While Huawei's sub-brand Honor took an aggressive approach with phone launches in India in the last couple of years, the Huawei-brand wasn't quite involved in the market. While we never saw the mighty Mate-series here in India, we did see some P-series phones releasing in the country until Huawei P9 in 2016. Here we are not taking into account the Nova 2i as it was launched in India under its sub-brand, Honor 9i.
Skipping the year 2017, Huawei re-entered the Indian smartphone market with its innovative flagship smartphones - P20 Pro and its little sibling P20 Lite. The former ensured a warm comeback with its innovative tri-camera technology and stunning design. Followed by the flagship, Huawei later released the Nova 3 (the OnePlus 6 competitor) with the Nova 3i priced lower at Rs 20,990.
The Nova 3i and the P20 Lite are priced similarly, and they compete against some serious competition from Xiaomi in the form of Xiaomi's Mi A2, and it's own gaming-centric cousin Honor Play.
Out of the three, does the Nova 3i stand a chance over them to be the best phone in its range? Find out in the review.
Huawei Nova 3i price and availability
The first flash sale for the Huawei Nova 3i commenced on August 7. The Huawei Nova 3i’s Iris purple edition will be available via flash sale model on August 21, 2018. HDFC card members can avail an instant discount of 5% on their purchase and the smartphone is available at a no-cost EMI option of up to 9 months.
Design and build
Has an iPhone like Notch
Delicate yet appealing glass and metal design
Since it's a toned down version of the Nova 3, the design is more or less kept similar. It simply means that the Nova 3i has a design that's constant on a Rs 34,999 phone too. So, it has a fine-looking metal and glass sandwich design that sure looks much better than most of the competition.
Not to forget that design has always been amongst the top focus areas for Huawei, the recently launched Honor 9N is a good example of it. The Huawei Nova 3i walks a similar road.
From the back, the Nova 3i looks strikingly similar to the Huawei P20 Lite (especially the black variant). The P20 Lite has a relatively small chin, minimal side bezels, and a notch cut-out at the top of the display containing the front camera and earpiece. So, the dimensions and weight differ on both. The Nova 3i is slightly broader, a bit taller and has a certain amount of heft which adds to the sturdiness.
There are always three major downsides to smartphones with heavy usage of glass on the body - risk to use sans cover, the slippery nature of the glass and its affinity to attract fingerprints. Slapping a case on the phone does hurt the look and feel, but that's what we will recommend.
Well, it's not new, but Apple's continued influence on modern smartphone design can be easily spotted on the front of the Nova 3i. The footprint and shape are quite identical, and of course, there's the familiar notch stacked at the top edge of the immersive display.
Although the notch does not have the iPhone X-like high tech camera array under the notch, it's still quite broad because of the dual camera setup. Although the 82.03% of screen-to-body ratio seems almost bezel-less, that doesn't mean Huawei has used the extra space very smartly. There's a noticeable chin at the bottom, but it's also among the thinnest on phones of this range right now.
The fingerprint sensor sits on the back in a more regular position seen on most Android phones. It's quite easy to access with one hand.
The Huawei Nova 3i weighs in at 169g. With dimensions set at 157.6 x 75.2 x 7.6mm, it really is pocketable and can be used with one hand.
Face unlock and fingerprint sensor
The Face Unlock on the Nova 3i isn't as advanced and secure as the one on the iPhone X, but it sure is a better implementation than many other Face ID wannabes. It's quick and accurate, even when I tried it in minimal light or even pitch dark.
It does take a full second to unlock but that's when the phone is locked. Huawei went a step ahead and added raise to unlock feature that works impressively well. By turning it on, users just need to raise the phone in front of the face and boom! you're inside the phone.
However, in comparison, it's not as fast as the one on OnePlus 6 but it's equally accurate. I personally relied on the fingerprint unlock, which was more convenient and faster. But still, good work there by Huawei, but it's the animation that takes an extra count to open the home screen.
The Face unlock is turned off by default, so you need to surf around the security settings to set it up. It is surprisingly fast and takes no time to enroll your face, which further ensures that it isn’t truly obtaining a detailed 3D map of your face like Face ID.
But again, when it comes to daily use and better security, you might want to stick with the default fingerprint sensor. The sensor on this phone is super-quick and easy to reach.
Edge-to-edge 5.84-inch display
1080 x 2280 resolution
Without being too big for one-handed operation, the Huawei Nova 3i manages to cram in a 6.3-inch 2340x1080p IPS LCD display, credits to the whole edge-to-edge approach. The notch makes it an unusual or rather unorthodox 19:9 aspect ratio.
The huge display looks impressive from the moment it turns on. It makes for a perfect canvas when flicking through the home screen and native apps. However, except for some native apps, many apps remain unoptimized for this aspect ratio.
