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Featured Review: Huawei P8

May 10, 2015 - Written By Tom Dawson

For quite some time, Huawei has been releasing the Ascend P line of devices as flagship Android smartphones for everyone. They’re the best that Huawei has to offer, and unlike their competitors they’ve always been somewhat reasonably priced, especially when talking about a device to be bought outright, rather than signing a contract. This year, Huawei dropped the Ascend moniker from the P8 and also introduced the P8 Max and P8 Lite. We have the flagship P8 here for review, and we have one burning question to answer; is it worth the larger price tag this time around?

The Specs

As far as sheer grunt goes, the Huawei P8 has plenty of it. Under-the-hood is Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 930 which is an octa-core 64-bit CPU clocked at 2.0 GHz backed up by 3GB of RAM. The 5.2-inch IPS display is a 1080p affair, rather than the Quad HD affair in some other devices. You can choose from a device with 16GB of expandable storage or 32GB of expandable storage and this supports 4G LTE all over the place. The P8 is somewhat unique in that Huawei has chosen to bring a 13-megapixel camera to the rear and an 8-megapixel camera to the front. Huawei have expressed some pride in the camera this time around, and we’ll take a look at that later on in the review. For all intents and purposes, the Huawei P8 is a packed device, and does away with the troublesome Snapdragon 810 a la Samsung’s Galaxy S6 line. All of this is packed into a 6.4mm waistline, too.

Hardware and Design

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We’ll start with looks here, and the P8 is an understated, elegant little slab of a smartphone. There’s very little on the front of this white and gold unit we have, save for a proximity sensor, a speaker and that 8-megapixel camera. I’m personally a big fan of devices with no branding in your face, and I like the minimal approach here. I can see why some might find the front of the device boring, but I quite like it. The display is worked in nicely here, and to say it’s a 5.2-inch panel, the P8 looks like a very small phone, all things considered. They have cheated a little bit however, as the bezel on the front of the device might look slender, when you turn it on you’ll notice another bezel inside that black window. It’s noticeable, but nothing to worry about I’d say.

The rest of the device, including the rear, sadly gives me a little de ja vu when looking at the iPhone 5. The band of color at the top, along with the placement of screws and speaker holes at the bottom of the device is all too similar. I’m nitpicking here a little, but there is a comparison to be made here. Huawei have managed to create a device that’s a ridiculous 6.4mm thick that has a camera flush to the phone’s casing! Perfectionists, rejoice! Seriously though, this decision makes the device look much cleaner, and as many a design mogul has said; the less there is, the less there is to complain about.

The fit and finish of the P8 is astounding. To say that this is a device from “a Chinese company” this feels better in my hand than some Samsung devices I’ve spent time with and my own Xperia Z2 is definitely jealous. There’s a slight roundness to the edges of the device with a little roughness to them, which makes the device easier to hold, and the bands to allow signals in are neatly arranged and purposefully worked in. The speaker and microphone holes are good-looking and everything is aligned well. The power button, though small, stands out from the volume rocker and suits the design of the device. My only complaint is that this is a little higher up the length of the phone than I’d have expected, and I’m a big-handed guy.

A minimal, subtle and fetching smartphone, the Huawei P8 is a looker. It’s super-thin at 6.4mm and while those looking for more of a “wow” factor might not like it, I think it looks great.

Display

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While the P8’s display is “just” 1920 x 1080, that still gives it a pixel density of 424 pixels per inch, which is still pretty great when you think about it. It’s a 5.2-inch display, which is a really nice size, especially for those that aren’t looking for something massive. It’s got enough extra space to feel like a larger display, but it doesn’t make the device feel like a massive smartphone.

As for color reproduction, I’m pretty happy with the overall results, colors look realistic and while they don’t exactly “pop” as they would on other smartphones out there, there’s little to complain about. The display is sufficiently bright as well, but I would have liked a little more there for bright sunlight. Speaking of which, the P8 is readable outdoors and that 1080p resolution might not be the best of the best, but text is still sharp and at an arm’s length I have nothing to complain about.

All-in-all, this is a pretty great display. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s more than good enough and for most users it won’t disappoint.

Camera

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The P8 features a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, and while Huawei made some lofty promises about its performance, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. The 8-megapixel front-facing camera is pretty good, and the extra resolution and improved optics makes taking a selfie much, much easier than a lot of other devices. We’ll be focusing on the rear-facing camera here, so let’s see what Huawei’s latest is capable of.

