Honor 10 Review: Much More Than ‘The Poor Man’s iPhone X’

Honor 10 Review: Much More Than 'The Poor Man's iPhone X'

The months and years roll by and Huawei and Honor smartphones evolve… slowly. Each is – genuinely – better than the last, but the glossy mass of glass, the avalanche of Emotion UI and bundled software, the dual camera ideas, much also stays the same. Is there enough new for the Honor 10? Actually yes, mainly through the AI in the camera, though there are quirks, plus a surprisingly low price point.

The two main thrusts at the Honor 10 launch were ‘Design’ – evidenced here in the reflective optical coating on the phone’s back and thankfully potentially always on view even in real life because there’s a rather excellent clear TPU case included in the box:

Rear view, with the free case on

And the second was ‘AI’, artificial intelligence, evidenced in the camera functions, of which more later.

This is the best Honor smartphone I’ve ever used, and it is cracking value for money, at £399 including VAT for the 128GB version here in the UK, though the caveats do come thick and fast for the discerning. Anyone who’s used a Galaxy S9 or iPhone X, the two phones used in the Honor 10 launch as examples, will immediately be disappointed by the lack of stereo speakers and Qi charging, by the lack of OIS on the camera front, by the lack of water and dust-proofing, and by the lack of card expansion and always-on display (compared to the S9).

But I don’t want these disappointments to dominate here because they’re all eminently excusable at the price, half that of the S9 and a third that of the iPhone X. This is a stunningly good phone for under £400. It looks beautiful, it runs fast, and it’s a cracking Android experience, once you’ve… ahem…. done some tidying up of the built-in software set-up.

Honor 10 front

Emotion UI

You see, this is Android 8.1, but it’s also Emotion UI 8.1. Which in itself isn’t an issue – there are enough extras to make it useful, you can restore an app drawer if you like, you can hide the notch by turning it black with white text and icons (as shown above in the photo), even some of the device optimisation stuff is going to be a lifesaver for the man in the street.

What’s slightly harder to live with is the bloatware, included presumably to help subsidize the phone in the first place, so maybe we shouldn’t complain. But Avast anti-virus can’t be disabled or uninstalled. Ditto AppGallery. There’s Facebook, Quik, Booking.com, eBay, Instagram, Netflix, Asphalt Nitro, Kingdoms, Dragon Mania, Puzzle Pets, Spiderman, and Assassin’s Creed games, all of which can be uninstalled if not wanted, thankfully.

Again – at the price point – bundling a load of titles is forgivable. Half an hour’s fiddling around – changing theme, uninstalling things, installing your own favorites, shuffling icons, maybe adding an app drawer – will give you a cleaner and more satisfying experience.

And for once you don’t have to worry about choosing dark themes or elements, since the Honor 10 uses a 5.8″ IPS LCD 1080p screen that’s both excellent and also backlight based, so lighter UI elements just make things clearer and don’t cost you battery life.

fingerprint scanner on the Honor 10

Biometrics

Much was made of the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor – unusual in the phone world. Its advantages are that it’s underneath the main display glass, though not under the display itself – yet, and that it can be used if your finger is wet, a scenario that often confuses the capacitive sensors on traditional smartphones. On the downside, you have to relearn how you use a phone fingerprint sensor. Capacitive sensors only require the very lightest touch to activate, but the ultrasonic system requires a flat and firm press – it takes a little getting used to and it’s ultimately slower in use, requiring the best part of a second of thumb contact before recognition.

Happily, the face unlock system works brilliantly, via the 24MP f/2.0 front-facing camera, which – thankfully – avoids having to use the fingerprint sensor most of the time. You just pick your phone up, the screen lights up, the camera authenticates your face and you’re done. Magical, almost iPhone X-esque(!)

The decision to put the fingerprint sensor on the front of the phone, despite the notch pretensions up the top, can be justified easily by the rather nifty way Huawei and Honor use the sensor as a navigation control. So tap to go back, long tap to go ‘Home’, swipe for recent apps, and so on. This part works brilliantly and it does away with on-screen controls, giving – again, along with the notch ‘ears’ for the status icons, the absolute maximum room for content. Which I like. Very much.

