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Featured Review: Honor 5x

February 10, 2016 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Huawei has really been flexing its muscle lately as the leading Chinese manufacturer and the world’s 3rd largest smartphone manufacturer.  Phones like the Nexus 6p and the Mate 8 are incredible flagships with all the trappings of what you would expect in a phone that costs more than $500, but what if you’re looking to spend significantly less than that on a new device?  The last two years have been a breakthrough for phones in this price range, and the last year alone has shown so much evolution that many phones under $200 could have passed for flagship devices not too long ago.  Huawei’s new Honor 5x is one such phone, with an MSRP of $199 unlocked this dual-SIM phone has worldwide band support and incredibly wide appeal, not mentioning the metal build and amazing overall specs, but is this more than the sum of its parts?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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Chinese manufacturers have become well known for pushing the value envelope for under $200, as many reviews on this site have proven.  Huawei ups that game even more as they’re not only including a metal body, which measures 151.3mm high by 76.3mm wide by 8.2mm thin, but weighs a pretty light 158 grams.  On the front of that body is a 5.5-inch IPS LCD screen with no physical or capacitive keys of any kind, and sports a 1080p resolution too.  A Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor is inside and utilizes a 1.2GHz quad-core Cortex-A53 processor paired with a 1.5GHz quad-core Cortex A-53 processor for an optimal computing and battery life mix, while an Adreno 405 GPU powers the graphics side of the house.  2GB of RAM is found inside but there’s also a model that sports 3GB of RAM if you need the extra multi-tasking power.

16GB of internal storage is found on either model and there’s not only dual-SIM slots, a micro and nano size, but also a separate microSD card slot so you can dual-SIM and microSD at the same time.  A 13-megapixel camera with f/2.0 lens is on the back, while a 5-megapixel shooter with f/2.4 lens is on the front.  Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with EMUI 3.1 is powering the software side of things, and there’s support for WiFi 802.11 b, g and n, as well as Bluetooth 4.1 with A2DP.  A non-removable back hides the 3,000mAh battery, and the phone retails for $199 in white, black or gold colors.

In the Box

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The turquoise box will look familiar to anyone who’s ever used a Huawei phone before, and features only the bare essentials inside.  Aside from the phone with a pre-installed screen protector you’ll find a SIM ejector tool that fits both SIM tray slots, as well as a microUSB cable and wall charger.  No manuals or other accessories are included in the box, although there’s a handy sticker attached to the front of the phone that details where to find the usual ports and buttons on the device.

Display

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You’d be hard pressed to find any display in this price range that matches the one on the Honor 5x, outside of the $50 more expensive OnePlus X of course.  Still though this is absolutely the best display, bar none, that you’ll find at or under $200.  With a sharp 1080p resolution for the 5.5-inch size, you’ll not worry about fuzzy images, and the overall quality of this IPS LCD panel is superb for the price.  Black levels aren’t quite as good as you’ve find on higher priced phones with IPS LCD screens, but they’re not terrible by any means.  Viewing angles are mostly excellent although you’ll notice a slight shimmer when tilting the phone to the left or right when it’s held in portrait mode.  There’s no color shifting or black level drop though from these angles, and no light bleed from the edges either. Overall calibration of the screen is excellent and doesn’t favor cool or warm, although if you wish to adjust this you can via the display settings.

Color accuracy as a whole is excellent, and you’ll likely not be complaining about such things at all when looking at the screen.  Contrast levels are excellent and display a good separation between light and dark without negatively affecting the other, while refresh rate is also fantastic.  It’s plenty bright in the sunlight and can get nice and dark for night time social media scanning too.  Even the digitizer is phenomenal and is much better than what we found on Huawei’s own Mate S, a phone that sells for at least $500 on the low end.  Poor digitizers are often found on phones under $200, so it’s incredibly refreshing to see one of this caliber making the cut for a less expensive phone.  As a result typing super fast, giving quick swiping and multi-touch gestures were all registered accurately and quickly.

