Huawei P8 review: Huawei’s first 2015 flagship phone is as frustrating as it is impressive, with a seriously good camera offset by software issues.
Most consumers know Huawei for its great-value affordable phones such as the Ascend G7, and the Chinese company has been churning out plenty of decent low-end phones under its new ‘Honor’ range lately. But despite being a busy bee, Huawei also found time to produce a new top-end flagship handset, the Huawei P8, which it reckons sports a better camera than the iPhone 6 Plus, not to mention a shagload of innovative features…
Huawei amusingly used the words ‘absolute flatness’ to describe the Huawei P8’s all-metal one-piece body, and we can’t argue with that. The P8 is pleasingly slim at just 6.4mm (even more slender than the 6.9mm iPhone 6) and there are no jutty-out bits like camera lenses, so the phone slides neatly into a pocket.
From the front the P8 isn’t anything special and perhaps even a tad bland, but the brushed silver edging and rear are much more attractive and a change from last year’s glass finish on the Ascend P7. Which you prefer is of course down to personal tastes, but I’m a fan of the P8’s textured finish.
It’s a solidly constructed handset too, as you’d hope given its metallic build. The addition of Gorilla Glass helps to keep the P8 scratch and scuff free, even if you for some reason stash it in the same pocket as your keys. By the way, please don’t stick your phone in with your keys. That’s like shoving your kids in a crate filled with bees. Seriously irresponsible.
And while the P8 isn’t full-on water resistant, it is at least ‘splash resistant’, so you can use it out in the rain without stressing about it gurgling and dying.
The screen might be a mighty 5.2-incher, but the combination of slender build and super-thin bezels makes the P8 just about usable one-handed. You might have to stretch your thumb a bit to reach the far corner, but it works in a pinch, especially as the power button is housed on the side for easy access. Huawei has also built in a handy one-handed mode: just swipe your finger across the menu buttons and your desktop or app will shrink towards the bottom of the screen, for easier use. It’s a great addition that really does work.
As the P8’s body is one-piece, you can’t prise off the back of the phone. Therefore, the nano SIM and Micro SD memory card slots are hidden in pokey pin drawers on the edge of the P8. You also can’t remove the battery, if you were hoping to carry around a spare.
Screen and media
Full 4G support means that you can stream HD video to the P8 without the damn thing pausing every five seconds (assuming you live in an LTE hotspot). But to truly enjoy a bit of video on the go, you need a gorgeous display to boost your viewing pleasure.
Huawei’s P8 doesn’t rock a stupidly sharp screen like the LG G3 or the Samsung Galaxy S6, opting for a Full HD (1920×1080) resolution instead of a Quad HD effort. However, it’s still sharp enough to make the most of a high def movie (and crisper than the iPhone 6 screen) and you can tweak the colour temperature until it suits your personal tastes. On top brightness it’s also perfectly suited to the sudden sun glare we’re experiencing here in Blighty, so you won’t be squinting to read your messages.
For a premium phone it’s a rather understated screen and I couldn’t help but long for the eye-caressing beauty of the Xperia Z3, Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 4 displays. Still, the P8’s panel is more than competent in all regards.
As for the built-in speakers, housed at the base of the phone, they certainly pack some serious power. On top volume they’ll irritate the hell out of everyone on your bus and fill a small room with sound, although it’s sadly not great quality sound. Bass, treble and everything else all gets kind of lost in a mass of noise, unless you knock the volume down again.
You can choose between 16GB and 64GB models and both are expandable via Micro SD, to give you tons of room for all of your media.
Android Lollipop is almost unrecognisable under Huawei’s usual heavy bout of remodelling, which brings a ton of bonus features to Google’s mobile OS. Some are great and some are bonkers and some are just plain naff.
Starting with the good, and Huawei has spent some considered time designing the P8’s antenna and ensuring that the phone’s connectivity is better to none, unsurprising given Huawei’s involvement in telecoms.
I found that calls were always clear and stutter-free as long as I wasn’t in a signal black hole, so job done, Huawei. We haven’t had a chance to check out the Roaming+ feature, which quickly connects you to an available mobile network when touching down in foreign lands, but the P8 definitely hooks up to your chosen UK network in the blink of an eye.
And the WiFi+ feature, which steers you clear of crappy wireless networks when better ones are available, also seems to work perfectly well.
If you find you’re always losing your phone down the back the sofa or inside the dog or whatever, then Huawei’s Speech Awareness feature is bound to raise a smile. Set up your own personal key phrase such as ‘oi, P8!’ and then follow it with ‘where are you,’ and the phone will start buzzing and saying ‘here I am,’ in an overly cheery voice. The feature definitely works, although only from a short distance, so you’ll have to wander around your house saying ‘oi, P8, where are you?’ until your family thinks you’ve been on the Um Bongos again.
