Chuwi Hi9 Air Tablet Review - A Near-Premium Experience On A Budget

The Chuwi Hi9 Air delivers high-end build quality and top features like 4G connectivity in a sub-$200 tablet.

Chuwi's latest entry into the Android tablet market is a device called the Chuwi Hi9 Air. As its name implies, the Hi9 Air is technically a mobile data-enabled member of the Hi9 family of tablets launched late last year. However, it should not be mistaken for any prior entries into the series. In fact, this tablet moves far beyond its namesake to deliver a modern all-metal design, a moderately powerful chipset, and a range of other features that negate any comparison to its predecessor. Moreover, it offers a smooth Android 8.0 (Oreo) experience with a high degree of familiarity and performance thanks to the stock nature of its software. There are, of course, a few minor drawbacks that aren't at all uncommon in an Android tablet. With that said, Chuwi's Hi9 Air is effectively a premium entry at below $200 and well worth a look for anybody in the market for a new tablet.

Specs

On the specs front, the Hi9 Air is a 10.1-inch Android 8.0 tablet with a Sharp-built display resolution of 2560 x 1600 and brightness rated at 400 nits. That’s packed into an all-metal body between comfortably large bezels and below a highly-optimized 5-megapixel front-facing camera and a light sensor. Overall, the device measures 241.7mm x 172.0mm x 7.9mm and tips the scales at 550g. Moving to the back, a Samsung-built 13-megapixel shooter is accompanied by an LED flash. A headphone jack is included as well as an array of sensors, mic, dual-speakers, dual-LTE SIM ports, and a micro SD card slot. Our test variant was designed to work with U.S. mobile bands and featured a sleek black configuration, which appears to be the only available color. Beyond that, Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/ac/b/g/n allow for interconnectivity when off of the mobile data network.

Internally, the Chuwi Hi9 Air is driven by a MediaTek X20 SoC. That’s a deca-core processor with a total of two Cortex-A72 cores clocked at 2.3GHz, as well as eight Cortex-A53 cores. The latter of those are split into two groups of four, clocked at 1.85GHz and 1.4GHz respectively. Backing that up on the graphics side of the equation is a Mali-T880 GPU clocked at 780MHz. Meanwhile, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage are part of the bundle. The latter is expandable up to 128GB via micro SD card. An 8,000mAh battery powers all of that for a claimed 72-hours of standby and 5.5-hours under heavy use. Depending on the retailer, the Chuwi Hi9 Air costs between $179.99 and $239.99.

In The Box

Lifting the lid on the Chuwi Hi9 Air box reveals the tablet itself, first and foremost, wrapped in plastic to prevent damage. The screen is also fitted with a factory-installed screen protector that will need to have its top-layer peeled back before use. Underneath the device, buyers will find a user manual, alongside a product inspection report, and a warranty card slipped into a neatly tucked away cardboard partition. Only a micro USB to standard USB charging cable and wall adapter were included. The wall adapter is a standard U.S. plug, while other variations almost certainly ship with the appropriate plug type for the sockets commonly found in each respective region. The official product page for the tablet indicates that it should also have arrived with an OTG cable. However, our version with U.S. band support did not for whatever reason. That's not necessarily a problem and may just suggest the additional cable isn't something customers in the country will be as likely to need or want.

Hardware and Design

Some of Chuwi’s more recent efforts, including last year’s original Hi9, have closely resembled the first Nexus 7 tablets in terms of both looks and in-hand feel. It can be happily reported that simply doesn’t carry over to the Chuwi Hi9 Air at all. Instead of a plastic body and frame, the device features an all-metal frame and body with plenty of heft to make it feel much more premium than its price tag might suggest. The contours at the edges are also very smooth to the touch and there aren’t any jagged edges anywhere. The materials extend to the camera surround. On the other side, although no glass hardening is mentioned by the company, the front-facing camera sits underneath the panel. That should help it resist scratches very well, especially if a screen protector is used.

With regard to the hardware itself, everything feels as though it’s going to last. Any gaps in the build are kept to a bare minimum. Neither the charging port or the headphone jack has any wiggle when plugged in. Those actually feel almost as solidly built as the buttons, which click in and out of place along the right-hand side of the tablet neatly, providing a keen sense of satisfaction. In stark contrast to the other above-mentioned Chuwi tablet, the Chuwi Hi9 Air feels almost like it was made by a completely different company. Overall, there’s just nothing cheap about how this tablet looks or feels despite its sub-$250 pricing. Bearing that in mind, there is a plastic piece along the top of the Hi9 Air on the rear of the tablet. That clips off in order to install the SIM cards or a micro SD card before being snapped back into place. These are micro SIM slots rather than the more common nano-SIM - shown in the images above for a size comparison and used in most modern handsets. So users will want to ensure that's what they're using or that they have an appropriate SIM adapter. Setting that aside, the grooved surface of the plastic SIM housing does not take away from the overall design too much or look too out-of-place here.

Display

The quality of the hardware is not lost when it comes to the display either. Taps, swipes, and other touches are as responsive as can be expected from any Android tablet. Aside from not being laggy in the slightest, colors displayed on the 2K panel are vibrant and deeper tones are as dark as any panel available. That isn’t going to quite live up to Super AMOLED but thanks to 4K video decoding, it will show everything as crisply as any other Android device on the market. Moreover, a focus on brightness means that the display is serviceable even under full sunlight. The only real drawback to the screen, in this case, is a lack of display hardening technology since that isn't advertised at all by Chuwi. Bezels might be an issue, and could still be for some users since they aren't small by any stretch of the imagination. With that said, this is a 10.1-inch tablet and, in this case, those actually give users an easy way to grip the Hi9 Air without accidentally interacting with the software.

