With plenty of great smartphones to choose from in the R5,000 range (including devices from Hisense and Huawei’s own subsidiary, Honor) how does the latest P Smart from Huawei hold up? These days your phone can go from looking ‘current’ to ‘old’ in about six months. In recent times we’ve seen 18:9 aspect-ratio screens boot 16:9 phones to the curb, and notches are the new normal… or they were, until 2019’s phone started showing up with hole-punch displays, making even notched ones look last-gen.
On paper, the Huawei P Smart 2019 is only be a minor tweak of the 2018 P Smart, but as it adds a notch and a new design style, it nonetheless manages to make the older version seem dated without any actually groundbreaking changes. That’s not a bad thing, as with most Honor handsets (and Huawei Lite ones, for that matter) the P Smart 2019 is a great mid-price buy. It’s attractive, handles well under pressure and is packed with smart software.
That said, so are many competition handsets. So if the P Smart’s price range is what you’re aiming for, you might want to consider the equally excellent Honor 8x (full review coming soon). But that’s enough about rivals, let’s take a closer look at 2019’s P Smart.
Design: Pretty Plastic
The Huawei P Smart 2019 is a better-looking phone than the 2018 version. It looks like a cousin of the OnePlus 6T: smoothly curved back, style, and a teardrop notch.
However, you could argue this is actually a downgrade from the last P Smart in terms of build quality. Huawei is one of the masters of making cheap phones that feel pricey, but the P Smart’s rear is plastic rather than glass (or something that feels like glass). We should have known: you can’t really expect a curved glass back for this sort of money.
If you like to put a case on your phone, it doesn’t matter. Leave it bare, though, and the P Smart feels like its price suggests it should. Sure enough after a week or so of life in a pocket without a case, the plastic has taken on a smattering of tiny nicks, visible when they catch the light.
It’s no disaster, and this phone still leaves an altogether classier impression than the old P Smart. But it’s technically outclassed by the Moto G6 and Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite. They have real glass backs. Huawei’s in luck, though: If you want the Moto or the Xiaomi you’re going to have to import them.
Other hardware decisions Huawei’s made with the P Smart are a mix of hits and misses. On the one hand it has a microUSB charging socket (rather than Type-C). Boo. But it also has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Yay. The internal speaker isn’t great, and sound gets scruffy pretty fast. That gets a boo and a hiss. But the finger scanner on the back is fairly quick and reliable. That’s worth a whoop (or two). You get 64GB of storage too, which is now bang on what we expect at the price from a high-value brand like Huawei.
Screen: A teardrop in the smartphone ocean
The Huawei P Smart 2019 also shows that, from a distance at least, it’s hard to tell a R5,000-odd phone from a R10,000-odd one. It has a teardrop notch and fairly slim screen surrounds complete with Apple iPhone XR-style rounded LCD corners. Fancy.
A teardrop design like this tells you there aren’t too many techy sensors above the screen: no IR cameras or proximity sensors. There’s no room for these things. There’s just a camera. It doesn’t make much difference unless you’re an armchair tech critic, though. The Huawei P Smart still has a face unlock mode, and it works very quickly in most lighting conditions.
Then there’s the killer display. It’s the sort that might have you wondering why you’d pay more for a fancier phone. It’s 6.21in diagonally, with an ultra-long 19.5:9 aspect, and the resolution of 2340×1080 pixels makes it even sharper than an iPhone XR (which costs three times as much).
There’s enough brightness on tap for bright days, and some control over the screen style. ‘Normal’ mode is there for the purists, ‘vivid’ for those out for as much colour as they can get. The latter is far cooler, or bluer, looking than the natural mode even after you tweak the colour temperature. But there’s a good amount of scope for making this screen look like you want it to.
For all the notch haters out there, yes, you can block off the Huawei P Smart’s teardrop one with a black bar. But that teardrop is an important part of the phone’s design personality, wethinks.
