Sunday, May 27, 2018

AOSP on the Honor 9 Lite – How Stock Android Made a Budget Device Better

We recently reviewed the Honor 9 Lite, a budget phone released by a subsidiary of Huawei. With some semi-decent specs consisting of a Kirin 659, 3GB of RAM, and an 18:9 1080p display coming in at 229 euro, it's not a bad phone for the price. While there are certainly better options in the same price range, it can often be easier to purchase a phone locally, Especially since this device has been launched officially in the West.

While the phone had a number of things to like about it, one of the biggest hangups was shown when it came to performance. Despite the phone's decent specifications, it often couldn't keep up with a heavier usage that would not only suit a power user or enthusiast but even a regular consumer who is active on social media as well. As a result, I turned to an AOSP custom ROM which was possible thanks to the device being Project Treble compatible to see if it could help.

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Disclaimer: Honor sent XDA this device for review purposes. The opinions in this article are our own.

Editor's note: This article was being worked on and was completed before the recent news regarding bootloader unlocking on Huawei/Honor devices. As it is, we realize that installing a custom ROM on a Huawei/Honor device may no longer be possible in the future, but we still wanted this article out to showcase how even a basic AOSP ROM can improve the user experience on some Android devices.

Installing AOSP on the Honor 9 Lite

It's actually really easy to install an AOSP ROM on the Honor 9 Lite. You'll need to meet a number of pre-requisites to get started, especially in case anything goes wrong. If you'd like a more comprehensive guide, you can check out the one we did here.

First, you'll need to apply for your bootloader unlock code. This isn't a hard process and took me about five minutes. You'll need to create an account on the unlocking site, then just go through the process of unlocking your bootloader. The site will give you instructions on how to find the data you need, so it shouldn't take that long and should be a fairly painless process. Once you get your bootloader unlock code, go to Settings on your phone, enable Development Options (by tapping "build number" repeatedly under "about phone") and then enable OEM unlocking. Reboot your phone into fastboot mode and flash the TWRP recovery linked above. Note, the command you want is fastboot flash recovery_ramdisk recovery.img if you are using the Honor 9 Lite.

Next, you can either boot into TWRP and flash the GSI or flash the system.img via fastboot, making sure to wipe your device's /data partition. Make sure to back up /system in TWRP, because if anything goes wrong the process to acquire a stock system image is rather painful so you'll want to avoid doing that. Once you've got that done, you're good to go!

AOSP on the Honor 9 Lite

Performance

While I had a number of performance-related issues on the Honor 9 Lite on stock EMUI, AOSP is leaps and bounds faster in just about any task. It's so much easier to multitask on a device that doesn't freeze up inexplicably when switching quickly from Snapchat to Facebook Messenger. I also noticed that apps stay open a lot longer in the background, being able to return to applications an hour later and have them still in RAM. In terms of benchmarks (which should never be the deciding factor of whether a device performs or not), the Honor 9 Lite on AOSP scores a respectable 88209 in AnTuTu benchmark. Note that this is roughly 14,000 points more than on stock. A huge increase for a simple software switch. It shows just how much EMUI hampered device performance here. Storage speeds also went up massively in AndroBench.

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As you can see, there is a huge difference in storage performance benchmarks. The phone running AOSP has been on it for a few weeks now and has been used quite a bit. The only question I have is why is EMUI causing this huge of a performance drop-off? I simply don't understand why on AOSP things are just so much better in terms of benchmarks. Maybe EMUI is doing something wrong, maybe AOSP is doing something right… or maybe it's a mix of both. The phone boots fast, apps launch fast, and the phone no longer shuts down when switching on Bluetooth.

Quite an improvement.

As for camera performance, there are no longer any issues. The camera starts quickly and takes a photo quickly. Camera quality is another topic entirely, but I'll get to that later. Snapchat works fine and the camera works fine (even more so with OpenCamera). The stock AOSP camera is a bit barebones in terms of features, though. In terms of performance, AOSP is definitely an improvement over stock EMUI. I've been running AOSP for about as long as I had it on EMUI, so it's not as if that's the reason. Even Snapchat runs without a hitch, which is what shocked me the most. If none of that is enough improvement, applications also stay running in the background throughout the day rather than being closed inexplicably despite plenty of unused RAM.

For the performance increases alone I'd recommend installing an AOSP-based ROM on the Honor 9 Lite.

Battery

Sadly, battery reporting appears to be broken on the Honor 9 Lite when it comes to GSIs. The battery stats can't be viewed, but I will say that my general impressions are that it's slightly worse than on stock. I'm happy to trade a small bit of battery for performance though, as I'm still getting through a full day without any issues while also having a much better experience. It's completely worth it in my opinion.

