Huawei Nova full review

Huawei has gone from strength to strength in the UK, with recent releases including the flagship Huawei P9 proving popular in Britain – but it isn’t done yet. Announced at IFA 2016 in Berlin, Huawei has launched a new range of smartphones to take on the mid-range market, the Huawei Nova and Huawei Nova Plus. There’s also the Huawei Mediapad M3 too, for those interested. We’ve spent some time with the Huawei Nova and here we discuss pricing and availability, design, features and software of the upcoming smartphone. Read next: Best smartphone

Huawei Nova review: UK price and release date

So before we go any further, let’s first discuss UK pricing and availability. The Huawei Nova, along with the Nova Plus are both marketed as being mid-range smartphones, meaning they’re not designed to compete with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s. UK users will be able to pick up a Huawei Nova for around £320 when it’s released in the UK.

So when will it be released? As announced by Huawei during its IFA 2016 press conference, the smartphone will be available to buy in over 50 countries from October, although a date is yet to be set – we’ll update this section with more information as soon as we receive it. As with other Huawei smartphones, the Huawei Nova will be able to order from VMall once it’s available.

Read next: Huawei Mate 9 review

Huawei Nova review: Design

Huawei’s brand new Nova isn’t to be sniffed at – sporting 2.5D glass and a curvy body, the Nova doesn’t look or feel like a mid-range smartphone. This isn’t news though, as Huawei is famous for offering users a premium design at a sub-premium price – think Huawei P9 and Mate 8: sleek and gorgeous, yet £100-200 cheaper than the competition. The 2.5D glass meets the smartphone’s aluminium unibody perfectly, providing users with a completely seamless design that allows for smooth swipes from the edge of the display.

The Huawei Nova isn’t a large phone, measuring in at 141.2x69.1x7.1mm and 146g – in fact, the 7.1mm thick smartphone is similar in dimensions to Apple’s iPhone 7, despite the fact that the iPhone 7 features a 4.7in display while the Nova features a 5in display. How is this achieved? The Nova features incredibly thin bezels and as the smartphone features no physical buttons on the front of the device (true of many Huawei devices), the display can take up a larger portion of the front of the smartphone.

The Huawei Nova features a brushed metal finish on the side with a sandblasted finish on the rear, which provides users with a nice in-hand feel and adds to the premium design of the smartphone. On the sandblasted rear users may notice a circular fingerprint scanner similar to that featured on the recently announced Honor 8, and is a step away from the square-shaped reader featured on the Huawei P9, Mate 8 and even the Nova Plus (which we can’t quite understand).

In terms of flavours, the Huawei Nova is available to buy in Apple-esque shades of ‘Mystic’ Silver, ‘Titanium’ Grey and ‘Prestige’ Gold.

Huawei’s smart design meant that despite featuring a large display, we found the Huawei Nova comfortable to hold and use one-handed over long periods of time. This is due to its slim bezels, but is also down to the curved edges of the smartphone which allowed it to sit comfortably in our hands. Its curved design is reminiscent of the iPhone, and it feels similar to Apple’s flagship in the hand – quite the feat for a mid-range smartphone.

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Huawei Nova review: Features and spec

So, what does Huawei’s mid-range smartphone offer users to tempt them away from the competition? Let’s start with the display – the crisp and vibrant 2.5D 5in Full HD (1920x1080) IPS display featured on the Huawei Nova is apparently designed to perform well in low-light conditions due to the inclusion of a blue light filter.

The filter aims to provide extra comfort in evenings and other dark conditions making it similar to Apple’s Night Shift functionality and while it does a good job at this, we think it’s a little less subtle than Apple’s offering with a noticeably orange tint. We’d also like the ability to automatically turn it on at sunset and off at sunrise too, as manually toggling it on and off on a daily basis isn’t ideal.

In terms of power, the Huawei Nova comes packing an octa-core 2.0GHz Snapdragon 625 processor and is coupled with 3GB of RAM. What does this translate to in real world usage? The general use of the phone – swiping between menus, scrolling through Facebook and browsing the web – is absolutely fine with no signs of lag.

That’s not to say there’s no issues with performance, though. While it’s fine for everyday use, the limitations of the built-in tech of the Huawei Nova become more apparent when playing games, especially more graphically intense games like Assassins Creed Pirates.  The game can handle standard 3D platformer games like Crossy Road absolutely fine, but playing graphically intense games results in constant framerate drops and lag. This is evident in our benchmark results, which we come to in more detail below.

While the Snapdragon 625 provides a generally snappy user experience, it’s not the only reason it was featured in the Huawei Nova - Huawei was keen to point out that the Snapdragon 625 provides users with 30 percent battery life than the Snapdragon 615. This coupled with a fairly substantial 3200mAh non-removable battery should provide users with two days of battery life, although we can’t quite back up Huawei’s claim. We can get through a day comfortably without a charger, but it has yet to last us a full two days on a single charge. It’s charged via USB-C too, like many other recent Huawei-branded smartphones.

With regards to storage, you’re looking at 32GB out of the box and while this isn’t that impressive, it’s expandable thanks to Huawei’s ‘Hybrid slot’, which offers either MicroSD and SIM or dual-SIM capabilities depending on your requirements.

Huawei Nova review: Benchmark results

We put the Huawei Nova through various benchmark tests and before we go into any more detail, it’s worth noting that with all our tests, the higher the number, the better. The first test we ran was the recently updated and overhauled Geekbench 4, which measures the general processing power of the smartphone but due to the benchmark software providing different scores across GB3 and GB4, we can’t compare it to many smartphones at this time.

