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Featured Review: Huawei Honor 6 with EmotionUI 3.0

December 27, 2014 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Huawei has been creeping up in the smartphone ranks for years now and is now hovering somewhere in the top 5 biggest smartphone makers out there, meaning a flagship device from them is surely going to get noticed.  The Honor 6 has been on the market since September but that’s not going to stop us from giving this a fresh review, as Huawei just updated this puppy with its latest Android skin, EmotionUI 3.0.  This completely changes the look and feel of the phone and quite honestly makes it feel like a totally different phone from what Huawei delivered to the market only 3 months ago.  Does it hold up to the small test of time since it’s been released, or is this update not enough to save it?  Let’s check it out!

Specs

Huawei has been producing their own silicon for a while now, and the Kirin 920 packed inside of the Honor 6 is a powerful 32-bit Octo-core made up of dual quad-core chipsets.  This is part of the big.Little architecture and helps provide some serious power savings by utilizing a less power-hungry A7 quad-core, and for the heavy lifting uses the more powerful A15 quad-core processor.

  • 5.0-inch 1080p IPS LCD
  • HiSilicon Kirin 920 Octo-Core CPU (1.7GHz Cortex-A15 Quad-core, 1.3GHZ Cortex-A7 Quad-core)
  • Mali-T628 MP4 GPU
  • 3 GB of RAM
  • 16/32GB internal storage, microSD card support
  • 3100 mAh Li-Po battery
  • Android 4.4.2, Emotion UI 3.0 Skin
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, Dual-LED flash
  • 5MP front-facing camera
  • Dual-SIM support

This is the H60-L02 model, which means it’s got different band support than the other models that Huawei has released, which are the H60-L01 and H60-L12.  Here’s what we find working on this model:

  • 2G: GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz
  • 3G: HSPA 900/2100MHz
  • 4G: LTE 1800/2100/2500MHz (Band 1, 3, 41)

Display

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Huawei has packed the Honor 6 with a super sharp and color accurate 1080p display.  At 5 inches a 1080p display is more than enough pixels to be beyond “retina” quality, and at 445 pixels per inch you’re never going to see the individual pixels with your naked eye.  The refresh rate on the LCD is also very high resulting in a consistently smooth image and no visible ghosting when images are moving on the screen.  Black levels are pretty standard for an LCD and weren’t anything good or bad, but those looking for super deep blacks and high contrast should look elsewhere.

Viewing angles were definitely better than average and I couldn’t find any angle where the colors got messed up or strange fading would happen as I’ve seen on other panels.  If the colors aren’t to your liking and you’d like the display to be warmer or cooler, Huawei has included an easy option in display settings to change that via a handy slider; something that should be done more easily on other phones for sure!

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Hardware and Build

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The build quality on the Honor 6 definitely trends towards light and lean, which could either be great or horrible depending on your tastes.  It’s an all-plastic build with a glass back, so if you’ve ever held an iPhone 4/4s, Nexus 4 or any of Sony’s Xperia phones you have an idea of what to expect here, except of course that the sides are plastic instead of metal or rubber.  This gives the phone a super light build that just comes off feeling cheap, and while it definitely feels solid and not hollow at all the weight of the device makes it feel like a child’s toy.  There is a such thing as too light and this device crosses that line.

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Depending on the weather the glass back will either make this nice and grippy in warmer weather, or horribly slippery in cooler weather.  Huawei even includes a screen and a back protector in the box so you can keep the unit scratch free.  I’d highly advise applying these as soon as you get the phone as I scratched the back of the phone within the first day of using it.  As far as the rest of the design is concerned it’s pretty standard fare for an Android-powered phone from China nowadays.  You’ve got the volume rocker and power button situated  on the right side, the USB port the bottom and an IR blaster next to a 3.5mm headphone jack up top.  The IR blaster is one unique aspect as there aren’t a ton of phones on the market that have this, which is added value for those that want to consolidate the remotes in their living rooms.

