Review: Huawei Honor 8

Honor is back. After announcing the Honor 5X earlier this year at CES and it becoming a smashing success and a best seller on Amazon (even now, almost 8 months later, it’s still a best seller), Honor is looking to up their game. In comes the Honor 8. This was announced last month actually, in China, and is now making its way to the US. It’s already available for pre-order in the US for $399, and is slated to ship in early September. It will also be coming to Europe later this month. There has already been a good number of comparisons between the Huawei P9 and the Honor 8, but they are not the same phone, and if you ask any of their representatives, they are not the same company. Honor and Huawei are effectively two different companies, and they aren’t under the same roof either. Honor was launched in 2014 to target the “millennial” market. The way Huawei is doing this is by only selling Honor devices online. Not at carriers and not in physical stores, but they are using places like Best Buy and B&H Photo to sell their phone through their websites.

The Honor 8 appears to check all of the boxes on paper, showing that it’s another true flagship with a somewhat mid-range price tag. But given the fact that it’s running HiSilicon’s Kirin 950 processor, does it have enough power for daily tasks of power users? And what about gaming? That’s what we’re here to find out with the Honor 8 review.

Specs

The Honor 8 is what many would call a “small flagship” because it’s a flagship device, but with a relatively small display. We’re talking a 5.2-inch display here, which is of the 1080p variety. It is also an AMOLED display, and it sports about 423 pixels per inch. Powering the Honor 8 is Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 950 chipset. This is an octa-core chipset consisting of four Cortex-A72 cores clocked at 2.3GHz, and four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. That is paired with the Mali-T880 MP4 GPU and 4GB of RAM. Honor is offering the Honor 8 in either 32GB or 64GB of storage options here in the US, both of which come with 4GB of RAM. There is a micro SD card slot available as well, which will support up to 256GB of storage.

Connectivity options include WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, WiFi Direct, WiFi Hotspot, GPS and GLONASS for location tracking, NFC, USB Type-C version 1.0, Bluetooth 4.2, A2DP, EDR and LE. The Honor 8 does support LTE and the full list of bands supported are below:

GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900

HSDPA 850, 1700, 1900, 2100

LTE band 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20

When it comes to the cameras, Honor has gone the dual-camera route with the Honor 8. What that means is that we have dual 12-megapixel cameras on the back of the device. These feature a 1.25 um pixel size, and an f/2.2 aperture along with laser autofocus. The front-facing camera is a 8-megapixel shooter that has an f/2.4 aperture included.

In the Box

There’s not much out of the ordinary in the box here with the Honor 8. If you missed our unboxing from the launch event, you can check that out above. The unboxing experience is a bit different here with the Honor 8, but it likely won’t be noticed by most people. Instead of having the phone laying on the top of the box, it’s actually in there sideways, as is the paperwork and charger. These are all in separate compartments in the box. It’s pretty unique, to say the least. All you get in the box is your Honor 8, a USB Type-A to Type-C cable, a wall adapter, and your paperwork. Of course there is a SIM ejection tool thrown in there for good measure.

Hardware

While Honor likes to think of themselves as a separate company from Huawei, they are technically still part of Huawei. And thus they use parts from Huawei, like the Kirin 950 SoC that’s inside, so it’s no surprise to see the Honor 8’s build quality be as impressive as other Huawei smartphones on the market right now. The Honor 8 sports a glass front and back with a metal frame. The antenna lines are almost non-existent. Don’t get me wrong, they are definitely still there, but they aren’t as visible, since they are the same color as the frame (depending on whether you have the Sapphire Blue, Midnight Black or Pearl White colors). The back of the Honor 8 is slightly curved, not as curved as the Galaxy Note 7, but it is still a bit noticeable and helps make the device feel a bit more comfortable in the hand.

The back of the device is something that Honor is very proud of. The company used optical filming on the back which created a pure light effect on the Honor 8. What this means is that the device will show different colors and patterns on the back, based on the lighting that it’s in. It’s actually really cool, and pretty noticeable in our hands on gallery of the Honor 8. It may not be something that’s going to help them sell a boat load of these smartphones, but it is pretty cool. The design of the Honor 8 is specific to millennials, according to the company. As they [millennials] want something that’s flashy, but still high-powered, and that’s exactly what the Honor 8 provides here.

The button layout for the Honor 8 is about what you would expect, with the volume rocker on the right side, above the power button. The power button also has a bit of a different texture than the volume rocker does, which is pretty nice to have. Making it easier to figure out which button is which in the dark. On the left side, Honor has placed the SIM card slot, which also doubles as a micro SD card slot. The Honor 8 comes in either 32GB or 64GB variants (at the time of writing this review, the 64GB model is not yet available, Honor says it’s coming soon though), and the micro SD card slot supports up to 256GB. The top of the phone is where you’ll find a microphone along with an IR blaster. Another thing that Honor bragged about quite a bit. The bottom of the device houses the 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C port and speaker.

