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Circuit Breaker

Huawei's Nova phones strip down to their aluminum unibody essentials

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No-frills phones for the young 'dynamic aspirers'

Vlad Savov

Huawei’s rapid ascent to prominence in the smartphone market is taking another step forward today with the introduction of a new series of handsets called Nova. These devices eschew premium features and extras in favor of distilling Huawei’s strengths down into an affordable, mid-range package. First up is the eponymous Nova, a 5-inch device with a Full HD screen, Snapdragon 625 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 12-megapixel camera with larger-than-average pixels. It’s encased in an aluminum unibody shell and bears more than a passing resemblance to the Nexus 6P that Huawei built for Google.

"Battery is pain point number one when you talk about modern smartphones," says Huawei, and the Nova has a 3,020mAh battery inside it, which should combine nicely with the smaller 1080p IPS display. Without a top-spec screen or CPU inside it, the Huawei Nova is likely to offer highly competitive battery life. It’s good to see Huawei is reusing the same RGB camera sensor that it employed in its flagship P9 (albeit without the second monochrome camera), which I found to be a very capable shooter. I also enjoyed the toughness and solidity of the P9's design when I reviewed it, and the Nova carries those features over in a comprehensive manner that supports Huawei’s aspiration to be recognized for its aluminum unibody cases.

The Nova’s rear-mounted fingerprint reader is, according to its maker, the fastest in the world, requiring only 0.3 seconds to identify a user. I don’t know that extra speed is any longer required with fingerprint ID systems, but this just goes to show that the feature itself has now become a mid-range essential rather than the exclusive preserve of premium handsets. Overall, the Nova is a good-looking device with a build quality that matches or exceeds the best in its targeted price range, which the company describes with the cringe-inducing language of aiming for young "dynamic aspirers." In short, the Nova will be cheap enough for those who can’t afford a flagship to get it.

A great example of the constant trickle-down of premium build and features

Joining the Nova is a 5.5-inch Nova Plus, which has a different design and a couple of spec bumps, but is otherwise a direct match for the smaller sibling. The Nova Plus boasts a 16-megapixel camera (greater resolution, but smaller pixels: 1.12μm vs the Nova’s 1.25μm) and a 3,340mAh battery as its distinguishing features. While it has the same Full HD resolution as the Nova, the Nova Plus’ display actually looks a great deal better to my eyes. Seeing it ahead of the phones’ IFA debut today, it showed greater color accuracy and better viewing angles, and given the primacy of displays in our everyday use of phones, I’d say the Plus is probably the one to consider first.

Beyond launching its new budget phone line, Huawei is today also announcing the MediaPad M3, the latest entry in its Android tablet range. This 8.4.-inch slate has 2560 x 1600 resolution and stereo speakers at the top and bottom (when held vertically). These were co-engineered with Harman Kardon and offer 1W of power per speaker. Preloaded software will also aid audio reproduction by automatically identifying and adjusting to orientation as well as content type.

With a 5,100mAh battery, a Kirin 950 processor, and the option to pop in an LTE SIM card for cellular connectivity, the MediaPad M3 is yet another in a long line of well designed, well equipped Android tablets. The thing that’s been holding them back for so long has always been the software and the lack of applications that truly harness larger screens — and unfortunately I don’t see that changing too soon for the M3. While Google’s latest Nougat has shown itself to be a boon for Pixel C users, Huawei’s new tablet isn’t going to ship with it, and was in fact running a pre-Marshmallow version of Android when it was demonstrated ahead of IFA.

But where's the Nougat?

As usual for Huawei, its presentation of new hardware included no mention of the Android software that plays such a prominent role in its devices. Unfortunately, in spite of Nougat being out already, The Nova and Nova Plus will both ship with Android Marshmallow on board. Running the latest available software should be something every smartphone achieves at least on its launch day, and it’s disappointing not to see Huawei raise the mid-range standards in terms of software timeliness just as it’s doing in terms of build quality and hardware design.

The Huawei Nova will cost €399 in Europe when it's released globally in October. The Nova Plus will be only slightly more expensive at €429, launching at the same time. Both phones come with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage as standard. As to the MediaPad M3, it starts at €349 with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage and tops out at €449 with double the storage at 64GB and added LTE connectivity. The M3 also goes on sale from September 26th.