Honor 6A review

Honor managed to hit upon a winning budget smartphone formula with 2016’s Honor 5C, and it’s not about to upset the apple cart with the Honor 6A.

Once again we have a tidy, compact 5-inch smartphone with a flourish of premium metal and decent all-round specifications for just £149.99 (around $195/AU$245, though with no word of a US or Australian release).

Of course, in 2017 that pitches the Honor 6A up against other classy budget operators like the Nokia 5, Moto G5, and the Wileyfox Swift 2.

In other words, while the Honor 6A retains the balance of its quietly impressive predecessor, it’s up against some slightly stiffer opposition this time around.

The Honor 6A suffers for the omission of a couple of key features, and in some ways it’s arguably a little worse than the Honor 5C before it. But the newer phone’s all-round competence and general ease of use ensure that it’s a smart purchase for the money.

Tightening the belt

  • Long-lasting battery and fast camera
  • The screen has been downsized

Honor’s intention with the Honor 6A seems to have been to produce a phone that looks and performs like a phone worth a good deal more money. In the process of trimming away some of the fat to meet cost it’s thrown away some precious meat, but the result remains satisfying.

On the plus side there’s metal in the phone’s construction, a fast-focusing camera, a long-lasting battery, and a more mainstream CPU than was found in last year’s Honor 5C. All positive steps that hint at a more ‘premium’ phone.

Elsewhere, Honor persists with the custom EMUI Android skin of its parent company, Huawei. It’s a middle-ranking Android skin with a clean look that aims for Apple iOS-levels of intuitiveness and vibrancy.

Some of the features that have been sacrificed to create this streamlined product represent questionable decisions, though. For example, Honor has sliced the size and resolution of the display from the Honor 5C.

Elsewhere, there’s no fingerprint scanner or NFC, which means that Android Pay is off the table, and if you want to secure your phone properly you’re going to have to tap in a PIN every time you pick it up.

These are fast becoming essential components even at this end of the market, with everything from the Moto G5 right down to the £85 Vodafone Smart N8 featuring fast and fluid fingerprint scanners.

Design and display

  • Part-metal build lifts it above many other cheap phones
  • Display is accurate but not super-sharp

Honor’s claim that the Honor 6A has a ‘metal body’ is a little disingenuous. What it actually has (like the Moto G5) is a metal rear plate, covering an area not too dissimilar to the one that the display covers on the flip side.

Surrounding that metal plate is a plastic frame, carefully painted to match the more premium material. The effect is generally pleasing, but in general use – where your palm and fingers largely make contact with the sides – it doesn’t feel particularly premium.

Nor does it look or feel tacky, though, and there’s something to be said for the restrained, plain-Jane look Honor has gone for. 

This is the kind of well-built phone that gets out of the way and doesn’t make a loud statement, which we suspect is precisely what most people shopping at this price point will want.

That sense of balance can also be seen in the phone’s dimensions. At 143.7 x 71 x 8.2mm and weighing 143g this is a phone that sits as comfortably in the pocket as it does the hand, without having that disconcerting flimsiness that some cheap phones suffer from.

Honor has taken the interesting decision to step down from the Honor 5C’s 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD, which was one of the stand-out components of last year’s effort. In its place is a 5-inch 720p IPS LCD that’s both smaller and – crucially – less sharp.

This is a bit of a shame, and it means that the Honor 6A loses out somewhat to the Moto G5 with its own 5-inch unit, which benefits from a 1080p resolution.

That gripe aside, there’s little to complain about with the Honor 6A’s screen. Its lesser size means that you don’t really notice the lower pixel count in most instances, while the brightness level is adequate and colours are plenty vibrant enough. Viewing angles are good too, as you’d expect from an IPS display.

Of course, it’s simply not as good for media or web content as its predecessor. But we can take an educated guess as to why Honor opted for this lesser component.

It’s probably this compromise that enabled the company to go with a stronger (and pricier) chipset, while it also doubtless contributed to the phone’s decent battery life. More on that later.

Interface and reliability

  • Android 7.0 with EMUI 5.1 is intuitive
  • Lock screen useful but fiddly

The Honor 6A runs Android 7.0, which is no longer the latest version of Google’s popular mobile OS, but is still the most recent version most phones run. More important to your day to day experience, however, is the Emotion UI that’s been layered on top.

Huawei’s Android customisation has traditionally been seen as a little heavy-handed. It often seems as if the Chinese manufacturer has tried to make its own version of iOS using the raw materials of Android.

The result isn’t as good as iOS or stock Android, of course, but it’s really not bad – particularly if you’re the kind of light or first time user who is considering purchasing an Honor 6A.

EMUI 5.1, to give the full version name, offers a clean and welcoming experience with far fewer distractions and rough edges than before. It’s not as refined as stock Android or superior skins from the likes of HTC, but we suspect that won’t matter to the Honor 6A’s main audience.