Huawei also has a rather ingenious way of handling the SIM tray and microSD card slot that I haven’t seen on a non-Xperia phone before.  On the right side nested below the power button is a little flap that pops out to reveal two SIM card slots and a microSD card slot.  I like this better than a push-pin tray or even a removable back for manufacturers that don’t want to offer a removable battery.  The flap is held in by a little rubber piece so it’s not going to fall out and get lost or anything, just some great design there.  The edge also has a unique look to it as it’s a silver lining all the way around the sides and top, but the bottom is a flat black.

Performance and Memory

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What would you expect out of a top-of-the-line Octo-core device with 3GB of RAM and “only” a 1080p display?  If you answered flawless performance then you’d happily be correct, as that’s what you’re going to get here.  Huawei did absolutely everything right when it comes to both hardware design for performance reasons as well as multi-tasking, and it all starts with the multi-tasking interface.  Huawei opted for software buttons here instead of capacitive like most Chinese manufacturers use, and it results in a much more pleasant user experience.  Specifically I’m talking about the recents button in which an HTC-like multi-tasking window appears with four large thumbnails of running apps on the screen, with pages of apps running to the right.  Having the 4 full screen thumbnails is different from most other Android phones but it’s a refreshing change that’s for the positive.  Swiping up or down on these thumbnails closes the app in question, and flicking up from the bottom of the screen with the Recents menu open closes all running apps.

Multi-tasking performance was equally as quick as using the recents button too, and moving between apps was a snappy experience.  I found this zippy experience to be the case on everything I tried, from full-3D live wallpaper to graphics intensive games.  Everything I threw at the phone ran like a dream, and I really shouldn’t be surprised given the specs.  The processor and GPU together aren’t quite as fast as the Snapdragon 805 Qualcomm just put out with phones like the Galaxy Note 4 and Nexus 6, but it’s only a hair under that performance level and quite honestly you won’t notice the difference anyway.

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Network

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Here’s the big deal breaker for plenty of people in the US.  On both T-Mobile and AT&T I wasn’t able to get any more than 2G connectivity, making this phone nearly impossible to use outside of having lots of WiFi hotspots.  It’s possible that one of the other variants of the Honor 6 has radios better suited for the US but this isn’t the right one.  Definitely double check the model you’re ordering and the bands that it supports with your carrier.  If you can’t find the information about your carrier’s bands call them up and ask, that’s what they’re there for.

Battery Life

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Battery life was absolutely incredible.  Most days I had just a hair under 50% battery left with normal use and I couldn’t kill the phone no matter what I normally threw at it.  An hour and a half of Runtastic with GPS on, streaming music all day and plenty of chatting around the holidays still didn’t wipe the phone out, not to mention all the pictures and video I was taking during Christmas time.  Battery life is definitely a strong suit here, and something to commend Huawei on.  If for some reason you need to stretch the phone for even longer Huawei has included a number of really interesting modes that help save battery.

Screen Saving Mode effectively turns the display into a 720p display, making it easier on the processor and the rest of the phone to handle daily tasks, inherently lengthening the life of the battery.  To be honest I didn’t notice much of a difference visually here, if any at all in most applications, and it might just be best to leave this on to save some extra battery.  There’s also an Ultra Battery Saver Mode which works a lot like Sony’s similar mode in that it disables everything except for the phone, messaging and contacts apps.  In Huawei’s case that’s only one app, which turns your phone into less than a feature phone but works for when you need it to last for days.  Huawei says that a phone at 10% can run for up to 24 hours in Ultra battery saver mode.

Software

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UI

Here’s where the most interesting part of the review is going to happen since Huawei just unleashed EmotionUI 3.0 onto owners of the Honor 6.  This means a brand new experience while still feeling familiar enough to not be confusing.  Huawei did an amazing job with flattening the UI and making it look more like a modern smartphone, whereas EmotionUI 2.3 that the phone shipped with still looked like a phone from years gone by.  There’s no doubt iOS 7/8 have influenced Huawei in their design decisions, however unlike Xiaomi this doesn’t feel like a weird iPhone, rather an actual Android skin that aims to make Android look different while adding functionality and not trying to change the soul of Android itself.

