Highlight – Good Build Quality and a Great Design
Huawei is riding on something of a wave right now. The Chinese name has become the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, and with contracts like 2015’s Nexus 6P under their belt, the Chinese brand has become better known than ever before. With their P9 line of smartphones released earlier this year, the firm is hoping to further their brand in Europe, where they’re becoming more and more of an alternative to the likes of LG and Samsung, one that also costs less. During IFA 2016, the firm announced the Nova and Nova Plus smartphones. With mid-range specs and a slightly higher-end build, it’s hard to see who the Nova line of devices is really aimed at. In this review, we’ll hopefully find that out, as well as ultimately see if Huawei’s latest is worth your hard-earned cash as we take a look at the Huawei Nova Plus.
It’s clearly pretty much right away that the Nova Plus isn’t going to win any awards for its processing power, with a Snapdragon 625 octa-core CPU and 3GB of RAM running the show. These are decent specs for any smartphone, but this is not the Snapdragon 800-series that many would love to see here. Thankfully however, Huawei have blessed the Nova Plus with a quality 16-megapixel rear-facing camera as well as an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. Keeping everything running is a sizeable 3,400 mAh battery, which is not surprising given its 7.3mm thickness. Keeping this topped up is done through the bottom USB Type-C port. Full measurements put the Nova Plus at 151.8 x 75.7 x 7.3mm while it weighs 160g. A Full HD (that’s 1920 x 1080) 5.5-inch IPS panel is front and center here, while Huawei have thrown in one nicety in the form of the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. Huawei promise that this is one of the fastest fingerprint sensors available on the market, and given the rest of the spec sheet compared to the Nova Plus’ price tag, things are looking good so far.
In The Box
Packaging in 2016 shouldn't really be all that big a deal, but given that users should get a decent overall package for their money, it is nice to see that Huawei hasn't skimped here. The Nova Plus shares the same sort of box as the Huawei P9 and other devices from the Chinese brand, and while it's footprint is fairly large, everything is neatly laid out on the inside. The phone takes center stage when you first lift the lid, and underneath the device itself is a USB Type-C cable that can be used for data connectivity as well as charging as well as a power brick, a pair of earphones that look suspiciously like a pair Apple would include with an iPhone, a SIM eject tool and a document wallet. That's all she wrote as far packaging, but it has to be said that to get everything as neatly laid out as Huawei have done here is a breath of fresh air. As far packaging goes, this is pretty standard, but everything has its place and there is a slight premium tinge to things here, too.
Hardware and Design
If there’s one thing that Huawei have proven themselves good at, it’s creating devices that don’t break the bank, but are also built incredibly well. The Nova Plus is available in a range of different colors including: Prestige Gold, Mystic Silver and Titanium Gray. Here, we have the Prestige gold color to review. In terms of overall looks, the Nova Plus seems to be a sort of mismatch and eclectic mix of Huawei’s own devices as well as other brands’ work, too. If you’ve ever taken a look at the Huawei Nexus 6P, you’ll see where Huawei got the base idea for the Nova Plus’ look. The speaker grill on the bottom next to the matching microphone grill is similar to those used on Huawei’s own P9, but the camera bump around the back of the device feels as if it was lifted straight from a Galaxy S7. The fingerprint sensor, meanwhile, is worked in fairly nice for a device of this sort of price, with bevelled edges and a smooth feel to it. The Prestige Gold that we have here is actually pretty tasteful, it’s not too yellow in color, but in some lights it may as well be silver in color. There are some nice touches around the front with minimal branding, the Huawei logo is tastefully worked in at the bottom bezel and the top bezel where the sensors and earpiece are looks really clean. Both of these bezels have a sort of gel look to them with rounded glass approaching the edges of the display with a tasteful concentric circle pattern underneath.
As for the overall build of the device, Huawei have put together a great device. The metal build not only looks great but it feels really solid, too. This might be a mid-range device, but given its high-quality build, you could easily mistake this for something approaching Samsung quality. The bevelled edges around the edges of the display, the tactile and solid buttons and precision fit all work together to complete a build that punches above its weight. With that said, there’s a lot of phones out there that sport builds similar to this for less money, as well as better specs. The standout of course is the OnePlus 3, but the Nova Plus is much easier to get hold of, and it’s arguable that they’d be a better way to go in terms of support and such.
