Honor 8 review: A mid-range beauty with substance

huawei_honor_8-6

The year might be known for when Google replaced the Nexus program or how Samsung experienced disaster with the Galaxy Note 7, but it should also be remembered as the year Huawei stepped out of the shadows. From the launch of the Honor 5X at the beginning of 2016 to the star-studded launch of the Huawei P9 in April, Huawei has taken giant strides in new markets. No longer is it simply known as one of those interesting but mysterious companies in China.

Huawei’s Honor brand, too, took another step towards household recognition in August with the launch of the Honor 8, a beautiful phone that shares much of its DNA with the Huawei P9. The Honor 8 differs from the P9 in various aspects, though, and is all the better for it.

Hit the break for our review of the Honor 8.

honor_8_front_ta

The Honor 8 is the most advanced Honor phone you can get in the west, and it definitely steps on the toes of the Huawei P9, both in terms of performance and design. While both handsets feature a 5.2-inch Full HD display and dual camera setup, and the P9 is a decent enough looking phone, the Honor 8 is simply stunning. This is especially true in its Sapphire Blue guise. Performance wise, the Honor 8 makes good use of the extra gigabyte of RAM, and the slightly older processor, the Kirin 950, doesn’t seem to hurt it any.

Subscribe on YouTube!

I’ve used the Honor 8 as my daily driver since it launched in Europe back in August. I’m based in the United Kingdom, but it’s also been with me to Turkey and Germany, as well as China where it was put through its paces for product briefings and sight-seeing. It’s been used on the UK’s Three and EE networks, while in China it was on the China Unicom network.

Design

huawei_honor_8-11

The Honor 8’s rear panel has 15 layers of 2.5D glass and looks absolutely fantastic when it’s near any sort of light. The rear panel’s 3D prism design gives a shimmering effect in bright sunlight that is simply stunning, and most apparent on the Sapphire Blue model. The beautiful rear glass panel does have a drawback, though. It’s a tad slippery, so I would recommend using a case with the Honor 8, especially as resting it on any surface that isn’t entirely level means that the phone will slip off without warning.

The dual camera setup and flash are immediately noticeable on the rear panel, as is the ubiquitous fingerprint scanner just below. There is an rounded aluminum frame running along the sides, with the plastic sections seen on the sides and bottom of the device allowing WiFi and cell signal to penetrate the handset. The front of the Honor 8 has the same glass coating as the rear and is also easy on the eyes. While using a case with the Honor 8 is recommended to guard against knocks, it’s a handset you’ll also want to show off, so make sure to get a clear case if you can. The glass panel is a fingerprint magnet of note, but it sure is eye-catching, isn’t it?

Having a 5.2-inch display means that the Honor 8 is comfortable to hold, although I have to admit I would have preferred it to be around the 5.5-inch size, but that is just my personal preference as I like big phones. With dimensions of 145.5 x 71 x 7.45mm and weighing in at 153 grams, the Honor 8 is slightly larger than the P9, as well as being 9 grams heavier.

Hardware

 Honor 8
AnnouncedAugust 16, 2016
ReleasedSeptember 2016
Display5.2-Inch Full HD (1920x1080) IPS LCD
ProcessorHiSilicon Kirin 950
RAM4GB
Storage32GB / 64GB with microSD card slot
Rear CameraDual 12MP with laser focus, dual-tone LED flash
Front Camera8MP with wide-angle lens
Battery3000mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C
SoundBottom-facing speaker
SoftwareAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow with EMUI 4.1
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, compass, fingerprint
ConnectivityNFC, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/ac, fingerprint scanner, WiFi Direct
Measurements145.5 x 71 x 7.45mm
Weight153g
ColorsSapphire Blue, Midnight Black, Pearl White

Performance

The Honor 8’s HiSilicon Kirin 950 processor isn’t the newest chip in Huawei’s arsenal, but when combined with 4GB RAM it keeps the Honor 8 running smooth for the most part, albeit with the occasional blip that is most likely caused by the improved, but still heavy EMUI interface that the phone is running.

The 5.2-inch Full HD IPS display boasts a 423-pixel count, and it has great viewing angles. Colors are vibrant and gently pop, while the panel can be skewed towards a Warm, Cold, Default, or custom temperature via the Settings, depending on your preference.

While the Honor 8 comes with a decent amount of storage as standard (32GB), you can choose to add to it via the included Micro-SD card slot. Because it’s a hybrid SIM/Micro-SD card tray, you will have to choose which is more important, the secondary nano-SIM or more storage.

