Honor 7 review: Premium metal at budget price

Now, this is being posted on launch day, so you might think the word ‘review’ is a little misleading – but I did get to play with the Honor 7 for a full day, under NDA, a week ago, and have a good handle on its strengths and weaknesses. Not that there’s a lot of the latter. In case you’re a bit confused by the name/brand, Huawei makes the Honor products and the name change is to make it more accessible to Western users, especially ‘digital natives’, for which read sub-30 year olds. Just think of Honor as the fun, modern brand and Huawei as the more official, enterprise-focussed side of things. In terms of tech they’re more or less equivalent and feed off each other – thankfully.

Huawei Honor 7

The Honor 7 is very impressive, just bear the SIM-free price of £250 all-in (in the UK) in mind with what follows and I think you’ll be impressed too. It’s aerospace grade aluminium, sand blasted, and CNC-detailed, aside from the tastefully embossed ‘Honor’ logo on the back, with heavily textured plastic panels top and bottom for the radios (Wi-fi/GPS/3G etc.)

Huawei Honor 7

Communications is made more flexible by something we’re starting to see more of – a dual SIM arrangement whereby one of the slots can also carry a microSD – sounds like a kludge, but it’s really quite neat. It’s fiddly though, as you might expect – a little ‘Mission Impossible’ as you hold your breath and your trembling fingers position the cards carefully and then insert the tray into the nuclear reactor err.. I mean the side of the Honor 7. Once in place, the tray system works well though, and hopefully most people won’t have to fiddle with cards too much in daily life.

Huawei Honor 7 SIM tray
Showing the two different SIM/card arrangements – either dual nano SIMs or nano SIM plus microSD…

The Honor 7 is just about the perfect size too, hardly wider than a Nexus 5, and just a little taller, or around the same dimensions as a Samsung Galaxy S5. There’s a very nice (LCD) 5.2” 1080p screen, though I did find that I tended to run it at full brightness most of the time – the defaults are a little dim for my liking.

Huawei Honor 7
One of the cute lockscreens….!

An extra button on the Honor 7’s left side is labelled a ‘Smart key’ and the idea is that you  assign single, double, and long presses to any applications or phone functions you want, within reason. These are trivial to set up in Settings and work first time, exactly as you’d expect. It’s not a totally new idea, but we don’t see it very often, so well done Huawei and Honor.

Huawei Honor 7 Smart Key

Inside is Huawei’s own fast octacore chip, the Kirin 935, though what you really need to know is that there’s 3GB RAM, unusual at this price point, plus the obligatory 16GB of storage plus microSD. As you’d expect with all that RAM, performance is smooth and lag-free.

Setting up the Smart Key, plus the drop down shortcuts pane....
Setting up the Smart Key, plus the drop down shortcuts pane….

Emotion UI, here in new version 3.1 form,  is both loved and hated, though I’ve always been rather fond of the idea of not having an app drawer – it’s one layer of the Android UI that you don’t really need (in my opinion). Just have everything where you can see it and make folders as needed, plus perhaps a folder for all the bits you don’t ever want, and so on. Yes, it’s a bit iPhone-ish, but on Android you can mix and match application icons with widgets so it really is the best of both worlds.

The default Emotion UI layout
The default Emotion UI layout

What you have here is Huawei’s typical Android load-out – fans of stock Android won’t like the way most of the core apps (Contacts, Calendar, Gallery, and so on) have been replaced by Huawei, but it’ll be fine for users who don’t keep switching phones regularly. And the Honor 7, despite the premium finish, isn’t aimed at hardcore smartphone users, so I suspect the supplied applications will be just fine.

The software side of the device is all protected by the fastest and most foolproof fingerprint sensor that I’ve used yet. It took all of five first finger presses and ten seconds and that was training done and dusted. Depending on market and application, of course, it also has the potential to be used for payment authentication – and yes, your fingerprints are stored in a secure enclave in the chipset (I asked the product guys at the launch).

Huawei Honor 7 camera and fingerprint sensor

Useful though it is for unlocking the Honor 7, the fingerprint sensor also acts as a virtual trackpad, in that a swipe up gives you recent apps and a swipe down gives you the notifications and shortcuts pane. It’s slick and addictive, using your first finger, which naturally rests in the sensor hollow. In fact, it’s so useful that I wonder whether we might soon see swipe left and right as additional gestures, useful in panoramic applications where you’re forever side swiping.

Getting going with the Honor 7 fingerprint sensor
Getting going with the Honor 7 fingerprint sensor

In terms of components, there’s a mono speaker on the bottom (one of the neat machined grilles is a dummy, as is the convention these days, somewhat sadly) and it’s better than usual for a Huawei device, with recognisable treble and bass. Not class leading then, but better than average.

Huawei Honor 7 bottom view

While not in LG G4 class, the cameras are really very good, the rear camera is 20MP, f/2.0 and a 1/2.4” sensor, outputting at 10MP in 16:9 by default, which seems sensible (though 15MP in 16:9 and 20MP in 4:3 are also available if needed). And focussing is fast with phase detection auto-focus, the current flagship flavour of the month, but nice to have at this price point. There’s no OIS, but you do get digital stabilisation. Time lapse and up to 30 second exposures (what Huawei are calling the ‘silky water’ feature!) are really cool to have onboard. Oh, and the camera has a sapphire glass exterior, to keep it scratch-free.

Here are some sample photos (obviously restricted a little in scope and lighting because I only had the device for a day and in daylight!), with overview and, in each case, 1:1 crops below:

Sample photo from the Honor 7

1:1 crop from Honor 7 photo

Sample photo from the Honor 7

1:1 crop from Honor 7 photo

Sample photo from the Honor 7
Using the dedicated ‘Food mode’ – no, really! It adds extra warmth and saturation, etc.

1:1 crop from Honor 7 photo

Sample FFC photo from the Honor 7
Sample FFC photo, with ‘Beauty mode’ turned on – took 10 years off me instantly!

1:1 crop from Honor 7 photo

I don’t like shooting with filters in place, but there are loads here, and a learning feature that apparently starts offering the filters you use most, though we’ll only start to see this at work after real world users have got going. Around the front, there’s a 8MP front facing unit – with what looks like a flash but is just a ‘soft’ light, to add a ‘glow’ to one’s natural beauty(!)

Finishing off the Honor 7 are an infrared beamer on the top, plus a twin antenna design with seamless switching in a microsecond, so no ‘dead-hold’ problems (think iPhone 4) and no potential dropped calls or stifled cellular data.

Huawei Honor 7 top view

Given that I only had a day to try out the Honor 7, making this more of a ‘preview’ than a ‘review’, I can’t evaluate battery life. However, there’s a meaty 3100 mAh cell inside, and Honor says it supports ‘Fast charging’. Which may or may not be the same as Qualcomm’s standard, we’ll need retail hardware and chargers to check that. I was also impressed by how cool the Honor 7 stayed, given the octacore chipset and the issues the high end Snapdragons have been having. All that metal helps and, apparently, there’s special heat dissipation engineering inside.

As for the downsides? You know, there really aren’t any. And this on a £250 phone. Maybe a lack of waterproofing? Maybe the use of Emotion UI and customised core applications? But all this is being very picky – the Honor 7 is stunningly good at the price. How long can the likes of HTC and Samsung keep their flagships up above £500 when the likes of Honor can sneak in with a full metal, premium device at under half the price?