The notification shade got a really cool addition in timelines on the left side.  Now all your notifications tell you exactly when they came in and how long they’ve been sitting there.  On top of that Huawei has nearly doubled the amount of quick toggles found in the notification shade, giving you quick access to even more features and tools than before.  The lockscreen remains unchanged and by default features Huawei’s “magazine” lockscreen which randomly displays pictures every time you turn it on.  You can subscribe to different types of pictures in the settings for the lockscreen, and I always found them to be really attractive pictures too.  Swiping up from the bottom of the lockscreen presents a quick toolbar with a calendar, calculator, flashlight and mirror, all very reminiscent of iOS.  Huawei also finally added lockscreen music support here, something that was dreadfully missing in previous versions of EmotionUI, and it’s very stylish looking too!

The default launcher doesn’t have an app drawer, meaning you’re going to have screens full of icons instead of a tidy drawer.  You can still group these apps into folders and use widgets on the desktop though, so don’t worry too much here, and of course being Android if you don’t like this launcher just switch it out with another.  Word of warning though, I wasn’t able to get Google Launcher to work with this no matter what I did.  Normally it’s difficult on many Chinese phones to get Google Now Launcher working but it’s almost always possible, but the option to make it your default never appears.  Food for thought.

There’s plenty of little details found throughout the UI that I loved too.  For instance the calendar icon changes to the current date, clock icon shows the current time, and the weather icon shows the current temperature.  These are sort of like little widgets instead of traditional icons, and it’s a great use of the functionality in a way that you don’t normally see.  If you like full-screen immersive mode you can enable that at all times from within settings, so when you need the navigation bar just swipe up from the bottom of the phone to reveal it.  There’s also a really interesting hovering button called the Suspend Button that contains navigation buttons and a lock button if you so choose to use this.

Features

This one deserves a whole section by itself simply because there are so many.  We already went over the power saving features, and Huawei has also included a Phone Manager app that encompasses all sorts of additional security and cleanup features for users to easily access.  Inside you’ll find phone accelerator, harassment filter, power saving, traffic manager, notification manager, permission manager, virus scanner and a handful of other tools too.  This is where the meat of Huawei’s additions to Android can be found, and the granularity at which you can tune notifications, permissions and data use is incredible.  For instance if you want an app to just use WiFi data you can go into data management and turn off cell data for specific apps, and vice-versa of course.

Push messages are by default set to notify you instead of just pushing the message so no app can just start popping up messages unannounced.  You can turn off individual permissions for apps too, so if you don’t want a certain app getting access to your call log or GPS location you can turn that off individually while still allowing the app to run.  It’s this kind of granularity that’s already built into Android but completely inaccessible for whatever reason, and it’s great to see Huawei bringing it out to the forefront.  Virus scanner and phone accelerator are probably going to be more under used than the rest of the suite but they are there if you need them.  There’s also a quick scan button right when you bring up the app to run the suite of tests and let you know what needs to be tweaked individually.

Huawei Apps

Huawei loves its tools and such, and it’s evident here.  Included in the standard tools folder is a mirror app that just shows what’s on the front-facing camera, a magnifier app that puts the rear facing camera in macro mode and works just like a regular magnifying glass, and more.  Since the phone has an IR blaster up top Huawei has a nice universal remote feature on the phone, giving you the option of ditching all your remotes for just your phone.

There has been a full visual makeover of every single Huawei app from EmotionUI 2.3, and pretty much all for the better too.  Many apps feature prominent circular motifs, bars that move, objects that fade and just generally lots of very visually pleasant transitions between screens.  This isn’t quite Material Design level of interesting transitions but definitely somewhere in-between iOS and Lollipop.  Huawei likes transparency in their apps too and includes it as much as possible, like the top section of the screen showing your wallpaper in the messaging app for instance.

