Huawei Nova 3i review: All Sell, No Soul

Is Huawei's latest budget phone a bargain?

Huawei Nova 3i
  • Huawei Nova 3i
  • Huawei Nova 3i
  • Expert Rating

    3.50 / 5


  • Premium feel
  • Ticks all the right boxes


  • Camera
  • Inconsistent software

Bottom Line

The Nova 3i has all the right specs but fails to bring them cohesively together to forge an identity of its own.

Would you buy this?

  • Price

    $ 599.00 (AUD)
  • Best Deals (Selling at 1 store)

Camera - How does the Huawei Nova 3i compare to the competition?

After spending a while messing with them, it’s easy to concede that the matching set of dual-lens cameras on the Nova 3i are impressive, so long as you’re considering the price-point in the equation. The Nova 3i pairs up a 2-megapixel bokeh-lens with each of the primary lenses on either side, producing accomplished results. At least, by the standards of the mid-tier smartphone space. For more on why it's usually better to have more camera lenses than less, click here.

As you’d expect from the spec-sheet, landscape shots and daylight environments turn out quite well when we captured through the Nova 3i’s AI-enhanced camera setup.

Huawei Nova 3i image sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Huawei Nova 3i image sample

Minus anything like the P20’s powerful Night Mode or Google's HDR+ enhanced Pixel photography, you’re pretty much getting the whole AI-enhanced photography experiences here. Point the camera at a flower, and the Nova 3i will identify said plant and optimize accordingly. Pointing it at the sky, food, cat or dog will product similarly synthetic results. The Huawei Nova 3i can distinguish between 22 categories and 500+ different scenes, and optimize accordingly.

Huawei Nova 3i image sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Huawei Nova 3i image sample

It’s worth noting here that the Nova 3i does feature a night mode, but the improvements it yields in low-light environments fall far short of the precedent set by the P20 Pro. In this sense, the Nova 3i is but a shadow of its biggest inspirations. 

Huawei Nova 3i image sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Huawei Nova 3i image sample

The Nova 3i also supports super slow motion video at 480-frames-per-second and an Animoji / AR Emoji equivalent called QMoji. These are nice inclusions. However, beyond bringing Huawei’s offering into line with rivals, they don’t leave much a lasting impression of their own and there's little to get attached to about what's on offer here.

Huawei Nova 3i image sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Huawei Nova 3i image sample

Performance - Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life

When it came to performance, we mostly came away happy from our time with the Huawei Nova 3i. Apps loaded fast, or at least enough. Multi-tasking was generally okay as well, but the speed of the device suffer under load.

Like all Huawei devices, the software experience here is powered by Android by the way of Huawei’s own EMUI skin. Though technically proficient in all the ways you’d expect it to be, there’s a lack of polish and cohesion here. This latest version of EMUI gets the job done - but it doesn’t look good while it does so in the same, wholistic way that ColorOS or Samsung’s TouchWiz skin does.

Huawei Nova 3iCredit: Huawei
Huawei Nova 3i

Finally, when it comes to benchmarks, there’s an elephant in the room we have to touch on. Over the course of writing this review, Huawei have found themselves in hot-water over a hidden performance mode that boosted benchmark scores in several of its 2018 smartphones.

In September 2018, it was revealed by AnAndTech that several Huawei smartphones - the Huawei P20, Huawei P20 Pro, Huawei Nova and Huawei Honor Play - had been pre-programmed in such a way that their results when running 3DMark would be inflated.

During the benchmarking process, these devices would enable a hidden ‘performance mode’ that boosted the power and battery usage of the device - a practice that is forbidden by UL’s benchmark rules & guidelines. As a result, the above devices have all been delisted from UL Benchmarks’ rankings.

More information about this development, including Huawei’s response to it, can be found here.

This makes it difficult to properly assess the Nova 3i using our regular benchmarks. We can, and did, run it through 3DMark. However, with the above practice known and documented, it’s hard to weigh the results too heavily or take them with anything less than a grain of salt.

Huawei Nova 3i benchmark scoresCredit: Fergus Halliday
Huawei Nova 3i benchmark scores

As for battery life, we’d easily make it through the usual 9-5 work day and often well into the evening as well.

We’d still have to charge our device back to full overnight - but if we accidentally forgot to do, we’d usually still have a little bit to go on until we found a power source. We’re talking eleven or twelve hours of average (but not continuous) use here, though - as always - your mileage may vary. Particularly if you tend to watch or film a lot of video content.

Regretfully and as mentioned before, the Huawei Nova 3i does not support wireless or fast charging.

The Bottom Line

Again, as I weigh up the various pros and cons of the Huawei Nova 3i, it feels like the biggest competition for the this device is the Nova 3e.

Both devices could arguably vie for the moniker of ‘budget P20’. And, whether or not the $200 difference in price is going to be worth it is going to come down to your priorities. If you want the slightly-better camera, shell out. If you’re happy to settle, save yourself a few hundred dollars and stick with the Nova 3e.

Try as Huawei might, the Nova 3i ends up being a device that can never truly outrun its destiny as the middle-child of Huawei’s 2018 lineup. It’s better than the Nova 3e, worse than the P20 and while its a perfectly usable option - there’s nothing to latch onto. No story being told. No easy edge you can point to as a reason to opt for it over the alternatives. No reason to pick this phone beyond the numbers on the page.

The Nova 3i has all the right specs but fails to bring them cohesively together to forge an identity of its own. It feels like Huawei are hedging their bets on value here, and the results can’t help but ring out a little hollow. Value-based propositions can thrill in the moment but they rarely last.

The Huawei Nova 3i is a decently-specced mid-tier smartphone but when that's all there really is to say about it, there's little doubt that any achievements here will quickly be eclipsed and forgotten. What you're left with might offer some value to budget buyers looking to stretch their dollars a little further by capitalising on depreciation but otherwise feels like a footnote compared to the 'golden age' represented by Huawei's 2018 smartphone roster.

Huawei Nova 3iCredit: Huawei
Huawei Nova 3i

You can find the Huawei Nova 3i on Amazon here.

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