When we say "affordable smartphone" you probably think of plastic, low spec, and a bunch of compromises. But the mid-range is changing drastically with phones like the OnePlus 2 offering near top-end specs at low-end prices. Now Honor, a derivative company of Huawei, has unveiled the Honor 7.
The idea behind the Honor 7 is to give the people what they want, without breaking the bank. The result is a quality build with specs to keep even more demanding users happy. But can the Honor 7 stand up to the likes of the OnePlus 2 or its distant relation, the software-blighted Huawei P8?
If we went back in time a few years to show ourselves what £250 could buy in terms of build quality, we'd be stunned by the future. Honor has upped its game with this smartphone.
The body of the phone is a ceramic sand-blasted unibody that uses aerospace-grade materials. This not only means it's light (well, lightish at 157g) and strong, but cool to handle too. The way the metal on the rear dissipates heat is great, so even when fast-charging the handset, with Wi-Fi and sync left on, it remains cool. Although it warms up when scrolling through pictures and uploading to Dropbox when out in the sun, we wouldn't call it hot. Nothing like the overheating Sony Xperia Z3+ anyway.
Small details like the speaker grilles, which are CNC drilled after the metal is painted, add a better finish - even if it does cost more to manufacture. The grilles look great, much like Apple's iPhone 6 in that way.
The screen bezel size is minimal but not groundbreaking, nor is the fairly generic shape of the device. It's a fair thickness at 8.5mm, so not too slim, not too thick, and that machined back offers plenty of grip.
But it's just not that exciting in terms of design; it's generic. But then remind ourselves of the price point and much is forgiven.
The Honor 7 comes with a dual nano SIM tray meaning either two SIM cards or a SIM and microSD can be used, which is a smart bit of dual purposing in its own right.
The 5.2-inch IPS-NEO screen on board the Honor 7 offers a reasonable 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution for a respectable 424ppi density. It's not QHD like some of the top-spec handsets, but at this price point we can't complain, especially with the ratio of screen-to-body coming in at 72.4 per cent.
Although it's a step down from the 2K richness of some premium smartphones, it isn't lacking in detail - it's still a sharp display and a good size for the price.
Using the handset with auto brightness enabled and we found the adjusting was subtle and perhaps not as effective as it could be. We found ourselves turning off auto brightness a few times to view pictures with enough punch to appreciate them, which otherwise lacked when the phone was left to its own devices.
Colour temperature can be adjusted to help with balance, but there is no option to adjust auto brightness higher or lower as is the case in some Samsung handsets, for example.
Cameras and many extras
The cameras on the front and back of the Honor 7 are a big part of its appeal. The rear offers a 20-megapixel Sony sensor while the front offers 8-megapixels and a soft light flash for lit selfies. They are coupled with myriad software options that make using this camera genuinely enjoyable.
Fun is one thing, but are the photos any good? As you'd expect from an 8-megapixel camera the selfies had plenty of detail. As with so many Chinese-made phones, there's also a Beauty mode which softens face details and is a little extreme. Just take a look at the three levels of use in the image above, where facial lines start to disappear leaving a ghost-like smoothed-out face. Having a flash is a nice touch for night shots though - take note clubbing selfie fans.
The main 20-megapixel camera packs in plenty of details and is lightning fast in operation. So from snapping a single shot to a burst or even effect photo, there was no lag whatsoever in our experience. You can keep tapping to capture shot after shot.
A bokeh effect is impressive for softening backgrounds artificially, especially with foreground focus on subjects in close-up macro shots. There is also an option to focus after the shot has been taken. This isn't new, as seen in models such as the HTC One M9, and still isn't perfect, but it's certainly fast on this Honor.
Fun Light Painting mode settings are useful in certain situations. There's the ability to blur moving lights - aimed at cars on roads - which we used to great effect when shooting a moving carnival ride. Light Graffiti mode does a similar by leaving the shutter open, but was tougher to get good results from without blur - you'll need to have the phone held steady for these long exposures. There are also Silky Water and Star Track modes for shooting rivers or the night sky. Time-lapse mode is also as easy as pointing and recording for any length of time needed.
Video, as you can see below, is clear even in challenging lighting conditions and sound is decent - even when confronted with gig noise levels.
Power and performance
The 64-bit octa-core Kirin 935 processor clocked at 2.2GHz with 3GB RAM can pretty much handle anything thrown at it. From gaming to image manipulation we didn't have to wait at length for anything.