Still, the panel is capable and looks quite attractive with that design. It's sharp, accurate, but of course, it doesn't have a high contrast ratio and saturation of an AMOLED panel. An AMOLED panel also does a better job at hiding the notch with deep black bands on both sides of the notch. While in this case, the black isn't merging into the black notch that well.
The Nova 3i follows suit with most phones in its range having 1080 x 2280 screen, which not just makes it sharp, but also fairs well when used for multimedia.
3,340mAh battery will easily clear a day
Several battery saving modes
The Huawei Nova 3i packs a 3340mAh battery which can suffice most users with basic day to day tasks like phone calls, streaming content, music and scrolling through long social media pages periodically.
Of course, if you are a smartphone gamer and have a weakness for demanding titles like PUBG Mobile, the one-day battery claim doesn't apply. The GPU Turbo technology does optimize the battery life, but that's not enough to stretch the battery life to one day with 3-4 classic PUBG matches and given that you survive for at least 20 minutes.
The charging speed is a little disappointing on the Nova 3i. The Kirin 710 does not offer Huawei's 22.5W SuperCharge and instead, it has 10W charging via micro USB. It takes around 2 hours to charge from 0-100%, which is slow considering what competition has to offer. And with Qualcomm's Quick Charge, a lot of Android users are accustomed to fast charging.
If we look at the price, it's slightly pricier than the Mi A2 and Honor Play, but still lacks fast charging. Whereas, the other two offer support for fast charging and also have a USB Type-C port.
If you are less smartphone dependant throughout a day, even 80% of the battery can sail you through without needing a charger. So, the battery life is quite good, which would have been sweeter if it had fast charge support.
16MP + 2MP camera enables bokeh-adjusting wide aperture mode
AR lens lets you apply facial effects
The Huawei Nova 3i has a 16MP f/2.2 primary sensor with phase detection auto-focus (PDAF) and is coupled with a secondary 2MP monochrome sensor. The camera UI is a fully loaded app that offers way too many modes and settings for a minimalist. But the good part is that Huawei has baked it very neatly for a clutter-free experience. Only till you don't start exploring it.
You can scroll through the modes by swiping left or right. There's a lot to discover in the app, and a lot to play with too. Huawei has also leveraged the AR capabilities, which is again inspired by a more expensive counterpart. Nonetheless, modes like Qmoji and 3D Objects are sometimes fun to play with, especially if you are into creatives and art.
Furthermore, there are features like portrait mode, pro mode, moving picture, panorama, light painting, 3D panorama, time-lapse, and the list goes on. But the highlight is its Pro mode for video, a rare feature on smartphones.
Huawei has used AI algorithms that are said to be "driven by learning over 100 million images", which helps it recognizes 22 categories of 500+ scenes and provides optimized shooting result. Now that's still arguable if you want to have AI making your shots better or not. For that, it has an option to turn off the tweaking done by the AI.
In a nutshell, the camera interface does offer fun features to play with, but I feel it's a bit overdone at places. For example, if the AI is detecting the scene, then why is the Night mode still there. Also, the half-baked 'Background' and 'Effect' modes are just visually unimpressive. The 'Background' feature sometimes chops-off your ears and at times it just doesn't register your hair.
Let's take a look at the most crucial part- the camera performance and image quality. The camera setup looks very identical to the one on P20 Lite, at least on paper. Still, the day-light images confirm that the camera is quite close to the Nova 3's quality as well.
The Nova 3i manages to reproduce rich and vibrant colors and the right amount of sharpness in well-lit conditions. We tried clicking distant shots and close-ups, the camera did really well in registering the good amount of detail and the algorithms do play a huge role in fine-tuning the pictures. For the most part, the AI support did remove the extra amount of noise in dark conditions and also enhances the sharpness and colors in the process.
The edge detection on the portrait mode is a hit or a miss in low-light, but in comparison to the Mi A2's camera for portrait, the Nova 3i did produce better results in most cases. The Mi A2 does click more natural looking shots, but the pictures aren't sharp and it doesn't handle exposure that efficiently. Whereas the software on the Nova 3i tweaks the image in a fraction of seconds for a better result. For indoor portraits, the Mi A2 again takes the lead.
On the front, the phone packs a 24MP primary sensor with f/2.0 aperture and a 2MP secondary sensor for depth sensing. It's a decent selfie shooter if you like aesthetically pleasing pictures. Enabling the AI camera makes you fair, fixes blemishes and does slight smoothening without hurting the details. So your selfie doesn't look like a plastic face, instead, it just touches up. Still, if you want some extra touch-up you can always turn on the beauty filter.
In low-light, the front camera just fails to click clear selfies. If you're shooting in dark, always turn on the screen flash for a decent picture.
Overall, the quad camera setup on the Nova 3i manages to click some social media worthy picture right from the boot. It is a really capable camera, that rarely lags behind because of its key contributor- the aggressive software.
