Review, Smartphone

Huawei Nova 4 Review: Interesting Design, Uninspiring Hardware

The Huawei Nova 4 is the first device from the Chinese company to sport the new “Punch FullView” display. Chances are, this new design will be present on Huawei’s future smartphones – maybe even on its flagship lineup.

But beyond the hole-punch display, is the Nova 4 an attractive mid-range device? I’ve used it as my daily driver for a couple of weeks now, and while it’s a reasonably good phone, its steep price tag is hard to swallow for a mid-range smartphone.

Specifications

Display6.4-inch FHD+ LTPS (2310 x 1080)
ChipsetHuawei Kirin 970 2.36GHz octa-core
GPU
Mali-G72 MP12
RAM8GB
Storage128GB, non-expandable
Camera (rear)
20MP f/1.8 + 16MP f/2.2 wide-angle + 2MP f/2.4
Camera (front)25MP f/2.0
Battery
3,750mAh
Dimensions157 x 75.10 x 7.77 mm
Weight
172g
OSEMUI 9 based on Android 9 Pie
ConnectivityLTE
Bluetooth 4.2
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
USB Type-C

Not surprisingly, the Nova 4 has a lot in common with its predecessor, the Nova 3. It sports the same Kirin 970 chipset, 128GB of internal storage, similar glass and metal construction, and even a 3,750mAh battery.

Unfortunately, the Nova 4 loses support for expandable storage. Other features that set this phone apart from its predecessor include the Punch FullView display, as well as a new triple camera system. I’ll elaborate more on these in their respective sections.

Design

In this aspect, the Nova 4 is strikingly similar to the P20 Pro, right down to the lens arrangement of the triple camera system. If you opt for the Crush Blue model, you also get a gradient finish on the back of the phone.

Even though the Nova 4’s design isn’t all that different from the P20 Pro – and of course, the Nova 3 as well – I do like how it looks. It’s a sleek design language, and it gives the phone premium look and feel. That being said, the Nova 4’s glass back does feel quite slippery. I put on the silicone casing that came with the phone not long after I started using it.

Next, we have one of the Nova 4’s most unique features: the Punch FullView display. When I first started using the phone, it does feel quite jarring to have a circular cutout at the top left of the phone. However, it didn’t take me too long to get used to the hole-punch design, and it’s certainly not as distracting as a notch.

On top of that, if you really don’t like the cutout, you can “remove” it from the settings menu. Once enabled, the top of the display is darkened to effectively hide the hole-punch design.

For what it’s worth, I never had the urge to hide the display cutout. It just doesn’t feel all that intrusive to me, though it’s certainly nice to have the ability to remove it for those who don’t like it.

As a whole, the Nova 4 is an attractive-looking smartphone. The gradient finish is sleek – the review unit I got is the Black model, which will suit those who want a more conventional design – the hole-punch display is a good alternative to a notched screen, and the phone has solid build quality.

User Experience

In the software side of things, the Nova 4 runs on EMUI 9 based on Android 9 Pie. While EMUI is a functional version of Android, it doesn’t feel…particularly polished, and there are some oddities here and there.

For one, you still cannot interact with notifications on the lockscreen. If you want to see more information from any given notification, you’ll have to unlock the phone and pull down the notification shade. On top of that, there are quite a number of bloatware too, though they’re not too difficult to uninstall. Basically, software is still Huawei’s weakest point.

That’s not to say EMUI is not usable; there are some features that I genuinely appreciate. I love the fact that I can pull down the notification shade by simply swiping down on the rear fingerprint sensor, and as a whole, EMUI doesn’t have any glaring faults. It is, as mentioned, a functional version of Android.

Powered by a Kirin 970 chipset, the Nova 4 has a decent level of performance too. Obviously it’s not quite as fast as the newer Kirin 980 SoC, but for the average smartphone user, the Kirin 970 is more than enough to provide a pleasant user experience.

On top of that, it’s worth noting that the Nova 4 is a mid-range smartphone – it’ll be unrealistic to expect flagship-tier performance out of a phone in this segment.

Besides that, the Nova 4 has a reasonably good display. The phone’s 6.4-inch 2310 x 1080 LTPS panel has decent viewing angles, punchy colours, and good white balance. The 1080p resolution may not sound very impressive, but it’s good enough. Plus, this resolution will help a lot with the phone’s battery life, which is one of its strong suits.

