Huawei’s budget sub-brand Honor is the subject of increasing chatter in phone geek circles of late. In January, the Honor 5X introduced the “company” (insofar as they operate as a separate business unit) to a Western audience with a very affordable, metal-bodied phone.

The device, though, seemed to land on deaf ears, at least among enthusiasts. I can’t speak to how the Honor 5X did in US sales channels, but initial launch buzz quickly wore off once reviews went to press, and the phone itself really was pretty mediocre in retrospect. Its dazzle, its allure really came from looking the part of a $300-400 phone while costing much less. Reality was more... realistic: the experience it delivered wasn’t outstanding, and as a result the phone ended up being more notable for the corners it cut rather than the value it delivered.

With the Honor 8, already out in China for some time, the company is trying something new with its Western market experiment. At $400 ($350 if signed up on Honor’s site by a certain date), this phone seeks to compete with the ZTE Axon 7, OnePlus 3, and the increasingly-discounted but also aging Nexus 6P. That last one is made by Huawei itself, which makes for interesting juxtaposition.

The Honor 8 shares essentially nothing with the outgoing 5X, because it shares essentially everything with the Huawei P9. The Honor 8 is simply a rebodied P9 for most intents and purposes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing - but it does mean we’ve already seen much of what this phone has to offer, albeit not officially here in the US.

Do a blisteringly quick chipset and exceptional battery life outshine Huawei’s ghastly software and occasionally glitchy behavior? I think the Honor 8’s appeal to you will depend greatly on your expectations - it’s a polarizing device. Here’s our review.

DSC04444

The Good

Battery life "Epic" is how I would describe it, all things considered. The Honor 8 sips power and easily managed almost twice the battery life of Alcatel's similarly-priced Idol 4S during my testing. Granted, both the Axon 7 and OnePlus 3 have also received high marks in this area.
Speed The Honor 8's Kirin 950 chipset, coupled with a 1080p display, means you'll be pushing pixels along expeditiously. The Honor 8 feels snappy and responsive in all things, but still provides the aforementioned longevity.
Fingerprint scanner It's on the back and it's lightning-quick. It's also a button, if that's something you find you want to use (I did not find any such appeal here).
Great value The Honor 8 delivers exceptional performance, a solid camera, modern design, and excellent battery life in a highly competitive price bracket.
Camera While I sometimes found images a bit washed out, the Honor 8 focused quickly and was a reliable daily shooter. Its low-light performance, I'd say, is probably class-leading.

The Not So Good

EMUI I know EMUI has its fans, but I cannot stand this interface. It is an affront to Android, both aesthetically and functionally. Did you know every time you install a new app in EMUI, the system won't let it run when the display is off (i.e., sync in the background) unless you go into an obscure settings menu and allow it to? No? And neither will most people who buy this phone. Get lost with this nonsense, Huawei.
Bugs I encountered some, and at least one that caused any video playback to just totally stop working until I rebooted the phone was what I'd call experience-breaking. Not a good look.
Network issues While the Honor 8 supports the necessary LTE bands for AT&T here in the US, I found actual LTE performance and signal utterly subpar. Where my other phones would have LTE, the Honor 8 would sometimes have 3G or even EDGE. This isn't acceptable.
Slippery Because the Honor 8 lacks even a rear camera hump, it's just a big slippery glass brick. I cannot count how many times I almost dropped this phone. Get. A. Case.
Proprietary fast charging The Honor 8 tops out at around 65% of Quick Charge 2.0 speeds on anything but the in-box charger (which allows full QC2.0 speeds). This is obnoxious. All the inconvenience of OnePlus's Dash without the blistering speed.

Hardware and design

DSC04392

The Honor 8 will immediately lose points with the anti-glass crowd for its rear panel, that’s a given. And it may too upset those who find its unused “chin” combined with software navigation keys to be an inefficient use of space. But in my opinion, the Honor 8 seems to be a very competently designed smartphone from a hardware perspective.

DSC04416

The very quick fingerprint scanner sits on the back for easy access, the power and volume keys have a nice, clicky action to them, and the phone lacks any kind of camera hump. Its design is far from what I’d call striking or memorable, but that also all but assures its inoffensiveness. The Honor 8 is a blank glass and metal canvas. In this dark blue tint, I find it walks the line between “Galaxy S7 retread” and “generic Chinese smartphone” well. It’s distinct enough to be identifiable, but there’s nothing about it that really stands out.

DSC04469

Next to its unofficial sibling

With a 5.2” display, the Honor 8 is also easy to palm and quite usable in one hand. Some will inevitably find it too large, some too small, but if you’re shopping the $400 unlocked phone market, the Honor 8 is in an increasingly rare size class. This alone could be a major draw to some.

