Huawei nova 2iYou don’t need to spend the thick end of NZ$2000 to get a decent phone. The NZ$500 Huawei Nova 2i gives you three-quarters of a modern high-end phone for a quarter of the price.

Huawei offers powerful high-end phones. Unlike its rivals it also offers credible choices for those of us who don’t want, or can’t afford to pay for an expensive phone.

There are compromises, you always expect that if you pay less. Yet there isn’t much you can do on a high-end Android phone that you can’t do on a Nova 2i.

Most people buying a phone in this class aren’t too interested in the technical specs. They want to know what the phone can do. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, and for the record, here’s what the NZ$500 asking price buys.

Nova 2i specifications:

The Nova 2i comes with Android 7; that’s the Nougat edition. It includes an eight core Huawei Kirin 659 processor, 4GB of ram and 64GB of storage. The screen is 5.9-inches.

There’s fingerprint sensor and a 3,300 mAh battery. The Nova 2i has dual lens cameras on the front and back. The front camera has a 13 megapixel sensor, the back camera is 16 megapixels.

In rough terms the specification list compares loosely with the technology packed in a high-end Android phone eighteen months to two years ago. Something like the Huawei P8.

Good enough

While it doesn’t scream along, in practice the processor and ram are good enough to run almost every mainstream Android app you’ll come across. It will certainly run every worthwhile game.

You may need to choose more conservative display settings to keep demanding apps running smoothly, but they will run. All business tasks should be a breeze.

The modest chip and ram are not quite up to the job of recording 4K video. It works, but the results are sometimes patchy. Maybe with practice you’ll learn to work around the limitations.

If 4K video is important to you, then you may need to buy a more expensive phone. Huawei says the phone can shoot 4K at 30 frames per second. While that may be technically true, it is optimistic.

Nougat

Android 7 (Nougat) is the last but one version of Google’s phone operating system. Which means, like the hardware, the phone’s software is about two years behind the market’s high-end. That’s the second compromise you have to make to save $1000 off the price of a new high-end phone.

Phone makers are not always good at providing Android software upgrades. Huawei is one of the worst offenders in this area. Choose the Nova 2i if you are certain you can live with Android 7 for the foreseeable future. Most people can, but security may get a little hair-raising at times. You’ll need to take care.

Huawei loads its own EMUI software skin. It’s OK as Android skins go, but, let’s put it this way: no-one aspires to own an EMUI phone. It’s something you are stuck with. If you feel confident, you can swap EMUI for third-party software, but Android skins are all equally imperfect.

Looks and feels like a posh phone

While the Huawei Nova 2i isn’t going to turn heads, it is far from ugly. Nor does it look cheap. Anyone looking at the phone might take it for an expensive model.

It feels fine, not perhaps as smooth and comfortable as a phone costing $1000 more, but there’s nothing wrong here. The Nova 2i feels better than the $700 Oppo R9s.

The phone’s screen has the 18:9 aspect ratio. That means it is a little longer or taller than most other phones with the same screen size. There’s next to no bezel, which seems to excite phone makers more than users. It’s curvy, light and comfortable.

Display

Huawei has used a 1080 by 2160 pixel display. That’s a lot more than you’ll find on any other low-to mid-price phone. It doesn’t compare with the high-end, but it’s more than good enough.

While the cameras deliver decent images, they don’t compare with more expensive phones. Unless you have a thing about image quality you may not notice or care. The one dodgy area is taking shots in low light conditions. Performance there is ordinary.

Battery performance is solid. The phone can go two days between charges if you don’t push it too hard. There is no NFC, some people may find that is a deal breaker.

Verdict

If the above comments seem lukewarm at times, that’s because most of the time we’ve compared a NZ$500 phone against models that cost NZ$1500 and up. For the money it is a bargain, it delivers more than rival models in the same price range.

What you get is, in effect, a brand new phone that’s the functional equivalent of a two-year-old flagship phone for about the same price as a second-hand version of the same thing.

Also on:

Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

Huawei Mate 10Huawei’s marketing wants to tell you about the artificial intelligence features built into the Mate 10 phone. Its AI technology is impressive, but that’s not the best reason to choose the phone over its closest rivals.

