Positives

32GB of internal storage
4K video recording
Fast fingerprint reader
Build quality
Good battery life

Negatives

EMUI isn't for everyone
A better processor might have been apt for this package
Camera could be better

Rating
Battery
9.0
Display
8.0
Camera
7.5
Performance
8.0
Software
9.0
Design
8.5
Bottom Line
8.3
8.3
Huawei Nova and Nova Plus
by Huawei

With 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, 4K video recording and Full HD displays then the nova and nova plus certainly have the hallmarks of couple of upper mid-range devices. That is even more so for the nova plus with its built-in OIS and larger display. The main weaknesses are the the processor package, and the camera setup.

HUAWEI recently announced two new mid-range Android smartphones: the nova and the nova plus. The nova is a 5.0 inch device with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. The nova plus is a 5.5 inch variant with the same basic internals. Following our hands-on first look at these two device, here is our full review.

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Design

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On the inside these two phones are almost identical, however on the outside they are quite different. The norm until now has been that the “plus” variant of a smartphone was essentially a carbon copy of its smaller sibling except with a bigger screen (and maybe a few extras), however that certainly isn’t the case here.

Both smartphones feature full metal unibody constructions, which makes them very sturdy, and allows for a nice and solid feel in the hand. The chamfered edges and the rounded corners give both phones a premium feel. Beyond that, the Nova looks a lot like a mini Nexus 6P, while the Nova Plus borrows its design language from the HUAWEI Mate series.

Although the design language is different on each device, the overall layout is the same on both. On the front is the 5.0/5.5 inch display along with the front facing camera and HUAWEI logo. Neither have capacitive keys as the navigation controls are on screen. On the left is the dual SIM tray which also doubles as the micro SD card tray (replacing one of the SIM cards). On the right is the volume rocker and then power button. On the top is the 3.5mm headphone jack along with a microphone. On the bottom is the USB Type-C port and the speaker grill. The nova plus has two grills, but there is only one speaker on each handset. Flip the phone over and you find the rear-facing camera, the fingerprint reader, a LED flash and another HUAWEI logo.

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It is from the back that the two phones look most different. The fingerprint reader is round on the nova but more square on the nova plus. The camera is central (with a bump) on the plus, but flush and more to one side on the nova.

Display

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On paper the displays for the phones are very similar (except the size). They are both IPS LCD panels and both have a Full HD resolution (i.e. 1920 x 1080). Both displays can be configured in the settings to alter the color temperature and both displays have the same level of brightness (450 nits). Obviously the screen on the nova plus is bigger (at 5.5 inches compared to 5.0 inches) and that means it has a lower pixel density (401 ppi compared to 443 ppi). When placed side-by-side the displays look very similar, however it I had to choose I would say that the nova plus has the better screen, but not by much.

Overall, both screens are crisp with good color reproduction that will provide a good experience regardless of what you’re doing on the screen. My only word of caution is that in very bright, direct sunlight you might find the displays a little hard to read.

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Hardware and performance

The HUAWEI nova and nova plus both feature a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 built using a 14nm process. This is certainly a mid-range processing package. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since today’s mid-range phones offer greater performance than some of the high-end devices of only a few years ago. In the CPU side you get eight 64-bit Cortex-A53 cores, clocked upto 2.0GHz. On the GPU side you get the Adreno 506, which supports OpenGL ES 3.1.

In terms of every day use you will find the Snapdragon 625 more than capable. The UI response was good, apps open and close quickly and with 3GB of RAM the multi-tasking capabilities are more than sufficient. If you are a power user then you will struggle with the Snapdragon 625, but for most users will handle just about everything you ask of it. Plus there is the added bonus that the Cortex-A53 core is one of the most power efficient 64-bit cores from ARM, which helps with battery life!