Battery

honor_8_batter-power_plans_ta-2

With its 3000mAh battery, the Honor 8 gets through the average day with ease. It was only on a trip to China where I was snapping photos left, right, and center that the phone began to droop in the afternoon, often hitting single digits. Besides snapping photos, I took videos, slow-motion, and panorama shots with brightness levels on manual at the 30% mark. I was also running a VPN app 24/7 in order to access Google services and social media accounts. All-in-all, I would say the Honor 8 did pretty well.

Back in the UK, an average day usually includes social media activities, checking emails, watching around 30 minutes worth of YouTube, and around the same period spent playing Plantz vs Zombies 2, with the Honor 8 getting to 9pm with around 20% left in its tank. Generally, I’ve managed to get around 6-8 hours of screen-on time, which is pretty good in my eyes. When the Honor 8 eventually hits the wall, just plug the charging cable into its USB Type-C port and the proprietary quick charging technology charges the phone up from 0-45% in around 30 minutes using the official charger.

honor_8_batter-power_plans_ta-3

Being a device that runs EMUI, the Honor 8 has a few power plans to choose from to prolong battery life or keep things nice and slick. Performance mode keeps things ticking over quite speedily, while Smart mode dials the performance down a little and cuts down on background processes which can also prevent apps from sending notifications. Ultra power saving mode disables most of the phones capabilities, giving the phone a black and white interface with dialer, messaging, and contacts buttons while allowing the addition of three further apps. As you can imagine, the Ultra power plan noticeably extends the battery’s endurance, offering 113 hours of standby as opposed to the Smart modes 25 hours with the battery on 57%.

Another option is to choose to degrade the display’s resolution from Full HD to 720p, helping to ease the strain on the GPU and to eek out a few more precious minutes of battery life.

Software

The Honor 8 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with Huawei’s EMUI 4.1 interface running on top. EMUI is very much like Marmite, you will either love it and its added functionality over stock Android firmware, or you will hate it. I really enjoy using EMUI, but then I also enjoy using Samsung’s TouchWiz. Taking the risk of Pixel fans picking up pitchforks, I generally find stock Android to be bare and lacking features I might normally use. It boils down to personal preference.

For the most part, EMUI 4.1 runs as slick and smoothly as you would like on the Honor 8, but, when you are pushing the phone to its absolute limits, it will lag a smidge.

honor_8_homescreen_layout_ta

App icons are still strewn across the home screen in no particular order, and while you can sort them into folders, I’m of the opinion that I shouldn’t have to. This is Android, and as such, an app drawer should be an option. Something to look forward to next year for Honor 8 owners is an update to Android 7.0 Nougat and the new EMUI 5.0. that definitely offers an app drawer as an option. But that is only slated to be officially released in the first half of 2017.

Otherwise, EMUI 4.1 has a bunch of features that come in handy, whether it’s the slide up menu on the lock screen that gives you quick access to Audio Recording, calculator, flashlight or camera. You can also change the wallpaper, or cover, as it is called..

honor_8_security_fingerprint_options_ta

One handy feature that must be mentioned is the fingerprint reader on the rear panel that also functions as a smart key, allowing you to open an app or shortcut simply by pressing, double-pressing or pressing and holding. As an example, I have the Smart Key set to open WhatsApp on a single press, the camera app on a double press, and Twitter when pressing and holding the smart key down. As with previous Huawei and Honor handsets from 2016, the fingerprint reader is extremely quick and accurate as well as being easy to use. Being on the rear panel it’s in the perfect place for your index finger to reach, and your fingers don’t have to be absolutely pristine and dry for them to register a hit.

Knock Knock also deserves a mention, by knocking your knuckle on the display you can take a screenshot, choosing between the regular static screenshot or one that scrolls to the bottom of the page. You can use your knuckles to take a scrolling screenshot by drawing an S on the display or access an app by drawing a relevant letter such as ‘C’ for Camera. I’ve found the scrolling screenshot to be especially useful, especially when browsing the web.

honor_8_ir_ta

The Honor 8 has an IR port, a feature that is missing on some flagship handsets, and a dedicated app (Smart Controller) that allows you to control your TV or other media devices. The transmitter is present on the top of the device and is fairly easy to set up. It’s a feature that many don’t use much, if at all, but for others, it can be a deal breaker.