Hardware and Build

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One of the biggest selling points of the Honor 5x is the build, and really it’s a bit of a mixed bag.  A large single piece of brushed aluminum covers about 90% of the center of the back of the phone, with only small slivers of the top and bottom holding a different pattern.  This small pattern at the top and bottom looks more like dimpled leather than metal and are fairly weird looking alongside the brushed metal.  Weirder still is the way the device looks on the sides and front, as this metal part is only the shell that covers the pack and about 60% of the sides all the way around.  This gives it an “Oreo” look that phones like the Nexus 5x have, however it just doesn’t look great since it’s two completely different types of material.  The cheaper plastic makes the phone look like every other inexpensive plastic phone out there, while the brushed metal back gives it a slightly more premium look, although it still doesn’t hold a candle to Huawei’s other premium metal devices in overall quality and feel.  It’s also got a very flat top with hard edges on the front, whereas the back has curved sides for better ergonomics.

On the bottom side of the phone you’ll find a microUSB port situated between what looks like dual speaker grilles, although only the right side is an actual speaker, while microphones reside in the left grille.  The right side of the phone houses a power button that’s situated just above the center point, while the volume rocker rests above that.  The left side of the phone contains two ejectable trays, one holding the micro-SIM card tray while the other holds the elongated nano-SIM and MicroSD card tray, although these are two separate ports unlike many phones which now combine the nano-SIM and microSD card trays into one slot.  This gives you true dual-SIM capabilities while using a microSD card at the same time, something that seems to have gone by the wayside on many phones.

At the top is a 3.5mm headset jack and a noise-cancelling microphone, while around the front you’ll find the 5MP camera and flash just to the left of the centered earpiece. Returning to the back you’ll find a rounded square fingerprint reader which is centered horizontally and about 3/4 of the way up vertically while the camera lens resides above that, and the dual-LED flash to the left of the camera lens.  The back resembles the much more expensive Mate S in more ways than one and will likely fool anyone just glancing at the phone.

Unlike the Mate S, however, this one seems a bit more fragile than I’d like, particularly that camera hump that juts out just a millimeter or so. While taking the picture in the box section above the phone fell on its back, and since the camera protrudes out from the body that’s the first thing that landed on the ground. Sadly enough the damage done below rendered the camera completely useless, and it all happened from a fall of just 6 inches (151mm) since the phone was standing on its bottom. Needless to say that doesn’t make me feel good about the overall durability of the glass found on the Honor 5x.

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Performance and Memory

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Qualcomm had a bit of trouble with some of its processors in 2015, and the implementation of some of its chipsets have led to some less than desirable performance tradeoffs.  Sometimes the Snapdragon 615 can feel every bit as snappy as its bigger, more expensive brothers the 808 and 810, while other times it can feel worse than a 2-year old chip.  The experience here tends to lean toward the better performing side, although there were plenty of times where the phone would hitch and just plain freeze for a while during a period of loading.  This happened often times when the phone was doing something in the background, although I experienced enough issues where switching between apps would take a couple of seconds rather than the nearly instant switch we’ve become accustomed to.  There were also plenty of times when loading pages with lots of images or videos into Chrome completely froze the phone for many seconds at a time, although it eventually returned to normal speed after that time.  Some of this could likely be attributed to the fairly slow write speed of the internal storage though, which was a bit lower than you’d find on some other phones, even in this price range.

Multi-tasking in general was pretty decent, and although there is the occasional stuttering as mentioned above, the overall experience is pretty good.  Huawei uses a card-based multi-tasking UI that’s reminiscent of the Expose feature from Macs, but fits 4 thumbnails on the screen at once instead of a while bunch.  These can be swiped up to close the app or down to lock it in memory.  For the most part I found that the phone kept everything on the first page of 4 apps open without prejudice, however once moving to the next set of 4 it was anyone’s guess as to which would still be waiting to be launched.  This caused a few app reloads when switching between, but nothing alarming or concerning.  Gaming performance was phenomenal though and very impressive given the relatively high 1080p resolution for some phones in this price range.

Benchmarks

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As is expected from the Snapdragon 615 this phone doesn’t fare well in benchmark scores.  It falls well under what the Lenovo K3 Note scores for instance, a phone that costs only $150 but doesn’t feature the metal body of the Honor 5x.  Regardless the Snapdragon 615 isn’t a great performer no matter what.  Check out the full suite of benchmarks below.

