Huawei Nova Plus second opinion: Canada's best $400 phone
The best value in Canadian smartphones today.
Canada is a strange market for handsets right now. It hasn’t transitioned to financing, so phones are still purchased through carriers on subsidy, and the weak Canadian dollar has actually pushed on-contract prices up over the past few years.
What that means is that Canadians get hosed (see what I did there?) from every angle, since the cost of wireless service has also steadily risen along with the demand for LTE data.
That’s why the Huawei Nova Plus is such an interesting proposition. It’s a $400 phone, free on contract, and available now at Rogers (and soon, Bell). It’s got some blistering specs for the price, and exceptional build quality taken straight from the Nexus 6P, which debuted for $699 last year, when the Canadian dollar was 10% stronger.
In other words, you’re getting a deal.
But why should you care about a phone that’s $400 outright when phones nearly twice the price are frequently discounted to $0 on contract?
Unfortunately, it’s not more economical to buy a Nova Plus at $0 over, say, a Sony Xperia X Performance which, even with an outright price of $700, is still free on contract. The advantage only comes in when you consider the total cost of the phone.
By buying the Nova Plus at its full retail price of $400, you can then turn around and get monthly discounts on your plan, in the vicinity of $240 over two years ($10 per month), bringing down the overall cost of ownership.
That’s one place to start.
In a market like Canada, where every good phone appears to be inching towards $1,000, it’s pretty remarkable that this device is only $400.
The other reason is fairly straightforward: the Nova Plus is a pretty great phone at any price. Not only is it the best phone to be released under the Huawei brand in Canada since the Nexus 6P, but it takes a lot of hardware cues from that device as well (though its smaller, cheaper sibling, the Nova looks almost exactly like the 6P).
The metal chassis is robust and fairly seamless, a testament to Huawei’s mastery of materials. This feels like no other $400 phone you can buy today. The glass covering the 1080p screen curves ever-so-slightly into the metal bezel, which gives the display an infinity pool effect and makes it more comfortable when swiping horizontally — something you can do with one hand on this relatively compact body, despite the screen’s capacious 5.5 inches.
On the bottom, a USB-C port brings the phone into the future, while the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top keeps it planted firmly in the present. A fingerprint sensor — likely identical to that of the Nexus 6P, based on its performance and reliability — sits below the 16MP sensor on the back.
In a market like Canada, where every phone appears to be inching towards that $1,000 point, it’s pretty remarkable that this device is only $400. Even the Moto Z Play, which runs on the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 platform, costs an additional $250. And let’s talk about this Snapdragon 625 for a moment: in my Moto Z Play review, I praised it for effortlessly powering that phone’s 1080p display, and I’m happy to say the same sentiment applies here. In spite of the slightly more heavy-handed skin with EMUI 4.1, the phone flies in almost every general-purpose task, and I’ve yet to encounter lag or stutter when playing games or operating heavy
There is one strange omissions, though: unlike the Moto Z Play, the Nova Plus lacks 5GHz Wi-Fi capabilities, which translates, in my house where 2.4GHz signals abound, to a poor experience that forces me onto LTE more over than I’d like.
That skin, though
Sorry, I’m just not a huge fan of this phone’s software design choices. Part of it is that I’ve been poisoned (in a good way) by the Google Pixel, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Huawei has corrected a lot of its past mistakes with EMUI 5.0 which will hopefully be pushed out, along with Android 7.0 Nougat, in an update next year.
There are two main issues, as highlighted in my overview of the Honor 8 which runs the same software: the notification shade makes changes for the worse to the user experience, often squashing or otherwise obstructing expandable notifications like Google Maps’ navigation directions.
And the launcher lacks an app drawer, which would be fine if Huawei didn’t make it so damn difficult to set a new default. Unlike other Android skins, once you install a new launcher like Nova or Action, you actually have to go into Settings —> Apps —> Advanced —> Default app settings and change it through there.
I can look past these things, because on the whole the software is quite functional, if a little drab. There are considerate features, like the option to use the fingerprint sensor as a gesture control for accessing the notification shade, or an easy way to swipe horizontally across the navigation buttons to activate one-handed mode.
Unlike the Honor 8, which sports two 12MP sensors, the Nova Plus offers a single 16MP shooter. As Alex mentioned in his review, the phone takes great daylight shots, and its f/2.0 lens is fast and accurate, helped by the presence of optical image stabilization — but struggles in low light due to the relatively small size of the pixels.
Further frustrating things is the lack of automatic HDR, which seems to be a significant oversight given how important it has become to companies like Samsung, Google and Apple. There is an option to activate HDR, but you have to manually toggle it each time, similar to the way you’d turn on slow motion or beauty mode.
In low light, the sensor picks up more noise than the Pixel XL, and is generally a bit less reliable, but overall the results are extremely encouraging. Low light photography in general continues to be an aspect of mobile optics where Huawei struggles against the big names, but it’s hard to fault this particular phone given the price point. It even supports 4K video, which is a generous bonus.
Here’s where we end things on a high note. The 3,340mAh cell inside the Nova Plus is large on paper, and forgiving in practice. Coupled with the low-power Snapdragon 625 chip and relatively low-resolution (but still ample) 1080p LCD display, the Nova Plus manages over a day, and often two days, on a single charge.
I used the phone as my daily driver in and around the Toronto area for a week or so, and came away impressed with its longevity.
I used the phone as my daily driver in and around the Toronto area for a week or so, and came away impressed with its longevity. It didn’t reach quite the heights (or lengths, I guess) as the Moto Z Play, but it gave that more-expensive phone a run for its proverbial money, and in practice few people are going to wait until the middle of the following day to charge their device anyway.
Should you buy it? Absolutely
The Huawei Nova Plus is the best $400 phone you can buy in Canada today, and if you’re reading this in a European country where the product is sold you can take this as an additional endorsement. It’s fast, attractive, and has no major flaws. In fact, my only concern is the speed at which it will get EMUI 5.0 alongside Android 7.0, which should make it an even better prospect, and a greater value.