EMUI 5 finally makes Huawei’s excellent smartphones usable

Huawei is one of the world’s largest and most successful phone manufacturers. Despite their attempts to penetrate the US market, they haven’t had much success here in America, with the exception of the very warmly received Huawei Nexus 6P, created with Google. One big reason for this lack of success in the US market would be their EMUI software skin. Check almost any Huawei phone review here in the US and you’ll find a common thread ─ fantastic hardware but terrible software that ruins the experience.

The best hardware in the world can be marred by a terrible user experience, and make no mistake, Huawei does make some fantastic hardware. However, EMUI has been one of the biggest hindrances to their success here in the US. EMUI often broke many of Android’s native functions, replaced superior features with inferior alternatives, and was riddled with bugs.

Lest we forget the UI was also quite unappealing. It was an obvious copycat of iOS much like other skins from Chinese OEMs. While Android went through a major UI overhaul with Material design starting with Lollipop, you’d be hard pressed to even know if you’re on KitKat, Lollipop, or Marshmallow by appearance alone when using a Huawei phone. The UI simply never changed or adapted to Material design, or really evolved over time.



In short EMUI 4 and everything before it was a hot mess, all in an attempt to rip off iOS. It didn’t look good, it didn’t work properly, and it made recommending a Huawei phone nearly impossible. Huawei seems to have gotten the message thanks to plenty of feedback from the community, as well as reviews tearing them to shreds. EMUI 5 is a long overdue overhaul of their skin, but the question is, has EMUI 5 finally made Huawei phones usable?

Launcher

Let’s start with the launcher, where Huawei has finally added an app drawer. This is a long awaited and requested feature from users, but sadly it is not on by default but it is easy to enable from the settings menu, at least on all devices. The Mate 9 enables it out of the box, but others don’t. The drawer even has a handy alphabetical shortcut on the right side for quicker navigation. One big problem is the drawer is only alphabetized by the first letter and not the second, so you’ll see some icons out of order at times.

For example, Speedtest comes before Solid Explorer or Snapseed comes before Slack. What would EMUI be without at least a few bugs? It could still use some work obviously, as something as simple as this should have been ironed out before being released. You wouldn’t expect to see a bug like this from companies such as Samsung or LG.

Regardless of this error I still find it to be an improvement over EMUI 4 which featured no app drawer. Thankfully launchers are easy to change, and most users will swap it out no matter what improvements Huawei makes.

Notification Panel

The notification panel has gotten a huge and much-needed facelift. In EMUI 4 you were stuck with the same notification panel across Kitkat, Lollipop, and Marshmallow. Stuck with the quick setting tiles in a menu you accessed with a swipe to the left, while the notifications all used a black semi-transparent shade. This led to many notifications having black text on a black background which in many cases were unreadable.

This has now finally all been updated and a swipe down will show your quick setting tiles, brightness controls, and notifications in the card style Android introduced with Lollipop. A second swipe down will reveal even more of the tiles. Thanks to this you can even use third-party apps that add extra tiles.

While I’m not a fan of the style of the quick settings or the rounded off iOS-esque notification cards. It is so much more functional than EMUI 4 was, it matches up closer with Google’s version, and I have hope someone will theme the quick settings to match stock Android colors eventually.

Recent Apps

The recent apps screen has also finally adapted to the card stack layout Android has been using for years now. This makes it much easier to see larger previews of your apps and to switch apps. It also becomes very helpful when using the multi-window mode built into Nougat.

Lock Screen

The lock screen hasn’t changed all that much. However, one very significant change is you now double tap a notification to open it instead of swiping it. EMUI 4 would open a notification when swiped, which could be very confusing when coming from another phone. This lead to me opening notifications often when I wanted to dismiss them.

Then once I broke my muscle memory and got used to how EMUI 4 handled it, I’d switch to another phone and swipe away notifications I meant to open. This one simple change has cured a lot of frustration I had with EMUI when jumping between phones.

Even with this improvement, there is still an issue with getting notifications to expand reliably on the lock screen. It appears when you swipe down you must swipe almost to the bottom of the screen in most cases to expand them. Otherwise, they just bounce right back up.

Task Management

The changes to the UI are very welcomed and are more apparent than changes in the background, but one of the biggest issues with Huawei phones has always been their aggressive task killing. This often lead to you missing notifications from your apps, or at the very least getting them late. It was completely unacceptable and the biggest frustration in using Huawei phones. Thankfully this has been changed to an opt-in feature instead of opt-out like it was in EMUI 4.

No longer do you have to dig through the settings in order to fix your phone straight out of the box. This is something an end user should have never had to do, and I’m glad Huawei finally learned this.

OK Google Bug

One glaring bug I’ve come across while using EMUI 5 is that when OK Google voice detection is enabled it causes conflict with other apps that use the microphone. For example, when making a call on Skype I get an error about access to the microphone which will not go away no matter how many times you dismiss it. This bug is intermittent for me as it doesn’t happen 100% of the time but frustrating none the less.

The only way I found around this was to disable OK Google voice detection in the Google settings. Probably a deal breaker for many people, but honestly not something I use. It just gets set off way too many times by other people or the new Google Home commercials. For what it’s worth, it does appear to be gone on the Huawei P10 running EMUI 5.1.

Conclusion

EMUI 5 has come a long way and I wouldn’t say it’s great, but I can definitely say it has become usable. Besides the little quirks and some questionable design EMUI offers several useful features. I’ve always been a fan of enhancements such as one-handed mode, the navigation key shortcut for the notification tray, and fingerprint scanner gestures. EMUI 5 has even brought the addition of an eye comfort mode.

The point is there are plenty of things to still dislike about EMUI, but there are also plenty of enhancements to appreciate. EMUI 5 is the best version of EMUI Huawei has ever released. Maybe someday in the future EMUI will become good instead of just usable. For now, if EMUI 4 put you off of Huawei phones then EMUI 5 might make it worth giving Huawei another chance.

Huawei Mate 9 Review