Phone Calls and Network

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Huawei’s devices have become increasingly more globally aware, and that surprisingly includes here in the US.  Many times phone manufacturers will pick chipsets that don’t have US LTE support because their primary markets are not within the US, but Huawei is obviously trying to make a big push back into the country with it’s late 2015/early 2016 devices.  As such we see wide support for even 4G LTE connections, and I found that the Honor 5x got just as good of signal as my Nexus 6p.  That’s impressive no matter how you slice it, especially since the vast majority of phones in this price range won’t even have LTE support in the US at all.  There’s plenty of international coverage here too, and a variety of models that work better in various parts of the world than others.  Our particular model is the KIW-L24, although you can also find the supported bands for the Chinese version below too.

US/International Model

2G bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G Bands: 850/1700/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 2/4/5/7/12/17

 

Chinese Model:

2G bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G Bands: 900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/3/38/39/40/41

Battery Life

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While a 3,000mAh battery is completely average for a phablet with a 5.5-inch screen, the battery life the Honor 5x gets is anything but average.  Getting nearly 7 hours of screen on time with very heavy usage all day long still lasted all the way until the end of the day without problem, and during a more normal usage day I ended the day at midnight (19 hours off the charger) with 40%.  This is pretty astounding battery life for any phone and will likely make any user happy.  The lower power processor certainly helps things and gives this phone a pretty significant competitive advantage.  Better yet I didn’t have the weird missing notification issues that I saw with the Mate 8 running on EMUI 4.0 which tells me multi-tasking is working like it should be.

Software

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EMUI 3.1 has been around for about 6 months or so now, only slightly less time than the Android 5.1 base that it’s built upon.  We saw this launch in the Fall alongside the Mate S and it introduced a few new features, although it’s not quite the update that EMUI 4.0 has (which you might gather from the versioning numbers).  Still this particular version of EMUI 3.1 features a number of enhancements and fixes over the one we reviewed on the Mate S, and is really a sign of relief when considering how irritating some of those problems were.  Overall there’s some very clear iOS influence but also plenty of unique traits, and all in all it’s very much EMUI as you might already be used to if you’re coming from another Huawei device.

Features

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EMUI is a heavier skin of Android, and that means both in terms of looks and additional features.  All the features you’ve come to know and hopefully love in EMUI are here, and that includes even the crazy fingerprint gestures that debuted with the premium Mate S back in the Fall.  The only big thing that’s not here are the knuckle gestures that Huawei puts on its premium digitizers, but that’s really about it.  Notification management is a big deal on EMUI and it’s likely one filtering function that you’ll be accessing more often than not.  That’s because most apps only default to giving you status bar notifications by default, while lockscreen and pop-down “banner” notifications are disabled.  Even the type of lockscreen you choose will change how notifications are displayed on the keyguard, meaning you’ll need to be choosy about what you pick.  There are three included themes, each of which have interchangeable components, but seemingly no way to get additional themes on the phone.

There’s a handful of motion controls here as well as off-screen gestures including double tap to wake the screen, as well as drawing various letters on the screen while it’s off to launch applications you specify.  These are restricted to the letters c, e, m and w, however any app installed on the phone can be selected to launch when the specified letter is drawn.  The bottom navigation bar can be rearranged and slightly customized, although there’s not too much here to see.  Those who find the 5.5-inch display too large to effectively use it with one hand can enable the one-hand UI, where a swipe to the left or right on the navigation bar will shrink the screen down to a 4-inch size in the bottom corner.

Fingerprint Scanner

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Most phones with fingerprint scanners really only let you unlock the phone with your fingerprint, providing a way to more securely and conveniently lock your phone.  Huawei has begun to design more advanced fingerprint scanners that also accept gestures when the phone is unlocked, a feature that again was launched with the Mate S back in the Fall of 2015.  All these gestures are included on the Honor 5x and more, including pulling down the notification shade by swiping down on the fingerprint scanner, swiping up to launch the multi-tasking screen, and even swiping to the left to simulate pressing the back button on the phone.  You can also answer calls and take pictures by simply touching the scanner, however most of these gestures feel more gimmicky than useful most of the time.

The scanner itself is incredibly sensitive though and will respond to even the slightest touch.  This includes both using the above-mentioned gestures as well as the all-important unlocking feature that it will be mainly used for.  In fact the unlocking time of this phone is really second to none, and is absolutely on par with the top-of-the-line premium smartphones out there.  That’s a really big deal in this price category and it’s something that transcends the price in user experience.

