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Let’s start off this review after clearing some personal biases, shall we? I’m not the biggest fan of Huawei Phones. There, I said it. Reasons? Well, EMUI for starters is just too cluttered for my taste and in my honest opinion using a stock build is always a more tasteful option. But companies can’t do that, can they? Love them or hate them custom skins from companies like Samsung, Xiaomi, and Huawei are here to stay. I know people are going to blame me here for starting off this review in bad faith, but guess what? I ENDED UP LOVING THE NOVA 3 DESPITE SOME OF ITS APPARENT SHORTCOMINGS.
So why? Why do I love the Nova 3? Just look at it. Sleek form factor, smoothed aluminum side rails and that dual tone Iris-Purple glass backing makes this phone feel and handle like beautiful jewelry. This is undoubtedly the best design I’ve seen on ANY phone (mid range or flagship) this year. The gradient back is just something you’ll have to behold in person to fall in love with. You might say there have been copious numbers of gradient backed phones this year including the OnePlus 6, yet none of them are this slim with an headphone jack (that supports Hi-Fi audio by the way) and an enormous battery too boot (3750 mAh to be exact). The display up front is one of the best LCDs you’ll ever see, period. The lack of AMOLED is something I had a hard time digesting but hell, it does what it does beautifully well. Why fix it then? Bezels are as minimal are they’re going to get in a notched display that Apple doesn’t use and I have no complaints in this regard. Notches are a thing that we just have to deal with post 2018. However, Huawei’s implementation of the “Hide-Notch” feature is the best on any smartphone. It’s the one thing that’s native to EMUI that you won’t find a better implementation of. The phone bundles Huawei’s proprietary fast-charging solution along with its USB-C female sockets that’s just a nick behind the Dash Charge solution found on OnePlus devices in terms of charge speed. Audio out of the 3.5mm jack is glorious with Huawei’s Histen software and hardware coupled enhancements.
So far the phone seems too good to be true right? Sorry to burst your current bubble but there are some blatant hardware misses. Absence of wireless charging on a phone with a glass back is a missed feature that sticks out like a sore thumb. Don’t even get me started on the IR face unlock feature that never seems to work for me in the dark much less in well lit environments. I don’t know if it’s a problem with software or with hardware but companies like OnePlus who don’t use dedicated hardware have nailed the speed and efficacy of operation with their face-unlock feature. All is not lost however because the finger-print scanner is as fast as they come and fits perfectly onto your index finger as you hold the phone. The buttons are nice and tactile as well as textured for easy operation and differentiation. Expandable storage is standard across all variants through a hybrid-dual sim slot. Overkill considering this phone comes with 128gb of storage in the base variant, but it’s nice to have the flexibility I guess.
Let’s talk about performance and software shall we? This dual-toned beast uses Huawei’s own in-house made processor- the Kirin 970. As always I’m not going to drone on and on about the specs, rather I’ll just say this was the best they had to offer till the Mate 20 Pro launched a month ago. Coupled with 6GB of RAM this phone FLIES. Expect insane speed and smoothness even on EMUI of all skins. Partly, this is due to Huawei being able to optimize their own software their own chip; and guess who else does this? APPLE. Once again this goes to show how manufacturers should be left to their own accord to produce and procure their own chips. Bureaucracy on American and international soil seems to be a major bottleneck in this regard as of now.
Okay, we’re getting off topic and I promise to discuss this in another article. So, getting back to the Nova 3. The software however is also incredibly annoying at times despite the smoothness. For one, pinching to zoom on anything will activate Hi-Touch which is Huawei’s (lets just say lacklustre) implementation of Amazon Shopping Assistant. This can however be turned off, but hell, it shouldn’t be intrusive to a feature as significant as pinch to zoom. Grow up Huawei! Moreover, the status bar is incapable of showing more than one notification symbol at a time. Sure, the notch implementation makes it hard to do this, but simply resizing the existing symbols and the omission repetitive ones can also do a world of good. Another major gripe I had with EMUI was the pathetic edge detection. Simple gripping of the phone while watching media in landscape orientation results in scrubbing and pausing of play-back, a software issue I have not been bothered with on any other phone. Scrolling through my Instagram feed was also an irritating task at times with rouge touches registering at the sides many a time. Other than these easily fixable niggles EMUI is a more rewarding than a depreciating factor in terms of this phone’s user experience. Huawei has promised an update to EMUI 9 and Android Pie in January for the phone and I sincerely hope they can iron out these small niggles with the update.
