More beauty than beast
China-based HOMTOM is an obscure OEM in the west and not one of the most well-known brands in any case, but their latest handset is certainly eye-catching. One of several releases for the company over the past year falling squarely into the budget mid-range portion of the Android device spectrum, the HOMTOM S9 Plus is a 6-inch class handset. Aesthetically, it’s built around a familiar all-metal and glass design. Bezels are kept to a minimum and most of the technologies users have come to expect from a modern smartphone can be found here. Meanwhile, its price is set relatively low with consideration for the materials used, overall design, and several of its features. Unfortunately, there were also a few odd decisions on HOMTOM's part with this device which may prevent some users from enjoying it. As is given away by the price point, this is one smartphone that’s not going to set any benchmark trends, either. So, whether or not the HOMTOM S9 Plus is ultimately worth the purchase is going to be entirely subjective.
HomTom’s S9 Plus currently sells for around ¥1141, as of this writing, and is available in Blue, Black, or Silver varieties. In other regions, that’s approximately US$224.24, €192.85, or £172.66, though it can often be found on sale for a bit less. At that cost, users get a full 4GB of RAM and 64GB of expandable storage packed into a full aluminum frame with a 5.99-inch HD+ IPS display set to a resolution of 720 x 1440, with a pixel density of 268 PPI and an aspect ratio of 18:9. That display is used to interact with a custom build of Android 7.0 (Nougat), driven by MediaTek’s 64-bit octa-core MT6750 SoC with eight ARM Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.5GHz. Backing that up on the graphics side is an ARM Mali-T860 MP2 GPU. That’s all powered by a non-removable 4,050mAh battery. A dual-nano SIM slot is provided along the right-hand side to keep users connected, with one slot pulling double duty for expandable storage.
A 3.5mm headphone jack is included at the top of the device while the bottom reveals a single bottom firing speaker, micro USB 3.0 for charging and data transfers, and a microphone. Volume rockers and a power button are located along the left-hand edge. The user-facing side of the device, in the meantime, houses an earpiece speaker, sensors, and an LED notification light along the exceptionally thin top bezel. Along the lower portion of the front is a fingerprint scanner and a 13-megapixel selfie shooter, which features a large f/2.2 aperture. On the back of the device, there is a dual-camera array set in the top left corner with the primary sensor rated at 16-megapixels and the secondary rated at 5-megapixels. Both feature a f/2.0 aperture, which is provided extra light as-needed by an LED flash. All of that fits neatly into a handset that’s 159mm tall by 75mm wide by 8.3mm in depth, weighing in at a hefty 207 grams.
In The Box
Inside the box in which the HOMTOM S9 Plus arrives is a decent variety of accessories and inclusions. The phone does come with a micro USB to USB Type A cable and a wall adapter for charging. The wall adapter is a standard two-prong Type C wall adapter, as is fitting the device’s typical sales region. However, that means users in the U.S. would need to find an alternative 5V/2A wall adapter to use instead. Also included in the box is a micro USB to standard USB female adapter, which can be used for external storage or as an extender alongside an aftermarket USB A to USB A cable. No headphones are included in the package but there are both a slim-fitting hard plastic case and a spare film screen protector. The S9 Plus actually arrives with another screen protector factory-installed and the handset’s new owner just needs to peel away the top-layer - which presumably protects from damage to the film during shipping. Unfortunately, the included case does not seem to fit the HOMTOM S9 Plus very well at all since it has enough flexibility to easily slip off along either edge, leaving the screen exposed to damage. There’s also no inside lining to prevent the case from scratching up the device and it probably won’t provide much protection at all, though it will prevent fingerprints from building up on the phone’s metal backing. In addition to those items, there is also a SIM slot tool and a user's manual included with the package.
