Honor 8 XDA Review: Capable & Powerful Little Flagship on a Budget

The Honor 8 is Honor’s newest flagship phone, now hitting the U.S. market and Europe at a competitive price-point. Offering excellent silicon and a glass and metal design for $400, the Honor 8 is in an interesting pricing bracket with even more interesting competitors.

Can this device honor its specifications and stay toe-to-toe with the new wave of affordable flagships?

In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Honor 8. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specification sheet out of the way:

Device Name: Honor 8 Release Date/Price Available Now, Starts at U$D 399
Android Version 6.0.1 Marshmallow (Emotion UI 4.1) Display 5.2 inch 1080p LTPS LCD (423 ppi)
Chipset HiSilicon Kirin 950: Octa Core, 4x 2.3GHz Cortex-A72 + 4x 1.8GHz Cortex-A53, Mali-T880 MP4 GPU Battery 3,000mAh, Charging at 9V 2A
RAM 4GB LPDDR4 (3GB variant outside USA) Sensors Fingerprint, Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Proximity, Ambient Light, Electronic Compass
Storage 32GB | 64GB, microSD expandibility upto 128GB via hybrid SIM slot Connectivity USB 2.0 Type C, Dual nano-SIM slot, 3.5mm audio jack
Dimensions 145.5 x 71 x 7.5 cm (~72.5% screen-to-body) Rear Camera 12MP Dual Camera (Color + Monochrome), Laser Autofocus, f/2.2, 1080p @ 60fps
Weight 153g Front Camera 8MP, f/2.4

 Index

Design

The Honor 8 marks an important shift for Honor in the realm of build quality, in particular because of the materials transition from the tried-and-true aluminum to a full glass coating. This comes at a time where other OEMs are trying their hand at a similar design, especially after the success of Samsung’s glass devices. But the latter were so renowned precisely because of the level of precision and attention to detail that Samsung could achieve due to their bleeding-edge fabrication process. The Honor 8 thus has a lot to prove in order to duke it out head-to-head with the more expensive devices that sport glass backs and metal trims. How does the Honor 8’s premium build hold up against the rest and at its price?

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Let’s begin with the star of the show: Honor has tackled the challenge of producing a high-quality glass back design that feels both solid and comfortable, on a budget. The back of the Honor 8 has a slippery and clear glass coating, and it’d cover the entire surface if it wasn’t for the very subtle non-glass trim that serves as the interface between the metal edge and the actual glass pane. This facilitates the transition of materials, and Honor has made it flow rather seamlessly, as it’s only visible by keen observers. This creates the illusion of the glass back blending into the metal, and while visually it is just a trick, functionally it means that there are no sharp edges and the device is ultimately rather comfortable, with a slight curve that makes holding the phone very pleasant, even when holding it tightly (and you will often have to, more on this below). It’s also worth pointing out that there is no camera protrusion making this device extremely flat, and able to slide across tables at the slightest of angles.

The back is adorned by very tiny lines in radial patterns that allow the device to shine in interesting ways under sunlight.

The back is adorned by very tiny lines in radial patterns that allow the device to shine in interesting ways under sunlight, also virtue of a 15-layer construction, for an effect that’s rather original and seldom found outside of a couple alternatives. This is more evident on the blue variant, which produces different-hue blues that shine and bend across the surface. There’s also an Honor logo at the bottom, under the glass, in a silver font. Under it you’ll find the (rather tiny) text “powered by Huawei”, “Made in China”, and the Model number. Luckily the verbose part of the design is very small, and we’ve seen various devices hide all sorts of logos and certifications on their backs recently, so the Honor 8 isn’t alone here. That being said, this could be annoying to those that want a cleaner, more minimal design or dislike branding.

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Above the center you will find the fingerprint scanner, similar to the circular “Nexus Imprint” that won our affection in 2015. There are a lot of good things about this fingerprint scanner, so stick around for the UX-centric sections of this review to learn just what makes it one of the best implementations out there. The fingerprint sensor is not covered by glass and it’s a different hue than the rest of the back, but it doesn’t look out of place and the silver trim nicely compliments all the metal and silver on the device.

At the very top you’ll find the double camera setup (no Leica cameras means no Leica branding), a laser autofocus slit, and a dual-tone flash setup. The arrangement is quite attractive and is one of the main attention-grabbers of the device’s design, as many people asked me throughout my review period just what this phone was, and why it had two cameras. Once more we must mention the lack of protrusion, a rarity in today’s mobile world.

edgeThe trim along the edge of the device is one of the better-realized parts of the phone. The metal band has a slight grainy look to it that produces a gradient effect when hit by light. It is very sturdy and also has two sets of rather thin chamfers, on both the top and bottom. These are as shiny as you’d expect and they tie in well with the rest of the phone’s design. The antennae bands are all around the bottom and on the sides, with the top only holding an infrared port and a microphone. The bottom holds the USB type C port, the 3.5mm headphone jack to the left, and one speaker grille to the right.

The SIM tray can hold both a microSD slot and a nanoSIM, and blends seamlessly with the edge (down to the grainy pattern). In my opinion, the feel of the buttons are disappointing. I hope this is only limited to my review unit(s), but even though both buttons are decently clicky, they felt somewhat loose and the power button in particular could rock with very slight finger movement. I asked others that have an Honor 8 if they had this issue, and most did not. Buttons in phones typically have wide variation due to issues with fitting due to the imperfectability of the manufacturing process at such a scale, but this being one of my pet peeves I opted for using the fingerprint scanner click to turn off my screen (more on this in the Software UX section). I do feel like other companies provide more focusing on ensuring less variation, though, as I’ve never had such a loose power button out of the box.

20160815_145918(1)The front of the Honor 8 is conservative, if not a bit dull. It is well-executed nevertheless, and while there are no standouts, there are also no things to really criticize. The notification light is interestingly-placed on the right side of the speaker, which aids in minimizing the amount of elements on the front. The Honor branding at the bottom is clear, although I would argue capacitive keys (and the option to use them over software keys) would make better use of the bottom bezel. The top has the front camera and proximity sensor, as well as a speaker. The side bezels are thin for the 5.2 inch screen, and the black border around the display when it’s turned on is rather thin, resulting in an above-average screen-to-body ratio of around 72.5%. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is rather raised, more so than on other devices, which can often make it feel printed on. It’s technically 2.5D glass, but you won’t notice as the curvature at the very edge has a miniscule radius, so finding legitimate screen protectors shouldn’t be hard.