Here’s where the Huawei struggles just a little. Camera performance. The phone uses a 16mp rear wide-angle shooter in liaison with a 20mp mono-chrome sensor. Camera performance in broad daylight is quite good. Its stands neck and neck with its main competitor in this regard, the OnePlus 6t. With more challenging lighting conditions (not low-light) the camera results are all over the pace. The camera often struggles to pull focus in harsh lighting and blows out highlights like crazy. This is with Huawei’s “AI mode” turned off. Piece of advice. NEVER TURN IT ON. If the normal shooting mode blows out highlights, the AI mode in retrospect aggressively enhances shadows and colors leading to an absolutely cartoonish as well as unrealistic image. The scene recognition by the AI system just isn’t as good as Google’s just yet. Aside from the highlight problems in Auto mode, the camera produces respectable dynamic range with neutral and true to life colors. The f/1.8 lens allows for some good subject isolation. The camera is capable of holding its own in low-lighting conditions as well. Grain and color noise is seldom an issue. Only downside is the excessively soft low-light images which honestly is too much to expect from a mid-range phone.
Pro-mode gives you more control over your shots and shooting in RAW is a feature that Huawei pioneered and you will find it on board the Nova 3 as well. Mono-chrome capture is a blessing on the Nova 3. I’ll go as far as to say its better than the primary sensor on the phone! Expect very rich detail and sharpness on almost all your shots with the right amount of contrast. Portrait mode on the phone is also a major plus. The use of 2 sensors allows for very good results. Bokeh is not excessive and quite rich. Edge detection is off the charts commendable! The Nova 3 crushes even the heavyweights like the iPhone XS and the Pixel 3 is this regard! But, yes there’s a but, Huawei lets us down with another software screw-up. There’s a separate HDR shooting mode for the rear camera rather than it being a toggle in the normal auto mode. I’m clueless as to why this is the case and hence shot most of my pictures in the non-HDR mode. At least I think so.
Video is another strong point for the Nova 3 with EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization) kicking in to give strong results even at 4K 30 fps. Its not iPhone level good, but it can stand toe to toe with OnePlus’ optically stabilized solution. Slow-motion video recording is also decent for its price bracket, though I really didn’t use it much.
Let’s come to the front shooter shall we? On paper there are dual-cameras on the front with a 20mp primary and a 8mp accompaniment for portrait selfies. Sounds enticing right? Wrong. The front camera is quite bad. Even with beauty modes turned off, my face ended up looking like a molten-marshmallow almost all the time. Lack of any stabilization makes almost all low light selfies quite blurry. The excessively soft results outright discourages me from using the camera. However, the saving grace is the brilliant portrait mode that carries forward its magic from the rear camera. Not much use with an aggressively soft image output, but a nice feature to have nonetheless. Huawei’s AR emoji is quite fun to use as well, but misses on some important facial expressions that Apple’s Animoji handles with ease.
Thus far the phone seems like a mixed bag right? Well here’s one redeeming quality that is super-important for most users. The battery life. SO DAMN GOOD. Granted, the Nova 3 has some pretty aggressive battery management built into its software, but its seldom intrusive into the fast and fluid software experience. This phone always gets me through an entire day of power usage with two-SIMs on standby and mobile-data on. From ward duty in the morning at the hospital to post-prandial afternoon classes and the evening YouTube and Netflix binge sessions in my dorm this phone is a complete all-rounder when it comes to battery life. 6 hours of screen-on time is a piece of cake for the Nova 3 on almost all days. Even if you do somehow run out of juice, a full battery is only an hour away with Huawei’s Fast-Charge solution that’s included in the box! This was the major reason I kept going back to the Nova 3 for use as my primary device. The battery life trumps almost all the small niggles the phone has in terms of software and camera performance.
The Nova 3 is a damn solid phone. In the beginning of the phone’s life cycle the 500$ (Rs. 35000) price tag seemed to be a heavy ask considering the similarly priced OnePlus 6 and the similarly specced Honor Play. But now with prices dipping to low as 400 USD (Rs. 28000) in major Amazon sales, the phone is a no-brainer. The Nova 3 is a great value proposition in in almost every category and should give competitors priced even twice as much the chills due to its extremely eye-catchy and premium design. As for me, I think I’ll be carrying the Nova 3 in my pocket with much aplomb, flaunting its gradient back even more than one flaunts a new iPhone. Good job Huawei!