Huawei includes a full cloud service for Chinese users to be able to easily automatically backup your contacts, music, photos and other data to the cloud, as well as locate your phone if you lose it.  There’s a boatload of other apps like this that are for Chinese users only, and many of them are key components to the experience.  The theme store for instance, wasn’t accessible for me, and many other apps like Huawei Wallet, HiCare (a support app) and the Huawei app store were almost all in Chinese.  There are lots of social networks and photo apps too found on the phone that work for Chinese residents only, making those difficult to review for me.  Overall though those features are specifically for the Chinese market, and anyone using the Honor 6 outside of China has plenty of other options to replace them.

Sound

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Huawei includes a “DTS Mode” in the sound settings that is supposed to wildy enhance your audio playback.  I definitely found that audio was good but wasn’t able to test anything that blew me away.  There is also no built-in equalizer which was disappointing to me but there are plenty of music apps out there that have their own built in.  Not having this as a system-wide option isn’t great but it is what it is and plenty of phones don’t include that either.

The speaker on the back isn’t in the best place for a speaker but it’s a pretty darn good speaker in general though.  Loudspeaker in phone calls was plenty loud even in a moving car, and the regular earpiece speaker was of great quality too.  Those who like to play their music over this tiny speaker won’t be disappointed given its size, as it produces better sound that I would have thought a speaker this size would.

Camera

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This was definitely another disappointing part of the phone for me.  The Honor 6 uses the Sony IMX214 sensor found in phones with amazing cameras like the Nexus 6 and OnePlus One.  However I found that Huawei’s implementation of the sensor, just like Xiaomi’s in the Mi4, left a lot to be desired.  The actual software itself is well designed and looks like like the iOS camera.  Swiping up from the bottom opens the gallery, which was a little annoying if I just wanted to view the last picture I took, but gives you the option of more easily viewing other pictures too.  There’s plenty of effects like black and white, sepia, etc. to find.  You’ll also find likely all the shooting modes you’ll ever need here including HDR, All-Focus, Panorama, Best Photo and more.

The quality of the pictures wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.  Colors just weren’t right, I can’t really put my finger on it but they aren’t accurate at all.  Huawei’s denoise filter tends to go into overdrive the higher the ISO gets on the picture, so even relatively low light pictures didn’t exactly have a ton of detail in them.  As you would expect pictures taken in broad daylight, especially with the sunlight shining on your target, look excellent and crisp.  The shutter speed is also incredibly fast, with pictures being taken instantaneously after you press the shutter button.  I think I still prefer the look of the pictures over the over saturated ones of the Mi4, but not much more.

HDR seems completely broken though, something that’s super common with this sensor.  I think the only phone that actually gets HDR right when using this sensor has been the Nexus 6, and that’s because Google doesn’t use exposure bracketing (where the camera takes a picture with high exposure and another with low exposure, then blends them together).  HDR on the Honor 6 just feels like Huawei turns up the brightness, as the image appears washed out and has a tint of gray to it.  I didn’t come across a single instance where HDR was worthwhile using, although having it on doesn’t hurt as it saves the original plus the “HDR” shot.

Panorama mode was super high quality and produced a massive image with no visible stitching.  Video was also excellent on a phone that doesn’t feature optical image stabilization, however it only records up to 1080p, not 4k as the sensor and many other phones that use this sensor support.  There is an HDR video option too but oddly enough it’s restricted to 720p only.  Again other phones with this sensor can use HDR video up to 4k, so this is some bizarre software limitation.  Check out the sample gallery below:

Conclusion

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I really loved using this phone and would put it right up there next to the Meizu MX4 Pro as my favorite Chinese phone of the year.  The phone is super fast, has a pretty great display, good sound output and a UI design that doesn’t try to completely change Android, rather complement it.  The camera needs some serious work, but this is all down to software as the sensor onboard has proven itself to be one of the best on the market in other phones that use it.  Those in the US need to look for another variant of the phone, as Huawei sells two other versions of it with different band support.  This model only has 2G on T-Mobile and AT&T, the big GSM networks here in the US, and that’s just not good for anyone.  If you can get a model that supports your carriers bands, however, you’d be hard pressed to find a much better phone that’s readily available on the market.  Chinese readers will benefit from lots of added value features too that are specific to Huawei’s home country, and for somewhere around $330 you’re going to be hard pressed to find a better value on the market.