Honor has an affordable and capable budget option here, but the software borders on unacceptable.
The quick take
The Honor 5X is a budget-priced phone that feels aspirational to something worth a bit more than you paid. For $199 you get a better hardware experience than you might expect, with a good screen, capable camera and a fingerprint sensor. Unfortunately, the Honor software story remains mostly unchanged, eroding away any goodwill gained from touching the phone. The software is overbearing, frequently slow, and downright broken in some places, which spoils the whole experience.
- Quality screen
- Competent camera
- Good build for $199
- Fingerprint sensor
- Questionable software "features"
- Software still broken in places
- Sluggish at times
- Launching with Android 5.1
Honor 5X Video review
While you'll get the most comprehensive look at the Honor 5X by continuing on to read this full review, we've also condensed things down into a video review to sum up the main points of the phone. Check out that video above, then read on for all of the details on the Honor 5X.
Honor enters a new market
Honor 5X Full review
Regular readers of Android Central might be aware of the Honor brand from our previous coverage. But those who don't pay as much attention to the international phone market may find themselves caught off guard by the introduction of a new phone from an unfamiliar name.
It only takes the tiniest amount of investigation to find that Honor is a sub-brand of Huawei, the electronics conglomerate that you're more likely to have heard of. The Honor brand sells phones in a number of countries now, including its native China and across Europe, and the Honor 5X marks the brand's first introduction to the U.S. market.
The story is the same in the states as it is elsewhere, where Honor stands for getting great quality and features on a budget price — something increasingly popular in the U.S. For the relatively meager purchase price you can get an Honor 5X with a predominantly metal body, good screen and capable camera, plus some added perks like solid specs and a loud speaker. The downside, as ever with Huawei products, is the software. While this may be the best version of their EMUI customizations yet, it still has a way to go.
But a phone is all about the complete package, and we're going to tell you all about it in our complete Honor 5X review. Read on.
- 5.5-inch IPS LCD display
- 1920x1080 resolution
- 13MP rear camera
- 5MP front camera
- 3000 mAh battery
- Snapdragon 616 64-bit processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 16GB of storage
- SD card expandable
- Dual SIM slots
- 802.11n Wi-Fi
- Fingerprint sensor
- Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
- EMUI 3.1 customizations
About this review
I (Andrew Martonik) am writing this review after a week using the Honor 5X, running on software version KIW-L24C567B130, which was not updated during the review period. The phone was used exclusively on the T-Mobile network in the greater Seattle area with good signal coverage. For the duration, a UA Band fitness wearable was connected over Bluetooth.
Ed note: For the sake of consistency with other reviews we've truncated the original headline and picked things up in the introduction.
Great for the money
Honor 5X Hardware
Though the Honor 5X will be an introduction of Honor hardware to those of us in the U.S., if you happen to have seen an Honor 7 previously, which is a step higher in the line, you'll be well on track to knowing what this phone is like. (And if you haven't, be sure to read our Honor 7 review right here.) Huawei knows a thing or two about making low-cost phones feel nicer than you'd expect, and the Honor sub-brand has inherited that expertise.
The $199 Honor 5X is sleek, put together well and even sports a metal back plate — broken only by the camera pod and fingerprint sensor (more on these below) — with some finely-machined edges and a few design flourishes. The metal doesn't feel as good as you'd find on the Nexus 6P, or the HTC One A9 or the newer Huawei Mate 8, and it meets up with some cheaper-feeling plastic on the top and bottom (radio antennas have to go somewhere). But it's still more than you expect at the price.
The same feeling goes for the rest of the design, where you get a nicely-constructed full pane of glass covering the 5.5-inch display, meeting up with hard (and slightly shiny) plastic around the edges that feels great and smoothly transitions to the metal on the side of the phone. The rest of the experience is pretty pedestrian, with all of the buttons and ports precisely where you expect them: headphone jack on top, power and volume on the right, SIM and SD card on the left, and Micro USB and speaker on the bottom.
This is great hardware for a $199 phone, even if it lacks some design flair.
Ergonomics are actually quite good for a phone of this size (and, again, price), even taking into consideration some larger-than-usual bezels around the screen. The metal back provides just a little grip for your fingers, and the beveled edges on the back offer something extra to hold onto as well. I feel as though the volume keys (particularly volume up) are a bit tough to hit when holding the phone one-handed because they're above the power button (that's a Huawei thing), but that's a minor inconvenience.
