Honor's new entry-level model is better value than the 5X — but this £150 phone still comes with a few compromises.
When you're selling a phone around the £150 mark, it's less about of what you put in it and more about what's left out. In the past, Motorola's Moto G devices have represented the near-perfect balance of quality and affordability, with emphasis on display and performance — and a clean, slick software experience — above all else.
Honor, the online-centric brand from Huawei, isn't new to selling cheap phones. But unlike Moto, its budget phones have yet to nail it in same way as its Lenovo-owned rival. The Honor 5X was a mess of performance glitches and nagging software issues. And the less said about last year's Honor Holly the better.
The Honor 5C aims to remedy this, with a £150 unlocked price tag, Huawei's latest software and most efficient mid-range chip, metal construction and a 1080p display. So is it up to the task? Let's find out.
With a polycarbonate-framed metal shell, the Honor 5C brings a touch of class to what might otherwise have been a another dull plastic gadget. Unlike the Honor 7 and 5X, that equation is weighted heavily in favor of the plastic — the buttons, for instance, are very much plastic — but the use of any "premium" materials at all sets it apart from rivals at this price point.
The back and sides have pleasing, organic curves to them, which combined with its 5.2-inch screen size make for a comfortable in-hand feel. And aside from Honor branding and regulatory info, the rear panel is broken up only by a slight camera hump, a single antenna line, and the LED flash.
The aluminum back panel uses the same brushed effect as the Honor 5C and Huawei P9 Plus, giving it a unique sheen and a somewhat glossy texture and helping a little with grip. The same goes for the outer plastic trim, which has a subtle grooved texture.
A metal back panel adds a touch of class.
It's not shouty or spectacular, but it is a genuinely nice looking handset, especially for the price.
Around the front there's very little going on — just an earpiece up top, along with the standard front-facing camera and charging LED. The star of the show is a surprisingly decent 1080p display — a panel which isn't exactly jaw-dropping, but sits a tier above the ho-hum 720p panels usually found in entry-level Android phones in terms of clarity and vibrance. I've generally found it bright enough to use in daylight, although fingerprints and smudges conspire to make it less visible than some rivals.
That's because, like the Honor 5X, there's no oleophobic (smudge-resistant) layer on the screen. So fingerprints quickly accumulate, and after just a few minutes of use the phone is left looking greasy and smeary. (The 5C does come with a pre-fitted screen protector, but that too lacks any smudge-resistant properties.)
If you're using an Honor 5C for any length of time, I'd strongly recommend investing in a tempered glass screen protector. A decent screen protector will improve the feel of the phone immeasurably.
Audio quality follows a similar pattern — decent, but not outstanding. The Honor 5C's bottom-facing speakers output audio that's loud enough to hear even outdoors in relatively noisy places, but is prone to distortion at high volume levels, and lacks the strong bass of more expensive competitors.
On the inside is where Honor is able to really differentiate, using a Kirin 650 chip from the Huawei-owned Hisilicon. This processor is basically a lower-powered, far more efficient version of the Kirin 930 chip from the Honor 7, backed up by an upgraded GPU. You've got eight ARM Cortex-A53 cores in a big.LITTLE configuration — a cluster of four higher-clocked cores for demanding tasks, and another four lower-clocked A53s for lighter background tasks. Because the chip is manufactured using the same 16nm process as the Kirin 950 and 955, the Honor 5C is able to boast excellent battery life while performing reasonably well in day-to-day smartphone tasks.
Plenty of performance — with only one caveat.
Even with relatively heavy use, the Honor 5C always lasted us to the end of the day, and with EMUI's wide array of (sometimes over-aggressive) power-saving features, a second day is within the realm of possibility.
What's more, the Mali T830 GPU stood provided decent performance in light gaming duties, with only more demanding titles like the AR-equipped Pokémon Go making things chug a little.