The IPS LED panel found on the HOMTOM S9 Plus is standard fare for a device in its price range in 2017. As already mentioned, it pulls in the latest trendy features such as a ratio of 18:9 and almost no bezel surround. However, both screen resolution and pixel density are comparatively low, as is no doubt expected here. That means images, video, and applications will not display quite a crisply as they might at a higher resolution. It also means that less battery life is wasted on the screen, even if individual pixels do become noticeable under the right conditions. Meanwhile, there’s no mention on either HOMTOM’s website or any sales site as to whether or not this handset features Gorilla Glass or a similar screen hardening technology. So it probably isn’t anything near the most durable display on the market and S9 Plus owners will most likely want to take extra care not to drop their phone.
Having said all of that, it is a decently bright display that feels similar to what can be found in many other smartphones in the price bracket and is very responsive to touch input, with no perceivable lag or delay. It also reaches nearly across the entire front of the device, with slightly rounded corners at the edges for a comfortable feel. Unfortunately, the software behind the 18:9 display also doesn’t offer any of the manual scaling options for applications or media often found in other smartphones. So users will be stuck with black bars along the top and bottom of the display in some instances, while other media will auto-scale to fit across the entire display. That can be a bit jarring when moving between applications. Perhaps more concerning is that the display has a reflective sheen to it which is helped by the included matte screen protector - but which may be bothersome when viewing the device outdoors.
Despite that this is a relatively unremarkable display, HOMTOM has chosen to include some gesture controls and smart display features - although figuring them out, as they are translated to English from Chinese for our test unit, can be moderately confusing. The first tool, found under the display settings menu, is called MiraVision and allows for some fine tuning for how the display looks. Users can choose between standard, vivid, or custom picture modes with adjustments for contrast, saturation, color temperature, etc. Dynamic Contrast for video playback can also be adjusted under MiraVision, in addition to a toggle for turning on or off a blue light filter. Another tool called screen assistant places a moveable icon on the screen which, when tapped, give quick access to the navigation buttons found along the bottom of the screen - including an additional screen locking icon. Beyond that, the HOMTOM S9 Plus includes customization for accessibility switches and gestures it calls "Smart WakeUp," located in the TouchLetters Menu. Also under that menu, users can find advanced adjustment settings for ScreenOn features and other gesture-related controls. Meanwhile, in some applications - such as the gallery - swiping left or right on the fingerprint scanner serves as a means of navigation.
Hardware & Build
The build quality of the hardware presented in HOMTOM’s S9 Plus feels spectacular, despite one or two quirks with the way things are laid out. The sleek metal design feels slightly heavy in the hand, adding the sense that this is a premium device and that it could withstand a fairly thorough beating. That may not be the case and this is certainly not a top-tier handset, but it feels that way in the hand. Despite having relatively square corners, it's comfortable to hold. Moreover, the inclusion of a headphone jack, the speed with which the fingerprint scanner responds, and charging port placement add to that premium feel. The camera bumps along the back of the device are not significantly raised over the overall height of the device and, as a result, it doesn’t feel like the lenses will be damaged when putting it down. That, in combination with the device's relatively flat design, means it feels solid and stable when placed on a flat surface, with the back of the device surprisingly also not feeling very slippery at all.
In fact, even the microphone’s placement inside a second speaker housing, though a bit quirky and pointless, makes the device appear more well-rounded. That’s not to say there isn’t anything negative or overly quirky about the HOMTOM S9 Plus. For example, the selfie camera placement on the front of the device - next to the fingerprint scanner - feels counterintuitive to use and results in smudges on the lens which could have been avoided via a different placement. The back of the device, while certainly premium looking, is also a serious fingerprint and dust collector. Finally, although the metal used for the handset's buttons looks nice and the buttons themselves do have some 'click' to them, they do feel somewhat more squishy than what may be used for a more pricey smartphone.
It’s a design and general style that seems eerily similar to LG’s G6 but which somehow manages to feel completely different and unique. Almost everything about the outward appearance and overall hardware layout feels like it was thrown under the microscope at least twice before things were finalized. All of the protruding bits are smooth and comfortable to the touch, while ports are tucked cleanly away where they don't interfere with that.
