Is the Huawei Honor 8 the midrange champion? (Review)

2016 is the year of the midrange phone. This year we’ve seen amazing offerings in the $400 range that push the limits of what we can expect from midrangers. It’s left a lot of us here at AndroidGuys wondering if it’s worth buying a flagship anymore. The OnePlus 3, ZTE Axon 7, Lenovo Moto Z Play, Alcatel Idol 4s, and Huawei Honor 8 represent the best of the best in terms of quality, but who takes the cake? We’ve spent a few weeks with the Honor 8 and it makes a pretty compelling case.

What’s the best $400 phone you can buy?

Specs

  • Display: 5.2″, 1080p LCD
  • Processor: Kirin 950 Octa-core processor
  • Storage: 32GB (expandable)
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Camera: Dual 12 MP, f/2.2 aperture (rear), 8 MP, f/2.4 aperture (front)
  • Battery: 3000mAh non-removable
  • Software: Android 6.0 with custom EMUI skin
  • Connectivity: Dual-Sim
    • 2G: 850/900/1800/1900
    • 3G: 850/1700 (AWS)/1900/2100
    • LTE Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20

Read More: Reference guide to US carrier bands and networks

Build

If I were to tell you that you could get almost the exact same build quality of the Samsung Galaxy S7 while paying about half as much, would that interest you? Would you ask yourself how that was even possible? Well, I was certainly left wondering how Huawei pulled it off after I removed the Honor 8 from its packaging for the first time. I used the phone for about three weeks and was still constantly amazed at how well Huawei sandwiched glass and metal together to make this phone. It’s simply brilliant.

huawei-honor-8-9

 

The front of our blue review unit is simple, just the display, small bezels, a standard speaker earpiece/camera and proximity sensor up top with an Honor branding on the bottom. If the Samsung logo on the S7 and Note 7 bother you, the Honor branding might too, but I thought it looked nice without being too eye-catching or distracting.

The back of the phone is equally understated with just a fingerprint sensor, dual-camera setup, flash and honor branding at the bottom. You can see Samsung and Apple’s influence in the design for the Honor 8. It’s simple and doesn’t try to impress with a modular design, large front-facing speakers, or tactile buttons. Huawei kept it simple and let the materials impress those who are lucky enough to see it in person. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is the most visually stunning phone I’ve ever seen in person, but the Honor 8 is right behind it.

huawei-honor-8-3

 

With the premium build materials do come compromises, namely, fragility and slickness. The phone will absolutely slide off anything with an incline and any kind of fall onto bumpy surfaces will blemish the devices. At the end of a long drive, I sat the Honor 8 on the top of my car along with my keys and a few other things. I thought it was on a flat enough surface, but I was wrong and it slid onto our blacktop parking spot. Luckily the display was spared, but the corners took the brunt of the blow. No more nice beautiful phone, but it could have been worse. If you’re worried about dropping your phone, get a nice case or choose a different phone because it’s easy to scuff this one up.

Display

The display on the Honor 8 is a 5.2″ 1080p LCD display. Hardly the highest resolution display on the planet, but ask yourself if you truly need a 2560 x 1440p display at 5.2″. The Samsung Galaxy S7 has a 5.1″ QHD display and it truly is a thing to behold, but it’s more due to the AMOLED technology, deep blacks, and wonderful peak brightness rather than the pixel density. Huawei made the right call with “only” a 1080p display on the Honor 8.

The colors are vibrant and the blacks look great. Peak brightness won’t approach those in the upper echelon of devices- that’s one of the tradeoff’s you’ll make in this $400 device, but it does do well enough on cloudy days. Sunny days are another story. You’ll be covering the phone with your hand or running under cover to get a good grasp of what’s on your display.

huawei-honor-8-6

Auto brightness is better on the Honor 8 than most phones, but it does keep the display a bit dark. I kept my display at roughly 50% for the duration of the review period and was very happy. However, reading in bed was a bit of a pain. The display floor is pretty high and made for some squinting and eye strain in bed. If you like to read in bed you’ll probably need to download a third-party application from the app store to artificially lower the brightness.

Viewing angles are wonderful. If you often share your display with another while watching YouTube or Netflix on the couch at home or the train, you’ll be pleased with the Honor 8. I noticed no color shifting or distortion when viewed at even the most extreme angles.

Software

Software is the biggest area of difference between the Honor 8 and any other widely available Android device in the US market. The Honor 8 runs a heavily customized skin known as EMUI- or Emotion UI. These heavy skins are usually confined to the eastern markets of South Korea, Japan, China and others while we generally get lighter skins here in the States. EMUI takes a lot of what is great about Android and builds on it, but still has some head scratching decisions.

The biggest issue for me is the lack of app drawer. It’s 2016 and some companies, namely LG, have experimented with ditching the app drawer, but EMUI takes that step. I have used my fair share of iPhones and I love them for what they are, but part of the reason I use Android is for software functions like the app drawer. I don’t want three home screens full of folders that I have to search through for an app. Luckily you can swipe down on an empty space of the launcher to pull down a search bar that you can open apps from, much like on the iPhone.

Icons everywhere!
Icons everywhere!

