Honor 9X Pro review: An Android phone hobbled by the loss of Google apps

Before we get into the Honor 9X Pro review, there’s some bad news to get out the way. As with the Huawei Mate 30 Pro before it, thanks to an ongoing set-to between the United States and China, this phone has been blocked from using Android as you know it, falling back on the open-source version.
 

That doesn’t sound too bad, even if it’s not good news for security updates but the devil is in the details. The ban on US companies dealing with Huawei (Honor is a sub-brand of the Chinese giant) means Google can’t provide its apps to go with it. That means no Gmail, no YouTube and no Google Maps; there isn’t even a Play Store so you can fill in the gaps.

 
This, to put it mildly, is unfortunate. Because if this stylish smartphone had all the trappings you’d expect software wise, it would surely get our seal of approval. As it is though, it’s impossible to recommend.

Honor 9X Pro review: What you need to know

This is the follow up to the rather good Honor 9X. As you might expect, the word Pro means it comes with more processing grunt, with the Kirin 710 processor subbed out for a 2.27GHz octa-core Kirin 810. The 6GB RAM remains the same but there’s also a generous 256GB of internal storage, which itself can be expanded via microSD cards.
 
All these are positive enhancements over the ‘non-professional’ version but, as I said in the intro, this is the first Honor phone to be hit by the US’ brouhaha with Huawei, which means meaning it has a significant drawback compared with its predecessor – and indeed every other Honor phone on the market. Without the Google Play store, you may find your favourite apps and games are hard or simply impossible to install and run on the phone.

 

Honor 9X Pro review: Price and competition

Honor says the 9X Pro will arrive in the UK at the same price as the regular Honor 9X – £250. That’s quite reasonable for a phone of these hardware specifications. The original Honor 9X, meanwhile, has dropped by £40 to around £210 (and still comes with all the Google fixins).
 
In terms of competition in this price bracket, the best comes from Motorola and Xiaomi. The Moto G8 Power is a very capable handset with an enormous 5,000mAh battery and four rear-facing cameras that sells for £220. Xiaomi, not to be outdone, sells its Redmi Note 8T for £179 with the same processor, four rear cameras of its own and a smaller 4,000mAh battery.

 
Our favourite alternatives and where to buy:

Honor 9X Pro review: Design

Before I address the Android-shaped elephant in the room, I should say that, from a design point of view, the Honor 9X Pro is a thing of beauty for the price. For a 6.6in handset, it’s surprisingly sleek with minimal bezels and no notch or pin-hole camera to speak of. That’s possible because the front-facing selfie camera actually lives inside the phone, popping out only when vanity calls.
 
Flip it over and it’s certainly eye-catching in the “Phantom Purple” colour our model arrived in, the back shimmering as it cascades from purple to pink across the glass. The three cameras are arranged neatly in traffic-light style in the top left-hand corner, which is a breath of fresh air compared with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which house its cameras in an ugly, blocky box-shaped bump.

 
 
It’s kept clean, in part, because the fingerprint reader has been relocated from the back of the device to the side, integrated into the power button. Personally I’m a big fan of this: it’s more reliable than in-screen fingerprint sensors, feels natural, and doesn’t take up extra space.
 
And Honor has included a number of consumer-friendly extras. The 3.5mm headphone jack is still in place and the already generous 256GB of internal storage can be expanded by a microSD card of up to 512GB in size. You don’t get either of those on the latest iPhone, although, in fairness, the Honor 9X Pro does lack premium extras like wireless charging, waterproofing and – most damagingly – NFC. No Google Pay for you, not that you could have installed it anyway.

Honor 9X Pro review: Screen

The Honor 9X Pro’s 6.6in screen uses IPS tech and has a resolution of 2,340 x 1,080, giving it 391 pixels per inch. That’s more than sharp enough on a screen of this size.
 
And it’s a good screen, too, once you turn off the overwhelming “vivid” default colour setting. Using our colorimeter, we found the Honor 9X Pro covers 96.1% of the sRGB gamut in “normal” mode, with a gamut volume of 99.1%. A contrast ratio of 977:1 is more than sharp enough, too.

 
It’s not the brightest we’ve seen, only reaching 370.8cd/m2 in our test. That’s not a disaster in the greater scheme of things, but it does mean you may struggle on a particularly bright day. Still, for the price, this is a very fine display indeed.

Honor 9X Pro review: Performance

The Honor 9X Pro is powered by the 2.27GHz octa-core Kirin 810 processor, which is interesting because it’s not one we’ve tested before. That’s not as weird as it sounds. Kirin is also owned by Huawei, so the chips typically only appear in the company’s own handsets, be they Huawei- or Honor-branded. 
 
Both our alternative picks at aroud £200, the Moto G8 Power and Xiaomi Redmi Note 8T, run off a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor and it’s pretty clear that bragging rights go to Kirin.

 
The regular Honor 9X is pretty much indistinguishable from the Motorola and Xiaomi handsets, but the Honor 9X Pro pulls clear on Geekbench in both single-and multi-core testing. Impressive.

