(Pocket-lint) - Huawei has no shortage of phones on the market, ranging from its super-affordable Honor brand devices that punch well above their weight, to the high-end premium flagships like the P9 and P9 Plus.
However, what makes the Nova phone appealing is its size: at 5-inches and with a super-slim build, it's a smaller-scale handset than many of the current giant flagships out there. Has it struck the right balance?
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Huawei Nova Review: Design
- 5-inch display
- Just 7.1mm thin
- Aluminium casing
To describe the Nova's look in the most crude way, it's basically a mini Nexus 6P. That's to say the camera on the back sits inside a long pill-shaped glass panel at the top, while the rest of the body is a soft-finished bead-blasted metal casing.
As you'd expect, being a phone with a 5-inch screen means it's much smaller than most popular Android phones. Thanks to its super-slim body, and the slightly rounded back, the Nova is very comfortable to hold in one hand. That's almost a rare thing with phones these days.
Those rounded edges, finished with a shiny chamfered edge look pretty - but nothing we haven't seen in other phones before. The red trim around the power button is attractive, and a useful indicator that it is, indeed, the button that switches the device on or off.
This button sits just below the volume rocker switch on the right edge, at a comfortable height for easy thumb reach. The bottom edge features a single speaker grille made up of six machined ovals, alongside a USB Type-C connector for charging and connecting.
While the Nova isn't completely bezel-free, like the Nubia Z11 we reviewed recently, its display is framed by very slim bezel. Indeed, the phone is a similar width to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6/6S/7, despite its larger 5.0-inch screen. The effect is sadly not pure though: there's a slim black screen gap between the edge of the display and the bezel.
Perhaps the only puzzling part of the Nova's design is why it doesn't look like its bigger sibling. The Nova and Nova Plus share a lot of features, but they don't look anything alike.
Huawei Nova Review: Display
- 1080p Full HD resolution
- 5-inch LCD IPS panel
- Adjustable colour temperature
Although Huawei kept the screen size manageable for one-handed use, the Chinese company didn't cut back on resolution. Full HD 1080p isn't the highest resolution available, but on a five inch screen, it's more than enough.
Thanks to being compressed into a relatively small space, the pixel density is an impressive 441 pixels per inch. That means text and details are sharp, with no jagged or rough edges to see. The curves on small, fine text appear smooth. Even when looking at the display really closely, it's nigh-on impossible to see any individual pixels.
Similar to the rest of Huawei's lineup, the Nova's display is LCD IPS technology, which means you don't get the deepest blacks, higher contrast and saturated colours that make AMOLED so appealing. With that said, it's still a quality panel. Whites are crisp and clean, and colours are natural and lively.
As a bonus, Huawei's EMUI software (a re-skin over Android) offers the ability to adjust the temperature to suit your preferences, and also offers a mode that cuts out the blue light to make it more relaxing for your eyes.
If there's any criticism of the display, it's the brightness drops when it's viewed from an angle. Despite IPS making it clear enough to see, there's a noticeable drop in clarity if you're not looking at it head on.
Huawei Nova Review: Software (Android 6.0.1 + EMUI)
- Android v6.0.1 Marshmallow
- EMUI 4.1 software re-skin
Apart from the Nexus 6P launched last year, all of Huawei's phones - including the Honor branded models - ship running its own EMUI custom skin on top of a version of Android. In this case, it's EMUI 4.1 on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but plans are afoot to get it on to v7.0 Nougat and EMUI 5.0 soon (like the Mate 9).
While the software has improved over the past couple of years, EMUI is still a little rough around the edges. The lack of an app drawer means that all of your apps are littered around the homescreens. Of course, you can arrange them into folders, which makes things a little more palatable.
The two-screen drop-down menu still has a screen brightness slider that's hard to use, and a long list of notifications which doesn't feel as intuitive or easy to manage as the regular Android cards-based system. There's also the confusing Settings app which, although clean and minimal, isn't laid out the same as it would be in a standard Android version - so some settings can get buried.
There are benefits to Huawei's software however. Take for instance the aforementioned screen temperature setting. There's also the ability to use the fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone to drop down the notification shade and quick settings toggles, or lock individual apps and require a scan to open.
As well as those, Huawei has equipped the phone with its standard Phone Manager app which lets you quickly clear anything that's hindering the phone's performance. It can clean up the memory, remove junk and manually choose which apps the phone should aggressively manage to ensure they don't use too much battery juice.
