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Nova 3e: Huawei's new mid-end phone does the basics well

Chinese phone maker Huawei scored the breakthrough it badly needed in March when it unveiled the P20 Pro, lauded for its quality cameras and overall design. Now, Huawei’s released the Nova 3e, aka the “P20 Lite”, at a competitive price.

It delivered a high-end phone with impressive specifications for $1299, $300 less than the leading Android smartphone in its class, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ (the standard P20 sells for $1099). The phone seems to have been a sales success in its home market and in Europe, though it isn’t widely available in the all-important US market, where Samsung remains the Android brand of choice.

But in its quest to be a contender at the top of the market, Huawei hasn’t forgotten its roots as a low and mid-market phone maker. It has also delivered the Nova 3e, adapting as much of the P20 functionality as possible into a $499 phone.

In fact, the phone’s software describes the Nova as “P20 Lite”. That’s a pretty good description. The overall impression you get as the Nova boots to life is of a lighter phone (145 grams versus the P20 Pro’s 180), without the design finesse of its pricier sibling, but with a very similar look and feel.

The 5.8-inch display has that distinctive notch at the top introduced with the P20 and P20 Pro for a modern look and better use of screen real estate. The Android 8 Oreo operating system is virtually the same and the 1080p (high-definition) LCD touchscreen display isn’t the impressive OLED screen of the P20 Pro, but delivers clear text and vibrant colours and stands up well in daylight against the glare of the sun.

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Fruit snapped with the Nova e3 (left) versus the P20 Pro. Photo/Peter Griffin.

Camera trade-off

As you’d expect given the P20 Pro’s critically acclaimed triple-camera configuration, you don’t get the same set-up with the Nova given it costs less than half the price.

What you get is a 16-megapixel rear camera and a 2MP camera, which helps deliver the “bokeh” effect – that subtle blur in photos that gives them a more atmospheric and professional look.

This is a typical dual-camera set-up you would expect on a mid-range phone and for many people, it will suffice.

In properly lit settings, the Nova delivers decent results, though without the level of detail that the superior sensors and lenses in the P20 Pro achieve.

In low light situations, where you want to get naturalistic and stylish photos without the garish flash, there’s no comparison - the Nova is decidedly average compared to the P20 Pro which has the gift of allowing you to effortlessly achieve good results without tinkering with the pro settings.

The Nova e3 (left) versus the P20 Pro in low light, flash off setting. Photo/Peter Griffin.

The Nova does have a good range of camera settings and playing around with the aperture position can help you achieve fairly decent results. The front-facing camera is perfectly fine for selfie shots, delivering that sought after background blur as well, but often over-exposing the shot.

This is the main trade-off for those considering the price difference between the P20 Pro and the Nova – if you are into collecting Instagram-worthy photos as you live your life, you’ll likely want to head up market. The Nova will otherwise suffice. For a comparison of the differences in the cameras between the P20 and P20 Pro (price difference $200), check out this great summary.

High definition video shooting at 30 frames per second is possible with the Nova, which makes it comparable to similarly-priced rivals.

Middling price, middling specs

The Nova’s other hardware aims to deliver suitable performance to meet the needs of the regular smartphone user: web surfing, apps, video and audio playback. The 3000mAh battery is large enough to get you through a day with steady use – just.

Driving the phone is a Kirin 659 Octa-core (4x3.6 GHz 4x1.7 GHz Processor) that rates well against its Snapdragon rival. There’s 4GB (gigabytes) of memory and 64GB of onboard storage (expandable to 256GB with addition of a microSD card).

Security wise the Nova is well featured with a fingerprint reader positioned on the back and facial recognition using the front-facing camera that is quick to unlock the phone. Pleasingly, the Nova retains a 3.5mm headphone jack, something the P20 drops in favour of a USB-C, but adds a second speaker instead, offering true stereo sound, which is lacking in the Nova.

Bottom line

Here’s the question you need to ask yourself about the Nova – do you really want to have the convenience of having a great camera in your pocket? If so, you’ll want to look at paying $500 more, which is what you would pay for a reasonable stand-alone digital camera anyway.

If photography isn’t your thing and you aren’t a smartphone power-user actively using it for several hours a day, the Nova is a great option. Its main rivals are the Nokia 6.1, which comes with a stripped-back version of Android that I really like, and the Samsung J6. It compares very well to both, though has the edge on both on design, which Huawei has this year made huge strides with.

Huawei Nova 3e

Nice design and interface
Good performance
3.5mm audio port

Camera not great in low light settings
Average battery performance

Price: $499
Rating: 8/10