Monday, February 22, 2021

Huawei P Smart 2021 review

Two-minute review

Traditionally each year's P Smart model has been one of Huawei's top-sellers precisely because it pulls together all the key technologies that matter to the mainstream and presents it a properly affordable package. The ambitiously named P Smart 2021 does all that and looks extremely good doing it. From the massive 6.7 inch screen to the quad camera setup and the side mounted fingerprint sensor, the P Smart does shape up like a strong contender in the budget phone category. 

But the new P Smart misses a few tricks too. The best budget phones now sport OLED screens and up to date processor tech, neither of which grace the PSmart 2021. 

Spec sheet

Huawei P Smart 2021

(Image credit: Future)

Here is the Huawei P Smart 2021 configuration we reviewed:

CPU HiSilicon Kirin 710A
GPU Mali G51
Screen 6.67" FHD+ screen (1080x2400px)
RAM  4GB
Storage 128GB
Front Camera 8MP
Rear Camera 48MP + 8MP ultra-wide + 2MP macro + 2MP depth sensor
Battery 5000mAh
Size 165.7 x 76.9 x 9.3 mm
Price R6000

Despite this we found the LCD screen to be a delight with rich, yet balanced colours, and loads of fine detail on display. The cameras did the basics well but didn't challenge the leader in this price band: Huawei's own P40 Lite. Although both the frame and body are plastic the glossy back panel looks classy while the whole package feels sturdy and, frankly, marvellous in hand. 

In the end we thoroughly enjoyed the P Smart 2021. It certainly earns a podium finish in the highly competitive budget phone category.  

Its technical limitations were trumped by its sure-footed performance and rugged reliability, and excellent battery life. It handled everything we threw at it without a single glitch. We quickly forgot about the apparently all-important Google services which are not available on any current Huawei devices, and found that overall performance and battery life was somehow much enhanced without Google's constant drag on the system. 

Huawei P Smart 2021

Huawei P Smart 2021 (Image credit: Future)

Release date and price

  • ZAR6000, fits the budget category
  • Lots of competition

Informally the budget phone category covers over a dozen models between ZAR4000 (£200) and ZAR8000 (£400). The budget phone category is also by far the most competitive in South Africa: its where the majority of South Africans are shopping, and so competition is understandably fierce.

Launched in September 2020 at a price of ZAR6000 (£300)the P Smart 2021 lands in the middle of this budget phone range. 

Ironically, its closest competitor is its older sibling, the Huawei P40 Lite. This model has superb cameras, and now available with- and without 5G, for R6000 and R7500  (£365) respectively. 

Of course, if you can't imagine life without your Google services then the Samsung Galaxy A31 for ZAR6000 (£300) is a better comparison. 

Design

  • All plastic body
  • Side-mount fingerprint sensor

The P Smart is an all-plastic affair, which is typical for phones in this price range. However, for our money, the high gloss back panel with matching plastic frame makes it possibly the most handsome phone in this category. The rose gold finish is particularly striking, although the black is also appealing.

The four rear lenses are arranged in a row on the top left, rather than in a cluster, and the familiar Leica branding from the premium Huawei phones is understandably absent here. Like other category leaders there is a punch hole camera on the display, which replaces the older droplet shape.   

The fingerprint sensor is now recessed on the right-hand side edge of the phone, which is by far our preferred position, and it falls neatly in the most natural position for your fingers. We're also delighted there are no shortcut buttons on the left-hand side which are constant source of irritation activating unwanted services every time you pick up the phone.

There is certainly some heft to the phone. At 206g it's on the heavier side, where many competitors weigh in around 180g.

Display 

  • LCD, not OLED, screen
  • Middling specs, still looks great

The 6.67-inch screen is generously sized by any standard, and its LCD like all others in this price range. The exception is the Samsung A31, which is AMOLED, and this allows the Samsung to compete more closely with the P Smart on battery life. Nevertheless, it does a great job at FHD+ with a pixel density of 395ppi, and it has no HDR support. Out of the box the phone has the Vivid mode enabled and, while it actually looks perfectly good on the normal setting, we eventually went back to the colour-enhanced Vivid setting.   

With a brightness of 442 nits and contrast ratio of 1252:1 it fits in the middle of the performance range for similar screens, but our real-world experience leaves us thinking this is amongst the better displays we've seen in the area of the market. There is also a smart resolution setting which dynamically adjusts the resolution up  or down to save on battery. 

Huawei P Smart 2021

Tecno Spark 5  (Image credit: Future)

Cameras

  • Quad camera setup
  • Mixed results for photos

One always has high expectations of Huawei cameras, even at the budget end. Across all four rear camera sensors the P Smart 2021 turned in a solid set of results, which just pipped the Samsung A31, but couldn't beat the six-month old Huawei P40 Lite. 

