Expensive, top-tier phones are all well and good. But over the past year, the £300-400 mark is where some of the most meaningful innovation has been happening. Huawei has dabbled in this market through its Honor brand, and its answer to this for the mainstream market is Nova, a new series of mid-tier phones. The Huawei Nova and Nova Plus bring similar specs to two different screen sizes, with a particular focus on camera performance and battery life.
So how do they measure up? Let's find out.
About this review: We're publishing this review after three weeks using the Huawei Nova and Nova Plus, on and off, in Berlin, Germany and Manchester and London, UK. Throughout our travels, we used the phones on the EE, Vodafone and Telekom.de networks. The regular Nova (model CAN-L11) was running firmware version B005, while our Nova Plus (model MLA-L11) was running firmware version B130. For part of our time with the Nova Plus, it was paired with a Huawei Watch.
Huawei brings its metal expertise to the mid-range.
Huawei's been making attractive metal smartphones for a few years now, and its design expertise is plain to see in the Nova and Nova Plus. Externally, the 5-inch Nova and 5.5-inch Nova Plus don't immediately strike you as being part of the same family of phones — but both share a few common design flourishes: subtly curved brushed metal backs, lustrous chamfers that add visual flair without making the corners sharp, and a generally slim profile that makes them pocket-friendly.
The smaller of the two has echoes of the Nexus 6P, with its wraparound "visor" up top, housing the rear camera. (Which tapers at the edges to match the curvature of the metal.) The Nova's lines are softer than the 6P's however, and the phone is generally less bulky, even aside from its smaller overall size. The Nova's edges are slightly curved, and have a polished, brushed finish which breaks things up visually.
Aside from the orange accent around the power key, the Nova's design is pretty understated: The front is featureless except for the earpiece and Huawei logo, and the metal frame isn't unlike that of many comparable phones. Nevertheless, it's a simple, classy look, with tight tolerances and impressive build quality.
The step up to Nova Plus changes things up a bit — you've got a more traditional camera bulge around the back, on account of the beefier camera module, while the fingerprint sensor has been redesigned to match the shape of the camera. As such, you lose the cool Cylon-style glass section up top, and the overall look of the device is a bit more generic as a result. The entire body is traditional brushed aluminum, with fewer visual accents to break things up. From a distance, the Nova Plus could easily be a OnePlus 3, or Mate 8, or any other slightly larger Android slab.
On the inside, both phones pack Qualcomm's latest mid-range wonder, the Snapdragon 625, along with an ample 3GB of RAM. The 625 is legendarily fast and efficient, as we've discovered recently through phones like the Moto Z Play. Thanks to the new 14nm manufacturing process and a beefier GPU, the 625 can (unlike its predecessor, the Snapdragon 615) handle Android 6.0 on a 1080p display with ease. There's only a small difference in perceptible performance compared to high-end Huawei phones running Kirin 955, and you basically need to have both side-by-side to be able to see the difference.
In terms of casual gaming performance and benchmark scores, the larger Nova actually outclasses the Nexus 6P on Nougat, which probably says more about Snapdragon 810's thermal/throttling issues than anything. (As well as the lower screen resolution.)
In any case, there's more than enough performance to go around, and both Novas run remarkably cool compared to previous-gen phones using Snapdragon 615.
You'll also get 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM in both models, along with micro-SD expansion through Huawei's hybrid slot, which lets you load a second SIM or an SD card, but not both at the same time.
The other advantage of a cool, efficient CPU is battery life. The Nova sports a 3,020mAh battery, while the Nova Plus steps up to 3,340mAh. Huawei's own numbers give mixed usage numbers of 2 days for the smaller model and 2.2 days for the larger one, and to our surprise, we've found these numbers are more or less on the money.
With our usage patterns jumping between LTE and Wi-Fi throughout the day, streaming music and using social apps like Twitter, and browsing the web in Chrome, we were finishing the day with at least 50 percent battery remaining on the Nova Plus, with around four hours of screen on time.
Both phones are battery champions — largely thanks to big power packs and an efficient new CPU.
We didn't push the regular Nova quite as hard, but using the device as an LTE hotspot in areas with mixed coverage drained the battery by about 10 percent per hour, which is impressive. You're looking at essentially a full day of tethering per charge from a relatively svelte handset.
