Honor's new flagship phone made a pretty big splash when it hit the US - and why wouldn't it?
A quality design, zippy hardware and two clever rear cameras make it a bit of a budget bargain. At least it does in America, where you can't buy the phone it's based on: the Huawei P9.
We're luckier here in the Middle East - you can waltz in to pretty much any electronics retailer and pick up a P9. Does that make Honor's new hero phone less of a steal?
The good news: this is still every bit the wallet-friendly wonder, and might even have an edge over its bigger brother when it comes to design.
Just going by looks, it’s impossible to tell how much an Honor 8 costs. The mix of glass and metal is stunning, and easily on par with any flagship phone out there - despite costing half the price.
There’s even 2.5D glass covering the front, which adds another level of finesse. It's been in and out of my pocket for weeks, and has stayed satisfyingly scratch-free.
It’s got more than a bit of iPhone DNA in its shape and curves, but the colours are pure Samsung. Pearl White, Midnight Black and Sapphire Blue all look the business, but they’re absolute fingerprint magnets too. The layered effect glistens in the light, but shows up exactly where your greasy mitts have been.
It’s thinner than the outgoing Honor 7, and at 5.2in isn’t so big you’ll struggle to reach the top of the screen with one hand. That’s partly because the fingerprint sensor is out of the way on the back of the phone - right where your index finger rests while you’re using it. Handy.
We really liked the customisable sensor shortcuts: we set a long press to open Spotify and a double-tap to jump into the camera, but you can change it to pretty much anything. It’s really zippy at unlocking the phone, too, leaving Apple and Samsung in the dust.
On paper, the Honor 8’s camera is also punching above its weight. Or rather, cameras: the twin-sensor setup from Huawei’s P9 reappears here, only without the Leica branding.
That means you get two 12MP snappers - one with a colour sensor and the other shooting in monochrome. You can use them to fake the depth-of-field effects you’d normally need a “proper” camera to pull off.
They should also be able to shoot super-high contrast black & white photos during the day, then capture low-light night scenes that would look like noisy smudges if taken on other phones. It's a real shame you can't shoot purely with the monochrome sensor, though - the Huawei P9's dedicated mono mode is missing here.
There’s a Pro mode that lets you tweak ISO, shutter speed and exposure, but even if you leave it on auto it’s quick to focus. Honor's night modes are pretty clever, too, catching light trails and letting you paint with light, but only if you've got a steady hand - or even better, a tripod.
Camera quality is impressive for the price, with natural colours and excellent exposure. Daytime shots have loads of detail, although you'll spot some softness if you zoom in beyond 50%. HDR shooting was fast, and does a great job balancing the image when you're shooting into the sun. No optical image stabilisation meant I needed a steady hand to get perfectly clear shots once it got dark, though.
It certainly can't school the Galaxy S7, but easily holds its own against similarly priced phones.
The 8MP front-facing camera isn't too shabby either - it can boost low-light snaps to get surprisingly noise-free results. Huawei's beauty mode slaps on the virtual makeup, though, so you'll want to dial down the sliders or risk turning into a kawaii caricature.
If there’s one area Honor has had to reign in the spec, it’s the screen. Not that Full HD is a bad thing, though; there might be fewer pixels here than you’d get from a Galaxy S7, but that also means there’s less work for the CPU to do. That should mean better battery life.
Across 5.2in, there’s more than enough resolution to keep your pics looking pristine. I still had to get very close to see individual pixels - not something you’ll be doing a lot of, unless you’ve got a Hans Moleman-level specs prescription.
Colours have plenty of pop for an LCD screen, but the whole thing looks a little cool out of the box. Good job you can tweak the display if they aren’t to your liking. There are warm and cool white balance presets, along with fine adjustments for a completely personalised display.
It’s just about bright enough to use in the sunshine, too.
POWER ME UP
With one of Huawei’s own octa-core Kirin 950 CPUs and 4GB of RAM, the Honor 8 is a seriously speedy phone - even with the EMUI skin running on top of Android 6.0. Apps open quickly, multitasking is smooth as silk and animations don’t stutter one bit.
It'll face off against a Snapdragon 820 on paper, and in my testing posted similar scores in 2D benchmarks. Kirin chips aren’t usually gaming powerhouses, though.
The Honor 8 copes well enough with a Hearthstone marathon, throwing cards and effects onscreen without lag or stuttering, but it might not fare so well with newer, more demanding games. If you're a Candy Crush addict, though, it'll do the job just fine.
It’s rocking a 3000mAh battery, which is easily good enough for a full day between charges if you're not hammering apps and draining your mobile data. On the weekend, I would have 50% left at the end of the day, but the day spent working a trade show left me dwindling at 20% by mid-afternoon.
There’s a Fast Charge USB-C port on the bottom, at least, so you should be able to top up in double time.
Honor's ultra-aggressive power saving might squeeze a few more minutes between charges, but it's really annoying. Unless you force it to ignore certain apps, it'll close them down and stop notifications from coming through. The OnePlus 3 manages better battery life without any of this micro-management.
TOY WITH MY EMOTIONS
Honor's take on Android isn't dramatically different from Google's own, but there are a few differences that'll catch out anyone that's only used a Nexus before. Like not having an app drawer.
Instead, all your app icons fill the home screens, which can leave things looking a bit cluttered. Good job you can dump the apps you don't use in folders, then.
There's actually quite a lot of customisation on offer here, so it's not too difficult to swap out the icons or colour scheme if you don't like how things look out of the box. Anyone after that completely stock look won't ever be completely happy with Honor's tweaks, though.
On first look, there aren't actually too many pre-installed apps, but that's because Honor has craftily hidden a lot of 'em in folders. Still, the 32GB of onboard storage has ample room left for your own once you get it out of the box. There's a microSD card slot too, so you can slap in another 128GB once you fill up the phone.
The bundled app I used most was the IR blaster - handy for quickly changing TV channels when you've lost the remote. Quite a few flagships have ditched IR now, so it's nice to see it hit the mid-range here.
Honor 8 verdict
The Honor 8 should have been stonkingly good value, thanks to that beautiful design, powerful internals, and cameras that punch well above their weight.
The problem was always going to be taking on the ridiculously good deal that is the OnePlus 3. At US$435, the Honor 8 is just that little bit too expensive to earn the top spot. If it had amazing battery life, it might have been an easier pill to swallow, but as it is, this doesn't do enough to earn the top spot.
If you don't mind EMUI, it's a great phone, and if that price drops any time soon, it might become a better bargain.
Still, this is as close as Honor has come to knocking OnePlus down into second place.