Its rounded feel in the hand is nice, and is something that we don't see on a huge amount of devices these days, and the Nova Plus does rest in one's hand pretty well when all's said and done. As for the layout of buttons and ports here, there's little out of the ordinary. That aforementioned USB Type-C port is found down at the very bottom of the phone, while the right-hand side has the power button and volume rocker (with a concentric circle design on the power button to help people tell which is which) and the 3.5mm headphone jack is found at the very top towards the left-hand side. There's nothing on the left side of the device, and the back panel sees the fingerprint sesnor we touched on earlier as well as the 16-megapixel camera.
It's not going to win any awards for design, as it does appear to share a number of similarities with both Huawei's own devices as well as others, but for a mid-range device at this sort of price point, Huawei have gone a long way to provide something with a little luxury to it. The metal build feels really sturdy and the overall fit and finish puts the Nova Plus above many other mid-range devices, but it could be argued that Huawei has added a little something on top of their price tag to reflect that. Either way, the Nova Plus is a good-looking, well-made mid-range smartphone that would please those used to even the higher-end models from the likes of HTC and Samsung.
The Huawei Nova Plus features a 5.5-inch Full HD IPS display, giving it a resolution of 1920 x 1080, and a pixel density of 401 pixels per inch, and the display gives off roughly 450 nits of brightness. In terms of readability, things are quite good here, text is sharp and crisp, and everything is nice and clear. Where some users might run into trouble however is using the Nova Plus in very bright sunlight, as the glass on top of the display can be quite reflective, but the fact the display has nothing else to give in terms of brightness once it hits a certain point is more worrisome. For those that like a super, super-bright display the Nova Plus might disappoint as I was often finding myself in need of a few extra steps of brightness, which of course weren't there. The majority of users, on the other hand, will probably have little to worry about. Sure, the display could be brighter, but it doesn't take away from the overall experience of the display.
Which is pretty damn good all round. Colors are fairly true to life, and viewing angles are near-perfect. I say that the colors are fairly true to life, because in actuality they can appear to be a little washed out and fairly "standard", as in there's nothing about the overall color reproduction that will jump out at you here. Out of the box, the color temperature is pretty nice, if not on the cool side of things, which does make text really very readable, but might not be for those looking for something close to AMOLED types of warmth. There is, however, a nice little add-on from Huawei in the Display Settings that allows users to fine tune the appearance of their display to tailor it to their liking. This setting has three presets as well as an option for users to move a dot around a spectrum to apply a sort of tinge to the overall look of the display. It's easy to cast this aside as a gimmick, but these are the sorts of features that help separate a budget phone from all of the rest, and it is nice to see Huawei give back some control to the user. On top of this, there's also a "Eye Comfort" option, which helps to filter out some blue light for those late night reading sessions. As someone that tends to read a lot online, this was a nice addition, and something that should really have become standard on smartphones by now.
While the display looks pretty nice, there are some other niggling issues that, depending on the user, will either be ignored or constantly thought of. For one, the display appears to "ghost" every so often, with lists of black menu items appearing to blur a little here and there. The refresh rate of the display doesn't appear to be all that immediate, either, which is where I think this issue comes from, but watching videos as well as playing games works just fine. Touch is responsive and consistent, but it does appear as though the actual LCD is a little further away from the glass touchscreen than with other devices from Huawei, and the black frame around the display can be a little off-putting. Aside from these little hiccups, the display on the Nova Plus is certainly a good one, especially given the overall price of the device in the first place.
The Snapdragon 625 under-the-hood of the Nova Plus has been paired with 3GB of RAM, and while this isn't the world's best CPU and RAM combo in the world of Android, but at this kind of price point, that extra gigabyte of RAM is a real plus point. It's interesting to see that Huawei haven't gone with their own silicon here, as they did with the Huawei P9, which was a very speedy phone, but the Snapdragon 625 is arguably the king of mid-range smartphones these days, and it's a CPU many will know and recognize. Of course, being a popular choice and all does nothing to confirm good performance, does it?