Sound

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Sound output is as big a deal to most users as camera quality or speed of the OS, and I’m happy to say the Honor 5x’s audio quality is every bit as good as Huawei’s premium phones are.  By default I feel like the mids are a tad too high and end up muffling the sound just a bit, but it only requires a moderate adjustment on an external sound system to normalize it.  Those without such tools or simple headphones will find themselves out of luck since there’s no built-in software EQ, but then again headphones vary quite a bit and you might find the output to be near perfect with your favorite pair.

Sound from the speaker on the bottom of the phone is pretty decent and has good volume levels, although it’s only a single speaker in the right grille rather than the stereo experience the design suggests.  The speaker has a good range of audio, although there’s not much noticeable bass, and it’s quite clear given a single speaker configuration.  Being on the bottom means it’s not going to be quite as good of a placement for playback as front-facing speakers would be, but it’s considerably better than ones placed on the back.

Camera

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At $200 you may not be expecting too much out of your camera experience, but you’re likely to be very pleasantly surprised by the Honor 5x.  Very few phones in this price range are going to come anywhere near the overall quality you find from this phone.  That makes a lot of sense too since this is the 13-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX214 sensor, a sensor that’s been used in many higher priced phones in the past like the Xiaomi Mi4, OnePlus One and Nexus 6 to name a few.  As such we’ve seen this sensor used in plenty of phones where it’s capable, and plenty of phones where the software downright ruins the experience.  What you’ll find here is a mix of bad software design but good quality pictures in the end, and it all starts with the interface.

The past 2 years or so have seen a big shift toward the large single shutter button design in most camera software, and while some OEMs try to make theirs look unique Huawei goes straight for the tried-and-true iOS look.  Outside of the software buttons on the bottom you’d never know this wasn’t an iPhone if you just had the camera pulled up, and for better or worse that’s the overall UI experience.  Swiping left or right will move between the modes you see just above the black bar at the bottom, and switching between modes can take up to a full second.  If that’s not bad enough there’s no way to quickly select modes from a list, you’ll have to swipe through all of them to get from one side to another.  On top of that the camera software itself can take several seconds to launch in the first place, leaving you with a pretty slow moving experience almost no matter what you’re doing in the software.

Since there’s no dedicated shutter and record buttons you’ll have to swipe between video and picture mode, something that may cause you to lose the moment if you’re in a hurry.  Thankfully the shutter speed of taking these photos is nice and fast, and even the overall quality of the photos is downright great for this price.  HDR is unfortunately effectively useless simply because of the time it takes to switch to HDR mode, and the fact that it’s not automatically selected via intelligent software algorithms like many other OEMs have started doing means most users will probably never even bother using the feature, much less know of its hidden existence in the top right menu.  It’s really a shame too because the HDR mode is really quite good, especially given some of the extremely poor implementations of this sensor throughout the industry.

Unfortunately, because of the accident with the lens we were unable to get any video from the camera and simply cannot judge its quality.  What we did get though were a few photo samples along the way during the review period, all of which you can find at the Flickr gallery below.

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The Good

Light metal design

Great size and feel in the hand

Ultra-fast and accurate fingerprint scanner

Great screen for the price

Excellent camera

Lots of features

Phenomenal battery life

4G LTE in the US

The Bad

Questionable camera software

Fragile camera hump

Plastic and metal make a weird look

EMUI is bloated and ugly

Performance can be sluggish and inconsistent

Conclusion

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For $200 you’re going to be hard pressed to find any brand new phone that’s better than the Honor 5x.  With region-specific models that provide 4G LTE in your area, a mostly solid build despite a fragile camera hump (get a case), great quality photos, sound output and even a good screen all feel more like a phone that’s much more expensive than this one.  The beauty is the price for sure, and it helps to overlook some other bigger faults that might be found if the phone were more expensive, like the Mate S for instance.  The only other phone you’re going to find at this price range that’s this good is probably going to be the OnePlus X, and even then you’re looking at trade-offs for different things depending on what you’re looking for.  If you’re as impressed as we are, you can grab your own from Amazon.