One of the smart improvements that the Honor 8 has is in the notification tray. A swipe down reveals all of your alerts, neatly tucked organized by what time they came in. It reminds me a lot of the timeline layout that Pebble uses in its smartwatches. A swipe to the right opens up your quick toggles. Unfortunately, you can’t customize what quick toggles you have or in which order they show up, but there are some smart toggles like Screenshot and WiFi hotspot toggles.

honor-8-notificationshonor-8-quick-settings

The app suite included with the Honor isn’t by any means bloated, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some bloatware here. You do get Huawei’s messaging app, gallery, theme store, music player, video player, calendar, clock, file browser, phone manager and email client. You’ll also see two folders named Tools and Top apps. The Tools folder has some of the usual suspects like a calculator, notepad, sound recorder and flashlight. Nothing too revolutionary. Top apps are all of the added bloatware like Facebook, Twitter, and Shazam. Luckily, these are uninstallable. I’ve said this before but if including these apps are what help companies keep the cost of phones down, I’m fine with it (as long as they are uninstallable).

During the review period, I did receive the September security update, so Huawei is doing a good job of staying on top of those. I would like to see when the Honor 8 receives Nougat, though, and what it looks like when it finally hits the phone. When a phone is heavily skinned like the Honor 8, updates tend to take a while because there are a lot of features to incorporate into a new operating system. That’s a lot of testing to make sure nothing is broken once those features are incorporated. If you care about the latest software updates you probably already own a Nexus device. If you care about cool features and aesthetics, the Honor 8 might scratch that itch.

Performance

The Honor 8 is powered by Huawei’s in-house Kirin 950 chip and represents the first phone in the US powered by it. The Kirin 950 is an octa-core chip with four 2.3GHz cores and four 1.8GHz cores. In real world usage, the chip feels comparable to the Snapdragon 820. Obviously, there are a lot of factors that go into how a phone feels but I’m basing my opinion on usage of the Samsung Galaxy S7, OnePlus3, LG G5, Motorola Z Force Droid, and Samsung Galaxy Note7 (which thankfully didn’t explode).

While I did experience minor hiccups, they were just that- minor and infrequent. Daily tasks like browsing Reddit, scrolling through my agenda in the calendar, checking social media apps, taking pictures, and watching videos on YouTube were frustration free. After turning the phone on, it did need time to “wind up”. I’ve seen this issue in Samsung phones as well where they’re difficult to use in the first couple of minutes after a reboot as processes get started. The Honor 8 wasn’t nearly as bad as some Samsung phones that I used, but the issue did exist.

Battery life was a big standout with the Honor 8. The smallish 5.2″ 1080p display combined with a power-efficient processor meant I was able to get through the day, even on heavy usage days, with battery left over. The only day I was reaching for a charger to top off was the first day I received the Honor 8 and that was due to the phone not having 100% battery out of the box and setting up all of my apps. If you have a charger in your car capable of quick charging or a charger at your desk, it’s very possible to not charge your phone at night and just continue topping off as needed. To say I was impressed with the battery life would be an understatement.

Camera

We’re starting to see more and more companies put dual cameras on the rear of phones to maximize mobile photography opportunities. Huawei was one of the first to do this with the Honor 8. The rear of the phone houses dual 12MP cameras, one lens to capture color and one monochrome. This design intends to let more light into photographs in low-light situations. While you will see some grain in these low-light situations, I was impressed at how well the Honor 8 was able to let in as much light as possible. When you’re able to use the flash, you will notice a huge difference. In the sample below, you would be forgiven if you though the brighter picture was taken during the day rather than at 7:30 at night in a dark room with only a television for light.

camera-sample-night-with-flashcamera-sample-night-without-flash

The cameras do even better in well-lit situations. A day at the ballpark and the beach left us with some truly excellent pictures. Here are some camera samples from my time with the Honor 8

Honor 8 camera samples

The camera app gives you more than just the bare-bones, too. I was impressed that a quick swipe to the left from the viewfinder found 16 different modes including pro and beauty modes for both photo and video, Good Food, Panorama, HDR, Night Shot, Light Painting, Time-lapse, Slow-mo, Watermark, Audio note, and document scan. While most of the modes will probably go completely untouched, it is nice to have them built-in to the camera app instead of needing to download third party applications if you ever do decide to use them.

honor-8-camera-modes

Conclusion

As lovers of technology, the writers here at AndroidGuys often engage in conversation about phones like the Honor 8, ZTE Axon 7, OnePlus 3, Moto Z Play, and the Idol 4S. It’s hard to pick which would be the “best” $400 phone since they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. But, the fact that we’re able to consider these phones over flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S7, LG V20, and HTC 10 means that the state of midrange phones has never been better.

huawei-honor-8-1

I really enjoyed my time with the Honor 8. I’ve used a lot of the phones released this year, and while it isn’t my favorite phone released in 2016 (Moto Z Play, in case you’re wondering) I would have no trouble recommending it to anyone. Huawei proves that they pay attention to detail and put a lot of work not only into the physical design of the phone but the software too.

The software may not be everyone’s idea of what they’d like to see on an Android device, but much like Samsung devices, Huawei was able to pack in a ton of features without making the device feel bloated. It feels sleek and cool like a cutting edge product no-one else has gotten their hands on yet. The Honor 8 is something completely different than what’s on the market right now and that’s a huge plus.

You can pick up the Honor 8 from Amazon, B&H Photo, or Newegg.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Build Quality
Battery
Software
Camera
Speaker
Display
Value
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Matt is an avid sports and technology fan and Managing Editor for AndroidGuys.com. You can get in touch with him by email at [email protected]