HONOR announced the HONOR 20 in May 2019, and we did take a really close look at it in August. What HUAWEI is doing with the nova 5T is basically rebranding the HONOR 20, and putting it out there as a premium-mid-range offering.
This also allowed HUAWEI to shave off significant Dollars (Euros, in this case) of the HONOR 20, making it a much more attractive, inexpensive premium smartphone.
We’ve spent a whole month with the HUAWEI nova 5T, and this is our full review.
You can instantly tell, just by looking at the design and color choices (we’ve got the less exciting Dark Black version) that HUAWEI is aiming the nova 5T towards younger customers. Young, millennial, fashion-savvy is the target for this phone, and it does a good job at attracting glances. They’d probably go for the Crush Blue or Midsummer Purple option. While our unit is plain black, the other two options exhibit nice reflections.
At just 7.87 mm thickness, the nova 5T is a flat piece of glass, back and front. A 6.26-inch display takes up the entire front of the phone, with a punch-hole camera in the top left corner, and a minuscule earpiece grill at the top, with an LED notification light inside it, something we don’t see on many phones these days.
Moving the fingerprint sensor to the side allowed HUAWEI to keep the back relatively action-free, aside from the camera hump which is raised, so expect some wiggle while placing it on a flat surface. Placing it anywhere else will require constant attention, as it tends to slip easily.
That display we mentioned is an LCD panel with 2340 x 1080 resolution. Has really nice colors, contrast and brightness, but don’t expect super deep blacks, it being LCD.
Under the hood you’ll find 2018’s flagship Kirin 980 AI chip, helped by 6GB of RAM, with 128GB of non-expandable storage.
The selfie shooter inside the punch-hole features a whopping 32MP unit, while the quad-camera on the back is built around the main 48MP sensor, adding a 16MP ultra-wide, and two 2MP extra shooters, one for macro, and one for depth sensing.
Powering everything is EMUI 9.1 (with a future upgrade possible to EMUI 10), and a 3,750mAh battery that charges using HUAWEI 22.5W SuperCharge standard.
The usual suspects include Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC, an IR blaster, and a USB-Type C port.
Yes, it does come with the full Google suite, and Google Mobile Services, in case you were wondering, and that will continue to be the case even after the EMUI 10 update.
It currently runs EMUI 9.1 based on Android 9 Pie, and, as usual with EMUI, it delivers a pretty fluid experience. I understand that the overall looks of a manufacturer skin (UI) for Android are subjective, but as far as my personal taste is concerned, I have nothing to complain about in this department.
That’s not to say your experience will be the same, but luckily, you can change the launcher should you want to.
Using EMUI 9.1 stock is a breeze. It might have to do with the powerful Kirin 980 chip, coupled with 6GB of memory, but it’s a combination of hardware and software, really. Huawei is using what the company calls its own proprietary Extendable Read-Only File System (EROFS). What basically EROFS does is that it increases the average random read speed by 20%, while at the same time saves storage space by reducing the ROM size.
App launches are optimized to deliver lightning fast execution, and multitasking is also greatly improved.
Even though the nova 5T ships with the complete suite of Google Mobile Services, the device also features HUAWEI’s own takes on E-mail, Contacts, Calendar, Browser, Health, etc., should you be more invested in the Chinese manufacturer’s ecosystem.
I’ll be honest, I was a little bit concerned about the punch-hole. I’ve been using phones with and without notches, with and without bezels, but the nova 5T was my first experience with a punch-hole approach.
It took me back in time to when I first picked up the iPhone X with its notch. It really bothered me initially but as I kept using the phone I somehow managed to look passed it, and ignore it. That’s exactly how I felt about the nova 5T.
In the first days, all I could look at and focus on was the punch hole. I know, it’s psychological, and it is somehow similar to smashing a fly on your car’s windshield, in your field of view, and for the first couple of minutes you can’t seem to look pass that spot of dirt.
You’ll get used to it, don’t worry, it is by no means a deal breaker. The system nicely adapts to it to the point where all of the status icons on the left side are pushed a little bit to the right, so no actual information is being left out, covered, or overlaid. In time, you’ll even learn to ignore it while watching full screen videos or pictures.
