Upscale doesn’t need to be expensive, at least that’s the thinking of Huawei’s upstart smartphone subsidiary Honor. Honor made a big splash recently with the launch of the Honor 8—an affordable Android smartphone phone that focuses as much on design as it does on flagship-rivaling specs.
The Honor 8 also marks a unique turning point for Huawei, being the first phone under the brand to officially launch for the US market. Huawei has been operating Honor since 2013 as a way to target younger Millennials, and it’s now taking the success that it found in Asia and Europe to the States.
Unlike Huawei’s own branded phones, which are sold through traditional channels, like at stores operated by carrier and retail partners, Huawei executives told me at a launch event in San Francisco, California that the Honor brand will be marketed as an e-brand. By selling Honor phones through Honor’s own site and through the internet, Huawei is able to keep costs low and pass the savings onto consumers. This not a new strategy, and rival Oppo has found a devout following with its OnePlus phones.
Huawei has big aspirations for the Honor brand, and it has its sight set squarely on much bigger rivals, like Samsung and Apple. Huawei hopes that it can entice young users to Honor through lifestyle campaigns, like e-sports sponsorships. If it can win iPhone and Galaxy owners over, Honor 8 is a force to reckon with at its entry-level price of $399, which is $250 less than the base $649 Apple flagship.
Even though the Honor 8 is priced like a mid-range phone, its designed easily convinces you that this is a phone with bigger aspirations. Huawei is clearly gunning for the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S7 with the Honor 8’s styling, so much so that the Honor 8 looks like the offspring of a marriage between Apple and Samsung, with Huawei’s own twist.
The Honor 8 borrows liberally from Samsung, with its metal frame with chamfered edging sandwiched between a glass screen on the front and a glass back. Both front and rear glass panels are curved, according to Honor’s marketing, but the curves aren’t dramatic like the sloping screens on Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge or Galaxy Note 7 designs.
Instead, the 2.5D curved glass panels slightly drop off around all four edges, and the design is similar to the subtly curved glass on the screen of the iPhone 6s. Curving the rear glass panel so that the screen seamlessly meets the metal frame makes the device comfortable to hold, with the curves hugging the contours of the palm of your hand. The effect is similar to the curved glass back on the Galaxy Note 7 or the curved metal of the iPhone 6s.
Huawei has executed a surprisingly solid build quality on this $399 phone, and the Honor 8 feels significantly more expensive than it actually is when you pick it up. The Honor 8 unit that I received is blue, and the glass panels have a metallic-like sheen to it, making it look like jewelry.
Huawei claims that 15 separate layers of glass was used to create this metallic effect in order to reflect light. Although beautiful, the Honor 8 manages to attract a fair amount of fingerprints.
The glass panels also don’t help protect the phone—the Honor 8 is quite slippery because of the choice of material, and it’s susceptible to breaks and cracks if dropped—but the jeweled finish makes the Honor 8 extremely interesting to look at when the light hits it from different angles. Fortunately, the metal frame adds a bit of grip when holding the phone. However, because the camera lenses on the rear sit flush with the back glass plate, the phone is also prone to sliding off tabletops and other flat surfaces.
The Honor 8’s straight line and subtly rounded corners make the device look more like an iPhone 7 than a Galaxy S7, and you’ll find a similar arrangement of ports on the bottom of the device, with a 3.5mm headphone jack, a reversible USB Type-C connector and a row of drilled holes. A noise canceling mic sits at the top, alongside an IR blaster, allowing you to use your phone as a remote control for your TV.
While Huawei draws inspiration from its more familiar rivals for the phone’s overall aesthetics, the backside of the Honor 8 comes with Huawei’s own twist. The phone has a set of 12-megapixel cameras with an f/2.2 aperture, with a pixel size of 1.25 microns.
Coupled with the 5.2-inch 1080p display, the Honor 8’s dual-camera system makes it a Huawei P9 for the US market, but without Leica’s branding.
