(Pocket-lint) - Honor is an increasing force to be reckoned with when it comes to affordable and stylish smartphones that don't cost the earth. And the Honor 10, its 2018 flagship, is no different.
However, unlike the company's top-ranking predecessors - which banked on solid specifications and standout finishes - the Honor 10 doubles-down its aspirations. With an under-the-glass fingerprint scanner and an artificial intelligence camera (AI Camera), it notches up a number of high-flying new features to provide a taste of the future, now. But it also acquires a 'notch' - the black-out section to the top of the screen - which will no doubt divide opinion.
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After living with the Honor 10 as our day-to-day phone for a whole week ahead of the official UK launch, we've returned back to the handset following a major software update to bring a refreshed review. Is this still the affordable flagship to beat?
- 3D glass back, built from 15 layers of glass to reflect light with two-tone colour designs
- UK colours: Phantom Blue, Glacier Grey (TBC: Phantom Green and Midnight Black)
- Under-glass front-facing ultrasonic fingerprint scanner
- Built-in 3.5mm headphone jack
- 149.6 x 71.2 x 7.7mm; 153g
Another generation means another colour finish. This time, it's Phantom Blue (called Mirage Blue in China), a 15-layer glass rear that reflects in a two-tone blue and purple fashion. It's very snazzy indeed and will certainly grab people's attention. There's even a transparent case included in the box should you want to add extra protection.
As we've said of recent Honor devices, however, there's still no staple, consistent finish that represents the brand. We've seen Sapphire Blue in the Honor 9, a more satin-like blue in the Honor 8 Pro, while the Honor 8 had a darker finish. We think the Honor 10 might be the most stand-out of the lot, but we'd like to see standardisation. Oh, there's also a Glacier Grey option (Gray Gull in China) too, if you want something a little more subdued.
The flashy looks are complemented by a slim build, with trim bezel edges and a fingerprint scanner to the front that's rather different to the norm. Look up close and you'll see there's no indent where this scanner lives; that's because it's a fully under-the-glass implementation, for a more seamless finish.
Which is a nod to the future, indeed, but its function is like taking a step into the past: simply put, this fingerprint scanner type doesn't work as rapidly or consistently as the current run available in other flagship phones. We've seen other makers, such as Porsche Design, opt for under-the-screen scanners, also with sub-par results in operation.
All that said, however, Honor has tweaked the fingerprint scanner's responsiveness in an early June 2018 software update. Is it better? A whisker, maybe, but this hardware implementation is never going to be the very best going - although if you're not comparing it to what else is on the market then, as an owner, you won't know any different.
Fortunately, Honor has avoided the current flagship trend of ditching the headphone jack, with the 3.5mm opening clearly visible at the bottom of this phone. There's no water- or dust-proofing IP designation though, but that's not a huge loss at this price point. Just don't drop it in the sea, eh!
- 5.84-inch IPS LCD screen
- Full HD+ resolution (1080 x 2280 pixels)
- 19:9 aspect ratio, 'notch' to top edge (can be software hidden)
The Honor 10's slender design also embodies the elongated form factor that's an increasingly common sight in current flagship phones. The 5.84-inch screen might sound massive, but that's down to the 19:9 aspect ratio. It's certainly larger than the Honor 9's 5.15-inch screen, but the 10 is still comfortable to use with just one hand.
The panel is an LCD, not OLED like its distant cousin, the Huawei P20 Pro. That's not a major problem, as the Honor's viewing angles are decent and colours pop when set in Vivid mode. However, LCD does have one knock-on effect relative to the notch at the top of the screen.
Yup, the elephant in the room: the Honor 10 has a black-out notch to the top of the screen where the front-facing camera and speaker are housed. That cuts into the image, but can be hidden via the software by simply hiding the notch. However, in sunlight, as LCD isn't perfectly black, that hidden look isn't 100 per cent perfect. It is mostly convincing, though.
The notch is going to divide opinion: some people hate the idea of one, others have come to embrace the added screen portion that's provided as a result (and most apps are designed where smaller amounts of data exist to these corners anyway). Our view is that it's not a bother: the idea of it doesn't appeal, sure, but as we said of the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro, just a little use and the notch's presence more-or-less vanishes from the mind.
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Performance & battery life
- HiSilicon Kirin 970 processor (4x 2.4GHz, 4x 1.8GHz), 4GB RAM
- 3,400mAh battery capacity, USB-C fast-charging
- 128GB storage (no microSD), dual SIM slots
- EMUI 8.1 re-skin over Android 8.1 Oreo
The UK version of the Honor 10 comes with 128GB storage, which is good news as there's no microSD card slot. It is dual SIM, though, which is fairly unusual for a UK phone (and we'd prefer a microSD card really).
Power-wise, the Honor is almost as powerful as the top-ranked Huawei phone of 2018, the P20 Pro. However, the Honor's use of 4GB RAM makes it the slightest bit different in use, with the occasional micro-second delay in starting an app by comparison. Nonetheless, for a sub-£400 phone the Honor 10 performs 95 per cent the flagship and is rather impressive. South Park: Phone Destroyer has presented no problems in running smoothly.
