Introduction and design
Huawei's Honor brand has been churning out some impressive smartphones since its conception in the latter part of 2014. Devices such as the powerful Honor 6 and the super affordable Honor Holly have certainly caused a stir in Western markets, accentuating the rise of Chinese manufacturers.
While much of the recent attention has been focused on the new flagship Honor 6 Plus, the firm's Honor 4X looks to deliver a similar big-screen experience for those who are a little more budget conscious.
With the exception of the Honor 6 Plus, Honor smartphones are only officially available to purchase online – a sales strategy akin to that used by Xiaomi and OnePlus. The lack of brick-and-mortar stores in particular saves the company vasts amounts of money and partly explains how the firm can offer their smartphones at such competitive prices.
Unlike the aforementioned Chinese duo, Honor do not use inconvenient flash sales or invite systems and sell directly via Amazon UK. The Honor 4X is available for around £150, $245 (roughly AU$295) and when looking at the overall specs on paper, the 4X certainly seems like a real bargain.
Despite there being plenty of worthy competitors in the same price bracket, such as the Moto G (2014) and Sony Xperia M2 Aqua, there's currently a chronic shortage of competent budget phablets and this is a void that Honor are looking to fill with the 4X.
Living up to its phablet billing, the Honor 4X features a 5.5-inch 720P display and houses Huawei's powerful 64-bit Hisilicon Kirin 620 octa-core processor, backed up by 2GB RAM.
Dual-SIM 4G LTE connectivity is also present and the inclusion of both a microSD card slot and a 3000mAh battery will be welcomed by many power users.
While the Honor 4x may not deliver anything exceptional in the looks department, it's far from an ugly device. The overall build feels incredibly substantial for a budget offering, partly thanks to the 170g worth of heft and textured plastic rear.
Around the front things are rather restrained, with a recessed black earpiece flanked by proximity and ambient light sensors, an LED notification light and a 5MP front snapper.
Glistening Lollipop-style capacitive navigation keys are present and are certainly the most striking features on the face of the Honor 4X. Unfortunately they're not backlit and thus you may find yourself fumbling around in the dark trying to hit the correct button from time to time.
The bottom edge, beneath the navigation keys, is home to a slightly off-centre microUSB port, a single microphone and a speaker that is very similar in style to the one found on the iPhone 6.
While a resolution of only 1,280 x 720 doesn't sound particularly high when stretched across a 5.5-inch screen, the IPS display on the Honor 4X is a strong performer. Colours are vivid with text and images looking fairly crisp.
Even with a pixel density of just 267 PPI, individual pixels are not distinctly noticeable when viewing from a normal distance, and viewing angles are excellent. A comprehensive brightness range results in great overall legibility regardless of the lighting conditions, and the auto brightness feature is pleasantly responsive.
Covering the face of the Honor 4X is a factory-applied screen protector, partly to compensate for the lack of Corning Gorilla Glass. Yes, it is a fingerprint magnet, but in everyday use you'll barely notice it and it's certainly not a deal-breaker.
The left-hand side of the Honor 4X is completely clean, with the volume rocker and power key both taking up positions on the right edge. Despite the buttons not featuring a metal finish, like those found on flagships such as the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6, there's a decent amount of tactile feedback. They also feel considerably sturdier than the keys on other budget devices such as the Moto G (2014).
Thanks to the aforementioned 75% screen-to-body ratio, hitting the power and volume keys is a straightforward affair. However, reaching the top of the screen, to access the notification bar for example, is a little more of a stretch if your hands are on the smaller side.
Honor did a great job with the rear of the 4X, making it removable without compromising the overall build quality. The 13MP camera with single LED flash sits flush in the top left, with the Honor branding clearly displayed below.
Much needed grip is provided via the textured rear, and the effect results in a sleeker looking finish than the majority of other budget smartphones.
What impressed me most was the rigidity and quality of the Honor 4X's removable rear, which exhibits very little flexing or creaking. Unlike the glossy plastic used on the back of the Honor Holly, the rear repels most fingerprints and smudges, keeping the device looking fresh.
Underneath the removable rear panel you get access to two 4G LTE microSIM slots and a microSD slot. Considering that there's only 8GB of internal storage I'd highly recommend using a microSD card to expand the storage further, up to the maximum 32GB, if possible.
