Review: Honor 5X – premium build and features, budget price

You know how the fake street TV interviews go: “This, in gold, is the brand new iPhone 7 Plus. Premium metal, gorgeous 5.5” screen, but no physical home button”. People will play with it and fall over themselves at how nice it is. But of course this isn’t an iPhone at all, but the budget Honor 5X and it runs Android – and is a quarter the price of Apple’s offerings. The similarity in specifications to the iPhone 6 Plus range can’t be helped though. From screen to form factor to RAM to camera to homescreen interface, the concept of the Honor 5X being the ‘poor man’s iPhone 6 Plus’ isn’t that far off the mark. Given the price of £180 all-in, in the UK and Europe though, that (made up) tagline is a real compliment to the 5X. How can you get so much smartphone for the money?

Something’s got to give, of course, and in this case it’s that a relatively lowly processor is used and that niceties like NFC are missing in action. But, Emotion UI-aside, those are really the only two downsides of what is possibly one of the bargains of the year for someone who lusts after the feel of cold hard metal in their hands.

Honor 5X metal mid-ranger at a budget price

In this case it’s tinted and brushed aluminium, wrapping around the body of the 5X and with slightly chunkier plastic end caps getting the radio signals (Wi-fi, cellular, Bluetooth, GPS) in and out. The fit and finish isn’t completely convincing if Huawei was aiming for seamless metal/plastic boundaries, but it’s darned good at this price point and the extra texture on the plastic helps give the top and bottom sections a little character of their own.

Honor 5X metal/plastic boundaries and textures

The Honor 5X, to my fingers, feels a lot more secure in the hand than the recent Apple iPhones, which are slipperier than a bar of soap. The Honor 5X’s chamfered edges (on the sides) and ridges all aid grip, they really do. No case required, so you get to enjoy the metal all day long rather than having to hide it away, as happens with most iPhones.

Full-face glass, normally shipped with a protector

The front glass is beautiful but marred out of the box with a plastic screen protector (not shown here) – most normal users seem to love these, but I always find myself peeling these off, not just so that I can photograph the phones properly for Android Beat! Underneath the plastic is a plain tempered glass display with no oleophobic coating, meaning a less than premium feel and a need to clean the screen of fingerprints daily.

On the bottom is a pair of iPhone-esque speaker grilles, and just as on the iPhone, one is fake – there’s just a mono speaker behind the right grille and it’s absolutely average, winning no awards for volume or fidelity, but not terrible either. Befitting the price, at least. Also down at the bottom, the charging and data port is microUSB, slightly bizarrely given that it’s 2016, but Honor is nothing if not conservative in quite a few of the 5X’s design choices. I dare say that USB Type C will be in the Honor 6X in 2017. Hey ho…

Read: Honor 5X FAQ

On the left hand side are twin pop-out slots, for nanoSIM and microSD, plus microSIM, giving you plenty of options in terms of expansion and compatibility.

Twin SIM trays

Around the back is where things get interesting. You do not normally get a metal build and a fast fingerprint sensor at this price point. And the sensor here isn’t just to unlock the device – it’s also a trackpad and can respond to gesture, such as here dragging down the notifications shade at any point, moving back in the interface, going back to the homescreen or popping up the multitasking carousel – all without touching the screen at all. And if you want to get really advanced, you can program it to unlock and launch specific apps upon the touch with a specific finger when locked – subject to you remembering which app and which fingers go together, of course! For example, your middle finger to unlock the phone and launch Camera! A super little feature and it makes you wonder why other phones with fingerprint sensors can’t do the same. Huawei, sorry, Honor, are setting a high standard in this area.

5X from the back - metal, sensor, etc.

Imaging

Above the sensor is the main camera, 13MP, f/2.0 aperture and pretty good, see some of the samples and crops below – HDR helps a lot but is somewhat hidden on the hamburger menu, with the main shooting modes concentrating on Good food, Beauty and Time-lapse. Beauty did wonders on my wrinkles, but I’d still much rather have an auto-HDR function of some kind. Still results are super at this price point, with just the usual moving subjects in low light being an issue, as with most non-Xenon phones.

