When was the last time when we saw a phone whose very existence was defined by another? The marketing folks at Honor (Huawei’s sister brand) might frown at that statement, but there can be no getting away from the fact that the latest phone with the Honor brand name has always had a rival in its sights.
The OnePlus 5.
We had first heard murmurs of the Honor 8 Pro coming to India shortly after the launch dates of the OnePlus were released (or leaked, take your pick). Right from mid-June, the battle lines had been clearly drawn in India – the Honor 8 Pro would be going up toe to toe against the latest Flagship Killer. It was not a new device and had been released earlier this year and had been seen in other markets (some with the nomenclature Huawei V9). But rumor had it that it would be coming to India at a “killer price”. Honor even had a media event the day after the launch of the OnePlus 5, revealing the Honor 8 Pro to select media. The period has seen a flurry of comparisons between the best of Honor and OnePlus in India.
No, this is not a comparison between the OnePlus 5 and the Honor 8 Pro. That will come later. Right now, we are going to be looking just at the Honor 8 Pro. We would have liked to do it in classic isolation, but given the circumstances of its arrival, it would be impossible to do it without referring time and again to its arch nemesis, from the company that keeps adding to one.
Looks familiar…but not a copy
And when it comes to looks, the Honor 8 Pro is not blessed with a design that will make it stick out in the market. No, it will not make heads turn away either, but it does not scream for attention. We got the black model, its front dominated by a 5.7-inch display, rounded corners and a smooth metal back, with the dual cameras on the rear not protruding at all. You can get our take on its appearance in greater detail in our First Cut of the device. Suffice to say, it is a bit on the larger side (although compact for a device with a 5.7-inch display) and at 184 grams, is not exactly featherweight, but all said and done, it is a handsome enough phone, and surprisingly slim at just 6.9 mm.
It is not a bezel-less wonder like the LG G6 or the Galaxy S8, and you will will need two hands to use it more often than not, but while it looks routine enough, it cannot be accused of being a copy of another device in terms of design (unlike its rival, which has been fending off such accusations). Our only regret is that it does not feature the dazzling glass back of the Honor 8, but on the flip side, the smooth metal back means fewer smudges and scratches. It is not a dazzler, but will not seem out of place in the premium company either, a bit like an understated, well-tailored suit in a party. It is also very solidly built, has a premium feel to it, and praise Huawei for having mercy on our butterfingers, is not in the least slippery.
Packing in the hardware
For its price tag of Rs 29,999, the Honor 8 Pro comes with some seriously good hardware, and actually is perhaps the first sub-Rs 30,000 phone to be released this year with proper Android flagship level specifications – a zone that was occupied last year by the likes of YU, Xiaomi and OnePlus, but has been uninhabited this year. It is perhaps the only new device at this price point to come with a quad HD display and 6 GB RAM, and its 128 GB storage can be expanded using a memory card. The cameras on the rear are dual 12.0-megapixel shooters, with one being a monochrome and another an RGB lens – yes, the f/2.2 aperture might not quite measure up to the f/1.7 on the Galaxy S8 and the OnePlus 5, but on the flip side, the cameras come with Honor/Huawei’s wide aperture mode which lets you play around with aperture size to let you bring in the bokeh. There is no optical image stabilization here either. The front facing camera is an 8.0-megapixel one.
Connectivity options include 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC and Infra-Red and then there is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all, given its ultra slim form factor- a 4000 mAh battery, with support for fast charging. Yes, we know some noses will be turned up at the Kirin 960 processor that powers it (especially by Snapdragon loyalists) but this is the same processor that we saw on the high-profile Huawei P10 and Mate 9, and it certainly turned in a sterling performance on those phones. The phone runs on Android 7.0, but this coming from the house of Huawei, you will get is EMUI 5.1 on top of it.
Whether it is 515 PPI density display, the RAM, the cameras, or the battery – there is no getting away from the fact that the Honor 8 Pro is every damn inch an Android flagship. Oh, and did you know that the box it comes in can be folded and used as a VR headset?
There’s a performer in da house!
And the Honor 8 Pro delivers on that tag. We have been using it for close to two weeks, and the performance has been absolutely top notch. Its benchmark scores have tended to be respectable rather than sensational, but honestly, we think we are coming to the stage when difference in performance in devices that are relatively high-end is beginning to get difficult to spot easily (hey, there are people who feel the difference in performance between Snapdragon 821 and 835 devices is not particularly noticeable). Yes, if one were to absolutely sit down and compare high-end game launching times, then perhaps the OnePlus 5 might be marginally quicker, but that said, the Kirin 960 powering the Honor 8 Pro does a superb job whether it is high-end gaming or multi-tasking, although it did seem to heat up a little under stress (nothing alarming). That big display is a delight to view games and videos on and to even browse the Web, although there was a slight hint of over-saturation in the default settings (you can tweak color temperatures in the display settings, though). We would have liked better speakers on the device, though – why so few manufacturers are endowing their high-end phones with mono speakers is a bit of a mystery to us.