Performance & Battery
As is to be expected with a phone in its price range, the HOMTOM S9 Plus will not perform nearly as well as the high-end devices that are currently available. In fact, according to benchmarks performed on the device, this device barely performs at all. However, that’s primarily due to the RAM - as seen in several of the tests - which received much lower scores than any other component. The octa-core MediaTek MT6750 SoC and its companion GPU, the Mali-T860 MP2, perform admirably. The S9 Plus can even play games as intensive as Into The Dead 2 at medium or high settings with little-to-no noticeable lag, artifacts or other issues. It won’t play at the maximum settings very well and that won’t necessarily be the case with every game, depending on whether settings adjustments can be made and how RAM intensive a title is. However, it should perform well enough for most tasks a user could want to accomplish.
Meanwhile, the battery is exceptional to an extent - thanks largely to its size. Testing of the battery showed a drop of around 35 to 40-percent over the course of 3 hours, with the screen turned on the entire time and work being done in the background. With approximately 30-percent charge left, we recorded a screen-on time of around 4 hours from the 4,050mAh battery. That appears to suggest a total screen-on time of around five and a half to six hours. It’s worth noting that battery time will vary based on use, but the HOMTOM S9 Plus should easily be able to deliver a full day’s worth of use. That’s a good thing since there's no fast charging with this smartphone. Charging the device through its micro USB port can take several hours to accomplish and is most likely a task left until the end of the day or overnight. Aside from that, users may notice that this handset gets warm near the top at the back of the device. It doesn't ever really get hot, even under load, but it does seem to run at a noticeably higher temperature than most other devices.
No wireless charging is enabled with the S9 Plus, either, but there are several battery-saving features. Those include an intelligent background process management tool and auto-brightness adjustment toggle in the settings. There’s even an option to automatically power-down and boot up, which could ultimately save the overall life of the battery since the handset will get regular restarts.
Connectivity & Audio
Connecting to Wi-Fi with the HOMTOM S9 Plus is a straightforward affair. The on-chip radio performs decently enough and holds a connection via an 802.11b/g/n wireless connection, albeit a bit less strongly than many flagships might. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test the device to its full potential with regard to wireless mobile connectivity because it doesn't support the bands in use by h2O wireless. However, a call was made over VoIP and the microphone and earpiece performed as well as any other device we've used. With regard to wireless bands, the HOMTOM S9 Plus supports GSM 1800MHz, 1900MHZ, 850MHz, and 900MHz for 2G, while WCDMA bands B1 and B8 - at 2100MHz and 900MHz, respectively - are supported for 3G connections. 4G LTE FDD is supported on bands B1, B20, B3, and B7, which respectively operate on the 2100MHz, 800MHz, 1800MHz, and 2600MHz frequencies.
With regard to the onboard audio, this is definitely a loud device - much more so than one might expect from a single bottom-firing speaker. That doesn’t necessarily equate to great sound quality, unfortunately, especially when turned up beyond around three-quarters to maximum volume. Audiophiles will likely not approve the tinny, but decent, mids and highs or the fact that bass tends to be somewhat distorted and muddied. The sound quality through the 3.5mm audio jack is somewhat better, as is sound delivered via Bluetooth 4.0 but is certainly not premium. Either should work just fine for the average user.
Software on this device is relatively close to what might be expected from an OS built on Android AOSP stock software. Most of the features present as part of Android 7.0 are intact and the latest Android security patch level - January 5, 2018, as of this writing - is even present so users won't need to be quite so concerned about common bugs and exploits. The interface is smooth and responsive. There are a couple of quirks as well. For starters, there is no app drawer on this device and no settings menu to add one back. Instead, users get a home screen and then new apps appear on secondary screens accessible by swiping to the right. An app drawer can be easily added by installing a secondary launcher but there is at least one benefit to the way the software environment has been set up. Storage taken up by the OS is at a bare minimum at less than 1GB taken up at unboxing and there is almost no extra software installed by default. That means there's not a lot of special features or software to speak of since, aside from a few Google applications, the primary installations are all AOSP. However, it makes for a clean and almost pure Android experience. Google's Assistant, split-screen, and other Android Nougat features are also available right out of the box.
