Huawei has been doing pretty good in the smartphone business lately. For 3 months in 2017 they were the second largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, just behind Samsung and above Apple. We’ve been pretty big fans of the Honor 5X and Honor 6X of years passed, so the latest Honor 7X update for 2018 is certainly of interest. This range has always been known for having a great premium quality feel and extremely respectable specs with a price tag in the budget friendly $200 range. Will the Honor 7X make you question the need to spend over $800 on the latest smartphone? It certainly might! Let’s find out in our Honor 7X review below!
What’s in the box? Just the phone and a Micro-USB charger.
Hardware and Design
In the hand, the Huawei Honor 7X feels a lot like any other modern high end smartphone. It really feels like an iPhone X or a Google Pixel 2XL. The screen is huge with very thin bezels for something in this price range. The automatic brightness control very nicely keeps the screen visible in many lighting conditions, however when it’s very dark, the screen goes down to its lowest brightness level, and for me that’s hard to see. I wish it could keep just a little brighter. Of course, that’s easy to adjust with a swipe from the top edge and slight drag of the brightness slider.
You can see that the screen is best viewed straight on as well. There are some viewing angle issues, but again, you can’t expect an amazing high-end screen in this price range. Honestly, this screen is probably better than you’d expect, especially since it has 2160 x 1080 pixels and a 407 pixels per inch density.
Unlike some other Huawei phones, the Honor 7X keeps the finger print scanner on the back. This makes it very easy to access with your index finger while holding the phone. It makes accessing the fingerprint scanner much more difficult when the phone is in a car dock or placed on a table. The scanner is inset into the body within a circle though, so it’s very easy to feel its location without having to look. Some devices give no tactile feedback for the location of the fingerprint scanner and that makes it more difficult to use. The Honor 7X doesn’t have that problem.
With EMUI 5.1 you get a number of nice fingerprint scanner gestures that help you control things with one hand and without having to touch the screen. For example, (if you turn on these options in the settings) you can swipe downward on the fingerprint scanner to show the top-edge notifications tray. Swiping side to side in the photos app lets you flip through photos, and holding it can let let you take a picture in the camera app.
Speaking of the camera, there are 2 cameras on the back here. One is a 16Mp sensor, which is used as the main one for image capture. The other is a 2Mp sensor which is only used for calculating depth of field information. It’s not a different focal length that you can switch to in order to change the view from a wide-angle to a normal or telephoto view. It’s only there for use with the fake blur filters. There’s also a single LED flash, and you know how bad those are… but it’s better than nothing.
The bottom edge of the Honor 7X is where you’ll find a 3.5mm TRS headphone jack. Many phones are repeating the trend for removing this as they tried to do in 2005, but thankfully we still have some phones that include it.
On the other side you’ll see speaker and microphone holes, and in the middle we’ve got the Micro-USB port for charging, data transfer, and connecting to the HiSuite software. Yeah, some of you may have preferred USB-C, but USB-C really has some compatibility issues at this time. Micro-USB is a little more reliable when it comes to finding a cable that works.
The right edge is where you’ll find the volume up/down toggle switch and the power/wake button. They’re very thin, but raised well enough to be easy to feel for while holding the device. Also note that inside the corners of this device are little shock absorption “air bags”. You can’t see them, but they’ll help reduce damage when the phone gets dropped.
On the left edge, you’ve got a tiny hole for popping out the SIM card & MicroSD expansion tray. The MicroSD tray doubles as a 2nd Nano SIM card tray too, so you can use two SIM cards with two different mobile phone plans in this phone.
At the top, we’ve got an 8 megapixel front facing camera along with the handset speaker. You can also see the seams where the screen is mounted to the aluminum body. Everything is really quite well put together.
The Honor 7X ships with Android 7.0 Nougat and Huawei’s custom EMUI 5.1. EMUI 5.1 replaces the default Android launcher and includes a few custom apps as well as a custom settings dialog. One big customization option is the ability to remove the standard “app drawer” icon in the bottom dock of the home launcher. This puts all of the app icons on the home screens along with the widgets. Personally I think this can simplify things a bit since you’ll only have to look in one place for everything on the phone.
The Phone Manager app is another part of EMUI that Huawei has added. This is a good all-in-one spot to manage things like memory usage, battery, antivirus, data usage, blocked messages/callers, lock screen apps, etc.
