Huawei Nova 2i Review: The Verdict
The Nova 2i is a smartphone that pushes the envelope forward on what you should expect from an "affordable" device. The screen wouldn't look out of place on a phone twice its price, and neither would the build quality. Camera quality can be inconsistent, but for the money, the Nova 2i is a top handset.
What we love
- Great display
- Excellent value
- 64GB of expandable storage
What could be improved
- No water-resistance or NFC
- Cameras can be inconsistent
- EMUI has its quirks
What's the Huawei Nova 2i?
One of 2017's major smartphone trends has been the move to 18:9 extra-tall displays that take up most of a device's body. While Samsung and LG were the trailblazers with their 2017 flagships, the rest of the industry has followed suit. Huawei is no exception, but it’s brought these newfangled screens to a surprisingly low price point with the Nova 2i: $499.
Key specifications for the Nova 2i include a 5.9-inch display running at 2160x1080, a Huawei-made Kirin 659 eight-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of expandable storage, a rear-facing fingerprint reader, and a 3340mAh battery. It runs EMUI 5.1 based on Android Nougat.
The Nova 2i is also known as the Huawei Mate 10 Lite in some markets. Other than a slightly different name, the two are essentially identical (with the exception of minor regional differences such as antenna band configurations).
What's good about the Huawei Nova 2i?
The Nova 2i is - physically and aesthetically - an impressive package; Huawei has managed to squeeze a 5.9-inch display into a body that's almost identical in size to 5.5-inch devices like the OnePlus 5 and OPPO R11, and a touch smaller than iPhone 8 Plus.
For a $499, it's a little nuts. The display itself isn't quite edge-to-edge - there's still a noticeable frame on the left and right of the phone, which is something Huawei has managed to reduce almost entirely on the Mate 10 - but this is also the case with pricier devices.
While the Nova 2i's screen runs at 1080p+ rather than Quad HD+ as found in the majority of other extra tall phones, it doesn't really make much of a difference unless you're shoving the device right up against your eyeballs. It's still a high quality screen that's bright, works alright in sun for the most part, and has great viewing angles; it ticks all of the boxes you'd expect.
As novel as 18:9 displays are, they aren't without their challenges. Since they're still quite new, not all apps are optimised for them. This means you'll end up with a black bar between the Nova 2i's software buttons and your unoptimised app. This bar gives you the option to run the app in "full screen" mode, but this mode can obscure parts of an app's interface. Frustratingly, the button asking you whether you want to run an app in full screen never disappears, and looks especially awkward in landscape.
App compatibility issues aside - which will almost certainly be worked out in time, given the entire industry's pivot - the extra tall display does make reaching to the top of your phone a little bit awkward, especially if you're trying to get things done with one hand. This also affects the reachability of Nova 2i's volume rocker, but that's more of a minor quarrel. To be honest, we wouldn't have cared if Huawei made the Nova 2i a 16:9 phone with minimal bezel.
There's more to the Nova 2i than its futuristic display - the overall build has a very polished feel to it. Aluminum might be considered the bare minimum for a phone these days, but the Nova 2i still impresses thanks to a slender yet solid frame with a seamless join between glass and its body. A microUSB port is the only feature that lets you know the Nova 2i isn't a pricier phone.
The Nova 2i is fast and smooth for the most part, especially when it comes to day to day tasks. It can get a little sluggish with games, but it's far from unusable, even when it comes to the more demanding apps. In terms of battery, you'll easily get a full day of usage with a comfortable buffer, but two is probably out of the question. We typically found we had around 35% left at the end of the day.
64GB of storage at $499 is a nice bonus too.
What's not so good about the Huawei Nova 2i?
Quality tends to be more important than quantity, and the Nova 2i proves this with its cameras. While the phone has four - two on the front, two on the back - they're easily its biggest shortcoming. Both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras have been paired with a secondary lens that's solely used to capture extra information to simulate depth of field - there's no option to use them individually as on the latest iPhones.
The depth effect - essentially blurring the background behind your subject - works best when it comes to portraits, results tend to be very inconsistent when dealing with other objects. Extremities such as ears can get a little lost, but the effect is reasonably convincing provided you don't dial it up too high (or look too close). You can however adjust the amount of blur after you've taken a photo, which can help get it just right.
While the Nova 2i can take good photos in a lot of conditions, it struggles in lowlight and sharp daylight. While hit-and-miss lowlight performance (and the motion blur that entails) is the norm in this price range, struggling with bright sunlight isn't. We found that the Nova 2i could overexpose photos taken on sunny days, potentially leading to blowout and reduced contrast. This won't necessarily ruin an image in the way poor lowlight performance will, but it's nonetheless worth mentioning.
Huawei is known for being quite liberal when it comes to customising Android, and its take on Google's operating system - EMUI - won't be to everyone's liking. EMUI has certainly gotten better over the years, but you can still find yourself going up against a couple of quirks.
The most egregious has been a reoccurring notification about "essential" apps you should install, which is tantamount to an ad. Once is fine, but it's not great when it pops up multiple times in a day.
I'm not the biggest fan of the Huawei's default iconography; the gradient heavy icons contrast heavily with Android's flatter aesthetic. Some of the pre-installed themes let you tone this down, and you can always replace the Huawei launcher with the Google Now launcher, the Google Pixel launcher (which you'll need to get through an APK mirror), or another third party solution. I went as far as replacing any app with an "ugly" icon with something else. Yes, I know I sound like a wanker, and I'm guessing you're probably not going to be as bothered by any of this as much as I am.
Android purists won't dig EMUI, but Huawei's gotten much better at not letting software modifications get in the way of the user experience for the most part.
The $499 price tag means the Nova 2i makes a couple of omissions; the most notable missing features are NFC and water-resistance. Water-resistance is still far from common when it comes to midrange devices, but the lack of NFC means you can can't use the Nova 2i for services like Android Pay.
Huawei Nova 2i camera samples
Who's the Huawei Nova 2i for?
If you're after a $499 phone that looks a $1,000 phone, the Nova 2i is for you. Slim bezels, an 18:9 display, and a seamless unibody mean Huawei's latest midrange smartphone feels more like a flagship. You'll make some compromises on camera quality, but the Huawei Nova 2i offers the best look and feel of any budget smartphone around.
What else can I buy?
Moto G5S Plus
The Moto G5S Plus is a bit cheaper than the Nova 2i, and a touch faster too thanks to the cleaner take on Android. It is however less aesthetically impressive due to a traditional 16:9 display and a healthy amount of bezel.
The LG Q6 is one of the other "affordable" phones to make the jump to 18:9 displays, and is a little bit cheaper than the Nova 2i, retailing for $399. While you might save $100, you get a slightly less powerful processor under the hood, and a plastic back rather than aluminum.
The iPhone SE is the cheapest way to buy a new iPhone, and it now starts at $549. That's $50 more than the Nova 2i - and it's a much smaller phone - but if you'd prefer an Apple flavoured device at a more affordable price point, the iPhone SE is the way to go.