Honor 8 Pro Mini-Review: A Copycat Design with Excellent Hardware & Software Problems We’ve Come to Expect

Honor 8 Pro Mini-Review: A Copycat Design with Excellent Hardware & Software Problems We’ve Come to Expect

The Honor 8 Pro is a difficult device to evaluate from the outside: on one hand, it is the newest flagship device from Honor, but yet it does not quite replace the Honor 8 released last summer. On the other hand, it is running the latest silicon from Huawei, the HiSilicon Kirin 960, a QHD display, 6GB of RAM, and a 4,000mah battery, specs deserving of a “Pro” moniker.

Calling it the successor to the Honor 8 would be doing the 8 Pro a disservice, but don’t be fooled by the namesake, the Honor 8 Pro is quite the flagship that stands alone from its older, smaller brother. The question is though, is it still the capable, powerful, device the Honor 8 was?

Mini-reviews are different from our in-depth XDA reviews, and they are meant to give you an expanded idea of what a device is like beyond the usual hands-on. We choose to do mini-reviews on devices from smaller manufacturers or that have uncertain development future.


Design – Overly Safe, but familiar

The biggest change from the Honor 8 is its design, though the overall look echoes remnants of the Honor 8, especially from the front. In fact, the front of the device is nearly identical to last years Honor 8, just larger. The earpiece, front facing camera, and proximity sensor are all located in nearly the exact same locations, along with Honor branding along the bottom. I do have to give kudos to Honor for keeping their design similar on the front panel. Too many OEM’s these days are changing things needlessly, and their brand recognition suffers due to it.

If the Honor 8 Pro was supposed to be the larger, newer version of the Honor 8, it really hits home on the front. The buttons are also in the same place, along the right side of the phone with the power lock switch being on the bottom of the single row of buttons. Personally, this is the ideal placement on larger devices since the power button is high enough to not hit accidentally but is also not so high that you have to reach to hit it intentionally. The power button also comes with a soft texture to help differentiate itself, although that texture is not quite as pronounced as on devices like the HTC 10. The hardware buttons are clicky enough, but the Mate 9 felt a little firmer and higher quality. 

Around the bottom you will find your standard array of a single downward firing speaker, USB C 2.0 port, microphone, and 3.5mm headphone jack. The left side houses only the dual SIM tray that offers MicroSD card support. I do have a complaint about this tray: unlike my iPhone and Huawei Mate 9, the Honor 8 Pro utilizes a flimsy plastic tray instead of a sturdy or metal one. This causes the tray to slightly flex when inserting it into the device. While this will only affect most customers rarely, it makes swapping your SIM in and out of the device more of a chore than it needs to be. Unfortunately, Honor is not the only brand making this cost effective switch, as my S7 Edge, Note 7, and Galaxy S8 all utilize the same style of tray; I just wish they would use good old metal. Up top is a familiar friend, the IR blaster. It is getting rarer and rarer to find this on modern smartphones, but Honor and Huawei stick with it and it is a nice touch, even if my usage of it is low. Nitpicking aside, no issues here.

The back of the phone is where Honor departed from its smaller sibling. The Honor 8 Pro ditches the slippery, but eye catching glass back in lieu of a more traditional aluminum back. Huawei keeps their signature rear-mounted fingerprint sensor that works amazingly well, though I did notice it is a little higher up on the device that my Mate 9 which required a little reaching to activate (nothing like Samsung’s S8+ though). The 8 Pro’s dual camera setup is also prominently located near the top, but in a housing unlike the Honor 8 had.

Overall the Honor 8 Pro’s design is inoffensive, even if it is a bit large. My largest complaint with the design of this phone relates to how closely it mirrors the iPhone. I commonly switch iOS and Android phones, but never have I tried to press the bottom bezel as a home button until used the Honor 8 Pro. Instead of merely looking similar to an iPhone, it feels like an iPhone, which is a great compliment. However, they got a little too close and it just feels like a knockoff. How close did they get? I could even fit the Honor 8 Pro into a 0.6mm skin case for my iPhone and everything but the button placement fits fine and flush. This is not going to be a problem for everyone though I wish Honor would have gotten a little more creative with the materials and/or design; an all glass back would have separated it from the iPhone, despite its fragility. 


Software – EMUI’s gradual shift forward

When Mario reviewed the Honor 8  last summer Honor was still using its EMUI UX which was heavily modified from stock Android. While my personal thinking is that there is nothing wrong with skins, EMUI 4.x took it too far by manipulating even the constants of Android like the Notification Pane. Fortunately, EMUI 5.1 is a huge step forward in terms of user experience. Don’t be fooled though, the interface absolutely carries forward its roots with rounded corners on pretty much everything, a missing app drawer (that can be added back) with iOS-esque icons, with heavy use of blurs and transparencies and a white and blue color palette that feels ripped right from Jony Ives playbook. It is difficult to use any part of this phone and not feel like you are using an iOS device, but fortunately much of the color palette can be adjusted with its theme engine and theme support from our developer community. What cannot be changed are the continual floating menu bars at the bottom of built in applications that do not tend to work well with themes yet, and feel out of place in a Material Designed world.

Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier the notification shade goes back to what Duarte would have wanted, and that is a single pane that is not needlessly modified. A single pull down reveals a single row of icons, and a second pulldown reveals the rest of the power widgets; just how it should be. Entering the settings menu is familiar, with Nougats suggestions for you on the top followed by the various device settings. Unfortunately, Huawei has not followed Samsung, and Google’s, pattern of streamlining the Settings menu by condensing the sheer amount of settings available. I counted 26 settings menu options that can make it utterly confusing to navigate and this is not even counting the Suggestions that appear on top, or the branching submenus and specific apps that regulate vital functions.

EMUI is abundant in features though, some useful and some not so useful. For instance, EMUI allows you to add the notification shade pull down button to the navigation button in addition to swapping the back and recent keys. It also allows you to toggle the ability to see network speed in the status bar, along with other fine tune adjustments like removing notification icons and replacing them with a notification number; helpful if you are really popular and typically have a huge row of notifications waiting. Also known to EMUI is its customization. The fingerprint sensor can be both swiped and tapped, and thus used to take photos, answer calls, turn off alarms, show the notification panel, and even be used to swipe through photos. Some features though, are not so useful like the App Twin feature. App Twin allows you to log into two different account at the same time, but that is restricted to only two accounts per application and is limited to only being used for Facebook and WhatsApp.If you do need this feature, it’s quite invaluable, but I suspect very few people do.

Like I mentioned earlier though, EMUI has improved considerably in the last year and is very close to being a very well equipped android skin. There are some issues though that Huawei needs to rectify on its software, and they primarily fall on Notifications. Notifications are something that Android does incredibly well and it’s a benchmark for all mobile operating systems. EMUI, either by design or by bug, does not continue this heritage. It is important to note though, that I did see improvements in push notifications compared to my Mate 9, a phone which I had to give up because I simply would not get notifications from apps I relied on. First let’s start with the lock screen. I really like the aesthetics of the EMUI lockscreen. The bottom aligned information area makes it ideal for showing off some very beautiful wallpapers, however the beauty is only skin deep and when you start using it, the flaws show through. When you receive a notification on an Android phone, that notification is visible until you dismiss it on both the lockscreen and notification panel. However, EMUI changes that behavior by removing the notification from the lock screen after you unlock the device. While the notification, and icon, are still visible in the notification panel, the notification is totally non existent from the lockscreen since the status bar is hidden. This is iOS behavior, not Android’s and is something the EMUI software team needs to fix either by changing its default behavior, or at least making it an option; form over function is absolutely the path they chose when designing this setup. 

The notification woes do not stop there unfortunately. We are all familiar with undismissable notifications, especially on devices that ship with carrier bloatware, and for many of us we just wish we could get rid of them without having to go through system settings, right? Well EMUI set out to fix that problem, and instead caused an even larger one. On EMUI, all notifications are dismissable, even important ones like music playback. The problem is that once you dismiss a notification it is often difficult to get it back. In some cases merely opening an app can cause the notification to reappear, and in others you need to play and pause the music playback, or on one particular weather app I had to toggle the setting for the persistent notification. This behavior needs to be fixed. While I can understand the desire for this to be an option, it simply cannot be enabled by default system wide, it causes confusion and just outright breaks things.

Unfortunately for us, that is not all. EMUI has a wildly broken heads-up notification setting that is both inconsistent and uncontrollable. On the surface, EMUI lets you toggle “Banners” or heads up notifications along with a host of other options, which is awesome in itself, and other OEMs should follow suit. The issue is that these settings, in particular the “Display on Lock Screen” and “Banners”, might as well not even exist, because they just don’t work consistently. Too often I would be using my phone and hear a notification from Hangouts, Messenger, or IFTTT and I would look to the top of the display to not see a banner, despite my settings allowing them. At other times it would work fine. During my testing this issue persisted across various applications and so inconsistently that I could not track down what the actual cause was. Fortunately though, when it comes to notifications it does look like EMUI 5.1 makes strong strides in the area of actually getting them, as I did not have the issues I had with my 5.0 powered Mate 9 in not receiving emails, or notifications from various applications like Ring or Capital One.

Not all is doom and gloom though, as Huawei has made lightspeed progress on EMUI since just last year, and I am confident that these issues will be fixed in future builds, however this brings us to that topic: updates. I received my Honor 8 Pro in April and it shipped with the February security patch; when I sent my phone back to Honor at the end of the review period it was still running the February security patch and to date we cannot find any updates for the Honor 8 Pro, even on Honor’s own website. While I wrote an article a few months back arguing that large software updates are not as important as they once were, I did make the point that Security updates are essential and falling even a single month behind should be avoided at all costs, not to mention 3 months. 

The story of the Honor 8 Pro’s software could be summed up with this; a vast improvement over 2016’s software, but with a long way still yet to go. 


