Huawei Honor 7 review - 'high quality at a fraction of the price you’d expect'
A fingerprint reader-equipped Android phone at a surprisingly low price
Many pundits and analysts have wittered on about the pressure low-cost Chinese Android phone manufacturers are putting on the likes of Samsung and Apple. It's tempting to dismiss these manufacturers as cowboys producing cheap, poor quality phones. But Honor is a brand of Huawei, one of the biggest phone and network equipment companies in the world. Its latest Honor 7 phone may be inexpensive at a mere 249 on pay as you go with Three, but it's by no means a shoddy, second-rate phone.
Honor 7 fingerprint reader and casing
Honor's last smartphone, the Honor 6 Plus, was made of attractive, sturdy blue plastic with a subtle cross-hatch pattern to it. The Honor 7 looks completely different. Its metal-effect casing is apparently made out of a proprietary ceramic material. It doesn't look as classy or feel as sturdy as the plastic Honor 6 Plus, creaking a little under pressure. It's by no means flimsy, surviving the occasional drop from waist height onto both wooden and carpeted floors unscathed, but it does feel like a step back.
Unexpectedly for a phone at this price, the Honor 7 has a fingerprint reader. Since this phone doesn't have a physical home button like the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, its fingerprint reader is instead located at the back beneath the rear camera lens. It was almost as sensitive and accurate as the fingerprint readers on the more expensive competition, unlocking the phone with a tap of our chosen finger in a split second. It only occasionally failed to recognise our fingerprint.
Cleverly, the nano SIM tray, which pops out of the right hand side of the phone, doubles as a micro SD slot since it's double-sided. If you're willing to sacrifice extra storage, you can fit a second nano SIM instead of a micro SD card. We suspect most people won't do this though as the Honor 7 only has a meagre 10GB of built-in storage which can fill up very quickly.
The fingerprint reader also doubles as a basic touchpad. You can swipe down to show the notifications drawer - a useful shortcut that makes the large 5.2in phone a little easier to use if you have small hands. You can also swipe up to show the recent apps switcher or tap it to take a photo when using Honor's camera app or to silence alarms when the phone is locked. It's a little too easy to inadvertently activate these fingerprint gestures though, but thankfully you can turn them off if you want.
According to Honor, the tokenised fingerprint data is encrypted and stored in a secure chip and never sent across the internet. We can't verify this and it'll be interesting to see if Honor's implementation will be supported by the integrated fingerprint reader support coming in Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Still, we'd be very surprised indeed if Honor made the same mistake as HTC did with the One Max and its fingerprint reader. HTC stored the fingerprint data on that phone in an unencrypted text file on general storage where any app could've accessed it - a major security flaw.
Another unexpected hardware addition is a multifunction button on the left hand side of the phone, or the smart key' as Honor calls it. By default, pressing the smart key once instantly captures a photo - even if the phone is locked. Double press it and the phone starts recording audio. Press and hold the smart key to activate Google Now. You can change these defaults to a range of other options. Most of these are available from the shortcuts drawer that appears when you swipe up from the bottom of the lock screen, but the smart key is still a useful extra to have.
Honor 7 Android and special features
The smart key and lock screen shortcuts drawer are just two of the extra features made possible by the custom user interface that Honor insists on adding to Android 5.0 Lollipop. Called Emotion UI, it strips away most of Google's Material Design aesthetic in favour of its own vaguely iOS-derived look which we generally don't like. It looks a little too fussy and cluttered. You can apply various themes to change the look of the operating system which might appeal if you're a teenager or have an overdeveloped sense of whimsy, but we'd rather just have Material Design instead.
Emotion UI can be quite impractical too. It removes the app drawer, dumping all your apps on your home screens which is annoyingly untidy. Using the zoom-out gesture with two fingers on the home screens shows you a hidden' home screen - it's hidden as there's no other way to access it. It might be useful if you're closeted Tinder addict, but adding apps to this hidden screen is fiddly so it's no substitute for the standard Android apps drawer.