Starting with the camera software, there are a lot of options buried in menus as well as some that are easily accessible. One neat little trick is that when taking a photo, you can slide up and down on the display to adjust exposure with live results on the display, which is very handy, indeed. Elsewhere, we have the ability to see live filters as well as some global presets like a few ISO choices and white balance choices. As for camera modes, there’s a Light Painting option, a Beauty Mode, a Time Lapse mode and of course Video. These extra modes are nice and all, but does it take good photos?

Well, in general, yes. The Huawei P8’s 13-megapixel sensor is not all that high-resolution in the face of 20-megapixel and 16-megapixel sensors used across the board by its competitors. What that means for the photos taken with the Huawei P8 is that there’s some muddiness and a little softness throughout shots. For the most part, the camera is really quite good, however when you zoom in on photos, the resolution does start to show. Which is mostly because the default setting is to shoot 10-megapixels at 16:9, you can opt for 13-megapixels at 4:3 in the settings however. Here are some samples during daylight, and for the most part they’re fairly impressive.

Taking a closer look at the camera software, our little wizard friend here has been helping us out. The viewfinder area is really simple and straightforward, making it a great point-and-shoot camera.

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The extra settings are all fairly easy to get to, as is changing to a different mode. Again, this sort of ease-of-use, with a handful of added extras make this a decent point-and-shoot. It doesn’t go as far as something like the LG G4, but it has a lot on offer, and the average user will find some useful options here, as well as some fun stuff, too.

Low light performance could be better. That’s not to say it’s not worth trying, with flash you can still get some decent results. However, colors start to bleed out a little bit, and everything appears quite soft and muddy. Below, there are some shots comparing low light situations to normal situations, again with the help of our little wizard.

I’d sum up the whole experience here as “pretty good”. There’s nothing here that jumps out at me and makes me say “wow”, but the P8’s camera is good enough to produce consistently decent results that are above average. I keep mentioning that this is a good point-and-shoot camera, and that’s because it is. Smartphones are great for taking quick pictures here and there, and not having to worry about how they come out, the P8 delivers on that promise and for a camera to take regular shots wherever you are, the P8 is great.

Software

Out of the box, the Huawei P8 is running Android 5.0.2 Lollipop with the company’s Emotion UI, version 3.1. You might be asking whether or not this comes with Google’s set of Android apps, and it does. This is as much a “Google Android” device as the Galaxy S6 or LG G4. However, if you were expecting a similar experience to any of those devices, you’d be in for a surprise.

The Emotion UI from Huawei is, for a lack of a better term, very Asian. Which means that there’s no app drawer to collect all your apps in a sensible order and your homescreens are basically left in chaos, with the only order present one that you’ve painstakingly arranged. The launcher features all sorts of fancy transitions and creating folders or adding widgets is nice and easy however, it’s not all that speedy and the lack of an app drawer is infuriating. Of course, it only takes a little bit of getting used to, and once you do, it’s no longer that big a deal. I still miss the app drawer though, and I’m sure many Western buyers throughout Europe will as well.

Elsewhere, Huawei have left their mark in every app and every screen. The lockscreen is nothing like stock Android (but it is quite subtle and attractive) and each app is different from what you’d expect. Frankly, there’s an air of iOS 8 here, but thankfully Huawei have restrained themselves somewhat. There’s a heavy use on circular menu buttons with seethrough icons a la iOS and the whole setup is a big departure from stock Android. Again, after getting used to things, it’s just another take on Android.

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Stand outs for me were the SMS app (yes, people still send those) as well as the notification drawer. The notification tray tells you when certain notifications came in, and the clear all button is always in the same place and always accessible. This does away with the new combined toggles and notifications setup in stock Lollipop, but I prefer it. The shortcuts aren’t as easy to quickly access, but they’re perfectly serviceable and for those with a lot of notifications, this helps you make light work of them easier than with other Android devices.

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Huawei’s take on Android will take some getting used to, perhaps more getting used to than say moving from a Samsung device to an HTC device or to an LG G4, for instance. The biggest “issue” if you want to call it that with Huawei’s take on Android is the confusing launcher. Of course, in Asia, this configuration is quite common and it mostly comes down to preference; with Android you can always find something different. Throughout the rest of the OS though, the P8’s take on Android is different, but it’s fairly subtle and unoffensive.

Battery Life

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There’s a 2,680 mAh battery inside of the Huawei P8, and while you might think this is enough to deliver quality battery life, you’d be wrong. The battery in the P8 will get you through the day, but it won’t last too much longer. In such a thin device with a large 5.2-inch device this is unsurprising, but it’s far from offensive. If you were to take the device off the charger say between 7 and 8AM, you’d end up with the P8 needing to be plugged in about 8 or 9PM, so it’s not so bad at all. Of course, Huawei have some clever modes thrown in to deliver extra battery life, and while I can’t speak for how they worked, the battery life here is okay, but just okay. With GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi, 4G and high brightness there’s a lot going on and the P8 needs to be coaxed into lasting longer than it does out of the box. This is definitely a weak point for the P8, sadly.