The headphone jack and a USB-C port, along with the single bottom-firing speaker, line the lower portion of the device frame. Up top, there’s an IR blaster, something we see less and less on smartphones of any price.

DSC04424

Display

The Honor 8’s 1080p LCD display is fairly unremarkable. It doesn’t really get bright enough in the sun, viewing angles are very good if not outstanding, and colors are clearly oversaturated with no possibility to adjust the profile. Blacks are predictably more like dark grays, though light bleed on the panel edges is impressively subdued.

In short, the Honor 8’s screen gets the job done. It does seem quite power-efficient if the battery life of the phone is any indicator, so that’s welcome news. But compared to the increasingly-common AMOLED screens on phones in this price bracket, the Honor 8 will probably fall a bit short in most respects, though that’s not exactly a surprise.

DSC04438

It’s a good screen, and one that would have probably passed for great three years ago. Today, it’s adequate, and that’s just fine by me. Fewer pixels to push mean great battery life, too, and on a 5.2” display, 1080p is totally acceptable.

Battery life

I won’t leave you guessing: it’s great. Even with all power-saving features and app sleeping disabled, I easily get 4-5 hours of screen on time with the Honor 8. If you use those features (or more accurately, don’t turn them off), I think 6+ hours of screen time if you’re mostly on Wi-Fi is totally achievable out of the box.

DSC04430

Huawei’s Kirin chipset is well-known for being a power-sipper, and between that, the display, the large (for the size) 3000mAh battery, and whatever Huawei’s done under the hood, I don’t think the Honor 8’s battery life can be rightly considered anything less than above average, if not excellent.

Charging, on the other hand, can feel a bit slow. While the included proprietary fast charger will pump up to 18W of juice into the phone, it only does this up to a certain point. Once the phone reaches around 85% charge on the brick, it takes a full hour to get that last 15%, and it can be a bit agonizing if you’re like me and want to see how long the phone goes on a full charge. But in reality, this doesn’t matter quite so much, and probably serves to preserve the battery’s cycle life.

DSC04482

Perhaps more frustratingly, the Honor will pull down considerably less juice from a Quick Charge 2.0 or 3.0 brick. As far as I can tell it's a maximum of around 65% of the full 15-18W these chargers are capable of. For full speed, you’ll need Huawei’s included quick charger. And because the maximum charge amperage is 2A, no, this phone will not charge at full speed on a Nexus 5X or 6P charger. This seems like a misstep - Huawei already built a 3A/5V device with USB type C, why go back to an own-brand solution instead of at least using a common industry standard?

Audio and speakers

I had no issue with audio output from the Honor 8’s headphone jack, though I will concede it seemed to require a bit more cranking of the volume level than I’d expect on some phones. As such, if you’re someone who regularly has issues with the volume output of smartphone headphone jacks, be forewarned that the Honor 8 is not exceptional in this regard.

On the subject of the one bottom-firing speaker, well, sorry: it sucks. It sounds muffled, it doesn’t get very loud, and while it doesn’t distort too much at the limit, it’s just not powerful enough. Coupled with its sub-optimal positioning, I don’t really have anything nice to say about it.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The Honor 8 comes with either 32 or 64GB of internal storage - we’re reviewing the 32GB version. Storage speeds seem typical for an eMMC 5.1 NAND chip, with performance in benchmarks around that of the HTC 10. For the money, that's definitely good. Available space out of the box on this 32GB variant is around 24GB before you update all the preinstalled apps. By the time I had loaded my typical setup, available space was around 16GB.

DSC04397

Wireless performance is where things get iffy for me. Let’s start with mobile data: I’ve had repeat issues with the Honor 8 hanging onto an HSPA+ (3G) signal in areas that I knew to have strong LTE (4G) coverage. In 2016, I just don’t expect this to happen. Often, even reboots wouldn’t fix this, but the phone eventually would switch over seemingly at random. I’ve also had issues with Wi-Fi range on the Honor 8 - it kind of sucks. The phone regularly refuses to connect to my home Wi-Fi automatically because it finds the signal quality too poor, an issue the vast majority of devices I test do not have. Maybe some firmware updates can at least decrease the phone’s aggressive avoidance of poor Wi-Fi signal. In an unfortunately similar respect, I often found mobile data signal in general was weak, and even going back to my nearly two-year-old Nexus 6 provided a far better mobile network experience.

By contrast, call quality and general telephony functions have been excellent - I have no complaints here whatsoever. Granted, the Honor 8 doesn’t support VoLTE on AT&T, so I can’t speak to that.