It continues the trend of ditching Android’s app tray altogether. This became accepted practice among many Android skinning companies long ago, to the point where it’s now really a matter of preference. On the plus side, there’s one less menu layer to contend with. On the negative side, there’s no default app organisation system.

All of your installed apps are dumped onto the various home screens (which can be personalised through a dedicated Theme shop) in no form of order, so it’s up to you to drag and drop them into some logical position – and perhaps onto one another to form folders.

The lock screen cycles through high quality (if rather random) photos of coffee cups and buildings and flowers, while icons and fonts are simple and easily readable.

One thing that took us longer to get used to was EMUI 5.1’s lock screen shortcut menu, which seems to mimic the role of iOS 10’s Control Centre. Drag up from the bottom of the lock screen and you’ll bring up a small overlay containing a series of useful shortcuts, such as a torch, a calculator, and a timer.

While we appreciated the function of this bar, we found the swipe-up access system grating after years of ‘swipe up to unlock’ Android phones. Here we found ourselves often bringing up the shortcut menu when we just wanted to get to the home screen.

till, props to Huawei for getting rid of the irritating need to confirm your password entry during the unlock phase.

In terms of pre-installed bloatware, Honor has been relatively restrained here. There are no pre-installed games this time around, and the apps that are here cover the basics like Email, Notes, Music, Videos, and Calendar.

You also get a Health app that will automatically count your steps for you throughout the day, as well as enabling you to set up custom workout plans. 

Parent company Huawei is one of the bigger and better producers of Android Wear smartwatches, so there’s some logic to including this app – even if most people won’t use it.

Movies, music and gaming

  • 5.0-inch 720p display not ideal for movies or games
  • Single speaker isn’t up to much

Given its modest screen dimensions, the Honor 6A clearly isn’t designed for intensive media consumption, but it will do the job.

Movie content doesn’t pop here, thanks to a maximum output of 720p in a 5-inch window and only middling maximum brightness. But the colours are at least reasonably accurate.

Games hold up just fine on this display, but again you can get a better experience at the same price point (the Moto G5’s 5-inch 1080p display springs to mind). Performance is decent in this regard, though.

Guns of Boom, Gear.Club and Xenowerk all performed well during our time with the phone, and these are all fast-moving and graphically rich 3D games.

In both types of visual media, the Honor 6A’s single bottom-mounted speaker (the other grille’s a fake) offers basic audio output at best. 

To be fair, we wouldn’t expect anything more for less than £200. Besides, there’s a 3.5mm jack on top of the phone, which isn’t even a given at the top end of the market these days.

You’ll particularly want to make use of the latter in the case of music playback, of course. Honor has included its own Music app for local playback, which works well and supplies screen-filling artwork and neat widgets. It also pre-installs Google Play Music, which is a strong option for music streaming if you’re not already signed up to Spotify or the like.

When it comes to media storage you get a not-exactly-generous but par-for-the-course 16GB, though you only actually get around 10GB of that free from the start. You’ll almost certainly need to take advantage of the Honor 6A’s microSD slot, which allows you to expand by up to 128GB.

Specs and benchmark performance

  • Snapdragon 430 offers decent budget performance
  • Geekbench results place it slightly above Moto G5

One of the major improvements Honor has made with the 6A is in ditching its home-brewed Kirin CPU line in favour of the Snapdragon 430.

While this is a budget chip, it’s a strong performer that has been widely adopted elsewhere in the market. That includes the Moto G5 and the Nokia 5.

Backed by 2GB of RAM, you get decent, if not spectacular performance across the board. Skimming through home screens and menus is reasonably smooth, though we did pick up on a few stutters and pauses. It’s nothing critical, though.

Perhaps more notable is app performance, which is uniformly decent. With a Kirin chip you can find the odd app (often a game) that yields less than optimal performance, or produces weird performance glitches. The Snapdragon 430 is a mainstream chip, though, so apps tend to be properly optimised for it.

Geekbench 4 scores are about what we’d expect. An average multi-core score of 2,594 places it a little above the Moto G5 on 2,377 and about the same as the Wileyfox Swift 2 on 2,545 – both of which also run on the Snapdragon 430.

Battery life

  • Large 3,020mAh battery leads to strong stamina
  • Beats much of the competition

The Honor 6A is making a big play for the stamina market – those for whom the length of time between charges is at least as important as performance or screen resolution.

Its 3,020mAh battery is quite large for a phone of this size and capability. There are flagship Android phones with much sharper displays and more powerful chipsets that pack smaller batteries (the Samsung Galaxy S8 for one).

Last year’s Honor 5C also had a slightly smaller 3,000mAh battery, despite also having a larger and sharper display.