When it comes to display quality, both Nova and Nova Plus boast 1080p panels, at 5 and 5.5 inches respectively, and both are comparable in terms of brightness, vibrancy, and daylight visibility. (Which is to say they're pretty good across the board, if not as spectacular as the P9's 1080p IPS NEO panel.) The default white balance levels for both phones have colors appearing slightly noticeably cooler than other phones, but levels can be adjusted under Huawei's display settings.
The only noteworthy hardware disappointment is the lack of 5GHz Wi-Fi support in both models — a bizarre omission considering many cheaper phones offer this capability. It's not a deal-breaker, but if is disappointing to miss out on (potentially) faster connectivity in a €400+ device.
Imaging is another point where the two devices diverge. The regular Nova has basically half of the Huawei P9's camera loadout — a 12-megapixel sensor behind a f/2.2 lens with 1.25-micron pixels — but with no secondary monochrome lens, nor laser autofocus. The Nova Plus bumps things up to a 16-megapixel sensor with smaller pixels, but behind a brighter f/2.0 lens with OIS (optical image stabilization.) On paper it's identical to the camera of the OnePlus 3 and Huawei Mate 8.
It feels like the two halves of the phone's software are at odds with each other.
Both cameras perform similarly in daylight, though the Nova Plus pulls ahead slightly with superior dynamic range. HDR mode irons out some of those kinks, but it's still disappointing to see no auto-HDR mode in Huawei's camera app. The camera's capable Pro and Super Night modes come into their own in low light, particularly in the Nova Plus, which handles itself well in darker conditions. Pro mode gives you full control over white balance, ISO and shutter speed, among other things, while Super Night mode combines several exposures into one clear image for night photography.
Bottom line: The Nova's camera is decidedly average overall — decent in daylight, but disappointing in the dark considering the price. If photography is a top priority, the Nova Plus's OIS-equipped shooter is far more dependable in a variety of lighting conditions.
The Nova Plus boasts superior low-light performance.
OIS also helps in video recording, where the Nova Plus produces smoother footage with fewer jitters. That said, neither performs spectacularly as a video camera, with noise creeping in in darker conditions. You do at least benefit from Snapdragon 625's 4K video support, so Ultra HD video recording is possible on both devices.
As patchy as the Novas' rear cameras can be at times, it's great to see that the front camera adapts far more easily to darker conditions. And Huawei's range of beauty options will let you pretty up yourself, sometimes to terrifying extremes.
On the software side, both Novas run EMUI 4.1, as we've seen on several previous phones — Honor 8, P9, P9 Plus — and Huawei's interface layer adds a feature-dense suite of capabilities atop Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Huawei's software is highly customized, with an iOS-style home screen, lock screen notifications that'll seem weird and unwieldy to most Android users, and a notification pulldown that straight-up breaks some apps. EMUI remains fast, and full of some genuinely useful features — like the ability to tweak color balance directly, see how much data tethering is using and set specific limits accordingly, and use fingerprint scanner gestures to swipe down notifications, launch calls, and take pictures.
But make no mistake: EMUI still takes some getting used to. It's nowhere near as bad as it used to be, and themes make it easier to live with, but until we hit EMUI 5 and Android Nougat, it's still one of the more obnoxious Android "skins" out there. It's not necessarily that it looks bad, just that many of Huawei's design decisions clash with the way Google does things, which leads to a feeling that two halves of the phone's software are at odds with each other.
Two excellent, if slightly overpriced, mid-range phones.
Overall, the Huawei Nova and Nova Plus are two excellent, if slightly overpriced mid-range phones. As always with Huawei, the build quality is excellent and performance is just fine, but software remains a sticking point. If you can get past (or even learn to like) EMUI, both phones deliver exceptional battery life, pretty good cameras and a choice of two form factors: The regular Nova is svelte and pocket-friendly, while the Nova Plus packs in a significant camera upgrade and a small battery bump alongside its bigger display.
It's the price tag which gives us pause, though. At €399 for the Nova, and €429 for Nova Plus, you're butting up against the OnePlus 3 and Honor 8, both of which give you more performance for your money. But if battery life is a top priority — or you can pick up either phone at a discount — both the Nova and Nova Plus are worth considering.