The Huawei Honor 5X is a paradox for Android enthusiasts right out of the box. It costs just $199. But it runs Android 5.1. It has a surprisingly decent camera. But it doesn't support band 12 LTE on T-Mobile. The 1080p IPS display is very bright and may well be class-leading at this price point. But the Honor 5X doesn't have NFC. Its fingerprint reader pretty much lets it stand alone in the market for sub-$200 devices. But so does Huawei's software layer, and not in a good way. It has a microSD card slot. But it's only available with 16GB of storage, and no Marshmallow means no adoptable SD cards.

Huawei claims confidently that the Honor 5X will be updated to Marshmallow, but I personally wouldn't take much stock in the "when" of that. It's possible they'll move quickly to update the phone to cement the brand among enthusiasts and journalists alike here in the US, to make a good showing of what they can do if they set themselves to the task. But if they really were concerned with updates, wouldn't the thing have launched with Marshmallow? After all, HTC launched a phone with Android 6.0 that will be two months old by the time the Honor 5X is available here in the US, and Huawei has far more resources than struggling HTC.

Android 5.1, then, feels like something that was a result of cost-saving or corporate ineptitude, and tarnishes the phone right out of the gate. Will the rest of H5X be able to redeem this misstep? As it stands, for two-hundred bucks, I think it does. But that's not to say I think people are going to go about and buy them in droves.

Specs

Display 5.5" 1080p (FHD) IPS LCD
Processor Snapdragon 615 octacore
RAM 2GB
Camera 13MP rear, 5.0MP front
Storage 16GB, plus microSD slot
Ports microUSB 2.0
Wireless GSM + LTE (no T-Mobile band 12), Wi-Fi a/b/g/n 2.4GHz, Bluetooth 4.0
NFC No
Dimensions 151.3 x 76.3 x 8.15mm, 158g
Battery 3000mAh
OS Android 5.1.1
Price $200
Buy Pre-order here (US)

The Good

Fingerprint scanner A touch fingerprint scanner on a $200 smartphone. It works. Enough said.
Battery life 3000mAh battery provides surprisingly solid battery life, even if charging is a bit slow.
Display It gets really bright and it is not terrible, high praise at this price point.
Camera When it cooperates, it really is a decent camera, much better than you get on most $200-or-less phones, and even better than those on some more expensive devices (COUGH HTC ONE A9 COUGH).
Cash money Two-hundred dollars. Look at the spec sheet. Look at the price. Look at the spec sheet. Now back at the price. If you aren't impressed, I can't help you. But...

The Not So Good

Software Huawei, no. Huawei, stop. Huawei, please. Just do stock Android. No one in America, or I have to think anywhere, likes EMUI. I'd take TouchWiz over this in a heartbeat. Seriously.
Unchecked boxes No NFC, no 5GHz Wi-Fi, no T-Mobile band 12, no Marshmallow (it will get it later), no quick charging, no 32GB model. Again, $199. But, they are all things you should know going in.
Slow A Snapdragon 615 and a 1080p display have not historically been a good combination. They still aren't. This phone starts out feeling reasonably quick, but rapidly devolves into the pause-ridden, frame-dropping, hanging mess that is literally every Snapdragon 615 phone on Lollipop. Maybe it'll get better in Marshmallow?
Display glass is oleofanatic This is utterly minor in the grand scheme, but if you have OCD about your display being clean at all times, don't buy this phone. No matter how much wiping I do, stuff always seems to linger on it, and fingerprints seem especially noticeable. It has made me a little bit crazy.

Design and build quality

Let's start with what Huawei does right. By making the phone's frame out of metal, Huawei has immediately set itself apart - in the West, at least - from other budget handsets in terms of materials. However, the phone is not a full metal unibody, but rather a composite design. The metal frame does not fully wrap around to the display glass - there is an upper plastic surround on the perimeter of the phone. Plastic antenna windows on the top and bottom of the back are also present.

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For $199, there is little to complain about. If you're looking for what's going to make this physically different from, say, a Nexus 6P, you're going to find a lot of it in the various seams and gaps along various portions of the H5X, which are of notably inferior tolerances and precision. Still, few people are going to ever notice this sort of thing. And again, at the price, does anyone even have a right to particularly care? The reality is that the Honor 5X compares very well on this front to something like the ZenFone 2, which has all the physical quality of disposable tableware after more than a few weeks of real-word use. Even the old Ascend P8 Lite feels like an uninspired lump of flimsy plastic held up against the Honor 5X, and the P8 Lite cost quite a bit more at launch ($250).