Software and performance: Middle ground
Like almost every Honor and Huawei phone, the P Smart runs EMUI, Huawei’s custom Android skin. There’s nothing particularly wrong with EMUI, particularly if you take a trip to the menu system to bring back the apps drawer. It’s pretty snappy, there’s more customisation than in vanilla Android, and themes let you personalise things pretty easily. Granted, rummaging through the theme store is a little like rifling through a particularly dilapidated Pep Store, but there are a few gems in there if you dig deep enough. Also, if you want to gripe about Android overlays get a Nokia and be done with it.
The P Smart packs a Kirin 710 processor, the same used in the Honor 8x and Mate 20 Lite. And this places it squarely in the middle of the pack of the best phones for its price. It scores 5,368 in Geekbench 4, sailing serenely past the now-aging Moto G6 Plus. That phone scores around 4,000.
With a CPU more powerful than the Moto One’s or Nokia 7.1’s, the P Smart still lags a bit (on paper at least) behind the Honor Play and Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite. And, unexpectedly, there is a noticeable difference in use between the P Smart and Honor 8x, even though they use the same CPU. We suspect that might be the 8x’s extra 1GB of RAM talking (it’s got 4GB while the P Smart has to make do with 3GB). There’s also the odd pause before the keyboard appears on-screen, a performance niggle that really shouldn’t happen in a phone this powerful.
Camera: Software savvy
The Huawei P Smart has a 13MP rear camera alongside a 2MP one on the rear. That combo is to enable you to take portrait (otherwise known as shallow-depth-of-field) shots. The results are… tolerable. There’s no 4K video shooting, just 1080p, but we understand that we get what we pay for.
However, Huawei has done a very solid job of squeezing more into the camera with software. First up there’s the ‘night’ mode that takes a few second’s worth of pictures, stacks them, and brightens the resultant image. This seems to have trickled down from Huawei’s fancier phones, and it works pretty well.
The dynamic range tweaking also does a great job, letting you shoot right into the sun without the rest of the image becoming a glum shadow. Overall, this is a totally respectable mid-range camera. Daylight photos look good and there’s very little lag between tapping and snapping. But you can see it’s not a premium snapper when you look really closely. Night images and general clarity lags a bit behind that of the Honor 8X.
Huawei seems to know the sensor is a compromise, because when you switch on the “AI” mode, it shoots 8MP photos rather than full resolution. Cameras usually lower resolution to make images look cleaner when you zoom in, hiding the deficiencies of the actual sensor hardware. AI mode also over-saturates the images to comical levels.
The 8MP selfie camera has similar problems. In lower light dark chroma noise starts to invade your images, where rainbow splotches appear because the camera can’t quite render the real-life tones properly. The Portrait mode doesn’t map objects for isolation very well, either, and instead creates a glowing halo around the subject (see below).
Huawei deserves props for making the P Smart 2019 camera a blast to use, but finding its limits doesn’t take much effort.
Battery life: Time to cut the Micro USB cord
The Huawei P Smart has a 3,400mAh battery. That sounds about right for a phone with a 6.21in screen.
Oddly enough, though, the P Smart lasts longer than we expected it to. It’s likely because of Huawei’s habit of closely controlling power optimisation. This may also be the reason the phone seems to boot apps out of their parked multi-tasking modes so speedily.
Here’s a classic trade off for you, though. Without a truly giant battery to lean on, phone makers have a choice of gunning for longer battery life or slightly better off-the-grid response times day-to-day. The Huawei P Smart favours, just slightly, battery life.
You can expect to see around 30 percent of charge left in the tank after a solid day of internetting, social media-ing and camera use. And there hasn’t been a single day we’ve needed to give it a top up before heading out for the evening. That’s not necessarily going to be the case in six months… but it never is with any phone.
We’re still a bit irked by the lack of USB-C though. For a 2019 phone that seems like a big omission. We’d forgive it in a truly budget device, but a mid-ranger that’s aiming to punch above its weight should do better.
Huawei P-Smart (2019) Verdict
This year’s Huawei P Smart is classier-looking than last year’s phone of the same name. Sure, there’s a lot of competition in the R5,000 phone arena, but you could do far worse than choosing this one. Plus, it looks the part of a far pricier one (just stick a case on it if you want it to stay that way). If you can live with the middle-of-the-road camera and can’t face R10k+ phone prices, this is well worth considering.