The primary 48MP shooter delivers excellent detail, especially if you forgo the pixel binning system which automatically optimises for a 12MP photos, and shoot at full resolution under perfect lighting conditions. The ultrawide sensor is 8MP and delivers to expectation, but it's nothing special. The 2MP macro lens is adequate, although we got better results from the 2MP macro sensor on the P40 Lite. The final rear sensor is used for depth detection. 

The Night mode far exceeded our expectations, delivering fantastic results under high contrast, low light conditions, with HDR turned both on and off. Inevitably there is some noise, but less than expected. The Pro setting includes all the fine-grained controls like ISO, shutter speed, white balance and manual focus, that you would expect to find on a flagship phone camera app, and that is highly commendable.

Overall we ended with a mixed bag of results, with some brilliant photos in between some very average ones.

For video your options are limited to 1080p at 66fps and there is no image stabilisation and also no 4K. Again, that's not surprising for this price bracket. While video quality was perfectly acceptable with decent mono sound, filming using the wide-angle lens degrades the quality significantly and tops out at 30fps.

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Huawei P Smart 2021

(Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

Wide angle 8MP (Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

Primary camera 48MP -> 12mp (Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

(Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

Wide angle 8MP (Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

Primary 48MP (Image credit: Future)
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Huawei P Smart 2021

Max digital zoom 30x (Image credit: Future)

Performance

  • Older Kirin 710A CPU
  • Google services workarounds
  • Long battery life

CPU & GPU: The CPU as Huawei's own Kirin 710A chip, a largely unaltered version of a chip they debuted three years ago. On paper this does not look great. Three years is an eternity in chip development and performance, so we braced for a torrid performance. But it never materialised. The P SMart 2021 stayed positively nippy across all our apps, including using the full Microsoft suite, streaming HD video and playing games. Switching screens and jumping between apps was perfectly smooth with no hesitation ever detected. 

It is possible that we never stumbled on the right combination of apps to bring the three-year old CPU to its knees, or cause it to stumble, but its equally possible Huawei has engineered something clever into the processing mix.

Paired with the Kirin 710A chip is the Mali G51 GPU. While this seemed well up to the task of playing most games, we were not able to test it under a full load rendering a complex shooter or driving game.

That Google Problem: The elephant in the room is, of course, the lack of Google services. To most users these seem somehow indispensable and irreplaceable, and they can't imagine using a phone without the without Gmail, Chrome browser, Google Search and Google Maps, and especially without the Play Store to download new apps and games. 

Unwilling to simply write off the brand that had delivered some of the best phones of the last decade I wrestled with the first non-Google Huawei phones. That was back in mid-2020, and eventually I did tame the beast. It turns out it was perfectly possible to live a rich mobile-first lifestyle without Google services, but getting there was a struggle. Fortunately, on the P Smart 2021, you are starting off with Android 10. 

Getting your apps:  For two years Huawei has worked hard at improving its AppGallery for new phone users, and this entire process has now been streamlined and simplified. It's still far from perfect but almost all non-Google apps (Facebook, WhatsApp, Netflix etc.) are now easily downloaded from app stores certified and linked by Huawei. Many other apps like Tiktok, Snapchat and all South African  banking apps have been available in AppGallery from the start. 

Others have excellent replacements, like Here WeGo for Google Maps or using Outlook to get your GMail or making Google your search engine in Microsoft's excellent Edge browser. 

Battery life:  The hidden value of our experience with a Google-free phone is that it seems much faster without all those unwanted Google services dragging it down, and it is likely this also contributed to the extraordinary battery life we experienced with the P Smart 2021. We would routinely forget to charge the phone because it would run for two full days on a single charge. During one period of light weekend use we actually ran well into a third day!

Should you buy it?

Huawei P Smart 2021

Huawei P Smart 2021 (Image credit: Future)

Buy it if...

You're a hardcore Huawei fan

It certainly feels like a Huawei product, but expect to make some compromises in how you find and install apps, and also make compromises in using some alternative apps. 

You want a full-featured cheapie

This phone handled everything we threw at it without a slowdown or a glitch, it looks strikingly cool and comes at a very reasonable price. Almost the only thing it won't do is 4K video. 

Don’t buy it if... 

You need Google services

Even if you replace the Google apps with excellent alternatives certain apps still require Google in the background to work properly. Also, your employer might need you to access certain online services powered by Google. 

You want leading camera tech

The quad camera system is good, but nothing special. In fact, for the same price Huawei's own P40 Lite produced better pictures.

First reviewed: 18 February 2021

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