Huawei Nova 5T, hands on: An appealing mid-range smartphone

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The last Huawei handset I reviewed for ZDNet was the £899 P30 Pro, a stunning high-end quad-camera phone. But Huawei also plays in the middle of the smartphone market, which is where the Nova 5T sits. 

This is a tricky spot, because it pits Huawei squarely against its sister company Honor, whose heartland is the mid market. Huawei and Honor like to stress that they are separate entities, but with both companies sharing Kirin processors and running the EMUI Android overlay, similarities between the two are often in plain sight. 

You can compare Huawei's £399.99 (inc. VAT) Nova 5T directly with the similarly-priced Honor 20 Pro, while the £249.99 Honor 9X occupies the next rung down the price ladder. If you're concerned about Huawei's relationship with Google's Android OS, relax: the Nova 5T runs full Android 9.

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The 6.26-inch Nova T runs on the Kirin 980 chipset with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage (not expandable via MicroSD). It has a 3,750mAh battery and weighs 174g.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

This is a large 174g handset whose 6.26-inch, 2,340-by-1,080 pixel screen (412ppi) fills pretty much all of the phone's front. Although that keeps the size down, people with small hands, like me, will still find it difficult to reach across the screen. The glossy backplate -- black in my case, but also available in purple and blue -- is a bit on the slippery side, although I've handled worse.

The front camera sits in a punch-hole on the upper left of the screen. It's a good location, and I prefer it to the notch design as it detracts less from the display. Sitting above the screen, almost too small to notice, is a grille for the earpiece. This has a tiny notification and charge LED inside which is very effective. Despite the grille and the punch-hole, this handset feels close to having an all-screen front (the screen-to-body ratio is actually 84.4%).

The display is an IPS LCD panel rather than AMOLED, but it's still very bright, with video looking punchy and sharp, for example. 

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The single speaker on the bottom right of the chassis, next to the USB-C charge port, delivers plenty of volume and decent audio quality. The grille location means it's easily covered when you hold the phone in landscape mode. As is generally the case with single speakers in this location, one landscape orientation is preferable to the other -- and picking the right one soon becomes intuitive.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

There is a fingerprint sensor on the right side of the phone, embedded within the power button. This is usable for both left- and right-handed users, and is accessible for unlocking the handset when it's laid on a desk. Face unlock is also available, and the punch-hole camera has an advantage over pop-up front cameras because it's there when you need it. 

The handset accommodates two SIMs in a slot on the left side of the chassis. There's no MicroSD card slot, but you probably won't need external storage with 128GB installed internally (116GB free).

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The Nova T is 7.87mm (0.31 inches) thick and incorporates a fingerprint reader into the power button.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

EMUI and Huawei's propensity to embellish Android give a very different experience to other handsets -- there's a Themes app that's rather fun, for example, and plenty of settings tweaks. There are some preinstalled third-party apps you can get rid of if you don't want them. More irritatingly, there are duplicates for Android staples such as gallery, music and video players -- and even web browser, clock, email, calendar, contacts and app store. Many of these can't be removed, so the best you can do is check them out, dump those you don't want into a folder and forget about them. Still, it's confusing, particularly for newcomers. 

There are no fewer than five cameras, one at the front and four at the back. The 32MP punch-hole front camera shoots nice selfies. The four rear cameras, which sit on a protruding lozenge, comprise a 48MP sensor with an f/1.8 wide-angle lens, a 16MP sensor with an f/2.2 ultra-wide-angle lens, a 2MP sensor with an f/2.4 macro lens, and a 2MP f/2.4 depth-sensing camera. Huawei's AI takes a guess at what you're photographing and adjusts the camera settings accordingly. Photo quality is good, and the macro lens is fun.

TheNova 5T is powered by the Kirin 980 chipset with 6GB of RAM, which is a good specification for a handset at this price bracket. Geekbench 5 CPU performance was suitably impressive, with three-pass average scores of 2404 (multi core) and 678 (single core). For comparison, see the Geekbench Android Benchmark Chart. Considering the battery is a 3,750mAh unit rather than the more usual 4,000mAh, performance here was good too: the PC Mark rundown test reported 16 hours and 11 minutes.

Huawei's Nova 5T shows what can be achieved with a £399 handset, offering good battery life, a high-quality screen, solid build, plenty of storage, dual SIM support and a snappy processor. Photography fans will appreciate the dedicated macro lens too. However, there's plenty of competition at this price point, and not just from Huawei's Honor handsets: recent UK market entrant Xiaomi's excellent Mi 9T Pro is probably still the mid-range smartphone to beat.

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