I can't tell the last time we've been asked by so many people for one specific comparison. This is the hype machine at work, with two phones that aesthetically couldn't be more different artificially paired by the most important consideration of all, price.
The two phones I am talking about are, of course, the OnePlus 3 and the Honor 8, both priced at $399 and offering well-rounded spec sheets that jump off the page in one more than one area. But which one is better depends on what you value in a smartphone, and how amenable you are to a software that errs on the side of eccentric (in this case the Honor 8, but potentially soon the OnePlus 3, too).
(There's another phone that should be in this comparisons, the ZTE Axon 7, a pretty great $399 phone that does most everything well. Suffice it to say, we'll be including it in future roundups, but the high-profile nature of the OnePlus 3 and Honor 8 necessitate a head-to-head.)
These two phones couldn't be more different unless one was made of, say, maple syrup. Fine, I won't go that far but for the same price you're getting a drastically different chassis and, for the most part, internal makeup.
Let's start with the more traditional of the two, the OnePlus 3. Eschewing the metal-and-sandpaper combination of its predecessor, the OnePlus 3 is a beautifully-crafted all-metal phone with soft angles, visible antenna lines, and a small camera bump. I would say it looks like an iPhone except that an iPhone looks like every other phone these days, so let's split the difference and say though in losing some of its distinctiveness the OnePlus 3 appears mature and confident its averageness.
The OnePlus 3 is a big phone, though: at 5.5-inches, with a hefty bottom bezel to house the front fingerprint sensor, it's not a one hand-friendly phone for many. And while its 1080p display has been criticized, I'm a fan: it's sharp and saturated, with lovely colors, ample (albeit less than remarkable) brightness and endless viewing angles. Below the phone lives a single speaker, a headphone port, and a USB-C port. What's remarkable about the OnePlus 3 is how unremarkable it is, and how much value you get for the price.
The Honor 8 approaches that value-conscious narrative from a very different place. All diminutive form factor and reflective glass, the phone is derived from the more-expensive, and arguably less interesting, Huawei P9. The 5.2-inch 1080p display may be slightly sharper than the OnePlus 3's, but they are comparable in most other respects; it is vivid and responsive, with excellent viewing angles and good-not-great maximum brightness.
I find it fascinating that both phones get to a similar place from such divergent designs.
In my hands, despite the slippery and fingerprint-soaking nature of its rear glass, the Honor 8 gets my pick, mainly for its size. The bottom ports are mirror images of the OnePlus 3's, with the same etched mono speaker grill, USB-C and headphone port. And while the larger phone boasts a mute toggle on its left side above the volume keys — another similarity to the iPhone — the Honor 8 looks like nothing I've ever used, especially from the back. With dual cameras (more on that later, obviously), and a rear fingerprint sensor that doubles as a button, this thing has gimmick written all over it.
And yet there is nothing gimmicky about either of those features (well, nothing much). Let's start with the rear fingerprint sensor: it's very fast, one of the fastest I've used, and combined with some of EMUI's gestures and button combinations, it's a joy to use. Seriously, it's an honor to use the Honor 8's fing... OK, I'll show myself out.
Above it, the dual 12MP rear camera sensors are intriguing to look at, but work very simply: one takes a photo in color, and the other in monochrome. Though it's possible to do all kinds of depth-related tricks in Huawei's convoluted camera app, left on Auto the two sensors combine to take just great daytime photos. But so does the OnePlus 3's 16MP shooter. Neither are wonderful at night, and don't compare well to the kings of low-light, the Galaxy S7 and Note 7, but that's to be expected from phones nearly half the cost.
It may be trite to say, but I find it fascinating that both phones get to a similar place from such divergent designs. The Honor 8 is slippery to a fault, but otherwise incredibly comfortable and perfect for one-handed use. The OnePlus 3 is a known quantity if you've used a big phone over the past couple of years. But I couldn't tell you which is the better phone just from holding and eyeing them; each will attract a particular type of user and you'll know who you are right away.
Internally, things are a bit different. The OnePlus 3, with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chip, is more powerful than the Honor 8, which boasts a Kirin 950. All things being equal, the differences between the two chips, at least from a CPU perspective, are slight. Where the two really differ is in the speed of their graphics processors, with the Adreno 530 in the OnePlus 3 coming out way ahead. In real-world comparisons the differences are small, but you should know that going in to the purchase that the long-term prospects for the Snapdragon are slightly more auspicious than the Kirin 950, which isn't even the fastest variant in Hisilicon's current lineup.
Both phones, however, have ample amounts of RAM, the Honor 8 4GB and the OP3 6GB, and provide a fluid experience. Short of comparing benchmarking (which I did, and the OnePlus 3 came out ahead by a small margin in every instance) I found little between them, even though the OnePlus 3 has what appears to be a software layer with considerably less overhead than Huawei's divisive EMUI 4.1.
With dual cameras and a rear fingerprint sensor that doubles as a button, the Honor 8 has gimmick written all over it — but they're not gimmicks at all.
