The Honor 5X is the latest smartphone from Huawei, under their new sub-brand Honor. This is the first Honor phone to be marketed to the US market, and by no means is it a small entry. The Honor 5X packs a ton of great hardware and some neat software tricks into a nice form factor, at a really great price point of only $200.
- 64-bit octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 616
- 13MP rear camera (4160 x 3120 resolution) + 5MP front camera
- 5.5” 1920 x 1080 HD display with 400 ppi
- 3000mAh non-removable battery
- Dual SIM cards (one nano and one micro, both with full 4G support)
- Bluetooth 4.1
- No NFC
- 16GB internal storage
- 2GB RAM
- microSD slot
- External memory supported up to 128GB, but 200GB has been said to work
- Android 5.1.1 with EMUI 3.1
- 158 g with battery
- Solid hardware
- Fairly stable software
- Most features for the price
- Poor software UI
- Sometimes buggy software
While the specs aren’t anything fancy, the Honor 5X packs more than meets the eye. The aluminum body and fingerprint scanner are two great features that set this phone apart from its competition. While I personally don’t think that a metal body is a necessity, my last six phones have had a metal body of one sort or another, and I’ve grown to enjoy the premium feel of them. The fingerprint scanner on the Honor 5X is one of the best things about this phone, and when compared to the Huawei Nexus 6P, it meets or exceeds the speed of the 6P. This is quite an impressive feat for such a low-priced phone. To put this into even more perspective, it is far better than the scanner on the iPhone 6 (though not as good as the 6S, due to its absolute speed). If you don’t think much about the fingerprint scanner now, the Honor 5X is a great device to convince you otherwise. It makes unlocking your phone so much better and more secure, plus the added software tricks (outlined below) add so much value. After experiencing this added convenience I would have a hard time going back to a device which lacked a fingerprint reader.
The hardware on the Honor 5X is quite decent for the price of $200. It’s nothing overly fancy, but it does add a touch of class to a budget-priced device. The construction is certainly solid and you won’t hear any parts clicking if you press to hard. If examined closely, sometimes the overall feel of the phone seems cheap when compared to the Nexus 6P, which has a beefier feel overall. The buttons aren’t very clicky, but I prefer them that way. That said, it can be easy to press the buttons without realizing it. I have even experienced the Honor 5X rebooting in my pocket just because something pressed against the power button for too long. A protective case could likely eliminate this issue, but it is still something to be mindful of.
I’m a design person. I care about how nice my phones look, and I take good care of them. The Honor 5X, on the outside isn’t ugly at all. In fact, it’s a very nice phone. I’m not a huge fan of the front design, with the black circles comprised of the light/proximity and front facing camera. But, they have to be there, and they could be a lot worse. That said, the bottom bezel of the phone looks a little plain to me. I know it’s a weird request, but it would look significantly better with some branding. Without anything there, it winds up looking like a prototype or something. The back of the phone is pretty great. Not my absolute favorite (that goes to the Mate 8), but it is quite decent for the price range this phone is in. The placement of buttons and ports is great. I prefer the volume rocker and power button flipped, but for where they are, it is nice. The bottom speaker and microphone grills are a nice touch, too. I really like the circle design used, instead of the oval/rectangle as seen on the Huawei P8 Lite.
The 1080p display isn’t all that amazing, nor is it terrible. That seems to be the general theme of this phone. While the 1080p is certainly an upgrade from the Huawei P8 Lite, it is a must for a 5.5” phone. I’m not an expert on display color calibration, but I can compare the Honor 5X’s screen to a handful of devices I have on hand (including the Mate 8, Nexus 6P, and iPhone 6). With that in mind, I find this phone’s display to be in the middle of the pack: it doesn’t outshine the more expensive flagships, but also isn’t outdone by anything lesser. Quite honestly, the display looks great for a $200 phone. While the display does go quite bright, it’s not a “Oo, that’s bright.” situation but rather a “Ahh, my retinas!” feeling (especially at night). Overall, it’s decent, but nothing that would make you want to buy the phone.
