EMUI 9 Review [Part 1]: Android Pie on Huawei/Honor Smartphones is a Radical Departure from Stock Android

EMUI 9 Review [Part 1]: Android Pie on Huawei/Honor Smartphones is a Radical Departure from Stock Android

Notifications

Management

Android’s notification system is indisputably superior to iOS’, and messing with its behavior is a huge mistake for an OEM to make. Xiaomi was routinely criticized for changing how notifications worked until they finally caved and fixed their behavior in MIUI 9 to be more in line with stock Android. EMUI 9, fortunately, mostly only adds to what you can do with notifications, though it can be difficult to wrap your head around all the available options.

Notifications can be managed in EMUI by going to the Notifications menu in Settings. Here, you can enable app icon badges which are either dots indicating a new notification or a number representing the number of unread messages. Both badge modes show up on the top right of app icons in the launcher, though the badge for the number of unread messages only works with certain apps. Below the app icon badges are the options to show, not show, or show but hide sensitive notification content on the lock screen. Under the “more notification settings” page is an option to turn the screen on when new notifications arrive or change how the notifications in the status bar are shown (icons for each app or a number of pending notifications.) Lastly, you can either batch toggle notifications on or off or individually manage app notifications.

If you choose to manage an app’s notifications individually, you’re first presented with a list of notification channels that the app has created during its lifetime on your device. That can be a few or very, very many in the case of messaging apps. For each notification channel, you can choose to show or hide it from the status bar or lock screen, show or hide its pop-up, or change its alert behavior (whether it interrupts you in Do Not Disturb mode, what sound it can make, and whether it vibrates the device.)

Managing notification channels in EMUI 9/Magic UI 2.

Actions

Taking a look at the actual notifications, we see a few changes from stock Android behavior. Although EMUI 9 retains Android 8 Oreo’s notification snoozing ability, you can’t half-swipe on heads-up notifications to make the snooze icon appear. Instead, you can only show the snooze and manage notification buttons by half-swiping on a notification when the status bar has been pulled down. Next, unlocking your phone will clear any unread notifications from appearing on the lock screen if you haven’t yet taken action on them. Other than that, the notification behavior is unchanged. Notifications are grouped per app as usual, and you can expand grouped notifications with a single finger swipe down action. The only addition to notifications that EMUI has made is the insertion of a split-screen button with minimized pop-up notifications when you’re in a full-screen app; this lets you open a notification to respond to it without leaving your current app.


Memory Management

Huawei and Honor sell smartphones with incredible battery life. My Huawei Mate 20 X easily lasts me a full 2 days of use with between 10-12 hours of screen on time. While yes, the Mate 20 X does have a large 5,000mAh battery, even the mid-range phones from Huawei and Honor have great battery life. In large part, this is thanks to how EMUI handles background app use—overly aggressively. EMUI is notoriously aggressive in its killing of background apps, to the point where you’ll often miss instant messages from apps like Discord or Slack. Some apps straight up won’t work if you don’t whitelist them. I had to deal with this when testing the Skip Track with Volume Keys app, for instance. It’s absolutely infuriating to deal with, but unfortunately, EMUI’s background app management can be toned down.

On EMUI 9 global, you can go to Settings > Battery > App launch to manage how EMUI deals with apps running in the background. (On the Chinese version of EMUI 9, the equivalent setting can be found in the Phone Manager app.) Here, you can choose to turn off EMUI’s automatic app management or disable it on a per-app basis. I actually don’t recommend turning off automatic management for all apps because I prefer letting it close apps that I know I don’t want running in the background. For any apps that you never want to miss notifications for, you can tap on the toggle to change the setting from “manage automatically” to “manage manually.” You have the option to allow the app to automatically launch on boot or in the background, allow other apps to launch it in the background, and/or keep the app running in the background. I recommend leaving all 3 options enabled for important apps because you never know if leaving any of them off will break the functionality of an app.

