Huawei proved long ago it knows how to build an impeccable smartphone. Whether it’s a top-of-the-line flagship, or another entry in the company’s successful, budget-conscious Honor line, the Chinese electronics manufacturer continually pumps out devices with phenomenal hardware.
The latest is the Honor 6X, a follow-up to last year’s 5X, a phone that performed beyond its $199 price tag to deliver an experience nearly as good as most high ticket flagships. The one thing holding the 5X, and all Huawei devices outside the Nexus 6P, back was the software. Emotion UI has proven polarizing and downright unpopular with many Android users for the way it pushes the operating system closer to an iOS look and feel.
In every category, the 6X is a worthy successor. It offers a similar, but refined, design and construction, and gives users a dual lens camera that delivers solid image quality and a fun user experience. The one lingering question, again, is can it overcome the software?
The Honor 6X shares a lot with its predecessor. In fact, the two are almost identical, with the sequel a more polished version of the phone we saw in 2016. Gone is the brushed finish on the aluminum backing, which looks more sophisticated, and the plastic caps on the top and bottom, a necessary evil the company opted for in lieu of antenna lines to allow the proper signals to flow unimpeded, are no longer adorned with a stippling pattern that made them look like Band-Aid’s last time around. It’s more rounded that last year’s edition, which makes it easier to use in one hand. Other visual differences include the now circular, and much faster, fingerprint scanner, and the larger camera housing, making room for the new dual-lens setup.
Otherwise, it’s the same great Huawei hardware you’ve come to know and expect regardless of price point. Despite being just $250, the device is solidly built and feels great in the hand, superior in both those respects to what was offered last year. It’s not a full unibody design, but the plastic banding that joins the metal backplate with the glass front does so without presenting an obvious seam. If you pit it against the Pixel XL, it’s obvious which one bouts at a higher weight class, the Pixel is clearly made with higher grade materials and outpaces the 6X in terms of fit and finish. But it’s not a fair fight when one phone comes in $500 more expensive than the other.
Given what you pay for, the hardware is excellent. That includes the 5.5-inch display, the same size as last year, with a 1080P resolution and 403 ppi. It does not deliver the best sharpness or color reproduction of any panel on the market, but it’s more than good enough for most users. Colors aren’t as vibrant as you’d find on AMOLED screens, appearing far more washed out, but you’d only know that if you had an AMOLED display lying around to compare it to. If you don’t, you’ll be more than pleased with what’s offered.
One issue I have noticed, however, is the screen’s ability to pick up fingerprints and other gunk from your fingers, which can lead to annoying, unbecoming oil streaks obstructing the display. I’ve had a similar issue with the Nexus 6P. I have no idea what the company may, or may not, be doing with its panels but the oleophobic coating, which is there to reduce the amount of smudging caused from the oil produced by your fingers, seems to be out of whack. The more troubling fact is that this is a brand new phone. I didn’t have the same issue with the 6P until I’d been using it for a year. It’s a minor inconvenience, for sure, and could be an outlier issue specific to my review unit, but it’s nonetheless an annoyance.
The 6X also lacks NFC which means no mobile payments. If you rely on Android Pay, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your phone needs. No NFC is a bummer, but the single worst aspect of the hardware is one that’s become all too common. The phone’s single, down firing speaker, is abysmal. It’s easily covered when using the handset in landscape and when it isn’t obstructed, the sound is thin, tinny and distant.
You can’t knock Huawei too heavily for cutting corners with the speaker, even the most well-regarded manufacturers in the world, on their flagship devices no less, deliver handsets with atrocious speaker performance. It seems with every smartphone review, save for the rare exceptions like the Alcatel Idol 4S or Axon 7 Mini, there will inevitably be a section lamenting the clear oversight by engineers in regard to audio performance. It’s been this way for years now, but the fact is no less frustrating for you, the consumer, or me, the tech journalist.
The bottom line with the hardware, though, is the good outweighs the bad. For a $250 phone, anyone who picks this device up will be elated with the build quality and materials. There are no obvious seams or inconsistencies signaling the budget-conscious lean, and while its design will be decidedly milquetoast when compared to more dramatic offerings like the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 coming later this year, it is by no means ugly. In fact, it’s quite handsome, a solid sequel to the 5X in every way, taking the best features and refining them into something that visually and constructionally works well.
