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Everyone whose life revolves around reviewing devices like smartphones will tell you that 2016 is the year when the high-end smartphone suffers the most thanks to the rise of the super mid-range smartphone. I have already written much about that which you can read here.

That change in dynamics is being spearheaded by smartphone brands and companies you have likely never heard of. This is because unlike global smartphone powerhouses like Samsung, Apple and Huawei, those brands are mainly regional and have a regional focus. They are there in India, they are there in China, they are there in the Middle East and you’ll find them in plenty all over Kenya and other African countries. To counter them, a rethink in how the established smartphone brands approach emerging markets was needed.

In the case of Huawei, that didn’t require much effort. The Chinese device maker had already built its reputation both at home and abroad in the unlikeliest of markets like in Europe as a serious maker of budget smartphones. This it achieved mainly through the concerted efforts of its subsidiary, Honor, which oversees the Honor smartphone brand.

In markets where Huawei is not aggressively pushing the Honor brand, how does it manage to keep up with the Joneses?

Samsung has its exquisite lineup of flashy upper mid-range devices in the Galaxy A (2016) range. How does Huawei keep up in a market where the average smartphone buyer is very price sensitive and who the company needs if it is to score 25% market share by mid-2016?

The G series is the answer. Actually, it has been the answer for a while now. In the last few years, Huawei has relied on the Ascend G6, the Ascend G7 and the G8 to drive its mid-range smartphone agenda.

In early 2016, just before it settles down and tries to get as many people as possible to sample its new state-of-the-art P9 smartphones, Huawei has several flashy mid-range smartphones it wants to sell you. They include the GR5 and the GR3.

I have spent nearly a month now with one of those midrange smartphones, the GR5, the best of the two, and herein you’ll find my experiences with it in detail.

The GR5 is the Honor 5X by another name

In the box

The Huawei GR5’s packaging is very simple. Just a white box with the device, a pair of earphones (that are really good (sound-wise) by the way but a little bit uncomfortable), a SIM ejection tool, a USB cable, a fast charging power adaptor and some user manuals.

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Specifications

  • Size and weight: 151.3 x 76.3 x 8.15 mm, 158g
  • Display: 5.5-inch Full HD, 1920 x 1080 pixels
  • Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 616
  • Memory: 16 GB internal memory (expandable), 2 GB RAM
  • Camera: Rear : 13MP + OIS, Front : 5MP
  • Operating system: Android 5.1 (Lollipop) with Emotion UI 3.1 on top
  • Battery: 3,000 mAh
  • Network: 3G, LTE
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, microUSB 2.0
  • Others: Fingerprint sensor, Dual-SIM (only one SIM card, on the second slot, can access 3G and LTE networks. SIM card 1 is restricted to just 2G)
  • Colour options: Gold/Silver/Gray

Design

As of now I think we’re are all reading from the same script when I say that Huawei has so far managed to ace smartphone design. We’ve witnessed the P series of Huawei’s premium smartphones morph from an outright Apple iPhone copycat to its own man. But that’s mainly justified. The P series comprises of pretty pricey (in their own right) devices so it is only fair to give buyers real value for their money. There, Huawei has perfected the art of blending all-metal designs with chamfered edges and good-to-look-at IPS Neo displays. The GR5, a smartphone that goes for half the price of the P8, last year’s flagship smartphone from Huawei, has pretty much the same build materials and quality. Save for the display which I will be coming back to in a moment.

With the GR5, users get the same top-level treatment like their peers who break the bank buying the Mate 8. There’s still the same carefully machined holes at the bottom of the device for sound output, a fingerprint sensor built-in right below the camera sensor at the back of the device and a near-perfect fit and finish.
The SIM tray and the microSD card slot are on the right of the device while the left features textured volume rocker and power buttons for better grip since you can easily miss them and owing to the slippery nature of the device, end up dropping it. Even then, the brushed aluminium body curves slightly inwards making holding it a pleasant experience.

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Display

The Huawei GR5 packs a spacious and vibrant 5.5-inch full HD display. It may not be as bright and highly contrasting like the display panels I have interacted with on both the P8 and the Mate 8, high-end devices that cost twice as much or more, but it certainly has one of the best displays in its price range.

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The display is large enough for web browsing and invites you to watch more video on the device than you ever thought you would.

Camera

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The camera is one of the key highlights of the device after the impeccable design. Though plagued by very buggy software, the 13-megapixel shooter at the back of the GR5 and the 5-megapixel sensor on the front are no jokes. As you may already know, it is usually hard for me to find cameras on mid-range devices that exciting. The Huawei GR5 rightfully earned its badges on my recent trip to Hong Kong and Huawei’s home city, Shenzhen, China, where it was the only smartphone I had in my possession for the most part. And boy, did it rise to the occasion!

You will still get some significant noise in the dark but it’s still much better than other cameras on mid-range devices I have used thanks in part to the optical image stabilization.

Here are sample shots to show you what it is capable of:

 

You can find the above images in their high resolution glory here.

The rest of the camera’s feature set is pretty much standard Huawei stuff. One can shoot some slow motion video, capture HDRs, shoot panoramas, apply Instagram-style filters, do some Timelapses, capture full HD video and what not. My main points of interest in the camera viewfinder’s many available options included ‘All-focus’ which allows users to change the focus on an image long after capturing it and object tracking.

Long story short, the Huawei GR5’s cameras won’t disappoint. Then again, when was the last time you read a review where I was disappointed by cameras on a Huawei device? Huawei has got quite some game in the camera department and it increasingly looks like that doesn’t change much even as you go further down the food chain.

