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Huawei Nova 5T review: Champagne for a super Nova

By Luke Tan - 21 Dec 2019
Prices:

Software, performance, and battery life

It's still the same EMUI...

There's practically nothing new to say about EMUI 9.1 on the Nova 5T. It's standard Chinese Android skin fare, with no app drawer, somewhat kiddish and variegated visual language, some (manageable) bloat, and little niggles like inconsistencies in font sizes. I'm not a fan of it, but that's just me.

The same launcher, with no app drawer...

...but guess what, there's a nod towards a more Pixel-like experience: The Google Discover feed now shows to the left of the home screen!

And that's okay - EMUI is probably not aimed at me, because I'm sure that senior folks (can I say "boomers" without getting roasted on a spit in 2019?) and non-geeks will find it their cup of tea. It's at least colourful and the icons are nicely legible, and the lack of an app drawer is still an advantage for those converting from, say, cheaper iPhones.

I do have a new rant, and that has to do with the variance of the notification toggles in Chinese Android phones. Oppo, Xiaomi, and Vivo use huge squares clearly borrowed from iOS's Control Center. Only Samsung's OneUI and OnePlus's OxygenOS are closer to stock Android. 

Meanwhile, Huawei sticks with blue line-art icons reminiscent of Android Marshmallow.

So, when will we ever see some visual commonality?
 

...it has (mostly) the same performance...

When it entered the mid-range fray at the beginning of this year, the Honor View 20's ace up its sleeve was that it used the flagship-class Kirin 980 processor. The Nova 5T has the same chip, which should give it  a nice plus point over the competition. We'll put it head-to-head with its predecessor for reference, as well as other mid-rangers like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670-series Vivo V15 Pro and the Google Pixel 3A XL

Test phones compared
  Huawei Nova 5T Vivo V15 Pro Google Pixel 3a XL (64GB) Honor View 20 (8GB/256GB)
  Huawei Nova 5T Vivo V15 Pro Google Pixel 3a XL (64GB) Honor View 20 (8GB/256GB)
Launch SRP
  • From S$598
  • From S$699
  • From S$779
  • From S$829
Latest Price
  • From S$540
  • From S$655
Operating system
  • Android 9.0 with EMUI 9.1.0
  • Funtouch OS based on Android 9.0
  • Android 9.0 Pie
  • Android 9.0 with Magic UI 2
Processor
  • Hisilicon Kirin 980 octa-core (2 x 2.6GHz Cortex-A76, 2 x 1.92GHz Cortex-A76, 4 x 1.8GHz Cortex-A55)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 675, octa-core (2x Kryo 360 Gold + 6x Kryo 360 Silver), 2.0+1.7GHz
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
  • Octa core (2 x 2GHz 360 Gold, 6 x 1.7GHz Kryo 360 Silver)
  • Hisilicon Kirin 980 octa-core (2 x 2.6GHz Cortex-A76 & 2 x 1.92GHz Cortex-A76 & 4 x 1.8GHz Cortex-A55)
Built-in Memory
  • 8GB RAM
  • 8GB RAM (Singapore variant)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 8GB RAM
Display
  • 6.26-inches 2,340 x 1,080 pixels (412 ppi) IPS LCD 19.5:9 ratio
  • 6.39-inch, 19.5:9 aspect ratio, notchless
  • Super AMOLED
  • 2,340 x 1,080 pixels
  • 6-inch OLED touchscreen
  • 2,160 x 1,080 pixels resolution
  • 6.4-inches 2,310 x 1,080 pixels (398 ppi) IPS LCD 19.5:9 ratio
  • Always-On Display
Camera
  • Rear main: 48-megapixel, f/1.8, 1/2", 0.8µm, PDAF
  • Rear ultrawide: 16-megapixel, f/2.2, 1/3.1", 0.8µm, PDAF
  • Rear macro: 2-megapixel, f/2.4
  • Rear depth sensor: 2-megapixel, f/2.4
  • Front: 32-megapixel, f/2.0
  • Rear:
  • Main: 48-megapixel, 0.8μm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, PDAF
  • Ultra wide-angle (13mm): 8-megapixel, f/2.2 aperture
  • Depth sensor: 5-megapixel, f/2.4 aperture
  • Front:
  • 32-megapixel, f/2.0 aperture, pop-up motorized
  • Main camera: 12.2MP, F1.8, 28mm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS
  • Front camera: 8MP, F2.0, 24mm
  • Rear: 48-megapixel, f/1.8, 1/2", 0.8µm, PDAF, Sony IMX586, + TOF 3D stereo camera
  • Front: 25-megapixel, f/2.0, 27mm
Connectivity
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 4G+ LTE, dual-band, hotspot, DLNA, NFC, Bluetooth v5, aptX HD, A2DP, LE, GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS, USB 2.0 Type-C
  • Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac dual band
  • Bluetooth 5.0 LE/EDR/aptX support
  • GPS, AGPS and GLONASS positioning
  • IR blaster
  • micro-USB 2.0
  • 802.11ac/b/g/n/a
  • Bluetooth 5.0, aptX HD
  • USB Type-C
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 4G+ LTE, dual-band, hotspot, DLNA, Bluetooth v5, A2DP, LE, GPS, GLONASS, USB 3.1 Type-C
Storage Type
  • 128GB internal storage
  • 128GB internal storage space (Singapore variant)
  • microSD support up to 256GB
  • 64GB internal
  • 256GB internal storage
Battery
  • 3,750mAh
  • 22.5W SuperCharge
  • 3,700mAh
  • 3,700mAh
  • Fast battery charging 18W
  • 4,000mAh
  • 22.5W SuperCharge
Dimensions
  • 154.3 x 74 x 7.8 mm
  • 157.3 x 74.7 x 8.2mm
  • 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2mm
  • 156.9 x 75.4 x 8.1 mm
Weight
  • 174g
  • 185g
  • 167g
  • 180g