Throughout my testing, I found very little to complain about when it came down to overall performance. If we're talking everyday activities here, the Nova Plus boots quickly, it loads websites in little to no time at all – connection depending, of course – and running through Huawei's Emotion UI (now on version 4.1) is a decent experience. Loading heavy websites and web apps works well, and even websites laden with images and GIFs such as Imgur works just fine. In fact, for the boring everyday sort of stuff, I noticed very little difference between the Nova Plus and my own Galaxy S7 Edge. Of course, there has to be something that separates the two, otherwise Qualcomm would only make one model of processor.
Well, that'd be in gaming and multitasking. For the majority of users, 3GB of RAM is more than enough to have a lot of apps open at any one time, but after a couple of days or so, Android tends to keep too many apps pen and the device will start to crawl while it's sorting all of this out in the background. As for gaming, you'll note that while there's not much that the Nova Plus can't do, there's quite a bit it can't do brilliantly. For instance, the Nova Plus can play smash hits like Asphalt 8 from Gameloft, but it won't be able to compete with the same sort of effects and frame rates of something with a Snapdragon 820, but then again we would expect as much, right? Playing the official WRC Rally game on the Nova Plus, I found performance to be close to that of most other devices, but it did have a few hiccups here and there, and I noticed that I would get a better image overall when playing the same game on a Galaxy S7 Edge, for instance.
Multitasking on the Nova Plus is easy, but perhaps only if you're used to the iPhone way of doing things, as for whatever reason Huawei is once again choosing to ape the iPhone's multitasking menu. Still, there's a simple trash all button here as well as a readout of how much memory you have free, which is certainly worth having if nothing else. A solid performer all round, the Nova Plus is no powerhouse, but will certainly tick many – if not all – of the boxes for the average smartphone user out there.
We've already established that the Nova Plus and its Snapdragon 625 aren't designed for heavy loads , but do work fine for the everyday sort of stuff. However, we're going to put the Nova Plus through a raft of Benchamrks. Here, we have the 3DMark Slingshot test, the new Geekbecnh 4.0 tests as well the classic AnTutTu as well. The scores here are fairly predictable, but it was a surprise to see the Snapdragon 625 quite so behind devices running a Snapdragon 820 or something similar. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that this is a device ultimately built on a budget, but it does perform well in real world applications, no matter what the below benchmarks suggest.
I've been down this route before, reviewing a Huawei phone that – on paper – ticks all of the right boxes, but then the software just brings everything down. The problem with the Emotion 4.1 UI that Huawei has running on top of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow here is that it's just not familiar to your everyday Android user. Give an Android user a Nexus or an LG device and they will both act the same, even if they look the same. That's not the case with the Nova Plus, or any Huawei device running their Emotion UI. Instead, Huawei have changed the functionality of the multitasking menu, the notification tray, the quick toggles, and a whole lot of Android. It's clear that this is done to appeal to a Chinese audience, where this sort of UI is very common, but this is not China, and users won't be used to this. Therein lies the issue of course, as people aren't used to this, they will get used to it after a while, and not even be too bothered by it. That's what the average user is like, and that's the target audience of the Nova Plus.
Having all of my apps thrown across my homescreens, with no app drawer is still just as infuriating as it always has been on Huawei devices, but this could just be me, as other users will no doubt be used to something similar. If that's the case, then there should be few issues with the overall software package here. However, users coming from another Android device will find this very strange, and it does take a long time to get used to. The same goes for the multitasking menu, which appears to be modeled after the way an iPhone switches apps, which makes little to no sense, as there's no need for Huawei to change this menu at all.
Overall though, the software here is just an eclectic mix of ideas you're probably used to seeing in some Chinese device, as well cues taken from iOS. There'a raft of screenshots down below, but without doubt the biggest issue is the settings menu and what Huawei deems reasonable to put into "advanced settings" such as the date and time among other things.
On the back of the Huawei Nova Plus is a 16-megapixel camera, with an 8.0-megapixel around the front for selfies and video-calling. A 16-megapixel camera is a pretty decent spec for a device like this, but lets remember that pixels aren't everything here, and there's little that a higher resolution can do to correct a poor image. With that being said, the word I have to describe the camera performance of the Nova Plus is; okay. A Huawei P9 this isn't, and that does show in a lot of the images. Having said that, there's really very little to complain about here. It's a quick camera to launch and shoot with, which makes a bigger difference than you might think. After all, getting the shot in the first place is the most important thing, and the Nova Plus will make sure you get that shot – there's even an option in the fingerprint sensor menu to capture a shot instantly using the speedy sensor.
