A year ago, our Alex Dobie called the Honor 7 "a well-built, premium handset and a quick performer, [with] camera capabilities that stand out in the mid-range space." At the time, I had barely heard of the Honor line, but was impressed by the brand's slow encroachment into the Western market, which combined the aspirational hardware design of Huawei's high-end phones with a much more accessible name and price.
Now, with the Honor 8, the brand comes barrelling back into to the U.S. after a soft launch in 2015 with the Honor 5X, nominally sidestepping the continued reluctance of American carriers to accept anything with the Huawei name. But the Honor 8 is more than merely a reintroduction to a new market (it is also launching in Europe later this month): it is a statement of purpose, and a powerful one at that.
Honor 8 Specs
|Display||5.2-inch IPS LCD
|Processor||HiSilicon Kirin 950 octa-core
4xA72 @ 2.3Ghz + 4xA53 @ 1.8Ghz
|Storage||32GB / 64GB|
|OS||Android 6.0 with EMUI 4.1|
|Rear cameras||Dual 12MP (monochrome + color), f/2.2
1.25-micron pixel equivalent
|Front camera||8MP, f/2.4|
|SIM/MicroSD||Dual SIM in Asia
Single SIM with microSD (256GB) in Europe/U.S.
Quick Charge 2.0
|Other||Infrared, bottom mono speaker, VoLTE (T-Mobile only)|
|LTE Bands||LTE FDD: B1/B2/B3/B4/B5/B7/B8/B12/B17/B20|
|Dimensions||145.5 x 71 x 7.5 mm|
|Colors||Pearl White, Sapphire Blue, Midnight Black|
|Price||$399 (32GB) / $449 (64GB)|
Honor 8 The fundamentals
At its core, the Honor 8 is based off the impressive Huawei P9, and shares much of that phone's architecture, including its 5.2-inch 1080p display, dual 12MP sensors, and Android 6.0-based EMUI 4.1 software. But the Honor is a more youthful product, shipping in one of three reflective colors (Pearl White, Sapphire Blue, Midnight Black) whose hues shimmer and dance behind two panes of Gorilla Glass 3. The version I received, Sapphire Blue, instantly become my favorite thing ever, shifting in the sun's variability from dark to light and a thousand blue hues in between.
The extra gigabyte of memory gives the Honor 8 a bounce to its step that was lacking in the Huawei P9
As Alex mentioned in his preview, the Honor 8 looks like a cross between an Honor 6 and a Galaxy S7, both of which are great devices. Clad in a color-matched metal frame, the device feels both airy and robust, though like all glass phones it is extremely slippery. More than once I woke up to the phone on the floor after it gingerly slid off my purportedly-flat night table. No worse for the wear, though, the Honor 8 only needs a couple wipes with a microfiber cloth each day to remove the myriad fingerprints that inevitably plant themselves all over the front and back glass.
Inside, the HiSilicon Kirin 950 chip pairs with 4GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of expandable storage to fashion a hardware base that is more than capable of driving the Honor 8's excellent (and bright!) 1080p IPS display. On the one hand, the Kirin 950 is a regression from the 955 inside the Huawei P9 — its four 2.3Ghz Cortex-A72 chips are clocked 200Mhz slower — but the extra gigabyte of memory gives the Honor 8 a proverbial bounce to its step that was, according to our Phil Nickinson, lacking in its Huawei counterpart.
In my testing, the Honor 8 handled everything I threw at it with aplomb, easily standing up to the Exynos 8890 chip in the international Galaxy S7. HiSilicon's Kirin processors have improved immensely over the last two years, and the Kirin 950 is decidedly modern, built on a 16nm FinFET process and featuring eight 64-bit cores in a big.LITTLE array that resembles the best from Samsung (and to some extent Qualcomm).
Without getting too into the weeds, the introduction of another processor competitor to Samsung and Qualcomm in the U.S. is significant, especially given that the latter company practically monopolizes the mobile baseband market. Like Samsung, HiSilicon has built its own LTE modem into the Kirin 950, and while at maximum speeds of 300Mbps it is not quite as advanced as the competition, it stands to reason that the Huawei subsidiary will only continue to improve as it iterates.
Like the P9, the Honor 8 features a rear fingerprint sensor that is one of the fastest I've ever used. I place either of my index fingers on the back of the phone and the screen turns on. It's wonderful. Add to that a number of intuitive, why-didn't-anyone-else-think-of-that gestures such as swiping vertically to bring down the notification shade and it becomes more than a biometric tool.
The fingerprint sensor is also a button, adding even more gesture possibilities
The sensor — or the area around it — is also a button, adding even more possibilities. Though it does not replace the home button, double-pressing the the so-called Smart Key can be configured to open the camera app, or quickly turn on the flashlight. It all has the potential to become a bit complicated, and therefore a burden, but Honor has wisely made all of these features opt-in.