On average, I was getting around six hours of screen on time out of the Nova 4’s pretty generous 3,750mAh battery. This is very good battery life, and getting through a typical workday with this phone is a breeze.

The charging rate of the Nova 4, on the other hand, isn’t quite as impressive. Within 30 minutes of charging, the phone only got up to 35% from 0%; quite an average charging rate.

Using the Nova 4 as my daily driver for the past couple of weeks have generally been a pleasant experience. While EMUI does have its quirks, the phone’s other features – especially its long battery life – more than make up for this.

Camera

Unfortunately, the Malaysian market will only receive one variant of the Nova 4: the one with the 20MP primary camera. Currently, there are no plans to bring in the higher-end model with a 48MP sensor to Malaysia, which is quite disappointing.

Nonetheless, the Nova 4’s camera performance is decent. The triple camera system (20MP f/1.8 + 16MP f/2.2 wide-angle + 2MP f/2.4) performs adequately in ideal lighting conditions, and I appreciate the flexibility the wide-angle shooter offers. That being said, the quality disparity between the 20MP primary camera and 16MP wide-angle sensor is definitely noticeable.

As for low light camera performance, the Nova 4 could do much better. It can still capture good-looking night shots, of course, but low light images do come out looking soft on certain occasions. Chances are, the lack of optical image stabilisation really hurts the Nova 4’s low light camera performance.

On top of that, the camera’s AI image enhancement is hit-and-miss. Even though the feature does improve image quality quite a bit in the right situation, it also has a tendency to oversaturate images. I eventually disabled the feature to get more consistent camera performance.

Overall, the Nova 4 has a decent camera system, but it’s by no means an amazing shooter – not at this price point. It’s a shame the higher-end model with a 48MP sensor isn’t launched here yet; I reckon that variant would have much better camera performance.

Competition

For a mid-range smartphone, the Nova 4 is priced quite high at RM1,899. At this price point, it has plenty of competition, and here are some of the most noteworthy ones.

Honor View 20

Sporting a similar hole-punch display as the Nova 4, the Honor View 20 is superior to Huawei’s offering in a number of key areas. For one, the View 20 has a faster Kirin 980 processor, giving it an edge in the performance department.

The View 20 also has a more sophisticated dual camera system with a 48MP primary shooter, which should translate to much better camera performance. When it comes to battery life, the View 20 packs a larger 4,000mAh cell too.

But the best part about the View 20? It doesn’t cost that much more than the Nova 4. The 128GB model with 6GB of RAM retails at only RM1,999, while the 256GB variant with 8GB of RAM goes for RM2,499.

So why would you consider the Nova 4? Only if you want the flexibility of its triple camera system, which comes with a wide-angle sensor. Aside from that, the Nova 4’s gradient finish on the Crush Blue model is unique to this phone – the View 20 has more conventional colourways.

Huawei P20

Another good alternative to the Nova 4 is the Huawei P20. Currently retailing from as low as RM2,099, this phone is a better device than the Nova 4 in a lot of ways. It’s a more premium phone, it has superior camera performance, and it has the same Kirin 970 chipset – all of these for only RM200 more.

That being said, the P20 does have a notched display, not to mention the fact that it only has 4GB of RAM instead of the Nova 4’s much more generous 8GB RAM. I’d argue you don’t need that much RAM anyway, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Pocophone F1

Any phone that costs more than the Pocophone F1 will be compared to it, especially if the phone in question isn’t a flagship device. In comparison to the Nova 4, the Pocophone F1 has comparable performance thanks to its Snapdragon 845 chipset, it has a larger 4,000mAh battery, and most importantly, the 128GB variant of the F1 retails at only RM1,399 now – that’s a rather huge price gap.

But design wise, the Nova 4 is without a doubt the sleeker-looking device. Not only is the phone’s hole-punch design aesthetically nicer than the Pocophone F1’s notched display, it has more premium look and feel too courtesy of its glass and metal construction. But are these worth the price premium over the Pocophone F1? That’s up to you to decide.

Conclusion

The Huawei Nova 4 is a relatively good mid-range smartphone, but its steep asking price and average camera performance make it a tough device to recommend. You can get a lot more bang for your buck by going with a more affordable device like the Pocophone F1, and in this price range, there are a lot of other flagship smartphones that are better than the Nova 4.

That being said, if you like the Nova 4 feature set – such as the flexible triple camera system and hole-punch display – it’s a phone worth considering. Otherwise, you’ll likely be much happier with the more capable Honor View 20 – especially if you find the hole-punch design attractive.