For those in the know that’s no surprise. Hiding behind the marketing materials is a giant of telecoms. Honor is a division of Chinese manufacturer Huawei, who themselves make and brand powerful and well received smartphones.
The Huawei parent brand aims at flagship specifications and prices for its phones. The name competes with the likes of Samsung, LG and Sony.
The Honor brand is a little less mainstream. Many will have only seen it crop up recently in lists of affordable yet surprisingly feature-filled phones. With its own resources and separate marketing, Honor has succeeded in this space where cheaper Huawei branded phones may have not.
The Honor 8 takes this concept to its logical extreme. It’s a flagship level phone in everything but price.
Honor 8 First Impressions / Design
As soon as you hold the Honor 8, you realise that this is a premium piece of kit. To be fair Honor manufacture some very pretty looking entry-level phones. It’s no surprise that their high-end offering is very slick indeed.
My initial response to the design was that it was very iPhone-esque. I’ve got no doubts that this was intentional; when we look at the UI later you’ll see why.
Now of course Apple is the king of technological beauty to many. Some consider the phones coming out of Cupertino as more fashion statement than technology these days! If you’re going to be inspired then do so by the best I suppose.
The edges of the Honor 8 have a metallic trim with antenna lines and similar speaker holes. The back plate of the phone though has a wonderfully glossy finish which reflects light beautifully. In this aspect it’s more of a Samsung Galaxy look.
On that panel you’ll find a circular, rear mounted fingerprint sensor and smart key. This sensor/button has a matte finish, contrasting with the rest of the gloss panel. I like the effect although some may have preferred a seamless rear. That said, if Honor put a circular button on the phone’s front, I think a lawyer or two may have got involved!
In the short time I’ve used the Honor 8, it manages to avoid being a scratch magnet, but not a grease one. Honor tell me the glass is manufactured from 15 layers. This accounts for the glossy sheen and eye-ctahcing light trap. I’m not sure if the top layer is a Gorilla Glass derivative or similar. It is definitely scratch resistant though and to the touch it feels more plastic-like than other glasses.
Overall this is a stylish look and worth the £370 RRP. The Honor 8 certainly doesn’t look out of place against those that cost 100 pounds or more extra.
Earlier I said the Honor 8 was a flagship in all but price. Well a quick shoot down the specifications list explains that:
- 5.2″ 1080 x 1920 Full HD display
- 2.3 GHz / 1.8 GHz Octa core processor
- 4GB RAM / 32GB storage / micro SD support
- Dual purpose fingerprint scanner & smart key
- 12 megapixel DUAL rear cameras
- 8 megapixel front facing camera
- Noise cancellation & DTS audio enhancements
- Infrared Blaster
- USB Type-C with fast charging
With all of that going on, the Honor 8 can stand up to a Galaxy S7 and walk away the pound for pound victor. Now specs aren’t the be all and end all of modern phones. They do still need talking about though.
The octa-core processor is the Kirin 950 manufactured by Hisilicon. Some may say they want a Qualcomm processor in a top phone. Spec nerds will know though that Hisilicon is fully owned by Huawei. This marks a similar approach to Samsung using Exynos processors in the Galaxy range.
The vertical integration allows for cost savings. Hisilicon also license ARM technology. On paper the Kirin 950 is as good as a Snapdragon 820; 64 bit, octa-core, 2.3 GHz clock speed on the main four cores, DDR4 RAM support etc. We don’t report on benchmarking – plenty of other sites do – however the Honor 8 would score highly if we did.
Coupled with 4GB of RAM the Honor 8 is a powerful, top level device, capable of heavy multitasking and 3D games. I’m yet to experience any lag, glitches or hanging.
The screen is the window to a smartphone. 5.2 inches seems to be the size many Android flagships have settled around. The Full HD display on the Honor 8 has a wide range of brightness and adapts quickly to a change in environment. The palette is also varied, the stock image gallery pictures display lovely depth in colour reproduction.
Seven precision drilled holes make up a neat looking grille. These cover a single bottom-mounted speaker which delivers an alright amount of noise. A single speaker set up is never going to be as loud or deep as a front-facing stereo one. Of course there is a compromise in having a clean fascia.