While there is a regular power saving mode in the Phone Manager, that mode will only get you about 2 days of usage without any background app activity or notifications sync. The Ultra Power Saver mode as seen above could give you over 6 days of usage! This mode only gives you access to 6 apps of your choosing and nothing has background push notifications. This is actually really nice as I can totally pick out only 6 apps that I would likely want access to for a long weekend away.
EMUI 5.1 includes a good number of essential apps from Huawei. You’ve got an app for Themes, Health, a custom Calendar app, Notepad, File management, an email app, and others. The email app is okay, but it doesn’t read automatic configuration setup XML on Office 365 and Exchange Servers, so some accounts are a bit more tedious to set up. It’s also not as customizable as some other email apps like Blue Mail or Nine.
Most of these custom apps have a rounded floating toolbar at the bottom and it looks quite nice. The buttons nicely have text labels that increase your cognitive ease of use and they’re located at the bottom of the screen where you can reach them with one hand while holding the phone. Those are two important usability aspects that most other Android app developers ignore.
Huawei’s Music app is uniquely beautifully designed. It doesn’t have any cloud connectivity aspect like Google Play Music or other media players and that’s a good thing. No ads, just music.
Huawei’s Settings section has a lot of nice little customization options. You can change your home-screen style, choose from different navigation key layouts, enable fingerprint touch gestures, manage app permissions, and even create “App twins” which are secondary separate instances of specific apps that you can log into with a different account.
With all of this Android customizing, we also have some stability problems. I’ve encountered app crashes from the camera, Xbox, Facebook, and others. Maybe a future update will make this a bit more stable.
When you plug the Honor 7X into a computer and enable data access, the internal storage shows up as you would expect, but a “CDROM” drive also shows up. This “HiSuite” separate disk includes some legal info on a PDF as well as a link to install the HiSuite software.
You’ll have to enable your device to connect to this software in the settings in addition to allowing data access in the USB connection pop-up, but once you do, you’ll get a lot of great features for managing your phone from a PC. You can see all of the apps installed, uninstall the ones you don’t want and side-load other Android apps that you may have downloaded. You can sell all of the pictures, videos, and contacts on the device and of course transfer them to or from your PC. There’s a messaging section to where you can send & receive text messages just like we could do with some very old Windows Mobile 5-6 apps as well as some old Nokia Symbian desktop apps. The Outlook section even lets you do offline syncing of Outlook data between your phone and PC just like we used to do with PDAs and Palm Pilots in the 90’s. It’s really great to see a smartphone that’s not 100% dependent on cloud services (since those don’t last)!
While you can’t control the device from the PC, you can see what’s on its screen and save screenshots. There are also backup, restore, update, and system recovery options as well as storage monitoring status bars.
You can also display your phone’s screen on your computers screen in full screen mode. This is useful for projection demonstrations as everything that happens on your phone will show up on the larger screen. This HiSuite software is quite impressive and totally worth installing if you use a PC all day and really hate having to pick up your phone to respond to text messages or other notifications. All you have to do is look at the HiSuite application window instead.
The camera on the Honor 7X is actually quite acceptable for today’s smartphones. It doesn’t have image stabilization or multiple optical focal lengths to switch between, but the image quality that I’ve been seeing from this camera is about on par with average higher-end smartphone cameras. It’s totally iPhone X quality. I know that’s not saying much, but I was actually impressed with how the fake depth of field blur handles highlights. I was expecting an even Gaussian blur, but Huawei actually put some thought into simulating DOF blurring and reproducing the circles of confusion as they are called.
Both the portrait mode and aperture simulation modes use the secondary 2Mp camera to calculate z-axis depth within the image. It guesstimates which parts are near and which parts are far and then blurs out the parts that are not within the focus point’s field.
The Aperture simulation mode doesn’t actually simulate the real function of an aperture at all. A camera’s aperture is meant to control the amount of light that’s being absorbed by the film or digital sensor at the time of exposure. It’s not possible to do that in software. Really it should be called a depth of field simulation, but it doesn’t even do that correctly. There’s a slider where you can adjust the aperture from f0.95 to f16. I assume it’s also trying to simulate a 35mm sensor frame because that has a huge effect on how the light focuses through the aperture size. Another thing that has a huge effect on the depth of field blurring is the focus point distance. The Huawei aperture simulation mode doesn’t seem to take that into account as a max blurring setting will have a similar effect whether the focus point subject is near or far.