There's nothing to make the 5X really stand out in a crowd, and for a budget phone that's not too surprising — you want money spent on materials and build, not necessarily design gimmicks or cutting-edge hardware features that can't be executed fully for this kind of phone. But what's here is good, it just isn't much of a looker.
One thing that has really improved as a result of increased competition in the budget phone space has been screen quality. It used to be that a phone at this $199 price was going to offer a subpar viewing experience (not to mention a smaller size), and that just isn't the case here.
The Honor 5X has a 5.5-inch 1920x1080 IPS LCD screen, and it actually looks really good. The 1080p resolution is in no way an issue at this screen size, and it's complimented by good colors (plus a color temperature adjustment option in the settings) and wide viewing angles. Brightness is also pretty good, albeit unspectacular when you compare it to more expensive devices — that goes for the high end, but also the low end where I don't feel the 5X gets dim enough at night. Those are small gripes, though, and overall the Honor 5X offers an above-average screen.
The screen has all the right features, but it's a tremendous fingerprint magnet.
Actually, the only real issue to be found with the screen is its seemingly complete lack of any oleophobic coating, which is the treatment provided to most touchscreen devices to keep them from accumulating grease and oils from your hands. Missing this coating means the Honor 5X's screen gets absolutely piled with smudges from even casual use, leaving you to constantly wipe it down with your shirt, pant leg, couch, friend's shirt ... you get the idea.
The Honor 5X ships with a decent plastic film screen protector pre-installed, which might have some sort of oleophobic coating baked into the plastic but also manages to completely ruin the experience of using the phone. I've never been a fan of screen protectors, and despise them even more when they're pre-installed a phone — but considering this very annoying lack of an oleophobic coating you may actually want to keep the screen protector on and try it out for a bit.
I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed ... Again
Honor 5X Software
Just like the hardware, much of what you'll find on the Honor 5X's software was already on display in 2015 with the Honor 7. This is Android 5.1.1 underneath, but Honor's (well, Huawei's) own EMUI 3.1 customizations are what you're going to be interacting with.
If you haven't used EMUI before, it's going to be a bit jarring. The software is still very tied to its roots, with loud colors, frosted transparency, extra flair and tweaks galore to the Android interface — all while Android as a whole has toned things back a bit on the design front. The basics of the status bar, general settings layout and on-screen navigation buttons are familiar here, but that's about where the similarities to stock Android end. Honor has touched every corner of the OS with a complete redesign, and it's downright impressive in how everything has changed and follows a consistent look.
EMUI can initially be a jarring experience when coming from another phone.
Perhaps the biggest changes to the way we're used to using Android phones is in the launcher, where EMUI eschews a traditional app drawer to leave all of your installed apps on the home screens along with your widgets, much like you'll experience on Apple's iOS (and this is hardly the only time you'll say that phrase with this phone). This is either more simplistic or incredibly messy, depending on which side you're coming from, but chances are you're going to be more familiar with a "traditional" Android launcher that lets you customize your home screens and leave less-used apps in an app drawer. You can download and use any launcher from the Play Store you wish, and I expect most people to do just that.
You'll also find a big change to the way the notification shade looks, with a timeline-like display that spaces out individual notifications and applies a hefty skin to how buttons are displayed. For the most part it works as intended, but some apps can send notifications that don't fit right with the EMUI button style and don't have room to expand with a two-finger swipe. Thankfully this version of EMUI doesn't exhibit the poor handling of Gmail notifications we've experienced on virtually every other EMUI-running phone — every notification I received at least had a consistent look. That fix has been a long time coming. And as of right now, the Honor 5X is the only one with it — not even the newer EMUI 4.0 on the Huawei Mate 8 can say that. (We're not saying that makes any sense.)
We aren't surprised when manufacturers put their own style on Android for consistency, branding and differentiation purposes, but I still have considerable issues with the software on this phone as a whole. Design is subjective, of course, and I actually don't have big issues with the looks of EMUI — the biggest issues with the Honor 5X are the underlying functionality of the features and in some cases the completely broken nature of the software.