The 13MP camera on the Honor 5X is a pretty decent camera. I haven’t seen this utterly fail in any situations, but it doesn’t offer any advanced settings like professional mode. It also doesn’t give me the beautiful vibrant colors that the Nexus 6P (in the default auto-HDR+ mode) is able to provide. I don’t use the HDR mode on the 5X simply because I don’t want to go to the extra hassle of manually enabling it, so I don’t have any options with that aspect. But, in my day to day usage, it has been quite suitable. It’s a great camera, and far better than you’ll find on any phones at the $200 price range. I would be perfectly fine with this as my primary smartphone camera. It may not wow any photographers, but I think that anyone using this phone casually (and snapping the occasional photograph of friends or food) would be quite pleased with the results. The Honor 5X also includes some pretty cool shooting modes like food mode, slow motion, timelapse, and perfect selfie. I’m not a huge fan of any of these, as they don’t offer any options, but if you only use those maybe once a month, it is more than suitable.
Phone speakers are something you don’t think you’ll care about, but later do (and possibly have regrets about). Since getting my Nexus 6P, I’ve grown to love the front facing speakers while watching videos, and in general, listening to anything. The Nexus 6P sounds pretty good at most volumes, while only getting a little ‘annoying’ at peak. The iPhone 6 sounds absolutely premium at any and all volumes, but it doesn’t go quite as loud as the other phones. The Mate 8 is ok, but peaks out at the highest volume points. However, I’m a little underwhelmed by the speakers in the Honor 5X. The Honor 5X sounds pretty terrible at peak volume, it’s very blown out/bad PA system sounding. Additionally, the speaker is placed on the bottom right side of the phone, so no front facing speaker goodness to be found there. I wouldn’t recommend the phone if you’re going to be playing music out of the built in speaker a lot, but that’s what earbuds and Bluetooth speakers are for. As for video watching – it passes. Again, not the best, but for one person YouTube videos, it will pass.
Let’s face it: the thing that most of us use our phones for these days is not calling people. I am no exception to this fact. Hence, I’ve only placed 10 short calls on this phone in my month trial period. From my own limited observations as well as the feedback I’ve received from the other end of those calls, though, the Honor 5X’s call quality isn’t bad at all. I haven’t exactly discovered a phone bad at making calls, and when compared with my other phones on hand, it pretty much matched up in terms of quality with the rest. If there was a quality difference, it was very minor and most people (on either end) would not notice.
Ah, yes. The software. The most important part of the phone, conveniently saved for last. Like other Huawei devices, the Honor 5X runs the Emotion UI (EMUI) custom software overlay on top of the base Android 5.1. Before I get into the specifics of what that means, let me start off by saying this: I’ve only dealt with smartphones for less than two years, and in that timeframe I’ve used stock Android 4.3, EMUI 3.0 on Android 4.4, EMUI 3.1 on Android 5.1, stock Android 6.0, EMUI 4.0 on Android 6.0, and iOS 9. As I said earlier, I’m very design oriented. With that in mind, I’m going to break this section into several parts to go over the details.
Stock Android has bugs. Thus, anything you build on top of it will probably have those bugs plus bugs in whatever else you build on it. EMUI is no small exception. In fact, with all the EMUI devices I have used, I’ve never ceased to run into funky bugs. However, I was quite surprised with how polished this version of EMUI on the Honor 5X is. Huawei bugs I’ve encountered before like the white icon mask, messed up lockscreen notifications, black on black text in notifications, misaligned icons – they all are fixed (or at least not as painfully obvious). This is one of the reasons that I keep on picking up the Honor 5X, even with it lying next to my Nexus 6P: it’s smaller (making it easier to use) and has fairly solid software.
