Huawei has been fine tuning its digital native (for which read teenagers and twenty somethings) smartphones for a couple of years now and, with the Honor 6X, has (almost) perfected the delicate balance between technology and value for money. The 6X has (almost, again) no weaknesses, at least in this relatively budget segment of the market. If you want a decent (if not top end) smartphone, don’t want to pay top dollar and don’t mind your Android experience to be slightly tweaked from Google’s Nexus and Pixel ambitions, then the Honor 6X is an easy recommendation.
The ‘almost’ above refers not to functionality deficiencies in the phone as-is, but to one of the component choices – the Honor 6X is engineered around an ‘old’ microUSB connector rather than the newer, more durable, more flexible and more capable USB Type C. Yes, the latter is pricier in terms of componentry, but Type C is already de rigueur across 2016 flagships and should be right across the midrange through 2017. It probably all comes down to money, but it’s a minor shame.
In terms of design and build, the Honor 6X is terrific for the price – a curved aluminium back mates up with curved display glass in a crackingly ergonomic form factor. The review handset was classed as ‘gold’, though you can also get the 6X in silver or grey, the latter with a black front, should that be more to your taste – it is to mine!
At the top and bottom of the back of the phone are (in this case gold) plastic sections, housing the various cellular, Wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS antennae – this does mean there’s a slight ‘step’ feel between metal and plastic sections, but at this price it really didn’t bother me. In fact, knowing that signal strength is stronger as a result is more than compensation for the lack of metal covering the whole of the phone’s back.
Around the Honor 6X’s body are a dual-nanoSIM and/or microSD tray (shown below, the usual compromise over how you use that second slot); a 3.5mm audio out jack (hooray!), with cracking output; a top microphone (for noise cancellation in calls and for recording the left channel of stereo audio recording, e.g. in videos); volume and power buttons (untextured, but positive in action); mono speaker (which isn’t bad, but can’t match up to twin-speakered phones); that aforementioned microUSB data and charging port; and a cosmetic dummy speaker grille (almost certainly with the main microphone behind it).
So all rather standard, though nicer in the hand than you’d have a right to expect for a £200-ish smartphone. The 1080p display is excellent indoors, with vibrant colours that impress especially every time EMUI 4 here cycles through the supplied lockscreen wallpapers – some of them are stunning enough that you’ll pause and admire before diving into the phone UI per se.
Outdoors, as shown above, the Honor 6X’s display is acceptable when cranked right up in terms of brightness, though it wasn’t always easy to see details in the camera interface when taking photos in the sun. There’s a Sunlight Readability option in Settings but it didn’t seem to make any difference in my testing.
There’s also ‘Eye Comfort’ mode, reducing the amount of blue in the backlight and designed for more relaxing use of the phone in the evening – not unusual, except that there seems to be no way to automate this, so you have to activate this setting manually – and deactivate it – every single time. This needs to be time-based, surely?
As often happens with Chinese phones, the Honor 6X comes with a factory fitted plastic screen protector. Most users seem to keep these on, despite the use of super-hard Gorilla Glass 3 under the soft plastic, which always amuses me. I removed the protector and polished up the glass with a cloth, with good results and no ugly protector edges to annoy.
On the back, the fingerprint sensor is small but functional and is nicely recessed so that you can find it instantly without having to feel around. And, this being EMUI, there’s the usual swipe down on the sensor to bring down the notifications shade, plus the swipe left and right when in the Gallery, to move between photos.
Finally there are the cameras – yes, plural, this is one of the first lower midrange handsets to have dual cameras. Now, I’m not one to be bowled over by such gimmicks – it’s basically a 12MP 4:3 sensor with phase detection auto-focus, plus an extra 2MP camera designed to calculate a depth map, similar to what HTC once did with the One M8, but done far better. The upshot is that you can take photos of any objects within a couple of metres, i.e. closer than the limit of the depth of field that you’d get if you were focussed on infinity, and use the depth information to artily blur out everything away from that particular focal plane. Huawei calls this ‘Wide aperture’ mode, in that it simulates a proper camera with much larger aperture and correspondingly shallower depth of field.
Yes, it’s a gimmick, but a) you don’t have to use it, it’s a mode you explicitly select; and b) the results can be a lot of fun, with ‘bokeh’ effects even at a metre and even in bright light, something which traditional smartphone cameras, even the iPhone 7 Plus, would find tricky. You have to look at the edges and finer details to know that the bokeh result is artificial – for normal users it’s just a super effect and one which they’ll really enjoy playing with.
EMUI’s camera includes a myriad of other modes too, from HDR to Beauty to Night, you know the drill by now – there’s lots of modes to play with, including a full-on ‘Pro Photo’ manual mode, should you really want to fiddle.
Results are generally what you’d expect from a smallish camera unit in a £200 phone – fine a lot of the time but showing lots of noise and/or artefacts in lo light. Here are some samples taken in the default 8MP 16:9 aspect ratio, with 1:1 crops from the 12MP sensor below:
Video capture is at 1080p and unstabilised in any way, which is probably a limitation of the chipset and GPU, but you do get stereo audio capture (something you don’t get on the latest iPhone) and you get the same ‘Pro’ mode where you can manually adjust white balance, exposure and focus.
