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Mid-tier Showdown: Huawei Nova 3i, Oppo R15, Samsung Galaxy A8 Star

It’s that time in your phone’s life when it starts to get considerably laggy and buggy, and you’re trying to stretch your dollar. Fret not: you’re not alone – smartphones can be quite a substantial investment, but they’ve fortunately grown more affordable and have become much better value propositions. This is no surprise since most manufacturers are packing more and more features into bodies that have grown increasingly thin.

If you have cast a forlorn look at the iPhone X for its Face ID feature, or the Google Pixel 2 for its best-in-class camera performance, look no further. More affordable options from Oppo, Huawei and Samsung represent the most attractive mid-tier options that might save you that extra dough for other purchases.

 

Form factor and Design

All three phones are similarly sized with screens at or around 6.3 inches, which to me is the ideal size for media consumption. Of course, the creature comforts we’ve all come to take for granted are all on board this mid-range assortment of phones.

All three phones have glass backs and feel fantastic in the hand. The Oppo R15 is the slimmest, with a thickness of 7.4mm as compared to the 7.6mm on both the Huawei and the Samsung. That’s not going to matter much since prudent users would rather slap on a case anyway, rather than risk smashing the glass chassis. 

The Huawei Nova 3i, Oppo R15 and Samsung Galaxy A8 Star respectively. Image: Ian Ling

The phones have a similar footprint, though the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star is the tallest and widest at 162.4x77mm. This isn’t surprising since it lacks the bezel-banishing notches found on the Huawei (157.6×75.2mm) and the Oppo (155.1 x 75.2). 

All the phones are prudently designed, with the rear-facing dual camera array unit placed prudently away from the fingerprint sensor. Based on my experience, this helps avoid grimy fingerprints hazing up your photos, which is always a plus.

It’s come to this, but colour options are a huge draw on these top mid-tier devices. The Samsung Galaxy A8 Star comes in a frankly boring option of black and white, the Oppo R15 tops that with an additional vibrant red option that I personally like, and Huawei’s Nova 3i comes in a black, white and a very attractive iris purple option, that is pretty reminiscent of the colour available on the flagship P20 Pro.

Now, this can seem pretty much like a cheap shot, since colour preferences are very subjective. That being said, smartphones are a fashion statement, and Huawei’s implementation of a gradient hue on the design is pretty much a premium feature: I had plenty of queries if it was a top-tier device.

I’ve also passed around the three units for a blind test where friends and colleagues handled the phone with eyes closed, and unfortunately, the results were inconclusive.

It’s terribly close and rather difficult to point a winner, but Huawei leads the pack by a thin margin, followed by Oppo, and then Samsung, which comes in last due to its significantly larger footprint for the same screen size.

Display

Turning on the displays of all three phones, it’s impossible to ignore Samsung’s blatant lack of a notch. It’s 2018 – having trouble keeping up with the trends, Samsung?

The displays of the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star, Oppo R15 and Huawei Nova 3i. Image: Ian Ling

The notch on the Oppo is noticeably smaller than the one on the Huawei, though I’m not entirely certain which is more pleasing to the eye (read: less of an eyesore).

But I digress. Notches are just one more thing to contend with in this ever-advancing world of technology. Also, we can’t judge the quality of these powerful performers based on a design feature that intensely divides the phone-users and designers alike.

Thankfully, however, the Huawei offers users the option to ‘turn off’ the notch by blacking out the pixels on either side of the notch. The Oppo, however, gives no such pleasure.

The Huawei Nova 3i (right) offers users the ability to black out the areas on either side of the notch to make the experience less intrusive. The Oppo R15 (left, foreground), however, does not. Image: Ian Ling

However, the Huawei Nova 3i sports an LTPS LCD display, which means you don’t actually turn the pixels off, resulting in a greyish appearance where there should be solid blacks. This means you would notice the grey areas on either side of the notch, especially in dark conditions.

The Oppo R15 and Samsung A8 Star, however, sport AMOLED displays, translating into power savings and convincing absolute blacks that do magic for replicating vivid contrast. To my eyes, the Huawei’s colours were clearly muted as compared to the Oppo and the Samsung phones. 

Both phones boast a wide gamut of 16M colours and looked vivid and contrasty, particularly pleasant for entertainment and media consumption. The display on the Oppo R15 does have the best brightness and viewing angles, with the Samsung coming in second with a slightly dimmer display and blue tint when viewed from a side. The Huawei does have a decent display, but just LCD displays a few disadvantages. These would play out in very specific scenarios, like when you use your phone on the desk, or under bright sunlight. Otherwise, most would turn the display brightness down anyway for the sake of battery life.