In the past, with EMUI phones, I’ve seen fairly inconsistent performance. Right off a reboot it’s laggy while syncing up, then for a day it’s blazing fast. Next day, then the next (with no reboots), it really starts to lag. Badly. However, while I still prefer to power down my phone at least daily, this phone seems to hold up fine over slightly more extended periods of time. With the latest update (B140), I saw a great improvement with overall operating system performance. While it’s not lag free, and not ready to take on the 6P, it is quite suitable for the average user. Having used the 6P extensively, I’ve seen what a really fast phone is like, and I don’t have any major issues using the Honor 5X. In fact, it has been my primary phone for the past month (yes, even connected to my Huawei Watch). I think that certainly says something about this phone.
Overall EMUI Design
EMUI looks a lot like iOS. Why is this? Generally speaking, those in China and surrounding areas can’t afford to always have an iPhone, even though they would like to. So, manufacturers like Huawei appeal to those markets by taking Android and applying a skin to make it look like iOS. This, quite simply, is why EMUI is the way it is. While I’ve seen EMUI be a total wreck, this is the best and most solid version of EMUI I have used. Of course, there are still issues like EMUI’s settings being a disaster, the notification drawer and quick settings being messed up, a lack of an app drawer in the default launcher, and the plain mess of the EMUI launcher (Android Central has a great summary of these issues: http://www.androidcentral.com/huawei-p8-review?pg=3#content). Thankfully, you can cover up the launcher mess with Nova Launcher. However, for those of you who use Google Now Launcher or Action Launcher, you might not be happy. EMUI likes to replace the perfectly fine icons for the top 250 or so apps with their own versions that conform to EMUI/iOS design, and that includes the old Google logo and outdated logos for other apps. Nova covers this up automatically, while some of the others (like Action Launcher 3 and Google Now Launcher) don’t. There are certainly other things about EMUI that I hate besides what I already mentioned. These include the lock screen, EMUI apps, and the way EMUI handles everything!
The lock screen on EMUI is pretty close to iOS, and quite far from Android.The lock screen itself isn’t bad, but my biggest gripe with it is that lock screen notifications never work right, and music covers from any app but the Huawei Music app don’t show up.
I’ve mentioned how close EMUI is to iOS – but iOS is great, so why isn’t EMUI great as well? Answered simply, it is the implementation of EMUI that causes the problems. EMUI messes with many things that ‘just work’ in stock Android. EMUI is torn between Android and iOS, and as a result, you are left with a buggy mess.
Another big point is that EMUI includes too many default apps. We don’t need Huawei Email and Gmail, keep the better (Gmail!). The same goes for apps like Browser, Calculator, Email, Gallery, Notepad, and Weather. All these apps have better Google counterparts, many of which are already included in Stock Android. Thankfully, those apps can be disabled. The more annoying thing is that setting Google apps or other apps as the default apps for some actions is harder than it should be. Many times the default app settings don’t even work. A prime example is that in EMUI, you have to uncover a menu option for setting default apps. In stock Android, you will be prompted whenever you launch an app that accepts the same links as another app installed on the phone about setting your current app as the default, if it already isn’t the default app for that action. This causes plenty of intense frustration. However, I haven’t seen these issues on this phone, but they may still be there, and I just haven’t run into them yet. In general, the way EMUI does stuff isn’t right. There are many issues with how tasks are handled, and most of the time it leaves you to wonder “WHY!”. One example of this is protected apps, which kills apps after the screen is turned off. While the concept is alright, it is the implementation that is the issue. Android handles app standby states differently than EMUI tries to handle them. On the bright side, with this phone, I have been able to overlook a good chunk of these issues after some customizing, so not all hope is lost. Enough quirks are fixed for me to actually like this phone and recommend it.
