Huawei P8 Lite review: still not stepping up
Huawei dropped the “Ascend” branding for its fleet-leading device line, starting with the Huawei P8. But no one can deny that the company and the Chinese mobile tech sector has ascended in renown, innovation and sales. The problem is that these manufacturers are running out of new people to sell to. With the home market transitioning from sales growth to upgrade maintenance, the time has come to look and invest elsewhere.
Huawei has cut ribbons on major facilities in Canada with even more growth to come. But it’s been slow on introducing some fresh, exciting flagships for the West at the major tech trade shows. In fact, at the time of writing, this very phone is actually the best-specced one in Huawei’s U.S. lineup (see our Huawei Ascend Mate 2 and Huawei SnapTo coverage).
So, in our Huawei P8 Lite review, will we see the Chinese OEM bring enough to the table? And will that bring relevance to a company that’s looking for new market share? Are we, perhaps, even asking the right questions here?
Huawei P8 Lite Review Video
Specs & Hardware
I have been making so many allusions to diet soda in referring to this smartphone. It wants to get as close as possible to the real thing while not costing too much, one way or another. In fact, on the GetHuawei.com landing page, a promo video touts the device as “accessible.” Not exclusive, expensive or extremely desirable, but accessible. It’s affordable, dandy hardware for the common (or uncommon) person.
While the build assures us that it’s never going to be the real thing, the P8 Lite is unique in its own right: a plastic uni-body build that takes on the appearance of a sandwich. That’s a form we usually see from glass and metal elements. It’s interesting to see and feel how Huawei tried to mimic that design language by applying a brushed metal texture to the matte white (or black, if you want it) back. When you pass bright light across it, it almost seems to glisten. Meanwhile, the beveled mid-plate attempts for a steely look and feel.
It’s 7.6 mm thick, 143 mm tall, 70.6 mm wide and substantial in the hand at 135 grams. All this makes the composite look solid and appealing. Though it feels like all the perfectly okay plastic it is, the good news is that the P8 Lite can take scratches pretty darn well. The thing’s resilient.
On the front, the five-inch LCD has a 720p resolution. The backlight often lacks the brightness it needs to overpower reflections off of the glass in front of it, leading to some very limited viewing angles. Color reproduction is only accurate viewing the display head-on. Viewing the display from one angle brings out a cooler image. Another angle exhibits yellowish whites. It’s not a display Huawei should be proud of.
Also on the front of the top left corner (because I apparently can’t tell left from right in my review video), there’s also a multi-color notification LED. It’s been a rare feature for the longest time. It’s also a nice touch, even now.
The earpiece lies at top center. The top edge holds the 3.5mm microphone jack and a microphone. On the bottom edge, there’s the micro-USB port sitting between two grilles. Only the left grille contains a 1-watt speaker, which can be easily covered while playing games in landscape. The right edge, from top to bottom, holds a volume rocker, a power nub and two pin-release slots.
The bottom tray can hold a micro-SIM card. The top one can hold either a nano-SIM or a microSD card of up to 32GB. Regardless of whether you have a carrier or carriers servicing your needs, the device comes unlocked and with antennas for AT&T and T-Mobile EDGE, 3G and LTE bands.
But while the big picture looks great for this phone, it’s the small details that matter.
This is the micro-SIM tray’s keyhole. You see the light coming out of that? That’s the backlight for the LCD. That’s a shortcut Huawei made for some reason. That’s also waiting for dust and water to get into. It makes what would be an impermeable phone with no detachable back cover, permeable. That’s worrying.
The internal specs come off as typical for the field the Huawei P8 Lite is competing in. The U.S. version has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 running two sets of quad-core Cortex-A53 processors. One set clocks 1.5GHz, the other set goes at 1GHz. The Adreno 405 GPU drives the visuals. There’s 2GB of RAM and only one internal storage size of 16GB. Other radios included are GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n.