The back of the Honor 8 houses its dual-camera module with laser auto-focus and dual LED flash. What’s interesting here is that the entire camera module is flush with the back of the device. Where many smartphones have a camera bump there, or use another piece of glass, this one single piece of glass for the entire back of the Honor 8. Below that is a fingerprint sensor, which is also a button. The fingerprint sensor doubles as a “Smart Key”, which we’ll talk about a bit more later on.

The Honor 8 is an unmistakable smartphone. It looks amazing, and has a very unique design, even though it may look similar to some of Huawei’s other smartphones. Especially in the Sapphire Blue color, the Honor 8 is an amazing looking smartphone. Not only that, but it feels really nice in the hand. Some may think that the phone is rather small, and it is with a 5.2-inch display, but it gives those that want a smaller screen, a choice. Which is always important, and that’s what Android is known for.

Performance

Honor surprised many of us by bringing the Kirin 950 over to the US. Due to 4G LTE certification, Huawei and Honor typically will swap out their Kirin processors for a Qualcomm chipset. But that’s not what happened with the Honor 8. Honor kept the Kirin 950 inside, which is an octa-core processor featuring four Cortex-A72 cores clocked at 2.3GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. This is paired with the Mali-T880 MP4 GPU, which is a pretty popular GPU for smartphones not using a Qualcomm chipset. This also comes with 4GB of RAM. So on paper, the Honor 8 looks to be a beast, even though it doesn’t sport 6GB of RAM, like the OnePlus 3 which comes in at the same price point. While its spec sheet looks great, how does it perform in the real world? Well. Very well.

The Honor 8 is nice and speedy, even when playing games. We never noticed a single slow-down with the Honor 8, it kept its pace during the entire review process. Unlike the Snapdragon 800-series processors, the Kirin 950 did not get warm at all. Even while outside in the summer sun, playing Pokemon GO with the display brightness turned all the way up, the Kirin 950 stayed nice and cool. With the 4GB of RAM, there was never a need to clear out recently used apps – unless you had a problem with the app. In fact, according to the memory section under settings, we never even used more than half of the available RAM. Which means RAM management is on point here. Honor also isn’t aggressively closing background apps, like Samsung has been doing on their recent flagship smartphones.

Display

When it comes to the display, we’re looking at a 1920×1080 resolution AMOLED display. Now this is an AMOLED display and not a Super AMOLED display, so it’s not quite up to par with what Samsung is putting on their smartphones, as they like to sell the older panels to their competitors and keep the new stuff for their own smartphones. But, this AMOLED panel is still pretty amazing. Even though it is still a 1080p display, you likely wouldn’t notice the difference unless you use the Honor 8 for virtual reality.

The blacks on this AMOLED display are nice and dark black. They are deeper blacks than what you would find on IPS and LCD displays, that’s one of the major advantages that AMOLED has over the competition. Not to mention the fact that it’s better on battery, and it lights up individual pixels. This display is likely a big reason why the battery life is as good as it is on the Honor 8. AMOLED panels are also known for their saturation as well as brightness. The Honor 8’s panel here checks both of those boxes as well. When using the device outside under direct sunlight, you can still see the display without any issues. Something that can’t be said about many other smartphones, including the Nexus 6P which also uses an AMOLED panel.

Now the visibility and how the display looks isn’t the whole story when it comes to smartphone displays. The digitizer is just as important. For the uninitiated, the digitizer is what registers your fingers on the display. So whenever you press that home button, or open an app, the digitizer is being used. And having a slow or unresponsive digitizer can cause many to think that the phone is lagging. It’s something that is more of an issue with cheaper smartphones, but can also be a problem with smartphones in the $400 range. However, it’s not a problem here with the Honor 8. The digitizer and multi-touch work perfectly well on the Honor 8. Which is always a good thing.

Sound

The Honor 8 has a speaker on the bottom of the device, unfortunately. Typically that means that the speaker can be covered up quite easily, and isn’t going to provide the best experience when gaming or holding the device while watching a video. But that’s not the case here. Holding the phone and watching YouTube videos, the speaker was not covered up much at all. Which means that the sound was not muffled at all. This was probably one of the best bottom-firing speakers on a smartphone that we’ve ever used.