But hardware has never been the issue. The issue, as I’ve stated in every review about a Huawei device I’ve written, save for the Nexus 6P, has always been software.
The first thing to note about the software is that it’s outdated. Out of the box, users get Android 6.0 Marshmallow and Emotion UI (EMUI) 4.1. Neither of those is the most up-to-date version, a fact that is both good and bad.
On the good side, battery life is excellent. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the device is that it routinely lasted two full days with, admittedly, light use. When I ramped up the usage, or if I was in an area with particularly bad reception (which I happen to be a lot), the 6X took a hit but still managed to offer an average of four hours screen-on time. When not affected by poor reception, the phone had little issue delivering 5-plus hours. This, I believe, is thanks in part to the handset’s 3340mAh battery, but also the employment of an older version of Android.
With Marshmallow, I saw battery life similar to what I got here. Since upgrading to Nougat, on both the 6P and a review unit Pixel XL, I’ve been lucky to scrape together more than three hours of screen-on time, and the idea of leaving my phone off charge overnight never once felt viable. I’m not the only one. Head to the Nexus 6P subreddit and you’ll find hordes of users reporting similar issues, some running beta, and thus not the most stable, versions of Android’s latest and greatest but also others running the most recent, ready for primetime, release. Though it won’t likely admit it, Google clearly did not correctly optimize Nougat, and the effects are obvious. On the Honor 6X, however, those effects are idled because of its older software.
On the EMUI, side, however, not having the latest version stings a bit. The biggest knock against the custom Android skin is that it redesigns the entire operating system to make it look, and operate, more like iOS. That means no app drawer. Other OEMs, namely LG, have dropped the app drawer of late as well, causing many folks (myself included) to fear that Google was headed toward an app drawer-less future. In 2017, it seems the app drawer is here to stay, and Huawei is even bringing the Android mainstay to its devices with the latest version of EMUI, which you don’t get here.
Reports last month surfaced the 6X would receive the EMUI and Android update sometime this month, but now that seems uncertain. If I bought this device, given what I’ve seen or read about battery issues with Nougat and knowing what EMUI 5 brings to the table, I would be fine waiting for the update. Though I’ll freely admit I’m working from an “ignorance is bliss” perspective regarding EMUI 5, I haven’t used it and thus don’t know how much it really changes Android compared to previous iterations, I’d prefer to have the stronger battery life over the improvements of Android N, which Huawei’s software is likely to bury anyway.
I won’t mince words: I hate EMUI. It’s my least favorite Android skin, both in terms of aesthetics and operation. But even I, someone who has long disliked this software, will concede that, given enough time, you get used to it. Aside from the visual aspect, which is impossible to ignore if you’re familiar with Android, most of what EMUI presents is benign.
The biggest frustration is that everything is just a little more complicated than in stock Android, or other skins like HTC’s Sense and even Samsung’s TouchWiz. It’s not enough to make you want to throw the handset across the room, but simple things like checking your battery’s performance, which takes three touches on stock Android N, takes five on this device (seven if you specifically want to check screen-on time).
If you don’t opt to display the remaining battery percentage in the status bar icon, it takes you four touches to see it, which is ridiculous. But, eventually you learn your way around the OS and either accept the small difficulties it presents, or find ways around them, like putting the Ultra battery toggle, which isn’t there by default, into the shortcuts panel (which you can long press to jump directly to the battery manager section of the system settings).
Still, the point remains that it shouldn’t be that difficult, or confusing in the first place. EMUI is full of little head scratchers like this, and it mars the overall experience of using the 6X. For what it is, the software performs well, and is far more fluid than what was presented on the 5X last year. Powering our unit is a Kirin 655 processor and 3GB of RAM, which handled everything I threw at it with nary a hiccup. Multitasking, gaming, you name it and the handset executed.
I was surprised by this, given the nature of the software, but I felt like I didn’t miss a beat when switching from the Pixel XL or Nexus 6P. What made the experience slower was the interface itself. If Huawei were to think about how users move around the OS and then make EMUI more streamlined and simple, not just this smartphone but the company’s whole product line would improve.
