Huawei is known to make good phones in all price ranges, even with its Honor family of phones that use the same software. Despite having top notch hardware at mid-range and premium segments, Huawei was getting accused from some quarters of shipping smartphones with below-par software. Of course, it did look like most other Chinese ROMs but Huawei’s software that we have used from its Sonic (U8650) days in 2011 to the first version of its Emotion UI (EMUI) on the Ascend Y300, it always managed to draw our attention with some useful features it offered.
But it always had a lot of room to improve and tons of rough edges that needed work to give it a polished appeal. Fast forward to 2017; we now have the fifth iteration of the Emotion UI that has come a long way from where it was. So what does the all new EMUI (as its popularly called in short) offer? Does it finally match up to the standards of its flagship hardware and design? We find that out for you.
Chopping off the Chinese norms
Ever since Huawei adorned the crown of a Google Phone (Nexus) in 2016, the brand is more recognizable outside of China and Asia. The Google Nexus 6P was so good a phone that helped establish Huawei a good brand image. People outside of Asia were more open to trying out Huawei and Honor phones. Adoption has gone beyond its flagships to the mid-rangers too. Affordable prices for an unlocked phone meant good success.
But there was one problem – Android users outside of China love their app drawers, but the Chinese ROMs are hell bent on pursuing their “inspiration” from the iOS’ multi-homepage UI (remember how LG took it off and introduced it right back?). Of course, it’s as easy as installing a custom launcher, such as Nova, but there is also that “I love my phone like the way it came” team who wouldn’t change the ringtones too! EMUI has finally introduced an app drawer option, and this will win Huawei many hearts – no kidding.
The swipe down menu was a two tabbed Notification and Toggle menu option. While this looks fresh and colorful, the majority of the world is not used to this and hence a major friction point in the UI. EMUI has now adopted a more stock Android look where the notifications follow the toggle menu, that can be edited as well.
Coolness with Devil in the details
Nearing perfection doesn’t end in providing a screen with tons of pixels but how the UI is painted on each of those pixels is what sets a cool UI apart from the ordinary ones. All the icons in the new EMUI are now subtly rounded on its edges and more uniformly designed. If you were to put the sharp edged icons next to the rounded edge ones, you could tell that it makes such a big difference – delightful is what we call it.
Speaking of delight, Huawei has now made white and blue dominate most of its standard menus. The dialer, the messaging app, the settings menu and so on. For one, it is softer on the eyes, and at the same time is one of the best color combinations that is appealing to a wide range of ages and all genders too. For us, it has a premium, elegant and professional look to it that blends in much better with the flagship phones – who will want his $600-700 phone to look juvenile? Not us indeed!
Usually, animations are frowned upon as they slow things down, but EMUI 5.0 brings in some really subtle ones that provide just the right amount of feedback to the user, enhancing the experience. For instance, using the flight more or turning on the WiFi on the toggle menu has a little animation telling the user of the change that has occurred. At times, it becomes a challenge to identify the command being received, and we end up making multiple taps. The music app, the weather app, incoming call notification – all have these rather subtle animations that bring in a lot of delight. It’s done by making optimal usage of resources and not slowing down things – that is when our reaction was “Nice Touch!”
That nice touch continues on the lock screen where the images can be changed with swipes. How is this any special, one may wonder, but the ability that EMUI provides for assigning a particular album to this lock screen is so handy. Imagine you made a trip or attending a function and had lots of pictures that you wanted to show someone. You don’t even need to unlock the phone! Just swipe across the pics or hand over the phone to someone who can look at them. We found ourselves using this many times, and it’s “cool”!
Take it easy
Making an OS “feature rich” but keeping things straightforward and easy at the same time is a big challenge. This is where most of the OEMs throwing their custom skins on Android struggle. EMUI 5.0 has its flows and options laid out in such a way that Huawei claims that any action can be accomplished in a maximum of 3 taps. We knew right off the back that this claim might not be 100% accurate but what surprised us is that close to 75% of the actions could be finished within three taps. And Huawei claims that there is an AI in play which learns the way you use your phones and makes it better – tall claim again but there were signs of it in our two-week usage.