Rear camera samples
Front camera samples
Interface and reliability
EMUI 8.2.0 built on Android 8.1
Not pretty but fast and functional
Usual Huawei bloatware
The Huawei Nova 3i runs on Android 8.1 Oreo, which isn’t the very latest version of Google’s OS, but it's the latest major release. Note that the exact version of Android doesn't majorly matter as it comes with EMUI 8.2.0 skin on top.
In all honesty, the EMUI has improved a lot over the years. Although it's not the best custom skin, it still reasonable fluid and stutter-free on the Nova 3i. It is easy to operate, and despite a different icon pack and other tweaks, it still sticks to the principles laid by Google.
There's a classic Android app drawer put at rest in the settings. So if you prefer an app drawer like me, the first thing to do is to enable it from the settings menu. Luckily, you have an option here.
The EMUI is heavily built skin, which comes with its own advantages and flaws. It packs a lot of neat tricks hiding inside the phone, so if you buy it, you will end up spending a lot of time discovering all its features. My favorites are pick up to reduce the ringing volume or wake your phone, raise to ear to make calls, smart screen resolution, private space and app cloning.
There are some really handy additions like- drag down from the middle of the screen to open universal search to look for apps, contacts, messages and other files on the phones.
What I never liked is the bunch of apps and games that Huawei bundles in the UI. There are more than 10 apps on the phone out of the box, which you eventually will end up uninstalling. Sadly though, you cannot remove Huawei's own suite of apps like Video, Music, Health, Calendar, and a dozen or so Tools, which double as inferior duplicates of Google apps.
Another downside is its bumbling interface in comparison to stock Android or iOS. Remember what I said about the 'Background' and 'Effects' in the camera app, the same applies to the icon pack and themes as well. They are just a level or two below classy for a phone that looks so stunning.
At last, if we keep the looks aside for a moment, the battery management and optimisation on the launcher does steal some green points. It's a fluid launcher that does not compliment the physical design equally well in terms with its aesthetics.
Movies, music and gaming
Headphone jack and one underwhelming speaker
GPU Turbo disappoints
Starting with the multimedia, this phone can be a perfect pocket entertainment alternative. it has a huge 6.3-inch full HD display, which is perfect for watching content on the go. The videos can be viewed on 18:9 aspect ratio, and since it has a headphone jack, it makes a perfect companion to watch shows on the go. Nothing to complain here.
The loudspeaker on the phone is quite underwhelming. Be it music or gaming, it just fails to provide rich output from the speaker. Keeping a pair of headphones is a wiser idea to have the best audio experience on this phone.
There are many that don't play games on their phone, many who play lightweight time-killing games during the commute, but very recently a new breed is on a rise and those are called smartphone gamers. The term came in on a large scale with the arrival of the very popular battle royale game PUBG. The game is a real-time simulation of a shoot to survive kind of format and demands extraordinary processing power for a seamless experience.
I am a level 50+ player on PUBG mobile, which also means I have played more than 500 games already on more than 15 devices. I have played it on a few mid-range phones like Nokia 7 Plus, Redmi Note 5 Pro, Mi A2 and most recently on the Huawei Nova 3i. The first thing I realized was that the GPU Turbo technology has failed to show any magic on the Nova 3i.
The game felt stuttery, it got warm and the battery drains at the usual pace. Contrarily, the Mi A2 handles much better. In fact, the Redmi Note 5 Pro has a smoother gameplay than the Nova 3i.
So if you're looking at hardcore gaming on this device, you're at the wrong place. Go either for the Honor Play or the Mi A2.
First phone with Kirin 710
4GB RAM and 128GB of storage
Our Nova 3i ran quite adequately during our 15 days of usage. The Kirin 710 does handle the routine tasks quite well. It's perfectly capable of running Huawei's bloated UI with Android 8.1.
It has a 4GB RAM, which comes into play for smooth operations. The camera boots up fast, switches between the apps smoothly and does not show any sign of stutter in the interface.
But as I mentioned in the gaming section, that the performance is underwhelming for high-end games, which shouldn't be the case for a phone of this range. Competition promises much better gaming performance without needing any external push like GPU Turbo technology.
If you prefer core performance and a better software experience, you would rather consider the Mi A2 or the Honor Play.
The Nova 3i does everything right, but small elements like the missing fast charging, poor loudspeaker or even having a micro USB port does cannot be ignored and it affects the overall value of the phone. I was quite excited to experience what wonders will GPU Turbo do to the gaming performance, but things didn't go the way I expected. I couldn't see it action and in fact, the competition did show better results without boasting on any gimmicky technology.
If you look at the existing options between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, there are multiple value for money options, but which one is for you depends on your priorities. For instance, if you need a perfect balance of premium design, capable cameras and a satisfactory display for content consumption, the Nova 3i stands a strong chance. But as we said, if performance matters to you, or you need a cleaner user experience, the Mi A2 is a way better choice.