Software — User Interface

When I reviewed the Honor 5X back in January, the user interfaced packed with EMUI was one of the points that warranted more attention, as the experience resulting from Huawei/Honor’s aesthetic decisions is very different from what most users are used to through other skins, especially Stock Android. In a few words, EMUI is not the kind of UI you’ll easily grow to love if you are a fan of Stock Android, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things to love about its layouts, design elements and theming capabilities. We’ll take a look at each important System UI section and other areas of frequent interaction, avoiding subjective interpretation as much as possible.

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By default, EMUI is an interface that completely trails away from Google’s Material Design guidelines and opts for its own design language, bringing a completely different experience altogether. This is first seen with the launcher, which comes with no app drawer for organization. The launcher has big and vibrant icons in its 4-column default, but luckily you can modify its grid size. Huawei’s iconography is full of rounded squares with muted non-primary colors, and the wallpapers that come with the phone resemble those of other flagships, in particular Samsung’s latest devices as seen below. There isn’t much in the way of customization, other than changing transitions, homescreen looping and opting for badge icons for unread notifications on a few stock applications. Other than that, you can choose to auto align apps or shake them to realign manually.

Swiping down reveals an app, contacts and messages search menu, as well as your recently-used apps, It’s a simple setup that works well, and there’s a further-simplified alternative as well in the settings menu. The launcher is an aspect that many of our readers are quick to swap for Nova or Action Launcher,  but for users wanting to keep it Stock there won’t be any headaches in the EMUI built-in solution — if you can tolerate the lack of an app drawer and the overall design language. The app opening transition of stock is the now-dated Zoom-In of earlier Android days.

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The notification pane brings back the background blur by default, but this can be themed away (more on that below). It’s worth noting that it’s not dynamic blur as seen in a few elements of other OEM ROMs, it uses a screenshot of your screen and does not blur animated video, but this saves CPU cycles for a rather mundane task (and the alpha is tuned so that the background is not very visible anyway). Notifications are right-biased as the left area has a timeline for you to click tell the time of arrival, and for some reason heads-up notifications cannot be swiped to the sides for dismissals (which one can get used to, but we question the intent). At the top you will find a “shortcuts” (toggles) tab, and at the bottom left there is a “clear all” button. Swiping to the right or tapping on the shortcuts tab shows toggles and the brightness-slider. The toggles setup standard affairs except for a screenshot button, and it’s also worth noting that screenshots have edit, scroll capture and share shortcuts on the screenshot animation, for you to quickly act upon what you capture.

Screenshot_2016-08-18-00-58-12The recents menu is laid out differently than on stock, with horizontal cards and previews and with a “clear all” trashcan at the bottom, as well as a free RAM counter. Scrolling is smooth, but not necessarily fluid by design as it tends to make the center-most tab sticky. You can access App Info by long-pressing, but there is no tool-tip or animation prompting you in the right direction. Swiping up clears the application, while swiping down locks it down and prevents it from being dismissed by the “clear all” button. On every press, the app in the center will be your last-used app, to make multitasking easier (no last-app navigation bar gesture by default).

The iconography of EMUI is big in size, and in no way minimal. The battery indicator is laid horizontally, and the battery percentage is put beside it. With no readily-available System UI tuner, there is little room for notifications (tip: disable carrier logo from the right side in the notification settings, giving you room for 3 more notifications). However, something I learned to appreciate is that app notification icons in the status bar feature small, colorful icons dictated by the notification itself. This way, a Hangouts message displays the avatar of the relevant contact at the top, which makes it easy to know what’s what in your status bar, and whether your notifications merit a swipe down and quick glance or read. Under another design language, this would look out of place, but EMUI is so different and it ultimately doesn’t clash within its scheme.

The settings menu is colorful and a bit disorganized. There is no battery section, for example, and to access it one must dig through a few menus (Advanced Settings -> Battery Manager -> Consumption Level), and then a few more to arrive to the screen-on-time number that we love to keep track off. Ignoring the organization issues, instructions and feature descriptions are easy to understand, with visual aids that help understand some features — and this is good, because there are many.

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The default color palette, iconography and blurry glass intrinsically clash with Material Design.

Applications also share the blurry glass and white clean look, and they have turned out easy to use during my review period. Of course, though, these can be replaced for different-looking alternatives. And the System UI itself has a useful theme engine that can help you change much of EMUI, including the notification bar and toggles color scheme, their icons, the settings menu iconography and palette, the launcher icons, and more. There are Stock Android themes, for example, which get rid of the blur in the notification panel. Ultimately, the layout is too different in most areas for this to feel remotely close to AOSP, and darker themes won’t make use of an AMOLED display given the phone’s LCD panel, but there are some themes worth trying out and this has personally helped me enjoy EMUI a lot more. The default color palette, iconography and blurry glass intrinsically clash with Material Design, but themes can minimize this by a large margin.

Software — Features & UX

EMUI is simply one of the most feature-packed user interfaces available. To jot down every tiny addition and functional advantage over Stock Android would take far more room than I am willing to allocate to this section, so I’ll focus on the fundamentals and every feature I believe users would care about. EMUI’s features change from revision to revision, so not everything is exactly as seen on the Mate 8, Honor 5X, and even the P9 from earlier this year. But in spirit, the ROM remains the same: it aims to offer everything you’d need, and then some.

SMARTKEYLet’s begin with my favorite feature: smart key. You might recall that in my Honor 5X review I noted that one of my favorite additions to the fingerprint scanner was the ability to use it for extra functions, like tapping to go back or swiping down for the notification panel. You can still swipe down to access the panel, and also press it to take pictures, answer calls and stop alarms, but the fingerprint scanner is an actual button now, allowing for quick access to apps or functions with the screen on or off.

The fingerprint scanner is an actual capacitive button now.

Honor allows you to customize the button with tools voice recording. screenshot shortcut, or launch applications, which you can bind to single press, double press and/or longpress. The option to turn the screen off is, sadly, not present by default.

