Why would anyone buy this phone, exactly?
Canadians attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the mobile space are well accustomed to Android devices that, while close, don't quite align with their international, or even U.S., counterparts.
One such product is the newly-released Huawei GR5, a mid-range Android device available starting this week from Rogers for $0 on a 2-year contract and $375 outright.
As far as free phones go, on paper the GR5 sounds like a satisfying prospect: big, bright 5.5-inch Full HD display; 3,000mAh battery; rear fingerprint scanner; metal body. But it's when you dig into the core of the product that you begin to see where things went rotten. And rotten is certainly an apt adjective for this product.
The Huawei GR5 is actually the Honor 5X renamed for the Canadian market. Honor, Huawei's budget-friendly brand proliferating throughout the U.S. and Europe, was developed, as many brands are, to distance itself from any preconceptions associated with its parent company.
The "Huawei" brand, especially in the U.S., drudges up associations — unproven, to clarify — of collusion with the Chinese government and the surreptitious installation of spyware and malware. Since 2012, the company has been effectively banned from selling network equipment to U.S.-based carriers, and has no plans to pursue a large scale handset strategy under its own name.
In Canada, things are very different. Huawei does sell network equipment to our carriers, and its brand, growing in strength, is positively associated in almost every respect. It has built an enormous R&D centre in Ottawa, the nation's capital, and every May, under the name Seeds for the Future, sends 20 Canadian university students on a two-week "cultural and work experience trip."
Oh, and it also sells handsets.
Huawei doesn't sell its high-end P or Mate series products in Canada, at least not through carrier channels. In fact, outside the Nexus 6P, which is packaged as a Google product, the GR5 is the company's most powerful device on store shelves. But it is not a good representative of the brand at all.
Not only is the GR5 a watered-down version of the Honor 5X, which a reduction in RAM (in some models) from 3GB to 2GB, it actually ships — in May, 2016 — with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. Alone that isn't cause for concern, but the GR5's EMUI 3.1 is, for lack of a better word, ugly; what we've seen on the Huawei P9, which ships with Android 6.0 and EMUI 4.1, is much more encouraging.
I'm not just talking to the hardcore Android users when I say that shipping a device with year-old software is bad for everyone. It's bad for the OEM, which has already overcome many of its most persistent software issues in newer versions; it's bad for the carrier, which has to support this aging OS, and convince customers to buy it; and it's especially bad for those customers, many of whom may balk at this poor Android experience and reconsider their next purchase.
From my time with EMUI 3.1, I found the interface clumsy and finicky, pocked with numerous spelling mistakes peppered throughout the confusing system of non-standard Android menus. While the lack of an app drawer is not alone worth complaining about, Huawei's default launcher performs poorly, and the built-in apps are badly-designed. Worse, the notification shade modifies Android's standard colour scheme, so apps like Google's own Gmail render black text on a purple background.
A hardware dilemma
On the surface, the Huawei GR5 looks nice enough. Its metal body, while thin and too flexible, is handsomely finished, and the company did a respectable job matching the silver plastic insets that hide the antennas. Holding the phone, though, exposes a wispy lightness, the result of a company skimping on housing materials.
Inside, the Snapdragon 616 processor is only minutely different to the Snapdragon 615 that we found wanting in performance even a year ago; today, such a chip is outright slow. Most OEMs have moved on to the similarly-priced but more-capable Snapdragon 617, or even the 650, but since this is a variant of a phone released in October 2015, such things are to be expected.
Also of concern is the 2GB of RAM, a cost-saving measure that may not impact performance at first, but over time will take its toll.
I'll defer to my colleague, Andrew Martonik, on the GR5's 13MP + 5MP rear/front camera combination, who, in his review, found them competent if unremarkable:
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.
There are better free phones at Rogers, like the LG G4, Moto X Play — and even the LG G3. If paying nothing upfront for a phone is the only goal, consider a phone from an OEM with a better track record of issuing updates, and less of a penchant for modifying the heck out of Android.
If the GR5 is the phone for you, you can overcome all of its issues, and you're willing to buy it outright, I have good news: Newegg Canada sells the actual Honor 5X for $249.99 — and it's much more likely to receive an upgrade to Marshmallow before the Rogers-sold variant.