 
The advantage is even more stark in the graphics tests. The Honor 9X Pro, it turns out, is an absolute powerhouse for the price, achieving an astonishing 48fps in the GFXBench Manhattan test onscreen, and 55pfps offscreen. Given most games are locked to 60fp, you’d struggle to spot the difference between this and a phone costing more than twice the price. That’s incredible.
 
But, of course, you won’t be playing many of your Google Play Store favourites, because Honor has fallen foul to the United States trade embargo.

 
 
In its place is Huawei’s AppGallery but it’s a weak substitute with around 45,000 apps to download. That sounds like a lot, but as Nathan pointed out in his review of the Mate 30 Pro, the Google Play Store has around 2.7 million. So only 98% smaller then.
 
Still, given you probably don’t have 45,001 must-have apps to download, there’s a chance all the essentials are there, ready to be downloaded, right? Uh, no. Obviously, Google apps are out but I had a look for the ten most downloaded apps of 2019 and only three of them were on AppGallery: TikTok, Likee and SHAREit. No WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix or Uber.

 
Yes, if you can find an APK file for the app you want to install you can potentially sideload it – as indeed we had to with our regular benchmarking tests above – but this is risky and a real pain. It seems unlikely anyone would knowingly buy a phone without the Google Play Store in 2020, unless it happens to have Apple branding. 
 
Battery life, by the way, is a slight improvement on the Honor 9X but not massively so. In our test, it lasted 13hrs 26mins before giving up. Unsurprisingly, the 5,000mAh cell on the Moto G8 Power lasts quite a bit longer: nine hours longer, to be precise.

Honor 9X Pro review: Camera

The Honor 9X Pro has the same camera setup as its predecessor, where the main 48-megapixel f/1.8 sensor is supported by two extra lenses – an 8-megapixel f/2.4 wide-angle camera and a 2-megapixel f/2.4 depth sensor.

 
You can’t really argue with the results for the price, with the Honor 9X Pro punching above its weight in terms of image quality and detail.

Tellingly, it’s quite a bit better than Motorola’s £220 Moto G8 Power, as you can see in the cropped side-by-side shots below. The Moto seems a touch overexposed by comparison, and the detail suffers as a result. While you can clearly make out individual roof tiles in the Honor’s image, they look a lot more blurry in the Moto G8 Power’s photo.

It’s better indoors, too. Though all phone cameras struggle with low-light conditions to some degree, budget and mid-range handsets suffer the most. Still, once again, the Honor 9X Pro has the upper hand: images are considerably less noisy, less blurry and have more detail.

 
The front-facing 16-megapixel f/2.2 selfie camera is technically very impressive in a £250 phone, too. The way it pops up out of the casing when you switch camera modes, accompanied by a satisfying whirr, never fails to raise a smile.
 
Sadly though, performance is less stellar to my eyes. Not only does it seem to apply some pretty aggressive beautification settings, even when the settings are pushed to zero, skin tones take on a very light appearance. I’m pale, but I’m not this pale (middle is default, left is with beautification turned off, and right is with it set to max):

 
As for video, the Honor 9X Pro is capable of recording 720p or 1080p (not 4K), and at frame rates of up to 60fps. Quality is pretty good but, in our test, upping the frame rate to 60fps disabled the (very good) stabilisation, making footage a shakey, unusable mess. Still, at 30fps it’s pretty solid.

Honor 9X Pro review: Verdict

In another universe, where the United States hadn’t targeted Huawei with a trade ban, it’s clear that the Honor 9X Pro would get the full five stars from us. It’s stylish, lightning fast and keenly priced to boot.

 
But in this universe, the ban is still ongoing and it makes the Honor 9X Pro simply impossible to recommend to 90% of people. If you never use social media and haven’t accessed the Google Play Store at all in the last few years then it’s possible this phone would work for you; even then, though, I’d recommend something from Xiaomi or Motorola, just in case you end up needing an app or two.
 
That’s a crying shame, because from a hardware perspective the Honor 9X Pro doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Honor 9X Pro specifications
Processor Octa-core Kirin 810 (2 x 2.27GHz, 6 x 1.68GHz)
RAM 6GB
Screen size 6.6in
Screen resolution 2,340 x 1,080
Pixel density 391ppi
Screen type IPS
Front camera 16MP (f/2.2)
Rear camera 48MP (f/1.8), 8MP (f/2.4), 2MP (f/2.4)
Flash LED
Dust and water resistance No
3.5mm headphone jack Yes
Wireless charging No
USB connection type USB Type-C
Storage options 256GB
Memory card slot (supplied) microSD (up to 512GB)
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.2
NFC No
Cellular data 4G
Dual SIM Yes (shared with microSD)
Dimensions (WDH) 163 x 77 x 8.8mm
Weight 206g
Operating system Android 10 (open-source version)
Battery size 4,000mAh

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