The only real bottleneck I've come across is the RAM — the 5C isn't slow with 2GB, but it's clear apps are bumped out of memory more aggressively compared to EMUI phones with a more ample 3GB.
Elsewhere, the Honor 5C continues the brand's strategy of offering dual-SIM capabilities — SIM slot 1 takes a regular nano-SIM, while slot 2 can accommodate a micro-SD card or a micro-SIM. (With 16GB of internal flash, I suspect most 5C buyers in the West will opt for expandable storage over a second SIM.)
When it comes to software, the Honor 5C is a welcome change from the mess of old, weird, broken stuff I've witnessed on some earlier Honor phones at launch. The handset runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow and the latest EMUI 4.1 out of the box, and as I've seen from other Huawei and Honor phones with this software, everything pretty much works as intended. (It might seem weird to have to say that, but check out our Huawei MediaPad review for an example of how bad older EMUI versions can be.)
EMUI takes design cues from both Android and iOS, with a launcher that lacks a traditional Android app drawer, and icons that favor rounded rectangles and bright colors. And notifications are handled differently to most Android phones — only new notifications are shown on the lock screen — otherwise you'll have to navigate EMUI's notification shade to find incoming messages and other alerts. And notifications remain one of Huawei (and Honor's) weaknesses. Although rarer than before, I've still run into instances where black text will be displayed on a black background, making some notifications almost impossible to read. And even when notifications display properly, there are often alignment issues with buttons and graphics — particularly in streaming apps like Google Play Music.
EMUI is no longer all up in your icons.
But at least EMUI is no longer sticking its nose in your app icons. Like the latest updates to the Huawei P9 series, the build on our review device features no customization at all for bundled Google apps, and only minor tweaks for a handful of third-party icons. So it's still not perfect, but it's a big improvement on where things were just a few months ago.
Honor 5C owners will benefit from EMUI's expansive feature set, including tight power management settings that'll help you make the most of the 3,000mAh fixed battery. Elsewhere, you can easily tweak things like color temperature, notification panel behaviour and even performance in order to improve gaming frame rates or battery life. There's a lot to discover in the settings app, and a useful search tool to help you find what you're looking for.
Another major strength for the Honor 5C, relatively speaking, is its rear camera. It's a relatively run-of-the-mill 13-megapixel sensor, but it benefits from Huawei's latest camera app and software processing. In particular I've been impressed with HDR and flash HDR modes, which uses a combination of multiple exposures (both with and without flash) to conjure up an evenly exposed image.
It also benefits from dedicated panorama, food and light-painting modes, having inherited these from Huawei's high-end handsets, along with features like motion tracking autofocus and quick capture — accessed by double-tapping the volume key when the screen is off. (The 5C usually went from screen-off to capture in a little over one second.)
A £169 Nexus 5X makes any phone at this price point a tough ask.
The camera is no afterthought, but at the same time don't expect miracles in low light — at least if you're not able to stabilize the phone in a tripod and use one of the longer exposure modes.
Should you buy it?
So where does the Honor 5C sit in the (very broad) landscape of budget Android phones? Well, it's a more balanced phone than the Honor 5X, which offers fingerprint security and a larger display, but at the expense of performance. But it's still unfortunate to see Honor shipping a premium metal back on a phone that lacks something as basic as a smudge-resistant oleophobic screen. And although it's been improved considerably in the past year, EMUI remains something of an acquired taste.
The bigger problem for the 5C and everything priced around it might be last year's LG Nexus 5X. It's not possible to get hold of the Google-branded phone for just £169, with faster performance, a better camera and an imminent update to Android 7.0 Nougat. (And for enthusiasts, that's a more exciting proposition than a fundamentally budget offering like the 5C.)
Nevertheless, the Honor 5C is a decent entry-level phone with a few standout features — solid, multi-day battery life, a touch of class with that metal back panel, expandable storage and easy dual-SIM connectivity. And if you're looking for an affordable Android phone which covers all the major bases, it's definitely worth a look.