The Nova 3i is the latest in Huawei’s quest for world smartphone dominance. It seems to have a smartphone in every niche from value to flagship.
The Nova 3i could easily pass for a much more expensive phone. A huge 6.3” screen with a notch, a luscious Iris Purple iridescent finish, 4/128GB RAM/storage, dual rear/dual front cameras and a 3,340mAh battery are things you pay close to a grand for.
But this costs just $599, and Huawei is throwing in a pair of “FreeBuds” that looks suspiciously like Apple’s AirPods!
OK, the purpose of a review is to find out where the compromises are and if they are deal breakers. Spoiler alert – this phone should be selling for a few hundred dollars more!
In the box – Huawei Nova 3i
- Charger 5V/2A (not quick charge)
- Micro-USB to USB-A cable
- 5 mm earbuds and mic
- Clear plastic bumper case
The first impression
I am a bloke. I buy black phones. This iridescent Iris Purple thing is stunning. Oh, and there is boring black as well.
OK, there is the Notch too – Huawei cleverly offers to turn that into a top bar. And a dual camera on the front- interesting. But it is that gorgeous 82.2% screen-to-body-ratio that makes it look more impressive than the price dictates.
On the rear are a fingerprint reader and a dual-lens camera bump. Modern and classy if not glassy. On that point, it is an aluminium frame and acrylic polycarbonate ‘glass’ back.
Buy in Australia – or you will regret it
The Model number is INE-LX2. From what we can find there are about a dozen variants for different countries and carriers.
We issue the standard warning that you must buy the genuine Model INE-LX2 (Optus single sim) and INX-LX2 dual sim with Australian firmware. It works on all Australian Carrier LTE bands. Watch out if it is called P Smart+
|Screen||6.3-inch, 2340 x 1080, 19.5:9, 409ppi, IPS
82.2% S-T-B-R with Notch
Screen protection not mentioned
There are very few 6.3″ phones in the price bracket. The front is almost all screen except for the ‘notch’ and a small bottom bezel.
The screen reaches 85% NTSC colour saturation. More importantly, it has settings for normal, vivid and three colour temperatures, so there is something for everyone. The auto brightness setting is set way too aggressively to save battery. I turned it off and set the brightness at 75%.
The screen also defaults to ‘smart resolution’ mode that is 1560 x 720 to save battery. While there is quite a visual difference to its 2350 x 1080 mode, most will select battery saving mode. All battery tests were in smart resolution mode.
|Processor||Kirin 710, 12nm
2.2 GHz, Quad core, Cortex A73 + 1.7 GHz, Quad core, Cortex A53
128GB (111 free)
microSD to 256GB (uses second sim slot)
OTG to 2TB (external hard disk support)
The Nova 3i is the first to use the 12nm Kirin 710 chip. It’s a bit cheeky to call it a 710 as Qualcomm has introduced a 10nm Snapdragon 710. Essentially that is a four-core version of the eight-core powerhouse 845.
In single core and multi-core tests, it is about 10% slower than the Qualcomm. The SoC has independent DSP, Dual ISP for scene recognition, face unlocks, and other entry-level AI features. It integrates Cat.12/13 LTE cellular modem and supports GPU Turbo technology.
There is nothing wrong with buying Kirin in Huawei smartphones. The processors have well proven their worth.
|Comms||Wi-Fi N, Single band, Wi-Di, Hotspot
Bluetooth 4.2 aptX and aptX HD
Wi-Fi single band performance was patchy. At 2m from our reference D-Link AC5300 router it connected at a sad 75Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. In my opinion, there is no reason to use single band Wi-Fi in all bar the lowest cost phones.
It is also odd because it supports a very advanced Bluetooth 4.2 with AAC and aptX HD codecs – excellent.
Data transfer over micro-USB 2.0 achieved 75Mbps (theoretical maximum 480). I was expecting a little more like 150Mbps, but you would only notice this when transferring lots of photos. Micro-USB is dying very slowly, but we won’t see USB-C and fast charging for some time in this price bracket.
Lack of NFC is characteristic in a phone in this bracket. But more interestingly China, its main market, uses WeChat or Alipay that use QR codes instead of an NFC swipe. That only has 19% of the Chinese market. You can read more about QR/NFC here.
|Sound||3.5mm audio jack
ANC dual mics
aptX and aptX HD for suitable headphones
AAC for Freebuds
The earpiece speaker is for the phone only, e.g. it’s not part of a stereo 2.0 setup.
The bottom firing speaker is for hands-free and sounds. It produces a pure mid-signature (no bass, mids emphasised, treble recessed) best for clear voice. It reached 83dB ringing and around 65-70dB for music and voice.
Output to an amp was 30Hz to 15kHz but lacked signal strength (volume). The supplied buds are OK but also suffer low volume.
We tried the device with a pair of Sony WH-1000XM2 headphones that support Hi-Res aptX HD. The phone is capable of driving that content, and the sound was terrific.
FreeBuds – are free if you buy quickly
I am not a ‘buds’ person, so my testing of the FreeBuds was cursory. Ironically these come with a USB-C charge case and are an AirPod design which I find dorky.
They use Apple’s AAC codec (no mention of aptX or HD) and have a great sound. Frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz. It’s slightly light on bass but clear on mids and treble. They are touch enabled.
I did like the infrared detection that can sense when you are wearing them. They have four mics for clear conversation and some noise reduction.