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Since the internals of both phones are very similar, both score the same in the popular benchmarks. For AnTuTu you can expect scores of 64969, while for GeekBench 4 the devices scored an average of 840 for the single core tests and 3112 for the multi-core tests. As for Epic Citadel you will get around 60 frames per second in High Quality mode, which is great. However when you bump the details up to Ultra High Quality mode then the GPU starts to struggle a little, scoring just 50 fps.

What that means in real world terms is that the nova and nova plus can handle normal productivity tasks (email, social media, web browsing) without any problems. It will also play 3D games reasonably well, but don’t expect the same level of performance as you would from a leading flagship device. I played Asphalt 8: Airborne and Riptide GP without any problems.

The fingerprint readers HUAWEI’s recent phones (including the Mate 8 and the P9) have been exceptional and I have come to expect nothing less from HUAWEI. The fingerprint readers on the nova and nova plus are equally as good. Since the fingerprint reader is on the back, you can wake and unlock your phone just by putting your finger on the reader. You can also use the fingerprint reader to trigger the shutter while taking photos, to swipe left and right when viewing photos in the gallery, or to answer a call.

Both phones feature a single speaker on the bottom edge, next to the Type-C USB port. The speakers are quite loud and the sound is reasonable considering that they aren’t front facing speakers. Like many smartphones, music can lack bass and sound a bit thin. I found that at full volume some tracks tended to distort and that the sound quality improved when the volume was actually turned down a notch or two. Comparing the nova with the nova plus, the sound quality is approximately the same, however the nova plus is the better of the two.

The nova has a 3020 mAh battery, which is impressive when you consider that the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5 both have smaller battery capacities. I ran a 3D test to measure the battery life while playing 3D games. According to my calculations you will be able to play 3D games for over 5 hours from a single charge. As for simpler tasks like browsing the web and watching video you should be able to get about 11 hours.

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The nova plus has a 3340 mAh battery, even bigger than the nova, mainly to compensate for the larger 5.5 inch display. I ran the same 3D test to measure the battery life while playing 3D games. According to my calculations you will be able to play 3D games for over 5 hours from a single charge. As for simpler tasks like browsing the web and watching video you should be able to get 11 hours.

Overall you will easily be able to get through a full day on either phone, maybe even two. My tests show that you should be able to get around 7 to 9 hours of screen-on time for both devices during a 24 hour period, of course depending on your usage.

Software

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The software experience is identical on the nova and the nova plus, with both running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with HUAWEI’s Emotion UI 4.1 on top. If you have used a HUAWEI phone before, you will know what to expect here, and once again, you get a very iOS-like user interface, with no app drawer, transparency effects, and home pages filled with colorful icons. For some people the lack of a stock Android experience will be a stumbling block, especially the lack of an app drawer.

If you lack the EMUI launcher then it is also possible to replace it with an alternative like the Google Now Launcher. The trick is to make the Google Now Launcher the default under Settings -> Apps -> Advanced -> Default app settings -> Launcher.

However besides the cosmetic UI changes there are lots of additional features that you don’t get with stock Android including a floating dock, motion gestures, voice wake-up, a one-handed mode and HUAWEI’s own take on a “do not disturb” mode.

Under motion gestures you can enable motions like flip to mute, raise to ear to answer calls, and a tilt motion to move icons and widgets. The tilt motion feature works from the home screen editing mode. If you touch and hold an icon or widget you can move it to another screen by tilting the phone to the left or right. There is also the Knuckle gestures which allow you to take a screenshot by double tapping the screen with your knuckle, or drawing a letter to open an app. Both types of knuckle gesture can be disabled if you find they misfire.

Since the nova and nova plus both use on-screen keys, HUAWEI as added the ability to customize the order of the navigation buttons. By default the recent apps is on the right and the back button is on the left. However this can be reversed. It is also possible to add a fourth button for opening the notification panel. Tapping the icon is the equivalent to dragging the notification shade down from the top.

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HUAWEI has included a battery manager which gives you a high level of control over battery related features. For example you can set a power plan which will tweak the CPU according to your usage (and so save battery when possible). Other battery related options include a whitelist function to ensure that certain apps keep running after the screen is turned off and a power usage firewall which warns you about power hungry apps.