The 5X camera belies the budget price, thanks to some clever software tricks

Night shots are surprisingly good too, thanks to multiple captures being grabbed, auto-aligned and then used to improve detail and reduce noise. We live in an age of digital photography, where clever software and powerful chips can often take the place of bigger and more powerful sensors.

Here then are some samples, with each followed by a 1:1 crop and comments:

Photo sample from the Honor 5X...
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image, greenery is normally tough for image processing, but the Honor 5X does pretty well here, it’s not a disaster…
Photo sample from the Honor 5X...
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image
Terrific detail in a high resolution image. Wait, how much is this thing again??
Photo sample from the Honor 5X...
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image
Here from an HDR shot, terrific colours and detail again….
Photo sample from the Honor 5X...
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image
Shot indoors in VERY low light, the 5X’s camera nonetheless manages to get detail in the painting, along with keeping noise under control… Impressive.
Photo sample from the Honor 5X...
And a 1:1 crop from the centre of the image
Shot at the dead of night, handheld, this crop shows a stability and crispness that many flagships would struggle to achieve. Multi-exposure magic, I suspect!

The front camera’s pretty good too, with a very cool panoramic selfie mode that makes you want to head to the nearest tourist attraction and get snapping. 

Inside is a Snapdragon 616 and a full 2GB of RAM, now the minimum for Android in 2016 and the Honor 5X performs perfectly well for the man in the street. Coming from the likes of the Nexus 5 and 6 and other flagships, there’s a noticeable lack of snappiness, but any potential buyer of the 5X, including you for your teenager, for example, will be more than happy.

Software

Huawei’s Emotion UI 3.1 skin has been polished up since I last used it and is now very colourful, very iOS-like – which again was probably the idea behind it. Every application lives somewhere on the homescreens, in the dock, pages or in folders, again mimicking iOS and the iPhone, though the lack of a traditional app drawer never bothered me. To be honest, the very need for a separate application drawer is subjective and I have no problems with Emotion UI on this front.

Emotion UI keeps all applications on the homescreens, though folders keep things in check....

Also somewhat controversially, all icons are artificially embedded in a ‘squircle’, which looks odd but does at least make third party application icons consistent with all the built-ins. Just don’t tell the developers, who probably laboured for hours crafting their pixels….

The notifications shade is interesting, as entries have been grouped and sorted chronologically in a more obvious fashion than on stock Android – very nicely done, Huawei, I mean Honor. Multiple items within a notification group, for example, emails, are bundled together and tagged with the time of the first occurrence, which is a little counter-intuitive – you glance at your notifications and see that you had a whole bunch of emails two hours ago and nothing since, when in fact they’ve been arriving steadily and the last one was a few minutes ago. Maybe the way this works should be an option, Honor?

The notifications shade and Settings shortcuts....

The traditional drop-down settings shortcuts are off in a tab, and include a torch (lighting up the dual LEDs on the back) and a toggle for mobile data. I couldn’t find a way of bringing this down first, i.e. with a swipe on the right or with two fingers – so there’s another little fix for Huawei and Honor to code into an update.

There’s a barrage of UI enhancements that are turned off by default and which we’ve seen on other phones before but which are nice to have all in one place. For example, double tap to wake (slightly pointless given that you’ve usually got to pick the phone up and authenticate, though…) and screen-off gestures – draw a letter to launch the application of your choice (again, fingerprint authentication kind of gets in the way, plus the gestures take a couple of seconds to be echoed and recognised).

Double tap to wake and gestures for use when the screen is 'off'!

‘OK Google’ works from anywhere and, aside from a few app duplicates, for example Browser and Chrome, Calendar and err… Google Calendar, things progress much as on any other Android smartphone.