Performance

I don’t want to go into benchmarks and such here, because over time things can change and the result will no longer be relevant, that and companies can and will target for higher scores.

The octa-core Kirin 930 is of Huawei’s own design in the P8, and it’s clear that this is a pretty solid chip. Everyday performance is nice and snappy, with few hiccups. In fact, it was rare for me to discover any sort “lag” whatsoever. Watching videos on YouTube or Netflix runs great, videos start quickly and browsing the web is a snappy and fluid affair, too. Network performance is excellent, too. On WiFi, the P8 routinely got the absolute best speeds my connection was capable of. Where cellular data was concerned, the P8 does well there, too. I’ve been testing this on Vodafone’s network in the UK, and I had zero issues. Vodafone’s 3G near me is pretty poor, but again the P8 got the absolute best out of it. On Three, I routinely pulled down about 20mbps and I was very impressed with the device’s network performance overall.

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Where gaming is concerned, it’s not quite as rosy a story. I tested the P8 out with a number of my favorites, and found little to complain about. However, there were more than a few hiccups here and there, and I just felt that the ceiling for gaming performance is reached pretty quickly with the P8. That isn’t to say that the P8 can’t play games, it definitely can – and play them well – but don’t expect this to play every intensive game as smooth as butter.

With 3GB of RAM, zipping in and out of apps is problem-free and on the whole, this is a decent performer, and on more than a few occasions made me wonder whether we need a Snapdragon CPU that much.

Call Quality

A moment on whether or not the Huawei P8 makes a good phone or not. There’s just the one speaker on the P8, and if you’re planning on holding any conference calls with the P8, don’t. It’s boomy and airy, but it’s far from loud and when turned up full it starts to lose its composure a little bit. The earpiece on the other hand has a nice, rich and natural tone to it. Voices sounded good to me, no worse or better than other smartphones, but it was noticeably more bassy than with my Xperia Z2 for instance. A decent device for holding phone calls, so long as you don’t use the speakerphone function that is. Callers said I sounded clear and crisp with no issues with volume or anything like that.

Now, where listening to music or watching videos are concerned, the P8’s thin, 6.4mm waistline really shows. There’s little air moved by the tiny speaker and it’s very easy to end up covering up with your hand or anything, really. It’s no by means offensively bad, but it pales in comparison to the speakers on the HTC One and Xperia Z3. However, it will give the single-speaker Galaxy S6 a run for its money.

The Good

  • Excellent fit and finish, especially at this lower price point, the P8 is very well made.
  • Simple, minimal design creates a small and svelte device that will appeal to anyone.
  • The 5.2-inch display, while not amazing, gives the P8 a decent size that has more than enough to offer, without being too big.
  • Decent, solid performance makes the P8 a competent device day in, day out.
  • Good quality camera with some nice extra options that are still easy to use.

The Bad

  • The Emotion UI, while pretty, is needlessly complicated and could confuse a lot of Android users in the West.
  • Speaker output is less than impressive, and pales in comparison to other devices.
  • Overall design conjures unavoidable memories of older iPhone designs.
  • At 6.4mm thick, it could be considered “too thin”, as I fumbled it a number of times, but it continues to feel solid and durable.
  • Mediocre battery life, it’ll get you through the day, but little more than that.

Final Thoughts

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The ‘P’ line from Huawei has always offered users in Europe – and in Asia, of course – an affordable, yet high-end experience. This is no more true than with the P8, here Huawei have raised the asking price, and it shows. Corners cut with the P8 are less “corner-cutting” and more sensible compromise. The choice to go with a 1080p display for instance, makes little difference to the overall experience and Huawei’s own processor inside of the P8 delivers pretty damn good performance.

That’s exactly what the P8 is; pretty damn good. It’s not amazing, it’s not spectacular and the software is downright confusing at times, but it’s pretty damn good. If you’re not interested in signing on the dotted line for 24-months for an Android smartphone, and you don’t want to pay the hundreds for a Galaxy S6 or LG G4, then the P8 is a solid alternative. Sure, it costs more than the Ascend P7 did, but it’s still much cheaper than other flagship devices, and if you just want an all-round experience that’s more than acceptable without robbing the bank too much, than Huawei’s P8 will do just nicely.