The Huawei Mate 10 is a first-class Android phone that, at NZ$1100, also represents good value for money. There’s also a $1300 Mate 10 Pro model with a larger screen.

When it comes to performance, the Mate 10 is the match of anything from Samsung. On a good day the phone’s technology may even turn heads away from Apple’s iPhone.

The front of the phone has that now familiar all screen look. There are thin bezels at the side and minimal case sections surrounding the screen at the bottom and top of the front. It looks a lot like a Samsung Galaxy S8, but with fewer curves.

Modern look

It looks good and is distinctly modern. Yet it isn’t quite as pretty as the latest Samsung Galaxy S8 or the iPhone X. It feels better in the hand and has a higher quality finish than the cheaper Oppo range of phones.

You could say the same about the screen. It’s a 5.9-inch display with full HD. It looks great, but again, it isn’t quite as outstanding as the best from Samsung or Apple. Even so, the blacks are dark and the colours are vivid. Images are beautiful. You can view the screen from wide angles.

One thing Huawei shares in common with Samsung and Apple is that it makes its own chips. This gives all three an edge over their rivals. For the technically-minded, the Mate 10 has a Kirin 970 processor with eight cores. For the rest of us, that means powerful by phone standards.

It also means built-in artificial intelligence processing. That’s a must-have in a 2017 premium phone.

Fast

In practice the phone is fast. Apple phones always feel silky smooth in everyday performance, but some Androids struggle to keep up when pushed. The Huawei Mate 10 coped with everything a normal user might throw at a processor with aplomb.

Much of the phone’s artificial intelligence takes place in the background. The Mate 10 learns your behaviour, then queues the apps you’re most likely to choose next so they load faster. The AI also helps with photography.

Long, long battery life

The Mate 10’s superpower is battery life. According to the marketing material, there is a 4000 mAh high-density battery. This is more battery than you’ll find on most other phones. Huawei says it is the same amount of power as you’ll find on a tablet.

On top of that, Huawei has software that adapts battery use to the phone owner’s usage patterns to squeeze out even more life. Huawei says that means over a day’s heavy use and two days normal use. In testing it easily achieved those claims.

Typically the Mate 10 can go around 50 hours before needing a top-up. Many other Android phones struggle to get to 30 hours. For some people that is a good enough reason to buy a Mate 10 without looking at anything else.

Software, cameras, intelligence

Like Samsung, Huawei thinks it can improve on the raw Android software experience. It uses something called the Emotion UI. You can tinker with the software to a ridiculous degree and, if you prefer, can wind everything back so it looks like a straight Android phone. Tinker more and it can look like iOS.

Every premium phone maker will tell you they have the best camera. In a sense, they are all right. Each has its own pluses and minuses. If you are fussy about phone photography, you should spend your time researching and, where possible, testing the alternatives before choosing.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has the latest Leica dual camera. They’ve all been impressive, but this iteration is by far the best so far. The rear pairs a 12-megapixel colour camera with optical image stabilisation with a 20-megapixel monochrome camera.

Fast lenses

Both have fast f/1.6 lenses. The two work in tandem, the arrangement boosts detail and captures the best colour. It all works well in most lighting conditions.

This is where the artificial intelligence can come into play. The processor can detect the scene being shot and adjust settings accordingly.

It doesn’t always make the choices a skilled human might, but the results can be outstanding. The only negative is that the sheer number of shooting modes and photography features takes a lot of time to master. Far more time than a product review like this.

Huawei Mate 10 verdict

You are unlikely to be disappointed with any late 2017 premium phone. They are all good. The Mate 10 ticks most of the same boxes as its rivals but will leave you with hundreds of dollars in your pocket. On that basis alone it has to be considered.

The Mate 10 doesn’t have wireless charging, which is unlikely to be a deal breaker for most readers. On the plus side the long battery life means less emphasis on charging anyway. It also charges quickly, the battery goes to half a full charge in a little under 30 minutes.

Huawei Smart Watch

Apple makes money selling Watches. In 2015 Apple said it made more money from watches than any company except Rolex.