Despite constant outcry from those of us who have used Honor and Huawei phones, the latest EMUI 3.1 still has some of the most annoying prompts, features and default system choices in the business. By default, every time a new app sends you a notification, you'll be prompted as to whether you want to allow it to give you future notifications. After that app runs for a while, you'll be alerted to the fact that it's running (spoiler alert: Android apps can run in the background!) with the choice to force it to close when you're not actively using it.
The real issue is 'features' that are overbearing and sometimes broken.
The phone is constantly bothering you to make sure you're deathly aware of the fact that apps are running and using your battery, and while I was elated to find the option to turn off these power consumption prompts (Settings > Power saving > Settings button > "Power-intensive prompt"), these alerts shouldn't be on by default — and I'd argue they shouldn't even be an option. All they do is scare users into closing apps in an effort to extend battery life, which in turn offers a terrible experience on the phone. Modern-day Android is more than capable of handling apps left open without killing your battery.
After about a day, you'll probably realize that you're not receiving notifications from any of the apps you've installed — don't worry, this is (sadly) normal. Despite the fact that you've been prompted about 87 times in the last day to allow apps to give you notifications, the system has — by default — chosen to restrict all third-party apps from running in the background. In the "Power saving" area of the settings you'll find a "Protected apps" list where you can allow individual apps to run while the screen is off, and you'll find that all of your apps are unchecked by default.
Again the tyranny of the default is in full effect, shutting down apps in a completely nonstandard way that nobody expects. Even if you go in and tap "Add all" to let them run in the background, the default action when you install a new app is to have it blocked from running while the screen is off. I actually enjoy that this is an option, and am sure that some people will find it useful (hey, maybe Facebook doesn't need to run when the screen is off), but it should never be the default behavior.
To top it all off? Every one of your app icons is now a different shape.
Though not a functional issue, one of the more annoying parts of EMUI is what the system does to your app icons. EMUI forces all app icons to fit into a maximum size template that includes rounded-off corners so that every icon matches the maximum shape of its own pre-installed apps and folders. It seems like a solid idea from a consistency standpoint, but the end result is quite comical — every app has some sort of odd shape to it now, with corners cut off and sides tapered in in unexpected ways.
The Google Maps icon has its location pin cutoff awkwardly. The Gmail icon looks like it ate too much for lunch. Amazon Shopping actually has part of the letters in its icon cut off. ... The list goes on. App developers design their icons to look a certain way on purpose, and they don't need to be put through this cookie cutter that trims off the edges to please EMUI — and this is perhaps one of the most annoying pet peeves of the system. And, nope, installing a third-party launcher doesn't fix the issue.
With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Honor 5X certainly fits in with its competition in the budget phone space. Powering a 1080p display on principle shouldn't been too much to handle for this processor (though it isn't known as much of a speed demon), and for the most part that's the case on the Honor 5X — that is, after you turn off the power saving mode.
Once you turn off 'Smart' mode, you get a pretty solid experience.
Tossing another log on the fire of curious software decisions, Honor has chosen to enable a throttled-back "Smart" power saving mode — which it says is "recommended for daily use" — by default. Switching the phone to "Normal" instead ramps up performance to an acceptable pace, and if you choose to leave it on Smart you're going to be stuck in the slow lane waiting an extra couple seconds for just about everything to happen when you use the phone.
Leaving the Honor 5X in Normal, things are about as you'd expect from a $199 phone. Apps open relatively quickly, you can multitask normally and handle individual apps just fine, but you'll still find the occasional stutter in the interface when you push it too hard or try to run a foreground app while others are performing tasks in the background. I get the feeling that EMUI is trying to do a bit too much, which is eating up precious resources on a phone that doesn't necessarily have a lot to spare, and the end result is occasional slowdowns.
This kind of performance isn't necessarily a given in this price range, though, with some other phones being capable of better overall speed and fluid response. Phones like the ASUS ZenFone 2 and OnePlus X are smoother and faster in my testing.
