Quirky, sleek and highly affordable, the Honor 5X is the brand's best value handset to date — but it's not quite a compromise-free experience.
Huawei's Honor brand has always been about targeting really interesting hardware, with laser precision, at a disruptive price point. The Honor 7, for instance, was unique in delivering metal construction and biometric security for around £250 at launch. Now the Honor 5X wants to take the core of that experience and give it an even lower price tag.
Announced for Europe today, and on sale immediately for £189.99, the 5X is perhaps the best value Honor phone yet (let's just forget about the Honor Holly, mmkay). But can hit such a competitive price point without cutting corners? We'll take a closer look after the break.
The Honor 5X measures in at what's increasingly becoming the sweet spot for smartphones — with a 5.5-inch display, it's big without being unmanageable. And the slight curve to the back of the chassis makes it a comfortable fit in the hand. The 5X's metal rear also accounts for one of its major selling points. In contrast to the plastic rectangles you'd normally find populating the sub-£200 space, the 5X looks like a classy piece of tech. It's the same basic design as the Honor 7, or if you want to venture further back, Huawei's own Mate 7.
A little ostentatious, but not too flashy.
But unlike those models, the Honor 5X's metal parts have a glossier finish with a brushed pattern, which looks and feels a lot like an HTC One M9. And like the M9, it doesn't feel quite as high-end as exposed brushed aluminum. (In fact, going by touch alone, it's entirely possible to mistake the metal back for plastic.)
- Current OS version: Android 5.1
- Current security: January 2016 (More info)
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Regardless, the aluminum back extends around the sides, and the chamfered edges help with grip. Meanwhile you've got the expected plastic sections at the top and bottom, housing the phone's antenna, which manage to blend into the overall design. It's eye-catching and a little ostentatious without being too showy.
Around the front, things are relatively spartan except for the 5.5-inch 1080p display. The Honor 5X's immediate competition — phones like the Moto G and Oppo F1 — includes mostly 720p screens, so the jump up to Full HD is a big deal. It's also got more than just pixel density going for it — it's bright enough to use outside even without the brightness-boosting daylight mode, and vibrant enough without looking weirdly over-saturated.
What's disheartening, though, is the lack of any kind of oleophobic coating atop the glass. That's the fancy name for the smudge-resistant layer that just about all modern smartphones have. Without it, the 5X's screen gets gunked up with fingerprints really easily — and given how good this screen looks, that's a real shame. The phone does come with a pre-fitted screen protector, but that also doesn't have any kind of oleophobic layer. (It's like it's oleophobophobic.)
No doubt you'll be able to pick up tempered glass screen protectors for the Honor 5X eventually, but that's not really the point. This is something which should come as standard in any phone in 2016.
On the inside, Huawei's switched from its homegrown Kirin processors, instead fitting the 5X with a Snapdragon 616 octa-core CPU. This is basically a refreshed version of the Snapdragon 615 we've been seeing in mid-range Android phones for around 18 months now, with varying results in terms of performance. And the Honor 5X is a bit of a mixed bag here as well. It's not horribly slow, but there are noticeable moments of animation slowdown that you won't see in the Kirin-powered Honor 7.
What it lacks in up-front oomph it makes up for in longevity.
What it lacks in up-front oomph it makes up for in longevity, though. The internal 3000 mAh battery is easily good for an entire day of heavy use, with up to 5 hours of screen-on time depending on what you're doing. And while Qualcomm QuickCharge isn't supported, the 5X will suck down a full 2 amps from a capable 5V plug.
Like previous Honor phones, you also get two SIM slots to play with, both of which are active for voice calls, and one of which can serve up LTE data. In a welcome change however, you no longer have to choose between using a second SIM or a microSD slot — there are dedicated slots for all three in the Honor 5X.
Huawei's cameras have really been all over the map in the past year. Some, like the Honor 6 Plus, have been great. Others, like the more recent Mate 8, merely passable. So it's great to see that the 5X's rear camera is actually highly capable for such an inexpensive phone. Low-light pics can be problematic, as you might expect for a mid-level handset without OIS (optical image stabilization). But in good, or even middling light, the 5X captures surprisingly decent pictures, with accurate colors and adequate dynamic range. Fine details quickly fade in darker conditions, however the 13-megapixel resolution means it's able to capture enough detail for photos to look great on the web.
This camera is no afterthought.
The 5X also benefits from Huawei's full-featured camera app, which boasts a wide variety of preset shooting modes and filters, including with standard offerings like HDR, panorama and slow-mo video (up to 720p is supported, compared to 1080p for regular 30fps video.) Imaging is often an afterthought in less expensive handsets, so it's great to see Honor stepping up to the plate here.
You will miss out on some of Huawei's headline camera features though, like the Honor 7's super night mode and light-painting modes.
Regardless, much of the software experience from the Honor 7 has made it across to the 5X, which runs Huawei's EMUI 3.1 atop Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. An update to Marshmallow is promised, but in the meantime you're a version behind the cutting edge, which isn't ideal almost four months into the life of Android 6.0. In any case, at least the U.S. version is being kept up to date with Android security updates, and we hope the European model will follow suit.
As for EMUI itself, much of the weirdness and straight-up broken features we encountered on earlier Huawei devices has been fixed on the Honor 5X. Gmail notifications no longer clash with the background of the notification shade. Lockscreen notifications now let you show alerts from built-in apps, and pop-in notifications work as they should. But while less stuff is broken, EMUI remains an acquired taste. It's highly themeable, but insists in having its way with your icons, chopping off corners and re-styling some apps in ways that just look weird. Again, none of this is as egregious as in earlier versions of the software, but it may grate if you're used to a purer Android experience.
EMUI is improved, but still an acquired taste.
(And yes, EMUI still insists on telling you when apps are using power in the background. Even though that's the way Android works, is designed to work, and has always worked.)
The good news is that EMUI's feature set is pretty impressive, including really intuitive capabilities like using the fingerprint sensor to swipe down the notification shade, or double-tap to dismiss notifications. You can also draw letters on the locked screen to launch up certain apps, or simply double-tap to unlock as normal. There are dozens of small, useful additions like this. It's just a shame the rest of EMUI continues to be as overbearing as ever.
Progress is clearly being made with EMUI, if only it weren't happening so achingly slow.
So some of the compromises are familiar, like the software. Others are baffling, like the lack of oleophobic coating on the screen. That might be a deal-breaker were the rest of this device not as solid as it is. The Honor 5X has raised the bar for what's expected at sub-£200 price points, and we'll be watching with interest to see how the competition responds.