Huawei P8 – can the new Chinese flagship smartphone keep you out of contract?

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SIM-only contracts for smartphones are getting cheaper all the time and more and more discerning individuals are opting not to tie themselves into a talk plan for years, even if that does mean stumping up a fair whack for a  new phone. For many this puts the flagship phones from the major players just out of arms reach, but if you’re willing to forgo the more established brands there are some pretty special devices vying for our attention.

So says Huawei anyway, with a new handheld we’ve been hearing a bit about recently. It’s called the P8, and is the new flagship model for a Chinese manufacturer that’s been gathering a bit of a following among those who aren’t afraid to think outside the box.

When you look at the specs, you can see why Huawei is using this as its current head-turner. It has a 5.2” display at 1920×1080 resolution and 424ppi – the same as the Xperia Z3. There’s 3GB of RAM, between 16 and 64GB of storage with microSD and a Quad-core 2 GHz Cortex-A53 to keep things ticking over. For media you’ve got a 13MP primary camera capable of full HD video at 30fps, with an 8MP selfie on the front. It’s water and dust resistant and has even shelled out on Gorilla Glass 3 for a toughened screen. And it looks pretty sweet as well – check out that slim side bezel.

But looks can be deceiving, as can an apparently impressive collection of internals, so we’ll cast our eye over some early reviews to see if it lives up to its billing.

Let’s begin where we left off with the design. The Independent is a fan and calls it “a leap forward in design and build quality” for the company, lauding its all-aluminium one-piece frame and the fact that:

“Huawei proudly boasted that a higher proportion (78.3 per cent) of the front of the phone was screen than on rivals like the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6.”

The display in action is thankfully up to scratch:

“The wall-to-wall screen looks great, even if its HD resolution is less impressive than the Samsung Galaxy S6’s far higher pixel count. Even so, the screen looks attractive and full of rich, realistic colours and detail.”

Some of the other tricks in Huawei’s arsenal are examined here, such as the Voice Wake function, which works a bit like one of those car-key whistle locators except here you speak a pre-recorded phrase and the phone wakes, plays music and sings “I’m here”. It also proves that it’s down with the current generation with something called Perfect Selfie – a soft focus effect designed to enhance those spotty head-shots, and a light painting mode that:

“Essentially lets you shoot a video which combines light effects into a still picture, though the examples given included dazzling fireworks brandished around remarkably brave models.”

It summarises by saying that good things could be on the horizon for Huawei in terms of breaking into the western market – it’s “a company that for some time now has felt like it’s been on the brink of the big time”. Could this be the thing that tips it over?

TechRadar is fairly measured and likes the premium design, the display and feature-packed camera, but does have some issues with the performance. It’s not quite as snappy as the Galaxy S6 Edge you see, though considering the price point on that beauty we’d be surprised if it was, and the jury is out on Huawei’s Emotion UI – its OS overlay that leads the reviewer to suggest:

“Don’t get too excited at the mention of the Lollipop operating system either, as it hasn’t escaped the clutches of Huawei’s Emotion UI on the P8.”

Elsewhere the camera impresses, and it points out that Huawei claims it “outperforms the snapper on the iPhone 6 Plus”, which would be an impressive achievement. This is likely down to a new technology:

 “Low light enhancement promises clearer, brighter images in poorly lit areas thanks to the world’s first four colour RGBW smartphone sensor, independent DSLR-quality ISP (image signal processor) and beefed up OIS.”

TechRadar concludes by saying “The Huawei P8 is the most exciting handset to come out of the Chinese firm over the past few years, possibly ever, and it shows some very real promise.”

But all of this is a bit early doors. What we really need is someone who’s put the P8 through its paces, and here we turn to PC PRO. It has a full review with benchmarks, awarding the phone 4/5 but suggesting it’s not quite up to the task of challenging the big boys. There’s nothing wrong with the design though, being “super-slim, measuring a mere 6.9mm from front to back, it weighs only 144g, and it looks great.” The removable microSD gets a mention, as do water and dust resistance when comparing it to the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has none of these.

As for those fancy camera tricks, PC Pro says

“The results are impressive. The camera is quick to launch and take pictures, plus it focuses quickly and confidently. Importantly, the quality is fantastic, particularly in low light” and “In good light we were impressed to find that the camera dealt well with even tricky scenes, retaining detail in bright skies without losing detail in shadowy areas. Video looks just as good – crisp and rock-steady in all but the most extreme situations.”

The only downside was slightly washed out pictures in some conditions, and that some of the software functions seemed a bit gimmicky, but otherwise it seems like good news for snappers.

When it comes to performance it’s unfortunately not up to scratch against the likes of the HTC One M9 and Galaxy S6, with the GPU being the main cause. For pure number crunching it’s still fairly good though, so if you’re not an avid gamer you might not notice much of a difference.

And when it comes to the battery it’s a similar story – it lags behind rivals such as the Xperia Z3 and Galaxy S6 to a noticeable degree, sucking around 15% of power for an hour of video playback and around 7% for streaming audio, both below average.

Still, there’s plenty to like about the P8 overall and some features, such wind-noise reduction, automatic microphone sensitivity and earpiece volume control sound genuinely useful, even if others, such as “Knuckle sense” that allows you to capture a screenshot with a tap of your knuckle” do not.

PC Pro concedes that the P8 certainly has its attention but “it isn’t quite cheap enough to get our wholehearted recommendation”, which brings us back to our original point.

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Is this affordable enough to keep you from the suffocating embrace of a two-year contract? Just about. The standard version will cost £360, with the premium £430, which is around 25% off what you’d pay for a “badge” with a similar spec and possibly more if you factor in how cheap microSD cards are. Even despite potential performance issues, we definitely think this is worth keeping an eye on.

Visit Huawei to find out more.