Huawei Honor 5X review: affordable and fashionable

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We asked recently if 2016 will be the year of the mid-range phone. With flagship phone sales maturing, the competition at the mid-range and entry level is heating up. The most visceral battle for smartphone sales happening around the $200 threshold. Encouragingly, these devices are now packing tech which would have been bleeding edge three years ago, but often they can’t elicit the same desirability as more expensive options. Huawei is aiming to change that with the Honor 5X, clad in aluminum, and bringing some nifty tech features to the party.

Using this budget friendly solution for the last week was an interesting experience, not only for the traditional hardware talking points most reviews cover, but also looking at how a company like Huawei is trying to appeal to new customers in new markets. Do specs sell phones, or does fashion rule the purse strings? Let’s take a look at the Huawei Honor 5X!

Specs & Hardware

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We’ve already applauded Huawei’s hardware while reviewing the Nexus 6P and Mate 8. This has been a break out year for a company only beginning to find relationships with western audiences. We’re happy to report that many of the design influences we enjoyed on those phones have found their way to the less expensive Honor 5X. We’ve got a similar boxy design to that found on the Mate 8, with harder corners than what we might find on a Note 4 or HTC. The angles approach sharper rectangles like what we found on the Lumia 930, but chamfered edges prevent the phone from uncomfortably digging into the palm.

The rear casing is aluminum, with a brushed pattern which prevents some of the fingerprint smudges we might see on glass or glossier materials. There’s a subtle curve to the back plate, but it’s not rounded enough to help the hand feel, like how an HTC One M8 might provide a polished stone feel. It feels bigger than other devices with similar screen sizes thanks to the boxy shape, but at 160 grams it’s not too heavy. The Honor 5X is nicely balanced in the hand relative to the screen and button layout.

On first glance it’s a striking phone, which can drop jaws when you tell people how much it costs. On closer examination though, seams on our review unit weren’t lined up as flush as we might have preferred, and there were two small blemishes on the bottom corner. Perhaps evidence of a drop, or maybe lax quality control during manufacturing. I couldn’t “unsee” these imperfections, but they weren’t severe enough to detract from Huawei’s accomplishments in producing a phone like this at such a low price point.

Opposite the power button and volume rocker, we have dual pin tool doors which hide two SIM card trays and a MicroSD card slot to expand storage. The top of the phone is home to a 3.5mm headset jack and the secondary microphone. The rear of the phone houses the 13MP camera and fingerprint scanner, both of which we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this review. The bottom of the phone is where we’ll find one “cost savings” hardware element in a speaker which is hollow sounding at best and unpleasantly shrill at worst. The symmetrical bottom panel looks wonderful, but there is only one speaker, which plays out of the right side of the phone.

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The front face somewhat resembles a Samsung Galaxy Note 5, minus the home button, and we absolutely wouldn’t blame anyone for confusing the two at a distance. The chin bezel feels more pronounced than it might need to be without a home button, but the Honor 5X maintains a healthy screen to bezel ratio.

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Speaking of the screen, we have a 5.5″ IPS LCD with a resolution of 1920 x 1080. Power pixel snobs might scoff at “Full HD” on a screen this size, but it’s a welcome improvement for this price tier. Last year we often received 720p resolution displays on our budget phones. Huawei’s screen is respectably bright, easily competing with phones like the LG V10 in daylight viewing conditions, and viewing angles are excellent for a non-OLED screen. Of course we won’t get the same juicy color saturation, or the insane contrast ratio of an OLED display, but this would be a competitive display even opposite phones which cost twice as much as this Huawei.

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Rounding out the hardware, we have an absolutely fantastic “always on” fingerprint scanner below the camera. Unlike home or power button solutions, this scanner automatically wakes and unlocks the phone when it registers contact with your finger. Like the Nexus 6P and Huawei’s Mate 8, it’s a wonderfully implemented feature. Even on budget hardware it handily outperforms more expensive options like the scanner found on the V10, and it can be used to perform simple swipe gestures like pulling down the notification tray. If there’s a shining gem of a feature to be found on this phone, it’s this fingerprint scanner.

Software

 

Where the hardware gives off a wonderful first (and second) impression, the software leaves a lot to be desired. The Honor 5X uses version 3.1 of the EMUI custom skin. The idea here is to bridge some of the more aggressive customization options of skins like Touchwiz circa the Galaxy S2, with the organization strategy of iOS. A significant portion of this user interface looks as if it draws inspiration from the iPhone.

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For those unfamiliar with EMUI, homescreens and the app drawer are combined resulting in individual panels that can house widgets and app shortcuts. All app organization is manually performed by the user, there is no option to arrange apps alphabetically, and adding widgets to this scheme can look horribly cluttered. This is likely to result in some confusion, as the Honor 5X doesn’t behave like any traditional Android handset, and someone coming from an iPhone will still have to contend with Android as the underpinning software behind this skin. Fortunately by running Android 5.1.1, users are able to install any custom launcher their hearts desire, though less app aware consumers might be thrown for a loop.

Huawei brings a few tricks to the table like muting the phone ringer when placing it face down, and we can customize the bottom navigation to include a notification shortcut there ala LG. There’s also an option to draw a letter on the screen to launch an app, but this action doesn’t seem to clear the lockscreen. Drawing a “C” on the display will wake the phone, but you’ll still need to unlock it. Double tapping the volume rocker will fully open the camera app and take a picture.

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Thankfully there’s very little “value added” software (bloat) pre-installed, Facetune and Shazam the only third party apps I could find at boot. The rest is a collection of Huawei services handling support, SIM card management, and the basics like a memo recorder, weather, FM Radio, and a fun little mirror app which fogs when you breathe on the microphone. It’s a fairly lean build which shouldn’t overly burden the 16GB of built in storage.