This is Huawei’s Emotion UI 3.0 on top of Android 4.4.4. It’s not the 3.1 version the P8 has over Android 5.0. Heck, the international edition P8 Lite has EMUI 3.1! It doesn’t have the extent of features as seen on the P8 (no knuckle gesturing, no native theme store, no expansive “one-handed” UI). And it still doesn’t have an app drawer.
What the P8 Lite does have, like its flagship relative, is a memory manager, an adjustable navigation bar, spiffy notification shades and per-application permissions. There’s a “simple” mode to make things easy for first-time smartphone users. It also has “apps” that are actually just jumping pads to certain settings menus. And an app to lock the phone. You know, something you can do through the quick toggles menu, too. Did I forget the power button?
As noted in the P8 review, the notifications shade displays its notices with a timeline motif. If there are no notifications, you’re immediately directed to the quick toggles. All of this is laid in front of a white background. Gmail message summaries, printed in light gray, prove illegible. Pulling up from the lock screen what would be quick toggle settings on the P8 … turns out to be just a weather forecast and access to basic applications.
But the watering down of some features might work to improve others. While the P8 Lite doesn’t recognize the phrase “Okay, Emy,” so that you can look for your lost phone, you CAN prompt Google Now on the Lite from standby. You can also properly connect an Android Wear watch to the device as well. These are surprising trade-offs with the flagship that favor the mid-ranger.
If this phone had all the software trimmings of the P8, “Emy” and all, would this have been a different phone? Well, given the hardware we’re looking at, maybe. Considering that even with all those extra software features, what some might think of as bloatware might not actually take up much more space on the phone. How all of it would run, though, is a different question with a possibly negative answer. And even if you don’t run the darn things, they’ll still be right there, in front of your face, for you to have to look at and not use.
Megapixels aren’t everything and so isn’t the manufacturer of the sensor as Sony also provided the 13-megapixel RGBW sensor found on the Huawei P8. OIS isn’t everything, even though we laud manufacturers for including it in their phones’ cameras. The 1.2° anti-shake compensation did a good job for the P8. But, the P8 Lite’s camera is running without all of that fuss.
And for the most part, you have some decent results in balanced lighting. The beach pictures show that colors trend cooler than reality while higher contrast situations rob details and color from one place or another. Ditto all of that for nighttime and low lighting situations. You might see in the playground shot lit up by flash that the sensor takes even its own light source to the blues. It seems that the processing just doesn’t handle exposure and saturation terribly well.
Heck, the exposure evaluations can wreck some of the HDR pictures you take. The first picture of the last four in the gallery exposes (ha) the problem. The majority of our time shooting HDR pictures gave us okay results, but the sampling you see here does represent what kind of product you’ll get sometimes. So, if you find that you’re not getting enough color in your normal snaps for your liking, in some unlucky cases you might be sure out of luck with HDR.
There are some fun features on the P8 Lite, though not as many as there are on the P8. They work alright. For more on the P8 Lite’s camera, refer to our dedicated camera article. But overall, this isn’t the best all-purpose snapper, nor can we say it’s even great for its price point.
Typical use of interface scrolling, social media, web, video and other media playing handle just fine. Most gaming, even some intense Asphalt 8 action, really does work, but pile on the explosions, crazy elements and it gets to be a doozy. On the whole, it’s a slightly slower and a tad shakier experience when compared to a flagship. Having a constant reminder of how much RAM you have available when you’re in the multitasking pane is really helpful, though I am a fairly tidy app manager myself. And the speaker, while not the best sounding, does give enough oomph for a moderately noisy room with its 1-watt of power.
There are three battery use modes: Normal operates the phone by optimizing for graphic and network performance, Smart mode dials that down a bit and Ultra mode reduces everything down to the basics: calling and texting. There usually isn’t much difference in estimated usage times between Smart and Normal, maybe at most about 40 minutes or so. That could be thanks to the relatively slower clocks speeds that the phone utilizes between the two sets of processors.