That said the headphone experience is pretty good. I felt a well rounded and loud sound when going through my favourite tracks on Spotify.
Everything feels well built. There is no creakiness to the manufacturing. Squeezing the body doesn’t produce odd noises and squeaks like some other cheaper phones. Even the slimline power and volume buttons have plenty of click travel with no wobble.
This continues to the rear mounted smart key and fingerprint sensor. This has a satisfying click motion and recognises the tap or long press commands every time.
The sensor is very fast to recognise saved prints. Honor touts this as 0.4 seconds. I can’t time that but I couldn’t possibly call it slow. Very rarely did it fail to register, and even then it was more likely due to being given a half print from poor finger positioning.
More software than hardware; the sensor can also be set up in the settings for more advanced actions. You can swipe down on it to bring down the notification shade, then double tap to clear all. You can also have it respond to left-right swipes for browsing the image gallery. Tap and hold to answer calls or switch off alarms? Done. As an aside, these advanced actions don’t require an enrolled fingerprint.
As mentioned in other Honor / Huawei reviews, the Emotion UI (EMUI) skin is chalk and cheese. Android diehards will probably hate it. It’s very far removed from stock, going so far as to completely remove the app drawer. This makes all installed apps appear on the home screen, although they can be put in folders.
The other kicker is the stock skin / theme. Similar to the physical design, it’s clear that Huawei got some inspiration from Apple for the software. Rounded app icons, similar flat pastel iconography etc. Even the system messages pop up in a light grey bubble with a familiar font.
I can’t knock this too harshly though. Imitation of the supposed best is a big factor in some design philosophies. First capture the audience with familiarity, then win them over with added value.
The clean Apple inspired layout is undoubtedly simple to navigate. The prevalence in the world of Apple’s design and branding does breed familiarity, whether you like it or not. Now once you start to delve a little deeper into the EMUI, you discover customisation options and themes. Easy personalisation has supposedly always been a major differentiator between iOS and Android.
All the standard Android customisation settings are available. Extras include some notification bar/shade modifications. The navigation bar can also be customised and a ‘floating’ version added that sits on top of any app like a Facebook Messenger Chat Head.
Something I really like is a complete screen temperature picker. You can select the UI tint from a full colour wheel. This has two benefits. The first is a big accessibility win. Adjusting the warmth to your liking can make things a lot easier on the eyes. The second is battery saving. Swapping from the standard cold white/blue light to a warmer yellow or green hue reduces power consumption considerably.
A toggle in the audio settings allows for DTS enhancement to be switched on/off. With it on there is a noticeable bass boost and I recognised higher pitched lyrics / tones were cleared up on some tracks I listen to. DTS is on by default and I doubt many will ever see the setting let alone compare the differences. It is certainly doing something. Whether it’s to your tastes is certainly subjective, and it’s not a full equalizer app.
EMUI Themes on the Honor 8 are half baked. What I’d really like is to be able to fine tune icons and easily download new packages from a central source. I do this regularly on CyanogenOS devices. Sony phones have also had a powerful yet underutilised theme engine for some time.
Now Huawei does give you a Themes application. Frustratingly there are only 4 almost identical looking packages included. Worse, there’s no link to get more! I’m certain previous Huawei branded phones I’ve used had a whole storefront of free and paid themes to choose from.
So what you have to do on the Honor is manually download Huawei Theme (HWT) packages from various unofficial websites, move them into the Themes folder on the phone, then install using the app. The kicker is a lot of these sites are shady looking pages with the kind of full screen pop up mobile ads that make me hate the current state of the mobile web. There is one decent community on Google Plus [link-through] though.
It’s not a difficult procedure for anyone with basic computer knowledge. However in the modern mobile world, is about 47,000 times more difficult than it should be. It also takes the user out of the Huawei / Honor ecosystem.
The Themes app should link to a store. You should be able to browse that store, press a button and see a result almost immediately. Not only is going through a whole 3rd party download, unpack, and install so… outdated for a mobile system, it exposes users to potential risks by browsing unlicensed sites for content.
