honor 9 Lite is a culmination of all the design cues from the company since the Honor 9i launched in India. Honor has perfected the colour offerings as well and the 9 Lite comes in three beautifully crafted colours — Saphire Blue, Glacier Gray, and Midnight Black.
Taller, 18:9 displays are now a common sight in smartphones. It took surprisingly less time for the technology to trickle down to lower price segments but 2017 saw phones across a broad price range launch with the new display formats. The Honor 9 Lite is the fourth offering from Honor in India featuring the 18:9 display. For one, because of its proprietary chipset, the Honor 9i is one of the few mid-range phones to offer an FHD+ (2160x1080p) resolution. That means, the phone packs a lot more pixels in the 5.6-inch panel than most, making photos and videos look vibrant and full of colours.
The display also didn’t have the cool blueish tint that other Honor phones have. In fact, I found the Honor 9 Lite’s display has a more accurate white point. You can play around with the colour temperature though and Honor also gives you the option to dial down the resolution to 720p if required.
Yet, one of the major problems the display will face is incompatibility with apps. Not all content is calibrated for taller displays, yet. So some Android games like Injustice 2 will have menus cropped when you go full-screen, although Netflix and YouTube should work fine.
The display had a measured luminescence rating of 570 nits which is quite good for the price. Although, because this is an IPS LCD panel, you won’t get the deep contrasts on the Honor 9 Lite. As a result, while the brightness is enough to be legible under direct sunlight, content might seem a little bland.
As a subsidiary of Huawei, Honor devices have the honour (get it?) to use the company’s proprietary chipsets. The Honor 9 Lite is no exception. But weirdly enough, all the newly launched mid-range phones by Honor are powered by the same chipset — The HiSilicon Kirin 659. Like the Honor 7X and the Honor 9i, the Honor 8 Lite too is offered in 3GB and 4GB RAM variants with 32GB and 64GB of storage respectively. Even weirder is the margin of difference the three phones had on benchmark tests. While there wasn’t much separating the phones on AnTuTu or Geekbench 4, 3D Mark, which calculates graphical prowess of the phone, gave drastically low scores.
After scratching our heads for sometime, we figured it could be that the chipset’s drivers are not optimised for Vulcan API which is enabled by default on Android Oreo. Futuremark notes on its website that “devices that shipped with early Vulkan drivers may have performance and stability issues in this test. Vulkan performance can be much lower than expected and the test can crash on devices with underdeveloped Vulkan drivers.”
Nevertheless, real world usage will show no difference. The phone did not slow down even after opening a lot of apps in one go. There are also no drops in framerates while playing games like Asphalt 8: Nitro and loading times are impressive. The phone feels faster for its price of Rs 14,999 and that speaks a lot for mid-range phones where the raw performance is not always the priority.
The phone is also optimised to run quite fast. It takes around 35 seconds to boot which is commendable and the fingerprint sensor works blazing fast. Overall, we felt the phone is quite fast for the price it retails for, and that should be an encouraging sign of the phones to come this year.
The highlight of the Honor 9 Lite is its Quad-camera setup. Honor has done this overkill before with the Honor 9i and now, it has trickled down the novelty to a price where dual cameras are just starting to come in. There are two cameras on the front, and two at the back. On both sides, the primary camera is of 13-megapixel resolution and there is an additional 2-megapixel sensor to capture depth information. The twin cameras on both sides are mostly for portrait mode. Yes, portrait mode is present on both the front and the rear camera. But based on what we saw, the cameras are not that impressive. They do take quality images under perfect light, but it’s not that consistent.
Under direct sunlight, the colours are somewhat faded and whitened out. You will notice the blue sky has become white around the edges while in the center, the saturation is way too low. Yes, it was a rare blue sky on a cold winter afternoon in Delhi that day.
If you take photos against harsh sunlight, expect a loss in focus and soft-touches to objects. What’s commendable though is the lack of shadows in the photo under such tricky lighting.
