Smartphone flagship spin-off models typically fall into one of two categories: Phones that stand up on their own merits, or phones so decimated by cost-cutting compromises any resemblance to their bigger, pricier siblings disappears. Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact and Apple’s iPhone 5C are shining examples of the former, retaining and even improving upon their higher-end counterparts’ hardware.
Other phones, some of Samsung’s Galaxy Mini devices for example, miss the mark. The P8 Lite, Chinese smartphone maker Huawei’s budget companion to the P8, isn’t quite one of those, but it straddles the line, coming up short in the crucial areas of performance and hardware.
Not that the P8 Lite is a bad phone. If it wasn’t up against a few well-executed competitors that accentuate its flaws, it might even be considered a great one. Except in a crowded mid-range market where “great” is now baseline, an attractive design, strong cameras, and good battery life just aren’t enough any more.
Does the P8 Lite bring anything else to the table? Let’s find out.
Substantial, durable, and comfortable to hold
The P8 Lite’s hardware is a definite plus. It trades the aluminum and glass of the higher-tier P8 for a plastic shell with faux-metal accents, but the imitation is surprisingly convincing. On the front, a solid white cutout on the top and and bottom sandwich a screen with a substantial black bezel. Up top is an earpiece, a front-facing camera, and a proximity sensor; down below is an unassuming Huawei logo.
Around the P8’s side is a silvery band that frames a microphone (one of two) and single external speaker. The bottom houses a microUSB port, the top a 3.5mm jack and the second, noise-canceling mic. The power button and the volume rocker, both of which are solid and responsive, occupy the right side and protrude ever-so-slightly. It’s a great configuration, one easy to finagle with one hand.
The P8 Lite’s hardware is a definite plus.
On the P8’s reverse is a two-texture, subtly grippy back. A smooth strip of plastic houses the camera sensor and flash unit, and beneath it sits a brushed white, silvery, almost glittering non-removable backplate emblazoned with Huawei’s signature peacock logo. It’s tastefully austere.
Importantly, the P8 Lite feels good. It’s light (4.76 ounces) and slim (7.7mm), but substantive, and rests naturally in the palm thanks to angled edges above and beneath the silver metal siding. By all appearances, it’s also durable. No part of it gave way even after flexing every which direction in a pocket for two weeks, and the seams around the edges are as tightly bound as the day it arrived.
Screen doesn’t impress, but the camera does
The P8 Lite’s screen, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as flattering as its exterior. It’s 720p, a low resolution that’s becoming anomalous even in the realm of budget handsets, and plagued by poor contrast and color calibration. Compared to the slightly more expensive Alcatel Idol 3, images look blurry, dim, and biased toward the warmer end of the color spectrum. It may be our bias talking, but in a market where 6-inch displays are practically ubiquitous at every price point, the P8 Lite’s display feels a bit cramped.
The P8 Lite’s other hardware is thankfully better. The mono speaker reaches a volume more than loud enough to hear speakerphone conversations from across the room, through it’s occasionally prone to clipping. The microphone, meanwhile, captures surprisingly clear audio in recording apps and during phone calls.
Continuing with the positives, the 13-megapixel camera captures clear, in-focus, and often attractive pictures, a surprise at the P8 Lite’s sticker price. Sensor quality is often among the first compromises on a mid-range phone, but the P8 Lite’s shooter focuses quickly and captures sharp, if ever-so-slightly washed out, photos in bright light. It struggles to resolve detail in dimmer environments, but still often holds its own — in one test, it produced better photos than the considerably more expensive Nexus 6.
