When a new device for review finds its way onto my desk, it is often followed by a sense of disillusion. It does feel like we have done this dance over and over again - a cheap smartphone without any groundbreaking features? By applying the usual review criteria, such smartphones will normally end up with a poor first impression. However, I must say that not everyone is a spoiled 27-year-old tech journalist who thumbs his nose at every single flaw. And if you give the Honor 9A a chance, it is a somewhat fascinating device for a smartphone in its price range. Can a cheap smartphone that does not come equipped with Google Mobile Services actually convince me into purchasing one for long-term use?
- ✓Long-lasting 5.000 mAh battery
- ✓Solid workmanship
- ✓Decent camera performance with enough light
- ✕Outdated technology
- ✕Plodding performance
- ✕Poor performance in low-light conditions
- ✕No Google Mobile Services
Honor 9A release date and price
Google threw several suggestions for the asking price when searching for the Honor 9A, and this is in fact, the most obvious argument for picking up this handset. While the recommended retail price hovered at approximately €150/£159, the price has now fallen to just under €130/£130. If you do not want to spend a lot on a smartphone and yet would like to have a large capacity battery, pretty decent build quality at a ridiculously low price point, then the Honor 9A fits the bill - albeit without any Google Mobile Services support. However, we will talk about that in further detail later on.
You can pick up the Honor 9A online in two color options, of which you can check out the bright blue shade in this review. Alternatively, there is an all-black model to choose from if that catches your fancy.
What I like about the Honor 9A...
Freedom from worries
I remember how close to two years ago, my Google Pixel 3 XL arrived by mail in my shared room in Hamburg. I hardly dared to turn on the smartphone without a protective cover or screen protector in place. If something would have happened to the expensive mobile phone, it would have meant a loss of almost €800. Years later, I regretted that purchase several times over - and it happened every single time the (all too) expensive smartphone contract was debited from my account at the end of each month. The amount of care required for that expensive and sensitive piece of technology from its owner can be rather exhausting in the long run, not to mention constant fretting over it.
These worries hardly exist with Honor 9A. Of course, £130 is still a lot of money, but the smartphone has now become a simple object of utility after just a few days. A tool that is capable of masting a multitude of functions of more expensive alternatives without requiring you to fret and worry about its condition unnecessarily. This is the great strength of the Honor 9A, although this advantage can also be applied to many other smartphones that retail for less than £150. As another rather outstanding feature, the Honor 9A does seem to be extremely robust - based on the amount of time that I spent with it.
Robustness and good workmanship
Honor decided to settle for a plastic case in the construction of the Honor 9A, in which a scratch-resistant 6.3-inch display is part of the deal. I could not find a certification for the type of Gorilla Glass used for the Honor 9A. On the other hand, there are no large gaps or unpleasant noises creaking when the smartphone is bent by applying a little bit of force. Together with a fairly thick case, the Honor 9A measures 159.1 x 74.1 x 9 millimeters (LxWxH) while tipping the scales at 185 grams, resulting in it giving off a surprisingly high-quality as part of the overall impression.
The reflective back, together with a tipsy weight, might even make you think that you're using a smartphone with a glass back. If you can get used to this misconception, the phone doesn't really feel like a cheap smartphone. The bright 6.3-inch display with narrow bezels and a waterdrop notch confirms the positive (first) impression.
Where other mobile phones gain weight through the use of glass elements, the Honor 9A is equipped with a large battery that adds on to the final weight count. The smartphone's battery offers a full 5,000 milliampere-hours and is thus a lot - even when comparing it to the higher range of smartphones. Together with a relatively low-resolution screen, battery life happens to be top-notch. Do bear in mind that this even taking into consideration a processor that is hardly deemed to be energy-efficient.
I would venture that most users will find the Honor 9A's battery to last them through a second day without any kind of recharging necessary. I'm assuming that in order to achieve this, the pattern of usage will normally involve the occasional phone call, WhatsApp messages, occasional surfing, and perhaps an hour-long YouTube session in the evening. It is still advisable to use the battery power sparingly though. This is because once the Honor 9A is flat, recharging it will take an incredibly long time. With a 10-watt power supply via micro-USB, this comes across as no surprise. And this also signals the first of numerous criticisms about the Honor 9A.
The main camera works well in good lighting conditions
Before we talk about the negative features of the Honor 9A, here are a few words about the camera performance. Under good light conditions, the results of the triple camera are commendable. I was surprised at how well the smartphone was able to handle the challenging lighting conditions under bright sunlight. The 13-megapixel resolution is completely sufficient for mere viewing, while the f/1.8 aperture also works in its favor. Google uses a comparable setup in its very Pixel smartphone series, which delivers exceptional photo quality. You'll find numerous test photos in the Google Pixel 4a review. The Honor 9A's portrait mode works reliably and delivers good results thanks to an additional camera for depth detection.