Camera

The Honor 8 focuses quickly, and while colors can be washed out, low-light images are a cut above for a $400 smartphone. Devices like the OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7 have generally received middling reviews on imaging performance - good in strong light, weak in low, and sometimes wonky overall.

IMG_20160820_093854

While still not on the level of Samsung's Galaxy S7 or the results you can get from Google's HDR+ on Nexus devices, in dark environments the Honor 8 does a good job processing and cutting through noise without softening everything into a muddy blur.

IMG_20160827_203453_2

The camera app is fine - some have praised Huawei’s “pro” mode, and if that’s something you’re really interested in, it’s there. I wouldn’t call it more powerful than anything you can get on most phones out there, though, it really just has a flashier interface. You get adjustments for ISO, exposure time, white balance, focus mode, and EV. It’s not as though there’s some special added functionality with the second sensor or anything, so I’m a bit puzzled to have seen this receive so much attention - it’s basically like what you get in any phone’s manual mode.

IMG_20160821_093419

And yes, as many have now pointed out: there’s no dedicated monochrome mode in the camera app, unlike the Huawei P9. This is almost certainly because Huawei wants to preserve this as a “Leica” experience, and the Honor 8 lacks that Leica branding, despite the cameras themselves presumably being identical. You can always monochrome your images after the fact, though (even if it’s not quite the same).

So while I think the Honor 8's camera is good, it's certainly not amazing. I'm not really even sure what the point of the dual-camera setup is when the resultant images seem very average for a "budget flagship" device under most circumstances, even if the night performance may be a cut above the competition.

IMG_20160828_093623

Here, the Honor 8 exhibits rather washed-out colors and a very blue white balance. This was an issue on more than one occasion.

Bugs and other issues

Yep, this requires its own section. Here are problems I’ve had with the Honor 8 so far.

  • Phone sometimes latches onto a 3G connection and refuses to connect to LTE for no apparent reason, even though LTE coverage is available.
  • Wi-Fi auto-connect sometimes doesn’t work, is very slow when it does (5-10 seconds after turning on toggle).
  • NFC just turns itself off after every reboot, I have no idea if this is intentional.
  • Wi-Fi range is poor.
  • The phone’s video/media server process just dies sometimes, meaning the Honor 8 will refuse to play any video at all in any app until restarted or, perhaps, hours later when the process decides to start working again. This one is truly aggravating. (Note: Huawei is aware and claims this will be fixed soon, but I cannot recommend the phone until this is addressed - it is experience-breaking.)
  • Some notifications get formatted improperly, like Google Maps navigation (everything looks squished).

Performance

There’s no doubt that Huawei’s Kirin 950 chipset is quick. Benchmarks from the Huawei P9 (using the 955, which has a slightly higher clock speed) earlier this year shamed most competitors, and the Honor 8 is among the faster Android devices I’ve ever used, similar to the way I felt about the P9 when I used it. Motorola’s Moto Z is about the next quickest phone I can think of, and that device doesn’t get particularly good battery life.

DSC04436

Apps load lightning-fast, the phone moves around the OS smoothly and speedily, and it rarely stutters. Even the fingerprint scanner is shockingly quick.

But that Kirin chipset does constitute something of a deal with the ROM-less devil: community support for custom software on the Honor 8 will probably be dismal. Honor claims to have partnered with XDA to “support” the custom ROM community, but that still means people who build ROMs and hammer out the compatibility issues with Kirin have to actually buy the phone and want to modify it in the first place. So, the likelihood of flashing CyanogenMod to rid yourself of EMUI remains unclear at this point.

Software

I don’t like EMUI 4.1… at all. I realize the interface has its fans, and more power to you if you enjoy Huawei’s take on Android. If you do, you’ll find basically what you’d see on any Huawei device released in the last year or so. The system finally no longer puts squircles behind your app icons by default, hallelujah, which at least makes my homescreen less of an eyesore when I slap on Google Now Launcher.

DSC04442

The source of many of my woes while using the Honor 8: Huawei's EMUI 4.1

Everything else is still basically as obnoxious as it has ever been. Huawei’s dual-pane notification shade makes for a great case study. One pane for notifications, one for toggles - it is a usability dumpster fire leading to accidentally dismissed notifications constantly. Whoever designed this truly is just a masochist daft. The panes don’t even serve a purpose: you could easily fit collapsed quick settings in the area for the “Notifications” and “Shortcuts” tabs at the top with a second pull-down gesture to expand them, just like stock Android. But Huawei uses separate panes for no readily apparent reason. It is things like that this that absolutely ruin this phone’s software for me. Choices made arbitrarily to differentiate the device that openly flout well-established Android UI trends.

