Honor 8 review: A new competitor in the U.S.
Same old software frustrations, wrapped up in a fantastic package for $399.
After seeing considerable growth and brand awareness in Europe, Honor is properly launching itself in the U.S. Sure it released its budget-minded Honor 5X earlier this year ... but that was a bit more of a test run — this, the Honor 8, is the true embodiment of what Honor is capable of right now, and it's launching in the States right on cue with the launch in China and Europe.
Though Honor's phones can cover a wide range of prices, the Honor 8 really hits the current sweet spot when it comes to getting value for your money: $399 starting for an unlocked phone with almost all of the specs you want in a high-end phone, wrapped up in hardware that rivals that of the better-known brand names out there. It has a crowd-pleasing size, great screen, fingerprint sensor and good performance, and even though its software isn't leading the industry it has improved immensely in recent months.
This is just the beginning of a long play for Honor in the U.S., with the obvious goal being to bring the Honor name to the U.S. and starting to build brand awareness. For this reason the Honor 8 itself doesn't have to sell in the tens of millions, and Huawei can certainly eat the costs, but it shouldn't have to worry about that — the Honor 8 is poised to be a great budget-conscious, flagship-challenging option. Read on for our full review.
- Fantastic screen
- Long battery life
- Great specs for $399
- Awesome fingerprint sensor
- EMUI still has room to improve
- Entirely average speaker
- Proprietary fast charging
- Camera hit or miss in low light
About this review
I (Andrew Martonik) am writing this review after just over a week using an unlocked U.S. version of the Honor 8, running on T-Mobile in New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. The phone arrived with software version L04C567B122 (with the July 1 security patch), and was not updated during the course of the review. The phone was provided to Android Central by Honor for this review.
Honor 8 Hardware
If there's one thing we've all learned from watching Android phones in the past couple of years, it's that the price you have to spend to get some great hardware has decreased dramatically. Huawei's sub-brand Honor has been among the biggest manufacturers pushing this notion along, in both the super-budget space but also the mid-range segment with phones like the Honor 8.
Externally, Honor seems to have taken some influence from the Galaxy S6 and S7 and put its own spin on things — glass panes on both sides of the phone are accented by a very nicely crafted metal frame that has just enough texture to add grip, aided by shiny chamfered edges near the glass. The glass itself takes on the familiar "2.5D" curved design down into the metal, and Honor executed the build immaculately. Everything else is standard fare: a headphone jack, USB-C port and speaker on the bottom, fingerprint sensor in the back and easy-to-press but tough to distinguish power and volume buttons on the right.
With just a 5.2-inch display the Honor 8 is quite compact, though the bezels around it are just average-sized nowadays. The display itself is a 1920x1080 IPS LCD that's fantastic at any price, and extra impressive in a $399 phone. It's far better than the OnePlus 3's, and is right up there with the flagships — minus the Galaxy S7 — in all-around clarity, brightness and colors.
Inside, you'll see a processor name even lesser-known than the Honor brand: Huawei's own Hisilicon Kirin 950, which is an octa-core unit that isn't the bleeding edge from the company but is darn close, and more than capable of driving the interface at 1080p resolution when paired with 4GB of RAM. There's also an ample 32 or 64GB of storage inside, paired with a microSD card slot if that's your sort of thing.
- 5.2-inch IPS LCD
- 1920x1080 (423 ppi) resolution
- Dual 12MP f/2.2
- 1.25-micron pixels
- 8MP f/2.4 front camera
- 3000 mAh battery
- 9V/2A fast charging
- USB-C connector
- Kirin 950 octa-core CPU
- 4GB RAM
- 32/64GB storage
- microSD card slot
There are really just two downsides to this glass-backed design. The first being how slippery it is ... and not in your hands, but on flat surfaces. Like we saw back with the Nexus 4, the Honor 8 is perfectly flat on the back. That looks really nice in images, but means that it just straight up won't stay put when you lay it on a table, desk or countertop. My Honor 8 regularly slid dangerously close to the edge of tables at dinner and I started charging it on the floor next to my bed instead of on my nightstand for fear that it'd fall and break.