The viewing angles of the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star (left) and the Huawei Nova 3i (right) aren’t the best. The Oppo was consistent from all angles, winning it pole position in this segment. All displays are also set at maximum brightness. The Oppo R15 is noticeably brighter, followed by the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star (left) and the Huawei Nova 3i (right).

Despite this, AMOLED has been heavily marketed to be the superior display technology on our consumer products. In fact, LTPS LCD is, too, a step ahead of the IPS LCD displays seen on most older or cheaper phones. By using regularly-arranged silicon in the display, LTPS LCD technology is able to improve on power efficiency, viewing angles and usage temperatures over its predecessor. At this juncture, however, power, efficiency and longevity comparisons between the two types of screen are still inconclusive.

Resolution wise, the Huawei’s Nova 3i leads the board with a resolution of 1080 x 2340p, with the Oppo closing in at 1080 x 2280p and the Samsung trailing behind at 1080 x 2220p. In practice, these small differences have some real-world implications since the small size of phone displays make the difference of about a hundred pixels on the long edge of the Huawei and Samsung noticeable.

Despite Huawei’s superior resolution, it is in practice outdone by the AMOLED display on the Samsung and Oppo. The Oppo R15 leads, and the Samsung trails in second place.

Battery Life

The Samsung Galaxy A8 Star leads the pack with a battery capacity of 3700mAh, and lasted almost eight hours of intensive use with the display constantly on.

Oppo R15, which comes in second with a 3450mAh cell. The Huawei Nova 3i comes in last at 3340mAh. The Huawei avoids a painful death with its low-power display (displays do drain the most power from daily use), but its comparatively small battery capacity still leaves it trailing behind.

Performance

All three phones boast octa-core processors and promise to deliver flagship-grade performance for a fraction of the cost.

The Huawei Nova 3i review unit I received was locked from running benchmarking software, much to my chagrin. After being slightly tempted to disqualify the device from this segment, I performed a bit of a workaround and was able to get AnTuTu up and running.

The Huawei Nova 3i utilises the new Kirin 710 CPU with Mali G51 MP4 GPU. The device benchmarked on AnTuTu with a result of 138,584. CPU performance was a decent 66,099, and a GPU score of 22,152.

The Oppo sports the octa-core MediaTek MT6771 Helio P60 CPU and Mali G72 MP3 Graphics. The Oppo performed decently with an aggregate benchmark figure of 139044, a CPU score of 63,106 and a graphics score of 29,681. Rendering on Antutu’s 3D Mark app was less than satisfactory with significant with plenty of stuttering. There, however, was significant throttling within minutes of use, with the phone heating up pretty fast.

The Snapdragon 660 on the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star delivered a respectable mid-tier performance at 135,026, and its onboard Adreno 512 Graphics rendering a respectable performance on 3D Mark’s Slingshot Extreme with a score of 1,425. In comparison, the Oppo R15 scored only 1,085.

On 3D Mark, the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star leads in OpenGL performance with a benchmark score of 1,354, with the Oppo R15 second at 1,086 and the Huawei Nova 3i at 951. On Vulkan, a more modern API, the tables turn with Huawei Nova 3i leading with 1,133, the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star second at 1,072 and the Oppo R15 last at 940.

OpenGL graphics are mostly found on legacy games, while Vulkan is the up and coming API in use on most modern titles. These mixed results are open to interpretation, but it is clear that Samsung has an advantage in terms of graphics performance. However, it must be noted that the Huawei Nova 3i has been advertised to have a Graphics Boost mode implemented in an over-the-air upgrade that we were unable to access as our phones were review units.

The graphics scores of the three phones on 3D Mark. We can also observe the differences in displays. From left to right: Huawei Nova 3i, Oppo R15, Samsung Galaxy A8 Star. Image: Ian Ling

All in all, the Oppo R15 leads in terms of aggregate performance, followed by the Huawei Nova 3i, and then the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star. Samsung rules the roost when it comes to graphics, outdoing Oppo, who comes in second. Huawei comes in last, though the GPU Boost mode might change that.

Cameras

Camera performance on smartphones have become pretty important features, and all three mid-tier contenders sport a plethora of camera-related goodies on board. The trio all provide a bokeh effect with dual rear-facing cameras, along with other conveniences like manual mode, stickers and AR lens. 

Oppo prides itself over the performance of its cameras. It has a total of three cameras, with a rear-facing dual camera set up of a 16MP (f/1.7) + 5MP (f/2.2), and a 20MP front-facing camera for maximum selfie quality.