But while the phone gives a very conservative estimate on its longevity here, it usually lasts anywhere between three and a half and four and a half hours with the screen on over the course of 12 to 18 hours unplugged. On the spec sheet provided by the consumer store, Huawei claims that the display is 20 to 30 percent more power efficient because of the TFT technology they use in their LCD. Low Temperature PolySilicon (LTPPS) does have an energy benefit when compared to amorphous silicon (a-Si) or indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) which someone more intelligent on the matter can explain. But to the extent of Huawei’s claims that it saves more energy compared to, we’ll say, other LCDs, we found that to be not true. The display is often the culprit for about 35 to 40 percent of the battery’s use on any given day. Comparing that to the BLU Life One, which the display on it has a much brighter backlight and uses up about the same portion of the battery in a day, the Lite only gave us about 5 percent’s worth of savings.
If the 2,200mAh battery stood alone in its specification description, we’d say that this phone performed within the average of its class. But tying that power efficiency claim in with the display did not help the P8 Lite when those numbers got scrutinized. Huawei is even vague on what that 20 to 30 percent is compared to. But at least we know that it’s not with the BLU Life One. And, from checking out other phones’ performances with LCDs, it’s certainly not with those as well.
AT&T provided us with service around metro Boston. The P8 Lite grabbed typical results in high-traffic areas and did well in off-peak hours. There was one odd case where I was leaving the radio station I work (based underground) and was just transferring off of Wi-Fi to the network. The P8 Lite took a full minute to grab onto an LTE signal. I tried resetting the data connection over and over, but no signal could have been found until the phone grabbed the cell tower it did.
Call quality was rated just above average. The noise cancellation on the P8 Lite is fairly aggressive, but accurate. Speakerphone calls are generally pleasant to carry on, even in loud environments with the grilles held closer to your ear.
+ A solid overall fit and finish
+ Extra camera software features
+ Great back end support (see pricing and availability)
– Display puts out inconsistent color
– Power efficiency is not as advertised
– Lackluster photos
Pricing and Availability
In a board room somewhere within Huawei, there were people that thought the company should continue serving its customers outside of the China and Europe geographies and in the unlocked mid-ranger market. Perhaps that is where the most growth is right now. Some people think that the Chinese OEM isn’t taking the US seriously and that brand recognition is still out of mind for the effort. Maybe so.
My questions to Huawei go more like this: does it want to do business here with a watered down version of what is specifically their current flagship? The flagship that people can search for and ask, “Hey, why isn’t this phone sold here?”
It gets to us that the company tried to notch some positive repute by tying this phone to a better phone, if only in name. Huawei can do all it wants when it comes to packaging up new phones for sale in North America. Give us a low-end phone with cheap, cheap parts and name it something original. Or, do like what manufacturers have done in the past and sell the flagship and the lite version concurrently. But don’t leave the consumers – ones who look into their unlocked smartphone options carefully – hanging.
Second, why is this phone priced in contention with the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 and ASUS ZenFone 2 when its spec sheet and its features just don’t match up? AOT and ASUS have invested heavily into their mid-range showcase devices and it shows. Huawei, by the nature of their lineup, is treating this device as an also-ran that can fetch some extra profits for its bottom line. Different strokes for different folks.
But my biggest concern relates to how serious we can take Huawei any further. Given how we have yet to see the company’s devices appear anywhere in the US outside of budget carriers like MetroPCS, we’re wondering whether the company’s “two legs, walking” bet will work out. Will the P8 Lite stand on its own, unlocked and free to purchase online? Or will the company have better phones negotiated into larger carriers’ showrooms? That’s Huawei’s way of cracking into America and beyond, at least on paper. We’ve yet to see fruition and so, it seems, has Huawei.
Huawei keeps on promising that more competitive, sexier smartphones will get shipped to the West sooner or later. My personal hope is that they aren’t too late getting here.