Huawei Nova 5T full review

Huawei’s flagship Mate 30 series was the company’s first major release without Google Play services. Ongoing tensions with the US government meant none of the Google apps that have become synonymous with Android phones were available, and this hit the phone’s prospects of global success hard. 

However, despite having been announced just a couple of weeks earlier, the Nova 5T retains all of Google’s goodness.
This mid-range handset is therefore able to deliver a reassuringly familiar experience, complete with a few notable upgrades over June’s Nova 5.

But can the first Nova phone to be released in Europe truly compete in the ever-expanding mid-range market? Read on to find out.

Price and availability

You can buy the Nova 5T now for £399.99 on Amazon . It’s also available at O2, Carphone Warehouse, Very, Mobile Phones Direct, Littlewoods and Mobiles.co.uk. Most are offering contract deals as well as the chance to buy the phone outright.

There is also the option to claim free USB-C earphones, details of which can be found here.

Perhaps understandably, the phone is not available from the US, but the availability of SIM-only deals means it’s still an option worth considering if you’re willing to import.

This is firmly mid-range territory, going head-to-head with the Xiaomi Mi 9 and others in our best mid-range phone chart. Despite being more than six months old, the Google Pixel 3a remains a compelling competitor with a similar price tag.

Phones at this price point are being released with increasingly impressive spec sheets, and it’s becoming harder to distinguish them from more expensive flagships. To be considered a success, these handsets have to deliver upon nearly everything they promise.

Design and build

The Nova 5T has a gorgeous 6.26in, 2340x1080 display, which strikes a good balance between quality and affordability. Despite being an LCD panel, it is rich and vibrant, while outdoor visibility is great, with a maximum brightness of 390 nits in our tests.

The 84% screen-to-body-ratio makes the tiny bezel fade into the background, but the screen notably doesn’t blend over the edges of the display. In that sense, the front of the device looks incredibly similar to Samsung’s Galaxy S10e, albeit with a 32Mp punch-hole camera in the other corner.

There’s just enough room on the front of the device for an earpiece, which works in tandem with the grille on the bottom of the device for dual speakers. This isn’t quite stereo speakers, but does ensure the premium experience doesn’t end with the aesthetics.

While using the phone one-handed may be a struggle, it’s much more comfortable than the most expensive flagships, which are pushing towards 7in. It’s not as tall as these phones, but does retain the 19.5:9 aspect ratio that you see on the iPhone 11 Pro and OnePlus 7T Pro.

A quadruple rear camera setup includes all of Huawei’s AI technology, and offers plenty of flexibility. Wide and ultra-wide sensors are here, as well as an LED flash and additional depth sensor. Interestingly. Huawei has gone with a macro lens instead of the increasingly common telephoto.

All these sensors do mean that there’s a slight camera bump, but that shouldn’t affect your experience too much, even when typing while the phone is lying on a table. We’ll dive into the camera performance in detail later.

Besides that, the glossy glass back of the phone is predictably a fingerprint magnet, although this isn’t as bad as some other handsets we’ve tested. It’s unbelievably reflective though, and depending on the angle, light can be refracted to create a pretty pattern.

This stunning design does make us reluctant to use a case, so it’s great that it feels more grippy than other all-glass phones. The Gorilla Glass also means it’s particularly resistant to scratches, but we would recommend getting some form of protection in the long term.

The side-mounted fingerprint scanner doubles as a power button. This is very naturally placed about halfway down the right side of the device, and something that really counted against the Sony Xperia 5.

Huawei claims it takes just 0.3 seconds to unlock the phone, and from testing we have no reason to disagree with them. Enrolling your print is as simple as scrolling your thumb down the power button, and it’s unbelievably fast and responsive. In fact,

If you’d prefer a face unlock, that’s here too - and works well despite not being secure enough to use as login method or payment authentication.

There’s just one storage option in the European market - 128GB - and unfortunately you can’t expand this via a microSD card. This omission becomes more disappointing when the option to add two SIM cards remains.