What we can compare it to, however, is the recently released Xiaomi Redmi Pro, a mid-range Chinese smartphone that you can buy in the UK via sites like GearBest. The Huawei Nova scored a slightly disappointing 842 in single-core and 3048 in multi-core, especially when you consider that the Redmi Pro scored 1764 and 4539 respectively. It’s a similar story with Sony’s latest smartphone, the Sony Xperia XZ which scored 1582 and 3807 respectively. Huawei’s processor is enough to get by, but it’s not the top of the pile by a long shot.

Next up in our benchmark tests was GFXBench, which tests the graphical power of the smartphone and is performed by rendering a number of different sequences with varying levels of quality, and measuring the framerate. While we ran several tests within GFXBench, we’ll concentrate on the lowest (T-Rex) and medium range (Manhattan) tests for this mid-range phone. You can see full results in our infographic below.

The Huawei Nova managed to score 23fps in T-Rex, and 10fps in Manhattan. In this respect, the Nova is just behind the mid-range Redimi Pro which scored 35- and 15fps respectively, but has been blown out of the water by the similarly priced OnePlus 3, which scored 59fps and 46fps respectively. Based on this, the Huawei Nova will suffice for average gaming, but can’t quite offer the high-end graphics required by some games.

Finally, we ran Jetstream, which looks to test the speed of the built-in browser of a smartphone, which in the case of the Nova (as well as many other Androids) is Google Chrome. Android smartphones generally are slower than iOS devices when browsing, as the iPhone 7 recently scored a whopping 160.2, blowing the Samsung Galaxy S7’s score of 61 out of the water. With this giving you some idea of what high-end smartphones can offer, the Nova scored a fairly standard 30.2, putting it in the same league as the Sony Xperia XA (26.5) and the Nextbit Robin (29.7).

Huawei Nova review: Cameras and photography

The cameras featured on the Huawei Nova are fairly decent for a mid-range smartphone too, at least on paper. Why? Let’s start with the rear-facing camera – a 12Mp snapper with 1.25-micron pixels and an aperture of f/2.2. What does this mean in the real world? It means that as well as having more detailed shots, photos taken in low-light conditions should be brighter – and that’s something that we can confirm, but at a price.

Take a look at the above photo of our (admittedly, slightly messy) darkened storage cupboard. While the image is generally quite light, the overall quality of the image suffers to provide it. We’re talking mainly about noise cancellation – zooming in to 100 percent with a 1:1-pixel ratio, you can see just how aggressive it is. It’s blotchy and soft in places, and the smaller details – such as writing on packaging – can’t be properly made out. While it’ll suffice for a nightclub snap with your friends, we wouldn’t rely on the low-light capabilities for much more - take a look at the zoomed version of the photo below to help understand what we mean.

The Huawei Nova is better at macro photography than low-light photography, that’s for sure. The Nova can grab focus extremely quickly, and in our experience, is fairly accurate. The focus can be slightly soft in some places so it’s best to take a handful of macro shots instead of one, but we’ve found it performs quite well overall. You need to make sure you’re steady when you’re taking the photo though, as we’ve found that even slight movement can blur the photo – especially when analysing it at 100% zoom.

Standard photos taken on the Huawei Nova are generally quite good quality, as long as you’ve got sufficient light. Take a look at the below photo taken of the St. Pancras Hotel on a rainy day in London – colour reproduction is decent, although could be improved in places, but it’s the amount of detail that the camera captures is what makes the photo so impressive. You can see individual bricks on the hotel walls, and can even zoom in and read the street sign fairly clearly. There’s no motion blur either, despite people walking along the street below.

The front facing camera isn’t to be sniffed at either – an 8Mp camera with f/2.0 and similarly decent results in low-light conditions. While there’s no dedicated front-facing flash like on other Huawei smartphones, those that need more light can simply use the Nova’s display as a flash. It’s worth doing at your own risk though, as using the front-facing flash will more than likely blow out your selfie, leaving you with an extremely white, reflective face. The quality produced is fairly decent though, and will definitely suffice for the likes of Skype and Snapchat.  

In terms of video recording, the mid-range Huawei Nova surprisingly offers [email protected] Why is this so surprising? Considering that Huawei decided against offering 4K recording capabilities in its P9 and P9 Plus, we thought it was weird to offer it with its’ mid-range collection. Nonetheless, it’s there and does capture 4K video, although the quality isn’t mind-blowing. We’d recommend sticking to 1080p (although we’re sad to see a lack of an option for 60fps) as it can take in more colour, making videos lighter and much smaller in size.

Huawei Nova review: Software

So, what does the Huawei Nova offer in terms of software? Slightly unsurprisingly, the Huawei Nova comes with Android 6.0 Marshmallow complete with Huawei’s own Emotion UI (EMUI for short) overlay. While many people aren’t fans of skins that essentially redesign Android, we’re a fan of EMUI from the timeline-style notification centre to the circular icons used throughout the operating system – although it does take some getting used to.

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Huawei Nova: Specs

  • 5in (1920x1080) IPS display
  • Android Marshmallow 6.0.1
  • 2GHz Qualcomm MSM8953 Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor
  • Adreno 506
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • 12Mp main camera, dual LED flash
  • 8Mp front-facing camera
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • 4G LTE
  • Nano?SIM
  • GPS
  • 3020mAh battery
  • 141.2x69.1x7.1mm
  • 146g