The biggest, most interesting, and most fun change of the 6X over its predecessor is the new, dual lens camera system. On the back you have a 12MP + 2MP setup, with phase detection autofocus and LED flash. Like most modern smartphone cameras, it’s capable of taking nice photos in adequate lighting, with the amount of detail and color representation you’d hope to see. It clearly performs best when the sun is out, which is not a shock given the price range we’re dealing with, and though the quality drops when in low light conditions the difference is not as stark as on some other handsets I’ve tested. It does not deliver the same detail in a low light situation as the Pixel, for example, but it actually gives a better representation of the scene (the Pixel tends to artificially lighten the scene too much) and what you get in low light is good enough for sharing with friends or on social media.
Still, for $250, the camera is quite impressive. It has more than enough chops for most users, and will deliver photos that will look fine in the medium in which they are usually distributed.
But basic point-and-shoot photos aren’t what’s interesting here. It’s when you enlist what Huawei calls “wide aperture photos” that things get curious. Using the dual lens setup, wide aperture photos let the user choose, either while taking the photo or after, how large (i.e. open) the aperture is. Like Apple’s Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus, this allows users to get photos with a shallow depth of field, keeping the subject in focus while blurring the background. The system is easy to use and having the wide aperture setting on doesn’t slow down the camera which, given the software’s ability to change the aperture after the fact, should encourage users to shoot with it enabled all the time.
The images you get from the wide aperture mode, particularly when you increase the bokeh effect, are hit and miss. Sometimes, like with the photo seen above of mini-Batman, you can get a convincing shot in which the foreground subject is kept in focus and the background is nicely blurred, without it looking too artificial. Other times, however, like with the eagle photo below, the image processing can muddle the final result; your intended subject isn’t completely in focus and the entire bokeh effect looks manufactured. The best results come when you’re shooting a subject in the foreground that is flat to the camera, meaning it’s sitting straight on, rather than at an angle. If it isn’t, the camera has a difficult time parsing what exactly should remain in focus and what should be blurred.
Though the final result isn’t perfect, the very fact the Honor 6X has a dual lens camera is a nice selling point. It’s the only handset in the midrange category with such a feature and it works well enough to be a legitimate marketing agent. And even though it isn’t a perfect execution, it does lend a healthy dose of fun. I am historically not a person who enjoys taking photos, but with this handset I found myself seeking out opportunities to capture a scene because using the wide aperture feature was so enjoyable.
The camera app comes with numerous other modes, too, including a pro photo mode that offers manual controls for users to fiddle with, HDR (which is not on by default and does cause a fraction more shutter lag) and document scan. The application itself is simple and easy to move around and performs speedily. It’s not the fastest camera app I’ve ever used, but the shutter lag is minimal, and it’s quick to focus, though will occasionally have trouble finding the correct focus point.
On the front is an 8MP shooter that offers images with good clarity and decent detail. It is not in the same league as the selfie camera on last year’s HTC 10, or those found on higher-end flagships, but again it works fine for sharing on Instagram or Facebook. Snapchat is another story, but the lack of quality there is not representative of the phone, but the poor Android version of that particular app.
In all, the camera experience on the 6X is far better than it ought to be on a midrange smartphone. The lack of optical image stabilization is worth note; it’s particularly an issue if you are shooting video while moving, but like the hardware the good outweighs the bad in this category.
Like the Honor 5X before it, the 6X is a phone that belies its price by offering a stellar hardware and camera experience for the price bracket, resulting in a product that is a few software tweaks away from being one of, if not the very best, midrange option on the market.
As it always does with Huawei, the final verdict comes down to the software. The good news is that Emotion UI performs better this time around than it did last year and, if you have a hearty dose of patience, most of its little annoyances fade away after a few weeks. It is not the prettiest or most elegant version of Android on the market, but it does get the job done in the end.
If you can forgive the faults of the software, which might improve once the update to EMUI 5.0 and Android Nougat comes, the Honor 6X is a great value buy. On the hardware and camera performance alone this handset offers a lot of bang for your buck, positioning the 6X, even with its subpar Android skin, as one of the best budget smartphones on the market.