Honor states that the Honor 6A will last 12 hours of HD video playback. We’re not sure under which conditions it makes this prediction, but we did get some positive results from our usual video-based battery test.

Running a 90 minute looping 720p video with the screen brightness cranked up to full and all notifications turned on, the Honor 6A used up a little less than 19% of its battery life on average.

Compare that to the Wileyfox Swift 2, which shed 32% of its battery life, and the Moto G5 and its 22%, and this is a positive result.

Arguably more impressive was the Honor 6A’s battery performance under gaming load. Playing 15 minutes of Guns of Boom sapped just 3% of the phone’s battery. Recently, the Wileyfox Spark X ate 7% under the same load.

In general, this is a phone that will last well beyond a day under moderate load – and can stomach being pushed harder without necessitating a trip to a wall socket.

Interestingly, Honor also advertises the fact that the Honor 6A’s battery will last 800 cycles before it starts to lose its efficiency, which effectively equates to more than two years.

Camera

  • 13MP camera can capture some strikingly vibrant pictures
  • Struggles with low light and dynamic range

The Honor 6A is capable of taking some remarkably strong photos, especially considering its budget price – though you need the ideal conditions to do so.

It comes equipped with a 13MP sensor, and the addition of phase detection autofocus ensures that it locks on to its subject relatively quickly. Honor claims that this process is as quick as 0.5 seconds.

That is, when it locks on. We found that we still often needed to give the camera a helping finger to set the appropriate focal point, lest we be left with blurry images.

Once the phone did lock on, though, we managed to snag some really crisp and vibrant images. In the case of a few well-lit close-ups, the phone also supplied some pleasing bokeh, blurring out the background like a high-end DSLR.

However, the camera struggles with the usual budget phone foes of low light and dynamic range.

On the former point, taking shots in less than optimal lighting – from indoors during a bright day or an outdoors street scene at night – led to plenty of noise and a struggle locking onto any form of detail.

As for dynamic range, when taking pictures in a park on a sunny day the Honor 6A captured the subject very well indeed, but areas where the sun shone through were completely blown out. Oh, for an HDR mode.

Selfie fans get a 5MP front-facing camera that will do the job for social media shares, but that’s about it.

Still, the fact that the Honor 6A can take decent images of any kind is worthy of praise. True, it’s not the only budget phone to be able to do this, but we still see an awful lot that can’t.

Camera samples

Verdict

The Honor 6A is a decent, if unspectacular pick for casual or occasional users looking to spend £150 on a phone. It gets the basics of build quality, basic performance and competent camera right, which is tricky to do at this price point.

Battery life, in particular, is very strong, and Huawei’s latest EMUI is one of the more user-friendly Android skins around – though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Unfortunately, Honor has cut a few notable corners – chiefly with the phone’s 720p display and its lack of fingerprint scanner – which continues to make the likes of the Moto G5 a better pick overall.

Who’s this for?

You would be well advised to consider the Honor 6A if you’re a first time or light smartphone user looking for a no-nonsense, well-built phone that doesn’t demand too much attention from you while performing the basics well.

Should you buy it?

The Honor 6A deserves to make the shortlist for anyone willing to spend up to £150 on a smartphone. It’s well-built, easy to use, and dependable. Its camera is capable of taking fine pictures too, if you give it the right conditions.

However, if you want to delve any deeper with your phone – say you’re a heavy media consumer or eager to jump into mobile payments – then there are better, more fully featured phones out there for around the same money.

The following three phones are high-quality alternatives to the Honor 6A.

Nokia 5

Nokia has made a welcome return to the mobile market, and this budget offering is reassuringly solid.

As with Nokia smartphones of old, the Nokia 5 has a keen sense of style that belies its price tag, with an all-metal body that outshines the Honor 6A. The Nokia 5 also benefits from a fingerprint scanner and a stock version of Android.

However the phone’s battery life and camera performance aren’t much cop.

Moto G5

The high water mark for budget smartphones for yet another year, the Moto G5 is another excellent all-rounder. You get competent performance, a decent camera, and a lightweight version of Android for a similar price to the Honor 6A.

You also get a similar flourish of metal on the back of the phone, as well as a fingerprint scanner for easy authentication.

All in all, the Moto G5 is a better buy than the Honor 6A, and you’ll be able to find it for the same price if you shop around online.

Wileyfox Swift 2

Wileyfox is a little uneven with its output, but the Wileyfox Swift 2 is one of its better efforts.

Here is a classy, predominantly metal smartphone with a fingerprint scanner and a camera that’s similarly capable in strong lighting.

However, the Honor 6A has a considerable advantage when it comes to battery life, and the Cyanogen Android skin we used to love on Wileyfox phones no longer exists, leaving a generic stock-ish version of Android in its place.

First reviewed: September 2017

Jon Mundy
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