Honor realized that a variable focal length with an additional ultra-wide-angle camera works well, although the latter only offers a resolution of 5-megapixels. In direct comparison, the colors are also significantly weaker than in the main camera. Honor has equipped this camera with digital zoom capability, which produces good results at twice the magnification. At any higher zoom levels, the quality will decrease considerably.
The camera app also stands out for its simplicity. In addition to a professional mode with many setting options to choose from, I can very well imagine that even inexperienced smartphone photographers will be able to take solid snapshots with the Honor 9A. But the good impression fades when you switch to the front camera or when there is not enough light for the Honor 9A to do a good job.
What I don't like about the Honor 9A...
Lame performance and old technology
At this point, I have to sound pessimistic in the review, simply because all of the positive things about this handset are not enough to redeem it. The Mediatek MT6762R Helio P22 processor is far too slow by today's standard, for instance. This particular handset ends up as underpowered, where the screen constantly lags when scrolling. There are also times when the system ends up freezing and a reboot is in order, or you end up getting stuck when scrolling through the photo gallery, or simply low frame rates in mobile games like Asphalt 9 - not to mention accompanied by long loading times despite using low graphic settings.
In general, Honor did save quite a lot when it comes to packing technology into the Honor 9A. The smartphone is charged via a micro-USB port, has only 64 gigabytes of internal memory, is not protected against water and dust, while sporting older WiFi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity. The fingerprint sensor placed on the back might be practical but can be rather cumbersome in operation. You also have to make do without wireless charging and a quick charge function. The latter would have been good for the phone due to the large capacity battery, because the battery life percentage creeps up slowly during the charging process. The fact that the Honor 9A's spec sheet does include NFC capability is quite a surprise in this review, but as the smartphone is not compatible with Google Pay, it is missing an important component where usability is concerned.
Camera quality in low light conditions and with selfies
If the main camera delivered rather commendable results in good light conditions, I regret to report that the quality decreases by a considerable amount under low light conditions. Such images will carry plenty of noise and are very pale overall. In addition to the noise, the risk of camera shake is high. Apart from that, the autofocus becomes increasingly unreliable in the dark. When focusing, the smartphone will show a red box to indicate that it has not focused on anything, and you end up confused as to which particular setting the focus is stuck at.
The same can be said about the front camera of the Honor 9A. With a resolution of 8-megapixels and an open aperture of f/2.0 this comes across as no surprise. However, there is no portrait mode to choose from when you switch to the selfie camera. As a small consolation, the back of the Honor 9A is reflective enough for you can capture decently angled selfies with the back camera. If there is sufficient available light, you can still end up with good self-portraits from your smartphone.
Software without Google Mobile Services
The annoying topic under every review of the existing crop of Huawei smartphones is this: missing support for Google Mobile Services. Similar to high-priced devices like the Huawei P40 Pro or the Honor 30 Pro+, the US embargo on Huawei hardware is taking its toll. If, as in the case of the Honor 9A, those flagship models have many shortcomings such as slow processors and poor camera performance, then arguments in favor of a compromise would be non-existent. While the P40 Pro+ and Honor 30 Pro+ are at least characterized by very good cameras and sleek special functions, the Honor 9A offers no real purchase arguments in its favor.
The Huawei AppGallery, the Petal Search, and the Huawei Browser, as well as the possibility for an easier APK installation process, are also readily available for the Honor 9A. But even these applications suffer from slow system performance and the workaround associated with the embargo is particularly annoying. Where the hardware alone leaves something to be desired, the software also ends up as deficient.
A low price cannot be the only reason to buy a smartphone - at least not if there are better models within the same price range. This is exactly the problem with the Honor 9A, where at only £130 is cheap but does not really satisfy potential buyers despite its low price. The processor is too slow for virtually a decent experience, and the disadvantages of current HMS smartphones without Google Mobile Services are too obvious. In short, we would recommend an alternative here.
Alternatives to the Honor 9A
For the equivalent of a battery life champion, the Motorola Moto G8 Power, which also shines with 5,000 milliampere-hours, is available for a slightly higher price point. Since the smartphone even comes with a more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor, the performance is clearly superior to the Honor 9A. In addition, the battery takes a far shorter time to recharge via its 18-watt power supply. If long battery life isn't necessarily important to you, you'll find a cheap alternative with more performance capability, not to mention Google Mobile Services in the Alcatel 3L. The smartphone costs around £130 as well as part of the price comparison. There are more alternatives to the Honor 9A in our list of best smartphones under $200.