DSC04451

It’s like putting the ignition button for your car on top of the dashboard instead of the center console or steering column. People in China may expect or be accustomed to this layout, and good for them, but it is objectively more difficult to use and you are making it harder for customers not familiar with this layout to use your product. It is dumb.

This “our way or the highway” mentality extends to power management, too. By default, all newly-installed applications on the phone are not allowed to run when the screen is off. Every single time you install an app, you have to go into a special, buried menu in the settings to tell the phone it’s OK for that app to run in the background while the display isn’t on. This is insanity. Again: this may lead to a largely UX-positive outcome in malware and crapware-ridden China’s content wild west, but it makes no sense in the Western world. This behavior means that newly-installed apps generally won’t refresh at all when the screen is off, which is going to confuse and frustrate pretty much any person that it accustomed to, oh, I don’t know, normal push notification behavior.

DSC04447

A critical menu most Honor 8 owners will, unfortunately, never see - as it's buried deep in the settings app.

I could go on - I really could. I still cannot fathom how anyone could possibly like EMUI unless they actively seek to load their phone with the useless junk and notification spam it is built around combating. It boggles my mind. But EMUI 4.1 is allegedly not long for this world. EMUI 5 is coming with Android 7.0, and I have it on decent authority that the Honor 8 will be getting Nougat fairly quickly, at least as a beta. Now, do I know if EMUI 5 will solve all of my usability gripes about the skin? I have no idea. It may well be that everything will work exactly the same but look much better doing it. I don’t know.

DSC04454

Apps aren't even allowed to place notifications on the lockscreen or over the UI on the status bar for "toast" pop-ups. You have to turn this on for every. single. app. you want to be able do these things.

But as is? The Honor 8’s software is simply unlovable. There’s no sugarcoating it. Does it make the phone itself terrible? Of course not. I’ve been using the Honor 8 for over a week now and once I disabled all the battery-saving bullshit and added a custom launcher, at least some of my grievances were resolved.

But the labyrinthine settings, terrible notification layout, draconian background app behavior restrictions, and bizarre alterations of typical Android functionality keep me well and truly turned off of this phone. Still, if you’re not too concerned with learning a few new things and don’t mind much that this phone will never, ever feel as close to stock Android as even TouchWiz, EMUI may prove little more than an occasional annoyance that you learn to put up with.

DSC04462

I found the navigation bar oddly small and, as a result, prone to frequent missed presses.

But if you’re like me and value an Android phone’s ability to respect Android, this is not the kind of phone for you. It’s Huawei’s world, Android’s just living in it. Hopefully EMUI 5 will see them finally wise up. Based on what I’ve heard, I’m remaining optimistic that we’ll finally get a skin that values the underlying operating system a little more.

Conclusion

The Honor 8 is a contradiction. For the right person, this could be a great phone. But for many, it will constitute a hardware:software trade-off that just isn’t all that appealing. Underneath the kludgy EMUI and annoyingly slippery glass exterior lie the building blocks of a very good smartphone. If this phone ran stock Android - or at least stopped getting in Android’s way so much - I may very well have loved it.

There’s a very good camera. Great battery life. Great performance. And a great middle-of-the-road display size. But Huawei’s EMUI and a handful of annoying launch bugs make actually using the Honor 8 a constant battle for me. I encounter friction from the OS at every turn - something doesn’t work the way I expect it, and even once I become accustomed to it, find utterly annoying. An app wants permission to send a notification and I accidentally tap “deny” - now I have to go in and manually turn notifications for it back on. I’m not receiving notifications in a timely manner for a given app, only to realize I forgot to whitelist it to run in the background when I installed it. I can’t tell which app sent a notification in the bar, because EMUI doesn’t use app icons for notifications, but the second-level graphic you’d normally see after pulling down the tray (so for any chat app, the user’s avatar). Oops, I accidentally dismissed a notification I didn’t even have a chance to read because I was trying to swipe over to the quick settings pane! Even after using numerous Huawei devices configured this way, I cannot adapt. EMUI is inherently just a bear to use if you spend most of your life with “normal” Android devices. If I had to live with it, I could probably get used to it. But I'm sure of this: I would never like it.

But EMUI 5 is the big, mysterious turning point for Huawei’s software, supposedly. And when the Honor 8 gets it (and Android 7.0), this phone absolutely deserves a revisit. So I’m going to do something unusual: the Honor 8 doesn’t get my recommendation, but that may well change once the software undergoes this supposed transformation. But right now, for all the Honor 8 does right, I just can’t tell you this is a safe buy unless you know you’re OK with Huawei’s software. Two months from now could be a very different story, though.

DSC04488