So far Honor has been pretty reserved in regards to colour options for their devices, with only black or white options available. The 4X follows suit and both colour variants are available for the same price.
Key features and interface
Honor are marketing the 4X as a high-spec smartphone with an affordable price tag, highlighting compelling hardware and software features.
Power is arguably one of the biggest draws of the Honor 4X, with the Chinese manufacturer claiming it to be the most powerful budget smartphone currently available thanks to the inclusion of a Kirin 620 octa-core processor and 2GB RAM.
Honor also emphasises the longevity of the 4X's 3000mAh battery, along with the optical performance of both the 13MP primary snapper and 5MP front-facing shooter. Sit tight, as all of these features are covered in depth later on in the performance, battery life and camera sections of the review.
Outside of Asia and other developing markets, the inclusion of dual-SIM functionality in affordable smartphones seems to be slowly on the rise. Like the recently released Acer Liquid Jade S and ZTE Blade S6, the Honor 4X looks to appeal to a niche group of users who normally have to carry around separate work and personal phones.
Frequent international travellers and business people in particular will appreciate the ability to use two microSIM cards in the Honor 4X, reducing the need to hot-swap between a local and foreign SIM card every few days.
In addition, both microSIM cards in the Honor 4X can access 4G LTE frequencies which is rare for a smartphone outside of China. Most competing dual-SIM devices in the same price bracket only offer 4G LTE connectivity on a single SIM, such as the Moto G (2014), making the 4X a must-have for high-speed data fanatics.
Huawei's custom Emotion UI (EMUI) 3.0 is present on the Honor 4X and runs on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. While not the latest version of Google's OS, KitKat is a stable option until the major bugs in Lollipop are squashed. Honor has promised regular software updates for the 4X, and users should expect to see Android 5.0 on their devices in the next couple of months.
Many of the big name Android smartphone manufacturers, such as Samsung and LG, have been refining their custom user interfaces to adhere more to Google's material design guidelines. Yet the majority of Chinese firms are sticking to their principles, continuing to opt for a heavily tweaked experience that aesthetically tends to resemble iOS rather than Android.
Like Xiaomi's MIUI and Meizu's Flyme OS, Emotion UI on Huawei and Honor devices aims to offer a simpler, more customisable experience than (near) stock Android. In practice it does add some useful features, but arguably at the expense of a visually appealing design. Android purists will be having nightmares about the garish, cartoon-like icons and overall lack of theme cohesiveness throughout Emotion UI 3.0 on the Honor 4X.
While having apps spread across multiple homescreens maybe less confusing for some users, I personally found it too cluttered. In order to make enough room for widgets, without having a multitude of homescreens, you'll have to resort to cramming apps into folders.
Thankfully there's very little bloatware on the Honor 4X, so you'll never need an iOS-style unused apps folder. That being said, the pre-loaded Mirror and Magnifier apps will not be particularly useful to most and just seem to be rather gimmicky extensions of the camera software.
Google apps are welcome additions however, with all the basics such as Play Store, Gmail, Maps and Chrome running smoothly. The only issue I found was that the icons for these and other third-party apps were inconsistent and looked out of place when compared to the stock EMUI apps.
This minor gripe can be overcome on the Honor 6 with the theme app, which allows you to download online themes. On my Honor 4X review unit the theme app only displayed five default themes, without giving me access to more online content. The Indian retail version of the 4X can access online themes, so expect to see that feature available now (or in the near future) on other countries' variants.
Motion control and smart assistance settings are very handy additions to Emotion UI, especially considering the Honor 4X's large footprint. Screen-off gestures such as double touch to wake and the ability to draw certain letters on the screen to launch corresponding apps are functional, if not game changing.
Reaching across a phablet screen one-handed can often be a challenge for those with smaller hands, so Emotion UI has introduced a few features to make using the Honor 4X a little less of a chore. One-hand UI acts much like the one-handed Input mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, moving the dialler pad and keyboard to your preferred side of the screen.
A feature called suspend button can also be enabled, allowing the user to access the back, home, recent tasks, screen lock and optimisation soft keys from either edge of the Honor 4X's screen. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but during everyday use I found this feature pretty helpful, meaning that I didn't have to reach down to reach the capacitive buttons.
