In recent years we have seen a deviation in the smartphone market. The mid-range smartphone used to be a single segment of the market, but there are several sub-segments these days. Pick a price between R5,000 and R15,000 and you will find a different phone at every price point. The market is crowded, which makes small differences between devices more important than ever before. This is what we’ll explore in our Huawei Nova 5T review, as it plays a big part in making this device what it is.
The Huawei Nova 5T is definitely at the higher-end of the mid-range, meaning it has to do some things extraordinarily well to warrant that higher price over some of its contemporary competition.
Design and Build
Huawei owns another brand that it has used in recent years to sell its more impressive mid-range smartphones, called Honor. It is also where they test some of their whacky ideas that sometimes make it into their flagship P or Mate ranges. The Nova 5T is one of those phones, with a different name.
It has the same design as the Honor 20 Pro, with a relatively large chin at the bottom and a punch-hole selfie camera in the top left of the device. Other than that the bezels around the sides are as small as you can imagine for a non-flagship, as it’s an expensive part of the design to remove.
At the back you’ll find the main attraction(s) of the Nova 5T, a very capable quad-camera setup. It is positioned vertically on the one side, very similar to what we saw on the Huawei P30 Pro. You still have that camera bump, which I think most of us are accustomed to by now. Even so, it is still annoying when you tap on the screen and it wobbles as a result of the bump being off to the side.
Holding it in the hand gives you a lot of confidence that this device is high quality – it certainly feels more expensive than it is. While you should still use a case if you tend to drop your phones (included in the box), it feels impressively built. The rounded sides fits nicely in the hand and isn’t cumbersome when using it for a long period of time.
There is a fingerprint scanner on the right hand side of the device, housed under the power button. This sits below the power volume rocker and is extremely quick to unlock. Having come from a flagship phone with an in-display fingerprint scanner before it, it is still the fastest and best fingerprint scanner.
You have a USB-C port at the bottom with the speakers. The sound is good enough, but not good enough to use outdoors. Unfortunately, the Huawei Nova 5T has also fell victim to losing the headphone jack, which seems peculiar for this type of device.
It is also not water-resistant – not surprising for a mid-range device.
We have become accustomed to some amazing display technology and it becomes clear from the outset that this is where Huawei have had to make some sacrifices to attain its price tag. The IPS LCD display isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn’t have the punchy colours and vibrant contrasts that we get with OLED panels.
The colours aren’t as vivid and contrast is not great at all – especially when you want media content and get some image stretching from the dark areas of the video. The blacks (or rather, greys) are actually distracting at times.
Indoors is the place to use the Note 5T for extended periods of time, because in glaring light the IPS falls short again. Viewing angles aren’t great and there is a reflective quality in the panel that we haven’t seen in a while.
The image quality and pixel density is still impressive, though, coming in at 2340 x 1080p.
Overall the screen is passable, but it is where Huawei cut corners on the Nova 5T.
Software and Performance
When it comes to hardware, the Huawei Nova 5T is an interesting combination. It comes with Huawei’s flagship chipset from 2018, the Kirin 990. While it may be a year old, you certainly won’t feel any sluggishness or slow performance. It still feels like a top of the line chip, and scrolling through many multi-tasked apps, taking photos and general performance feel top-notch.
It has 6GB of RAM, impressive for a mid-ranger. This helps in the smooth performance, which is impressive for a device of this price range.
The device runs Huawei’s EMUI 9, which runs atop of Android 9.0 out of the box. We did receive the new EMUI 10 update which is based on Android 10 during our review period, though. It is commendable that Huawei got the new update out so quickly – something they struggled with in the past.
This might be the last Huawei device you can get in South Africa that runs Android, which we believe will help it sell really well. With the USA banning Huawei from certain trade agreements, it means they aren’t able to use Android as Google can’t provide service to them at the moment. The Huawei Mate 30 is a massive victim of the politics, but the Nova 5T still has all the Google services you want and need.
The battery life is really good on this device. While it doesn’t have a very big battery at 3,750 mAh, with slightly lower specs and an LCD display instead of a power-hungry OLED, you will easily get through an entire day. In fact, on a couple of occasions I was able to get through two full days of battery life when not having a lot of screen-on time during the day. Of course, this device doesn’t have wireless charging, but the USB-C charging is quick enough for quick top-ups during the day if needed.
While there are some areas where Huawei compromised on the Nova 5T, the camera setup definitely isn’t one of those. This device was built for people that want a good camera configuration at a reasonable price, and it shows.
The quad-camera setup is versatile and impressive across the board. The top quality sensors can pull off some truly impressive shots in conjunction with Huawei’s smart AI. It’s not at the level of the Leica powered lenses on the Huawei P30 Pro, but really not far off.
The main camera at the back is a 48MP sensor (f/1.4) with optical image stabilisation (OIS). You then have a 16MP super wide-angle lens, an 8MP telephoto and a 2MP macro lens.
Most photography situations are handled by the main camera. Expect this or a similar 48MP camera to show up in many more smartphones in 2020 and beyond. It can let in a lot of light and the colour reproduction is truly impressive. It might not be the best at low-light (compared to the flagships), but better than you can expect from any other phone of this price.
Colours are a little washed out sometimes, especially when people are the main subject and the backdrop is picturesque. Again, it’s better than most, but not as good as its bigger brother or other flagship.
Night mode on the Nova 5T is really impressive, again for its price. The AI handles most subjects really well and the blurriness is minimal. The exposure time is more than you would find in the flagships, but results are comparable.
There’s a 32MP selfie camera housed in the punch-hole on the front of the phone. It’s teeming with AI smarts and software enhancements which makes selfies look over-processed. It will be more than good enough for the social media crowd this is aimed at.
The biggest disappointment is the macro lens. Having read up on some other experiences, it seems hit or miss and I’m not sure if it is a manufacturing batch issue or user error (probably the latter). The quality of the macro photos weren’t as good as I expected. To be fair, very few people will use this lens regularly, so it shouldn’t put you off the device.
When it comes to this segment of the market, you are spoiled for choice. That being said, this is our pick of the bunch. Sure, there are some compromises here and there (as expected for a phone around R12,000), but they are less than any other phones in this price range.
It is a good looking phone, well built, that performs really well. The only really amenity it doesn’t have that flagships do is water-resistance. Other than that, the differences are negligible, other than the display. But most people won’t even notice that the screen isn’t the best.
There are very real differences between the Nova 5T and its competition. You get more features, more power and a much better camera experience.
Honestly, I can’t find real problems with the Huawei Nova 5T other than the nitpicks I’ve mentioned. Buy this phone if you’re looking for some premium quality and a well-rounded set of features at a mid-range price.