In the past ten months since it shipped the Nexus 6P, Huawei has firmed up its place among the best Android manufacturers when it comes to industrial design. Sure, the software has often been a whole other mess, but it's hard to argue with the build quality of phones like the P9 and P9 Plus. Huawei makes good stuff — hardware that deserved a spot next to the Galaxy S7
But premium hardware often demands a premium price tag, and that's where the Chinese firm is looking to differentiate itself through a new mid-level line: Huawei Nova.
Nova is a new "mid-tier" brand for Huawei, sitting below the flagship P series in the grand scheme of things, aimed at a slightly younger audience with discerning tastes, big battery demands and a the need to take lots of photos. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's not unlike the "digital natives" pitch from Huawei's other brand, Honor. But a company spokesperson told us they're not worried about any crossover between Nova and Honor. Honor operates as a separate company, mainly through online channels, while Nova looks to be a carrier-based proposition under Huawei. (For what it's worth, Nova's audience is described as "dynamic aspirers," in case "digital natives" wasn't quite cringey enough for you.)
But onto the phones themselves. In an era when mid-level handsets still have a tendency to be functional and frumpy, Huawei brings its top-tier industrial design to Nova in two form factors. As with the P9 line, there's a choice of two screen sizes — 5 inches for the regular Nova, 5.5 for the Nova Plus. And in physical terms, both devices have echoes of some earlier Huawei designs.
The Nova resembles a shrunken-down Nexus 6P, with a stylish glass band containing its camera and chamfers adorning the front and back. It's altogether less bulky than the 6P however, with no protruding "wedge," and a thickness of just under 7 mm. Given the smaller footprint, slimmer body and slightly angled sides, it's a comfortable fit in the hand, and at a screen size that for many still represents the sweet spot for smartphones. Though arguably a little generic, it looks good and feels good, and isn't going to weigh you down.
The regular Nova looks like a tiny Nexus 6P, the Nova Plus a shrunken-down Mate 8.
Despite this, Huawei's packed in a 3020 mAh battery — a reasonable capacity which, combined with Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 625, the company claims can deliver two days of use per charge.
The 625 is the successor to the older Snapdragon 615 — a chip which has (rightfully) earned a reputation of being dog slow, power-hungry and running hot. Fortunately, thanks to a quicker GPU and a more efficient manufacturing process, the 625 shows none of these issues. So there's every reason to expect the Nova to strike a better balance of performance and power-saving. And that'll surely be helped along by the fact that the regular Nova's only running a 5-inch 1080p IPS LCD, as opposed to a larger panel.
When it comes to imaging, the Nova inherits some of the Huawei P9's imaging chops, with a 12-megapixel sensor boasting 1.25-micron pixels. That's the same as the P9 on paper — and may even be the same sensor as that phone — only without the contrast-enhancing monochrome sensor backing it up.
|Category||Huawei Nova||Huawei Nova Plus|
|Operating System||Android 6.0, EMUI 4.1||Android 6.0, EMUI 4.1|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 625||Qualcomm Snapdragon 625|
|Storage||32GB + microSD||32GB + microSD|
|Display||5-inch 1080p IPS LCD||5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD|
|Dual SIM||Yes (hybrid slot)||Yes (hybrid slot)|
|Main Camera||12MP, 1.25-micron pixels||16MP, OIS|
|Front Camera||8MP f/2.0||8MP f/2.0|
|USB||Type C||Type C|
Switch up to the Nova Plus and you're dealing with a larger 5.5-inch screen, still at 1080p, and a chassis that looks more like a shrunken Huawei Mate 8 than anything. The Plus swaps its futuristic camera visor for a traditional camera bump, while switching up to an optically-stabilized 16-megapixel camera (presumably with smaller pixels around the standard 1.1-micron level). It's also ever so slightly more rounded than the smaller model, but besides that many of the design traits carry over — subtly curved metal back, brushed aluminum and chamfers that help break things up visually while helping with grip.
The bump up to Nova Plus gets you a larger screen, a bigger battery and a camera with OIS.
Both cameras performed similarly in our brief time with the Nova series ahead of the announcement, though we suspect the Plus's OIS chops will help it pull ahead in darker conditions. There's no Leica branding to be seen here, and instead the Nova and Nova Plus both use the standard Huawei camera app — but that also has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, including "Pro" mode for manually controlling ISO and shutter speed, and a light-painting apps to create artistic shots when the phone's mounted to a tripod.
In any case, the Plus's larger size makes it a little more difficult to wrangle one-handed, but it's no worse in this respect than its high-end counterpart, the P9 Plus. The camera bump is perhaps a little unfortunate, but the trade-off in low-light performance should be worth it. Nova Plus owners should also benefit from even better battery life, with Huawei promising 2.2 days of use from the 3,340mAh fixed cell.
When it comes time to charge, you'll power up both the Nova and Nova Plus over USB Type-C, with the Nova series being one of a growing number of mid-level handsets to use the latest reversible connector. Huawei isn't saying anything about quick-charging support at the moment, but that's perhaps not surprising given that it's traditionally done its own thing in this area.
EMUI is still a mixed bag, but there's more good stuff than ever before.
Both handsets are powered by Android 6.0 Marshmallow and Huawei's EMUI 4.1 software layer. As we've said many times before, the latest version of Huawei's UI fixes a lot of the things that were either annoying or straight-up broken about previous versions, though it remains a highly customized variant of Android, with an iOS-style lock screen and notification setup. There are tons of useful little features to discover if you go looking, and EMUI is pretty good about keeping apps in check to safeguard battery life. That said, you'll probably have to manually tweak things to keep background apps working as expected. And it also takes some tweaking to get EMUI looking like the Android you might be familiar with. But at least it's no longer messing with all your app icons.
EMUI is still long overdue a complete overhaul — and by all accounts it appears to be getting one with the upcoming EMUI 5 release, based on Android 7.0. It's a shame it's not ready in time to debut on the Nova series, but then we wouldn't necessarily expect such a major software upgrade to appear first on a mid-tier device.
Overall, it's kinda crazy to think that this is what a mid-range phone looks like today. The Huawei Nova series isn't the highest of the high-end, but their design build quality convey flagship aesthetics. And they also have the potential to exceed expectations in camera and battery performance.
But the main takeaway here is how premium design no longer has to demand an excessive price tag. Although I've only spent a short amount of time with the Nova series so far, I'm impressed — these metal-bodied beasts wouldn't look out of place at the €500 mark. And the internals are solid too. It's just a shame that, as ever, these phones come with a big software-related asterisk — at least until the next major firmware upgrade arrives.
The Huawei Nova will be available in 50 countries starting October. Launch countries include Germany, Austria, France and Spain. Pricing starts at €399 for the Nova, and €429 for Nova Plus.