The Samsung also sports a total of three cameras, with a dual rear-facing complement of 24 MP (f/1.7) + 16 MP (f/1.7). It has a 24MP shooter for selfies too, making the Samsung the most impressive amongst our mid-tier line-up.

Huawei, however, boasts a total of four cameras. 16MP + 2MP on the rear, and 24MP + 2MP on the front. My guess is the 2MP units on both sides function to provide some accuracy for the bokeh effect on the camera.

Of course, megapixel and camera unit counts are inconsequential, so we hauled the cameras out for a thorough review.

Surprisingly, the Oppo R15 leads in terms of low-light performance, providing more colour detail in the shadows, while remaining consistently vivid.

The Oppo R15 gave the best performance for food and skin tone rendition, especially for selfies. The camera was able to recognise scenes to optimise for them without advertised AI technology. Image: Ian Ling

The Huawei Nova 3i looked rather flat in comparison, although the Huawei has a nifty AI camera feature that’s one of the best implemented in the mobile market, which helps to bump up the vividity of the images. I found that to be pretty nifty, especially if you’re too lazy to pop into a photo editing application to tweak the images.

It also had an AR lens mode that allowed us to have some fun during the review.

The Huawei has a fully-fledged camera application that allows anyone to take fun selfies. Image: Ian Ling

By recognising different scenes, the camera adapts to enhance the different components in your image to make it more aesthetically pleasing. However, I noticed severe distortion on the cameras of the Huawei Nova 3i, which might be an issue if you love urban landscape, since it would make otherwise straight lines seem structurally unsound.

I’ve personally never really appreciated how Samsung’s shooters rendered scenes. The Samsung Galaxy A8 Star isn’t much different from the brand’s other devices, which isn’t a bad thing if you’ve liked Samsung’s image rendition. Images were slightly too saturated and contrasty for my taste, in many cases appearing more like HDR photos than not.

It’s a lead for the Oppo, with a tie between Samsung and Huawei for this segment.

Features and UX

The good bad news is all three phones are heavily plastered with proprietary user interfaces. Samsung’s Experience UI, Oppo’s ColorOS, and Huawei’s EMUI are not for everyone, least of all myself.

With this lineup of devices, however, I’m finally glad to be rid of faux-iOS emulations. Icons and interfaces are clean, and look native and pleasant.

Bloatware is the main thing to contend with when it comes to custom UIs. Samsung takes the cake with Samsung Experience UI 9.0 implemented on the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star, with plenty of stock applications bundled in, which quickly fills up your 64GB of storage.

The Huawei Nova 3i doesn’t fare much better, going to the extent of bundling a bunch of games and camera applications that you could otherwise download on the Play Store.

Oppo provides a package that includes only the most minimal applications, with only the bare essentials pre-installed in the phone. This, coupled with the 128GB of internal memory, gives users an excellent experience.

Personally, I found the Samsung the most user-friendly – perhaps a little unfair since the interface has been around for quite a while in different iterations. While this means I’ve had plenty of opportunities to get used to the interface, It also means they’ve had the most time to hone their user experience. Oppo comes in close, followed by Huawei.

Conclusion: Pricing and Value

The Oppo R15 comes in at SGD749, similarly priced with the Samsung Galaxy A8 Star which has an official MSRP of SGD748. The Huawei Nova 3i, however, retails at SGD 398 – almost half the price of the competition!

Now, comparisons based on specifications and benchmarks alone are dubious at best, and in some aspects, it is evident which is the cheaper phone, especially during intensive use. Based on form factor and design, casual use and for photography, even the most astute users would be hard pressed to tell which device is more expensive.

The Samsung and Oppo stand as the giants to beat in the mid-tier market. Samsung’s Galaxy A8 Star is a stellar performer when it comes to graphics-heavy gaming, especially coupled with its splendid (and non-notched) AMOLED display. Battery life and a mature user interface are also the device’s strong points.

Oppo’s R15 shines in the camera department, cleverly utilising software enhancements to make your cell phone shots more appealing, even in low light. With a leading CPU score, the phone clearly dominates when it comes to multitasking.

The Huawei Nova 3i seems to come in the middle of these two phones, never decisively dominating either of the competition – except when it comes to value. Though the display’s vibrancy can be improved ever so slightly, along with some minor tweaks with the user interface, the Huawei is still definitely the one to pick if you want to be prudent with your cash.

Huawei has shown a penchant for quality and performance with the Mate 10 series last year and the P20 Pro earlier this year, and there’s no reason not to expect the same on its newest mid-tier smartphone. If anything, the Huawei Nova 3i might be the disruption the mobile industry has long needed – bringing great quality and usability to an even lower price point.

Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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