Thing is, this manager means constant pop-up alerts about battery life and app permissions. You'll need to comb through your apps to set things up as you prefer, really, which isn't the most consumer friendly setup straight out of the box.
For example, by default the battery optimisation system will automatically stop any downloaded apps from using excessive amounts of power and shut them down after a few minutes if they continue to use power in the background. This can be incredibly useful, but it can hinder the experience sometimes too.
Huawei Nova Review: Performance
- 2.0 GHz Snapdragon 625; 3GB RAM
- 32GB storage; microSD expandable
For the most part, the Huawei Nova runs smoothly and reliably. Zipping in and out of folders and screens, switching apps and browsing the web is all effortless. It isn't as instant or snappy as something like the Google Pixel or the OnePlus 3T, but considering its specifications and price, you wouldn't expect it to be.
While it's fast and responsive almost all of the time, there's the odd occasion when the phone stutters or pauses to catch a breath before continuing to run. It's something we've seen before with the Snapdragon 625 processor, but isn't so dramatic that it'll spoil the experience.
As far as storage goes, the built-in 32GB is about enough to get you started and ensure you have enough space to store your favourite apps. For those who need more, the dual-SIM card tray is capable of accepting a microSD card, expanding the storage by up to an extra 256GB.
Huawei Nova Review: Battery life
- 3,020mAh battery
- Type-C connector
Being a phone with a 1080p screen, Huawei's aggressive battery optimisation and a 3,020mAh battery means that - in the right hands - the Nova could almost make it through two days before needing a recharge. Although it would be an exaggeration to state that this is a two day phone.
For most people, it'll be comforting to know that the Huawei Nova can easily make it to the end of even the busiest of work days without needing to be plugged in again. With moderate use most days saw the phone to around the 40 per cent mark by bedtime. If you really wanted to drain it every day, it would require a couple of hours worth of gaming, lots of navigation, phone calls and many, many visits to Facebook.
Once depleted, the battery charges relatively quickly using the included Huawei charger via Type-C port. Sadly there's no Quick Charge adapter in the box, so it won't be the speedy refilling you're used to seeing in top devices.
Huawei Nova Review: Camera
- 12-megapixel camera
- 4k video recording
- 8-megapixel front camera
The Nova's 12-megapixel camera is good in some respects, but not so good in others. On the positive side, in good light, the photos taken are sharp and executed within a split second of the shutter button being pressed. It's impressively quick. But that's probably the only thing that's impressive.
We sometimes found that it struggled to automatically adjust exposure to give a more evenly exposed photograph, especially in situations where there was clear, contrasting lighting levels. Instead, we found photos came out overexposed and a bit lifeless. In automatic mode, even when there was plenty of light, there was noticeable image noise creeping into some areas.
Other times it had a really hard time focusing on a subject, regardless of how near or far away it was. Often, we had to go in to the manual mode and adjust the focus manually just to get a sharp image.
That's not to say that the Nova is incapable of taking good photographs, it just takes a lot of time and patience if you're shooting in anything other than bright, even light. It's not up there with the Mate 9 or P9 higher-end dual-camera models.
What it lacks a little in quality, it makes up for in features. Like a lot of previous Huawei phones, the camera has a great selection of shooting modes to spark creativity.
Slow-mo gives you the ability to create some cool slow-motion videos; Document mode basically turns the phone into a mobile scanner; Timelapse does what it says; while Light Painting and a Super-Night mode are ideal for long exposures. There's also a video mode for shooting in resolutions up to 4K.
The Huawei Nova is a decent small-scale Android phone. It sits in a place in the market where there's desperate need for quality without an overly hefty price tag.
Sadly it's not without its compromises. Its camera needs improvement, Huawei's software still taints the Android experience (even if it is improving with each new iteration of EMUI), while the presence of Honor muddies the water in this mid-level arena.
So while the Nova is virtually unbeatable as smaller-scale mid-range phones go, there are simply plenty of other better, larger phones that merit more attention.
Huawei Nova review: Alternatives to consider
At just £20 more, the Honor 8 - Huawei's sub-brand's best phone - is a very tempting proposition. It has a slightly larger screen, a fun dual camera system, and looks a whole lot prettier thanks to that shiny rear.
It goes without saying that the OnePlus 3T is one of the best Android phones available to buy today. It's noticeably bigger than the Nova, but is a much more solid device, with a really high-end processor, great camera, lonog-lasting battery life and a cleaner version of Android. It might cost £50 more than a Nova, but it could easily cost a lot more, given its sheer quality.