The other downside here is durability. In just a week using my Honor 8, it has several easy-to-see scratches on the back, and one big gouge that's surprisingly deep. Glass backs will scratch, that's always the case, but I'm used to mine lasting a bit longer before showing such signs of wear.
Those are honestly pretty minor "issues" that are valid trade-offs in order to have a sleek and beautiful phone. Ergonomically the Honor 8 works really well, and the only thing that's moderately tough to reach on the screen is the notification shade — which itself is perfectly handled by the inclusion of a swipe-down gesture on the fingerprint sensor to perform the action.
Still so frustrating
Honor 8 Software
Huawei has come a long way with its EMUI software, now in version 4.1 and built on Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The pre-installed apps are intuitive and fast, the settings area is soundly designed and there are lots of baked-in features that you haven't come to expect on every other phone.
Visually, I can't complain much about what EMUI has settled on considering that it's all very consistent and smooth — it's just a bit dated. Though cohesive and arguably beautiful, big areas of the experience like the lock screen, notification shade and launcher all represent heavy-handed designs that don't jive with modern expectations for Android phones and are miles behind the smooth and intuitive experience you get from other manufacturers that have been selling millions of phones in the West for years.
The huge pile of little features available in the Honor 8 is rather astounding, though it makes the phone a bit daunting to get set up and use right away. You can configure presses of various buttons to perform certain actions, configure the fingerprint sensor's button to do dozens of things (like bring down the notification shade, which is nice), and can configure just about everything. On the backside of that, you'll also still go crazy with all of EMUI's warnings about power consumption and notifications — and if you tap the wrong thing or set things up improperly you're going to be missing notifications and potentially see extra issues with app performance.
Too many features are one thing, but completely broken and user-hostile ones is another
The notification shade doesn't properly handle many expanding notifications, the lock screen by default doesn't show notifications and after turning them on is still odd to use, and the launcher is like sandpaper to my eyes. Many of EMUI's built-in features are heavy-handed and by default are set to generally user-hostile states, emphasizing battery savings over all else.
Nothing in the software is downright horrible or a deal breaker for me, but none of it feels ideal, efficient or anywhere near the best software experience you can get out there on a phone today. There are still a lot of rough edges here that need tuned up if Honor expects to draw U.S. consumers away from what they're used to getting from Samsung, HTC, Google and scrappier upstarts like OnePlus. And if rumors and leaks are to be believed, Huawei has a major redesign of EMUI in the works that will likely address these issues — I'm extremely hopeful that that's the case.
Honor 8 Daily use
After I got everything configured and made myself familiar (again) with the quirks of EMUI, I really enjoyed using the Honor 8. The phone was refreshing to hold thanks to its smaller size and excellent build quality, and really reminded me of the Galaxy S7 in that respect. I can't remember a single time when the software slowed down or an app stuttered, no matter how hard I pushed it, and even with that the battery held up every single day.
The single software outlier I found was that location services seemed to completely lose track of where I was if they weren't in use for a longer period of time, then quickly snap back to the proper place when I requested — something that seems like a clear bug, and is likely easy to fix.
The 3000 mAh battery is a completely standard and expected capacity for this size of phone, and it's capable of offering really solid battery life as well. Even with most of the annoying battery-first settings in the software disabled or mitigated, I still made it through a full heavy day on the Honor 8.
Even when you disable all of the power-saving features, you easily get a full day of hard use
How it handled one particularly tough day impressed me: over three hours of screen-on time, a couple hours of hotspotting, the whole day on LTE, taking photos, keeping up with messaging and social media apps I made it almost 17 hours before plugging in. On simpler days when I didn't push it hard, and spent more time on Wi-Fi, I ended the day with 30 or 40% battery left in the tank — that's extremely impressive.
The Honor 8 doesn't offer wireless charging despite its glass back, but does work with its own proprietary quick charging solution that you'll only find from its in-box charger — using a 9V/2A brick that can add 45% to the battery in just 30 minutes. When plugging it into my Quick Charge 3.0 wall plug or Quick Charge 2.0 battery it would only pull about 5V/1A, which is rather slow ... a "standard" 5V/2A charging plug gave it the best speeds outside of its own in-box charger. It's rather annoying to not have a Quick Charge-compatible system here that lets me use my other standard accessories to the fullest with the Honor 8, since I'm really not likely to carry this pre-packaged charger just for this phone.