Tapping on the overflow menu in App launch settings gives you two options: Manage manually or Launch records. The manage manually screen shows you which apps you’ve allowed to bypass EMUI’s memory management so you can easily toggle access for these permissions. It’s a pretty neat visualization of the changes you’ve made, admittedly. The launch records screen is a useful page that shows you which apps have automatically launched in the background, whether it be on their own or by another app, how many times an app has been launched, and the latest time the app was launched. You can refer to this page to see if certain apps are launching themselves too much for your liking.

There’s a good reason why Huawei offers the App launch feature, and it’s because of the China market. Without getting too in-depth, the lack of Google Play Services in China means there’s no single push notification provider (though that’s recently changed), so Chinese app developers often built their own push notification services. If a user installs a bunch of apps, each with their own way of providing notifications, that can cause different apps to constantly ping the device, never letting it enter deep sleep. Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging solves this problem by coalescing notifications and delivering them under the right conditions so the effect on battery life is minimized. Chinese smartphone makers like Huawei and Xiaomi often received blame from customers who were angry at poor battery life on their devices, so these companies developed aggressive memory management features. These features aren’t as necessary outside of China because of the prevalence of Google Play Services, though sadly the global EMUI software still keeps the feature. This is a simplified summary explaining why App launch exists in EMUI 9, but I still won’t excuse its presence even if I understand the reasoning behind it. Huawei should follow OnePlus’ lead and better distinguish EMUI China from EMUI Global because clearly this feature wasn’t built with global audiences in mind.


Power Management

EMUI’s power management does a damn good job at squeezing as much battery life out of your phone as possible, but you should never leave the settings on their default. Learn what the possible options are so you aren’t left scratching your head about why you aren’t getting notifications from your favorite new messaging app.

Under Battery settings, you’ll find the following options:

  • Optimize Battery Usage: I recommend you don’t use this. It does things like turn off vibration, turn screen brightness to auto, and closes power intensive apps in the background (a separate feature already warns you about power intensive apps, so this is pointless.) It also recommends you do things like turn off GPS, auto-rotate, auto-sync, vibration on touch, and lower the screen time out, basically crippling your phone to save some power.
  • Performance mode: Enables a higher-performance mode which presumably tweaks the CPU and GPU governors to favor higher frequencies among other things.
  • Power saving mode: Standard battery saver mode, which limits background apps, disables auto-sync and system sounds, and limits animations.
  • Ultra power saving mode: Severely limits what your phone can do to maximize your remaining battery life. Use this when you absolutely need to rely on your phone’s last remaining minutes to make phone calls or texts.
  • App launch: A source of frequent frustration, app launch controls what apps are allowed to run in the background. If you care about receiving notifications on time, you must learn how to limit App launch. I go into much greater detail below.
  • Battery usage: A huge list of what hardware components (display, radio, etc.) and Android apps have been eating up your battery life so far. Each hardware component and Android app are listed with a percentage of how much battery life they’ve contributed to reducing. Tapping on any entry reveals more information about how that component or app sipped power from your phone. In general, EMUI shows you much more battery usage information than stock Android. Tapping on any app lets you toggle its power consumption alert (a notification that alerts you when EMUI thinks the app is abnormally draining your battery), control its app launch behavior, force close the app, or view a detailed power analysis which lists the CPU, GPS, and mobile data statistics.
  • Power consumption details: A more broad overview of what hardware components and Android apps have contributed to battery drain. This uses graphs and bar charts to display power drain, similar to stock Android.
  • Battery percentage: Whether to show the battery text inside the battery icon in the status bar, outside the status bar, or not at all.
  • More battery settings: You’ll find the “power-intensive app history” here which lists the most recent warnings that EMUI gave for apps it thinks drained too much battery. You’ll also find an option to “stay connected when device sleeps.” If you turn this off, you won’t receive any notifications when the screen is off because Wi-Fi and mobile data will be turned off. On some devices, this may be turned off by default, so if you’re having problems be sure to check that this is on!