Taking the system files into mind, that leaves you with about 105GB to play with. Whether that will be enough will vary hugely depending on how you want to use the phone, but you can read our article if you’re looking to make your storage go further.

The black version we tested is decidedly less eye-catching than the other colour choices - Midsummer Purple and Crush Blue - but we were fans of the more stealthy look.

Oh. and there’s no headphone jack. That’s by no means a surprise, but considering the standard P30 and Mate 30 included the port it would have been nice to see here.

Hardware and performance

The Nova 5T’s performance is hugely impressive for a £400 handset. It barely breaks a sweat, even when multitasking or playing high-intensity mobile games.

A flagship Kirin 980 processor is combined with the Mali-G76 MP10 GPU, both worthy competitors to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Adreno lines.

The 6GB of RAM on board is more than enough to handle even complex processes on such a powerful device.

However, this performance would not be apparent if you judged it purely on Geekbench 4 and GFX Bench’s tests:

We tried in vain to get the Nova 5T to slow down, but it coped admirably with almost everything we could throw at it. Quickly switching between multiple apps, using the built-in split screen and loading dynamic content on social media is all achieved without a hitch.
Sure, it got a little warm while running high-intensity apps such as Call of Duty: Mobile, but it can still be a highly effective mobile gaming machine.

Software and features

The Nova 5T runs Android 9 Pie out of the box, with version 9.1 of Huawei’s EMUI skin on top. The EMUI 10 beta programme is available in Asia at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be long before the phone gets a major software update.

The main issue with Huawei’s skin is the huge amount of bloatware. In all, we found that there were 15Huawei versions of Google apps on the Nova 5T: app store, gallery, video player, music player, files, web browser, clock, calendar, email, notes, contacts, weather, calculator, voice recorder and download manager.

Huawei developing its own version of these apps is probably a good idea, particularly considering the continued uncertainty over future trade agreements in the US.

They might even function better than the Google equivalents, but consumers in Western markets are likely to just go with what they’re used to. This makes it more difficult to convince people who haven’t used Huawei phones in the past to make the switch, particularly as many of them cannot be uninstalled.

That’s the general message regarding software: if you didn’t like EMUI in the past, nothing will have changed here. Our personal preference is for a more ‘stock’ version of Google’s OS, but there are undoubtedly times where it’s nice to have the two integrated. The stunning cycle of wallpapers on the lock screen, no-nonsense settings app and dedicated silent mode (as opposed to Do Not Disturb) are all things we’d miss upon return to a Pixel device.

Retaining Google Now cards and a form of Digital Wellbeing (known as Digital balance) also means you get the best of both worlds. Of course, if you really hate the visuals of EMUI, the beauty of Android means you can always swap it out for a different launcher.

Speaker performance is definitely above average. Although not officially classed as a stereo setup, the downward-firing speaker combines with the earpiece to produce rich, full-bodied sound with a good deal of bass. It also avoids the common problem of unintentionally blocking the audio output when holding the phone in landscape.

A small portion of the earpiece also doubles as an LED notification light. This is a feature that is often sacrificed in the quest for bezelless devices, so it’s great to know you won’t be missing out here.

We even have Bluetooth 5.0, with its bevy of features including the ability to play audio to two devices simultaneously.

Cameras and battery life

The Nova 5T’s camera array is hugely impressive on paper, with a total of five lenses. Like many manufacturers, the hardware comes courtesy of Sony. The main, 48Mp sensor is supported by a 16Mp ultrawide lens and 2Mp dedicated macro lens . Separate from the main module, a depth sensor helps detect how far objects are away from the shutter.

Beware of the megapixel count though, because like many modern smartphones it uses a process called pixel binning, which combines four nearby pixels into one to improve clarity in scenes where there is less light.

The resultant shots are actually 12Mp in resolution.You can manually set it to capture in the full 48Mp, but in anything less than optimal conditions you’ll see little benefit.