By that standard Apple’s Watch business is a success. Imagine the reaction if anyone else had gone from nowhere to the number two watch market position in a couple of years. It remains an outstanding achievement.

Yet, put Apple aside, and the smart watch sector doesn’t look good. There may not even be a worthwhile smart watch market beyond Apple. Almost no-one else makes money from selling smart watches1.

Pointless smart watch

It’s hard to see the point of a smart watch. Even the best ones do little useful beyond collecting health information and sending notifications.

Sure, health is important. But there are other ways to collect the data. As for notifications… well whoopee.

There’s a fatal flaw in the thinking behind smart watches. They promise to be the most intimate computing device. Yet you need a phone to get any value from a smart watch.

And phones are without question the most intimate devices. We live in an era when most people’s phones are rarely more than an arm’s length away. It’s not often you can’t reach your phone.

This means the device on your wrist might spend most of its time just 100mm or so closer to your eyes, ears or brain than your phone. It’ll be even further from your heart.

Phones are better

Phone have better screens, better speakers and better processors. Your phone can vibrate a notification if that’s important to you. It is in every respect a superior way of getting information from wherever to you brain.

Yet, by definition, you must already have a phone if you own a smart watch.

If you’re a solider on active service, or someone who climbs a rope for a living then a watch might be more practical communications tool than a phone. Otherwise, you’re kidding yourself.

Few people are more productive or enjoy better lives because they have a smart watch.

Ugly

Away from the sensible stuff. Smart watches are universally ugly. All of them are too big to be comfortable on a wrist. The screens are hard to read. If they speak to you the sound is often pathetic. Pushing screen buttons is challenging.

Don’t take my word for it. In April Huawei deputy chairman and rotating CEO Eric Xu Zhijun told analysts he never wears a smart watch. That’s not remarkable, few sensible people do wear smart watches.

However, Xu is boss of the second or third biggest smart watch maker. His company launched a new model about the time he made his statement. Huawei has been making smart watches since they first appeared. It may even have sold some.

Companies that rely on smart watch sales are struggling. Fitbit has laid off staff this year. You might argue that Fitbit devices are not smart watches but activity trackers. Yet in January the company has tried moving into smart watches. It acquired another struggling smart watch maker, Pebble.

Android smart watches are still bug-ridden, unreliable devices. I’ve yet to see one that isn’t embarrassing.

It’s not just smart watches. The entire watch sector is in decline. Few people under the age of 40 wear any kind of watch. If younger folk don’t see the need for a Swatch, why would they turn to a more expensive, buggy alternative that needs to be charged every 12 hours?


  1. If you’re thinking this is a lot like the history of the phone market since the iPhone took off, you’d be right. ↩︎

Huawei Nova Lite

If you want a phone for less, consider Huawei’s NZ$400 Nova Lite. It packs plenty of features you might find in a premium Android phone costing four times the price.

Huawei Nova Lite at a glance

For:Thin, solid, light,
Great build quality,
Attractive,
Affordable.
Against:Front camera performance
Long charging time
Maybe:Battery life
Case can get grubby fast
Verdict:The Huawei Nova Lite is a great compromise at the price, that makes it great value.
Price:$4501
Website:Huawei

You get a lot of phone for your money with the Huawei Nova Lite. The company describes it as a midrange phone.

That means it lacks the latest fancy features. It also means there is no hefty price tag. Today’s midrange roughly corresponds to what was a state-of-the-art premium Android phone two years ago. The then and now price difference speaks volumes about Android phone depreciation rates.

Given the way people often hammer phones to death, you’d do better buying a Nova Lite than, say, a second-hand Samsung Galaxy S6, which has similar functionality.

Nova Lite gold

We should also make a comparison with Apple’s iPhone 6. Although the Nova Lite is nothing like an iPhone 6 in use, Huawei more than hints at Apple’s iconic phone design. The rude way of putting it is that the Nova Lite looks like a cheaper iPhone. The polite way would be to say they share the same aesthetic.