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The power and volume buttons feel, surprisingly, very similar to those on the Nexus 6P, albeit a bit narrower and in a reversed arrangement (power on the bottom, volume on top). For a device without capacitive navigation keys, the H5X does have a rather generous "chin" bezel, making the phone a bit larger than its 5.5" display might suggest. For comparison, the Honor 5X is a scant 2mm shorter than a Galaxy Note 5 (5.7" display), and is actual fractionally wider than that device. It is, though, still smaller than the similarly-priced and sized ZenFone 2, so it's not like the 5X is unusually large for something in this part of the market given its screen dimensions.

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A microUSB port and two speaker grilles (I am unsure if there are actually two speakers) line the bottom, with the headphone jack up top. The speaker itself is definitely quite loud, though the quality of the sound it produces is firmly in the "potato" range. Going to the back, the camera is indeed humped, flanked by a single LED flash, with the hard-to-believe-at-this-price fingerprint scanner sitting below it. The fingerprint scanner, by the way, works. But it's noticeably slower than others I've used on devices like the Nexus 6P or HTC One A9, and anecdotally, I've found it to be a bit pickier in terms of recognizing my fingerprint at off angles, too.

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All in all, the Honor 5X feels like a fairly typical smartphone - there isn't anything particularly eccentric or unusual about the design which, at a commodity price point, is probably a good thing. The phone provides a fairly anonymous but not at all cheap-looking or feeling canvas for the software and components to shine through.

Display

Given the $199 price tag, I find little to fault with the Honor 5X's 1080p IPS LCD panel. It gets very bright (often an area of weakness for budget phones), and the 1080p resolution is perfectly acceptable on a 5.5" screen. Viewing angles are quite good for an LCD at this price point, with brightness loss occurring pretty noticeably beginning at moderate off-angles, and extensive black-to-gray/white casting visible at extremes. Color on the panel seems uniform, with no strange spotting or inconsistencies on a fully gray or white canvas.

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Color reproduction is clearly exaggerated artificially with saturation, resulting in hot greens, reds, yellows, blues - pretty much everything. It's not cartoonish, but is likely meant to obscure a display panel with a naturally duller profile so that it "pops" more. I don't think anyone's buying a $199 smartphone for color accuracy, though, so these comments are merely informational, not critical, in nature. As screens in this part of the market go, the Honor 5X is likely better than almost anything else on the market and, taken as a whole, its screen could have easily passed on a phone costing twice as much a couple of years ago. The brightness really is where it's at on this phone, as it has long been a lament of cheaper devices in years past unless they also sacrificed on resolution or overall panel quality to get a beefier backlight.

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The perennial issue with LCDs, of course, is that increased brightness means substantially increased power consumption. Using the Honor 5X at full retina-sear will run down the battery more quickly, and the panel's mediocre ambient contrast means outdoor usage will encourage abuse of the brightness slider. Without advanced glare-reduction and the various advancements Apple and others have used to keep the IPS screen competitive with AMOLEDs on power consumption relative to visibility, your battery life is going to vary considerably with self-control / active management of the display's luminosity. I find that automatic brightness is sufficiently conservative indoors even on the max setting, but when you're in direct sunlight, it doesn't hesitate to crank itself up, and you may want to keep an eye on your battery in such situations.

Battery life

With Huawei's intensive app background sleeping active, aka the default setting on the Honor 5X, the phone gets, frankly, awesome battery life. I've often found myself reaching for a charger only the next day, even in well into the afternoon of the next day, because the phone sips so little power at idle.

Perplexingly, if you turn the performance mode to "normal" and add all of your apps to the "OK to run in background" list, this really doesn't seem to change at all. And here's what you need to know about running the phone as Huawei sets it up out of the box: your notifications will be delayed at least sometimes, and sometimes for a very considerable duration. This is why I find Huawei's battery life estimates a bit disingenuous. Yes, the phone will last for a long time - if you are willing to accept the optimizations and resulting sacrifices they've made to achieve that figure.

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In one instance, I had a Google+ notification come through on the Honor 5X, on Wi-Fi, a full 5 minutes after it came through on my Nexus 6P. That's ridiculous. (It was also an anomaly, to be fair - it was only that bad that one time.) And the Google+ app isn't even one you can force off in the background with Huawei's default sleep behavior, because it's a system app. This is just a result of some kind of aggressive device sleeping Huawei has implemented, and I've noticed similar behavior on other Huawei devices I've tested, like the Ascend P8 Lite.