There is also an ultra power saving mode which will disable everything except calls and messages plus activate a simply monochrome UI. When running low on battery power this mode can add several more hours of usage.

Camera

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The camera is one area where the nova and nova plus differ significantly. The nova comes with a 12MP rear facing camera that can record video at 4K, plus an 8MP front facing camera. The nova plus has the better setup with a 16MP rear facing camera that includes OIS and 4K video, plus the same 8MP front facing camera.

The camera app is quite nice and includes some interesting features. As well HDR, panorama and the seemingly obligatory beauty mode, there is also a light painting mode, for long exposure shots. The built-in filters include car light trails, for capturing the trails of lights made by moving cars at night; light graffiti, for capturing trails of light in a dark environment; silky water, for silky smooth effects from running water; and star track, to capture the trails of stars and galaxies in the night! However you will need a very steady hand (or better still a tripod) to get the best results.

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There is also a super night mode, with a long exposure time for night time photos, a slow-motion mode, plus a special Good Food mode for taking close-up shots of your food! Two other interesting modes are the All-focus mode and the full manual (professional mode). The former allows you to refocus pictures post capture and change which object is in focus. The latter gives you control over the metering mode, the ISO speed, the shutter speed, plus the white balance. It also gives you full manual focusing control.

While the camera app is very capable, the actual pictures produced by these devices leave a lot to be desired. Pictures taken in ideal conditions come out quite nice, meaning the cameras are good for outdoor use in good light. However once you move indoors and the lighting is artificial then lots of noise creeps into the pictures.

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Both handsets are capable of videoing at 4K in 16:9 from both the rear camera and Full HD using the front facing camera. While the nova doesn’t include Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) it does have a software based image stabilization option when recording video.

Here are some sample shots from the nova so you can see for yourself:

And here are some sample shots from the nova plus:

Specifications

 Huawei novaHuawei nova plus
Display5.0 inch IPS panel
1920x1080 resolution
5.5-inch IPS panel
1920x1080 resolution
SoCQualcomm Snapdragon 625Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
CPU8x ARM Cortex A53, upto 2.0 GHz8x ARM Cortex A53, upto 2.0 GHz
GPUAdreno 506 GPU with support for
OpenGL ES 3.1
Adreno 506 GPU with support for
OpenGL ES 3.1
RAM3GB3GB
Storage32GB + microSD32GB + microSD
Cameras12MP rear facing camera with 4K video, 8MP front facing camera16MP rear facing camera with OIS & 4K video, 8MP front facing camera
Battery3020mAh 3340mAh
FeaturesFingerprint scanner, USB Type C, Bluetooth 4.1Fingerprint scanner, USB Type C, Bluetooth 4.1
OSAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow with EMUI 4.1Android 6.0 Marshmallow with EMUI 4.1
Dimensions141.2mm x 69.1mm x 7.1mm.151.8 x 75.7 x 7.3mm
Weight146g160g

Gallery

Wrapping up

With 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, 4K video recording and Full HD displays then the nova and nova plus certainly have the hallmarks of a couple of upper mid-range devices. That is even more so for the nova plus with its built-in OIS and larger display. When I look at the specifications for the Qualcomm processor I myself wanting more, octa-core Cortex-A53 is very yesteryear, however the Snapdragon 625 is built using the latest 14nm fabrication process and as such it is more efficient than octa-core Cortex-A53 processors built on 28nm. I was hoping for a better Snapdragon processor from the 600 series, however after using the nova and nova plus for several days I must admit that the processor package works just fine. It isn’t the fastest and the GPU could be better, but for those looking to buy a phone in the mid-range (and not a flagship), it is more than adequate.

What do you think of the HUAWEI nova and nova plus? Do you plan to buy one, if so which one? Let us know your views in the comments below!

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade. Prior to that, he had over 10 years of experience as a software engineer.