Like the Huawei Ascend Mate 7, Honor 6 and Liquid Jade S, the Honor 4X includes DTS enhanced audio. You have to enable the feature within the sound settings menu, and while it does improve sound quality through headphones, output through the speaker is still mediocre.
Performance and battery life
Most budget smartphones suffer from sluggish overall performance, especially when it comes to multitasking and playing graphically intensive games.
Powerful performance is one of the Honor 4X's most touted features, with the Chinese firm managing to pack in an impressive 64-bit Kirin 620 octa-core processor, 2GB RAM and Mali-450 GPU. In comparison to flagships such as the Nexus 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge these specs may seem rather tame, but for an affordable smartphone they are superb.
Benchmarking results backed up the relatively high specs, with the Honor 4X scoring an average of 1,705 on the Geekbench 3 multi-core test. That trounces results recorded by similarly priced phones such as Moto G (2014) (1,142) and Sony Xperia M2 Aqua (1,133). Even some of the cheaper mid-range devices like the Huawei Ascend G7 (1,398) fall to the might of the Honor 4X.
At times during everyday use you forget that the Honor 4X is an affordable smartphone. Navigating through the Emotion UI is a smooth and snappy experience, app loading times are fair and multitasking is handled competently thanks to the 2GB RAM.
Currently the Honor 4X comes loaded with 4.4.2 KitKat, which does not take full advantage of the 64-bit Kirin 620 processor. Google's latest Android version is optimised for 64-bit architecture and thus with an Android Lollipop update just around the corner, the Honor 4X has the potential to provide even greater performance.
Those looking to enjoy a large number of graphically intensive games on the Honor 4X's 5.5-inch display will probably be disappointed. Titles like Temple Run 2 and Sonic Dash run pretty smoothly and more demanding games such as Real Racing 3 are playable – just be prepared for a few dropped frames.
The main killer here is the lack of internal storage, with only around half of the supplied 8GB available to the user. A further 32GB can be added via a microSD card, but heavy gamers should probably put that extra cash towards a more graphically-capable device.
Behind the removable back panel of the Honor 4X lies a hefty non-removable 3000mAh battery. In terms of sheer capacity that's a tad bigger than the 2915mAh unit found in the iPhone 6 Plus and significantly larger than the HTC Desire 820's 2,600mAh power pack.
Both of these examples pack more powerful processors than the Honor 4X, and many high-end phablets, such as the LG G3, also include higher resolution panels. Therefore on paper, the Honor 4X's large capacity battery combined with a low resolution screen and less power-hungry processor should result in great battery life.
On the whole, the battery performance of the Honor 4X was stellar. I found it extremely difficult to drain the battery completely in just one day, and even the heaviest of users will still probably end the day without encountering the much maligned low juice warning.
While power users may still need to put the Honor 4X on charge overnight, the vast majority of people (light-to-moderate users) won't need to plug in until later on the following day. Two day battery life is definitely achievable, especially for users who dip into the 'Smart' and 'Ultra' power saving modes built into Emotion UI 3.0.
Those who intend to make use of the Honor 4X's dual-SIM functionality will see their battery life suffer accordingly. However the difference is pretty negligible and not enough to hamper the tremendous longevity of the Honor 4X's battery.
After running the TechRadar test video at full brightness and volume for 90 minutes, the battery level of the Honor 4X only dropped by 22%. That's only 3% worse than the monumental Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and 5% better than the much revered iPhone 6 Plus.
Things also look impressive when comparing the Honor 4X's test result to that of a 720P smartphone with similar specs. The Honor 4X manages to attain roughly the same result as its relative, the Huawei Ascend G7. Both use the same 720P display and 3000mAh battery, yet the Honor 4X packs a more powerful Kirin 620 processor as opposed to a Snapdragon 410.
The aforementioned Lollipop update could yet improve the Honor 4X's battery life even further, with 64-bit optimisation reducing overall power consumption. Now there's a thought.
The essentials and camera
Despite the budget price tag and inclusion of numerous sophisticated hardware and software features, the Honor 4X does not skimp on the essentials.
Holding the hefty 4X up to your ear is far less of a chore than you'd expect and the overall call experience is rather pleasant. The earpiece delivers a loud, crisp sound and the secondary microphone up top does a good job of cutting out background noise. The primary microphone also performs well, with those on the other end of the line stating that my voice sounded clear and perfectly audible.