Honor is making a big deal about the dual 12MP cameras on the back of the Honor 8, rightfully so, but this is also a known quantity after debuting on the Huawei P9 earlier in 2016. Despite the fact that we lost the Leica branding (and yes, it was just branding), we're looking at a very interesting dual-sensor setup with one providing the phone with a color image and the other monochrome — the combination of which purports to offer better overall image quality. Each sensor sits behind the same relatively slow f/2.2 lens and there's no OIS to be found here, and both of those specs are somewhat disappointing nowadays if we're pitting the Honor 8 against its direct competition.
The Honor 8's camera software is relatively simple from the main view, giving you quick access to often-used toggles and live filters. You can take a single swipe to jump into the settings, and swiping the other direction gets you into shooting modes. Unfortunately there's no option for automatic HDR ... which is really table stakes in 2016. The app is relatively quick and can open up from a double-press of the volume down key when the screen is off, or can be set to open with a double press of the fingerprint sensor button.
The quality you get here is really great when the light is good, but that should be expected from every phone over $200 or so in 2016. Colors pop, edges are crisp and there's a good enough dynamic range that I didn't always need to hop into HDR mode (though I did often to achieve a certain look). In lower light, the slow-ish lens and lack of OIS were apparent — if I steadied my hand and took a few different shots I'd usually get one that was perfect and crisp, but any random shot when I pulled the phone out and didn't have physical stabilization it'd be more of a mixed bag. Situations in between with decent but less-than-great light almost always required HDR or manual metering to get the right kind of shot.
This is a really solid camera, that could be so much better with OIS and faster lenses
Overall, this is a solid camera in terms of being quick and often capturing the shot you expect to get, but it takes a bit of massaging in some situations and in lower light falls short of what the OnePlus 3 can do at the same price. With the addition of OIS and a faster lens, I have no doubt that these sensors and this processing could provide a top-tier overall camera experience.
The front-facing camera is an 8MP unit (with 1.4-micron pixels) that annoyingly defaults to an unnatural skin-smoothing "beauty" mode, but other than that does the job. There's a lot of resolution to work with there and a few software settings, but for the most part is a point-and-shoot situation — plus an extra feature of detecting smiles to auto-capture.
Odds and ends
A few quick hits to round this thing out:
- Mobile network performance was great everywhere I went.
- The speaker is small and unremarkable.
- Because of the flat back, the vibration motor feels very weak when the phone is on a table.
- There's an IR port on the top for controlling appliances and TVs.
- A lot of EMUI's ringtones are ... very bad.
- You can uninstall all of the pre-installed "bloat" apps, and disable many built-in Honor apps.
- EMUI makes it a lot easier to switch launchers now, but it's still relatively hidden.
Solid phone, great price.
Honor 8 Bottom line
Before even approaching the pricing of the Honor 8, this is a really great phone. Externally, it's slick and can grab eyes with a few subtle design features while also feeling solid and built with high tolerances. The metal and glass protect really great internal specs that can power the phone through all of your regular tasks, with a battery that lasts all day (and then some), and you can view it all on a really top-end display. The camera, while coming up short of amazing, is great in many situations and leverages its dual sensors for neat effects and better image quality.
The only real disappointment here is that the Honor 8 is launching with EMUI 4.1, which is serviceable but far from the great experience you can get on other phones today — both at this price and below. The promise of EMUI 5 may be enough to help you put up with the quirks, heavy-handed design and mounds of annoying features, but I wouldn't blame you if you decided that you'd rather pick a phone with software you know is great today.
But now, let's talk about that entry price for the Honor 8: yes, you get all of this for just $399. For that price you never expect to get the little fringe features that are missing here, but you also don't always get performance, battery life, a screen and a camera that are collectively this good either. You don't often get that kind of package even at a higher price. And at $399, you may even be able to deal with the software for a little bit while you wait for an update.
The Honor 8 is a really great phone that is going to give everyone in the U.S. who is first experiencing Honor something positive to talk about. If the software can improve and marketing can bring people to be aware that Honor actually exists here, the future is looking bright for this brand.