All in all, software simulated depth of field really doesn’t look natural at all. I can spot these photos a mile away as the intricacies of natural bokeh just aren’t there. You can especially see this in the edges of any simulated bokeh image… not just Huawei, I’m talking the Google Pixel 2 and iPhone X, as well. One reason it’s just not possible to get it right is because you need the light to come from behind the subject. Blurring a 2D image with an automatically generated selection is going to cause bleed in the edges between the focus point and background/foreground. That’s if you can get the depth selections right and none of these DOF simulation cameras do. The edges are always messy. Doing this right, requires much more work.
The “Wide aperture effects” are non-destructive in the Huawei camera app and photo gallery. When viewing a photo, you’ll see a little grey circle icon next to the ones that were shot with depth information. You can then go into the effect editing mode and use the slider to change the amount of blur that’s applied to the image.
What’s more is that you can also change the focus point! In the above, I chose the background as the focus point, and the foreground becomes blurry. Even from this photo of a photo, you can see the messy edges of this effect around the bottom of Rosy’s elbow. Still, it’s nice to see a “Refocus” capability return to smartphones since Nokia had this option in the old Windows Phone days.
Besides the prominent, portrait and bokeh simulation modes at the top of the viewfinder, if you swipe the viewfinder to the right, you’ll get a whole page full of other modes and effects. You can switch to the Pro Photo mode with all the good old manual photography controls. You’ve got an HDR mode, Panorama, Light painting, Time-lapse, slow motion, and even a bunch of filters. Swiping to the left gives you all of the regular camera configuration settings such as resolution, grid overlay, shutter sound mute, touch to capture, object tracking, etc.
In the above gallery, you can see some full resolution sample photos taken with the rear camera. It’s fairly obvious which ones have the fake bokeh blurring effect. Edges are kind of messy even with very basic rectangular shapes like the Pocketnow mug seen in the first sample. In the second sample, whole swaths of telephone pole wires and trees just got erased. In the last sample, you can see that the subject and background are fairly far away and very close to being in the same focal plane, yet the fake wide aperture filter blurs the background much more than what would be physically possible with an actual wide aperture lens.
The front facing camera is pretty competitive with other much more expensive smartphones, too. Of course, its image quality isn’t as great as the rear-facing camera and there’s going to be a lot of water-color smattered noise reduction effects, but for simple social network sharing, that’s probably ok. Yes, there’s a fake bokeh filter here as well. See below gallery for a few samples.
Overall, the camera is totally acceptable with the possible exception of the camera software’s instability. I’ve encountered hangs, crashes, or extremely slow starts with Huawei’s camera app on the Honor 7X. Maybe this is due to all of the features that were packed into the camera software, or maybe it just needs some fine tuning and an update or two. Honestly, the Open Camera app seems to be a little more reliable, and that has the added advantage of supporting RAW DNG output, but without the special blur filters or other effects. Although, something seems to be saving the color channel information incorrectly in the RAW DNG files as everything that’s supposed to be red is purple or everything that’s supposed to be yellow is blue. So that’s troublesome.
The battery life on the Honor 7X is pretty excellent. You can easily go for more than one day in the normal mode with all of your notifications turned on. The 16nm Kirin 659 chipset seems to be very power efficient, and the 3340 mAh battery is a good amount of power. Huawei’s EMUI 5.1 has some very extensive power management features too. The battery control panel in the settings allows you to clean up lock screen apps, optimize app power usage, switch to a low resolution power saving mode for the screen, enable a power saving mode that limits background app activity, and even enable an “Ultra power saving mode” that limits you to 6 apps of your choosing and extends battery life significantly. I kept it in Ultra power saving mode all day and the battery level was still in the high 90s. Of course, I was only doing email, calendar, maps, and some light web browsing, but the option to extend battery life so considerably is really nice to have. For our Honor 7X review, we’ve used the device for more than a week.
Honor 7X Review Conclusion
At $200, the Huawei Honor 7X is a beautiful phone! Above you can see it next to some other fairly well-received smartphones in the same $200 price range; the Moto G5 Plus and Nokia 6. Both of those phones seem far more basic and even clunky looking next to the Honor 7X. The Huawei Honor 7X gives you a lot of bang for you buck. The large screen with very thin bezels along with the thin aluminum body make it look and feel like a much more expensive phone.
Some may criticize the Honor 7X for its lack of USB-C charging port, but who cares? It’s just a charging/data port. You’re not going to be plugging in external monitors or eGPU hardware here. Yes, there are plenty of things that could be better, but you’re going to have to pay more for those things. The Honor 7X is a nice balance between budget friendly pricing and modern high-end style features.
Guest appearance by Rosy R.