Honor 8 review: Champagne specs on a beer budget

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Hands-on review of the Huawei Honor 8 smartphone(Credit: Emily Ferron/New Atlas)

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Chinese technology giant Huawei just introduced its Honor 8 smartphone to the US market. This US$400 phone boasts a 12 MP dual-lens rear camera, 8 MP front camera, glass body, expandable storage, 4 GB of RAM and other specs that echo the best of this year's top-of-the-line flagships. Is it worth forsaking more established brands to cop an Honor 8? Let's take a look.

Body & build

At first glance, the Honor 8 looks solidly average. Its dimensions fall squarely in the range of recent mid-range phones; it's just a smidge taller and thinner than the Samsung Galaxy S6 or an iPhone 6S. Its 5.2-inch IPS display has 1,920 x 1,080, or 423 PPI resolution, so it's lower-res than some with a relatively high pixel density.

The phone's glass body is a standout, but not necessarily in a good way. Huawei plays up the "15-layer craftsmanship" and "light-catching glass finish" but to me, the glass looks and feels more like plastic. The aluminum alloy frame feels light and plasticky too, a far cry from the satisfying metallic density of an iPhone. Our test phone is the "blue sapphire" color – which is a nice alternative to the usual neutrals – so it is possible that the uncommon hue contributes to my personal impression of cheapness.

An upside of the plasticky body? A lack of fussiness can be appealing. We did not subject our test phone to extensive scratch or shatter testing, but it does seem like a more rugged, playful device than most. If a slightly plasticky feel means that it's finally reasonable to use a smartphone without a case, then sign me up. The Honor 8 might not hit this target, but it does come closer.

The other distinctive feature of the Honor 8 build is its back-mounted fingerprint sensor. It's somewhat inconvenient to use, especially for the smaller-handed among us. But it does work as advertised, unlocking the phone instantly upon your touch. When the phone's in operation, touching the sensor is a shortcut that launches Google.

Camera

The Honor 8 has several camera features that seem on par with those on the new iPhone 7 Plus, which is receiving a lot of hype over its camera improvements. Both have dual-lens 12 megapixel rear cameras with advanced bokeh effects.

Bokeh-heavy image taken with the Honor 8. Note the background blur.(Credit: Emily Ferron/New Atlas)

But there's an important distinction to be made: Not all dual-lens cameras are created equal, so don't be fooled by the twin monikers. The iPhone 7 Plus has a standard lens and an additional telephoto lens, which allows for optical zoom and sharper shooting from a distance. On the other hand, the Honor 8 has one lens that captures monochrome and one that catches full color. This pairing leads to sharper images and better lit captures, but its effects are difficult to quantify, and we think that optical zoom is a more impressive application for a dual-lens camera.

The biggest strengths of the Honor 8 camera are its digital aperture manipulation and its super-sharp selfie snaps. Apple has announced that the iPhone 7 Plus will be able to apply the kind of bokeh effects up until this point only possible with DSLRs, but the Honor 8 is already doing this well: Tap the screen to identify the object of focus, and slide the onscreen aperture control to mimic the effects of changing the aperture on a DSLR.

Also, the Honor 8's 8 MP front-facing camera is simply one of the sharpest selfie cameras out there (iPhone 7 Plus has 7 MP). Unlike some other manufacturers, Huawei prioritizes selfie-taking over other features like low-light shooting, and it shows.

The camera is also heavy with a slew of software effects, some which some may consider borderline ridiculous. For example, the selfie camera has a "beauty mode" where you can instruct the camera to render you with bigger eyes, a thinner face or a number of other changes to your facial structure. These settings might be fun to play with, but they strike us as flash-in-the-pan features rather than long-term innovations (and we've also seen similar features on rival phones dating back a couple of years).

Operating system & performance hardware

As of now, Honor 8 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with a proprietary skin over it. It strikes us as not-far-from-stock Android, with a few interfaces that knock off iOS in a rather hollow way. The Honor OS even has a version of Apple's iOS 10 HomeKit feature. Huawei has not announced if or when the Nougat upgrade will become available.

The Honor 8 OS has a smart home-controlling feature similar to iOS 10's HomeKit. 

Honor 8 also has 4 GB of RAM (twice as much as last year's iPhone) and a powerful octa core Hisilicon Kirin 950 processor. It's only available with 32 GB of built-in storage, but it does have a microSD slot for expansion up to 128 GB. All in all, its hardware specs rival those of phones that are at least $100-$200 more expensive.

Networks & availability

If you haven't heard of Huawei or the Honor 8, it's because they're just beginning to expand to the US. Huawei (pronounced wah-way, by the way) is a big Chinese mobile technology company that makes phones, laptops, tablets, wearables and more.

Honor 8 is not being sold by any US carrier, so visibility has been limited. Instead, US customers need to order an unlocked phone directly from the Huawei website. No payment installation plans are available, so unlike buying from a carrier, you'll have to plunk down the cash up front.

The Honor 8 ships unlocked, but note that it is not compatible with all networks. It only supports one CDMA band, so Verizon, Sprint and US Cellular are all out of the question. If you're thinking about taking the plunge, double check network compatibility before you buy.

Conclusion

Overall, the Honor 8 is an agile, affordable phone with several specs and features borrowed from high-end phones. But since the operating system is just OK, its looks are debatable, network compatibility in the US is limited, and there aren't any handy payment options, a more expensive phone purchased through your carrier may be a better purchase.

However, Honor 8 is a solid option for the gadgeteer/power user intent on the best specs for the lowest price. To see how it stacks up against this year's other offerings, our 2016 smartphone comparison guide is a good place to start.

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