The whitening effect of the camera becomes more prominent in the photo above. The walls should have a yellowish glow considering its peak afternoon outside and the white balance is always warmer in such situations. But the phone whitewashes the walls to an even whiter shade than it should, for aesthetics?
Having said that, under indoor lighting, the camera can reproduce vibrant and punchy colours, which is what Honor’s cameras are famous for. Even then, we faced some difficulty to bring objects into focus. A quick shot will most likely be out of focus. It is only when you spend some time composing the shot will you get decent results.
Low light shots are as you would expect from a mid-range phone. Noisy, and lacking in detail. Also, it takes significantly more time to focus and then some more time to process the photo after shooting. But the end result isn’t as impressive. There is some amount of noise reduction and sharpening that happens, but you won’t make out finer details from a photo taken under low light.
As for the portrait mode, the Honor 9 Lite will aggressively blur the background, so much so, that the main object in focus sometimes loses detail. The portrait mode also makes photos overexposed which is never a good thing.
The story of the front camera is also the same. There is the same odd whitening effect prevalent in selfies, even more so, because of the beautify effects. The portrait mode from the front camera has the same issue of overexposing the shot.
To be honest, the camera is better than what phones at that price offer, but if you are buying the phone simply for the camera, it’s better to think again.
A phone that’s coming out in the beginning of 2018 shouldn’t come with anything less than the latest version of Android, and the Honor 9 Lite doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The phone comes with EMUI 8.0 based on Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box even when new phones launching in January are still running older versions of Android.
Having said that, the interface is nowhere near as light as stock Android. It’s still faster than the previous EMUI 5.0 as the new version takes advantage of the lightweight nature of Android Oreo. It has also cut down on some system animations and now the UI feels much smoother. That could also be because the Honor 9 Lite uses the F2FS (Flash-based files storage) system that prevents the phone from slowing down over time apart from increasing app loading times.
The UI offers a new way to navigate the phone using a navigation dock. It’s like an on-screen trackball that allow users to go back, go to the homescreen or hit the recents menu. It’s quite nifty for one-handed use.
There are a bunch of pre-loaded apps including a second Gallery App, a separate mail and music app, and the likes, which may make sense in the Chinese market (where the phone originally launched), but in India, it’s just taking up precious space. Apart from these, you get the usual Honor suite of apps.
There are a couple of India-centric features on the phone as well — Paytm is integrated in the software and there is a dedicated bike mode that prevents the phone from buzzing while you are riding.
Android Oreo also brings new features like picture-in-picture, deeper notification management and more.
Latest Android is always welcome on a phone, but considering how heavily customised the interface is, it’s remains to be seen whether future updates will be rolled out in time.
The Honor 9 Lite sports a 3,000mAh battery which is just about enough to last you through the day. The phone lasted around 7 hours on PC Mark’s battery test which is commendable. We also used the phone like a daily driver with generous amounts of social media browsing, playing YouTube videos, and browsing the web apart from half an hour of gaming and copious use of the camera to take photos.
The phone uses a micro-USB port to charge which is disappointing considering how the USB Type-C is fast becoming the convention across devices. There is support for fast charging and “smart battery saving”technology which essentially monitors active apps running in the background, manage screen-timeout and location settings to extend the battery life.
How it compares?
The Honor 9 Lite will score full marks in terms of design but lose out on durability. It will impress with the number of cameras on the body, but will disappoint with the image quality. The phone will again feel fast and smooth, but Honor’s track record of providing timely updates is questionable. However, for the price of Rs 14,999, the Lenovo K8 Plus is also a good option to keep in mind. It may not have the attractive design of the Honor 9 Lite, but it more than makes up for it in terms of performance and camera quality. The higher variant of the Honor 9 Lite will go up against the Xiaomi Mi A1 and its own Honor 7X. Between the three, it will come down to the interface you are used to, the most and the build quality. 4GB of RAM should more than compensate for the heavily modded EMUI interface and take it at par with the Mi A1.