It's been a curious year for flagship smartphones so far: from the impressive highs of the Samsung Galaxy range revamp, with the company's S6 and S6 edge, to the oh-it's-the-same-again HTC One in its M9 form. Sitting in among them is Huawei, with its altogether more affordable P8, a slender slab of Android phone with more than a hint of iPhone about its looks. Which is no bad thing.
The P8 builds from the earlier P7 model - both in terms of physical screen size, and software-wise with its latest EMUI interface - by marrying slender bezel design with, well, a heavy dose of Chinese quirkery. Sadly it's this ponderous EMUI software that drags the P8 down from supposed flagship to a lower level, just about keeping its head above the water.
A lesser-known (yet internationally giant) company may seem like a soft target in the UK, but that's not the case here: having spent a week with the Huawei P8 as our day-to-day phone we feel it's a solid product with promise, but the company is failing to reach its prospective place in the flagship hierarchy due to a series of small mistakes. Here's why.
Design: Closer to perfection
Huawei is learning. The majority of the P8's design takes on board the best in smartphone design and, as a result, it looks great. There's a tiny edge bezel around the screen, the metal body's chamfered edges look premium, while at 6.4mm thick it's a slender phone in hand or pocket.
Why the company has therefore chosen to soft-mimic the Sony Xperia design with excess protrusions top and bottom of the screen, we can't work out. It gives the phone an elongated feeling, from the device itself right through to the stretched Huawei keyboard (the virtual width and height of keys can be adjusted in the settings though).
The unused lower section of the phone could have been used to house the Android soft keys, but instead it just exists as wasted space, exaggerating the elongated design sensation. It's led to us trying to press imaginary buttons here too. At the opposite end is a small speaker for listening to callers - but it's too small considering the relative space it sits within, requiring a precisely placed ear when taking calls to hear callers.
But there's still reason to break out the bubbly: in among the black, gold and titanium grey colour options the P8 also comes in a "mystic champagne". Very sparkly, and a suitable coat for our review sample, which we think looks rather fetching. Well, with the exception of the plastic white band wedged in at the top of the rear - that just looks budget by contrast, which is a shame.
A metal on/off button and volume rocker reside on the right-hand side, which are well placed for single-handed use. Even the SIM card and microSD trays - this review sample has dual SIM capability, the second doubles-up as a microSD slot; but you won't find it arriving in the UK - sit to this side, neatly out of the way, leaving space for a 3.5mm headphone jack up top. We're just pleased to have a dedicated microSD slot this time around - something sorely missing from the earlier P7 model.
Huawei really is getting there. The P8 just needs small tweaks and some more considered placement and it'd be every bit the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy rival. Right now, though, it's a case of oh-so-close.
Principal to any smartphone these days is the screen. Here the P8 doesn't go overboard with resolution, opting for a 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel panel, delivering 424ppi. The company could have used a Quad HD display, following the likes of Samsung and LG, but - and as we've stated with those various phones - there's rarely a huge amount of practical benefit to a 2160 x 1440 pixel display at this scale.
What's important is that the P8's screen looks good. Colours from the LCD are bright but not overbearing (something we've seen from AMOLED panels), and as it's an IPS panel the viewing angles are great. Even when viewed from a steep angle of view the screen is still clearly visible, and despite the glass coating we've found the display to pop through enough to counter reflective qualities.
Having such a slender bezel to the outside edges hasn't caused any difficulty with visibility either, and when it's positioned in landscape orientation for watching a movie those two larger bezel protrusions could be conceived as "handles" to get a good grip of the device. The sound, however, which is pumped from two speakers to the base is reasonable rather than jaw-dropping - that's one thing HTC still has going for it with its class-leading BoomSound speakers.
Despite being an Android phone, complete with Lollipop (v5.0) install, Huawei has opted for its EMUI (v3.1) re-skin - that's Emotion User Interface, not a nod to Rod Hull and Emu - which has its interesting moments. But we mean the kind of interesting where everyone looks at you a bit funny. Some of its quirks, however, are downright infuriating.
From the off using the Huawei P8 feels different. And while sometimes different is better, here it's often just less refined. Non-stop alerts of non-grouped messages, for example, feel overly busy; multiple unregistered swipes to get the unlock screen to prompt password entry is clumsy at this level; there are excessive prompts to close applications from a hyper-managed battery-saving system; and the ad-hoc disengagement of the standard touch interface by interruption of Huawei's on-screen knuckle sense/drawing mechanism - another "fun" feature which seems solely designed to frustrate - can happen at any time, including while playing games. Not good, this last point is really annoying.
There are other oddities which we've been unable to solve in our week with the phone. We've dug through every option in the settings and can see no way to cease the dreadful knuckle sense option. Additionally getting Android Wear to talk to our Moto 360 smartwatch has been fruitless: it works fine on our Samsung Galaxy, but even registered as a trusted device in the Huawei P8's security settings it's not been possible to sync the devices once (we've paired them, but they don't communicate).
However, tucked away behind these small yet significant issues is all that's good about Android, of course. It's just that, somehow, Huawei has sheathed the phone's functionality with EMUI, adding an additional and unnecessary barrier. Even its visual theme options - used to adjust the look and feel of the interface - fail to inspire.
Fortunately there are exceptions where EMUI has its moments. Like with its P7 predecessor, the Phone Manager application curates performance-enhancing aspects, such as individual app and notifications control, in among detailed battery and power saving controls, storage cleaning, harassment filters, and traffic management.