What about the quality of the sound from the speaker though? Well that’s another story, or is it? The speaker isn’t tinny or anything, but it doesn’t scream HiFi quality. Which it shouldn’t, since it’s not a HiFi speaker. For those that aren’t audiophiles, the speaker performs perfectly well. The speaker gets nice and loud without getting distorted, and the lows are nice and bassy. Not to mention the mids and highs are still crystal clear.

Fingerprint Sensor

Huawei (and by extension, Honor) have always been at the forefront when it comes to fingerprint sensors. Their smartphones have always featured some of the fastest and most accurate fingerprint sensors, and the Honor 8 is no different. The fingerprint sensor recognized our finger almost 100% of the time. There were a few times where I put the registered finger on the sensor in a weird angle, so it didn’t recognize it. Otherwise the fingerprint sensor was very fast and accurate. In fact it was so fast that the phone almost instantly unlocked when your finger was placed on the sensor.

The fingerprint sensor is more than just a sensor this time around. Honor took a page out of LG’s book as the fingerprint sensor is actually a button, but it’s not a power button. In the settings, you can change what the button does. It’s called the “Smart Key”, and there are options for pressing it once, twice and long-pressing it. You can do things like turn on the flashlight, take a screenshot or start a voice recording. Not to mention, you can use it to launch an app. Honor joked during their presentation that you could set it to launch Pokemon GO for you. Additionally, you can also swipe down on the fingerprint sensor to bring down the notification shade. While in the Photos app, you are able to swipe left or right on the fingerprint sensor to jump between pictures. Now the swiping gestures are actually found under the “Fingerprint ID” settings, while “Smart Key” settings are found under “Smart Assistance”. A bit confusing, to say the least. They should all be together.

Benchmarks

When it comes to benchmarking, we ran AnTuTu, 3D Mark and GeekBench on the Honor 8. AnTuTu gave it a score of 91,208, which is slightly behind the Huawei P9, which score 91,711. It’s just above the Galaxy Note 5 from last year, as well as the iPhone 6 and Meizu Pro 5. 3D Mark gave it a score of 901, which is pretty much the standard for a smartphone with these specs. Geekbench scored the Honor 8 with a 1750 single-core score and a 6276 multi-core score. You can see the full results in the gallery below.

Phone Calls & Network

We’ve used the Honor 8 on T-Mobile’s network here in the US for a little over a week. In the San Francisco and Detroit areas, in case you may be wondering. The Honor 8 has performed quite well on T-Mobile’s network. Remember that it does support band 12, which means you’re getting great coverage while indoors as well – unless you’re in an area that doesn’t have band 12 coverage yet. Making phone calls on the Honor 8 was about what you may have expected. There’s no HD Voice or T-Mobile’s WiFi Calling here, and that’s due to this not being a T-Mobile branded smartphone.

Data speeds were what we expected as well. They were right on par with what we see with a T-Mobile branded LG G5. The Honor 8 does have LTE signal on T-Mobile, supporting all of their LTE bands. It does also support all of AT&T’s bands, so you should be fine using this on AT&T or T-Mobile or a MVNO running on one of those networks.

Battery Life

Inside the Honor 8, we have a non-removable 3000mAh battery. Now on paper, that looks to be a pretty adequate battery. It’s not huge like some smartphones have these days, but the other thing to remember here is that we have a 5.2-inch display that is a 1080p panel. Which means that the display won’t take up as much battery as say the Galaxy Note 7 or HTC 10 with their larger and higher-resolution displays. Additionally, the Kirin 950 SoC is known for its power-sipping. Meaning it’s very light on the battery. Standby time with the Honor 8 was pretty impressive. It could sit overnight and only lose a percentage point or two. Which means if you are on a flight, flying across the country and put your phone in airplane mode, you likely won’t lose any battery during that flight. Meaning you won’t need to charge it while you’re in the air.

Now when it comes to actually using the device, things change a little bit. The battery is still pretty stellar though. Honor says that you can get a little over a day out of this battery, even with heavy usage. I’m not sure I agree with them there, but you can definitely get a full day of usage with the Honor 8. I had the brightness set to about 50% with auto-brightness turned on as well, and was able to cross over 4  hours of on-screen time multiple times. If I had the brightness down lower, and played less Pokemon GO, I likely could have hit 5 or even 6 hours of on-screen time.

Let’s not forget that Honor has plenty of power-saving features included in the Honor 8. So those times where you’re without your charger and only have a little bit of juice left, you can get the most out of your Honor 8. There are three power plans included with the Honor 8, during our testing, we’ve mostly kept to the “Smart” plan which will automatically adjust the CPU and network usage for balanced performance. Which Honor notes is the recommended plan for daily use. There is also Performance and Ultra – meaning Ultra Power Saving Mode. Honor has also included a toggle to knock the resolution down to 720p, which will save even more battery on the Honor 8. With this turned on, you can definitely tell the difference, but it’s not terrible either. You can also opt to close power-intensive apps through the settings, and have them close out automatically too.