Honor claims the 3,100mAh battery can last up to two days on a single charge. With varying power saving options we found this could be the case, but you will probably burn through it in a little over a day. It's a capacious battery but, in previous experience, we've not found the Kirin processor to be the most power efficient on the market.
A Power Monitoring option runs a diagnostic and offers ways to save battery. By stopping apps that run after the phone is locked, for example, or by turning off battery draining features like GPS and offering different levels of power saving for more juice defence.
There are three power saving modes: Performance, which adjusts CPU and data usage slightly; Smart, which adjusts those two settings to a more considerable degree; and Ultra, which leaves only basic call functions and a simplistic black and white display.
Charging is supposed to offer 50 per cent from 30-minutes of plugged-into-the-wall time, so there is some provision for fast top-ups too.
Fingerprint sensor refined
The fingerprint sensor on the Honor 7 should help to futureproof the handset. But since NFC hasn't been included it can't be used for contactless payments - something which is set to become prevalent in the near future. That's the very same issue as per the OnePlus 2.
Primarily the fingerprint sensor is for unlocking the device, hence that 0.5 second response time. But its positioning on the rear can also be used for trackpad-style swipe actions. When on the home screen a downward swipe pulls down the notifications bar. An upward swipe can be set to bring up any open apps - which is is a really nice way to jump between apps without moving your thumb, thus saving you valuable microseconds for your lazy digits.
Honor says the fingerprint sensor uses the latest technology to even work well on sweaty or wet fingers. We've used it plenty in the rain, so this seems to be the case. It's also supposed to learn your finger as you use it, so unlocking gets easier; however, we're not sure if this was the case or we just got better at picking up the phone with our finger in the correct position. Either way it worked first time most of the time.
OS and Emotion UI
The operating system is good old Android 5 Lollipop, re-skinned with Huawei's EMUI 3.1. While this means lots of extra options, it may be a little cluttered for pure Android fans. That said we found it largely useful.
The pull-down menu offers both notifications and shortcuts to things like Wi-Fi and GPS toggle icons. The home screen allows for a pinch action to access hidden apps that live in a folder off-screen. We didn't find much use for it yet imagine it could be helpful for those who value security or who have a suite of apps that are kept in one place.
A phone manager app is pre-installed and works largely like third-party offerings, which clean up storage and accelerate the phone at the touch of a button.
Initially we found notifications annoying with emails and social media pestering regularly. But with a bit of jiggery-pokery these can be turned off easily enough. In fact all the notifications can be controlled from one place, which is easy and helpful.
Double-tapping the screen to unlock, like with the LG G4, is helpful. But using what Huawei and Honor call a knuckle mode - it's meant to respond to harder knuckle-based presses - to select screen chunks for screenshots proved hit-and-miss at best. It often just selected text as if you'd done it with your finger.
We loathed the knuckle gesture on the Huawei P8, as it frequently disrupted operating system use for no apparent nor useful reason at all. Fortunately this knuckle option can be switched off with the Honor 7, so that clears that out of the way if it grinds your gears.
There is also a side button that can be custom set. A single touch can open Facebook, double press for Twitter, or a press-and-hold for camera, for example. It's a nice touch.
Phone calls are supposed to be better using the Honor 7 thanks to a Link+ mode which works both on network and Wi-Fi signals. This essentially receives signals from all locations to enhance connection. Presumably this means more battery consumption, but we didn't notice it with a cell so large in this handset.
Calls we've taken have been extremely clear even when our connection was one-bar level weak. With LTE/4G connectivity and Wi-Fi there are all the other gubbins on board to ensure decent connectivity, whichever carrier you're on (if contract, Three has the UK exclusive).
In an attempt to take on the new higher-quality mid-range, Honor has improved upon its first and second handset releases for its latest flagship. All in, that makes the Honor 7 impressive. From the build quality, to the performance, battery life and camera options. If anything it further squishes the Huawei P8's potential, which seems odd from a sister company.
There are caveats, though. Some may have issues with the Emotion UI and immediately switch off knuckle gesture, but in our time with the handset the OS re-skin has proven fine. The lack of NFC does inhibit the phone's future-proofing where contactless payments are concerned. And the 1080p display isn't going to outsmart the QHD displays available on some higher-end smartphones. But then just look at the price and none of this surprises.
What impacts the Honor 7's potential is the strength of the competition. Take the OnePlus 2, which is cheaper still and offers better specs and performance. But that phone is tricky to purchase and may be too large for some.
Overall the Honor 7 is an impressive slab of 5.5-inch smartphone for its asking price, which will allow people to get free of contracts without compromising too heavily on build quality and performance.