The OnePlus 3 does have double the storage — 64GB to 32GB in the Honor 8 — though it lacks a microSD slot for expandable storage. But in lieu of expandable storage, it has an extra slot for a second SIM card, which is increasingly useful to many travelers, both in the East and West. Honor offers a dual-SIM variant in Europe, but forgoes that option in the U.S., where such a configuration is uncommon.
Here's where the two phones diverge: Honor's EMUI 4.1 layer, though based on Android 6.0, is not great. It's good in places, sure, but there are areas, like the notification shade and app drawer-lacking launcher, that feel, to a Canadian used to doing things a certain way, change for change's sake.
The OnePlus 3, on the other hand, looks remarkably like a Nexus device from a software perspective. But there are small hints, from the optional Shelf that stands in for Google Now in the launcher, to support for app-launching gestures, that remind you this is made by a company influenced as much by Xiaomi as by Google.
My biggest issue with the Honor 8's software is the unabashed disturbing of the sacred notification shade.
Let's be clear: there are some great ideas in the Honor 8's software. In particular, I like the way Huawei makes full use of the rear fingerprint sensor-button combo to do things like quickly launch apps, run shortcuts, or (my personal favorite) lower the notification shade. Every phone with a rear fingerprint sensor should do this (looking at you, LG). And I'm not outright dismissing the no-app-drawer launcher idea, either: to some extent the app drawer is an anachronism, a throwback to a much earlier time in the Android world. But this only works as long as you keep things organized.
My biggest issue with the Honor 8's software is the blatant — there's no right way to say this — fuckery of the notification area. Persistent notifications, such as a Google Maps direction banner, are egregiously squashed and basically unusable. Other apps push notifications as banners that overlay in ugly, disruptive ways over the active app. It's all just bad, and wrong.
The good news is that it seems like Huawei is slowly learning, since good guy Alex Dobie tells me things used to be a lot worse in the Huawei space. Being the first EMUI-based device I've ever used, I will take him at his word and be thankful I didn't have to suffer through that super awkward phase. Even better, EMUI 5.0, based on Nougat, is reportedly much better, and has reverted the notification shade to something more along the lines of what Google intended for Nougat. We shall see.
The flip side is that though OxygenOS 3 has grown into a pretty powerful, stock-plus-useful-features build of Android Marshmallow, there are bad tidings that suggest, due to internal unrest, the company's software is now being overseen by the team in charge of the much less Western market-friendly HydrogenOS. OnePlus assured me that things won't change for the worse, and any changes to OxygenOS going forward will be measured, but I'm not so sure.
Either way, I'd give the overall edge to OnePlus here, even if its gesture support isn't quite as good.
The funny thing about the cameras on both of these devices is that, like their designs, on paper they couldn't be more different, and yet their output is remarkably similar.
As I said earlier, the Honor 8 sports two 12-megapixel sensors, one color and one monochrome. You don't have to toggle anything to take advantage of the second sensor's optics, and it's certainly true that it confers an ample amount of additional detail to daylight photos. I was really impressed with the photos I took on the Honor 8, and that's not even getting into the myriad modes, options and toggles in Huawei's mostly good camera app. Yes, there's an excellent manual mode, too.
The OnePlus 3 takes great photos, too, in most situations. It has the advantage of boasting optical image stabilization, which the Honor 8 lacks, so low-light photos are slightly better (though still not great). In fact, I found that the OnePlus 3 takes better indoor photos as well, since its OIS is able to keep the sensor more stable at lower shutter speeds, preventing the blur that, in the same scene, crept into the Honor 8.
In daylight, the Honor tends to shoot a little bit warmer and deals with areas of high contrast a little better, but there isn't a huge difference between them. And while the number of features in the Honor 8's camera eclipses that of the OnePlus 3, the latter's is much easier to master. At night, the OnePlus 3 uses its OIS to great effect, eking much sharper photos than the Honor 8. It also ramps up the ISO, which offers a vividness that, for some reason — even with two sensors — the Honor 8 isn't willing to do. The above nighttime shot sees the Honor 8 stick to ISO800 at 1/15; the OP3 ratchets up the sensitivity to ISO2000 at 1/17, and produces a much better photo as a result. Impressively, despite the increased light sensitivity, grain isn't an issue on the larger device.
In all, despite the extra sensor, I don't think the Honor 8 offers a superior photo-taking experience, from the software stack to the hardware itself. The OnePlus 3 consistently takes photos that, in my review, I preferred over its Huawei-built counterpart. That's not to say the differences are huge, but they're certainly noticeable.
Which should you buy? OnePlus 3
That's the big question, isn't it? Both the OnePlus 3 and the Honor 8 are surprisingly strong phones for $399, and each has its advantages over the other. While the Honor 8 is arguably more visually arresting, with its reflective glass backing that, especially in blue, draws the eye, the OnePlus 3 is more robust and is more likely to withstand a fall. It's also got a faster processor and slightly better camera, with software that doesn't feel as painted on as the Honor 8.
It remains to be seen whether the shakeup within the OnePlus software division negatively affects the quality of its releases in the long term. It's also going to be interesting to see whether Huawei can significantly improve the quality of its own EMUI and — even more important — push it out to the Honor 8 at a decent speed.
Until then, you can't go wrong with either phone, but you can go less wrong with the OnePlus 3.
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