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Huawei Nova 4 review: A tale of “not as good as”

In the same way that not all people are born equal, not all smartphones are made equal either. Sometimes, you just end up in the shadow of your far more capable sibling. And, when that happens, it sucks because no matter how good you get, you’ll always be one step behind the person everybody inadvertently compares you to.

Take Huawei’s Nova 4, for example. In many ways, it is a solid smartphone for the money with B+ scores across the board. But its biggest weakness is that it has a sibling called the Honor View 20 and that, in my experience, is simply the better smartphone across the board. So, while the Nova 4 is ultimately a good phone, it’s just not as good as its sibling.

Familiar, is the one word I’d use to describe my time with the Huawei Nova 4. It’s just uncanny how much of this handset feels identical to its sibling from Huawei sub-brand Honor. The build, the relative footprint, the screen, the punch hole, and even the EMUI skin that’s built on top of Android 9 Pie.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because the Honor View 20 was an outstanding smartphone with a lot going for it. However, when you begin to look a little closer, and spend a little more time with the Huawei Nova 4, you start to notice where the Nova 4 begins falling behind the View 20.

Let’s start with the internal specs

One of the key differences between the two smartphones lies at its core. Unlike the Honor View 20, the Huawei Nova 4 doesn’t feature the company’s latest mobile chipset — the Kirin 980. Instead, the Nova 4 is powered by their previous generation Kirin 970 processor, which is actually the same processor as its predecessor, the Huawei Nova 3.

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But, the Nova 4 trades the newer processor for a little more memory as the Huawei handset packs 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage instead of the 6GB/128GB combo you’d find on the entry-level View 20.

Did I notice a difference in performance between the two handsets in my daily use? No, I really didn’t. Both smartphones performed identically in everything I needed it to do. There was no stuttering, no lag, no sluggishness. Everything felt like a proper Huawei flagship so I have zero complaints here.

What was definitely noticeable, however, was when it came to battery endurance. To be fair, the Huawei Nova 4 isn’t a poor battery performer, it just doesn’t have the stamina that the Honor View 20 does. I was able to get about five and a half hours of screen-on time with about 16 hours time on battery.

These are pretty solid numbers for a smartphone with a 3,750 mAh battery. But, it’s just not as good as the seven plus hours of screen-on time across a day and a half on a single charge that I was able to achieve with the Honor View 20’s 4,000 mAh cell.

Besides the battery, I was also particularly unimpressed with the Nova 4’s single bottom firing speaker. It is, to put it mildly, quite atrocious. Unlike the View 20’s, which puts up a decent fight despite being a single speaker, the Nova 4’s feels like an afterthought. It is especially bad when it comes to playing back speech or voices, making it really difficult to watch content on YouTube, even when you’re in the quiet confines of your bathroom.

Then, there’s the camera

Honestly, I had high hopes here. Although the Honor View 20 was a solid smartphone shooter, I expected to prefer the Nova 4’s triple camera layout because it had the added utility of that ultra-wide lens. If it even came close to what I experienced with Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro, I would have been one happy camper.

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But the truth is — if you’ve seen my camera comparison — the Nova 4 doesn’t even come close. In fact, the whole photography experience on this smartphone definitely felt like a downgrade even compared to the View 20.

Yes, you do get the extra utility of the 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide in addition to the 20MP wide, but the problem is that the ultra-wide on the Nova 4 produces what I think is a noticeably inferior image to the main sensor. In some scenarios, the two photos don’t even look like they came from the same smartphone.

The worst part, though, is the fact that I couldn’t use the Nova 4’s Night Mode (which, by the way, also pales in comparison to the View 20 and Mate 20 Pro) to improve the ultra-wide’s low-light capabilities the way I could with the Mate 20 Pro. And if there was a noticeable difference between the two sensors in daylight, that difference is even more obvious in low-light.

That said, if you stick to the main sensor, keep things well-lit and live in a beautiful city, you can get some decent shots with the Nova 4. I just don’t think that it’s as good of a smartphone camera as the View 20.

I also wasn’t particularly impressed with the selfie shooter — it was way too hard to get a shot that was 100% steady. And, since I shoot on the default settings, the beauty mode is always super aggressive.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not a selfie expert in the same way Hannah Delisha is, so I’m probably doing something wrong. I did like some of the quality of life features the Nova 4 had built into the selfie mode. For example, if it detects that you’re in a dark environment, it’ll immediately switch the camera’s otherwise black UI elements to white so that it’ll gently illuminate your face in the dark. That’s neat.

But, as a whole, I’m not a big fan of the selfie shooter here.

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So, is the Nova 4 worth the RM100 savings over the View 20?

Honestly, my answer is a resounding no. Despite looking, feeling and being priced so similarly, the experience here is quite different, and noticeably inferior. Yes, the Nova 4 is an OK smartphone (I’d even say good in some aspects) in a world where the View 20 doesn’t exist. However, that world isn’t the world we live in today.

In our world, the View 20 is a device that I think comprehensively beats the Nova 4 in pretty much every aspect that I care about in a smartphone. It’s more striking, it has better battery life, it has a better speaker, and it has a better camera experience to boot. In every other department, the View 20 either matches or slightly edges out the Nova 4, making this a rather unfair fight.

Yes, the View 20 is RM100 more expensive than the Nova 4, so that’s a point in the Nova 4’s favour. But, I’d argue that the View 20 offers you an experience that’s maybe RM300 to RM400 better. It feels almost unfair that the Nova 4 has to deal with this kind of competition, but much like life, not everything is fair.

So, if you’ve been looking for a Huawei Nova 4, buy the Honor View 20 because it’s basically the Nova 4, but better.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.