In "normal" power mode - as opposed to "smart" - I really didn't notice a difference in battery life or in the notification behavior. Even letting all the apps run in the background didn't really seem to change much. The phone gets good battery life in either mode. Unfortunately, even in normal power mode, aggressive sleeping behavior still occurs, and the phone doesn't really feel any faster for it. The net result is a phone that lasts a pretty long time, but is clearly doing some corner-cutting to get there.

You'll want that battery life, too, because the Honor 5X charges pretty slowly. Our own measurements have it charging at 5-7 watts, hovering around 6 generally, which is basically on par with Android phones of three or four years ago, with zero to one-hundred-percent charges taking around two hours. It's a budget phone, though, and many budget phones don't support quick charging, so it's not as though the Honor 5X is by any means below average in this respect. It's just that after using so many phones with quick charging, it is a bit annoying to go back to one without it.

Performance

If you're hoping Huawei's performed miracles with the infamously finicky octacore Snapdragon 615, it's time to lower your expectations. After more than a few days of use I can definitely tell this is one of Qualcomm's not-so-bargain-bin parts. The 615, for all intents and purposes, really just isn't a fast chip. While the HTC One A9 runs the improved 617 version of that same chipset on Marshmallow respectably, even Android 6.0's performance enhancements can't save that device from being obnoxiously slow at times.

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The same is true of the Honor 5X. In a "play with it for a few minutes on a show floor" environment, the 5X seems just fine. Not insanely quick, but nothing takes oddly long to load and few things freeze up or hang. Once you start piling on the apps, the cached data, the Bluetooth accessories, and all the background syncing, though, the 615's inherent sluggishness reveals itself just as readily as any other phone. Running the almost laughably underpowered Adreno 405 GPU at 1080p doesn't really help matters, as it seems far happier on phones that use a 720p resolution. This phone is sometimes epicly slow. And that's probably to conserve power, more than anything.

If you want a quick-ish phone on a budget, this isn't going to satisfy - trust me. The Honor 5X is positively glacial under some circumstances, to the point of frustration. Few phones, if any, in recent memory have felt slower to me. Either way, I've always had a hard time recommending Qualcomm's Snapdragon 615. It's just that in this application, you probably aren't expecting a huge amount of performance for the money. I realize it's getting a bit tired to go back to the price time and time again, but it's absolutely critical to evaluating this device comparatively.

Camera

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In some conditions, the Honor 5X's camera performs quite well. In others, it can be a letdown. For one, the H5X's camera often errs considerably on the side of overexposure, and this can result in major blowouts in outdoor situations where direct sunlight is even proximate to the visible image area. I'd definitely prefer more conservative exposure generally on this camera. Indoors, the boosted exposure can benefit when lighting isn't especially cooperative, but it still can be aggressive enough to wash out an image.

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Left: bad, right: better.

There's also a rather pronounced blue shift to many images, to an extent that in some cases the Honor 5X invents colors that simply aren't there. Everything is definitely a bit cooler than it should be, in my experience so far.

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The light on the walls in the top left of this image should be pink-ish white, not blue.

The upshot? Images are often sharp, crisp, and if not overexposed, have good contrast, resulting in very social media-shareable shots that someone with a $200 smartphone is probably going to be impressed by regardless. There's none of the grain, blur, and fuzz that you'd generally associate with a very inexpensive smartphone. And in that sense, Huawei has done quite well with the H5X. With a bit of tuning, this could well be a very decent smartphone camera, I'm confident.

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Even out of the box, though, this is a pretty decent camera. While anecdotally I prefer the tuning of Alcatel's Idol 3, the H5X is every bit as sharp (perhaps more so) and quick on the shutter. I even prefer the Honor 5X's camera to the far more expensive HTC One A9's - which is noisy, slow, and often blurs images.

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Left: HDR off, right: HDR on.

Connectivity (LTE, Wi-Fi, etc.) and storage

The Honor 5X supports all of the bands you'll need for AT&T or its several MVNOs here in America, as well as 3G abroad, and some of T-Mobile's LTE bands (no VoLTE, though). Band 12, specifically, is excluded, and it doesn't sound like Honor is pursuing adding it in. Connectivity for me on AT&T here in Los Angeles has been solid, with the phone achieving the speeds I would generally expect. Reception hasn't been abnormal in either direction.

