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  • Melissa Tan

Huawei Nova 9 Review: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

The Huawei Nova 9 makes a major jump from Kirin chipsets to Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor and steps down to a 50MP camera instead of a 64MP from the Nova 8. Now, why did Huawei make these moves? Let's get into why we believe the Nova 9 feels as if Huawei took two steps forward, and one step back.

First off, the design. Huawei has addressed the fingerprint magnet issue for the Nova 9 with a beautiful matte finish on the back. We have the Starry Blue colour here, delightful, but if you wanna go classic, it also comes in Black.

It now weighs 186 grams, slightly heavier than the previous model that was 169 grams but this might have to do with an increase in battery size. It features a very similar body construction to the Nova 8 with an over-the-edge-curved display and aluminium side rails, complemented by a hint of a new matte finish on the top and bottom of the phone.

5G support, however, will not be available in the Nova 9 or even some models to come. Speaking on stage during the launch event, Huawei consumer business CEO Richard Yu said: "5G phones are beyond our reach, and we have to go with 4G by removing the 5G module from our chip design.”

Just like before, the Nova 9 features a 6.57-inch OLED display, but with a little extra. 120Hz dynamic refresh rate is now available straight out of the box to balance smoothness and battery life. There are also two settings to choose from: High at 120Hz and Standard at 60Hz, depending on what your priorities are. It’s comfortable to view in daylight considering its still very bright, even at 60%. The in-display fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate, just like its predecessor.

While the mono speaker construction is decently loud, we were hoping for dual speakers in this version or at the very least, it could have used the earpiece for a second audio output. This rendition also doesn’t come with an audio jack.

Moving on to cameras, the Nova 9 features a newly designed quad-array camera construction with what Huawei calls a Nebular Ring around the 50MP main camera. It includes an 8MP ultra-wide, a 2MP depth sensor and a 2MP macro lens, with a 32MP selfie camera on the front.

In a world where bigger is often said to be better, you may be surprised to see a 50MP wide lens, since it's a step down from the 64MP of the previous model. But we figured this is most likely to enhance its low light performance.

The 8MP f/2.2 ultra-wide is also f/0.2 lower in aperture than the previous model. Huawei has now implemented an ultra-wide angle Anti-Distortion algorithm to keep straight lines intact without having the edges of the frame displaying a warped effect. Personally, we feel this is by far the best update here within the new features brought to the Nova 9, especially if you take a lot of architecture photos.

Something we definitely appreciate is the noticeable differences in picture quality with their latest XD Fusion Image Engine and Huawei's RYYB colour science. This ensures much cleaner highlights and shadows in images with less processing in clothing textures, which used to be an issue with the Nova 8.

The shutter speeds still lag when taking moving objects, but this depends on light settings and your subject. In other words, it’s still not ideal for pets.

AI-Function is now easier to switch on or off, having it built in the camera UI. The AI is mostly accurate when guessing what the camera is pointed at such as Text, Humans, Animals, Landscape etc.

It does take a second to process before showing you the final result, working to raise the exposure in certain darker parts of the image and smoothing out harsh highlights, while at the same time creating a decent fall-off for depth of field when held close to an object. It's not a major advancement, but it's a much clearer experience when using the AI than before.

There's also Hi-Res Mode available now, but this is suitable for still objects only, since it will take approximately three seconds before compositing a final output. It seems to work by layering multiple images into one to capture detail even when zoomed in at 300%. This might even be suitable for product photography, given you have a tripod or mount to attach the phone to, as the final output might be inconsistent when using handheld.

The 32MP selfie camera is still one of the best we've tested, both in stills and video mode that shoots up to 1080p at 30fps.

Overall, the camera user experience is much improved by having clear directions and suggestions for when using different modes. Small text that appears in the camera UI, like when using the Super-Macro mode, will inform you of the minimum distance between the lens and subject. It’s these little improvements that go a long way.

We have high expectations for its video mode, which shoots up to 4K at 30fps and is capable of high frame rates up to 960fps at 720p. Remarkably, the 50MP sensor has an ISO range up to a whopping 409,600. While we don’t think there would be many who would ever need that much for it to be usable, it's there and it’s an impressive feat nonetheless.

Vlog Mode is now a main feature on the camera UI. It allows you to shoot using both the 50MP wide and 32MP selfie camera simultaneously. This really shows how Huawei is targeting camera users with the Nova models for camera-focused builds, since the rest of the updates in this newer model are subtle.

The stabilisation with gyro-EIS is as great as ever - it does well when managing jitter and shaky movements while walking or in a car. You get great dynamic range when shooting outdoors, particularly with capturing the sky and harsh sunlight without losing detail on your focus point.

Low light performance in video mode, on the other hand, has not improved as much compared to photos. Using the 50MP sensor might have helped to decrease some noise or grain with a smaller pixel density, but not by much and you’ll still require decent lighting when shooting indoors. We would love to see Huawei work on a Night Mode for video since they have done pretty well for their still images. It could possibly be an AI feature that could take place in video mode to help process footage cleaner without needing extra processing power, who knows?

The Nova 9 runs on an octa-core Snapdragon 778G, Adreno 643L with 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage. The best scores we’ve gotten on our Geekbench tests were 785 for Single-Core and 2973 for Multi-core. This is a good leap from the Nova 8 which scored only 568 for Single-core and 1906 for Multi-core in our last tests. Results were close to the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra with an Exynos 990.

Huawei could have gone with this jump from a Kirin 985 to Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset, for a few reasons: To appease the US gov by working with a US company, because of a chip shortage in their own plant, or they possibly can't do 5G because apparently this is patented to an American company. Again, these are good improvements to optimise all of the new features brought to the Nova 9 and we will likely see it improve further in the coming models.

The gaming experience is definitely smoother at 120Hz, but as always, the pitfall here is having some games that might not yet be updated for HarmonyOS 2.0. A quick disclaimer here, we have yet to experience the full potential of HarmonyOS as we don't have other Huawei devices to test their ecosystem at the moment. It still feels unfamiliar to typical Android users that are used to Google apps and services.

Nevertheless, we’re glad to see all of the local apps instantly recognised and automatically installed when setting up the phone and after selecting your country/region, though it does come pretty bloated and you may want to do a bit of a spring clean to remove apps you might never use. The newly announced built-in apps such as Petal Clip Video Editor and Remote Shutter function with Smartwatch 3 is now available, and their video conferencing app MeeTime now supports up to 12 people in a call.

Last but not least, we’re happy to see a bigger battery at 4,300mAh and you get a 66W SuperCharge charger in the box which takes you from 0 to 100% in 38 minutes.

In conclusion, we appreciate what Huawei has done with the Nova 9; subtle improvements have been made while addressing some of the faults within the previous model, not fearing to step down a few notches to appease certain aspects that could help in terms of actual usability. It's kind of like knowing how to double down on your strengths and not pay too much attention to your weaknesses. Or in this case, paying further attention to your users and improving the experience without giving up technical ingenuity.


Content by Fitri Aiyub

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