Chinese manufacturer Huawei is shaking the smartphone tree in 2011, introducing a budget price to devices with components we expect to pay three-times as much for. But do you actually get a comparative product for the bargain price? We looked hard for where the costs were cut while reviewing the Huawei X5.
If you've scanned the spec sheet, you'll know that the X5 has innards comparable to the HTC Desire Z; as such, we expected the bulk of the cost-cutting to occur around the phone's exterior, though it's not immediately obvious which parts of the X5 are the cheap bits. Front and centre is a 3.8-inch WVGA capacitive touchscreen, much like many of the smartphone screens we've seen in the last 12 months, minus the fancy imaging tech like AMOLED and Super LCD used by Samsung and HTC. The responsiveness of touchscreens is a hard element to compare, but the X5 seems to be on-par with the other smartphones we have in the CNET labs.
Huawei wraps its hardware within a soft-touch plastic cover. This feels pleasant to hold and sturdy to boot, with a stiff, glossy plastic trim surrounding the screen itself. There's a row of capacitive touch-buttons below the screen for navigating the Android platform and a 5-megapixel camera lens on the rear beside an LED flash and an external speaker.
Below the battery cover you'll find a 1500mAh capacity battery, a standard SIM card slot and a micro SD memory card reader that Huawei generously stuffs with an 8GB memory card.
The real money saved by Huawei is in the absence of a customised user experience, something HTC and Samsung spend a fortune fine-tuning. The X5 runs on Android 2.2 (Froyo) and wears its "Vanilla" colours proudly. When you first boot the X5, you are greeted with the basic Android launcher, the way Google intended it. Seasoned Android users will love this; the X5 offers a blank canvas to customise the phone any way you choose, though we would understand if you find yourself drawn to HTC's excellent and attractive Sense UI instead.
We took advantage of this blank canvas and installed the "GO" launcher via the Android Market and dressed the X5 up to look as good as any other phone we've seen. The key parts of the user experience you expect on other smartphones are also in play on the X5; there is multi-touch support for up to two inputs, with gestures like pinch-to-zoom active in the browser and image gallery. Huawei also adds a Swype keyboard to the mix, making typing (or swiping) on the X5 so much easier.
The X5 communicates using quad-band GSM (2G) networks 850/900/1800/1900 and dual-band UMTS (3G) 900/2100. If you're looking to buy the X5 outright, be aware that it is incompatible with the Next G portion of Telstra's network. There's also Wi-Fi onboard and a GPS receiver, plus Bluetooth supporting the standard range of wireless audio profiles. All in all, the X5 has what we expect from a modern phone.
The 5-megapixel camera sounds a lot like what you might expect from the big names, but it certainly doesn't perform like one. This camera is easily the slowest phone camera we've seen in a long time, with at least 1.5 seconds from button to shutter as the auto-focus tries (and often tries again) to take a sharp photo. After using this camera we understand what it must have been like to take a photo 100 years ago, except that our photos will never make it into the history books with the level of soft-focus on display.
Another interesting shortcoming we've spotted is that Huawei (or Google) has removed the Wi-Fi hotspot feature which we believed was a standard tool on all Android 2.2+ devices. In the settings there is a USB tethering option, but no option to establish an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network using your 3G data. Perhaps this is a limitation of the Wi-Fi adapter in the phone? Either way, it's missing in action.
Multimedia playback is another area that other manufacturers have made advancements in, but Huawei settles for the bare minimum. The X5 can play H.264 and WMV video files and MP3, AAC and WMA audio. There is no media sharing app or HDMI output on the X5, so if you want to share you media you may need to consider a device built for the purpose.
Side-by-side with the other Android releases of 2011, the X5 certainly holds its own. So far this year we've seen the HTC Desire Z, The Samsung Nexus S and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play and Arc, and the X5 falls within an acceptable margin on all benchmark tests we've run.
These tests are indicative of the solid performance we saw during the majority of our testing with the X5, and though there are several comments below this article from our readers reporting poor reception, we haven't seen this ourselves. We tested the X5 using both an Optus and a Telstra SIM and both performed as well as we expected them to. The earpiece speaker was a bit crackly on some calls, with distortion present during the entire call, but was loud enough and clear enough to make calls.
Huawei has done a fine job of delivering a phone with a good user experience and most of the components that we expect to see in phones twice- or three-times its price. The handset design isn't attractive but it's functional, and the 8GB microSD included with the X5 is the icing on the cake. There are a few baffling omissions, like no Wi-Fi hotspot feature, and the camera is best forgotten, but if you're looking to try a smartphone without sinking too much money into it, the Huawei X5 is a great option.