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The Honor 5X supports Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, but does not support 5GHz networks, only 2.4. For a $200 phone, this isn't exactly a big deal, but if you're expecting it, just know it's not there. On a similar note, NFC is also not present, which may be a dealbreaker for some. Bluetooth 4.0 is included, and I've not had any issues keeping my Android Wear watch connected to the Honor 5X, so it seems to work reliably.

Call quality was decent, though the earpiece speaker is nothing special and a bit muddy even by typical smartphone standards, if you ask me.

On the storage front, after loading up my standard compliment of apps, I had less than 7GB of additional space left on the phone. Huawei advertises 10.51GB of total "available" capacity in the storage settings, but the full suite of updated Google apps will quickly gnaw away at that figure right out of the gate (I think the "real" number is more like 8GB). This isn't by any means bad for a 16GB phone, but it does show how quickly claustrophobic a modern Android install can feel on what previously was considered a passable amount of space. Thankfully, the H5X has a microSD slot for your media storage needs, which does help. When Android 6.0 and its adoptable external storage show up, the concern will be an even lesser one. As far as 3rd party bloat, Huawei preloads Shazam and Facetune Lite on the Honor 5X, and both can be fully uninstalled (yay).

Software

Where to start with Huawei's software layer? The nicest way I can say it is that putting on a 3rd-party launcher and keyboard is quick and painless, as you'll likely never want to go back to the stock solutions. The launcher operates under the oddly common assumption among Chinese manufacturers that people don't like the app drawer, which sends me running for Google Now Launcher or Nova post-haste.

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The launcher really has no major redeeming qualities and is not worth your attention. The keyboard is based on Swype gesture typing and, really, if you like Swype: just download Swype! it will very likely be a newer version of the keyboard anyway. Both the launcher and keyboard are minor complaints, as you can easily rid yourself of them. Huawei also still rather oddly includes its own browser app, which you can safely avoid.

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Then there are the parts you can't avoid, like the lockscreen and notification area, both of which I find at least appreciably irksome. By default, Huawei's software layer does not allow newly-installed apps to push notifications to the lockscreen. For reasons. You can go into a settings menu and individually enable lockscreen notifications on a per-app basis, but this is completely stupid. Also worth noting: newly-installed apps are also, by default, not allowed to display banner (scrolling / pop-over notifications in the status bar) by default, and this behavior, too, must be enabled on an app-by-app basis. I have never received a satisfactory explanation as to why EMUI considers either of these things a benefit to the user experience.

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The notification bar annoyances don't end there. Huawei uses a tabbed notification bar, with one tab for notifications and the other for power toggles. The best part is when you go to swipe left from the toggle tab and accidentally turn off mobile data or silence your phone or take a screenshot, because the system seems unable to reliably ignore touches on the power toggles that are actually swipes. Oh, and this one's good: the first time an app pushes a notification to the bar, Huawei's UI asks you to allow or deny that app to continue pushing notifications in the future.

If you absentmindedly push "deny" instead of "allow" - perhaps mistaking them for typical notification actions an app might present - as is bound to happen occasionally, you'll have to go into settings and re-grant that app access to the notification bar, assuming you even realize that you've done it in the first place. I understand we all desire greater configurability of the user experience in some situations, but this just seems unnecessary, Huawei.

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In addition, as a battery-saving feature, Huawei has its own quasi-implementation of doze mode that doesn't allow any third-party apps to run in the background when the display is off by default. This can and does result in delayed push notifications at times, and while background access can be enabled or disabled in bulk, it seems draconian to not allow the default setting to be "on" with the user then having a choice to later disable apps they find to be background time hogs. Of note: this feature has disappeared on Huawei devices with Android 6.0 like the Mate 8, as it likely interferes with doze mode, which serves a similar purpose but likely via a more refined and developer-friendly form (i.e., documentation exists).

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If an app is running a lot in the background, EMUI will notify you of this, prompting you to force close the app or ignore future reminders about its power consumption. This feature, thankfully, can be disabled in the power saving area of settings, in a secondary settings area. Yes, I know Google Fit and Android Wear are running in the background, Huawei. They're supposed to.

As far as custom settings, Huawei lays them on thick, but most are not enabled by default. Here's a brief list, as I really don't want to deep-dive on them.