The camera app found on the HOMTOM S9 Plus is rich with features. For starters, users can choose between several shooting modes including a normal, face beautification, manual blurring, panoramic, and picture-in-picture mode. HDR can be applied to any of those, but it bears mention that the feature is relatively slow as compared to high-end Android models and even many budget devices. It will also, in fact, disable many of the more advanced tuning found in the in-app settings menu. Meanwhile, face beauty features are actually also present in the main camera app settings as well, with multi-face detection allowing for the subtle effect on multiple faces. Automatic scene detection is turned on by default, which turns off ISO, multi-capture, face detection, and electronic image stabilization (EIS) or ‘anti-shake’ settings by default. It also disables the ability to adjust white balance, exposure, and other image properties, as well as activating real-time autofocus.
That seems to work relatively well if there is enough light in the given environment but things quickly degrade as lighting drops. That seems to be equally true for both the selfie camera and the rear cameras, with severe pixelation and detail loss occurring as soon as light levels drop below optimal. Unfortunately, below near-optimal lighting, the quality of shots also becomes inconsistent and unpredictable, which may be because of the post-processing software rather than sensors to some degree. In low-light conditions, the quality becomes exceptionally poor. Turning the automatic feature off, of course, returns fine-tuning controls back to the hands of the user, allowing for some improvement for more advanced camera users. The primary camera shoots at a maximum resolution of 4608 x 3456, while the front-facing camera seems to default to 4096 x 2304. On the video side of things, users also have the ability to adjust whether EIS or the microphone is turned on or off, as well as making an adjustment to the video quality. The primary video resolution is set to 1080p at 30 frames per second (FPS), while the selfie camera captures at the same FPS but at 720p. Interestingly, the HDR mode actually seemed to produce more artifacts and pixelation than with the mode turned off, except when the shots were taken outside or with near-perfect lighting.
As to the modes themselves, face beauty, normal mode, and panoramic shooting probably require no introduction. However, manual blurring is a completely different thing than portrait mode or the bokeh effect which has become so popular among mobile users. That becomes fairly obvious when opening up the mode. Instead, it creates a literal and adjustable ring of blur around a given point in a photo. Meanwhile, picture-in-picture also makes an appearance here, allowing both front and rear cameras to capture at the same time. Users can also switch the primary viewing area between either main the main cameras or selfie camera by long-pressing on the in-picture frame. Aside from that, a quick tap on the on-screen arrow icon will bring up a feature that many manufacturers have dropped but which users seem to ask for frequently enough. The HOMTOM S9 Plus comes with several pages of real-time filters for images. Unfortunately, that's all offset by the fact that the U.I. for the camera app can also be inconsistent, with elements sometimes disappearing until the app is restarted. That tends to lead to an experience that is inconsistent, overall.
The Good & The Bad
On the positive side, probably the best feature of the HOMTOM S9 Plus is its modern aesthetic appeal. The smooth metal frame, full screen, and slightly above-average weight make the handset feel 100-percent premium and comfortable to hold. The software and performance are predominantly smooth, while the OS is very close to stock and easy to use. Coupled with plenty of storage space and a generous battery, it’s certainly a device that would be hard to ignore.
On the other hand, the camera quality and features can be very inconsistent depending on the lighting, which can be exceptionally annoying when a photo needs to be taken at a moments notice, without time to make adjustments or restart the app. The handset itself is also notably missing fast charging or USB Type-C port which has become so ubiquitous in modern smartphones. Moreover, as shown in the benchmarks, the quality of RAM HOMTOM has chosen to use here really seems to hold back the rest of the hardware from reaching its full potential.
Whether or not this device strikes a good balance between price and functionality is not really in question. That's not just because it has a substantial list of features as compared to many of its peers in the sub-$250 range, either. Unless the prospective user in question plans to do a lot of intensive mobile gaming, is an amateur photographer, or is an audiophile at heart, there's not a lot to dislike. The HOMTOM S9 Plus will accomplish most tasks thrown at it and it does that in a genuinely great-looking package. With that said the cameras are the only real drawback here. It isn't immediately clear whether the cameras could be made better with an update since the hardware seems to be reasonably well-thought-out. However, those do perform well enough as long as the lighting is good and the average user could do much worse at this particular device's price range.