Okay, let's do JetStream first:
 

JetStream 2

The JetStream benchmark evaluates JavaScript performance over a range of real-world browsing scenarios. As expected, the Kirin 980 played second fiddle only to its Snapdragon 855 rival, which was thrown in for reference:

The Kirin 980 in the Nova 5T crushes the Snapdragon 67x processors in the Vivo and Pixel, but is no match for the Snapdragon 855.

Things, however, start getting pretty interesting from this point onwards.

 

Geekbench & Antutu

Both of these benchmarks measure system performance with regards to CPU, RAM, and storage speed factors. Now here's something eyebrow-raising: the Nova 5T scored worse than the Snapdragon 67x phones here - and even its spiritual predecessor!

The Nova 5T ended up very much at the bottom of the tables, and way below the Honor View 20, with which it shares very similar specs and the exact same Kirin 980. There was no point even putting in the Snapdragon 855 anymore...

Rubbing our eyes in disbelief, we repeated the benchmarks several times and compared it directly against the Honor View 20 to make sure we were not getting something wrong...

Before some of you point out that the Nova 5T has a Performance mode, Geekbench didn't seem to reveal any real difference when it was enabled.

...this time, the Nova 5T eked out a win over the two Snapdragon 7xx devices, but still could not beat its Kirin 980 stablemate.

Wondering if storage speed could be the problem, we decided to run a round of AndroBench to compare both Kirin 980 phones. This benchmark focuses exclusively on storage performance in both sequential and random reads and writes, and we figured it would show up any speed differences in the flash storage used in both devices. (On another note, both of these phones have 8GB of RAM in their tested configurations.)

The results from AndroBench proved inconclusive, so we'll put the discrepancies down to differences in software or drivers.

 

3DMark

3DMark, which profiles graphics performance (duh), revealed another strange happening: the Nova 5T was again handily defeated by the Honor View 20.

It's got to be the drivers!

We can only chalk these weird observations up to the use of different drivers and OS optimisations. Thankfully, none of this was noticeable in real-world usage. In daily use, the Nova 5T felt every bit like a Kirin 980 device, with no discernible lag. However, it was just a little disconcerting to see these results. One can only wonder...
 

...but not the same battery life?

 

Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:

  • Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
  • Constant data streaming through email and Twitter

Given its 300mAh smaller battery compared to the Honor View 20, and (perhaps) the higher power drain from its Kirin 980 chip over the Snapdragon devices (and from using an LCD screen instead of an AMOLED panel), the Nova 5T didn't impress with outright battery numbers. We had no problem securing a day's worth of moderate usage, but once the display brightness was turned up, there were days when this figure seemed in jeopardy. This phone could do with a larger juice pack than a 3,750mAh battery. It's saving grace could be its speedy recharge as it has support for 22.5W Huawei SuperCharge.

The Nova 5T's battery life was where it ought to have been given its 3,700mAh cell.

7.5
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • User-Friendliness 7.5
  • Performance 7.5
  • Value 7.5
The Good
Solid, compact build for those tired of huge phones
Reliable all-round performance
Competitive cameras that won't disappoint
Simple, intuitive fingerprint sensor solution
The Bad
LCD display is decent, but still not in OLED territory
No headphone jack
No expandable storage
No dust and water resistance
Macro camera doesn't make much sense