You also get a circular touch fingerprint reader on the rear, which can be programmed as a shortcut key to launch different apps. A volume rocker and power button sit on the right edge of the phone, while the combination SIM and microSD card sit on the left edge. Our review unit ships with 32GB of built-in storage, but Honor also offers a 64GB option. The US Honor 8 can only accept one SIM, but Huawei informed me that Honor 8 marketed for Asian and European markets can accept two SIMs. The dual-SIM variant can either be used with two SIM cards, or with a SIM and microSD card.
The highlight of the Honor 8, and likely the reason that you’d choose this phone over inexpensive options, like ZTE’s Axon 7 or the OnePlus 3, is the unique camera setup, which according to Huawei’s claims, will deliver professional quality results.
On paper, the Honor 8 appears to be a rebadged Huawei P9, a camera phone that promises to take sharper images with its dual Leica lens setup. Hardware on both phones appear identical, and the only missing thing on the Honor 8 is the Leica branding.
The main camera system on the rear of the Honor comprises of two 12-megapixel camera lenses, one of which takes color images and the other shoots a black-and-white shot. In reality, you won’t see both color and monochrome images saved in your photo gallery, and Huawei executives said that the images are stitched together to create an overall sharper color photo.
The result is impressive, and the Honor 8 delivers sharp photos that are rich in detail and saturated with fairly accurate colors. The monochrome lens is used to capture sharp details, while the color sensor is used to capture color, and the use of both lenses also aid with autofocus speeds.
The downside of the dual lens system is that despite the use of two dedicated digital image signal processors and fast CPU, the camera still struggles with speed. Photo capturing and processing take longer than a single lens system, like on my (now defunct) Samsung Galaxy Note 7. The system works well with still or slow-moving subjects, but you’ll likely get some motion blur if you’re chasing fast-moving children or pets around with the Honor 8’s camera system.
Image capture speeds decrease further when there’s less light, and without optical image stabilization, photos captured in darker environments without the aid of the dual-tone LED flash suffer with either shakiness, motion blur or slow speeds.
However, when there is plenty of light and the system works, the Honor 8 produces impressive photos. The dual-lens setup also allows images to be infinitely re-focused after the photo has been shot. This allows you to change your point of view and re-tell your story in different ways, and bokeh effect made the photos appear like they were shot on a bigger, more expensive DSLR camera than on a smartphone.
It’s a nice feature for capturing macros, portraits or for highlighting a subject inside a busy frame for your photo, and the shallow depth of field provided by the Honor 8’s camera makes for far more interesting photos than images captured on a “normal” camera phone. Huawei says that the camera also has an impressively wide aperture, ranging from f/0.95 to f16.
Even though the aperture is adjustable, users won’t be able to adjust this specific exposure setting. The Honor 8 comes with a variety of automatic modes, accessible when you swipe across from the left inside the camera’s viewfinder screen, and a Pro mode. While I can adjust settings such as exposure compensation, shutter speed (useful for creating light trails or silky smooth images of flowing water), ISO and white balance, aperture adjustments were not possible.
Given the lack of an adjustable aperture setting, the shallow depth of field effect seems like it is achieved through clever software. To date, the only modern camera phone that I know that allows for true aperture value adjustments is Panasonic’s Lumix CM-1 and the CM-100 Wi-Fi variant.
To help with focusing speeds, the Honor 8 also comes with laser auto-focus. In my test, I had positive impressions with the camera, but it was still a mixed experience. Slower capture speeds—largely because of stitching two separately captured images together—lack of optical image stabilization and a struggle with speeds in low lighting all affect the camera’s performance. And without OIS, videographers may find better options on the market today to make their own home movie while mobile.
The front-facing camera takes decent images, but I had expected slightly sharper photos given the 8-megapixel specs, compared with a 5-megapixel selfie camera on Samsung’s and Apple’s phones. The annoying thing is that the selfie camera will automatically launch into a skin-softening beauty mode, and faces appear slightly distorted given the wide-angle camera.
For the most part, the camera will deliver great results for still photographers, especially if you shoot in the refocusable mode that allows you to change your depth of field after the image is captured. Huawei really thought about the camera, and to make it easier to capture an image, all you have to do is press twice on the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor to jump to the camera—even when the phone’s screen is off.
On the front of the Honor 8, at the top, you have a number of sensors that control the screen —ambient light and proximity sensors—along with an earpiece speaker and an 8-megapixel selfie cam.
