Tecno Phantom 9: Impressions

Just months shy of the 2-year mark when we last saw a Tecno Phantom smartphone, the Chinese brand is availing one in the local market, albeit more than a month since the device showed up in other African markets.

The Tecno Phantom 9 carries on the famous name of its predecessors and all the expectations that come with the status of a brand’s flagship device but without much of the hoopla of those past devices. You know, none of that “Diamond Fire design” talk in the marketing or the fancy image stitching to achieve some superfluous 80-megapixel “Super Pixel” snaps.

As we will see shortly, everything from the packaging of the device to its looks is in a compact state that doesn’t scream and shout from afar as the Phantom 8 and other Phantoms before it did. It maintains a simple profile while still pushing through with a lot of the features that can be found on competing devices and which prospective buyers of the device already look forward to.

Unboxing

Impressions

One of the things that one notices about the Tecno Phantom 9 right out of the box is how light the device is.

That lightness is complemented by the almost even small bezels (almost because the chin is slightly bigger) which help to create an impression of shrinkage on the part of the 6.4-inch display which, by all means, should look massive but isn’t.

Either it is because I have gotten used to handling 6-inch devices or its just a way of the design melting into my interaction. I think it’s more of the latter, especially given the overall body profile since compared to other 6-inchers in my possession like the Note 9 and several Huawei devices, I can always tell when I handling a big phone. The Huawei Y9 Prime 2019, for instance, has a 6.59-inch display that you can feel very well is quite large.

An unmissable addition to the front (if the last Phantom is to be used as a reference) is the notch. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it pretty much stays out of the way – and by this time we should’ve gotten used to the ugly cutout at the top. For those that find it bothersome, obviously, the software easily takes care of that by providing them with an option to get rid of it by evening the top area with one continuous black bar. Not the most efficient means but it works. Else, what you rather they do? A pop-up selfie shooter?

Definitely, one cannot miss the striking gradient colouring that dominates the device’s back. Referred to as “Lapland Aurora” by Tecno in the device’s documentation, the colour stands out and keeps up with what we have been seeing from everyone for the last few months, especially competitors like Huawei and Xiaomi.

Staying on that backplate, there is the triple camera arrangement. Featuring 16, 8 and 2-megapixel lenses, Tecno is going after consistent results in various lighting conditions. The latter two lenses are for ultra-wide shots and depth-of-field information. Of course, like others in this field, with the aid of AI. In fact, the cameras are being marketed as AI cameras. Do they live up to this? We’ll be exploring that later on.

One of the things one notices immediately they start unpacking their digital lives on the device is the generous amount of storage – 128GB. Not that that is strange anyway – I’ve had the same since December on my Xiaomi Mi A2 and for 2 months now on the Huawei Y9 Prime 2019 – but it is good that this is what it makes it to Tecno’s flagship device. Since the 64GB onboard storage that I enjoyed shooting those big “Super Pixel” images on on the Phantom 6 almost 3 years ago, this was the only way to go.

Even better, it’s backed by an equally generous amount of memory to feed the hungry monster that is Android – 6GB. Much as you can’t see that physically, you’ll feel in how the device manages to perform which, as we will see later when we revisit the device, is easily one of my most favourite things about the device itself.

A regular pet peeve of mine still manages to sneak into the device, ruining my mood in the process. I am talking about the microUSB port. This would be a non-issue if we were talking about Tecno’s entry-level Spark smartphones but this is a flagship device. I mean, if there was ever to be any evidence of the company to show us progress then it would be on a device like this one. Especially when you remember that we have seen Tecno go with USB Type-C on the last two iterations of the Phantom, the Phantom 8 in 2017 and the Phantom 6 the year before. What informed the step back?

As one begins the initial setup process, they are greeted by a prompt to setup their security profiles. You know what that entails, right? Enrolling biometrics. This is where it gets interesting as we then get face to face with a new addition, a first on any Tecno smartphone: the in-display fingerprint sensor.

I have mixed feelings about this particular feature. While it definitely stands out in the sea of features that the Phantom 9 packs, my immediate impression of it after setting it up and using it for a couple of weeks is that it is underwhelming. Pretty much a “meh” feature.

Sure, it is cool and all but the struggle to get either of my thumbs recognized every other time has meant that I waste up to half a minute when I could just use the complementary face unlock system and get done with the process in a few seconds. Whether this responsiveness is something that can be fixed with a software update or it is something that users will have to learn to live with, I don’t know even though I hope that the former is the case. Much as I have found, with continued usage, that I have much higher chances of getting a successful unlock when the screen is turned on than when I pick up the device from its sleep, it still doesn’t inspire confidence.

I like that the place where I need to place my finger in order to use the in-display scanner to unlock the device is well illuminated as soon as I pick up the device either from the table (it doesn’t wobble despite the protruding triple-lenses) or fish it from my pockets.

Given that it is projected that about 100 million smartphones sold this year will have in-display fingerprint sensors, Tecno has led the way in bringing the feature to the sub-Kshs 50,000 segment. It is only a matter of time before we see other devices show up with it.

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For the long-time Tecno user, not much has changed. Well, that is if we’re to overlook the special (gold) colour schemes that Tecno has gone with before for its flagship device. It’s the same HiOS that you can find on other Tecno devices. However, given the Phantom 9’s beefy specifications, it means that here, it is bound to fly and, bar a few minor annoyances (the usual – bloat, annoying notifications every now and then and the sneaky ads), you’ll manage to get by with it. I am on my third week of using the stock launcher and I am not about to switch camps. Especially since I was able to get rid of all the additional pre-installed applications I have no much use for as well as being able to disable the so-called Instant Apps.

There is a one-handed mode that anyone with medium-sized arms hands won’t have much use for thanks to the Phantom 9’s compactness.

Straight out of the box, some options, like the so-called “Smart Panel”, a Galaxy Note-esque feature that brings a slew of shortcuts to the desktop, are turned on. While I’ve found the feature to be nice on past interactions with HiOS, on the Phantom 9, it stood in the way of text input using the on-screen keyboard on some apps and so I had to turn it off.

What I like the most of the Tecno software experience on the Phantom 9 – and I guess other Tecno devices as well – is the flexibility. The customizability. I have been able to get rid of everything I didn’t like either by uninstalling the app or disabling the feature. Way to go.

While past Phantom devices, like the Phantom 5 from 4 years ago, had excellent sound quality, the Phantom 9 just scrapes by. There is nothing outstanding about the audio. However, since bar the Nokia 6 (and 6.1), there is not much to write home about devices in its class and good audio (unless they are from LG), this can be excused even though it is the one area the device could’ve used to set itself apart from the competition.

While it is appreciable that the headphone jack lives to see another day on Tecno’s flagship, the earphones included in the box are just as average as they look.

Does the Tecno Phantom 9 sound like the smartphone for you?

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Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com