As we mentioned in the Software segment above, the experience is very snappy and fluid. With EMUI 9.1 (and later with EMUI 10), you also get navigation gestures, similar to those on the Mate 30 Pro (or the iPhone for that matter). You swipe from the bottom to get to your home screen, swipe in from the sides to emulate the back button, and if you slide up from the bottom and hold, you get to your multitasking app switcher screen.
The user interface can be customized with themes that not only change your wallpaper, but apply custom icons, granted, only to HUAWEI’s apps. The other icons will stay default, and they’ll pretty much stand out like a sore thumb.
We mentioned that the user interface and apps are fast, but how about gaming? HUAWEI equipped the nova 5T with enough horsepower hardware-wise to handle even the more complicated titles. But, additionally, the company is doing some optimizations to push the envelope.
Being a 7nm chip, the Kirin 980 is super fast, but with GPU Turbo 3.0, CPU and GPU performance is further boosted. It also boosts the frame rate to the maximum supported, and, at the same time, to conserve battery, it reduces the SoC power consumption by 10%.
Then there’s the HUAWEI SuperCharge standard, supporting 22.5W fast charging, that can, both on paper and in reality, give you a 50 percent battery charge in about 30 minutes.
Cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth performance is spot on. Nothing outstanding, nor worth writing home about, it just works, and when things just work as they should, they tend to be ignored, as that’s the norm.
We wish we had front firing, or at least dual speakers on the device. Though the nova 5T produces plenty of rich sound, its single bottom firing speaker can easily be muffled or muted by your grip. It’s something you’ll have to learn to live with, and adapt.
Another thing falling in the same category is the side-mounted fingerprint scanner. While its performance is spot on, you’ll find ourself unlocking the device just by picking it up from the sides, or putting it down. You’ll have to either master your grip or enroll other fingers. It could also be regarded as a pro, rather than a con, depending on your preference.
One word of caution though: it’s a damn slippery phone. Being all glass, there’s literally no surface that’s safe to place it on, without the risk of it sliding and wandering off of.
If the nova 5T falls a little bit short in some aspects compared to today’s flagships, the camera department isn’t one of them. The quad setup on the back is arranged vertically, similarly to the flagship P30 Pro.
The entire system is AI-assisted, making sure that your shots look as good as they can possibly do. While you don’t have the fancy Leica-branded lens and tuning, the system still delivers great photography and video. Expect it to perform just a tad below the P30 Pro or Mate 30 Pro, but, nonetheless, the same and in most cases, better than competing phones at the price point.
The system is made up, from top to bottom of a 48MP main sensor (f/1.4) with optical image stabilization and laser autofocus, relying on the Sony IMX586 48MP sensor. Next up is a 16MP super-wide lens (f/2.2) with 117-degree FoV, followed by an 8MP telephoto lens (f/2.4) with OIS and 3X lossless (5X hybrid zoom), and, offset to the right, a 2MP macro lens with f/2.4.
On the front, living inside the punch-hole, you get a 32MP selfie shooter with the same AI assistance which is, in our personal opinion, exaggerating results, overprocessing your photos. We found that the best way for your selfies to look natural is to disable Master AI when shooting with the front camera.
Overall, depending on your shooting modes, and the state of AI, images are balanced with nice saturation and natural tones. However, it’s easy to mess up a shot if you’re in the wrong mode, or if AI is doing some unnecessary adjustments. Once you get used to the system, you’ll know exactly what features and options to tweak in order to get good results, day or night.
For a phone that retails for €399 (and you can probably get an even better deal with some online and offline retailers), we really have little to complain about. It’s really difficult to categorize this phone, as it offers features that place it above mid-range devices, but at the same time it sits below the flagships.
Considering that it’s rocking previous generation flagship internals, a good camera system, large display, all of it packed in a nice and small package, the nova 5T is a great purchase.
For all of the above reasons, we think the nova 5T is worthy of our Editor’s Choice award for an affordable premium high-end mid-ranger. These are also, in most part, the reasons we awarded the nova 5T our Pocketnow Best of CES 2020 award in its category.
Pros and Cons
– Beautiful design
– Large display in a small form factor
– Great performance
– Good battery life
– Great cameras all-around
– Slippery on all surfaces
– Side-mounted fingerprint scanner takes a little bit of getting used to
– No 3.5mm headphone jack
– No Wireless Charging