Performance

The Honor 8 Pro is running the familiar Kirin 960, the same processor found in the Mate 9 and P10, and brings 6GB of RAM to boot. In day to day tasks the Kirin 960 is a power sipping workhorse with no noticeable slowdowns throughout the duration of my on and off usage. Web pages and lists scroll smoothly, and applications open speedily. While it is not quite to the levels of smoothness that we see on the OnePlus 3T or Google Pixel, it is one of the snappiest phones I have ever used, falling only slightly behind those two. 

Performance is also consistent with no major issues to report during the time I used the phone. The Honor 8 Pro also remains speedy while installing applications from the Play Store, something that some phones have issues doing. This sounds like a good time to hit the Huawei storage story head on; to date and to my knowledge no Honor devices seem to be plagued by the hardware lottery that affected other Huawei models like the P10 and Mate 9. Personally, my Honor 8 Pro appears to have 6GB of DDR4 RAM and definitely has UFS2.1 storage as confirmed by its speeds. There is no denying that the Kirin 960 is a top tier processor and in my testing delivered a more consistent real-world level of performance than my Galaxy S8.


Camera

In my first impressions article I noted that I would need more time to get my full thoughts about the camera and how I feel it performs and I am ready to deliver my conclusion. First though the specs: the Honor 8 Pro has a dual 12MP camera setup in an non-traditional configuration. Instead of utilizing the cameras like LG or Apple do and enabling a wider FOV or zoom functionality, the Honor 8 Pro has a single color, and single monochrome sensor. The color sensor provides much of the data you actually see in your final image, however, the monochrome sensor provides extra fine grained detail in areas where a traditional color sensor would lose data. Combining this data turns out some beautiful, eye-popping shots that almost look too real to be true. I am going to reuse the photos I took for my initial hands-on because they were some of the best shots I got from the Honor 8 Pro during my testing period that did not have my kids in them.

Full daylight shots are beautiful, with high detail due to that monochrome sensor, excellent dynamic range, and nearly spot-on color reproduction. Unfortunately though, when the light begins to fade, the Honor 8 Pro quickly loses its edge with lifeless, murky, noisy shots. I took both my Honor 8 Pro and Galaxy S8+ to Orlando a little while ago to test its low light performance and I walked away disappointed. I feel a majority of this falls on the f2.2 aperture which simply is not fast enough to achieve the low light shots we have gotten accustomed to lately with recent flagships. Many times the camera just could not focus properly and nearly every shot has hazing and a lot of noise. There was also something I have not seen since the HTC One M7, that being the purple haze in low light shots. In the photo of the building it is clearly visible on the fringes of the shot.

 

The camera does offer a lot of modes like Monochrome and Light Painting along with an excellent Pro mode for photos and video. Personally though, I believe that a smartphone camera should be judged almost solely on its auto modes because that is what is going to be used most often. Could I have improved those night shots by lowering the shutter speed a few stops to reduce the noise, absolutely. But most often a smartphone will most often be used in auto as a point and shoot and I test as such and the Honor 8 Pro just does not measure up unless you are in full daylight, it’s a blemish on an otherwise excellent phone. 


Display, Battery Life, Odds and Ends

It was difficult for me to test battery life on the Honor 8 Pro as the phone does not have US bands for LTE allowing me to only test the phone on Wifi and HSPA. What I can say, though, is that the phone has a 4,000mah battery and delivered consistently excellent battery life while I was using it. While my usage is absolutely not real-world due to the radio issues, my days of HSPA and WiFi were able to consistently achieve over 7hrs of SOT through the course of a day. Battery is one area where Huawei and Honor repeatedly achieve great results, and the Honor 8 Pro appears to be no exception. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Honor 8 Pro has a 5.7” QHD display. It is a good display, but I do wish it was better. The color calibration is just off, making things seem both oversaturated but also making things on screen not reflect what the image should actually look like. It was a problem with the Mate 9 and it persists here. I also wish it got brighter in full daylight, but that is a problem here in Florida that other areas may not have to deal with.


Conclusion

The Honor 8 was an excellent device that had two things going for it. First, it had a small form factor that was getting harder and harder to find, especially with top tier flagship offerings. The second was its price: at only $400, the Honor 8 was a bargain and in the world of devices like the Axon 7 and OnePlus 3, the Honor 8 stood alone. Its software was the only truly comprising aspect, though things have improved dramatically since then. The Honor 8 Pro falls into an entirely different category with its massive 5.7” display and nearly $600 price tag. It offers an excellent build quality, even if it looks and feels like an iPhone; and it runs with flagships from all OEMs in terms of performance.

Its camera is a letdown if you plan to take it indoors or out in the evening for a night on the town, and the display and single firing speaker are a step back from the competition. The biggest drawback of the Honor 8 Pro though, is its software. As EMUI has progressed dramatically recently, its flaws show that it still has a ways to go and unfortunately, its shortcomings directly affect usability. Honor also has room for improvement in terms of software support as well, with no updates yet for the Honor 8 Pro and a sketchy past make me skeptical as to how long they will support their devices for. The Honor 8 Pro is a great piece of mobile technology, but it has its flaws — ultimately, it’s up to you and your wallet to decide whether the device is for you, and whether you value potential, speed and aesthetics in hardware more than in software.


 

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