Another argument is Huawei don’t explain anywhere that this can be done. Only because I engross myself in tech did I think to search the web for compatible themes. The majority of Honor owners likely won’t know such a powerful engine is available. Why include a Theme engine at all if you’re going to cripple built in access to it?
Hopefully Honor update the 8 with an app or link to some cool storefronts. I feel this kind of neat UI customisation, whilst admittedly only a fun distraction, allows people to personalise and enjoy their device more.
Following some info from Chinese users familiar with Honor/Huawei’s systems, it appears that with the EMUI 4.0 system, a Huawei ID is required to access a store through the Themes app.
A Huawei ID can be created with a SIM card installed and phone network access. This can be created from the phone settings or during the initial set up procedure (which may be skipped).
There is also an official Chinese store for themes HERE (translation required for non Chinese visitors).
This is where things start to get really interesting. With this physical design, spec sheet and price, the Honor 8 is already a winner in my books. Properly delivering a dual camera system tips this from potential to near must-buy territory. It’s been cribbed from the Huawei P9, which is a great phone in its own right.
The dual set up is about to popularised by Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus. Oddly for Apple, they won’t really be capitalising on everything such a system can manage. Even their advertised fake bokeh Portrait mode won’t be available right away.
In comparison, the Honor 8 shows off more than just a party trick. A whole magic act is on show for anyone who dives into the camera features. Pre capture filters, including a couple of stark black and white options that solely use the second monochrome sensor, are just the start.
This dedicated black and white sensor can actually take some very nice pictures all by itself. I tried out at night in my local bar and even in low light situations it captured plenty of details and made for some lovely compositions.
2 cameras allows the Honor 8 to perform a software based aperture adjustment. This lets you adjust the depth of field on the fly. This can only be done on the ‘auto’ mode at this time though. The feature isn’t available on the ‘pro’ mode with all the other options (ISO, exposure, white balance, shutter speed etc.).
Select the shutter icon near the top of the app and a shutter appears on screen to drag around. This sets the focal point, just like normal touch focus. A small vertical slider then appears next to the shutter. Sliding this provides a visual representation of the aperture opening or closing.
According to the software, the effect is akin to moving from F16 down to F0.95. You’ll have to take that with a pinch of salt. The software reproduction does make a notable difference and the visual effect is very interesting to watch. At the extremes the software can overcompensate though, resulting in too much blur at the edges. Still it’s an impressive feature to have a price tier away from the top.
The other reason for the second sensor is to allow more light capture. This gives the image processing software more to work with when it comes to creating dynamic, contrast heavy shots.
Sat next to a new Galaxy or iPhone, you could pick apart the differences in the final results. There’s a bit more grain and noise in the final shots not present in the cream of mobile photography. We’re talking photo nerd levels of difference here however. Anyone choosing the Honor 8 for value’s sake should be highly impressed with the pictures it can take.
In the current age of smartphones, a checklist of features isn’t everything anymore. The dust is settling on the specification war as we reach a point of diminishing returns on just how powerful a smartphone can be. That’s before we look at how powerful we need a smartphone to be.
It takes a device such as this to make you think again about the big name brands. Industry fans can claim to always desire more. Bigger screens. Faster processors. Super fast charging or 2 day batteries. But at what cost?
Many of us are willing to spend half a grand at least once a year. Some new Apple fans are spending over nine hundred pounds on a smartphone at the moment. Just chew on that for a second – over nine hundred pounds.
Now of course everyone has a budget and for some the purchase means as much as the product. If it makes you feel something to spend then more power to you.
However if you value, well, value, then an Honor 8 is an excellent example of such. It shows that great specifications don’t have to mean huge price tags. A look at the rest of Honor’s products might also make you realise just how far a lower budget can stretch these days.
You could easily miss the Honor 8 when creating a shortlist of flagship phones to choose from. Even if you just filtered recent releases by price, it would disappear under a pile of frankly inferior products. Hopefully that won’t happen though. The Honor 8 deserves a mention next to anything released by Samsung, Sony, LG or Apple.
I can’t call the Honor 8 perfect. No phone is, however I’ll be more than happy playing with one for plenty longer.