Luckily, you can use any “Screen Off” app and trigger it that way, although there is no way to disable double-press meaning single presses will always have a slight delay while the phone waits for additional input. This became my go-to way to turn off the screen given the lack of a stiff power button. It’s also worth noting that the fingerprint scanner is really fast, frequently unlocking my phone by accident while I unnoticeably slid my finger across its back.

At the toggles, you’ll find a few useful options including screen recording, ultra-battery saving (you are probably familiar with the concept by now), a “floating dock” that acts like an impromptu PIE menu (back, home, recents, screen off and RAM clearance keys), and an “eye-protection” mode which filters blue light to give you a sort of “night mode” as seen on other popular devices.

Screenshot_2016-08-18-01-56-00You can customize the navigation bar, and also add an “open notification panel” key to the right. There are other shortcuts in the form of motion controls, such as flipping to mute, picking up the phone to reduce the sound of alarms or calls, raising the phone to your ear to start or end calls, or tilting the phone to swipe through launcher screens (why? I am not sure). Then, you have knuckle gestures.

With them, you can use your knuckles on the screen to capture a normal, scrolling (very useful) or cropped screenshot, or initiate screen-recording. You can also use your knuckles to draw letters in order to open applications (letters ‘c’, ‘e’, ‘m’ and ‘w’, so four shortcuts in total). These work surprisingly well for the easier gestures and scrolling screenshots, although the app shortcuts and cropped screenshots are not as fluid.

You also have one-handed UI settings, including a mini-screen view triggered by swiping across the navigation bar, and a shifting keyboard accessed by tapping an arrow during text input. Huawei also incorporated its own voice controls, including voice wakeup to find your phone (“Dear Honor”) and quick calling which allows you to call by saying a contact’s name after pressing volume down while the screen is off. You can also answer calls with voice control and quickly get on speaker mode.

Huawei also incorporates “smart headphone controls”, which is an interesting take on the ability to control music through wired headphones with 3 buttons (action, volume up and volume down). It changes the volume up behavior to favorite a song when double pressing, and enable or disable shuffle by doing the same on volume down. The action button is then used for playback control with multiple taps, too.

The Honor 8 also comes with a smart remote controller app for it’s IR sensor, which is increasingly rare in today’s smartphones. Adding remote controls is easy and after the setup you’ll be managing your home devices without hassle. Honor also includes a batch of easily-replaceable apps like its own clock and e-mail client, and sadly bundles some applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Booking.Com, News Republic, Lyft, and Shazam. Whether these are bloatware or not is up to you (to me, they surely are), but know that you can fully uninstall them.

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Suggestion: Look, but don’t touch.

You will also find a “phone manager” app that acts as a hub for your system health check-up. This includes quick access to “system optimization” to clear memory/cache (and kill backgrounds apps, of course…), a traffic manager to monitor your data (or add a lockscreen reminder), a “harassment filter” to block offensive keyword or specific phone numbers (triggered?), and a way to lock apps to your fingerprint or PIN so that others cannot access them. You can also choose which apps run while the screen is off, either protecting all or picking the ones you think won’t impact your battery life, or that have notifications you need. The system cleanup features are frankly useless, and Honor’s relationship with CleanMaster (affecting EU) makes me worry the company will further implement such systems. If you ask me, this an increasingly-annoying trend with OEMs skins.

Finally, there is the oh-so-important battery consumption section, which is missing from the settings for whatever reason. From here you can enable ROG power saving, which makes the phone run at 720p — something I really don’t recommend, given the savings are marginal and the pixel density drops from 423 PPI to 282 PPI, which makes a significant difference.  

Then you’ll have a power usage firewall for power-intensive apps (and notifications can warn you when apps are draining too much battery in the background), your battery history, and power plans. This last bit is very important and we’ll expand upon them on the battery and performance sections, but basically you can opt for a Smart profile that adjusts CPU and network usage for a reasonable balance, a Performance mode which allows the CPU to stay at higher frequencies, and an Ultra mode as mentioned earlier.

Performance

Kirin-950-and-kirin-940-specificationsThis phone comes with a rather impressive processing package for just $400. It is true, however, that at that bracket you begin to see devices sporting Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820. But the Honor 8’s processing solution is different than that of most competing chipsets, as it’s comprised of HiSilicon’s Kirin 950, the same chipset we saw in the Huawei Mate 8. Huawei released this chipset in late 2015, with just enough room to claim the performance crown for CPU prowess. The Kirin 950 packs an octa-core big.LITTLE configuration with four efficiency-focused A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz, and four A72 performance-oriented cores.

The latter are the star of the show, as the Cortex A72 core is designed to provide up to 50% faster performance-per-MHz than the A57 cores which dominated in 2015. These cores are not only faster, but significantly more power-efficient, but the fiercest competition has also gotten up to speed with the Kryo cores in the Snapdragon 820. Coupled with the 16nm process size, the specification sheet sets high hopes for the SoC. The Honor 8 shares a similar GPU to that of the Exynos 8890, the Mali-T880. There is an important difference, however, as the Honor 8’s Mali-T880 MP4 features 4 cores as opposed to the Exynos 8890’s 12, although these have higher individual clock speeds as well. While this is the weaker aspect of the SoC, we found it still packs a worthy punch. So, how does the Kirin 950 as a whole measure up to the competition?

CPU & System

The Kirin 950 found in the Honor 8 benefits from the big.LITTLE architecture that began truly shining in the past couple of years. With smart global task scheduling to decide the utilized core arrangement at any given time, chipsets under this setup can achieve some impressive multi-core performance. This is precisely what we see with the Kirin 950: its single core performance as reported by benchmarks is lower than the competitions, but multi-core performance surpasses Qualcomm’s latest and greatest. When it comes to CPU-centric tasks in benchmarks like AnTuTu, the Kirin 950 does an excellent job at beating the Snapdragon 820 found in devices like the OnePlus 3. Overall, the CPU side of things is one of the better aspects of the Kirin 950 and the Honor 8 in general, as this is one of the main items to look forward to when looking for excellent performance.

