While many people prefer the all-in-one nature of choosing a phone and phone contract together, others prefer to choose their smartphone and mobile network separately so they can find a combination that provides the best value. Today I’m looking at one of the most exciting sim-only smartphones to be released in 2020, the Honor 9X Pro, as it makes the perfect pairing with giffgaff’s range of goodybags.
The Honor 9X Pro is perhaps the best budget smartphone ever made. For £250, you get flagship-grade specs, including a 48-megapixel camera, tucked inside a beautiful all-screen design that makes the iPhone X and Galaxy S10 look foolish. However, there is a catch - and it’s a big one. We’ve been testing this smartphone all week, so here’s what you need to know about the Honor 9X Pro.
From the off, the 9X Pro is a striking device. The pinkie-purple rear cover of my test unit fairly gleams in the light, looking different from each angle and putting my pedestrian blue Galaxy S9+ to shame.
There are also more cameras here than on my daily driver, with three in total. The default shooter is a 48-megapixel unit, which sits above an 8-megapixel shooter with a wider field of view and a 2-megapixel depth sensor. The photos we took with the Honor 9X Pro came out pretty well, with plenty of detail, but some were a little overexposed. Installing an alternative camera app or switching to manual mode solved the problem, so I think the processing here is just a little off the mark.
Turning the phone over, and things get even more exciting (at least if you’re a technophile like me). The screen covers basically all of the body of the phone - 92% of it, to be exact - with no notch or bezel in sight. That’s because the selfie cam is motorised, sliding out the top of the phone when you need it and disappearing when you don’t. It’s a neat party trick, and it even allows the front-facing camera to be a little bigger than normal as it doesn’t have to fit inside a tiny bezel. That means you get a respectable 16-megapixel sensor and a wide field of view, a combination which produced excellent results in our testing.
All of the buttons are on the right side of the device, with a volume rocker sitting immediately above a power button that pulls double duty as a fingerprint reader. The notched design here makes it easy to distinguish by touch alone, and the fingerprint reader worked quickly and reliably in my testing. Sometimes, the old ways really are the best.
If you own a pair of wired headphones, you’ll be glad to know you have the option of USB-C or 3.5mm on the bottom of the phone; there’s also a dual SIM (or SIM-plus-Micro-SD) tray at the top, providing loads of flexibility.
Interally, the Honor 9X Pro punches well above its weight. It uses a 7nm Kirin 810 processor (a mid-high-end processor released last year), backed with 6 or 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage. This combination provided strong and stable performance in our testing. The integrated Mali G52-MP6 GPU handles the latest 3D games just fine, and web browsing and other tasks proved snappy too. The real test will come when the phone inevitably slows down under the weight of software updates and a litany of installed apps, but for now it’s a fast and fluid experience.
So far, so good. It’s all a bit unbelievable for a recently released phone that costs £250 - and one that’s already dropped to £200 in sales. So let’s talk about software, as this is the one area which may prove to be either a deal-breaker or a complete non-issue depending on your individual persuasions.
Let’s just get it out of the way: the Honor 9X Pro does not come with the Google Play Store, or indeed any Google services, courtesy of the ongoing trade/stupidity war between the United States and China.
Instead, you’ll need to get your apps from Huawei’s AppGallery, which has a few big names - Snapchat! Microsoft Office! Amazon! - but doesn’t feature the likes of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or Slack, to say nothing of the dozens of Google apps I personally rely on every day: Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, Authenticator, Calendar, Gboard, Drive, Hangouts, Keep, Messages, Photos, Play Music, Pay, Translate, Wallpapers and so on.
However, you’re not limited to the AppGallery. You can also install the Amazon app store, which includes a lot of Western favourites like Twitter and Facebook. Another option is “sideloading” APKs from various sources, which essentially is manually downloading individual apps to your phone from a third-party source. (I recommend APK Mirror, as it’s an offshoot of the respectable publication Android Police, but watch out for the ads). Sideloading solves most of the availability issues, but it does mean you don’t get automatic updates and some apps may not work if they require Google services.
Interestingly, it is theoretically possible to install Google services on the phone - after all, the earlier Honor 9X ran the same operating system and worked with Google just fine. However, recent updates seem to have blocked the previously published workarounds, and I haven’t been able to get the Google Play Store working - instead, it recognises my phone isn’t Google certified and throws a wobbler whenever I try to do anything Google-y. For that reason, this phone will not work for me, as much as I love its other qualities - but if you’re not joined at the hip to Google as I am, then a Google-free phone could be a blessing.
Apart from the Google situation, how’s the software experience? It’s alright! I’ve gotta say that the EMUI flavour of Android 9 installed here is a little Apple-like for me - the default launcher doesn’t have an app drawer, so you must keep every app you have installed on one of your home screens, which looks incredibly messy to my eyes - but it works. There is a web browser that is fast, there is a files app that does the job, there is a comprehensive health suite and a dozen of other useful programs preinstalled. The settings menu makes sense, and the default theme is pleasant enough. Altogether, it’s quite acceptable.
So, that’s the Honor 9X Pro. I am so conflicted about this phone, because it is so lovely to look and to hold, and even feels snappy to use. The rear camera is exceeds anything I’ve ever seen at this price range, and the motorised selfie cam delights me whenever it pops up too.
And yet… the unfortunate progression of world politics means that the device is hamstrung, cut off from the Google Play Store that Android users in the west depend on to download their apps.
So here’s the recommendation: If you’re new to the Android ecosystem or otherwise not dependent on Google apps and services, then this smartphone may be the perfect budget powerhouse for you. £250 is an incredibly fair price for a phone that works this well and looks this good. Choose a giffgaff SIM-only deal that fits your needs, and you’ll have a phone-and-service combo that far outstrips what you’d normally expect to find at this price point.
For me though, the 9X Pro is on ice, awaiting the day that official Google support returns or a new workaround is found. I hope I’m not waiting long.
What do you think of the Honor 9X Pro? Let me know via Twitter @wsjudd. See you next time!
Image credits: Huawei