In the time we've been using the phone it's not crashed, but we have had one or two Gmail non-responses, which has been a nuisance. The software experience is otherwise largely like Google's Android (upon which EMUI runs), but with some additional quirks, some of which are useful: there's the notch control, the ability to change the display colour temperature, control certain functions with knuckle-based touches, and more.
One new app for Honor is called Party Mode: it's a way to share music between multiple devices via WLAN using NFC. The idea is great fun, the implementation is a disaster - it just doesn't work. We've tried it on a Huawei P20 Pro, a Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS and a Google Pixel XL 2 and it doesn't work on any of them.
The software also handles battery longevity, which we've found to be a little inconsistent in the Honor 10. The 3,400mAh cell on board is rather large, which is great, but for the first few days we weren't achieving the length of use per charge we were expecting. After a few days, however, and when selecting Smart Resolution (which auto-adjusts resolution depending on task) it settled down, translating to around 16 hours of use per charge (the battery's claims that it'll go for far longer are, with normal use, largely misguided - it's overly generous in its predictions). The software update from June 2018 looks to further improve this, or at least stabilise it.
When it's time to top-up, the USB Type-C socket to the bottom (yay, no USB-B as per so many older Honor phones) means fast-charging. Handy if you've been gaming hard and want to cram some extra juice into the phone for those all-important extra hours of use.
- Dual rear cameras for standard and depth-effect Portrait photography
- Phase-detection autofocus for rear cameras
- 24MP monochrome sensor with f/1.8 aperture
- 16MP colour sensor with f/1.8 aperture
- 24MP front-facing camera with f/2.0 aperture
- 4K at 30fps video maximum
Almost every new phone comes with dual cameras, the Honor 10 being no different. Like many other competitors, the two cameras work in harmony to derive depth data and produce an enhanced blurred background effect - in what's typically called Portrait mode. It works ok here, just as it does elsewhere: on a small screen you might not spot the imperfect blurred edges, which are rather common, but it's rather fun when it works well.
One of the biggest differences in the Honor setup compared to most is its use of one colour and one black and white (monochrome) sensor, in the same manner as Huawei flagship phones. This might sound barmy, but the cleaner data from the mono sensor can be "painted" with the colour imagery from the lower-resolution sensor for detailed colour images. It's rather clever.
Having used the Huawei P20 Pro for some weeks and been blown-away by its best-in-class images, it's worth noting that the Honor 10 can't quite live up to such heady heights. But its results are still rather good. And much of that comes down to what it calls AI Camera (which, unnecessarily, is emblazoned on the rear of the phone in white text).
The use of artificial intelligence is simple: the camera uses machine learning to corroborate what it's looking at through the lenses and can then change the scene accordingly. It might be a portrait, a landscape, a food photo, a pet photo, and so forth. The Honor 10's camera will tell you it's adjusting the mode by displaying a small symbol within the app (the software update means the phone now displays text and a brief description, before folding into a symbol only). It's even possible to see the non-AI version of the image by simply hitting the software AI button within the app.
Typically the AI images add extra saturation and contrast to give images that extra pop. This looks great for the most part, but can be overkill and cause exaggerated banding and textured image artefacts (such as in blue skies, for example). For the average user, though, this is a perfect compromise overall, as the adjustment of auto exposure and colour will really aid in getting the best possible shots.
Sadly the Honor 10 doesn't adopt the excellent Night Mode as found in the Huawei P20 Pro - which makes for handheld long-exposures - nor is the Honor the perfect low-light companion. It's pretty good, though, with even shots taken in the dead of night by our holiday swimming pool, or at the dim-lit sushi bar chef counter, showing ample detail where it matters. It's only the really dark areas that show a lack of detail overall.
All in all, the combined ease of use, automated features (and more if you want manual control), portrait mode and decent quality mark the Honor 10's camera as impressive at this price point. It's doesn't quite match Huawei's P20 solution, but then it's a far more affordable handset.
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The Honor 10 offers heaps for its asking price, cementing its position as one of the best affordable flagship phones available - the likes of which ought to draw away some potential OnePlus 6 customers who are lured in by Honor's spangly two-tone design.
That said, sometimes the Honor 10 bites off a little more than it can chew. The under-the-glass fingerprint scanner looks great and sounds like a futuristic proposition, but doesn't work as well as other current solutions. The presence of the notch on the screen will also divide opinion. And the battery life was a little up and down at the beginning of our use with the phone.
Where the Honor 10 gets things right, however, it gets them really right. For a sub-£400 phone it looks fantastic, is a pleasure to use thanks to the elongated screen aspect ratio, there's heaps of power on board to make light of any task, while the dual camera setup and AI Camera make photography easy.
Honor has been gaining traction in the affordable flagship space for good reason and the Honor 10 represents exactly why. You'll struggle to find a better phone at this price. Although with the OnePlus 6 just a little more cash, well, it's a tough decision: the Honor is more colourful by design; the OnePlus arguably even more flagship overall.
This review was originally published on 15 May 2018. It has been updated as of 8 June 2018 to reflect software updates.
While Honor strategically launched just before OnePlus, the latter company's latest device is a formidable bit of kit. Yes, it's chunkier, larger, and its finish doesn't look as exciting. But it's a more polished experience with a better fingerprint scanner implementation and is rather hard to beat. It's a little more expensive than the Honor, but it's worth it.
- Read the full review: OnePlus 6