The Honor 8 brings premium hardware from the Huawei-owned brand to the United States for the first time — and that's a big deal.
The Honor 8 has officially launched in the United States, bringing increased competition to the $400-level "affordable flagship" segment. Owned by Chinese tech giant Huawei, Honor intends to challenge the likes of OnePlus among younger people and tech-savvy phone buyers with an impressive glass and metal design, impressive internals and a competitive price point. Throw in some serious pomp and ceremony — and celebrity brand ambassadors like Brooklyn Beckham — and you've got a notable product launch during what is turning into a very busy summer for smartphones.
But beyond the launch-day hype and beautiful hands-on photos, what really matters about the latest from Huawei and Honor? Let's dive in with some first thoughts.
1. It should actually be a good phone — because it's based on a good phone!
Instead of metal you've got glass. Instead of Kirin 955 you've got 950 (and thus slightly lower CPU speeds). And you don't get a gazillion LTE bands out of the box. But by all other metrics the Honor 8 is basically a Huawei P9, and that's a good thing. The P9 family — in particular the P9 Plus, with its 4GB of RAM — is the best we've seen from Huawei.
Unlike the Honor 5X, we should get decent performance out of Honor 8's combination of Kirin 950, 4GB of RAM and Android 6.0 Marshmallow — paired with Huawei's EMUI software layer. As of version 4.1, EMUI is faster and less objectionable than it's ever been, with many annoying traits like over-the-top icon customization finally going away for good.
2. Kirin in the U.S. is really important
The Honor 8 is the first phone to ship in the United States with a Kirin processor, designed and manufactured by the Huawei-owned HiSilicon. The benefits of using your own silicon in your own phone are obvious — more vertical integration means Honor (or Huawei, if you prefer) doesn't need to rely on Qualcomm's roadmap as it has for previous U.S. launches.
As for why we haven't seen Kirin in the U.S. before, that's likely due to the challenges in getting the chip certified for use in America. In recent years the U.S. legislature has criticised Huawei's apparent ties to the Chinese government, and thus geopolitics will inevitably come into play when it comes to any homegrown processor from the manufacturer. With the imminent arrival of the Honor 8 in the U.S., it would seem these issues have been largely resolved.
Kirin 950 might not be as fast as the very latest chips from Qualcomm (in our testing it falls somewhere between a Snapdragon 652 and the newest 820), but it's a capable processor, and something that gives Honor (and Huawei) phones a unique hardware feature to boast over rivals in the $400-450 price point.
3. 4GB of RAM is huge
In China, the Honor 8 comes in two configurations — 3GB RAM and 32GB storage and 4GB/64GB. Usually it's the lower-specced combination that goes global, but not this time.
The minutiae of smartphone specs are becoming less important with each passing generation, but the decision to ship the Honor 8 with 4GB of RAM in the U.S. (and hopefully Europe too — fingers crossed) is a big deal. The Honor 8's Huawei-branded cousin, the P9, shipped with 3GB and suffered for it. While it wasn't exactly slow out of the box, it could get bogged down with apps and background tasks in a way that the beefier P9 Plus doesn't.
In performance terms, the Honor 8 should be closer to our favorite Huawei phone to date, even at the slightly lower clock speeds of Kirin 950. (Compared to the speedier Kirin 955 of the P9 family.)
4. It's a shot aimed squarely at OnePlus
The upstart smartphone brand
basically owned by closely associated with Oppo is the real target of the Honor 8. With the OnePlus 3, that company has itself a hit on its hands — reviews heap praise on OnePlus's latest, and the phones are flying off the shelves. It's a well deserved success for a very new smartphone brand that's finally growing up.
A similar relationship exists between Honor and Huawei, albeit with fewer mirrors and less smoke. Both OnePlus and Honor exist to establish a foothold in the West with a combination of decent specs and laser-focused pricing. (The same is true of ZTE's Axon brand to a certain extent.) So it's surely no accident that the base model Honor 8 is priced at exactly the level of the OnePlus 3.
Time will tell which phone wins out among enthusiasts. Huawei has expandable storage and unique camera features going for it. Meanwhile OnePlus has the edge in raw horsepower and brand recognition, as well as a more palatable software experience in OxygenOS.
5. This is just the beginning
Honor isn't messing around here. With a glitzy San Francisco launch event and a big online marketing push, the brand is serious about the U.S. market, and in the Honor 8 it finally has as phone that's good enough to make a real impact. But this isn't just a blip.
As we've discussed before, Huawei's due some major software changes, and the imminent arrival of EMUI 5 — likely based on Nougat, if recent leaks are any indicator — should address EMUI 4.1's remaining quirks and bugbears. Huawei's software is nowhere near as bad as it once was, but still it remains a point of weakness in the company's 2016 handsets. If EMUI 5 addresses this as thoroughly as we expect it to, with features like Google-style notifications, a proper app drawer and other visual tweaks, things could get really interesting.
And as a Huawei-owned brand, Honor will eventually benefit from all those changes too.
- Honor 8 review
- Honor 8 specs
- 5 things to know about the Honor 8 in Europe
- All the Honor 8 news
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