Basemark OS II 2.0 - Overall Basemark OS II 2.0 - System Basemark OS II 2.0 - Web Basemark OS II 2.0 - Graphics Basemark OS II 2.0 - Memory PCMark -- Work Performance PCMark -- Web Browsing PCMark -- Video Playback PCMark -- Writing PCMark -- Photo Editing

While the Kirin 950 does great in abstract tests with discrete computations, it also does an excellent job at real-world oriented tests such as basemark OS II and PCMark. It does not achieve as high a score as its Huawei-branded brethren, but it still shows respectable results — OS optimizations play a big factor in this benchmark, and the overall score surpasses the average achieved by devices like the Galaxy S7, but does not quite reach the level of the OnePlus 3. The average is weighted down by the writing and photo-editing tests, though, and the latter is understandable given the devices’ less-powerful graphics capabilities. BaseMark OS II shows a similar story, but all in all this phone can compete with some of the most expensive and decked-out phones in the market for half the price, which is nothing to scoff at.

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IMG_0300Performance over time is particularly excellent on the Honor 8, but here we must begin differentiating between the two power profiles the Honor 8 comes with, “smart” and “performance”. The former offers a more-balanced approach to CPU scaling, whereas the latter focuses on squeezing out the Kirin 950 with less regards for battery life and thermals.

That being said, both modes output very solid results although with a different behavior: ‘smart’ does not necessarily peak under initial pressure, whereas performance maintains its peak potential for longer, and extremely well at that. On the CPU side, neither of the power plans sees significant throttling, and what’s more, the maximum temperature for the Geekbench endurance test was only 32.8°C | 91°F — far lower than what we saw on other chipsets. This is likely a result of both the A72 cores and the small process size, and the efficiency ultimately carries onto the real world as well, as the Honor 8 is extremely cool to the touch in every situation sans intense camera usage.

GPU & Gaming

The GPU side of things is sadly the more underwhelming aspects of this processing package. The Mali-T880 MP4 GPU outputs results that are more than enough to carry the Honor 8’s 1080p screen well, and on-screen tests reflect this well. However, when put up against devices with newer chipsets on either on-screen tests or benchmarks that natively render at 1080p, the Honor 8 is left far behind, not just by 2016 devices but also much of what we saw in 2015 as well. Truth be told, the Mali-T880 MP4 is hardly commensurable with the Mali-T880 MP12 or the Adreno 530, but once you travel back to the Adreno 420 found in the Snapdragon 805, you begin finding similarities in peak performance.

GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan (Onscreen) GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan (Offscreen) 3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited (Overall)

Albeit disappointing when looked at a flagship perspective, it ultimately means little for the real-world user experience due to the 1080p display. Unsurprisingly, though, the Honor 8 also fares rather well under pressure on the GPU side, but only on performance mode. Running a 10-consecutive 3DMark test on both power plans showed “smart” losing over 25% of its initial performance and reaching close to 37.8°C | 100°F in the process, whereas on ‘performance’ not only was the initial (and peak) score higher, but it also only lost 8% of it by the end of the run despite reaching nearly the same temperature. This is also something we noticed when running other benchmarks and while gaming. GFXBench, where the peak on “smart” was lower than the initial score on ‘performance’. Sadly, the latter loses closes to a third of its peak framerate.

3d mark smart 3d mark performance

Interestingly enough, we didn’t find the lower graphics performance to be disappointing at all when gaming and measuring through GameBench, neither in terms of framerates nor in throttling. In fact, the Honor 8 manages to mostly-top the framerate of most complex 3D games today, and in our tests we only saw very small and contained periods of severe throttling which lasted only around 5 seconds at a time per 10 minute gameplay session, predominantly on GTA: San Andreas. Other than those short-lived framerate losses, the Honor 8 is capable enough of performing excellently at most games out today even at maximum settings, a feat that is not limited to latest-generation SoCs like it once was. Truth be told, the level of GPU performance of late 2014 chipsets very-nearly allowed for maxing out games like Asphalt 8 then, and it still does today. If you do have any issues, the 720p mode will certainly give you the necessary boost to achieve a maximum framerate at the expense of effective pixel density.

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Despite the more-than-acceptable gaming performance, though, the GPU of the Kirin 950 remains the weakest link of the processing package due to lower peaks and worse sustained performance during intense stress than other flagship chipsets, and gamers looking to remain future proof, or people who need the phone for other GPU-intensive applications, should first try and calculate the mileage they’d get out of this device. Last but not least, there is a 720p resolution mode for power-savings that has the by-product of increasing GPU performance, but as pointed out later in this article as well, it simply isn’t worth the pixel density trade-off, particularly when gaming or doing other visual experiences.

RAM & Storage

The 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM that this review unit ships with was more than apt at the kind of tasks that I threw at it. The phone can easily store around 12 to 14 applications in memory, and also multiple heavy 3D games, without killing background processes. Even then, cached reloads are rather fast thanks to the SoC and storage solution. I have experienced some quirks with memory management where applications had to reload from cache despite no interaction with power-saving prompts or features, and it’s worth noting that by default the system kills non-whitelisted background applications upon locking the screen, so be sure to tweak those settings.

These kind of practices and the trend of adding “system tuners” (often powered by companies like CleanMaster) shouldn’t exist in the Honor 8 or any of today’s smartphones, frankly, and you should most certainly ignore anything suggesting you to kill applications simply for using them (which has happened with Hangouts and other applications). Finally, while 4GB of RAM is still a standard in 2016, 6GB RAM devices like the OnePlus 3 and Axon 7 do come at cheaper or similar prices. Users outside of the United States can opt for a further-cheaper 3GB variant, but that might be too big a sacrifice for those looking to keep the phone for a few years.

Honor 8 Sequential Random
Read Speed 246.9MB/s 39.5MB/s
Write Speed 94.4MB/s 27MB/s

The storage of the Honor 8 is barely commensurable with the higher-end solutions out there, and sadly, alternatives at this price-point like the OnePlus 3 and Axon 7 managed to offer UFS 2.0 for impressive theoretical and real-world file transfer speeds. That being said, only the latter has microSD support like the Honor 8, and the ability to couple 64GB of storage with up to 128GB on a microSD card is a good synergy for the dual camera on this device. There is no adoptable storage in the settings, though.