Also, don’t be fooled by the quick toggles between 1x and 2x in the camera app; there is no telephoto lens so this is a digital zoom, with a noticeable decline in quality. Like many smartphone cameras, you can zoom up to 10x, but the images produced here are unlikely to be usable beyond reference.

The built-in artificial intelligence (AI) is able to detect a huge variety of different scenes, including even pandas, waterfalls and ancient buildings.

The camera is the main area of the phone where you’ll have to stay patient. While it’s common for low-light shooting modes to take a while to process, the 5T will actively encourage you to keep your device steady after hitting the shutter if it detects a more complex image.

It’s usually worth the wait though, as images generally have a good level of detail and high dynamic range. This processing consistently produces better shots than many camera phones with results available immediately.

The Nova 5T’s photos tend to be in line with Huawei’s flagships; vibrant, saturated shots rich in detail but perhaps a little less true to life than some of its competitors. The dedicated AI mode is turned off by default, but rest assured the 5T is already using plenty of artificial intelligence to determine the end result.

The super-macro mode is a particular highlight, allowing you to take incredibly detailed shots as close as 4cm from the subject.

The 5T’s tendencies when taking stills are by no means exclusive to this phone, or even Huawei handsets in general.

On the front, a 16Mp sensor produces clear shots with plenty of detail, although like many phones it has a tendency to blow out the background. The AI can be pretty aggressive here, although at least the beauty mode is turned off by default.

Click the link below to check out our full range of camera samples:

Huawei Nova 5T camera test

On the video side, the phone can record up to 4k at 30fps, but by default it’s set to 1080p. This is likely with the limited storage in mind, as this high resolution video can consume in excess of 300MB per minute.

Video looks smooth and crisp, albeit with less punchy colours than in stills. However, the lack of optical image stabilisation means footage can judder significantly, so you’ll want to prioritise video with minimal movements. This shouldn’t be an issue for the occasional home video, but if you’re big on mobile cinematography consider stepping up to something like the iPhone 11.

The super slow motion at 960fps is fun to show off once in a while, but at 720p you should probably prioritise other video modes. 

However, it is slightly lacking in the microphone department. Recorded audio can easily be drowned out by background noise, and the Google Assistant regularly misheard or failed to pick up what we were saying.

Battery life on the 5T is solid, with the 3750mAh cell able to comfortable a day and a half of moderate usage on a full charge. This includes constantly switching between Wi-Fi, due in part to the lower resolution screen.

The 22.5W adapter in the box is capable of Huawei’s Supercharge, which the company claims will get you a day’s usage in just 30 minutes. While that assertion varies depending on your usage, we managed to get 54% of battery in a half-hour period from off.

However, ‘off’ doesn’t mean 0% in this case, as modern Huawei phones have a built-in safety feature which means they turn off at 2%, following a 30 second warning. This is designed to protect the battery, and also means they are instantly ready to use once a power source is reconnected.

Huawei has assured us that exposing the phone to such a high level of power will not adversely affect battery life in the long term, thanks to some rigorous in-house testing. There’s no wireless charging here, but that is a worthy trade-off in our view.

Verdict

While some manufacturers are looking for a headline feature to stand out from the crowd, the 5T quietly prioritises everyday usage by mastering the fundamentals of a solid smartphone. The design is superb, cameras great and battery life better than expected.

We are missing some premium features here - wireless charging, expandable storage, OLED display - but it’s remarkable how quickly you can look beyond these when you use the phone regularly.

As a complete package, it has to be considered among the very best mid-range phones you can buy.

Specs

Huawei Nova 5T: Specs

  • 6.26in 1080x230 LCD display
  • EMUI 9.1 (Android 9 Pie)
  • 128GB storage (non-expandable)
  • 6GB RAM
  • Quad rear cameras (48Mp, 16Mp, 2Mp, 2Mp)
  • 32Mp front-facing camera
  • Kirin 980 CPU
  • Mali-G76 720 MHz GPU
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • NFC
  • 174g

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