Curved metal and glass

The rest of the hardware is sleek and slippery, but there’s nothing missing. So you get a 3.5mm headphone jack, always a real-world user favorite, USB Type C with Huawei Supercharge – and a charger in the box. Plus a mono speaker that’s actually pretty good – just not very loud. In comparison to the speaker setups on the aforementioned Galaxy S9 and iPhone X, the Honor 10 pales, but – again – consider the price and be happy.

Bottom of the Honor 10

Imaging

Imaging is one of the Honor 10’s strengths, or so the marketers would have you believe, with that focus on AI. The idea is that the dual camera (16MP colour plus 24MP monochrome), in addition to the usual aperture, portrait and zoom tricks, can recognize subjects and scenes, break them into layers, i.e. subject, other foreground objects, background, and then optimize image processing for each. In practice, this approach is sometimes heavy-handed, especially for greenery, but it works well for everyday subjects – sunsets, cars, pets, food, and so on, and I’d agree with Honor that it’s a definite selling point for the end user.

Honor 10 cameras

Interestingly, on my review device, the AI processing was turned off out of the box and kept reverting to ‘off’ between camera launches, possibly to help a user save space – the AI-enhanced photos are twice the size and they include the original JPG as well. I suspect this will be reversed at some point though – for the casual snapper it’s well worth the price of entry to have AI ‘on’ all the time. And yes, there is a ‘Pro’ mode, for anyone who wants more control over what’s being snapped.

Photos from the Honor 10 are really impressive. Not just because of the AI enhancements, though they help, but because the ‘high-quality electronic image stabilization (EIS)’ is terrific, obviating the need for physical OIS. My guess is that the chipset is so fast that sensor data can be retrieved and aligned in real time, for example for longer exposures in low light. Regardless, whatever challenging light scenarios I threw at the Honor 10, images were always crisp.

Here are some sample photos, most with 1:1 crops beneath and commentary:

Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
A good example of AI at work. The car seems spotless, the greenery lush, the sunshine brilliant – all is well with the world. OK, the reality isn’t quite this good, but it’s nice to see things through the Honor 10’s eyes!!
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing intense sharpening and saturation – still, this is as bad as it gets – man-made subjects are far far better.
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from a 2x zoomed version of the scene above, showing the ‘hybrid zoom’ in action. Summary? It’s not too bad – clearly artificial, but there is some genuine 2x detail.
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – some blow out in bright sections and a little too much sharpening, but an excellent ‘warmed up’ AI photo overall.
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing the exceptional detail gathered in a gloomy church – this section of statue detail at 50m in the darkness astonished me.
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – the flowers were in gloom, yet look what the Honor 10 camera and its AI managed to eke out. Very good considering the conditions.
Sample photo from the Honor 10, AI-enabled
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, amazingly crisp at the first attempt thanks to the next-gen EIS used. Yes, there’s noise at the pixel level, but considering the ‘dead of night’ lighting, this is actually excellent overall.

Video is also steady for similar reasons, and with stereo sound, though you do lose the stabilization if you go up to the full 4K resolution.

Battery life is very decent, easily a full day for most people, thanks to a large 3400mAh battery and the default aggressive process management in EMUI. Don’t worry, if you need a particular application handled more delicately then this is possible too. In fact, everything’s a little aggressive out of the box. There’s the aforementioned built-in Avast virus scanner, there are three separate battery saving modes, there are suggested battery optimizations to settings. All designed to help the man in the street but for AndroidBeat readers the measures are often over the top.

Still, everything is fast and fluid, driven by a Kirin 970 processor and 4GB of RAM. The lack of card expansion may annoy some people, but 128GB takes quite a bit of filling and for the average user it’s more than enough.

Verdict

Despite some of the caveats above, the ‘10’ is the best smartphone Honor has made to date. A little like the iPhone X being the best iPhone Apple has made and (coincidentally) with the same headline number, the same form factor, the same notched idea – yet the Honor 10 is roughly a third the price – and comes with a fast charger and a half decent case. Go figure.

EMUI still has its detractors (the Android purists) but it’s absolutely fine for day to day use – it just needs a little taming here and there in Settings and I’d recommend giving it a chance. Honor got so much right here and it should be a slam dunk choice for a great many less discerning users.