When it comes to charging the Honor 8, there is no Qualcomm Quick Charge here, unfortunately. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the fact that this is a smartphone running a processor that’s not Qualcomm’s. But it does still offer a form of quick charging. Using the included charger, you can charge the Honor 8 in a little over an hour and half. Honor noted that you can get about 50% charge in 30 minutes. Which is still fairly close to the times given on the LG G5 and Moto G4 Plus, both of which sport Quick Charge 3.0. We also used it with a Quick Charge 3.0 charger, and it charged at about the same speed as it did with its own charger.

Software

Software is where things get a bit interesting with the Honor 8. It is running Android 6.0 with the July 1st, 2016 security patch and Emotion UI v4.1 is running on top. So it’s close to the latest version of Android that’s available. And almost the latest security patch, which is also great to see. Now Honor did note that they are committing to updates for the Honor 8 (and other Honor devices, globally) for up to 24 months. And within the first year, they are promising updates at least once every three months. On the topic of Android 7.0 Nougat, they did say that the device would be getting it, but of course there was no word on when exactly that would be. So updates will be coming to the Honor 8, and they look to be fairly frequent. Luckily, they won’t need to mess around with the carriers, so they should be a bit easier.

Huawei, and by that extension now, Honor’s software has always been a bit of an issue for many in the West. With Honor building their software specific to what users in Asia want. Which is understandable seeing as China is their home and their biggest market. EMUI has changed over the years and gotten a bit better, but there are still some issues with their software. The biggest one that we’ve found is the fact that with Gmail, and you archive a message, the text turns to black. Which means you can no longer see it in the notification shade. You also aren’t able to expand the notifications in the notification shade. So say you get a long message from someone on Hangouts, WhatsApp or another messaging app, you can only see the first line, and you need to actually go into the app to read the rest of it. Definitely not a great user experience there. They are just simple things that Huawei and Honor should be able to fix by now.

The software isn’t all bad though. There are actually quite a few great things going with the software in the Honor 8. We’ll start with the notification panel and status bar. Here you can choose to have the carrier name in the status bar, as well as showing notification icons, network speed and your remaining battery percentage. Honor has also given us the ability to choose where the battery percentage appears. Either next to the battery icon or in the battery icon. There are a few drag actions here as well, so when you pull down the notification shade and there are no notifications, it’ll automatically show you the pane with the quick settings included. You can change this to work based on the drag position to. So if you drag down on the left, it shows notifications, and the right shows quick settings. Speaking of quick settings, they aren’t customizable here, unfortunately. So you are left with WiFi, Bluetooth, Settings, Auto-Rotate, Mobile Data, Sound, WiFi Hotspot, Airplane Mode, Screenshot and a brightness slider at the bottom.

There’s no app drawer with the Honor 8. Which is to be expected, since it is running EMUI. That’s a feature that appears to be very popular over in China and other Asian countries, but something that many in the US aren’t too fond of. But, since this is Android, you are able to grab a third-party launcher from the Google Play Store and fix that. Doing so will also fix the icons that are included with the stock launcher. There are also loads of pre-installed apps here on the Honor 8, including things like Lyft, Themes, Store, Community, Support and others. Honor’s Store, Community and Support apps are just shortcuts to web pages, so it makes little sense as to why they are actually here.

As always, Honor could work on their software a bit more, but it seems to be very fluid and responds pretty quickly. There’s no lag here with EMUI, and that’s likely due to the fact that it’s running on the octa-core Kirin 950 processor with 4GB of RAM. But there are still a few issues that need to be worked out within the software. Hopefully Honor will get those worked out sooner rather than later.

Camera

With the Honor 8, many have made the incorrect assumption that it sports the same camera as the Huawei P9. However, the Huawei P9 sports the IMX286 sensor from Sony, with the Honor 8 sporting Sony’s IMX287. A slight upgrade – one that’s probably not even noticeable – and a bit better software this time around. The setup, is otherwise the same. One sensor is a RGB sensor and the other is a monochrome sensor. Allowing you to get some amazing images in black and white. Honor touts that the monochrome filter on their camera is better than other smartphones because there’s no post processing involved here. As the picture is taken directly from the monochrome sensor, resulting in a better looking picture. And through the review process, that definitely seems to be the case.