  • Simple home screen mode (basically, tiles).
  • Screen color temperature (simple warm/cool slider).
  • Carrier name in status bar display toggle.
  • Display network speed in status bar toggle.
  • Increased sunlight visibility toggle.
  • Three power modes: ultra, smart, and normal.
  • Toggle for incoming notifications to turn screen on.
  • Toggle to turn the fingerprint scanner into a capacitive back or home key.
  • Toggle to use fingerprint scanner as shutter in camera app, to answer calls, stop alarms.
  • Toggle to swipe up on fingerprint scanner to show recent apps or swipe down for the notification bar (test notes: incredibly janky / unreliable, don't bother).
  • Gestures: flip to mute, shake to rearrange homescreen icons (what), double tap to power on screen, draw letter on screen to open apps.
  • Flipped navbar layouts (no custom layouts), including layouts which add a notification pull-down key.
  • One-hand UI mode (pushes UI to left or right of screen) and one-hand keyboard mode (same idea).
  • Floating dock (similar to Samsung's Air View on the Note, just floating buttons for various functions that sit over the whole UI persistently).
  • Glove mode (enhanced touchscreen sensitivity).
  • Raise phone to ear to answer call, press power or volume to answer.

All in all, a lot of tweaks that you may or may not find useful, most of which stay out of the way unless you actively go in and turn them on. Unlike recent Huawei devices like the Mate 8, the Honor 5X does not support split-screen app mode (not that it's particularly useful given the tiny number of supported apps).

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The most forgiving thing I can say about Huawei's software layer is that, at its worst, it's only moderately annoying. The rest of the time, it's just kind of an eyesore, and at least some of that can be remedied by changing up the launcher. What will Android 6.0 bring to EMUI? I'd look to the Mate 8, which really doesn't change a whole lot about EMUI, and definitely doesn't bring it closer to stock Android.

Given the Honor 5X does have a Snapdragon 615 chipset (Moto X Play / Maxx 2, Alcatel Idol 3 (5.5), ZenFone 2 Laser) instead of one of Huawei's more obscure Kirin parts, though, hopefully robust custom ROM support isn't too far down the road. Because if I were to buy this thing, that'd definitely be high on my list of things to do, and I haven't had the desire to flash a custom ROM to one of my phones in years.

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Conclusion

A $200 smartphone with a fingerprint scanner, a decent camera, solid battery life, and LTE? Two years ago, we all would have said that was impossible. (To be fair, two years ago, it likely would have been.) Even today, the Honor 5X represents a level of value that is difficult to argue against on features to dollars alone - this phone ticks a surprising number of boxes and does so at a price that is bound to raise the eyebrows of savvy online shoppers looking for the best deal they can get on a smartphone while maximizing on the specification sheet.

For that person, the Honor 5X is all but unassailable. Really. Can you criticize this phone with a straight face knowing what it costs? Perhaps for the enthusiast on a strict budget with an equally strict list of features to check off, the Honor 5X may miss the mark. No NFC, no 5GHz Wi-Fi, no T-Mobile band 12 LTE, no Android Marshmallow (even if it will get it eventually) - I'm not saying these are unreasonable things to point out. Far from it: it'd be a disservice to you, our readers, if I didn't point them out. And if you're in the market for a phone at this price point and not having one of these items is a deal-breaker, so be it. But for the typical consumer shopping around with this kind of budget, I doubt any of these things really matter, perhaps apart from T-Mobile subscribers, who should be wary of any non-B12 phone.

But as a phone you can recommend to your neighbors, your friends, or relatives who have absolutely no desire to spend any more than $200 on a phone? The Honor 5X will bring them into the world of modern smartphones for the price of dinner for four at a reasonably nice restaurant.

Now, is there more to discuss here? Should you want a $200 phone? Or are they still filled with too many sacrifices for most phone enthusiasts like ourselves? I think it really depends on what your expectations are, and that's highly personal. If you're asking me, my opinion is plain: I would not want to use this phone every day. I am looking forward to not using it anymore, frankly. It's slow, the software layer is needlessly obtrusive, it takes what feels like an age to charge to my Quick Charge-spoiled lifestyle, it lacks NFC (I do use Android Pay occasionally), it has a pitiful amount of storage, it runs what is arguably the buggiest, slowest version of Android in the last couple of years, and subjectively I think it looks pretty uninspired. But that's me. Many people simply do not care about any of this. Or, given a strict budget, are willing to look past most of it.

So, I applaud Huawei for building what is probably quite easily the most fully-featured $200 phone you can buy new, all things considered. But when it comes down to clicking the "buy" button, this phone is far more about your expectations than mine, and I suppose that's the most succinct way I can put it. The Honor 5X goes on sale at the end of this month in the US for $199 - you can pre-order it here.

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