Performance and Battery Life

With regard to performance, the deca-core MediaTek processor performs admirably. Our benchmark tests show that it should perform computations and nearly keep up with top flagship devices as recent as 2016 on most fronts. On the graphics side, that's not quite the case but benchmarks rarely tell the whole store. For most games and applications, there isn't going to be much by way of noticeable lag.  Of course, that's not surprising with consideration for the exact SoC in use since those were the devices it was intended to compete with. Having said that, things do begin to fall apart with some of the more intensive modern smartphone games and apps due to advances in hardware over the past two years. For some titles, such as Into The Dead 2, settings are available to turn down graphics features and that solves the problem well enough to play through without any problems. Since this is essentially a tablet at the lower end of the mid-range, that's not at all bad. In short, the Chuwi Hi9 Air is going to handle most of what the overwhelming majority of what the average user will throw at it with no complaints.

Battery life, on the other hand, will vary widely from user to user. The Hi9 Air landed at just over ten hours with screen dimming turned on in our benchmark test. That was with a modest CPU usage of around 60-percent. In the real world, that’s going to drop significantly depending on the task at hand. The chipset in use here allows the system to push individual tasks to whichever core will optimally perform the task. Since weaker cores eat up less battery life, this device could also do much better with lighter use. We found ten hours to be a bit of an overstatement by around an hour under average use with gaming, video, music playback, and messaging all being part of the routine. Once the tablet stopped functioning, micro USB means a longer charging time as well. From completely drained, the Chuwi Hi9 Air took just over four hours and fifteen minutes.

Connectivity and Audio

Audio may be one of the very few areas where the Chuwi Hi9 Air falls short. Plenty of options are available thanks to two speakers are embedded under a metal speaker grill on either side along the top edge as well as a 3.5mm headphone port. Meanwhile, Bluetooth 4.2 is included for wireless audio playback. However, the speakers themselves leave quite a lot to be desired in terms of output and sound quality is mediocre. Lows are already almost completely lost to the ear because of overwhelming high tones but the middle ranges seem to drown out even those. Conversely, there's no sign of crackling or similar issues even at full volume. That could indicate more of an optimization problem than an issue with the speaker hardware. With that said, it is not necessarily a pleasant experience, although audio for notifications, alarms, and even phone calls will still be fine. All of that, meanwhile, is fixed immediately upon plugging in a pair of headphones or speaker, whether via Bluetooth or wired.

Connectivity, on the other hand, is not limited in ways it would typically be on an Android tablet. Most of that will be outlined along with other software below. It is worth mentioning that phone calls and even SMS text messaging is possible as soon as the device is set up with a SIM card or cards. With that said, Bluetooth 4.2 is included in the package, although NFC is not. Moreover, Wi-Fi can be used where available when no mobile data connection is available. We conducted our test on T-Mobile’s network via Straight Talk and managed to get a 3G signal to make phone calls and send messages. That worked as expected, although with a degree of awkwardness due to the size of the tablet in question. Our variation of the tablet is designed to allow connections in the U.S. As is always the case with mobile network-enabled devices, prospective buyers will want to check with their carrier for band support before spending any money.

GSM: Bands 2, 3, 5, 8

WCMDA: Bands 1, 2, 5, 8

4G FDD-LTE: Bands 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20, 40

Software

Chuwi's Hi9 Air ships with a very stock Android experience, including the usual Google applications and no real bloatware. That equates to a smooth, familiar experience overall and leaves plenty of space in storage for applications and media. SMS messaging and phone calls are also possible thanks to Android Messages and the AOSP phone app being installed by default. In short, those apps and some other system-level apps do look very much like they are meant for use on a much smaller display. Not all of the system apps suffer that problem, it's important to note. Primarily its only apps that would normally be found installed on a smartphone but not on a tablet. That gives off a distinct sense that portions of the built-in software were simply not optimized for a 10.1-inch tablet.

Camera

Tying back into the comparatively minor software issues listed just above, the built-in camera is one of those apps with problems. Namely, the U.I. elements are way oversized and somewhat blurry as a result. The software just doesn't quite fit in with the clean and refined experience elsewhere on the tablet. At the same time, it also enables something that isn't typically found in Android tablets at all. Rather than relying solely on an AOSP camera with very basic functionality, Chuwi includes a full-fledged camera app. That's complete with overlay effects, panorama mode, finer image-tuning settings, LED flash controls, and even HDR mode.

That doesn't necessarily equate to better photos in every circumstance. Although it works well enough in good lighting, low-light images tend to look either off-tone in color or grainy and lacking in detail. Shots that are taken with too much lighting, meanwhile, tend to have a washed out look, especially with HDR turned on. However, the 13-megapixel main camera is serviceable and somebody who is more experienced with adjusting manual settings will almost certainly be able to get better pictures.

The Good

Responsive high-resolution 10.1-inch display

Modern all-metal frame

Great in-hand feel

64GB of Storage

Budget pricing and upper-mid-range performance

Android 8.0 (Oreo)

Calling and texting work out of the box

Up to 10-hour battery life

The Bad

Audio from built-in speakers could be both louder and better optimized

Some software is optimized for phone-sized devices

No ruggedization

Camera underperforms in sub-optimal lighting

Conclusion

At cost, the Chuwi Hi9 Air should at very least be the radar for anybody looking to buy a new Android tablet. Stock Android 8.0 and an almost complete lack of bloatware, coupled with a decently optimized camera and moderate performance mean that this will offer a great experience almost across the board. Its 10.1-inch form factor and comfortable bezels add to that, while the only real drawbacks here are speakers and the complete lack of ruggedization. A good protective case and screen protectors will resolve at least one of those issues, while the other can be circumvented with headphones or other audio devices. The Hi9 Air sets a value benchmark that will really be hard to beat for any device in its price tier.

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