Real World Performance

The Kirin 950 is simply a remarkable SoC for real-world applications. One would think that the tremendous feature quantity of EMUI would mean that the experience would be bogged down, cluttered, and ultimately laggy. Luckily, reality couldn’t be further from such a grim scenario, a far cry from the all-too-familiar bloated ROM scenarios Android was known for in its infancy, and that some OEMs still continue today, with the recently-released Note 7 showing embarrassing performance in comparison. While EMUI on the Snapdragon 615 of the Honor 5X meant frequent stutters and odd delays, Honor must have done some optimization with Huawei’s in-house SoC, as EMUI flies no matter the power profile you choose, and regardless of the changes made to Android.

Screenshot_2016-08-25-23-58-35Scrolling lists is not just as good as any other flagship, but better, and I’ve found very few slowdowns or stutters while browsing news feeds or Play Store listings. GPU Profiling reveals rather solid scrolling performance all-around, both in the System UI and inside applications. Activities launch quickly, too, and the phone is very snappy not just because of the SoC, but also because of above-average screen latency. Lists flow fluidly under the finger, and actions respond instantly, so general in-app performance is a joyful experience.

The phone’s fluidity carries over to app opening speeds and app-switching. Both hot and cold app opening times are up there with the best of 2016 from competing chipsets, and the 4GB of RAM are able to hold, on average, 14 to 16 applications in memory at once. That being said, there is a dark side to EMUI’s memory management once the screen turns off: by default EMUI kills applications that are not whitelisted to run in the background while the screen is locked, likely to save battery. Once you tweak this setting, though, the phone behaves properly for your favorite apps. If you do get this device, it is paramount that you inspect these settings given that background notifications on standby can be indefinitely delayed,

During regular usage, the phone keeps a consistent temperature around or under 29°C | 84.2°F, and the bulk of the heat is concentrated on the top-left corner of the device (looking from the back), meaning you do not get in immediate contact with it would the phone happen to get hot. Once more, we must point out that there are two power profiles, “Smart” and “Performance”. For nearly every real-world application, both share the same level of performance. The bulk of my review period was done on the “performance” setting, and I haven’t noticed any significant issues with heat management nor battery drain. The Honor 5X needed to be under the “performance” plan to achieve reasonable speed, but the Honor 8 does just fine on the default setting.

Screenshot_2016-08-21-14-12-47There is also the previously-mentioned ROG power-saving feature, which lowers the screen’s resolution to 720p for increased efficiency. It is true that 720p would mean less stress on the GPU in particular, with lower-quality assets being rendered and cached. That being said, there is no real-world performance gain from this outside of gaming, and many 3D games allow you to specifically set rendering resolution from within their settings anyway. Moreover, dropping the pixel density to 282 PPI makes a significant difference in visual fidelity, which is immediately noticeable if you choose a crisp 1080p wallpaper for your homescreen. The option is certainly nice to squeeze extra performance or battery in a pinch, but for most applications both savings are miniscule.

Monitoring background activities and RAM consumption once again reinforces the idea that EMUI does not waste away its resources, nor is bogged down by useless processes. The processor scaled predictably with the A72 cores spiking upon opening applications working together while scrolling.

There is little else to detail: all things considered, the Honor 8’s real-world performance is remarkable for a device at its price-point, and for a phone running such a feature-packed and aesthetically-modified user interface. It offers flagship performance, hands-down, and it even surpasses other (much, much more expensive) flagships we’ve tried out this year. The impressive CPU, capable storage solution and decent-enough GPU coupled with Honor’s optimizations, such as a touted proprietary file system, result in a pleasant experience through the entire operating system no matter what goal you need to accomplish using your smartphone.

Camera

As you would expect from the Honor 8’s dual-camera setup, this is one of the better-aspects of the device. At the $400 bracket, it’s rather hard to find phones with above-average cameras, and the Honor 8 builds its hardware and software around trying to stand out in that space. While we’ve seen OEMs constantly try to catch up with camera giants like Samsung – who has slowed down its camera evolution, likely due to small competition – it is arguably a much harder task to do on a budget. Can the Honor 8 stand up against more expensive devices? Depends on what you look for, but the Honor 8 takes after the P9 to offer detail through capture hardware, and flexibility through software.

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Let’s start with the camera UI and UX. The Honor 8’s EMUI features a very traditional approach with a shutter button on the right side as well as a gallery shortcut (and the gallery has a camera shortcut by sliding the image album down) and a “switch to video” button. To the left you will find extra options depending on your shooting mode, such as switch to the other camera, filters, flash, or the shallow depth of field mode (more on that later). There are also 3 “tabs” you can access by swiping around the viewfinder: one for shooting modes (including pro photo and pro video, beauty mode and video, panorama, HDR, Good Food, timelapse, light painting and nightshot). The other panel allows you to change resolution, enable a grid, configure a timer, enable smile capture and object tracking, and also default image adjustment like brightness, saturation and contrast (for auto-mode).

When it comes to camera speed, the Honor 8 doesn’t disappoint. The camera app opens really fast, usually in less than 400ms, and it can also be launched from the lockscreen at the same speed. There is also a quick snapshot feature, by double pressing the volume button when the device is off — the phone will instantly launch the camera and grab a picture of whatever it is pointed at, then display the time it took to capture it (typically less than a second). Focusing speed is also above average for the price, although automatic focusing still takes over half a second to find the new target. Taking pictures in both burst mode and through button spam is fast and reliable, with no odd delays. However, the camera does not have auto-HDR, which is what usually slows down other phones. One would argue that it would be a negative point for those used to intelligent HDR (or HDR+) that compliments auto-mode, but the dynamic range of the Honor 8 is already better than most of its competitors without enabling the setting.