The real letdown of the Nova Plus in this department is not so much what the camera itself is capable of, but more so the camera app. It seems artificially limited, with many settings I would expect to find in such an app just missing. There's a wide variety of filters, and a few adjustments you can make here and there with exposure, but other than that there's no Pro Mode or any substantial changes that you can make before taking a shot. The fact that "Beauty" and "Light Painting" are two of the featured modes here probably says a lot. It's clear that this is a camera experience that's geared towards the average user, which is fine, as those users will find very little to complain about here.
With decent lighting, the Nova Plus does a good job of shooting practically anything, however everything is a little soft in places. Colors, on the other hand, are vibrant and perhaps oversaturated, but I personally liked this look, but as you can see the grass in some of these shots is a little too green in places, and the sun a little too bright. For an average smartphone, these are some good-looking pictures, they might not be true to life or the sharpest out there, but they're good pictures nonetheless, even if they might not be great photos. It could be a lot better, but it takes good enough photos that are fairly uniform and crisp and it's a lot quicker than most other budget cameras out there, too. We'll let you make up your own minds however, as users can take a look at the camera samples on Flickr by clicking the below image.
Selfie wise, the Nova Plus has some interesting tricks up its sleeve, including a Makeup mode which instantly applies some augmented reality makeup to your face before taking an image. Given that there are countless apps available in the Play Store for this sort of thing, it does appear to be a popular thing people like to do, but it's bizarre to see it included in a phone like the Nova Plus. Unless of course, Huawei is trying to appeal to a certain part of the market. Either way, the 8.0-megapixel front-facing camera does an excellent job at taking selfies, although for those groufies it could do with being a little on the wider side. Regardless, as smartphone cameras go, the Nova Plus will neither impress nor disappoint, and the average user will definitely appreciate the crisp images as well as the speedy performance.
The Nova Plus has a sizable 3,400 mAh battery under-the-hood, which for a phone with a standard LCD display, no real standout features and a lightweight CPU should give users plenty to work with. Despite this sizable battery cell, I didn't really find that the Nova Plus had much, if any, more to give than your average smartphone. We put it through the usual PCMark Battery Benchmark and found that it got a little under 7 hours of use, that's not too bad, but it's also not quite as high as many would have been hoping for. We should keep in mind however that this test was run with the display on a high brightness and without any sort of battery saving measures in place. Speaking of which, Huawei has, for whatever reason put all of the battery readings as well as battery features inside of a separate app, as opposed to making them easily accessible from the main settings menu.
This is a little annoying, but as we can see the battery manager app is fairly detailed, or at least it appears to be. In fact, this is basically a skin for the basic information that Android already offers users. There are a few battery modes that users can choose from, but for whatever reason "Performance" is the way that's enabled by default, but even with that enabled I still got some impressive use time out of the phone, regardless of what the battery benchmark tells us. On top of this, there are also options to "optimize" all of your apps, which does smack of a Chinese app you might download needlessly from the Play Store. The "Protected Apps" mode that Huawei have included here is a nice addition, and it allows users to make sure their favorite apps aren't touched by any sort of battery mode. For those using a smartwatch, fitness tracker or something similar, this is a feature that makes sure nothing gets in the way of connection.
Sound and Speakers
Given that the Huawei Nova Plus is a mid-range device, it's no surprise that there's little in the way of extras in this department. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack here, as well as a single speaker that fires down and away from the phone. Inside of the settings menu, there's nothing in the way of extra settings to adjust the sound like you would on the OnePlus 3 or something from LG and Samsung, sadly. Of course, for a lot of people not having these settings is great, ignorance really can be bliss when it comes to listening to music. Plugging in and hitting play is something some of us might have forgotten to enjoy. With that said, listening to music, TV shows and movies is quite good with the Nova Plus. There's a decent amount of bass and warmth to anything you listen to, yet nothing is lost in terms of detail or clarity, either, and it will push hungrier headphones all the while getting nice and loud. Not unlike most mid-range smartphones, there's little in the way of extras here, but the overall aural experience is good here, and for those into their music, they shouldn't be disappointed at all.