So whether you want to stop Facebook Messenger pop-ups from occurring, or close down power-hungry apps running in the background, there are detailed control options. As in the P7 we find the Blacklist - where it's possible to bar specific numbers - is really handy too, but that's a more standard feature in among Android competitors these days.
There's also a voice-activated wake-up mechanism, by speaking a programmed key phrase. Whether that's "where are you", "wake up", or whatever else you want it to be is entirely up to you. It's a fun idea, but one that we'll never use.
Performance and battery
Under the hood the P8 sports a HiSilicon Kirin 930 octa-core processor, arranged in a quad-core 2GHz Cortex-A53 and a quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 configuration, backed by 3GB of RAM. Lots of big numbers might sound grand, but we've had a mixed experience.
After setting-up the phone, we found the operating system lacked snap (probably EMUI's fault), while even apps such as Candy Crush Saga suffered from noticeable frame-rate drop-outs in a stuttering style that resembles a much lower-end phone. This latter performance issue has ironed itself over a couple of days, so it seems - but this kind of experience shouldn't be present in a flagship device on any level.
The choice of processor also causes notable heat to emanate from the rear, which is particularly prevalent when using the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. And heat means the battery takes a jump off a cliff, so go cautious on hardened tasks if you're hoping to get an extended day's use from the phone. If the phone is hot and remains in a pocket where heat can't dissipate the battery will continue to decline at pace.
However, the P8's battery has been increased from the P7's 2,500mAh offering to a more capacious 2,680mAh. It can make it through a normal day's use, but it doesn't sail through by any means. After 12 hours' use we've often been left with 35 per cent battery remaining. As we've alluded to, some applications will strike hard at battery life too: Candy Crush Soda Saga striking out 20 per cent battery in almost as many minutes. So it's a mixed experience.
The solution, it seems, is hyper-management. As the Manager app is always-on in the background, it's always monitoring active apps - and after idle periods it will prompt you to close certain power-hungry ones. Heed its advice. Within Power Management it's possible to tinker with settings, shut various apps down and, therefore, optimise how long the phone will last on a single charge. It works, but in other phones that offer less detailed options their battery life tends to be equally good, so this is Huawei making necessary concessions.
For much more basic use the Ultra battery option can also be useful, delivering a black-and-white mode with basic set of calling and text options - but that's about it. Forget about music, web browsing and use of apps, but it effectively doubles battery life. Useful as a back-up option, perhaps when at a music festival and without access to frequent charging facilities.
Of all its features, it's the on-board camera that the P8 can shout about most proudly. The new 13-megapixel sensor tucked behind the rear lens - which is wider-angle than that found in the earlier P7 - takes stunningly good pictures.
One of the first things we noticed about the P8's camera is just how good its close-up macro mode is. We're often frustrated by the limitations of our long-standing Samsung Galaxy model, and the Huawei P8 wipes the floor with that. We've been taking abstract close-ups of knitted jumpers, with stacks of detail in the woollen fabric, without issue. Impressive.
But it's the level of detail within the shots that, for a smartphone camera, are extra pleasing. Huawei is using the world's first RGBW (red, green, blue, white) sensor, which incorporates a non-filtered white for better brightness readings. Shots are indeed bright and colourful, so it seems to be a successful endeavour, with limited levels of image noise visible in shots taken in good-to-moderate lighting conditions.
Low-light fares well too for a camera phone, with optical image stabilisation aiding a steady frame - and without the need for a giant, protruding camera lens in the phone's design, which is a plus point. Of course there's a level of image processing, which renders less detail overall - particularly from around ISO 640 and above - but as far as smartphones go, Huawei is muscling in on the big boys in this department.
It all works well too, with rapid auto-focusing, including face detection, and a click-and-drag exposure compensation option once focus is acquired to ensure highlights aren't blown or shadows aren't too heavyweight. There's also HDR (high dynamic range) to assist in balancing exposure, while ISO and white balance options are tucked into the settings for those more advanced users.
There are fewer gimmicky shooting options too: gone is the panorama selfie of the P7, and good riddance. There are still useful filters (which can be applied live when shooting), alongside video, time-lapse, light-painting and beauty mode. The last of these is the usual soften-the-heck-out-of-your-face option as found in most Asian phones, sometimes with laughable results, while the light-painting option has the right idea for long exposures - to capture car light trails, stars and so forth - but without a live preview and no physical support it struggles, typically resulting in an overexposed blur.
Flip the phone around and the 8-megapixel front camera will come in use for Skype banter and selfies. It offers the same options as the rear camera, minus stabilisation or the light-painting option.
With 1080p video thrown into the mix, the Huawei P8's camera might just be its crowning glory - something it needs in light of otherwise clunky software implementation which, fortunately, isn't an issue in this department.
Oh Huawei, so near yet oh so far. The P8 has glimmers of brilliance that are marred by sub-par software and, in some scenarios, processor and battery limitations due to heat dissipation. And when an outsider needs to impress right across the board to make a strong mark, that's just not going to cut it.
But there are plenty of good moments. From the slim design, tiny bezel, equally slender price point, and decent 5.2-inch display, the P8 has its notable calling cards. Champion of them all, though, is the latest camera which really does live up to the flagship standard. If you're not a phone geek or a brand snob then you'll notice few issues with the P8.
As flagship devices go the P8 has promise, but in a year that we've already described as a curious one for smartphones it simply fails to stir the pot and, ultimately, descends beneath many of its current competitors. Our score would be higher if not for so many software bugs - when that changes so too will our assessment.