The Honor 8 has some sweet tricks up its sleeve, when it comes to the camera. One of my favorite features is the ability to pull the phone out of your pocket and double tap the volume down button and it’ll instantly open the camera and take an image. It’s lightning quick, so that you won’t miss that shot. But that also means you won’t be able to frame it right and may come out with a blurry shot. This feature can be turned off in the settings however. Honor included a slew of other modes in the Honor 8’s camera including Beauty, Beauty Video, HDR, Time-Lapse, Pro Photo, Pro Video, Panorama, Light Painting, Photo, Video, Good Food and Night Shot. It’s really great to see the Pro Video mode here, only one other smartphone gives users professional video controls and that’s the LG V10. It’s something that needs to come to more smartphones.

The app is pretty easy to use, they actually modeled it a bit after the Moto camera app that’s found on the Moto Z and Moto G smartphones. Swipe in from the left and you have access to your modes and such, and swiping in from the right brings you to the settings. Where you can choose to change the resolution, add the GPS tag, toggle the assistive grid, timer, audio control and much more. The actual UI of the camera is nice and minimal, with just a few icons at the top. These are for flash, a toggle for taking pictures with a nice Bokeh effect (like this example), filters and to flip to the front camera. The bottom features the gallery shortcut, shutter and option to switch to video.

Camera Quality

We’ve talked about what kind of features the camera on the Honor 8 has, but how well does the camera hold up? Just because it has two cameras that are 12-megapixels, doesn’t mean it’s going to be great. But it definitely is. This is one of my favorite cameras I’ve used on a smartphone in quite a while. Not only because the camera is fast at taking photos, but there’s so much you can do with the camera, without needing to install a third-party app. Outside, with adequate sunlight, the camera can take some amazing pictures, especially with a shallow depth-of-field. When the sun starts to go down, and you switch to the night mode, you can still get some nice shots, but when the sun is gone, and you’re left with just building lights and street lights for lighting, that’s when things get interesting.

The Honor 8 does perform better than most smartphones in that lighting situation, but it’s not perfect, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. With Night Shot, you definitely need to have a steady hand. As the camera is taking longer to take the picture, and a lot of times the pictures we got were a bit blurry because of that. In some instances with Night Shot, you’d need to hold your hand steady for about 5 seconds. And it needs to be perfectly steady, or the shot will be very blurry and you’ll just want to delete it right away, as expected. You can take shots at night in auto mode and still get some decent photos though, as we did. Although there is a bit of noise in them. Which, again, is to be expected.

As always, we’ve upload the full resolution of the images taken with the Honor 8 to our Flickr account (which you should follow so you can see images from all of our reviews) and you can check them out by clicking on the image below.

The Good

The Build quality, and oh that Sapphire Blue is perfect.

Fingerprint Scanner is super fast.

The camera is one of the best out there right now.

Battery Life is absolutely superb. The perfect phone for those playing Pokemon GO.

Speaking of Pokemon GO, the display is great outdoors, nice and visible in direct sunlight.

The Bad

EMUI could still use a bit of work, luckily a third-party launcher will get rid of most of the issues.

Price is a bit high, but then again it’s still pretty competitive with the ZTE AXON 7 and OnePlus 3

No support for Verizon or Sprint, which is due to them being CDMA carriers.

Pre-installed apps, there’s just so many of them. Especially surprising since this isn’t a carrier device.

Wrap Up

This is Honor’s second smartphone that’s targeting the US market, and it looks like they definitely have a winner on their hands. The Honor 5X was more of a mid-range flagship at a very low price (it launched at $199 in Q1). But the Honor 8 is a true flagship at basically mid-range pricing. The specs are pretty much on par with any flagship smartphone costing $600+ these days, even the Galaxy Note 7. Although it doesn’t have the S Pen or an iris scanner, the Honor 8 does quite well for itself. And during our time with it, the Honor 8 doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk as well. We’ve had no major complaints with this phone after using it as our daily driver for about a week. Something that’s not said all that often.

Should You Buy the Honor 8?

Yes. Unless you prefer larger smartphones, you should definitely buy the Honor 8. At $399 it does seem like a fairly expensive smartphone, especially when you see the OnePlus 3 coming with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for the same price, but Android isn’t optimized for 6GB of RAM yet, so that shouldn’t be a selling point…yet. The Honor 8 does include a micro SD card slot, so you can expand your storage if you wish to do so, and with this camera, you’ll definitely want to expand it. As you’ll be using the camera all the time.

At the time of writing this, the Honor 8 is only available in Pearl White and Midnight Black and in 32GB capacity. The Sapphire Blue model that we have here was not up for pre-order, but should be soon. The 64GB model is also “coming soon” according to the Honor 8’s Product Manager.

Buy the Honor 8