Even more random is Huawei’s ‘knuckle mode’, which allows you to select areas of your screen to copy and share with the world. The screen is supposed to differentiate between your fingertip and your knuckle, but unfortunately the P8 occasionally gets a little confused. For instance, occasionally I’d swipe down from the top of the screen to pull the notifications bar down, and instead I’d get a blue line streaking across the display. I couldn’t see an obvious way to turn off the feature either.
I found that the P8 also didn’t play too nice with some of Google’s original Android features. For instance, when trying to use Smart Lock (bypass PIN unlock when the phone is connected to a trusted Bluetooth device), the P8 began to ask for my password even when hooked up to my trusted headphones. And then it decided to deactivate my PIN security by itself, so you could unlock the phone with just a swipe at any time.
Thankfully this problem didn’t crop up again after the first couple of days, when I was about ready to give up on Smart Lock entirely (and also hurl the phone at the nearest brick wall). But likewise, some other Android features such as the ability to set up the phone by tapping against your old NFC-enabled mobile simply refused to play ball. I also had to reset the phone a couple of times because apps wouldn’t download from the Google Play store.
Huawei hasn’t just fiddled with the back-end Android code; it’s also overhauled the general Android aesthetics, which for the most part works well. The notification bar is now a nifty timeline (although in its default mode this can get quite crowded as your individual emails are listed). The rounded icons for your apps are attractive and it’s easy enough to add new desktop widgets, try out different transitions and so on.
However, Huawei has once again done away with Android’s apps tray, which means that all of your apps have to be stuck on your desktops. And even with liberal use of folders, I found that this resulted in a cluttered, unsightly mess which drove me slightly deranged, especially as the P8 was hellbent on rearranging my icons for me completely at random when my back was turned.
Performance and battery life
Huawei has stuffed its own 64-bit octa-core processor (4x2GHz and 4×1.5GHz cores) into the P8, which is apparently 80% faster than last year’s Ascend P7. Everyday performance is certainly good, with apps loading quickly and no general stuttering, but the phone did completely crash on me twice during the near-week I was using it.
Battery life is decent, with the phone lasting a full day and a half between charges if you’re quite restrained with use (I’m talking the occasional bit of messaging, web browsing and camera use). If you actually punish the P8 with a bit of video streaming, it’ll be dead in about five hours, which is more or less average for a smartphone.
However, while Huawei promised us fast charging with the Huawei P8, I couldn’t get it to charge up in less than three hours, whether I was using the bundled charger or other quick charge solutions from the likes of Motorola.
Huawei boasted at the massive launch event that the P8’s 13-megapixel snapper is better than the iPhone 6 Plus’ camera, a very brave claim indeed. So, does the P8 pack the action to match the words?
The P8’s camera interface is certainly similar to Apple’s, with a few different modes that you scroll through by flicking your finger up and down the screen. You get the standard auto mode, video mode, time lapse, ‘light painting’ (which allows you to track bright lights such as flames to produce funky artworks) and of course the obligatory and terrifying beauty mode.
Photos take almost instantly when you hit the on-screen shutter button and you can quick-load the camera from hibernation by double-tapping the volume down button, which opens the app and takes a shot in around 1.5 seconds. So if you’re always missing those spontaneous shots, the P8 is a great solution.
But what about the picture quality? Well, the combination of smart image processing and Optical Image Stabilisation meant my photos were impressively sharp and also bursting with glorious, bold colours. Close-up macro shots are particularly stunning and packed with detail.
However, I also found that the lens struggled in high contrast situations, even with the HDR mode turned on. So if you’re trying to shoot a landmark against a bright sky, you’re going to lose a lot of detail. Still, if you’re in a bar or some other dark interior, the camera does suck up a lot of light to keep things as bright as possible – so you’ll only have to resort to the flash if things get really gloomy.
The 8-megapixel selfie camera is also a solid effort, shooting crisp photos providing you’re in a well-lit environment. And I found that my 1080p video footage came out well too, with the OIS eliminating pretty much all hand tremors and shakes.
Huawei’s P8 is impressive in so many ways. The camera is one of the best around, almost hitting the dizzy heights of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 snapper, while the sleek design and decent battery life are also highlights. However, the myriad of software issues and merely-good screen make it a difficult recommendation over rivals like the S6 and LG’s award-winning G3, the latter of which is now available for less money than the P8.