Video recording doesn’t quite match up. Footage stutters during playback, and even at the maximum resolution of 1080p often comes out blurry, grainy, and incredibly noisy. The stark contrast between the P8 Lite’s photo and video quality may point to a software issue, but no amount of tweaking within the default app improved recording quality.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot you can tweak. The default camera app packs an equitable mix of simple and advanced toggles. There’s a panorama and HDR mode, plus a “Beauty” slider for selfie takers that softens skin tones and pumps up bloom, plus an Instagram-like selection of filters. Audio Note adds to 10 seconds of recorded sound with a photo, and Best Photo lets you choose the best frame from a quick-fire burst mode-style selection. Dig down in the settings and you’ll find smile detection, object focus tracking, and the usual array of camera toggles: geotagging, a countdown timer, and manual adjustments for ISO and white balance.
Sometimes sluggish performance
The P8 Lite’s performance is best described as middling. Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor with 2GB of RAM ensures the phone handles light tasks with ease, but open anything more computationally intensive than a Google Doc and the P8 Lite perceptibly struggles. With a handful of apps running in the background, switching between them feels sluggish.
The P8 Lite’s 2,200mAh is a tad smaller than the cell found in some of the competition’s hardware, but its low-resolution screen and single-band Wi-Fi chip helps keeps power draw to a minimum. In our tests, the P8 Lite, used sparingly, easily lasted a full work day — around 12 hours. But heavier usage drops battery precipitously — streaming a two-hour movie drained the P8 Lite from fully charged to 48-percent.
The Huawei P8 Lite runs the third iteration of Huawei’s EMUI Android skin, and the customizations are holistic. Gone is the customary app drawer, replaced by a home screen with adjustable grid sizes and animated transitions. The app shortcut icons sport drop shadows and rounded corners, while the pulldown notification shade has been retooled as a sort of timeline, ordering notifications chronologically rather than by priority.
Most of the changes are improvements upon Android’s default behavior. The multitasking menu shows a fullscreen preview of suspended apps, and lets you kill all processes running in the background with a swipe gesture. A theme selector lets you change the system wallpaper, iconography, font, app icons, and widgets, and a Simple mode reduces the home screen to a few large app icons and toggles. Three selectable power modes, Ultra, Smart, and Normal, turn down CPU and network usage to help prolong battery.
The 13-megapixel camera is quite good, a surprise at the P8 Lite’s sticker price.
Huawei’s also packed a few unique features into the settings menu. There’s a one-hand mode for phone dialing that nudges numbers within easy reach; a persistent, floating button under the left-handed bezel that provides quick access to the home screen and multitasking menu; a lock mode to prevent accidental touches in your pocket or bag; and a mode optimized for gloved fingers. Motion controls let you flip the P8 Lite to mute a call, or pick it up to reduce ring and alarm volume. Lastly there’s the inexplicable Shake setting, which rearranges your home screen icons every time you shake your phone.
In a shocking change to the norm, Huawei’s selection of preloaded apps is rather thoughtful. There’s an FM radio tuner and simple audio recorder. Magnifier applies a digital zoom to video from the P8 Lite’s rear-facing camera. Mirror accumulates “steam” when you blow against the microphone. There’s a basic file browser, photo gallery, and music and video browser, and a productivity suite – a calendar app, mail client, and notetaking app. They can all be uninstalled if you hate them too.
Perhaps the best that can said be said about Huawei’s software is that it never felt like an encumbrance. In a market where the opposite is so often the case, that’s worth recognizing.
Good, but not quite good enough
The P8 Lite has a good camera. It’s attractive. A few of its software features are legitimately novel, and its battery life is no worse than middle-of-the-pack. But in the budget market that the P8 Lite occupies, middle-of-the-pack no longer cuts it.
Its display doesn’t measure up to the similarly priced competition like Alcatel’s Idol 3. The P8 Lite’s performance is average at best, and it takes disappointingly poor video. Those might sound like minor niggles, but they’re cardinal sins in a price bracket where bang for your buck is everything.
We called the P8 Lite’s namesake, the P8, an “accomplished” and “confident” phone that is “worthy of your attention.” Perhaps at a lower price point, the same could be said of its smaller sibling. But as things stand, the P8 Lite just doesn’t measure up.
- Good camera
- Useful software additions
- Poor display
- Middling performance