On Lollipop and updates
The Honor 5X is just now making its debut in the U.S., coinciding with CES 2016, and that puts it in a tough spot for those who follow Android Central's stance on phones that are launching in 2016 with anything less than Marshmallow 6.0 on board. There's more to take into consideration here, though, as the 5X was actually unveiled to the world back at the end of October, 2015, starting with availability in China. That's the same week that the new Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X (the latter unrelated and manufactured by LG) debuted as the first Marshmallow devices, and for a phone that launched alongside those it isn't entirely fair to expect it to have launched with Marshmallow. And in fact, Huawei actually managed to announce its Mate 8 with Marshmallow just weeks later at the end of November, 2015.
But putting all of that aside, the proof is in the pudding here: the Honor 5X is being made available to folks in the U.S. as a new device at the end of January 2016 with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. And while Honor (as it should and must) surfaces the Android security patch level in the settings — this review unit is on the December 1, 2015 release — that's not a replacement for having Android 6.0 out of the box here.
Honor says it's committing to updates for the 5X, including Marshmallow, EMUI 4 and the monthly security patches, but until the phone is launched and we start to see it making those promises a reality, we're cautiously optimistic.
Update: The Honor 5X received the January security update on Jan. 22, ahead of the phone's retail release.
Day to day
Using the Honor 5X
Once you spend a couple days setting up the Honor 5X, disabling some of the annoying messages you get and turning off other "features" and maybe even installing a new launcher, it's not far off from using any other Android phone in its class.
There's a rather sizable 3000 mAh battery under the metal back of the Honor 5X, and when you pair that up with a mid-range processor and 1080p display it ends up working out well when it comes to battery life. When using the phone with Normal performance mode turned on (as noted earlier) the Honor 5X can easily get through a day of use with double-digit battery to spare, even when making no attempts to save battery life. Even with "allowing" nearly every app to run in the background, serve notifications and sync all it wants, the Honor 5X left me with 20 percent or more at the end of the day. On days where I was a bit tougher on it, listening to a lot of podcasts and using is as a mobile hotspot for a few hours, I still made it to bed with charge in the battery.
Battery life is in no way a problem, which makes Honor's restrictive software decisions puzzling.
With the great battery life I'm seeing, it just adds to my confusion over Honor's decisions to limit so much of what the phone can do out of the box. Not only does it hurt performance, as I note above, but the phone has plenty of battery in reserve to let the phone do more for the user. I didn't have a single issue of coming up short with battery in my use of the Honor 5X, and I don't expect many others will either.
When it comes to charging back up the Honor 5X you do hit a slight bit of disappointment, as the phone doesn't include Qualcomm's Quick Charge technology to fill up that 3000 mAh cell (though the model that launched in China supports Quick Charge 3.0). Adding a little jab of extra pain is the charger in the box, which only outputs 5V / 1A — dramatically slower than most wall chargers you get nowadays. If you want to charge up the 5X at anything more than a glacial pace, you'll want to employ a third-party charger.
A surprising addition to a phone of this price is the one-touch fingerprint sensor, which is located on the back of the phone — just like on the Honor 7, Nexus 6P, Mate 8, LG V10 and others. Though it's physically a tad smaller than the rest, the concept and execution is just as good. Register your finger of choice with a few taps in the settings app and then you can bypass the lock screen with a single press on the sensor. Though Honor quotes a 500-millisecond response rate I found it to be a touch slower than the Nexus 6P (which quotes 600 ms), but it isn't noticeable in regular use. This thing is super fast to recognize your finger, and has a low failure rate.
A top-price sensor on a low-price phone.
Because the phone is running Android 5.1.1 it doesn't offer the ability to unlock any apps (few as they may be at this point) from the Play Store that are targeting Marshmallow's fingerprint APIs, but Honor has thrown in a few extra features for the fingerprint sensor to make sure you're using it for more than just unlocking your phone. With various taps and swipes on the fingerprint sensor, you can go back to your home screen, capture photos, answer calls, stop your alarm, pull up the recent apps menu and show the notification shade.
In typical modern smartphone fashion, the Honor 5X has gone with a single loudspeaker at the bottom of the phone, though you'll find two sets of speaker grilles there for visual symmetry. For a speaker of this size it actually gets surprisingly loud — much louder than the one offered in the Galaxy Note 5, actually — though the top range of volumes gets quite tinny and blown out.
But at lower volumes it's serviceable, and considering the fact that you won't be getting high-quality sound, or sound that is actually coming toward you from a front-facing speaker, simply offering high volume and basic clarity is enough to get a good grade on a phone. This is more than enough speaker for watching a quick video or taking a speakerphone call.