As for the speaker, things are quite promising here. There's just the one speaker here, but as downfiring single speakers go, this is one of the good ones. There's a slight warmth to things here, and the speaker does get nice and loud without being too shrill as other speakers on phones can often be. I wouldn't want to listen to music for much than one or two songs here, but watching YouTube videos and Facebook shares is more than enjoyable thanks to this fairly meaty speaker. Of course, there's nothing that beats a good pair of headphones or connected speaker, but if you don't have anything on hand, the built-in speaker of the Nova Plus is a pleasant surprise nonetheless.
The fingerprint sensor in the Nova Plus might appear like an afterthought to some people, but it's one of the better inclusions here, and one that I think a lot of users will appreciate. Its placement around the rear of the phone is fairly natural and it's also easy to find without having to look for it, as your finger just seems to drop into place. It's exceptionally quick as well, it's as quick, if not quicker than the fingerprint sensors used in both the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S, and it's also as accurate, too. I never once had the scanner tell me my finger wasn't recognized unless I was trying to fool it somehow.
The software settings from Huawei also have a number of different options open to people, too. Such as being able to use the fingerprint sensor to launch an app, answer a call or take a photo. This is something that I really wish my Galaxy S7 Edge did, and the settings are fairly easy to get to and easily understood as well. More than just an afterthought, this is a great inclusion, and something that Huawei should be happy with, too.
Phone Calls and Network Performance
While perhaps unbelievable that people still spend time chatting over the phone without help from a camera or the Internet, this does still happen. I'm partial to a good chat with friends and family over the phone, and through my testing on Three in the UK, the Nova Plus sounded great, with a detailed and full tone to people's voices, and callers said that I was very crisp and clear throughout. One thing that did catch me offguard is that some voices did come across as a little robotic and callers I asked mostly said that while I was clear and audible, I didn't sound quite like myself. Overall the word I was given was "digital" in order to describe the overall tone of my voice. Whether or not that's a good or bad thing is up to you, but it's worth noting.
As for network performance, I was mightily impressed with the Nova Plus, both over WiFi as well as 4G networks. I suppose I shouldn't though, given that Huawei is known for making networks themselves. In the UK, we're lucky to get a decent 4G signal, but I'm one of the lucky ones and with the Nova Plus I was getting speeds of 30.85mbps down and 9.11mbps up with a ping of 38ms. That might not sound like much, but it's more than I see with other phones and over twice as fast as the pathetic connection coming into my house. Therefore, streaming, browsing the web and listening to music all worked brilliantly on the Nova Plus, and I can recommend this to anyone looking to use this on a 4G network for consuming a lot of media.
It's worth reminding people at this point, that the Huawei Nova Plus is a dual SIM device, and there are dedicated settings here that allow users to choose which of their two SIM cards do what. This might be a feature common in Asian markets, but in Europe, this is still something of a rarity and something that will be a novel, and useful inclusion for a lot of users. Personally, I wish my own phone were a dual SIM unit a lot of the time, so it is good to see this in more mainstream devices.
For those keen on which network bands the Nova Plus supports, take a look at the following:
LTE-TDD: Band 38
LTE-FDD: Band 1/3/7/8/20
All-in-all, I think the Nova Plus is a device that Huawei has mis-positioned a little bit. In all of the above, we have established that the Nova Plus is a great smartphone, which it is. There's no denying that, but with a price tag of €429, Huawei have priced it a little higher than I thought they would. Sure, the build quality and design here is great, and that fingerprint sensor is certainly a great luxury to have included, but the rest of the Nova Plus is pretty standard. The 5.5-inch 1080p display is good, but could be found elsewhere on practically any other Android smartphone launched throughout 2016. On top of this, the software that Huawei continues to use in their smartphones is as jarring as it always has been, which might be a personal slant from my view, but going against the grain with something totally different isn't always the best idea.
With a good display, a decent camera, and an overall experience that wouldn't disappoint the majority of people, the Huawei Nova Plus is a great phone, but ultimately it's a great phone that costs a little more than it ought to, and one that has a lot of competition at this sort of price point.