Compromises, not all bad

At around NZ$400, Huawei’s Nova Lite costs a quarter the price of a Samsung Galaxy S8. It is less pretty. The Nova Lite is not as comfortable to hold. It isn’t going to turn heads. But it runs the same underlying Android software and does all the most important jobs you buy a phone for.

As you’d expect there are compromises. The Nova Lite has a lower specification that today’s premium Androids in most departments. While these differences are noticeable in everyday use, the compromises don’t seem to multiply, the overall experience is not that bad. You probably won’t be much less productive if you choose this phone. You might have less fun.

A premium phone buys you a metal and glass exterior. If there’s plastic; it’s a better class of plastic. The Nova Lite isn’t as polished, but the edges are smooth and it feels good. The main downside of the case is that it picks up grubby finger marks.

There’s a fingerprint button, a remarkable addition in a $400 phone. It’s placed on the back in much the same position Samsung uses on the Galaxy S8. Huawei uses an old style USB 2.0 charger and port, not USB-C.

Screen, processor performance

The Nova Lite has a 5.2 inch FHD screen. That’s 1080 by 1920 pixels. Or, if my maths is correct a pixel density of 400 pixels per inch. The human eye can’t normally see detail beyond 300 pixels per inch.

In other words, to the human eye images on Huawei’s $400 phone are every bit as detailed as on more expensive phones. The screen is bright enough to be seen outside in daylight. In fact, it is one of the brightest non-Amoled screens I’ve seen.

There’s only 32GB of storage. This is less than you’ll find on a premium phone, but you can use a Micro-SD card. This fits into one of the two Sim card slots included with the phone.

The 3GB Ram feels like enough for most applications. I didn’t hit its limits in testing, but admittedly I wasn’t pushing hard. This is after all an inexpensive phone. The processor feels faster than other lower-priced phones, browsing seems on a par with some premium models.

In practice you may bump up against performance restrictions if you run demanding games software, but for everyday business productivity the phone works well.

Camera, battery life

Huawei says the pixels in the Nova Lite in the 12 megapixel back camera are bigger than usual. This means they capture more light. The phone has autofocus, which, if anything, seems fast even by premium phone standards. The front camera is 8 megapixels.

Huawei Nova Lite Camera

You’re going to be disappointed with the quality of pictures if you compare the Nova Lite with a premium phone. That’s one thing extra money buys. All the pictures lack sharpness. The front camera is worse with pictures looking overexposed. Still, when compared with other low-cost phones, the Nova Lite comes out ahead of the pack.

You get about a day’s use from the battery, enough for, say, ten hours work and a little leisure time after. Unlike more expensive phones, there is no quick charging.

Huawei’s EMUI Android skin

The phone has Android 7.0, but it’s well hidden. Most Android phone makers have moved away from heavy-hand software overlays. Huawei has doubled-down on its EMUI skin. This could be the cue for a rant about Android skins, most of the time they are awful. Yet Huawei has come up with something that adds value.

A lot of the time this means doing away with the indeterminable levels of menus you must navigate to tinker with a phone’s settings. With EMUI you can get there faster.

On the negative side, EMUI can be a challenge if you’re used to stock Android, Samsung’s TouchWiz or another skin. Once feature I love is the simple screen mode, shown below, which is a minimalist front end that reminds me of earlier versions of Windows Phone.

Huawei Nova Lite Specifications

Screen:5.2 in FHD
Processor:Kirin 655 Processor Octa-core
Ram:3GB
Storage:32GB, also has micro SD slot
Software:Android 7.0,
Huawei’s EMUI 5.0
Camera:12 megapixel rear,
8 megapixel front camera
Size:145 x 73 x 6mm
Weight:147g

Huawei Nova Lite verdict

I was pleasantly surprised by the Nova Lite. It may not have all the features of a premium Android, but all the essentials are here. If you are on a tight budget, or have better things to do with your money, this is a good choice. It would be a good phone to buy a teenager or if you buy phones for your employees.

There aren’t many inexpensive phones that include a fingerprint scanner. The display quality and battery life are better than any other phone I’ve seen in this price range.


  1. At the time of writing Pricespy lists one retailer selling the Nova Lite for $360 and two selling it at $450. Huawei’s press release lists the phone at $450.. ↩︎