Dusk Daylight Daylight Close up Dusk Night time Food Mode Night Time Food Food on Food Mode Colors Up close Daylight Overcast Daylight Daylight Selfie Beauty Selfie

Going further into image quality, the 12MP main camera is aided by a 12MP monochrome camera that assists in obtaining more information regarding light and contrast, which the Honor 8 uses by merging the two images and producing one sharper result. The company claims it allows for up to 3 times the light in low-light situations, and while we definitely see a low-light improvement over similarly-priced smartphones, it still is outperformed by devices like the Nexus 6P and Galaxy S7 Edge. Nevertheless, detail retention is good, macro/focusing distance allows for good close-up shots, and exposure management is one of the better ones I’ve seen — I’ve never had the kind of severe blowup that plague budget devices. Color is also very good, a notch on the saturated side, although HDR does make a noticeable difference.

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Occasionally pictures show very apparent oversharpening (particularly with fuzzy textures or grass), and various shooting modes are simply not worth using due to post-processing issues. Every now and then, the device will ask you to keep the device steady to gather additional data and get a better shot, and Night Mode has you do this for multiple seconds, usually with blurry results. When compared to the OnePlus 3 and Galaxy S7 Edge, it’s rather clear that the Honor 8 fits in the middle. Low-light performance and light capture is better than on the OnePlus 3, like Honor’s claims would imply, but still not up to par with Samsung which has focused on this specific aspect for the past two years.

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The camera can produce some seriously good-looking depth of field and background blur effects, though, virtue of its dual camera setup. Like we first saw with the HTC M8’s dual camera setup, this phone also allows you to alter the focus point and depth of field after the shot has been taken. Unlike other devices, though, this is done very, very well, and the results can be really surprising. There is no odd artifacting or contour issues around the target’s edges, the blur effect looks natural and better than what you find in OEMs’ software solutions. The selfie camera is sharp with a relatively-high 8MP resolution, and I found it better than what’s found in other phones in this bracket.

Video is decent on the Honor 8, although I did find some issues with image distortion when enabling object tracking. There is no 4K recording, but there is 16:9 stereo 60FPS video at FHD, which doesn’t look quite as smooth as you have to turn down the framerate in order to get stabilization. There is significantly less macroblocking than on the OnePlus 3, a direct competitor at this price-point, even at just FHD resolution, and audio is loud with a slight distortion. There is also X4 slow-motion recording at 720p, document scanning, and Pro Video, so you do have a few options to play with if you need them. But that’s about it, as video is the most unremarkable part of this camera. If you are looking for great stills, though, you won’t be disappointed.

Display

The Honor 8 packs an unassuming 5.2 inch 1080p LTPS LCD display, LCD being common solution in this price bracket. The 1080p resolution does just fine on such a small screen size (by today’s standards), and with the display being LCD and not an AMOLED pentile panel, you ultimately get a higher effective pixel density due to the equal number of red, blue and green pixels (instead of an uneven matrix of subpixels). While many of us have grown increasingly used to AMOLED displays on flagships, this screen solution is not inadequate for both the price and the screen size; opting for 1440p AMOLED would have increased costs for a small increase in effective clarity, and a 1080p AMOLED panel would have resulted in lower pixel density.

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As it stands, the 423 ppi of the Honor 8’s display is a good balance, and a good way to avoid the criticism that devices like the OnePlus 3 received for their 1080p AMOLED panels (granted, pixel density on that device suffered more due to its larger screen). This display also gets plenty bright, enough to be readable in direct sunlight in most scenarios, and decent contrast also helps.

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By default, this screen features blue whites and imperfect blacks. The latter is an issue you simply cannot solve, and sadly the blacks only get worse when viewed at an angle — not only do they get brighter as most LCD panels do, but it also gets a significant red tone to it. Colors are saturated without looking overly-vibrant, with reds and greens being much deeper than the sRGB standard. The gradient and transitions are well delimited on both colors and greyscale, though, with no noticeable banding nor other oddities.  Greyscale in particular could be better, but the limitations of the display technology mean it has to conform to sub-par performance here.

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Viewing angles in general are OK: when viewed from the sides, there is little color distortion. It’s when you view the display from the top, bottom, or corners where noticeable loss is found, and at extreme angles the screen gets much warmer, with blacks in particular getting very red as pointed out above. This does not help the display get the “sticker” look that other panels achieve, but it’s worth pointing out that the display is quite raised in comparison to others, making it seamlessly blend into the bezel, and when coupled with its excellent latency, it makes the experience very pleasant as interaction feels precise.

colortemperatureThe display is surrounded by a few millimeters of black bezel as seen on most other devices, but this is only noticeable on the white variant of the phone. It doesn’t quite interfere with the viewing experience, and it is not the worst offender around (especially at this price point).

Honor also focused a decent amount on the software options and customization of the display. Other than the much-dated daydream (picture screensaver), you can improve eye-comfort by filtering out the blue light of the display through “eye-protection”, very much like the increasingly-popular “night modes”. This mode also adjusts according to environmental light, similarly to Apple’s solution, in order to always provide a good viewing experience — I’ve personally used it for a while, and it grew on me better than other night mode solutions. You can also customize color temperature through a handy color circle, or choose from the warm or cold presets.

This is an average display no matter how you cut it. Color reproduction is decent, but not on target, contrast and blacks suffer from the ever-present backlight, and viewing angles are average. This is not a device built for media consumption, as those factors paired with the small display mean you’ll find a much better media experience somewhere else. When put into context and when considering the price, very few devices (such as the Axon 7) manage to bring a more impressive display. This one is no show-stopper, but at the very least one can argue that the form factor is not designed around media consumption either way.

Battery Life & Charging

The Honor 8 packs a rather-standard 3,000mAh battery, which might initially turn off those that are spec-hungry. However, and as we always note in our reviews, battery capacity is not a deciding factor for a phones’ battery life. For example this is the same battery capacity that the Note5 and OnePlus 3 brought to the table, both of which had good battery life despite bigger (or higher-resolution, in the Note5’s case) displays. Most importantly, the Honor 8 comes with ARM’s A72 and A53 core design, the former promises better efficiency (15% over A57) and the latter is specifically designed for minimal drain. Huawei might be an expert in modems, but it’s also true that Qualcomm’s modems are considered the cream of the market, and frequently sought after. How HiSilicon implementation performs will thus be another significant factor.

