Smartphone survival test: Huawei Honor 5x

This handset from the little-known Chinese consumer electronics giant demonstrates that it is still possible to have high-quality engineering and impressive industrial design at a lower cost.

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Image: ZDNet

Last week, I wrote about my impressions of going a week with the ASUS ZenFone 2 Laser ZE551KL, a budget Android smartphone loaded with features that normally streets for about $225 but can frequently be had for $199 if you're savvy about looking for aggressive pricing from e-tailers like Amazon.

One would think that a company like ASUS that is able to pull off such feats of commoditization and supply chain management would be poised for tremendous market disruption.

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However there are other players coming from China that are much, much larger and are already making big disruptive waves in the mobile industry.

Shenzen, China-based Huawei Technologies (pronounced "wha wei") is not well-known in the consumer electronics industry in North America, but it has the distinction of being the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world.

The translation of the Chinese characters 华为 that form the word "Huawei" literally mean "Chinese Achievement."

And what an achievement this company is.

Formed in 1987 by Chinese businessman Ren Zhengfei, it is a multinational firm that has over 170,000 employees, and in 2015 it reported over $7B of operating income on over $60B in revenue.

Approximately 76,000 of its employees are engaged in R&D.

Here are more important data points, though. In 2015 Huawei shipped over 108 million smartphones globally and the consumer part of its business is reporting 31 percent year-over-year growth.

All of this information points towards a company that is poised to become one of the most important consumer smartphone brands in the next decade, possibly even eclipsing today's big names like Samsung and Apple.

In international markets Huawei is going head to head with Samsung, HTC and LG with high-end devices such as the P9, It is also the contract manufacturer for Google's flagship Nexus 6P.

For its own marketing efforts in the United States, it has chosen to launch at the $199 price point geared toward younger buyers.

To do this in the fiercely competitive North American market though, it has to establish a beachhead.

The brand it has chosen to do this with is the more easily pronounced Honor, and the phone is the 5x.

Although the 5x is only $199 it shares many of the same design characteristics of its more expensive cousin, the P9.

Like the P9, the 5x has a sleek, modern industrial design reminiscent of more well-known Android devices it competes with such as the Samsung Galaxy phones.

Nothing about it looks "cheap." It has a brushed metal back, and it is thin and sleek-looking. At first glance you'd never think it costs only $200.

Whip it out in public and you'll probably call attention to yourself -- when I was using it during various visits to Starbucks and other dining locations in South Florida last week I had quite a few people walking up to me asking what model phone I had.

They were blown away when I told them who made it and what it cost.

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Specs-wise, it is modest but a good value, although it is somewhat less feature-rich than the ASUS ZenFone 2 Laser ZE551KL that is serving as our feature/performance benchmark, which we will get to in a moment.

Like the ZenFone 2 Laser, it uses a Qualcomm 600 series SoC, although it is a Snapdragon 616 rather than the 615 used on our reference.

From a performance perspective they are very similar, although the 616's four lower-powered cores in its 8-core array can clock out at 1.2Ghz rather than 1Ghz on the 615.

The 5x supports Cat 4 150/50 LTE technology at AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as the Band 12 LTE frequency that has recently been deployed at AT&T. It doesn't work on CDMA networks used by Verizon and Sprint.

Like the ZenFone 2 Laser, the Android Lollipop-based device (which is slated for a Marshmallow update shortly) ran all of my applications perfectly well, but there are some caveats.

Unlike the ZE551KL, the Honor 5x has 2GB RAM instead of 3GB of RAM. What this means is that when all of your applications are closed, you have about 750MB to 800MB of RAM left, give or take, to run apps and other processes and allocate cache.

The effect of this is that if you are running several resource-intensive apps in memory at the same time, your phone is going to slow down quite a bit unless you shut them down.

I observed this when running Gmail, Facebook, and one other app running in the background at once, usually Instagram, Plume or Google Maps.

Facebook is notorious for using up lots of memory in Android and I've been advised by many of my peers to use the Facebook mobile website instead, as it is generally more agile than the Android app.

On the ZenFone 2 Laser I didn't notice this at all, because of the extra 1GB of RAM headroom.

So if you are heavy multitasker this is something you probably want to consider when looking at lower-cost devices like the Honor 5x.

Huawei made some other design choices that impacted the overall bill of materials as well -- while it has a 13MP rear camera, it only has a single LED flash and no focusing laser diode like ZenFone 2 Laser ZE551KL, which has the same camera element but two flashes and a focusing laser.

However, it sports a thumbprint reader and also a louder speaker than the ZenFone 2 Laser.

Both are 5.5" phablet-style form factors with 401ppi IPS LCD capacitive screens at 1080x1920 resolution and have 3000mAh batteries (giving both phones excellent daily battery life.)

Both have dual-SIM card slots and dedicated SD card slots that support up to 128GB cards.

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The ASUS has a removable battery which makes it significantly thicker, whereas the Honor 5x is non-removable but makes it a much more pocketable phone.

The Huawei also has 16GB of storage whereas the ZenFone 2 Laser ZE551KL is 32GB.

I think that if the Honor 5X had 3GB of RAM, and the camera/flash configuration and the 32GB of the ASUS ZE551KL at the same price point, it would probably be the winner in my book.

For my own use case -- which is not necessarily someone else's use case, I prefer the ASUS.

But that being said I think Huawei did a very nice job on this phone from an overall value/industrial design perspective. At these low price points you have to make sacrifices somewhere and the company chose sleekness and machining over pure BOM.

If Huawei can make a phone like this for $200, then I'm extremely interested in seeing what it can do for $100 more or twice the price point with more wiggle room in the BOM, or with additional economies of scale given what it can do with its own native-grown technology over the next several years.

The 5x uses a Qualcomm processor, which it has to buy from fabs that have to produce it under license -- such as Samsung and TSMC. This adds to the overall cost.

However, Huawei's wholly-owned subsidiary HiSilion also produces its own natively-designed SoCs, such as the Kirin 955 that is used in the P9 and a few others it uses in its domestic market.

With more vertically-integrated components, the more competitive and more agile Huawei becomes -- which gives it a unique position against some of its other Chinese rivals and puts it more on par with a Samsung or an Apple.

And that makes it one of the most important firms to watch in the mobile space.

Is Huawei poised to disrupt the mobile market in North America? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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