Note: This article was first published in October 2019.
At least in Singapore, I like to think of Huawei as the smartphone company that goes only to extremes, since up till now most of its products have been placed at the far ends of the market: flagship P- and Mate-series juggernauts alongside a slew of decent budget products such as the very popular Nova 3i and Y6 Pro (yup, that phone).
Their mid-range range has been pretty quiet and left largely to Honor, Huawei’s sub-brand. Earlier this year in January we took a look at the Honor View 20, which proved to offer great value in the mid-range segment and was only hobbled by Huawei’s use of an LCD rather than a more vibrant, contrasty OLED display.
At this point, Honor appears nowhere close to replicating its parent’s success here, which we put down to a greater familiarity with the Huawei brand. It's probably also why the Nova 5T is a Huawei and not an Honor device.
Just like the Nova 3i before it, the 5T should win most hearts on looks alone. Huawei has wisely stuck with its simple, subtly-textured gradient formula:
Named Crush Blue (what exactly is being crushed, may I ask?), this colourway isn't exactly eye-catching, but it certainly looks classy. If you want a more funky vibe, there’s also a Midsummer Purple with the four letters in “nova” subtly lasered into its (ultra) violet gradient.
We didn’t find a case in the box, and if Huawei are not providing one in the retail units either, you’d best get one before you start using the phone. Like all glass-backed devices, it will quickly find its way along any smooth surface to the nearest floor.
With a USB-C (thankfully) port, a single speaker opening, and no headphone jack, there's nothing down below to talk about. You won't find expandable storage, either.
Rare these days is a notification light. And the Nova 5T actually has one embedded in the speaker grille!
And, speaking of things you won't find on many phones...
Bucking the in-display fingerprint sensor trend, Huawei brings back one feature from an untimely grave: the power-button capacitive fingerprint sensor!
Huawei, how do I love thee for this? Let me count the ways. One: it’s way easier to enrol a finger on capacitive sensors like these. The enrolment process is not affected by dirt on the display, or ambient lighting conditions. Two: while it can sometimes lead to inadvertent unlocking, the power button is still by far the best place to have a fingerprint sensor. You don’t need to wake up the phone first. Or figure out where on the display to tap. Or move the phone until a fingerprint icon shows up (which is also difficult if it’s on a table or nightstand) - it’s a one-step unlock. And four: this sensor is just so darned fast and precise. The display turns on and unlocks almost instantly with just the right amount of pressure on the button.
Oh, for such a simple feature done right! Compared to some positively ancient in-display fingerprint sensors that take whole seconds to unlock (if they do at all), the Nova 5T’s implementation is so much more preferable that I want to throw my hands in the air and scream for joy. Newer is not always better, friends.
There were some things Huawei didn't get right, the first being the 6.26-inch 1080p LTPS LCD display. It’s not terrible - colours are vibrant, if as usual biased toward the blues, and the juicy-looking preloaded blue wallpaper helps make for positive impressions.
But... it’s still an LCD. The blacks aren’t anywhere near OLED levels, and luminance levels are a little inconsistent across its entire surface, especially near the edges. In case you noticed neither of these, a diminishing brightness at extreme viewing angles characteristic of LCDs should remind you. It also doesn't support any of the new HDR standards, unlike an increasing number of OLED devices (such as the similarly-priced Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro) and even a couple of LCD ones (such as the HMD Nokias).
There's more to find fault with considering this phone's mid-range status. As mentioned earlier, there's the lack of a headphone jack. Take out the SIM card slot - which doesn't even have a seal around its edges to confer some basic water and dust resistance - and there's no place for a microSD card. Good thing the internal storage is 128GB.
Huawei could easily have given us at least a few of these features, and our guess is they're trying to avoid hurting sales of the entry-level P30 (Lite) models. But in a crowded mid-range, where every manufacturer can now boast of at least one all-singing, all-dancing product, this doesn't seem to us like the right way to roll.