On the handset speaker front, all is well here. Huawei knows a thing or two about call quality, and that's well on display with this phone — of course part of that is the cell radio itself, but in the end it comes out of a speaker on front.
Odds and ends
- I've been able to get some of the fastest T-Mobile LTE speeds of any phone I've tested.
- There are two SIM slots, one Nano and one Micro, plus an SD card slot.
- The vibration motor for notifications is extremely powerful ... almost too powerful.
- There are no headphones included in the box.
- The Wi-Fi maxes out at 802.11n, and only at 2.4GHz.
Good, not great
Honor 5X Cameras
Just like the rest of the hardware, you get a bit more in the camera department on the Honor 5X than you'd expect. The 13MP camera sensor is definitely big enough, and a fast f/2.0 lens helps its causes. You won't find Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) here, as expected, but Honor touts its "SmartImage 3.0" image processor as being able to crunch everything you take in through the lens and make a nice picture out of it.
On the camera app interface front, Honor did a solid job. You get quick toggles for camera switching and the flash, and can switch between shooting modes with swipes up or down across the viewfinder. HDR unfortunately lives behind an extra tap into a menu, while I'd definitely prefer a quick toggle for it and an auto-HDR option. A tap on the viewfinder in the standard shooting mode locks focus and meters for that point, and offers up a slider to raise or lower the brightness, which is nice. The camera app is quick to open, operate and capture photos, though I was able to get it to slow down a bit and make me wait for "processing" when I took multiple shots and tried to view them.
The Honor 5X's camera actually performed admirably in good lighting conditions, but as is often the case in lower-end phones was lacking some dynamic range when not shooting in HDR mode. Tap-to-meter helped this a bit, and toggling to HDR for more difficult shots usually fixed it either way. In low light the 5X struggled quite a bit, attempting to smooth out grain from higher ISOs that usually resulted in slightly blurry or soft pictures.
The typical snapshot in average-or-better lighting turned out better than I could've expected, and for the other situations you can't be too disappointed considering the price point. The front-facing camera was also surprisingly good on the Honor 5X, taking relatively sharp shots from the 5MP sensor even in indoor lighting.
New phone, same old story
Honor 5X: The Bottom line
It's quite impressive how much solid hardware Honor can fit into a phone for just $199. A metal build, finely-sculpted glass, high-quality 5.5-inch display, a top-notch fingerprint sensor and capable camera all come together in the Honor 5X to offer a solid package. That's all without cutting too many corners in other parts of the hardware, with the only real downside being a slightly-sluggish Snapdragon 616 processor — 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage are plenty for this range of phone.
But with all of the positives of the hardware, everything's brought back down to earth on the software front. EMUI's design could use a little bit of a tune-up, but the real issues are all of the superfluous features that are poorly implemented or completely broken. This is probably the least-buggy version of EMUI yet, but it still has a long way to go in terms of the overall user experience before it can be considered a competent and preferable system for a phone. Adding to the pain is the fact that it's building on Android 5.1, multiple months after the launch of Marshmallow. Honor has plenty of uphill battles to fight getting into the U.S., and EMUI is by far the biggest.
And even with the anchor that is EMUI pulling it down, the Honor 5X still manages to offer a good value. There's so much to like about what Honor is doing, and it's easy to see why the phones are selling elsewhere in the world.
Should you buy it? It doesn't offer enough
So let's get down to it: should you buy the Honor 5X? Depending on your priorities you may come to a different conclusion, but I just can't recommend this phone over the competition out there. If it sounds like the same old story again about an Honor (or Huawei) phone, that's because it is the same situation. Great hardware chops, some neat features and great value for your money ... basically all for nothing, when you have to deal with the software on board. At $199 unlocked you may not be too discerning about your phone choice, but there are better options right now with a superior total package — like the ASUS ZenFone 2, Moto G 2015 and OnePlus X.
Where to buy the Honor 5X
Honor is selling direct to consumers unlocked in the U.S., and with a price of $199 that shouldn't be too surprising. You'll have your choice of either Amazon or Newegg to buy one, and while the phone isn't technically available yet you can go for a pre-order and get one as soon as it's available.