The bottom mounted speaker on the Honor 4X may not look like much, but it sure does pack a punch. An extremely loud output means that you'll rarely miss a call or notification, even if the speaker is partly muffled.
Questionable aesthetics aside, Emotion UI 3.0 conveys the core smartphone features simply and effectively. The 'Dialler', 'Contacts' and 'Messaging' apps are all integrated, so no matter which app you choose to open from the homescreen, you're only just a swipe away from the other two.
A few of the pre-installed Google apps such as 'Photos', 'Chrome' and 'Hangouts' offer more feature-full and ecosystem-integrated alternatives than their stock Emotion UI counterparts. Although most users will find Honor's stock apps to be perfectly adequate for undertaking simple tasks, these extra options may cause unnecessarily confusion.
The three different keyboard apps included on the Honor 4X could also bamboozle first-time smartphone users. On this occasion I feel that the default Huawei Swype keyboard does a better job than the pre-loaded AOSP and Google alternatives. Keys are large, well spaced, and the autocorrect function is pretty intuitive.
As a result, typing on the Honor 4X was a fluid and relatively error free experience. Swapping between multiple languages is as easy as holding down the space key, and the keyboard theme compliments Emotion UI 3.0 well.
Web browsing on the Honor 4X's stock browser or Google Chrome was smooth and snappy using mobile data and WIFI, partly thanks to the decent processing power available. Overall, Chrome was the swifter of the two, yet I really enjoyed using the full screen function of the stock browser when reading online articles.
If you consume a lot of media on your smartphone, then the Honor 4X has you covered. The combination of a large 5.5-inch display, powerful speaker and high-capacity battery result in a portable, media-centric device that will provide you with hours of entertainment.
Though the Honor 4X's speaker's output is loud, it does lack quality. Thus audiophiles will probably want to use a pair of headphones and turn on DTS sound enhancement in the settings in order to obtain decent audio quality.
If packing a powerful processor, dual-SIM functionality and huge battery into the Honor 4X wasn't enough already, the breakaway brand have managed to cram in a 13-megapixel shooter with single LED flash and a 5MP front-facing snapper.
The high mega-pixel count certainly doesn't tell the whole story but considering the low price of the Honor 4X, the primary camera performs remarkably well.
Out of the box, the resolution of the Honor 4X's camera defaults to just 10MP, in order to use a 16:9 aspect ratio. If you want bump up the resolution to the full 13MP you'll have to put up with a boxier 4:3 aspect ratio and the resultant black bar at the base of the viewfinder.
In general I found the camera software on the Honor 4X fairly polished and easy to navigate. Instead of stripping away features from the budget friendly 4X's Emotion UI camera app, Honor has retained the options found in more premium devices such as the Honor 6 and Huawei Ascend Mate 7.
While there aren't as many tweakable shooting modes and options as on the Sony Xperia Z3, the Honor 4X's camera software is far more feature-full than the Motorola camera app on the wallet-friendly Moto E (2015).
The usual HDR, panorama and video modes are all present, as well as an array of filters and some rather tacky shooting modes like beauty and watermark. I personally like the concept of the all focus mode, allowing the user to re-position the focal point of the image after the shot has been taken. However the feature's implementation is a little clunky and you'll have to decide whether you want to refocus an image or not before actually taking it.
Diving into the camera settings menu pulls up a long list of photo and capture options. Here you can alter the photo resolution and, unlike the Google camera app, select your preferred save location.
The audio control feature can be also be enabled from the settings menu and while it sounds promising on paper, functionality is very limited. Only three words, two of which are Chinese, can be used to trigger the shutter button, and the ability to take a photo when your voice reaches a certain decibel level often leads to numerous unintentional snaps.
Hopefully future updates to Emotion UI will include useful additions to the feature. I'd personally like to see an option to switch between different shooting modes and capture settings using voice, as this handy function works extremely well on the Acer Liquid Jade S.
Auto-focus speeds are acceptable and tap to focus also displays a slider, allowing you to easily adjust white balance levels. If you need to get a shot off in a hurry, the Honor 4X's ultra snapshot setting has got you covered. Double tapping the volume down key on the side of the 4X while the screen is off launches the camera and takes a snap. Despite results not always being in focus, the whole process only takes just over a second and this function could save you those all important seconds when trying to snap that crucial shot.