The Good Parts of EMUI
Now, I’ve mentioned many of the issues, but what about good things about EMUI? Believe it or not, there are quite a few things that I really wish would come over to stock Android – things that I truly miss when using a Nexus device. These include fingerprint scanner gestures, reboot in power off menu, ultra power saving mode (but make it so we can choose what apps we want to use, I don’t want to use your dialer/messenger, darnit), double tap to wake, the full featured camera app, pretty app/software install screens, one handed mode, keep alarm active while phone is off mode, customizable navigation bar, and a few more things that I can’t think of. Now how do some of these cool features work? Well, the fingerprint scanner gestures allow you to slide down the notification drawer by swiping your finger down the scanner, and a double tap will clear notifications. Reboot in power off menu is pretty simply explained – it is a feature many Android fans wish Google would include, but yet Google decides to not do it. Manufacturers often implement this much requested feature, to the delight of their users. Ultra power saving mode allows you to practically triple your battery life, even if you’re only at 12%. What it does is temporarily change your homescreen to a simple black one only with the default dialer, messaging and contacts apps, and completely disable all other functions (including mobile data). The only downside is that you can’t use your own apps (sorry Google Voice/Hangouts users). Double tap to wake is pretty cool. You just double tap on the screen while it is off to turn on the screen. The Huawei Camera app, when compared to the Google Camera app looks amazing. When compared to the iOS camera app, it looks about the same. It offers some pretty nice design elements and plenty of features that I outlined in the camera section. I really wish the Google Camera app had all these features offered on Huawei devices. The app install/update screens? Yeah, they are minor, but they look so much nicer than the stock Android install/update screens. It’s just an addition that I enjoy every time I see it. One handed mode on Huawei phones (while I don’t use it) is a great feature for those worried about not being able to use your larger phone with one hand. Sliding to either the left or right across the navigation bar enables this mode, which basically sizes down your entire screen to a manageable size. Now to my favorite: the keep alarm active mode. Activating it is easy. Just set an alarm, then in the power off menu you’ll see a notice with a checkbox that says “Keep alarm active, will ring in whatever hours”. If it’s checked, and you proceed to turn off your phone, the alarm will remain active while you sleep or whatever. About one minute before the alarm is set to go off, the phone automatically powers on! I personally dig this feature. The customizable navigation bar is also slick. You can change the order in which the buttons appear, and also add a button for pulling down the notification drawer. These features are sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden, but you are sure to enjoy them when you come across those little features.
The good news out of all this mess is that Huawei has asked their customers for their feedback over the past year, and they have been pretty open about receiving it. I think the Honor 5X is a great example of how much of this feedback has been addressed. It’s not yet perfect, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction. Aside from the Huawei Nexus 6P, this is the most solid Huawei phone I’ve used to date.
Some of the other phones competing against the Honor 5X ($200) are the OnePlus X ($250) Moto G (3rd Gen) ($180 – $220), and the ASUS ZenFone 2 ($200). While I haven’t spent a significant amount of time with any of those phones, they are all worthy competitors of the Honor 5X. Or rather, the Honor 5X is a worthy competitor of those phones. The main thing the Honor 5X has against those phones is the fingerprint scanner, aluminum build, and display size. The OnePlus X is strong in the software side, and so are the Moto G and ZenFone 2. However, I have come to love the fingerprint scanner so much that I think that would be a primary factor in keeping me away from those phones. The custom ROMs coming out soon for the Honor 5X should fix all the software issues I listed above, making it a really, really great phone for $200. Many people are already actively developing for the Honor 5X, and many more are looking forward to enjoying a more stock experience on this sweet hardware. The other area that the Honor 5X wins is the camera, which is another important factor for me. Even though these are seemingly small things, these features win me over to the Honor 5X.
In summary, this is a pretty decent phone in its own right, and it’s a great phone for $200. It is not a Nexus 6P killer, or even a Nexus 5X killer (as the name may suggest). In fact, it’s far from beating any of the flagships. But, when compared to phones around its price range, the fingerprint scanner and metal build make the Honor 5X a great option. If you don’t think that the fingerprint scanner matters to you, think again – it will after you try it. I would highly recommend this phone to anyone shopping for a phone in this price range, and even though it has its flaws, you won’t be disappointed.