Software

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The software on the Huawei GR5 is something familiar for those who have used Huawei smartphones before. Though it runs on the old Emotion UI 3.1 based on Android 5.1 Lollipop, there’s a lot of semblance to what you pretty much get on other Huawei devices running either older or newer versions of the device’s overlay. This is a good thing, I guess. Experiences on mobile devices ought to be standard and consistent across devices by the same maker.

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The Huawei GR5, despite feeling compact and all, is quite a big device. The 5.5-inch display is still there and Huawei knows it. That’s why the user interface has a one-handed mode that once turned on in the settings can be called into action by sliding one’s finger across the three standard Android on-screen controls.

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Talking of the navigation bar, one can customize it to their tastes from the settings application. For instance, if you find the screen too big to start finding the notification bar then swiping down to access your notifications, you can simply choose a navigation bar option with a notification drop-down shortcut. Or, and this is very interesting and handy, you could simply employ the services of the fingerprint scanner at the back of the device. Tapping and scrolling down on the fingerprint sensor results in the notification drop-down opening. Simple as that! There’s also the ‘Suspend button’ to ease handling for those who find the device a tad too big. Turning it on in the ‘Smart assistance’ section of the settings app results in having access to another way of navigating around the device.

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Overall, for some strange reason, I find EMUI 3.1 visually appealing compared to the more recent EMUI 4.0. Still, like the latter, it requires a lot of work to smoothen things a bit. Read on to the performance segment to see why I am saying this.

Fingerprint scanner

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The Huawei GR5, as already noted and can be seen in images above, has a fingerprint sensor at the back. This is something we don’t usually get to see on such devices but the GR5 and competing devices like Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 3 want to make it the new normal. And that’s a good thing. You don’t need to be at the top of the consumer food chain to get the latest technology in your hands.

One impressive thing about the fingerprint sensor is that it is always on. You don’t need to do a thing to get it working; the sensor is always lurking in the darkness anticipating your next move so just lift up your finger and touch it and voila!

The implementation of the fingerprint scanner on the Huawei GR5 is rather interesting from a software standpoint. While it looks like the fingerprint scanner on the Huawei Mate 8 from the outside and works just as fast, the two are markedly different function-wise.

Yes, the fingerprint scanner on the Huawei GR5 will let you safely unlock the device when it is in its sleep state but guess what? That, and what I have already described in the software segment of this review above, is just about it. Unlike the fingerprint scanner on the Mate 8 that also works in applications like Telegram and LastPass, the one on the GR5 won’t do any of that. This is something I also experienced on the Tecno Phantom 5 last year.

There is a reason why. The Mate 8 is running on Android 6.0 Marshmallow which is the first Android build to support fingerprint scanners so integration with third party applications is possible. The Huawei GR5, as I have already noted, runs on Android Lollipop which does not natively support fingerprint sensors and as such applications built to work with that piece of hardware simply won’t play nice with it unless Huawei took several steps which are not worth all the trouble for a sub $300 smartphone.

We are likely to get more off the fingerprint sensor on the Huawei GR5 if and when it gets Android Marshmallow.

Performance

Performance is the Achilles heel of the Huawei GR5. While everything else works in the device’s favour, it is spectacularly let down by its performance. There is lag and stuttering and all those other ugly things you neither want to hear about nor imagine. Yet it’s the case on this device.

From taking up to a minute to open the camera to taking a moment before responding to a side swipe on the home screen to stuttering when you summon the notification dropdown, the Huawei GR5’s performance woes are too visible to ignore.

Trying to open the camera when in the middle of using Google Maps’ navigation feature totally brings everything to a halt.

I am not in a position to know why this is the case but I suspect poorly optimized software is to blame for this. If that is why then an over-the-air (OTA) update of the software can fix everything without much fuss. Really, no one deserves to use the volume down+power button combo to take a screenshot then go to brew coffee and get back before the device is done saving the said screenshot. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch but you get the drift.

Battery

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The Huawei GR5 will give you a day’s worth of battery life and then some. Not a big deal. When used intensively, the display uses about 30% of the battery when on for about 5 hours. Plus when you eventually run out of juice, most of the time just before you turn off your bedside light, you can count on the fast charging to work its magic in no time.

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Others

I did not experience any issues when making or receiving calls on the device. Neither did I encounter any issues when using Safaricom’s LTE network.

The sound popping out of the speaker at the bottom of the device is loud enough when you are using the device in hands-free mode to receive calls without any earphones attached as well as when you are exploring Drake’s Views.

The good

  • Protected apps (remember them?) that I protested about in the Mate 8 actually work as intended on the Huawei GR5. All whitelisted apps are let to stay on throughout while everything else gets knocked by Thor’s hammer.
  • The display is sharp, crisp and vibrant.
  • Good camera that takes some nice shots in low light even though it takes long to focus.
  • Excellent design. Full marks are earned for the design of the Huawei GR5.

The bad

Performance issues water down what is actually a good device. The lag, the stuttering and the overall sluggish performance need to be addressed.

Final word

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Huawei raises the mid-range bar with the GR5 and that is a very good thing. We need as many mid-rangers offering similar or near experiences to those that high-end devices offer. Most importantly, mid-range needs to stay mid-range. Put side by side with the pricey Galaxy A5 (2016) smartphone, anyone without the extra cash to go with Samsung’s steeply priced mid-rangers won’t hesitate to pick the Huawei GR5. And they will be getting something that is worth it at Kshs 28,000.

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