If the Honor 4X was a mid-range smartphone, camera results would probably be deemed pleasant or satisfying, rather than anything particularly noteworthy. Yet when taking into account the affordable price of just £150 (roughly $235, AU$295), image quality is quite remarkable.
Images taken in good light are sufficiently detailed and the Honor 4X does well to capture vibrant, natural-looking colours without completely over-saturating the results. Exposure is good for the most part, but colours can be washed-out in extremely bright conditions. A little background noise is present when zooming in a fair distance, but unless you're looking to do some serious cropping it's not terribly noticeable.
While the camera software on the Honor 4X does not have a dedicated macro mode, close-up shots are excellent. A fair amount of detail is retained, even on the smallest of subjects, colours are vivid once again, and a shallow depth of field makes for a pleasantly blurred background.
In low light scenarios the Honor 4X's camera does start to struggle. HDR mode is available, but it fails to significantly improve results. Detail is retained reasonably well when using a high ISO value, partly thanks to the f/2.0 lens, yet images are still a little grainy.
1080P video recording, at 30 frames per second, is available via the Honor 4X's 13MP primary camera, and the quality is respectable. Changes in exposure are somewhat harsh, nevertheless for a budget device I was more than satisfied with the rear snapper's video recording capabilities.
The 5MP front-facing shooter on the Honor 4X is easily a cut above the 2MP units found on the Moto G (2014)and Honor Holly. Crisp selfies and the ability to record 720P video will please the majority of social media fanatics.
The Honor 4X represents fantastic value for money, offering a powerful big screen experience and a multitude of advanced features for a low price.
Honor promised power on a budget and they delivered. While the 4X is no match for high-end flagships, it performs significantly better than the current crop of cheap smartphones. There's none of the usual budget-associated lag or stutter while navigating through Emotion UI 3.0, and the generous 2GB of RAM makes for swift multitasking.
Battery life is another area where the Honor 4X excels, with the 3000mAh power pack providing between one and two day's worth of juice, depending on usage.
Despite the battery being of the non-removable variety, lifting off the rear panel is necessary in order to access the 4G dual-SIM and microSD card slots. Both additions are extremely welcome and well implemented, although the former may only appeal to a niche group of users.
Affordable handsets often suffer from poor build quality, particularly those with removable rear panels like the Honor 4X. Yet the 4X feels extremely well made, with the body showing no signs of major flexing or creaking, and the buttons giving off some nice tactile feedback.
The 13MP rear camera and the 5MP snapper up front out-perform the units found on most affordable smartphones, and the Honor 4X can even take better snaps than some mid-rangers when in well-lit environments.
Emotion UI 3.0 on the Honor 4X is certainly an improvement over previous iterations, yet it still has some critics. The almost cartoon-like aesthetics are not to everyone's tastes, and while the lack of an app drawer may make things simpler for first time Android users, it can also result in rather cluttered homescreens.
Honor has had to make some cuts in order to keep the price of the 4X down, and unfortunately that means no Coring Gorilla Glass screen protection. A factory-applied screen protector is present to help protect the glass underneath from scratching, but it does attract a lot of fingerprints.
To cut costs further, Honor has not included a backlight for the capacitive keys below the screen, and thus trying to hit the correct key in the dark can sometimes be a bit of a challenge.
Among the plethora of smartphones currently available, the design of the Honor 4X may not help it stand out, and for some the aesthetics will seem too minimal.
The fact that it's only available SIM-free via Amazon may also deter those who are accustomed to subsidised contracts and potential buyers who prefer to test out smartphones in-store before purchasing.
Honor has once again delivered a very capable smartphone that embodies the company's value for money ethos. The breakaway brand's rapid rise to prominence is exciting for consumers and a major headache for other manufacturers.
Motorola maybe the king of budget smartphones for the time being but with the 4X, Honor is clearly signalling that it's ready to go toe-to-toe with the Lenovo-owned brand in the affordable segment of the market.
In the majority of areas the Honor 4X performs significantly better than rival budget devices, combining excellent performance and a multitude of features with impressive build quality.
If you can live with the large form-factor and highly customised Emotion UI, the Honor 4X may well be the budget smartphone you're looking for.
First reviewed: May 2015