Hands on: The Huawei P8 lite -- unlocked, inexpensive, and not bad

huawei p8 lite
Credit: Huawei

Huawei's latest entry into the U.S. market is a mid-level, unlocked and reasonably priced Android phone.

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These days, the best way to get coverage of a new device is to lure tech journalists to an event and try to convey to them how much better your upcoming device is than the competition. If you're Apple, Google, Microsoft or, say, Samsung -- that's easy. If you're a company like Huawei, which isn't as well known among U.S. consumers, it's a little harder — especially if the phone that you're announcing is not bleeding edge.

At a relatively modest press event on Tuesday, the Chinese company announced its latest U.S. consumer phone, the unlocked Huawei P8 lite ($250), a lightweight version of the higher-end P8 (which is not being sold in the U.S.). I had a chance to try out the new phone, and found myself with a generally favorable impression.

The P8 lite uses a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor (which was first announced in February, 2014) and 2GB of RAM; it comes with 16GB of storage along with a slot for a microSD card (actually, it has two SIM slots, one of which can also be used for the microSD, offering rather nice flexibility).

The 5-in. IPS display is made of Gorilla Glass 3 and offers a resolution of 720 x 1280. It's a decent display, clear and easy to read; photographs and videos looked fine and ran well. (Unfortunately, I received the unit during two very rainy days in New York, so I wasn't able to try it out in bright sunlight.) It isn't up to the level of higher-grade displays, but it's quite acceptable at this price point.

The bezel on each side of the display is very thin, which keeps the phone itself (which measures 5.62 x 2.77 x 0.30 in. and weighs 4.62 oz.) slim enough to hold easily in one hand. The body of the unit I looked at was white with gold trim on the side; there is also a black version. The back is subtly scored to help you maintain your grip on the device.

The power button is in the center of the right edge of the phone, which I found awkward; I kept trying to start it by hitting the volume rocker just above it. Below the power button are the two SIM slots mentioned above. The headset connector is on top, while two speakers are on the bottom edge, on either side of the microUSB connector. Audio was clear with pretty good volume, but not any better than you find with most mid-level smartphone.

The P8 lite comes with a 2200mAh battery, which should give about a day's use under normal conditions (Huawei claims up to 11 hours talk time).

An overlay, support plan and fitness tracker

The P8 lite runs Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) and has its own overlay for Android -- a fairly innocuous but unnecessary add-on, with such things as a slightly redesigned version of the settings drop-down with a few extra features included. I did appreciate a feature that is usually not stressed in these phones: A "simple" UI that you can use instead of the regular one, which features a very simple layout and large icons, for users who are more comfortable with a minimalist interface.

The P8 Lite comes with a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera; the camera app includes several feature usual in higher-end cameras these days, such as "best picture" (where it takes several shots in quick succession, allowing you to choose the best), panorama and all-focus (which lets you change the focus of a shot after it's been taken).

At the press event, Huawei representatives promised that users of the company's phones would enjoy a higher level of post-purchase support, including a two-year warranty, localized repair with free inbound/outbound shipping and a U.S.-based call center support. Since a lower-cost device is often geared toward less technologically sophisticated users, this could be a good selling point — assuming Huawei follows through.

Huawei also introduced the second iteration of its fitness tracker, the TalkBand B2, so-called because you can remove the device from its wristband and use it as a headset. Huawei announced that it has partnered with Jawbone to give the TalkBand access to the latter's Up network.

Bottom line

The P8 lite is not the most inexpensive phone on the market today. For example, Motorola's Moto G also offers a 5-in. LCD display but with a slower processor, less memory and without LTE capabilities for $180.

So it all depends on what you're looking for. In this case, Huawei's foray into the U.S. market is concentrating on a relatively inexpensive unlocked phone that, while not top of the line, offers good features and styling (and what sounds like an fine support plan).

If the company wants to make a real splash in the U.S. market, it may need to bring some of its more sophisticated products across the pond — and it wouldn't hurt to provide the latest Android version. But meanwhile, if you're looking to purchase an unlocked phone, and can't afford the $500-plus prices of the higher end models, the Huawei P8 lite could be worth checking out.

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