The dual cameras on the Honor 8 Pro are very similar on paper to those found on the Honor 8: two 12.0-megapixel sensors, one for color and one for monochrome. Some might feel a little disappointed at these relatively modest dual cameras (especially when compared to the much heftier megapixel count on the OnePlus 5 and some other cameras), but in terms of the result, the Honor 8 Pro proved itself to be a very consistent performer. Huawei was one of the early movers in the dual camera zone, and its interface is laden with shooting options. You can tweak aperture settings for depth of field shots, and there are not fewer than seventeen shooting modes (including a Pro mode for those who like tweaking settings). The results are not always sensational but are seldom disappointing – and you can get some decent bokeh by playing around with the aperture, which seems a much better way of handling things than the “going back and forth” methods on the iPhone and OnePlus 5’s portrait mode!
There is even some software magic done to improve low light snaps (you get messages about the camera sharpening the image after snapping them in low light), which are decent enough without giving sleepless nights to the Pixel-iPhone-S8 brigade. No, we are not going to say that the cameras make the Honor 8 Pro a killer deal, but they are not deal breakers either and are very consistent, a clear notch above what we have seen on the Moto Z2 Play and if handled carefully, can hold their own against the erratic snapper genius on the OnePlus 5. Optical image stabilization would have helped, though. The 8.0-megapixel selfie-snapper seemed to have an issue handling glare from lights in the background but was a decent enough performer, even with the beauty effects maxed out.
What however DOES make the 8 Pro formidable is the combination of big display and a big battery. We have already spoken on how good the display is. Well, the 4000 mAh battery easily kept getting us through a day and a half of hefty usage. And support for fast charging meant we were able to charge the phone in a shade under a couple of hours. A big, high-resolution display and a big battery are a combination that remains relatively rare in high-end smartphones (the Lenovo Vibe Z2 Pro had something similar a few years ago), and it is this that we think puts the Honor 8 Pro in a zone of its own.
You and I can disagree about the UI (but we like it)
A big distinguishing factor for the Honor 8 Pro is also its interface – EMUI 5.1, which runs on top of Android 7.0. Yes, we know that stock Android has its adherents and there are many companies who claim to be cleaning up their custom interfaces to provide users a “cleaner” experience, but on the flip side, there’s no denying that there are takers for a rich, feature-laden interface as well. And whether you like EMUI is likely to depend on which side of that particular fence you sit on. Speaking for ourselves, we have always liked interfaces that give even mainstream users access to more features, and in this regard, EMUI does come up trumps. Some might find it overwhelming, we concede, but we loved the customization options.
There is no app drawer by default (can be enabled via settings) and not too many extra apps out there, so right out of the box, our device had just three home screens to swipe through, one of which was dedicated to pulling news from Flipboard. We cannot see too many people screaming bloatware at the dozen or so tools and apps that come on the device, not least because there is 128 GB of space to go around, of which about 110 GB is available to the user. We can, however, see a lot of people loving some of the options the UI gives them – for instance, you can change the touch navigation button options (there are four to choose from), add gestures like tapping your knuckle on the display to take a screenshot, draw a letter on the display to open an app, or just draw a line across the display (after rapping with your knuckle) to enter split screen mode. Some might consider these to be a classic case of UI overkill, but we can see people liking it too. We also loved the way in which we could use the fingerprint scanner (which works very smoothly incidentally) for a host of tasks including taking selfies, answering calls, and best of all, to simply pull down the notification bar (swipe down over the fingerprint scanner). Best of all, we did not see the performance of the device dipping at any stage, which we think at the end of the day is what really matters. We think Huawei took a big step forward with EMUI 5, and just hope they can churn out updates as regularly as Xiaomi and OnePlus.
A couple of years ago, it was relatively routine to have a device with Android flagship level hardware in the sub-Rs 30,000 – in 2014, we had the OnePlus One, the Mi 3 and the Nexus 5 in that zone. Today, however, that space is relatively empty, with perhaps the OnePlus 5 (which starts at Rs 32,999) coming closest to it. The Honor 8 Pro slips into that category very comfortably with its combination of big display, big battery, big memory and big storage. And at the time of writing, it is comfortably by far the best device you can get for under Rs 30,000. If that is where you draw the line smartphone budget wise, the Honor 8 Pro is a no-brainer. But then, providing a twist to the plot is the fact that just slightly beyond that price Rubicon is the little matter of the Flagship Killer, the OnePlus 5 – the very device that many feel is the reason for the Honor 8 Pro’s arrival in India. How those two worthies compare with each other is material for another story (one which is being written), but as of now, we will content ourselves with saying that the Honor 8 Pro is not just the best option for those looking for a high-end device on a sub-Rs 30,000 budget but also has what it takes to be the one that adds a minus to the market share of the OnePlus 5.