L ast year, Huawei’s Ascend P7 smartphone impressed us with its slimline good looks and top-quality camera – but it was undermined by sluggish performance and an over-fussy UI. This year, the company aims to improve on that with its new flagship.
First impressions are positive. The P8 is super-slim, measuring a mere 6.9mm from front to back; it weighs only 144g, and it looks great. The curved edges contrast pleasingly with the flat front and matte-finish rear, and the bevelled edges give it an expensive look that’s redolent of the Samsung Galaxy S6 – even though the P8 is considerably cheaper.
In a couple of areas, the P8 even trumps the S6. Although there’s no removable battery, the P8 has a microSD slot for storage expansion. It’s water- and dust-resistant too, and the camera doesn’t protrude at the rear.
The only major downside is a lack of Gorilla Glass on the front; in time the P8 could scuff more easily than its pricier rivals, although so far we’ve seen no evidence of that.
Round the back, the 13-megapixel camera brings a few innovations. They start with the “world’s first” four-colour sensor, using a unique RGBW pixel arrangement that Huawei claims captures more accurate colours than a traditional RGB sensor.
The camera also has its own image processor, which is said to deliver improved scene recognition and more balanced exposures. It’s accompanied by optical image stabilisation and a dual-LED flash, plus there is an 8-megapixel front camera.
The results are impressive. The camera is quick to open, focus and shoot – and quality is fantastic, particularly in low light. Thanks to the wide f/2 lens and optical stabilisation, it’s possible to take sharp handheld shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/4sec.
In good light the camera dealt well with even tricky scenes, retaining detail in bright skies without losing detail in the shadows. Video was crisp and rock-steady in all but the most extreme situations.
Our only gripes were that, under certain conditions, pictures look slightly washed out – and there’s no 4K video capture.
Core components comprise an octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 930/935 processor with twin quad-core CPUs running at 2GHz and 1.5GHz respectively. There’s 3GB of RAM, a Mali-T624 GPU, and either 16GB or 64GB of storage, depending on the model you choose.
In use it feels nippy – much more so than last year’s P7 – but benchmarks reveal that the P8 isn’t quite in the same league as top-end phones such as the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6. Pure number-crunching is pretty strong, with Geekbench 3 results only a touch behind the HTC One M9, but a frame rate of 18fps in the GFXBench T-Rex HD test is a long way behind the M9’s 49fps.
And, despite the 2,680mAh battery, longevity lags too. With hardly any gaming and only a modicum of web browsing and photography, we found the P8 needed recharging every evening, where a Sony Xperia Z3 or Samsung Galaxy S6 would have comfortably lasted into the second day under similar use. In our battery tests, we found video playback depleted the P8’s capacity at a rate of 14.9% per hour, and audio streaming used it up at 6.9% per hour – distinctly faster than rivals.
The P8 does benefit from a decent 1080p screen. Brightness is fine, reaching 419cd/m2 at maximum settings, and viewing angles are excellent. IPS-NEO technology delivers a contrast ratio of 1,461:1 – higher than normal for IPS panels. Colour accuracy isn’t great, though, which leaves the P8’s overall visual impression lacking the impact of phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S6.
As usual with Huawei devices, the P8 comes loaded with novelty add-ons, including a crazy feature called “knuckle sense”, which allows you to capture a screenshot with a tap of your knuckle. In truth, we could do entirely without Huawei’s heavy-handed Emotion UI, which in our view doesn’t improve Android 5.02 at all.
There are some useful voice-call features however, including wind-noise reduction for clearer calls, automatic microphone sensitivity and earpiece volume control. We had no complaints about call quality indoors or out, although speakerphone calls had an unpleasant scratchy quality when we turned up the call volume.
The P8 isn’t a match for the very best smartphones we’ve seen. The Samsung Galaxy S6 remains secure on its throne at the very top, while the HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3, Nexus 6 and Apple iPhone 6 also outclass the P8’s battery life and graphics performance. That could perhaps be forgiven if the price were competitive, but unfortunately the P8 isn’t quite cheap enough to excuse its shortcomings.
If you value camera quality above all else, then the Huawei P8 is worth a look – but we’d suggest you weigh up alternative options, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, which is cheaper SIM-free, or the Galaxy Note 4, which can be had for around $630, before taking the plunge.