They last 3 hours from a charge, and the case offers up to 10 hours use (three charges). Its main difference over the AirPod is the use of silicone earbud tips offering better sealing and noise minimisation. For buds, they are pretty good.
|Other||Fingerprint sensor rear
GPS and e-compass (all)
Fingerprint recognition was excellent and fast. Facial recognition was good but took up to four seconds in lower light.
|Battery||3340 mAh battery
50% charge in 30 minutes
70% in 1Hr
100% in 2.5hr
Under full load, I got just over 7 hours. In a 1080p video loop at 50% in aeroplane mode, I got 10 hours.
In three days of typical use, it was almost exhausted after 16 hours. It is a one day phone.
Power use (idle) is about 40% per 24 hours. That is a little higher than expected.
4G/LTE (Dual Sim version)
|LTE||Cat 12, 600/150, 3CA
Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 28, 38, 40, 41
|Sim||Dual – both can be 4G (or second for microSD)|
|Other||VoLTE and VoWiFi depends on the carrier|
I tested outside Telstra HQ in George Street, Sydney where there is a good 4GX signal. It showed a respectable 480/75Mbps – good.
Dual 4G sims are a bonus for a phone in this price range.
Huawei uses EMUI 8.2 – its interface over Android. It is largely because Google services are not in China. In Australia, it comes with a full suite of Google apps.
EMUI is not bad and takes very little learning over Pure Android.
|Colours||Black or Iris Purple|
|Build||Curved acrylic polycarbonate back over an aluminium frame.
It is slippery – use the bumper case
|Dimensions||157.6 x 75.2 x 7.6 mm x 169g|
|IP Rating||Not stated|
It looks and feels a million dollars. My concern would be the polycarbonate back shattering if dropped and a lack of glass screen protection. Use the bumper case provided.
Qi wireless charging
Front notification LED
No IP rating
No glass protection
Frankly, none of these are deal breakers. It would be rare to see any of these on a $599 device. We should be talking about what is above the phones value – Dual front and rear cameras, 4/128GB, LTE Cat 12 and looks to admire.
$599 outright or the Huawei nova 3i is available now in Iris Purple from Optus stores and at optus.com.au. Optus is offering the nova 3i on a 24 month My Plan Plus plan for $45 per month (min. total cost AUD$1,080) and 2GB of included monthly data.
There is also a gift with purchase offer for the Huawei nova 3i where the first 1,000 customers to redeem via huaweipromotions.com.au from 10/9/2018 to 08/10/2018 (on purchases made from 03/09/2018 to 30/09/2018) will receive a bonus pair of FreeBuds (while stock lasts).
First, let me say how much I hate the camera placement. In typical Apple style, it is on the top left rear of the phone. About half the 100 or so reference shots had my fingers in the frame! Give me a centre mount any day.
|Rear Camera 1
|16MP, f/2.2, PDAF, HDR, LED flash|
|Rear Camera 2||2MP, f/2.2 (depth sensor) only for bokeh|
|Selfie||24MP and 2MP (depth sensor), f/2.0, HDR, no flash|
On paper, these are good specs for a mid-range phone. In practice, they are above what you can expect for the price.
Superb colours, slightly overblown blue sky and water due to AI.
ISO50, 1/800 sec, 9.1MB
Indoors Office Light
Slightly overblown colours – pink instead of red and a little discolouration on the cupboards. Great detail.
ISO 200, 1/100 sec, 6.2MB
One of the best results I have seen from a mass market camera. Again colours are overblown, but it has done an admirable job of brightening what is otherwise a dark room.
ISO500, 1/20 sec. 6.4MB
The 24MP selfie is amazing picking up so much detail. The bokeh (background focus) works flawlessly. The AI mode will clean up shadows and soften the shot.
A collection of animal faces that mimic basic actions like opening your mouth or raising eyebrows. The result is a GIF.
The camera knows what it’s looking at, e.g. Blue Sky, Beach, Plant, Night, Stage, Flower, Room and Snow shooting as long as it recognises that’s what you’re looking at.
AI was good but tended to produce over-saturated colours – perhaps we all want that.
GadgetGuy’s take – mid-tier specs falling into mass market pricing
At $599 it has enough of the go-fast stuff to make up for the $399 Nova 3e’s performance anxiety (review here). It is worth the extra $200.
But on that basis should you spend $799 to get closer to perfection again?
If you have a little more the Nokia 7 Plus is amazing, and for a little more the OPPO R15/Plus is superb. If you have a little less, the Moto g6 Plus is very good too.
My point is at the price – $599 – it is one of the best phones around.
- Great value for a premium feeling device
- Huge 6.3” screen with or without notch
- Dual camera front outperforms single camera competitors
- AI tends to oversaturate colours
- Purple if you can stomach it
- Battery life is good but not great
- No glass protection given acrylic backs can be fragile
- Slippery and fingerprint magnet
- Qmoji is very basic
- Lack of NFC in Australia
- Wi-Fi N single band is slow
- Overall: 4.2 out of 5
- Features: 5 out of 5 – As a mid-range, it is 5 out of 5. Take off a point if comparing it to a flagship
- Value for Money: 5 out of 5 – There are some really strong contenders including last years flagships.
- Performance: 3 out of 5 – heaps of power but I have reduced the mark due to poor Wi-Fi speeds
- Ease of Use: 4 out of 5 – EMUI is OK
- Design: 4 out of 5 – Iris Purple look great, but the camera placement and slippery surface is not!