A couple of things worth talking about is that if EMUI isn’t to your liking, you can always switch to your preferred launcher, as demonstrated in the video below. Also, most of the pre-installed apps can either be simply uninstalled or disabled. You can also apply a theme from the appropriately called Themes app to change the appearance of the home screen and interface.

The upcoming update to Nougat and EMUI 5, plus the addition of an app drawer, will eliminate many of the issues that users had with Huawei/Honor handsets in the past. The update will hopefully tweak the automatic brightness function that isn’t as accurate as one would like, often it’s too dark and you have to manually raise the brightness. On the topic of updates, it may be of interest to note that Huawei has committed to two years worth of updates to the Honor 8.

Camera

With a dual camera setup reminiscent of the more expensive Huawei P9, you might expect that the budget conscious Honor 8 would offer a lesser experience. On the contrary, though, I’ve found the Honor 8’s camera to be on par with the P9 and actually prefer it. The Honor 8 has pretty much the same camera app as the Huawei P9, albeit without a dedicated monochrome option which is instead available as a filter. The dual 12MP sensors, one of which is monochrome, the other is RGB (color), sit next to a dual tone flash on the top left of the rear glass panel. Something you may have noticed is that the Honor 8 doesn’t have any Leica branding at all, indeed the collaboration between Huawei and Leica is nowhere to be seen. Does it make any difference? Not at all.

Is the Honor 8’s camera going to knock the Galaxy S7 or Pixel off the top of the camera rankings? In a word, no. One of the features it, and the P9 before it, lacks is Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and in low-light conditions, the results aren’t consistently good. Other than that, though, the resulting images are extremely good. Playing around with the wide-aperture function yields some satisfying shots, with the ability to blur backgrounds from f/0.95 to f/16.

honor_8_camera_app_ta

There are a whole bunch of options to choose from in the camera app, from Pro photo and video to Good Food, HDR, Night Shot, Panorama, Time-Lapse, Slow-mo, Watermark and document scan. There’s also an option called Light Painting that gives you four choices: Car Light Trails, Light Graffiti, Silky Water and Star Track. Your success with the Light Painting modes will vary, and as with the Night Mode, an ultra steady hand or tripod is recommended.

If you do have ultra steady hands or a tripod, the Night Shot mode will result in some rather special photos. If you have shaky hands like I do, though, there’s a good chance you’ll just get a blurry mess. It’s worth the effort, as shown in the Night Shot images below that were all taken with a tripod.

You can achieve great results with HDR too. Taking multiple HDR images isn’t the absolute quickest you’ll experience on a smartphone, but it does the job speedily enough that you won’t be frustrated.

The 8MP front sensor offers a decent amount of features to keep most selfie fanatics happy, it also performs well in low-light conditions.

There is one particular bug that bears mentioning though in the form of the ‘beauty’ mode that defaults to level 5 regardless of which level you choose in the settings. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is something that may irk you from time to time. This bug is reported to be fixed in an upcoming OTA, so I’ll update the article if this pans out.

Closing

honor_8_rear_reflections_ta

So, for all intents and purposes, the Honor 8 is just a rehash of the Huawei P9, right? Wrong. While it shares many of the same components, the Honor 8 is an improvement on the P9 in my eyes. I enjoyed using the camera more and felt I achieved better results with it. I also found the actual experience of using the Honor 8 much slicker, whether it’s simply because of the extra gig of RAM it has over the Huawei P9, or because it’s better optimized, I couldn’t tell you. But it feels quicker. And that is sometimes enough.

The Honor 8 is available in Pearl White, Midnight Black, and Sapphire Blue for £369 or $399. The only real question is whether or not you should buy the Honor 8? If you want snappy performance, an ultra quick fingerprint reader, a great camera experience in a stunning handset that you can use comfortably with one hand, at a reasonable price, then yes.

In Sapphire Blue, the Honor 8 is likely the most beautiful 5.2-inch handset you can buy, at any price. Its glass rear panel sparks many a conversation among smartphone enthusiasts and novices alike, and it isn’t a delicate as you might expect so long as you can keep it from sliding off flat surfaces.

Buy it now: Honor, Best Buy, Amazon


About the Author: Peter Holden

I've been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being my first phablet. I currently carry around a Mate 9, a BLU Life Max, and a Galaxy Tab S2 8.0. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, I'm an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, I love a good Braai (BBQ).


  • David Martrano

    Sounds like a very decent offering. The pricing and performance sound very interesting. I think it will do very well in the States! Very good article!