Nova and Nova Plus review: Huawei’s polished mid-rangers don't quite hit their mark
Huawei's 2016 expansion plans continue, this time with a pair of mid-range phones aiming to offer premium stylings alongside an affordable price tag. Here's what we thought of the 5-inch Nova and the 5.5-inch Nova Plus.
Take either phone out of the box, and straight away you're impressed with the fit and finish of these devices. Like the P9 before them, the Nova and Nova Plus feel like premium smartphones, even if their internal components are definitely in the mid-range.
Huawei's design team might not be the most original in its thinking but these phones look great and feel stylish in the hand. Pleasing curves, smooth materials (the standard aluminum and glass combination, with a touch of plastic) and excellent, bright displays combine for an end result that's almost up to an iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S7 level of aesthetics – not bad at all for phones at this price point.
For anyone who's handled the Huawei P9, this design quality won't be a huge surprise: whatever the Chinese firm is doing, it's working.
The display size is of course one of the major differences here, with the Nova sporting a 5-inch, 1,080 x 1,920 pixel display (441 ppi) and the Nova Plus offering a 5.5-inch screen with the same resolution (a lower 401 ppi). The bezels are smaller on the Nova Plus, so the device itself isn't that much larger.
To the naked eye we didn't find the Nova Plus to be noticeably inferior in the resolution department, though it somewhat negates the benefit of that bigger screen – you're getting the same number of pixels on videos and websites, they're just larger.
Both phones make use of an IPS LCD touchscreen rather than AMOLED, but we found the displays both bright and vibrant, usually the main selling points of AMOLED. Text is clear and crisp, colors pop, and video content looks superb too.
There's another difference around the back, where the Nova's camera is embedded in a black bar along the top, Nexus 6P-style (a phone Google made in partnership with Huawei). On the Nova Plus, the camera sits in the center lower down (as on the Huawei Mate phones), and protrudes more noticeably, though not enough to bother us.
The rear side of the Nova definitely looks better to us but your tastes may vary.
It's when you look inside that you find the mid-range part of the equation, although you do get an impressive 3 GB of RAM and the far-from-sluggish Snapdragon 625. Unless you're using the most intensive apps and games you won't notice much of a difference between the best chips inside the latest phones.
We certainly haven't come across any sluggishness or slowdown in our time with the phones, though the usual caveats about reviews and factory-fresh units apply – slower processors will start showing their age sooner than faster ones. For now though, the Snapdragon 625 comfortably handles everything Android throws at it.
You get Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Huawei's EMUI skin on top of it, and if you've not used this before, it's packed full of Huawei apps and tweaks, almost beyond recognition. There's no app drawer for a start, with every app appearing on your home screen (even if it's hidden away in a folder), while there are custom apps for messages, calls, calendars, emails and so on.
This being Android you can change all this around, and even install another launcher to hide most of Huawei's tweaks, but it's another consideration if you're thinking of buying either of these phones: it's very Huawei-heavy out of the box.
Meanwhile, 32 GB of storage is par for the course at this kind of price range and there is a microSD card slot to add more so it's hard to grumble on that point. You can use the microSD card slot for another SIM if you prefer.
As for taking photos, something you're likely to be doing a lot of with your phone, both the Nova and Nova Plus can hold their own at this mid-range level. In good conditions both cameras are fast to focus and pull out impressive results and for casual point-and-shoot photography we really have no complaints.
Of course it's in the difficult conditions where lesser-quality cameras start to struggle and the Nova's 12MP shooter finds the going tough in low light and varied contrast. We're not saying the results are bad, but they're not stellar, with brightness, contrast and color occasionally suffering along the way.
Keen photographers will probably want to upgrade to the 16 MP camera-toting Nova Plus, which adds optical image stabilization to the mix too. We didn't see a huge difference in the shots we took, but that OIS and extra resolution is often going to come in handy.
In some serious darkness both phones struggle to make out anything at all without flash – we tested them in an almost completely pitch black room where last year's Nexus 6P was much better at picking detail using its default settings. There is a special night mode that ramps the exposure right up, but you need to keep your phone still for several seconds, which makes it pretty impractical.
One plus is the collection of modes and manual tweaks (ISO, exposure on so on) you get with the Huawei software. There's a lot to experiment with and it's a world away from the stock Android camera app in terms of manual tweaks.
We've saved perhaps the best feature til last: close to two-day battery life. With decent-sized packs (3,020 mAh for the Nova and 3,340mAh for the Nova Plus), low-ish display resolutions and power-efficient mid-range CPUs, these phones can run and run.
Most of the time we got through a day and a half with the phones running through normal phone-like tasks. If you're a heavy user, they should still last the day, while some users will probably only need to charge them every other night – and that's not something you can say about many smartphones on the market.
We have a standard New Atlas battery test for new phones where we stream video for an hour at a set brightness level. From a 100 percent battery level, this test knocked 9 percent off on the Galaxy S7, 11 percent off on the HTC 10 and Google Pixel XL, and 12 percent off on the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus.
As for the Nova, it dipped just 7 percent in an hour, a new record. The Nova Plus battery level fell 9 percent which is still very impressive.
In conclusion then, the Nova and the Nova Plus both score highly in the look and feel department, and despite average internal specs they both run perfectly fine too – it's a sign of just how good the smartphone mid-range is in 2016. We're at the stage where the majority of users just don't need that extra power.
Stick a competitive price label on all of this and you've got two very appealing propositions, but there are downsides. Huawei's Android skin is a lot fussier and more intrusive than it needs to be, and neither camera is amazing, though (like the specs) probably perfectly fine for most.
Another problem is availability: it's by no means certain you'll be able to get these phones in your part of the world. A European launch was slated for October but we're yet to see them in any mainstream channels, while it looks like the US won't get them at all.
The official ticket price is €399 (roughly £355/US$435/AU$570) for the Nova and €429 (roughly £385/US$465/AU$610) for the Nova Plus, which is pretty good value in our book, if you can get a hold of them. That said, Huawei isn't the only company with the idea of putting out great value Android handsets, and the OnePlus 3 is more powerful and in the same kind of price range, albeit maybe a touch less stylish.
We enjoyed our time with these two phones and they tick a lot of the right boxes – particular in design and battery life – but we don't think Huawei has quite done enough to make an impact in a very congested market. If it can build on what it's done with the Nova and Nova Plus, and get European and US carriers more interested in the coming months, then the 2017 editions could be much more appealing propositions.
Right now though, there are better options out there.
Product page: Huawei