Under the hood, possibly the most controversial aspect of Emotion UI is the emphasis placed on limiting what’s running and preserving battery life. This is undoubtedly to help the target market, regular users who have no idea whatsoever about RAM, applications and how to optimise things – so Huawei does the job for them. 

Power saving options and protected apps

By default, the Honor 5X comes up in ‘Smart’ power saving mode, with the processor and network use being managed by the OS for best battery life, and there’s the concept of ‘Protected apps’, those which are manually, explicitly allowed to run in the background, when the screen is off. Every other app, not on the list, has its activities largely curtailed, by default, when the 5X is nominally off and in your pocket.

While a power user and Android purist like myself is suspicious of such heavy handed behaviour, I can’t help but think that this will all be a huge help to the target market. Think ‘my first smartphone’ and ‘I really wanted an iPhone, but this is rather good and left enough money over for a holiday’. And so on.

And if someone finds that a particular social application – or whatever – isn’t running in the background enough and not providing updates, then it’s easy enough to add it to the Protected list. If this was a Nexus or a Moto X then I’d be up in arms about app management in this way. But it’s not and Emotion UI’s choices have to be taken in context.

Typical battery stats on the Honor 5X - real world life is excellent

An ‘Ultra’ power saving mode is provided, turning off all but the basics, in the manner Samsung championed, though this doesn’t seem to auto-dial back the screen backlight and therefore doesn’t completely help eke out the last few percent of battery in quite the way Huawei wanted. Mind you, battery life is so good on the 5X that I doubt this mode will be used very often.

Ultra power saving; and the customisable nav controls

There are also customisable navigation controls, just re-order them to match err…. your last Android phone. Given the complaints from users about ‘things being different’ on another smartphone, this approach (pioneered by LG) has much to recommend it.

As often happens with budget or mid range phones, they’re stuffed with licensed extras in order to help pay the bills. In this case a raft of Gameloft demos (Asphalt Nitro, Bubble Bash Mania, Dragon Mania, Puzzle Pets, Spider Man Ultimate Power) and a link through to Gameloft’s store, plus WPS Office and a whole bunch of Huawei and Honor specific support apps and site shortcuts.

The fun 'Mirror' application, using the front facing camera

Mirror, Magnifier and Torch are all camera or LED-related, nicely done and should mean that the user doesn’t have to go off looking in the Play Store for these basic, while Huawei’s Phone Manager suite is basically the equivalent of the hated Clean Master often bundled with cheaper handsets, yet better integrated and not so annoying. The usual RAM clearing and temporary file deletion are present, along with a bunch of other useful settings. Even if the biggest tip I could give new users would be ‘don’t worry about RAM, you’ve got plenty. Oh, and go off and buy a nice big microSD card!’

Built-in system cleaning functions....

There’s also a theme engine, with support for backgrounds, transitions, icons, and so on, though only six alternatives are available at the moment, I’m assuming that a Store option will arrive at some point.

I mentioned the lack of NFC above. This may sound like a geeks-only specification bullet point, but it’s a vital part of Android Pay or whatever mass market contactless payment system takes off, and without it your smartphone’s going to be out of luck. Along with a groundswell of other Chinese-designed phones admittedly. I still think it’s shortsighted of Huawei and Honor to miss this out though – you just know that whichever family member you give the Honor 5X to, in six months time, they’ll say “Daddy, how can pay for things with my phone, like my friends?” and you’ll have to let them down gently…

Verdict

The Honor 5X

Ultimately though, it’s impossible not to give the Honor 5X a qualified thumbs up, for the target market. It’s iPhone-like, premium build, yet Android and mass market, it’s secure and fast enough and foolproof enough. And it doesn’t cost the earth, and is officially distributed and supported in Western markets at dramatically less than most of the competition.

No one reading this is going to lust after the 5X, but you might very well be eyeing it up for your significant other or teenage kids. And they’ll thank you for it.

https://youtu.be/D2Xr2oTs0Ic

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