On the phone's bottom, you'll find a USB Type-C port flanked by a headphone jack and single speaker port. The speaker is, like most in its class, adequate but underwhelming, and doesn't come close to matching the front-facing stereo prowess of the ZTE Axon 7 or HTC 10. But this is also a very thin, minimal phone, and there wouldn't have been space on the face to sandwich in such hardware.
Longtime fans of the Honor series will be happy to know that the top of the phone features an IR blaster that pairs with the popular Smart Controller app. I was able to get my Yamaha receiver and Samsung television configured in about five minutes.
Honor 8 Software
In the past, you couldn't talk about Huawei or Honor without mentioning the divisive and often-frustrating software experience. While there are elements of that legacy on the EMUI 4.1 software of the Honor 8, most of the biggest issues have been corrected, including the garish and unusable icon sets that gave previous versions of the so-called Emotion UI a cartoonish feeling.
This launcher is a far cry from what you'll find on practically any Android phone shipping today
That's not to say Honor has rid itself of all its excess; as mentioned previously, there are plenty of settings and modes to tweak and toggle to make the phone feel decidedly yours, and the phone's launcher and notification shade constantly remind you that you're living a world away from Nexus, or even Samsung.
Specifically, the launcher has no app drawer, resembling — nay, mimicking — the iPhone homescreen. Sure, the home screens support widgets, but this is a far cry from what you'll find on practically any Android phone shipping today. That's fine, and easy enough to work around with a third-party launcher, but the notification shade is considerably more difficult to overlook, and forgive.
Honor heavily customizes the way notifications function, pinging you with requests to allow new apps to send notifications and a system to punish apps that use too much energy. It's certainly not unusable, and I quickly grew used to its idiosyncrasies, but it's something to keep in mind when buying this phone, and any handset from the Chinese manufacturer.
Honor has also bundled a number of apps, including Shazam and News Republic, along with a bevy of first-party utilities that, while useful, were quickly relegated to a folder (another reality it shares with the iPhone). Huawei is in the Samsung-circa-2014 era of app design, still determined to give its apps a unique visual flair, with no accordance to Google's Material Design guidelines. Its SMS app, for instance, has no onscreen back button, forcing you to use the titular navigation key — not a huge problem, but outside the bounds of a well-designed Android app.
I can't, and won't, bang on this drum too hard, and though I still take issue with some aspects of it, I quickly grew to enjoy using the Honor 8's software, quirks and all. And while this is my first real experience with EMUI, I understand from others that this is as clean, thoughtful and performant as it's ever been. Thank goodness for that.
Honor 8 Camera
The Honor 8 has a unique dual-camera setup, borrowed from the P9 (though without the price-inflating Leica branding): a 12MP color sensor, and an identical monochrome equivalent. Together, they are meant to create sharper, more vibrant photos, with better results in low light, even without optical image stabilization. While the daylight results are some of the best I've seen, the phone's lack of physical stabilization does impact its after-hours capabilities, though not as badly as devices with only one sensor.
The dual lenses are tack-sharp and focus instantly, buoyed by a camera app that makes capturing great photos easy
The f/2.2 lens(es) are tack-sharp and focus instantly, buoyed by a camera app that makes capturing great photos easy. Another benefit of the second sensor is the now-rote addition of manual refocus, since the second sensor captures depth information when the accompanying feature is enabled. As with rival Samsung there is no shortage of image modes, from Pro photo to Panorama to the aptly-named "Good food," which didn't seem to make my quick lunch of nachos and salsa any more photogenic. Like the Galaxy Note 7, this camera app is gesture-friendly — though it's a little sensitive, which means even the slightest of horizontal or vertical flourishes will activate one of the many menus or mode selectors.
While the Honor 8 lacks 4K video capture, it can do 1080p at 120fps, which is good enough for my internet sharing abilities. More than that, though, the phone manages to do a great job capturing beautiful photos in almost any condition.
Honor 8 Final Thoughts
I didn't expect to be as impressed by the Honor 8 as I am. While I haven't been able to do sufficient battery testing to determine whether the 3000mAh battery lives up to the competition, the phone has shown promise, refusing to drop below 20% in any of the days I've used the phone.
More than that, the Honor 8 consistently performs well, has a great screen, and captures fantastic photos, at a price that is sure to be significantly lower than the phone it is gunning for — the Galaxy S7.
It may not have the carrier support of its South Korean counterparts, but if this first salvo is any indication, and the price of previous Honor flagships a factor, it's going to do very well when it debuts at Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, B&H Photo, and Honor's online store in early September.