It's so much easier to pick a flagship phone. Most of them have discernible characteristics and one is not easily mistaken for the other. In contrast, the sub-Rs 20,000 category of smartphones is a muddled marketplace. Major players such as Xiaomi, Samsung, Huawei and BBK Electronics (Oppo, Vivo and Realme) have flooded the market beyond recognition. You get more to choose from, but it is also considerably harder to zero in on that one phone. And there isn't that one phone anymore unless you know what you want from it exactly.
The Honor 9X makes that choice a bit easier. It's one of the few phones in the price range that come with a large, uninterrupted, almost borderless screen with a pop-up selfie camera. Other notable mentions include the Vivo V15 (Rs 16,440, Amazon), the Realme X (Rs 16,900, Amazon) and also the very similar Huawei Y9 Prime (Rs 15,990, Amazon), all of them released last year. Here's how the new model from Honor released in January 2020 fares in comparison.
Design and display 4/5
A bezel-less phone is an appealing design and Honor 9X does more to make it distinguishable. It's a wide 6.59-inch screen with a resolution of 1080x2340 pixels and a standard aspect ratio of 19:5:9. The selfie camera pops up from the left top corner of the screen on request.
The plastic back in the Sapphire Blue review unit that we tested does a cool trick. The surface reflects the light to make an X. It looks quite nice. The fingerprint sensor is placed at a convenient spot and is ridiculously accurate. It barely ever failed to recognise my fingerprints. Visually, one doesn't mind the triple-camera setup aligned vertically on the top with a flash under it, but the Honor branding in the bottom half could have been subtler. The phone is dual-sim, has a type-C charging and thankfully retains the 3.5mm headphones jack, which is critical in this price range.
The display is more tempered in terms of brightness and is less jarring to the eyes compared to most phones, but is also less legible under direct sunlight. The display colours and contrast are also less accurate than ideal. The viewing angles, though, are satisfactory.
While the design does better than the budget allows for, the display is just about good.
A 2.2 GHz, octa core, Hisilicon Kirin 710F SoC (System on chip) coupled with 6 GB RAM, forms the backbone of 9X's performance and it does not disappoint. It's not a top-end processor, though, and you can't expect games such as PUBG to run smoothly in the best graphics settings. The game when initiated advises medium graphics settings based on the phone's specifications and runs smoothly thereafter. It's only when you trouble the phone with a few more apps simultaneously that the frame rate in the gameplay starts to fluctuate.
The phone handles multitasking well but the operation is far from seamless. The problem seems to be its 9.1.0 EMUI operating system interface based on Android 9 (Pie). The phone switches from one app to the other fast enough but the transition is slightly jerky and one tends to notice it sometimes. The company says the Android 10 update will come soon enough, but given that the phone was launched in January 2020, it should have come with a UI (user interface) based on the Android 10 out of the box. The fact that the Honor UI has a considerable amount of bloatware -- the extra app icons can be a real eye sore especially since the UI does not have an app drawer -- further deteriorates the performance and the experience of using the phone.
A triple camera for the price is impressive. A 48-megapixel primary sensor, an 8-megapixel wide angle lens and a 2-megapixel depth sensor covers the basics of budget imaging infrastructure. The phone relies heavily -- and proudly -- on the camera's AI processing. The primary sensor is able to reproduce satisfactory shots when the AI feature, which gives you the option to enhance "beauty levels", is turned off. It's also surprisingly good at taking low light pictures, especially in night mode, that is, if you don't mind the shutter noise.
Pictures taken through the wide angle lens with a 120-degree field of view does capture more in a single shot but the quality is just about okay. The depth sensor is decent at bokeh effect.
The camera interface allows you to adjust the depth of field (bokeh or blur) after taking a shot and its HDR mode fixes some exposure issues while clicking one and can be useful for people who seldom use the pro mode. But the autofocus can sometimes take a second to aim.
The 16-megapixel selfie camera is a little slow to pop up and retract than, let's say on a Realme X, and relies heavily on its AI processing. The results are "pretty enough" and certainly less artificial than I have seen in many other phones in the price bracket.
This is where the phone excels beyond what you would expect from a 4,000 mAh battery in a sub-Rs 20,000 phone. The Honor 9X easily lasts 24 hours on medium use -- texting and browsing throughout, and about an hour each of calling, watching videos and gaming -- and up to 48 hours without the videos and gaming. It's excellent. The flipside, however, is that the phone comes with a 10W charger and does not support fast charging. You don't have to really carry a charger along, but it will take you over two hours to charge this phone from zero to full.
The Honor 9x is an above average phone with an excellent design, decent display and a lasting battery, especially for the price. But fast charging is a miss and the Android 10 experience out of the box could have been a more quantifiable edge over its competitors. All in all, the Honor 9X for Rs 16,999 (6GB RAM) is a good buy if you are wowed by its full-screen display and characteristic design. Not so much if performance and user experience are your top priorities. Samsung has better screens in the price range and Xiaomi has better performing phones. The Honor 9X remains a mixed bag of hits and misses till the user interface gets an update.