Around the front is a very capable 8MP selfie camera with many of the same modes, plus ‘Perfect selfie’, where it takes several shots of your face from different angles and then lets you adjust various facial parameters, like eye size to make your selfies… err… actually a lot less than perfect. In my opinion. Still, again, this is all optional!
Now to the internals. A Kirin 655 chipset and 3GB of RAM do a great job of keeping everything ticking along smoothly, with 32GB of storage plus that optional microSD providing ample room for applications, games and media. Now that we’ve achieved 3GB RAM for even mid-priced models like this there really should be no performance issues or limitations. And, as usual for Huawei and EMUI, applications are largely closed in the background unless they’re on the opt-in list for preserving – this does take a little setting up if you’re geeky like me, but is worth it.
A couple of battery saving modes are also available, including an instant ‘ultra battery saving’ mode, which doesn’t need a lengthy set-up, as on the Samsung phones of late. Very nice when you’re almost out of power. The sealed battery is 3340mAh, which is large in this class of device and means a realistic two day battery life, or at least raring to go into the small hours on a night out, which is perfect for the target market.
Interestingly, there’s no support for 5GHz Wi-fi on the Honor 6X, presumably a limitation of the less-than-flagship class Kirin chipset – it’s a shame, since this higher Wi-fi frequency produces much more reliable results in our house. Happily, there is NFC, not always a given on budget Honor devices, which means that Android Pay can be installed and used – it would have been nice to see this installed by default, for new Android users.
Interface additions and updates
The Honor 6X comes with EMUI 4.1, along with a host of interface additions and twiddles. 4.1 is actually quite old, in that other Huawei-made phones already ship with EMUI 5, but this isn’t due to come to the Honor 6X until Q2 2017, which is a shame – in addition, the Android security patches are back at October 2016, so there’s clearly some update activity needed on Huawei and Honor’s part here.
There’s too much that’s different to stock Android to list here, but let’s get past the lack of an app drawer (I’m equally happy without one, iPhone-style) and look at a couple of the additions. For starters, there’s the ‘floating dock’, a draggable shortcuts spot, mimicking the navigation bar, an idea we saw recently in the Xiaomi Mi Mix with ‘Quick Ball’, although the idea isn’t fully baked here as you can’t also dismiss the original nav bar, making the floating dock less of a unique feature than it should be.
You can, as usual with EMUI, customise the navigation bar to some degree, with a choice of a handful of layouts, so no more ‘but the back button’s on the wrong side’ complaints.
Then there’s ‘Scrollshot’, an extension to the built-in Screenshot function – tap it after grabbing a screen and then the interface scrolls and captures automatically, perhaps getting the whole of a web page or app listing.
The split screen interface we started to see in Android 6 is now in the various manufacturer skins, of course, and EMUI’s version works, albeit only with a handful of the supplied applications. On even a 5.5” display, mind you, it’s never comfortable manipulating a touch interface – after all, each app ends up with less than a 3.5” screen to itself. Let’s keep split screen for 6”+ phablets and tablets, please.
As usual with EMUI and Huawei, quite a few of the Google core applications are duplicated on the Honor 6X, so that’s Gallery, Music, Videos, and Calendar, to name but four. Yet the Google originals are all here too, in the Google home screen folder. Back in the day, such duplications were for ecosystem plays (I’m looking at you, Sony and Samsung) but all I can think of these days is that the Huawei written versions are less reliant on online status and so might work better for users in less Internet-drenched parts of the world.
In fairness, the EMUI application versions are usually more fully featured, so dozens of edit options in Gallery for example, a business card scanner in Contacts, and a harassment filter in Messaging.
Bundled with the Honor 6X (at least here in the UK, the package may vary in other countries) are: Huawei’s Vmall virtual Store, Facebook, Twitter, Booking.com Hotels, News Republic, Opera, Instagram, TripAdvisor, Mopria Print Service, a popular set of applications that new users will generally be glad to see. Plus three games, Asphalt Nitro, Dragon Mania and Spider-Man: Ultimate Power, plus a shortcut to the Gameloft games store.
None of this is too offensive and makes sense on a lower priced handset, where Honor (in this case) tries to make a few extra bucks in licensing per handset from major publishers.
The Honor 6X is a terrific little phone – I say ‘little’ despite the ‘phablet’-class 5.5” screen, because it’s still very manageable in the hand, thanks to the thin bezels. And ‘little’ because its ambitions don’t rise into flagship territory. Yet it somehow manages to do everything one would want a smartphone to do, with surprisingly little fuss, zero complaining, and it comes in at a third the price of a Galaxy S7 edge.
That I have to resort to picking on its choice of charging and data port as its biggest weakness is something of a testament to how good the rest of the phone is. If the 6X had USB Type C and compatibility with all the chargers, cables and accessories that we’re all going to be buying this year then it would have my unreserved recommendation. As it is, I’m simply going to say that I like the Honor 6X very much (though maybe not in the gold here). And so will everyone in the ‘digital natives’ target market.