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Honor 8 PCMark Work Battery Life
Min. Brightness (Smart) 9 h 55 m
Med. Brightness (Smart) 7 h 57 m
Max. Brightness (Smart) 5 h 5 m

Running PCMark on low, medium and high brightness shows a significant delta between brightness, much larger than what’s found on other devices like the OnePlus 3. On medium brightness and the “smart” balanced profile, the device can reach 8 hours of endurance on this test, quite a solid feat for its capacity, much like the level of efficiency we found on the Galaxy Note5 under the same conditions. Lower brightness didn’t improve this number much, while maximum brightness put it at just above 5 hours. Temperature, scores and drained remained excellently consistent through, denoting no signs of throttling nor abnormal drain. Other battery benchmarks also put it above the average, most likely due to the ARM-based setup that is a step up from some of the most efficient chipsets of 2015 on the CPU side of things.

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This efficiency truly carries onto the real world, as the Honor 8 can easily power through a day of my usage, no matter the mix of connections I go through nor the camera usage I make the device endure. I’ve commonly reached 5 hours of screen on time, and consistently achieved over 4 hours, with my typical usage of document editing, chrome browsing, social media like twitter and reddit, hangouts, GPS navigation and a lot of YouTube (although less than on other devices, due to the screen’s constraints). I have noticed, however, that while WiFi efficiency is excellent, the battery’s active drain is significantly increased during LTE usage, more so than with competing devices.

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I’ve found no unusual wakelocks nor issues with awake times as seen in the graphs below, and it feels like Honor takes this very seriously — perhaps too seriously, as you’ll see. While idling, it wasn’t uncommon to find really low idle drain, between 0.3% to 0.8% per hour while left on either WiFi or LTE overnight. During more-active hours with more movement and less extended sleep time, though, idle drain can surpass 1.5% hour and well into 3% during a day of constantly-fetching notifications on LTE. It must also be noted that most of my review period has had a Gear S2 smartwatch connected to the device.

The Honor 8’s charging situation, though, is not quite as impressive and borders on standard affairs in today’s market. It has a 9V/2A charger that can take the device from 0% to 100% in about 1 hour and 40 minutes, with the traditional slow-down cutoff at around 80%. It’s a good-enough solution, and surpasses the offerings of much more expensive devices, although it is a step back from the $400 OnePlus 3 and its Dash Charge technology. If you haven’t experienced Dash Charge, though, you will find the Honor 8 to charge as adequately as any other smartphone.

protectedappsThe Honor 8 also comes with a plethora of power-saving options, some of which are actually worth checking out. First we have the power plans which we have discussed above, smart and performance. If the estimates presented in the menu are anything to go by, you won’t gain much by choosing smart over performance, but as we’ve noted, performance is much better at what it’s supposed to do, and I also found it better at handling background notifications. You also have an “ultra” power saving option, which keeps the basic call and messaging features but disables much of the smart portions of your smartphone. This can double your remaining battery life, but is meant to be reserved for sticky situations where an active phone is paramount. Finally, you have the ROG power saving mode which lowers the phone’s resolution to 720p, and thus also improves GPU performance. We don’t recommend this option for day-to-day usage as the drop in screen sharpness is significant, and battery savings will likely be minimal as well unless GPU-intensive tasks are at play.

Sadly, it also comes with intrusive power saving options (shown above) that you should disable or minimize as a priority. One of these features kills background applications when the screen is off unless they are added to a whitelist, which not only messes with your notifications, but also reduces real-world performance by having you reload commonly-used but not-whitelisted applications (for example, my Gear S2 would lose connection as the phone would simply kill the companion app until I picked up on it). There is a power usage firewall as well, although this one prompts you to close applications rather than doing it without you asking, and you can circumvent the notifications too. After proper configuration of these issues, I was able to get my extra services working properly and I still kept getting excellent sleep times and battery life, so like many OEMs, Honor probably went overkill in ensuring longevity with their device.

Audio

The audio of the Honor 8 is also one of the more-average aspects of the phone with no real merit nor downfalls. The bottom-firing speaking can’t get too loud when compared to other devices at this price-range, and its location makes it unappealing for media consumption. Then again, this is not a media consumption device, and thus the speaker is adequate for the form factor. Distortion at higher levels is clearly there, but subtler than worse offenders at this price point; the audio is a bit tinny, though. That being said, the peak volume itself is high enough, but overall the audio feels rather hollow.

The microphone of the Honor 8 is standard affair too, with no real issues for camera recording nor voice calls. The Honor 8 does not have much in the way of software tweaks for the audio itself, although there is the aforementioned playback controls extension for headphones. Wired audio quality through the 3.5mm jack is, once more, not very impressive. All things considered, this is not an aspect of the phone you should be excitedly looking forward too.

Thoughts on Development and Future Proofing

Development on the Honor 8 is a clear work in progress. While the Kirin 950 is great for performance, it is not very good for development. The kernel sources for the platform, the documentation and many other things that developers need to get working AOSP ROMs on Kirin devices are currently not available. This means that development on devices with the Kirin SoCs see very little original development, and certainly no AOSP ROMs. Very talented developers have tried and failed, and until something changes, we won’t see CyanogenMod or other popular ROMs like we get to see on Honor’s Snapdragon devices, like the Honor 5X. This is problematic given that EMUI is one of the biggest turn-off factors for significant parts of our userbase.

We are completely aware of this, and we are working with Honor to find a solution. The good news is that they are so far willing to cooperate and embrace the developer community, and we have forwarded them an extensive list of requests which is currently being reviewed by their research and development team. If all goes well, a turning point for the Kirin platform could be approaching, allowing development to expand on Huawei and Honor devices. These companies are HiSilicon’s direct beneficiaries and are also some of the largest smartphone companies in the world, with Huawei currently being the 3rd largest player in the smartphone market, only behind Samsung in the Android space. Working with Honor and Huawei towards opening the Kirin platform would then allow millions of users to access new customized software, and ultimately benefit our community.

Leaving the sources situation aside, the Honor 8 will be easy to unlock with an official method, the same used for other EMUI devices like the Honor 5X. I’ve done this process before, and it’s easy enough, but if you don’t like filling forms or waiting, do know that you can unofficially unlock the bootloader as well. After that, rooting and getting recoveries in place shouldn’t be too big of a problem — standard affair. Xposed, too, is available for Kirin devices. While there are ways in which the software of the Honor 8 can be modified to improve without outright replacing EMUI, AOSP ROMs will remain a goal for the rest of the device’s lifespan. We encourage developers to keep track of our efforts to convince Huawei and Honor to open up the Kirin platform to the world.

