Huawei Nova hands-on – A new budget contender enters a crowded market

Huawei has had a good year with its high-end phones, with both the Leica-engineered P9 and P9 Plus impressing both the press and the public. And now it’s using IFA in Berlin to unveil a couple more affordable options.

They’re the first models in the new Nova series, and while they’re unlikely to set the world alight, there’s plenty to like – from the manageable size to the impressively fully featured spec sheets.

Video: Huawei Nova and Nova Plus Hands-on:

Related: Everything you need to know about IFA 2016

First up is the Nova, a _phone_ that takes its design straight from the P9. And that certainly isn't a bad thing.

It’s all metal, with that signature strip of glass across the back to cover the camera lens. It feels great, thanks to slightly curved sides and a small footprint.

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The 5-inch 1080p display helps the _phone_ to remain compact and it’s bright and detailed. Colours are vibrant, there’s plenty of brightness, and pixels are indistinguishable. Huawei could easily have opted for a 720p panel here to cut costs, but I’m glad it didn’t. The display is covered in a sheet of 2.5D glass that curves round the edges ever so slightly.

Flip the device over and you'll discover a nice, grippy texture along with a fingerprint scanner that sits bang in the center of the rear panel. In typical Huawei fashion, the fingerprint scanner is super-fast and unlocks the phone almost the moment you brush your digit across the pad. It can be used for gestures, too, such as bringing up the notifications panel or skipping through photos.

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The Huawei Nova looks decent, and it has the mid-range specs to match. Running the show is a Snapdragon 625 CPU, paired with 3GB of RAM. It’s interesting to see Huawei utilise Snapdragon’s own chips rather than the Kirin versions it tends to use.

The phone feels fast, with apps opening quickly and web pages loading without too much trouble. I wasn’t able to test it’s gaming performance, for which you'll have to wait for the full review.

On the software side of things, Huawei’s custom UI – known as EMUI – sits on top of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. EMUI certainly isn’t for everyone, and while it has seen improvements recently in both form and function, I still find it overbearing; it tries too hard to be like iOS.

There’s no app drawer, the icons are ugly and notifications panel is frustrating and feels out of place. On the plus side it's at least fluid, and you can always add your own launcher.

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Apparently a Nougat update is coming, but the time frame isn’t yet definite. This will add native split-screen support and an improved Doze mode.

The Nova benefits from an impressive 32GB of internal storage, and a microSD slot if you want to expand it even further.

Huawei claims the 3,020mAh battery should last two days – which is a long shot in my mind. Still, I’ll certainly put it to the test and see whether this figure is accurate. Considering that the cell is larger than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and it has less pixels to push along with its less hungry CPU, this phone could offer plenty of stamina. Charging is via USB Type-C, and Quick Charge support is present too.

Along the bottom of the device you'll find a headphone jack and NFC for Android Pay. It seems to tick most of the boxes – so far, at least.

Related: What is USB Type-C?

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My biggest concern is the camera. The 12-megapixel unit with an f/2.2 aperture dramatically overexposed every test shot I took. Aim the sensor at a window and the image is unrealistically bright; aim it at a dark object and it isn't visible. This could just be a software issue, but it could also be a real downer.

Up front sits an 8-megaapixel camera, which fared a little better. But the ever-present Beauty mode is still weirdly strange.

First Impressions

I was a real fan of the Huawei P9, and there’s plenty to like about the Huawei Nova. It’s a cute, compact device that feels as good as its more prestigious brothers. It's feature-packed too, including everything from a healthy 32GB of internal storage to USB Type-C and a decent-sized battery.

There's a lot of competition in this particular end of the market, but Huawei could have something great on its hands here.