'Budget phone' is hardly a slur when you're talking about Huawei's Honor 5X

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Huawei redefines ‘budget’ with the $200 Honor 5X, a sleek metal phone with a fingerprint sensor and a powerful processor.

We all like to dress a little flashy once in a while, and if you’re a shrewd shopper, there’s no need to spend a fortune to look rich. It’s the same with smartphones. Take care with research, and you can pick up a phone that looks the part, performs well, and won’t force you into a long-term contract just to make it affordable. The Huawei Honor 5X is an excellent case in point. It looks fantastic and refuses to compromise on power, all for a surprisingly low price. We’ve spent a couple of days with the phone.

Honor is a spin-off brand of Huawei, producing devices that will attract younger buyers. Making the resulting phones stylish and not charging very much for the devices is its strategy, and it’s a good one. The Honor 5X has a metal chassis with a cool, high-tech-looking brushed metal effect finish on the rear panel. The phone’s quite chunky, with flat sides blending comfortably into the back of the phone. The 5.5-inch screen has a pronounced border, and there are two plastic end panels ensuring the antenna functions correctly. Unlike the ZTE Axon Elite, these sections aren’t very flashy, and they have a subtle mottled effect.

The rear camera lens has 13-megapixels and is housed inside a raised section above the fingerprint sensor, which unlocks the phone very quickly. It’s also very consistent, and we never had a problem with it during our short time with the Honor 5X. The phone is compact, so reaching the sensor is quick and easy, which definitely makes it easier to use. It’s not a heavy phone either, despite the metal body. The Honor 5X attracts admiring looks and comments, and the shiny silver version is our choice of finish over gold. It has an air of class to it, and suits the flat bezels and border on the front more than the gold color option.

In the looks department, the Honor 5X is a winner, particularly considering that it costs a mere $200 without a contract. However, does that mean the performance suffers? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Android 5.1.1 is installed with Huawei’s EMUI 3.1 user interface over the top, which separates it from Google’s untouched version of Android on phones like the LG Nexus 5X and Huawei Nexus 6P. There are differences, such as the lack of an app drawer so apps are spread across home screens, iPhone-style. The notification drawer is split in two, so a swipe to the left flicks between notifications and quick-access settings. Other changes include a slide-up drawer on the lock screen for turning on the flashlight, accessing the camera, or using the calculator.

It’s not unpleasant to use, but it’s not quite as feature packed or as smooth and fast as EMUI version 4.1, which is found on the Huawei P9 and the newer Honor 5C. It’s also a shame Android is already out of date on the phone, and we can hope for an update to both Android and EMUI in the near future. However, the fact that it hasn’t been updated yet is a major concern.

An octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor with 2GB of RAM provides the power. This is a key difference between the 5X and other Huawei phones, which mainly use the Kirin chipset and often struggle with gaming. We certainly had that problem with the Honor 7. The good news is there are no such issues with the Honor 5X.  It’s more than fast enough for everyday tasks, including navigation, and also coped with gaming well.

Bullet-hell shooter Danmaku Unlimited often challenges slow phones with its HD mode activated, but even on the graphically dense Hard setting, the Honor 5X displayed very little slowdown, and the game remained perfectly playable. It’s a definite plus for a phone that costs so little. The screen is also attractive, bright, and easy on the eyes with its 1080p resolution.

Where the Honor 5X’s low price does affect things is when we get to the camera. It has 13-megapixels and an array of different modes, such as a panorama setting, HDR, and a slow-motion mode; but it doesn’t handle low-light very well. Unfortunately, we used the 5X’s camera on grey, uninspiring day, and the camera struggled to extract any detail from shadows or the dully lit trees. Close up shots were also drab. Fixing photos afterward did result in improvements, but it’s a shame that you have to edit your photos to produce good results. In contrast, the front camera has 8-megapixels, and the selfies it took were excellent.

Related: Read our review of the excellent Huawei P9

We tried the Honor 5X right before using the Honor 5C, and the comparison is an interesting one. The Honor 5C costs slightly less, and we preferred the design, shape, and size of the 5C over the 5X. It’s the fingerprint sensor that will motivate you to spend a little more on the 5X, but be aware the phone doesn’t have NFC, while the 5C does, which means that you can use the 5C with Android Pay. It’ll be your choice: either get more security, or phone-based payments.

For $200, the Honor 5X is definitely a bargain. It’s $30 less than the top-spec Motorola Moto G4, our current favorite budget Android phone, and around $200 less than a OnePlus 2 or OnePlus 3. We can’t fault the way it looks, or its performance, at this price. Just be aware of the concessions you’ll be making before buying it — an average camera, software that may annoy, and no Android Pay — but you’ll likely enjoy the Honor 5X.

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