As for future-proofing, the Honor 8 comes with the necessary specifications to ensure a few years of comfortable usage, with only a couple of aspects like the GPU and storage sticking out. Moreover, Honor promises guaranteed updates for two years, with 12 months of guaranteed feature updates with the possible extension to the full 24 months, and then support for further critical bug or security patches after that. We hope that Honor stands true to this promise, as other OEMs recently have not, and do manage to deliver timely updates to the Honor 8 and other devices.

Conclusion

The Honor 8 comes at one of today’s most competitive price brackets, with devices like the OnePlus 3 and Axon 7 bringing serious heat to the kitchen. The existence of other affordable flagships of such caliber make it much tougher to recommend the Honor 8 universally, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a key demographic that the device can specifically target. Indeed, while the 3 phones share much in common – powerful internals, premium designs – they offer different experiences for different people, and this is ultimately what will be the biggest deciding factor.

The Honor 8 does indeed pack flagship hardware, and while the base model’s 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM available outside of the US does fall short against OnePlus and ZTE’s mighty offerings, the more-marketed 4GB variants offers enough hardware to deliver a flagship experience. There is also one key difference that might allure different demographics, and that’s form factor. The Honor 8 is a small device, the bezels are adequate and in-hand feel is solid. For those looking forward to enjoying a smaller screen, the 5.2 inch screen Honor 8 will be one of the few attractive options in this bracket. Sadly enough, the smaller form factor has been increasingly abandoned and for $400, aiming at the 5.5 inch form factor is likely a much safer bet for OEMs.

If you are looking for a pretty phone, the Honor 8 should catch your eye. Those wanting for a powerful smartphone with plenty of features will find both good and bad in the Honor 8.

The design of the phone does achieve a premium feel, and it does not sacrifice usability nor much in the way of durability in doing so. There are good design elements such as the lack of camera protrusion, seamless transitions, interesting light-reflecting patterns which ultimately make the Honor 8 stand-out (and slide away) among competitors, but the glass back is prone to fingerprints on some variants, and while the device is sturdy, drops or significant scratches will render the device much uglier and/or less practical than it’s supposed to be. But Honor has achieved a good construction with traditionally expensive materials here, with a degree of execution that we wouldn’t expect until we reach the higher flagship price brackets. If you are looking for a pretty phone, the Honor 8 should catch your eye with no need for this review’s explanation of its design.

That said, those wanting for a powerful smartphone with plenty of features will find both good and bad in the Honor 8. The device is plenty fast, with one of the most efficient CPU’s in the market in both peak and prolonged performance. The Honor 8 is further optimized to be fast and fluid, and I can honestly say that it stands up to the OnePlus 3, Nexus 6P and other real-world performance giants in this particular regard. The amount of features that EMUI offers is indeed staggering, but the software is not for everyone. It is one of the furthest-from-Stock ROMs out there, and those who cannot tolerate OEMs meddling with Google’s vision would definitely find a lot to be offended about here. There are theming and customization options, but none of them can make the Honor 8 look quite like Google’s Android. Too many elements have been too modified to be restored through themes, and conflicting items and design languages remain even when pushing theming to its limits.

While the audio-visual experience of the Honor 8 isn’t particularly impressive – and nobody really expects that out of such a small screen – the camera is one of the most noteworthy aspects of this device. It is capable of very impressive stills, although video has some way to go. But the quality you get in your pictures out of the dual camera setup is competitive across the breach between its price bracket and the more expensive phones. The Honor 8 is simply one of the better devices out there for camera stills, and the many features it brings ensure you have enough options to play and create with.

But then we have the fact that, at the moment, the Honor 8 does not have the best development potential. This is simply a shame given the prowess of its processing package, its attractive and somewhat-niche form factor, and the fact the EMUI is one of the main deferring factors for enthusiasts. But we can confirm that Honor has been listening to our claims, and that they tell us they would like to embrace the developer community of XDA. We cannot make conclusive statements yet, but know that we will be working with Honor in order to make the Honor 8 – and subsequently, other Honor devices as well – more developer-friendly, easier to tinker, and a better canvas for the community. Once more, we have forwarded our requests for the opening and documentation of the Kirin platform, and we suggest you follow that development closely when considering the Honor 8 — we will keep you updated.

The Honor 8 is indeed worthy of the flagship title — it’s good looking, it’s powerful, it’s capable.

In summary, the Honor 8 is indeed worthy of the flagship title. There is no clear-cut shortcoming in the hardware that would make the average consumer give it a second look — it’s good looking, it’s powerful, it’s capable. It’s what runs through its silicon that makes the Honor 8 less of an instant pick when the competition aims to target similar audiences through other means. The OnePlus 3 in particular has garnered a spectacular and merited response, but its userbase does not fully overlap with the Honor 8’s. If you are looking for a smaller form factor with capable specifications and a solid camera, the Honor 8 is one of the few options left at that bracket, and certainly the best one you can get. It’s when users prefer bigger form factors or have no preference, or really value Stock Android or the already-established development potential of other brands, that the calculation becomes muddier for the Honor 8.

I can personally say this: it is a nice device with very little to hate as far as hardware goes, and while I am not the biggest fan of EMUI, it has become more tolerable and flexible than in the past — enough to entice me to keep using this phone after my review period, particularly due to the small form factor. It’s not a phone I would pick for work or as an all-purpose smartphone precisely due to the small screen, though, but it’s certainly a good mostly-uncompromised smartphone. EMUI was and remains one of the more controversial points about this device, as is development. But for the price, the Honor 8 is still extremely competitive, in many ways surpassing its fiercest opponents, yet sadly trailing behind in the key aspects that make phones like the OnePlus 3 such a hit with our community. Development for the Honor 8, and all future Kirin devices, is something we will be working towards with Honor; as it stands, the Honor 8 is still a great piece of hardware that is worthy of the flagship title. But as we say in every review: whether it is worthy of your wallet is only something you, the customer, can truly decide.


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