Camera

The Honor 5X is packing a respectable rear camera. The one third inch sensor natively saves a 4:3 aspect ratio with a full resolution of 4160 x 3120, or roughly 12.9 million effective pixels. There’s a fast f/2.0 aperture, but no hardware or software stabilization on board.

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The camera app is another area which resembles the iPhone, and we have the same sliding action which moves us from still photos to video and fun modes like “Beauty” and “Best Food Shot”. This is curious positioning though, as options for panorama and HDR are buried in a menu, and controls for white balance and ISO are buried two menus deep. Surely some of that could have lived on the main composition window. Even Apple offers HDR on the main camera viewfinder. The upper right corner of the app also houses a familiar looking collection of filters which can be applied in real time while composing photos and videos.

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Photo output is one of the few areas where we’ll use the phrase “for the price”. The pictures you’ll get out of the Honor 5X are good, for the price. Average JPG sizes were between 2 and 4 megabytes, so we now there’s a fair amount of compression happening. This is reflected in a subtly dull look for most stills. Left to its own devices, the camera has a tendency to over saturate warmer colors like reds and yellows. There’s decent dynamic range for this sensor size, but expect highlights to clip in sunny conditions. White balance was very even handed though, and the camera did a solid job of balancing the color of lighting against what “true white” would resemble, even in low light situations.

The HDR mode has a light touch, but it’s still more of a shadow brightening mode. The camera won’t label HDR photos as such in your gallery, and there were several pics where I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between HDR processed shots and normal photos. By contrast, the panorama performance is terrific. Provide the phone a consistent pass through a scene, and you’ll rarely see stitching or seams.

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While you can eke out some lovely still photos with a little patience, the video mode is outright disappointing. Quality maxes at 30fps 1080p, and at a low 20Mbps bitrate. Details are lost in this compression. Color info is lackluster, and not having any image stabilization on tap means the frame is always moving when the phone is being held. The video mode is functional, but you’re unlikely to produce content you’ll want to go back and watch.

Performance

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The Honor 5X runs on a capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 chipset. It sounds impressive to talk about octa-core CPUs and Adreno GPUs, but it is a mid-ranger solution which produces mid-ranger results. Our review unit came with 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, though there is a variant with 3GB of RAM available to some regions. This review phone was used for a week on AT&T’s network around Los Angeles, and it was a hearty performer.

While I’m not enamored with the UI, the phone is a swift performer, easily sliding you through homescreens and settings menus. It’s perfectly adept at tackling the communication and social networking basics, and only started struggling with more aggressive multi-tasking. A car ride for me involves a connection to a smartwatch, my in car dash, and a mileage tracker connected to my car’s computer, while streaming podcasts, updating turn by turn nav, and keeping up with my notifications. Even under this usage, I only ran into one bad instance of the phone dumping background info and re-drawing the homescreen, something which used to happen frequently on the Galaxy S6.

Gaming is not the Honor 5X’s strong suite, but older titles like Skyforce 2014 and Riptide GP2 performed well with few frame rate drops or bad lags. More aggressive titles like Asphalt 8 or Marvel Future Fight on medium quality settings will turn into a slideshow rather than a smooth gaming experience. For multimedia in general, headphones are recommended over the easily blocked weak bottom speaker.

Phone calls for the most part were acceptable. One recipient complained of a warbling background noise when I was speaking in a busy parking lot, and there weren’t any other serious complaints. The Honor’s ear piece was a bit on the dim side, and a little extra volume would have been appreciated as the speakerphone option, powered by the lackluster bottom speaker, isn’t an ideal replacement. Oddly this phone fought with my car’s Bluetooth connection, producing choppy audio from the car’s cup holder, which was rectified by moving the phone to the passenger seat.

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A good pair of headphones will rectify many of the Huawei’s woes. Music and media playback from the headset jack is punchy and colorful. There’s a touch too much “smiley face” EQ, where bass and treble are artificially boosted at the expense of mid range tones, but overall we get very good volume opposite a respectable noise floor. Much better performance than what was anticipated after listening to the speaker tech.

huawei honor 5x device shot (25)Lastly, battery performance on this handset is terrific. The lower power internals, reasonable screen resolution, and 3,000mAh battery all work together to easily handle all day run time over medium usage scenarios. My best run was just over 5 hours of screen on time, even though a good chunk of my heavy usage scenarios are actually screen off situations, like the driving situation described four paragraphs above. Two days of use isn’t out of the question with more careful power management.

Pros

+Attractive build quality
+Fantastic fingerprint scanner
+Wallet friendly
+Respectable battery life

Cons

-Unappealing UI
-Weak audio playback from speakers
-Weak camera performance when shooting video

 

Pricing and Availability

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The Honor 5X sells for $199.99, and Huawei has made good on their promise to sell an unlocked version of the phone with a United States warranty online through Amazon.

Conclusion

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The competition at this price point is heating up. We’ve compared the Honor 5X to the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, we recently we reviewed the Oppo F1, and a Moto G is always a safe bet at this tier. Still there’s a charm here. To answer the question posed at the top of this review, this phone does raise the bar on the build quality we should expect from manufacturers. Huawei is bringing something unique to the budget crowd. For the savvier folks in our audience, a few software tweaks can really polish up the experience. However the Honor wouldn’t be our first pick for general smartphone shoppers.

Most exciting, is watching Huawei make more aggressive moves in bringing their devices to North American consumers. We’ll always back more competition, and it will be interesting watching how competing manufacturers respond.

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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.