There are other inexplicable oddities as well. The settings shortcuts in the notifications drawer can't be changed and there's no airplane mode or mute switches here. These shortcuts have instead been moved to a dialog box that appears when you tap the power button, alongside the restart and power off options.
Even more annoying is that Android Lollipop's very useful do not disturb features have been made harder to get to, since you can't access them by simply pressing the volume keys or going to the shortcuts panel in the notifications drawer. You instead have to dig through the settings app or use the search feature that Honor has added to the settings. The latter works reasonably well, but isn't too bright and needs improvement - for example, you'll end up with very different results depending on whether you search for power', energy' or battery'.
The one-handed mode, which shrinks the entirety of the screen into a smaller, moveable window that hugs either the bottom left or right hand sides of the screen, works reasonably well even if it does look silly and feels inelegant. Activating it is a little fiddly though, requiring a fairly precise swipe across the bar at the bottom of the screen containing the Android back, home and recent apps buttons.
Huawei and Honor don't have an exemplary track record at bringing the latest Android updates promptly to their previous phones. It remains to be seen how quickly the Honor 7 will receive the upcoming Android 6.0 Marshmallow update - if at all.
Honor 7 camera and screen
The Honor 7's 20 megapixel camera uses a Sony sensor and it fared well when shooting landscapes in broad daylight, producing reasonably well-lit and detailed shots. Dark overhead clouds were enough to make it struggle with getting the right exposure though, with some photos looking a little too dim.
Indeed, anything less than outdoor daylight was enough to strain the camera. For example photos of faces lit by indoor fluorescent lighting were prone to noise and slightly unnatural-looking textures. The results were at least not nearly as unusably rough-looking as those produced by many other similarly priced smartphone cameras. Nighttime photography is effectively a no-go area with shots so dark and blurry that they're effectively worthless.
The 5.2in screen has a 1080p resolution and is very bright. Both colour accuracy and contrast are good, while viewing angles are wide. Some may obsess over having the highest resolution and pixel density possible, but that's a game of diminishing returns when screens like this are already so sharp.
Honor 7 battery life, performance and responsiveness
Surprisingly for a phone at this price, the Honor 7 comes equipped with an eight core processor. It's a Kirin 935 processor made by Huawei subsidiary HiSilicon and paired with 3GB of memory. There are four fast 2.2GHz cores and another four slower, but more power efficient 1.5GHz cores. Honor claims that fine-grained energy efficiency controls in the processor allow it to switch on individual cores as needed, not just switch between each group of quad cores.
In any case, while quick enough to sprint through our benchmarks and more than fast enough for running most apps the Kirin 935 fell behind the very latest processors in rival phones such as the LG G Flex 2 and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. We should emphasise that it's by no means slow and such a compromise in performance to keep the price low is a fair one. In any case, the touchscreen's responsiveness was far smoother than we'd come to expect from a phone at this price and this is just as important as sheer, absolute performance.
Battery life was respectably lengthy, lasting just under 26 and a half hours when connected to Three's 4G network in central London and used for calls, web browsing, photography and GPS. It lasted just over 11 and a half hours in our continuous web browsing and music playback test when connected to a 802.11n router.
Honor 7 conclusions
There are a few flaws and niggles with the Honor 7, most notably with its irritating Android skin, but even this can't dampen our enthusiasm for what is a remarkably good value Android phone. We'd normally expect to pay at least twice as much for a smartphone with similar features and responsiveness making the Honor 7 a real bargain.
It's easily good enough to rival the latest Motorola Moto G too which isn't that much cheaper in its comparable 2GB RAM configuration. That budget phone is sturdier, has a cleaner interface and Motorola has a proven track record of timely Android updates too. It's a very close run contest, but for most people the Honor 7 is the better buy.
A high quality Android phone at a fraction of the price you’d expect
Processor: 2.2+1.5GHz HiSilicon Kirin 935 eight core processor
GPU: Mali T628 MP4
Memory: 3GB RAM
Storage: 10GB on-board, micro SD slot
Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 4G
Ports: MicroUSB 2.0, headphone jack, 2x nano SIM
Dimensions: 143x72x9mm (HxWxD)
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