Like its P9 sibling from parent Huawei, the Honor 8 also comes with 5.2-inch display, which makes the screen about the same size as Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S7. However, the Honor 8 comes with a 1080p (1920 × 1080) resolution, whereas the Galaxy S7 has a higher 2K panel.
In use, I found the Honor 8’s IPS LCD screen to be bright and vibrant, even when outdoors. It didn’t get quite as bright as the AMOLED displays on the Galaxy S7 or Note 7, but I didn’t struggle at viewing the content on the screen when under direct sunlight. The bright screen is useful, especially if you’re using the phone as a camera and trying to frame your shot.
While the 1080p resolution appears sharp—it has a pixel-per-inch measurement of 423, and according to Apple, your eyes won’t be able to discern individual pixels on a screen with a ppi of greater than 300—but if you have an iPhone 7 Plus or Galaxy Note 7 nearby, you’ll notice that the Honor 8’s screen isn’t nearly as crisp. At this point, it’s nitpicking, but I wish Huawei applied more screen sharpening so that images and text appear sharper on the phone’s bright display.
Huawei added a number of its own enhancements to make the screen of the Honor 8 standout. There’s an Eye Comfort mode to reduce eye strain by filtering out blue light, an infinitely adjustable color temperature dial to tune the display’s rendering of color tones to your liking and a daydream mode that allows you to use your photos as a screensaver.
Don’t let the Honor 8’s conservative price fool you, the phone’s speed gives its rivals a run for their money. The Honor 8 ships with a Huawei-made Kirin 950 octacore processor using ARM’s BIG.little architecture alongside 4GB RAM.
On its own, the Honor 8 should have no problems multitasking or playing Android games, but performance of the Honor 8 becomes even more impressive when compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S7 made for the US market with Qualcomm’s processors.
Whereas the Note 7 and S7 both stutter and suffer from lag after you’ve used your phone for a while and load the device up with apps, the Honor 8 experienced no problems staying responsive and speedy. I’ve noticed delays when launching apps on my Galaxy Note 7 after several weeks of use, and there were issues with glitchy animations, slow responsiveness and lags. Those problems were nowhere to be found with the Honor 8.
In addition to strong processor performance, Huawei execs informed me that the phone also comes with intelligent software to tune system performance in the background. This allows the phone to close apps that haven’t been used in a while, freeing up resources for actively used tasks.
Another factor that probably contributed to the Honor 8’s speed is the 1080p screen. Unlike the Note 7’s higher resolution display, the Honor 8 only has to power a FHD panel.
Battery life is another area where the Honor 8 excels. With a 3,000mAh battery, the Honor 8’s battery life exceeded that of my Note 7 in daily use. With my use, I only needed to recharge after a day and a half of use.
The Honor 8 ships with Android 6.0 Lollipop with Huawei’s EMUI on top. There’s no application drawer on the phone, unlike traditional Android handsets, and you’ll find your grip of installed apps mingled together with widgets and shortcuts on your home screen.
I’d much prefer a more traditional layout my app drawer separate from my home screens, but EMUI adds some useful tweaks, such as a Smart Stay mode to prevent the screen from timing out when you’re looking at it, an option to program the fingerprint sensor to directly launch apps when unlocking the phone and other small, inoffensive enhancements. Because the phone isn’t distributed through carriers, carrier-created bloatware is a non-issue here.
With a beautiful design and fast processor, the Honor 8 has what it takes to challenge more expensive rivals in the smartphone space. But the phone is more than just another pretty face—it marks Huawei’s maturity against more familiar names in this arena. With the dual-lens camera, a fingerprint sensor that supports quick launching apps and its own take on the smartphone experience with the EMUI on top of Android 6.0, Huawei shows that it can take risks.
In fact, many of those risks pay off. Unlike Samsung’s early days with Android where it inundated users with needless features, Huawei’s additions on the Honor 8 seem to be more carefully thought out.
If you’re in the market for a phone for a flagship phone this year, the $399 should be at the top of your list—it’s competitively priced, comes packed with power and has a unique camera setup that makes mobile photography fun. Huawei’s challenge with the Honor 8 is to to get millennials acquainted with the brand.