Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei has been upping the stakes with improved hardware on a model-by-model basis over the past few years, resulting in the release of flagship-standard devices, such as this 64-bit variant of the Huawei P8, available unlocked for just under $600, that we’re looking at today.
But why would you choose this over, say, a Samsung Galaxy S6? Read on to find out, and at the end of the review we’re giving our review unit away to one lucky reader.
Striking, Memorable Packaging
Hardware unboxing has kind of lost its sheen in recent years. Perhaps it’s the products; perhaps it’s the boxes. Since Windows laptops and tablets started shipping in more ecologically responsible packaging, the effort from manufacturers across the board seems to have gone up. The end result is that everyone wants their product to look good in unboxing videos on YouTube.
A company that doesn’t seem to have got the memo with regards to making their packaging socially responsible is Huawei. When you receive a new smartphone, you expect it in a standard box, where after breaking the seal you lift the lid, take the plastic off the phone and find the device ready to use with 40% charge or so.
What you don’t expect is that the box should resemble a 5.25″ disk drive with the smartphone as the disk.
Yet that is exactly what Huawei has produced here, in one of the slickest pieces of packaging ever seen for a smartphone launch. On first glance, it’s just a standard smartphone box, with a card sleeve, waiting for you to slip the interior box out and lift the lid. It’s only when you remove the sleeve and see the Kyoto treaty-threatening plastic box, that you notice this is a quite different unboxing experience.
A glance at the lid reveals a long thin strip of silver, like a brand new Parker pen about to be released from its case. It is when the lid is lifted that we see the disk drive-style slot, complete with thumb-sized recess to remove the Huawei P8 within. Classy.
What’s Inside the Huawei P8?
While it might be recognizably a Chinese smartphone, this 64 bit Huawei P8 is put together with good hardware and a customised Android user interface.
The 5.2 inch 1080 x 1920 pixel Gorilla Glass 3 display sits on a body weighing 5.08 oz, and although the phone is comfortable to hold with its quarter inch width (and 5.70 x 2.84 inches along the other dimensions), it is a mix of a plastic back, and metal sides.
Inside, the LTE, single SIM device (dual SIM is available, but we’re reviewing and giving away the single SIM variety) is powered by the HiSilicon Kirin 930/935 chipset, 8 core ARMv8 CPU (VFPv4 NEON) and Mali-T628 MP4 GPU. Internal storage on this device is 16 GB, with 3 GB of RAM. The microSD slot is expandable up to 128 GB, and the phone has all of the expected Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, DLNA, USB host, FM radio and Wi-Fi hotspot support.
In an age of unibody smartphones and tablets, the plastic back was quite a surprise, but as a “mid-range flagship”, the costs have to be cut somewhere. The end result of this, however, is a light phone that doesn’t quite feel as impressive as Huawei would like.
Special Features on the Huawei P8
Some software bonuses come with the Huawei P8, such as short-but-free trials of some games and more advanced utilities such as Phone Manager for looking after storage and performance, as well as the Director Mode tool, which requires friends with similar phones (or the Director Mode app). Using this, you can record the same event or incident from multiple devices over local Wi-Fi, selecting the preferred angle in real time.
Don’t Be Swayed By Emotion UI
Huawei has admitted a huge elephant into the room as far as the P8 goes. In some ill-advised attempt to make the phone look even more attractive, it has essentially cloned iOS for the phone’s UI. Until you hit the Settings screen or some other menu, everything closely resembles iOS (useful if you just migrated to Android, which is clearly the target market given Apple’s dominance in China), even down to the lack of a separate app drawer (installed apps are viewed by wiping through the home screens, as per iOS).
Don’t like the sound of an iOS theme much? Then be worried. The P8 comes with a single alternative theme, inspired not by Android, but by Windows Phone.
Even as a former fan of Windows Phone (and for a time, one of the web’s most prolific writers on the subject) I just cannot get to grips with the thinking behind this.
Android 4.4 KitKat and 5.0 Lollipop both have excellent UIs. Why on earth would any manufacturer want to discard these, let alone abandon any genuine selling point, by releasing a phone that looks like it is running a totally different operating system?
Sure, Samsung has TouchWiz, and HTC has Sense UI. But these are unmistakably grounded in Android. Huawei’s Emotion UI, meanwhile, just looks and feels wrong. Moreover, it makes coming to the P8 from another Android device unnecessarily uncomfortable. While you might install a third party launcher, general stability issues with Emotion UI make this a little uncertain.
However, I’m not the only person to have noticed these problems, and several ROM developers have been at work for month providing alternative ROMs for the P8, in particular stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, which can be installed once the phone is unlocked.
General Day to Day Usability & Performance
Being honest, I like this phone. But it really is a funny thing to use. It feels like Android, but looks like iOS, and yet these things don’t get too much in the way of using the phone if you can get over them. Battery life is good, although the camera seems to eat into this quite a bit, so you’re best advised to leave mobile photography to a minimum. A full charge will get you through a full day (ready to charge overnight).
With Antutu Benchmark installed, the Huawei P8 reveals itself to be something of a workhorse. While the hardware gave a hint of this (especially the 64-bit chipset) it’s quite impressive to see.
Despite the jarring nature of the UI, it remains usable, but it is the size of the screen and the weight of the P8 that make it a particularly handy smartphone. Nothing is out of reach for single-handed use, which means you can spend less time using the phone, keeping it safely put away when not in use.
Undoubtedly the P8 would benefit from a standard Android UI, but you can work with what’s on offer.
What Does the Camera Bring to the Equation?
Snapping photos with the P8 is ridiculously simple, although the results aren’t always quite what you would expect from a 13MP camera. Along with the usual stills and video mode, Huawei have packed in software for time-lapse photography and making beautiful selfies with the 8MP front camera, the latter using some automated tools for smoothing out wrinkles and making you look slightly unnatural.
Also on offer is a “live” filter, which shows you just how your photo or video will look with Instagram-esque filters applied before you click record.
From the camera, you can press a hamburger menu to open additional options, for taking panorama shots, recording audio notes, adding watermarks and using the phone’s display as a mirror. These are all useful, but the collection of options available in the camera software are littered around various screens, making things a little confusing. Opening Settings from the same screen displays options to manage ISO and white balance, change resolution (by default, 6MP is set) and set a selfie timer, have smiles captured automatically (useful for photographing children) and even using the volume button as the shutter.
Quality wise, the main camera is good, compared above with the Nokia Lumia 930’s 12MP sensor. But as you can see, the P8 gives a paler reproduction, compared to the more colorful results of the Lumia 930.
A Solid Phone That Doesn’t Quite Deliver
The essence of the Huawei P8 is that of an underdog company issuing a flagship phone. But the P8 is not a Samsung Galaxy S6, or HTC One M9; rather, it is a very good piece of hardware lumbered with a frustrating user interface. While fans of installing custom ROMs might be happy enough with this, experienced Android users without that particular interest may find the P8 lacking.
Given the build quality and the hardware on board, this is a fault that can be placed squarely on the manufacturer’s shoulders. Whatever passes for a user interface development team should be completely restaffed or abandoned entirely on the basis of Emotion UI.
The P8 is a phone that does everything you want it, from calls, messaging and email to video editing, media consumption and gaming. It just gives you all of that from behind a pair of clumsy user interfaces, and in 2015 that’s simply unacceptable.
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