I believe that the reason for the better performance at the cost of battery life is that there is less throttling of the processor. It could also be related to the fact that applications are being held in memory so that the device doesn't need to constantly re-launch them. Expect similar or slightly worse battery to stock, and if you're okay with that then I'd highly recommend making the switch. From what I can tell, the screen on times fluctuate around the 4 to 5-hour mark. What I will say though is that the battery life is certainly more consistent. I figured EMUI shutting things down in the background would lead to better consistency, but apparently not. I'm no longer seeing extremes of 6 hours of screen-on-time, but I'm also no longer seeing 2 or 3.

Video, Camera, and Audio Recording

This is where the advantages end for the AOSP ROM over stock EMUI, and that's simply a limitation of how it's implemented. Most of the stock camera features don't work because the right camera libraries don't exist, so photos are often poorer quality than on stock due to the lack of processing. On other Project Treble-enabled phones, the camera libraries were ported so it may just be due to a lack of developer interest in the Honor 9 Lite rather than an actual difficulty. I personally attempted to do it but couldn't get it working at all.

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The photos above show the polarizing nature of the camera. It can take semi-decent photos like in the first and then terrible photos like in the second. The colored lines in the second photo appear on random occasions in other scenes too, and I can't seem to find any pattern that causes them. It's just poor camera processing all around that's causing it, so if you're buying this phone for the camera then you won't want to put an AOSP ROM on your Honor 9 Lite.

As for the video, it's plagued by the same problems. Filming picks up on random coloured artifacts like in the photo above, and again there seems to be no way to stop it. As for audio, it sounds fine but can no longer handle loud environments correctly. It crackles and peaks the audio, so on all accounts, using this phone is impossible for taking photos, videos, and recording audio on an AOSP ROM. That's fine, it's still early, but it's just a warning for those who care about it.

In other words, don't expect much. You are not going to be seeing some of the great video and audio quality that was present in the stock ROM. It's probably one of the few things stock EMUI has over AOSP.

AOSP

While AOSP is AOSP, there's a number of issues that it has when installing through a GSI. None of the issues are actually deal breakers, but they can be annoying. For example, signal strength values are entirely broken. Both of my SIM cards constantly display 0dB and 255ASU, but the actual signal strength is displayed just fine in the status bar. The Android version and security patch level are also misreported. Then, of course, there's the aforementioned issue of being unable to view the actual battery statistics on the device. Finally, there is the issue of SafetyNet. You can not use Google Pay or any other SafetyNet enabled applications on a GSI on the Honor 9 Lite. I don't know about other devices, but on the Honor 9 Lite none of the suggested fixes I saw actually worked.

Sure, it's annoying, and there are lots of small inconsistencies. However, that isn't such a big deal when you remember that you are literally booting a system image of Android that also boots on other Android devices that come with Project Treble support. It's a crazy feat of development to even get this far and over time, of course, things will improve. While I'm unsure if SafetyNet will ever pass, the other issues will probably be fixed with time.

Conclusion – Does AOSP on the Honor 9 Lite Improve the Experience?

AOSP improves the Honor 9 Lite in a number of different ways. The Honor 9 Lite, as time went on, was unbearable in terms of performance, as I touched on in my review. With AOSP, it tells a very different story. The device is fluid, it's quick, and it's extremely responsive. It blows EMUI out of the water in just about every metric. If what you're after is features, then you can even install a Resurrection Remix or LineageOS ROM instead of AOSP. If you don't care about camera quality that much, then I fully recommend ditching EMUI. Even then, the camera issues may eventually be fixed with time. But it does leave one question: What on Earth happened to EMUI?

I can't tell why AOSP on this device is just so much better than EMUI. It's fluid, it's fast, and it's everything that EMUI is not. It could be the lack of bloat slowing down the device. An interesting fact is that I could not work on articles on my phone on EMUI as Chrome would simply crash, but other than the occasional lag spikes on AOSP I was able to edit and work on articles to my heart's content. It just felt so much nicer to use. That's not something you can pick up on synthetic benchmarks either: it's something you'd have to try yourself. If you have an Honor 9 Lite with EMUI and you don't mind losing out on camera quality then I highly recommend switching over to an AOSP-based ROM.

If you make the switch to LineageOS, you should definitely make sure and try to make use of all of its features that will be made available to you. It's not recommended, really, to go with an AOSP ROM, because really, why would you? LineageOS has a huge number of features over AOSP and both are fundamentally the same at a technical level.

If you remember me saying that for a period of time I considered using this device with EMUI over the OnePlus 3, now with AOSP the Honor 9 Lite has really got me thinking.



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