The phone learns about accidental taps and swipes, and over a period of time, prevents them from happening. We tried keeping our phone unlocked and shoving it in a tightly packed bag or pocket, and over a period of 1 week, we did not observe any such magic happening. Maybe the learning requires more time to start executing its gameplan. Regardless, this is good stuff. For a guy whose accidental taps while the phone was shoved into a bag, sent in 25 middle finger emjois to his Vice President on WhatsApp, this is just what the doctor ordered for!
Phones are getting bigger, and people are getting busier. This means there is more of one-handed usage going on. How many times have you found yourself with just one hand to use the phone and struggling to swipe down the toggle menu? Countless we say, and you will agree! EMUI 5.0 brings in the option to add an additional option to the onscreen navigation buttons set, that can bring down the toggle menu mimicking a swipe down action. And one can also swap the positions of the options – handy (pun intended!)
There are other options like shrinking the screen and dialer to a smaller size for the ease of one handed usage again.
For Huawei’s phones that have a home button on the front, EMUI brings in the option to enable one click to go back, long press to get to home screen and to swipe left and right to hop across apps. Meizu and Lenovo made this famous with their phones, and it’s Huawei’s turn now.
Swipe down on the screen, and the EMUI will present the universal/global search option, that pulls out results from literally every content on your phone. Another “inspired” feature from the iOS!
The Floating Dock when enabled brings in the options of the on-screen navigation and optimizations into a hovering ball that can make these choices in a circular placeholder. This dock can be repositioned anywhere on the screen and would stay up all the time.
Smartness on and off screen
EMUI brings in a smarter calendar that can take in inputs from your email, notes and messages apps. Content, where date and events are identified, options are given to add them to your calendar app. This way, events, and alerts are managed in one single app and helps clear out the clutter in all the other apps.
There are lots of optimizations going on in the background which Huawei claims is done by its custom machine learning and ultra memory optimization technology that arranges the memory based on the usage pattern thus making the OS more efficient for the apps that you’re using the most. We also observed a better RAM management going on which is usually an issue in thick skinned Android variants. And optimizations surface in subtle ways like how the UI adjusts itself for the right about of swipes and scrolls across different screens and apps based on one’s usage. We did observe this subtle change as we used the browser and read through PDFs more and more. The more time we spend on the OS, we probably will see the subtleness going stronger but after a point in time nothing much may change on the UI side of things as things would’ve been adjusted to your usage patterns.
There are few gestures and tricks as well. Drawing an S using your knuckles takes a screen shot and swiping left and right on a multitasking screen can close/open the apps.
The Gallery app can automatically recognize images and arrange them into many different categories just like the Google Photos app does, in addition, to create albums of your own.
There are tons of other things, such as themes, optimization apps, cool widgets, transitions and so on that have made their way from the past and also common to other Chinese ROMs. And of course, some messages on the UI such as “Harassment Filter” that needs some work after doing direct translations from Chinese words. While EMUI can use lots of improvements, the EMUI 5.0 has come a long way from where it was, adding in many right features which are more timely at this point. Of course, there are lots of ideas borrowed in from iOS, Google Apps and so on which can also be brought in by installing additional apps. But when they all come in integrated with the OS, it allows for better optimization, the choice, of course, is left to the user in the end – things being “simplified” is what Huawei has done.
These are many steps taken in the right direction that will help the OS match up to its flagship hardware. Now how EMUI compares with its closest Chinese rival MIUI from Xiaomi is a different and an important question we would love to answer, and we will do that in a separate upcoming article.
For now, we end this by saying Huawei is starting to pay attention to the finer details, and at the same time, stepping into futuristic ideas in subtle ways plus adopting the latest Android version even for its mid-rangers (Honor 8 Lite) which not many Chinese ROMs do or show any signs of going for it. If they continue on this with more right decisions, EMOTIONAL connect with its users is guaranteed.