Nova 5T an affordable alternative to flagship models

The first, and probably the most important, thing you need to know about Huawei's latest Nova 5T smartphone is that it comes preloaded with Google's apps and services, despite the current United States trade ban on the Chinese firm.

Launched last week in Singapore, the mid-range Nova 5T seems like a rebranded version of the Honor 20 from Huawei's sub-brand Honor.

Both smartphones have near-identical specifications, such as the 6.26-inch LCD screen with a hole-punch front camera, four rear cameras and a 3,750mAh battery.

They even weigh the same - 174g - though the Nova has slightly more memory with 8GB of RAM, compared with the Honor 20's 6GB.

My Midsummer Purple review set has a shimmery glass finish typical of modern smartphones. But Huawei has changed things up by decorating the glass back with a monogrammed version of the Nova logo.

Its hole-punch display creates a near-bezel-less full-screen experience ideal for watching videos and playing games. This works for YouTube videos, but not for Netflix, which still shows black bars at the sides.

With its flagship Kirin 980 processor - the same chip found in Huawei's top phones - games such as first-person shooter PUBG Mobile run smoothly in full-screen mode on the Nova.

It was also easy to ignore the front camera cutout because it ends up at the bottom left corner in landscape mode.

The display itself offers good viewing angles and is decently bright. It lacks an ambient display feature, though Huawei somewhat compensates for this by including a small LED notification light on the Nova.

Because of its LCD screen, the Nova does not support an optical in-display fingerprint sensor. But its side-mounted fingerprint sensor is arguably superior. It is fast and accurate, unlike most in-display fingerprint sensors I have tried.

Its main camera uses the same 48-megapixel (MP) Sony sensor found on many of this year's smartphones.

  • FOR

    • Side-mounted fingerprint sensor

    • Smooth and fast performance

    • Detailed 48MP photos from AI Ultra Clarity mode

    AGAINST

    • Lacks headphone jack and expandable storage

    • Battery stamina for video playback slightly worse than expected

    SPECS

    PRICE:$598

    PROCESSOR: Kirin 980 (dual-core 2.6GHz, dual-core 1.92GHz, quad-core 1.8GHz)

    DISPLAY:6.26-inch, IPS LCD, 2,340 x 1,080 pixels, 412 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM:EMUI 9.1 (Android 9.0)

    MEMORY: 128GB, 8GB RAM

    REAR CAMERA:48MP (f/1.8), 16MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide, 2MP (f/2.4) macro, 2MP (f/2.4) depth sensor

    FRONT CAMERA: 32MP (f/2.0)

    BATTERY:Non-removable 3,750mAh battery

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4.5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4.5/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

By default, it takes photos at 12MP resolution using data from adjacent pixels (pixel-binning) to produce sharp photos with relatively little noise.

The quality of the photos takes a dip if you snap ultra-wide photos, as this mode switches to a less capable 16MP secondary camera that results in more noise in photos.

The Nova also has a 2MP camera for close-up macro shots, while a 2MP depth sensor ensures that portrait shots with blurred background (bokeh) look more natural.

Unlike its competitors, the Nova has a unique AI Ultra Clarity mode that merges multiple 48MP shots to create a very detailed (and large 16MB) photo. Because it is similar to a long-exposure shot, a steady hand is required. Moving objects can also mess up the photo, so it is probably best for shooting scenery.

A similar long-exposure shot to capture more light is used for the Nova's night photography mode. It is decent at brightening dark scenes and avoids overexposing highlights. But it is not as good as the night mode on Huawei's P30 Pro smartphone.

Given its mid-tier slant, the Nova predictably lacks features such as wireless charging and waterproofing. But I was surprised that it does not have a headphone jack unlike its competitors.

The Nova also lacks a microSD card slot, though it offers a decent 128GB of internal storage.

Clocking around 11.5 hours in the video-loop battery test, the Nova offers decent battery stamina, though I had expected longer. But on average, it lasted me an entire work day, with plenty to spare.

At $598, its main rivals appear to be Xiaomi's Mi 9 ($599 for 64GB) and Mi 9T ($499 for 128GB).

I prefer Huawei's EMUI interface over Xiaomi's MIUI. But the Oled screens on the Xiaomi phones are attractive.

All three phones are definitely contenders for those looking for more affordable alternatives to the usual flagship models.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2019, with the headline 'Nova 5T an affordable alternative to flagship models'. Print Edition | Subscribe