In summary, turn off any feature that automatically manages app behavior (app launch), but leave on any feature that helps you improve battery by making recommendations on what to do (power consumption alert.) Use power saving mode sparingly, and ultra power saving mode even more so. Use performance mode to eke out a bit more performance in certain games (especially in intensive emulators like Dolphin Emulator.)


Network Management

EMUI was designed with dual SIM users on limited network connections in mind. As such, it offers a number of features to manage your phone’s data connection.

  • Wi-Fi bridge is a form of tethering that lets you share your phone’s Wi-Fi connection to other devices. This can be useful for connecting devices like the Chromecast that have trouble dealing with captive portals. You can also use it to share a connection to other devices when you’re at a hotel that charges you per-device, so you don’t have to tether mobile data from your phone.
  • Dual SIM settings: EMUI is built with Dual SIM, Dual Standby (DSDS) devices in mind. If you have two SIM cards inserted, dual SIM settings let you toggle which card is the default data SIM, which one is the default calling SIM, whether dual SIM 4G LTE should be enabled, or whether one SIM should be deactivated entirely. You can also enable call forwarding between SIMs so calls going to the other SIM are forwarded to the active SIM so you won’t miss the call. Overall, EMUI’s dual SIM management is far superior to stock Android’s which only recently started getting basic dual SIM support in Android Q. The Messages app (made by Google) does show you which SIM is active before you send a text message, and it also shows you which SIM sent a recent message. Thus, Google’s lack of proper dual SIM management in Android doesn’t extend to the pre-installed Messages app at least.
  • Data usage management: EMUI provides a chart for each SIM showing your monthly data use. You can configure your monthly data allotment, start date, and set usage reminders in “More data settings.” You can also enable the “show data used when locked” option which gives shows a notification tells you how much data was used while your phone was locked, every time you unlock your phone. Lastly, the “network access” page lets you restrict mobile data, Wi-Fi, background data, and/or roaming data on a per-app basis. This is a powerful tool to control network access which stock Android lacks.
  • Wi-Fi+ improves the quality of your phone’s network connection by automatically switching off of a poor-quality Wi-Fi to mobile data, and vice versa. It can also automatically turn on Wi-Fi to connect to known Wi-Fi networks that are in-range, a feature similar to stock Android’s “turn on Wi-Fi automatically.”
  • QR codes can be created for any saved Wi-Fi network, allowing others to easily join your current network by scanning the code. Google recently added this feature in Android Q.
  • Managing a portable Wi-Fi hotspot is easier in EMUI 9 thanks to extra features like the ability to set a data limit or blacklist certain devices.

Apart from the aforementioned features, EMUI also has most of the usual connectivity features you’ll find on other devices. For instance, data saver mode and private DNS are features that are also available in stock Android. EMUI doesn’t change the behavior of either feature, and thankfully they chose not to have hidden private DNS like Xiaomi did. Data saver is a toggle, when enabled, restricts which apps can use data in the background. It’s a temporary measure which can be useful when roaming. Private DNS is a feature added in Android 9 Pie that lets you set a custom DNS server that supports DNS-over-HTTPS.

EMUI has removed access to setting up a metered Wi-Fi network as well as a SIP account for VOIP calling, however. While the latter can be fixed by installing a third-party app, the former requires an ADB command to fix.

Lastly, one important network setting you must check is whether “enhanced 4G LTE network” is enabled under Mobile network > more. Without this, your LTE speeds will be much slower than they should be. This option was turned off by default on my Huawei Mate 20 X, which caused me to only get about 20Mbps down when I should have been getting 75Mbps down in my area.


Miscellaneous changes in EMUI 9

  • Do Not Disturb mode has been oversimplified in EMUI 9. While you can change the behavior of Do Not Disturb to only alert on alarms or user-defined priority interruptions like on stock Android, the scheduling options have been stripped down. You can schedule Do Not Disturb to trigger on a timer or during a calendar event, but you can’t immediately start Do Not Disturb for a set number of hours like when you want to watch a movie.
  • EMUI lets you select an SD card as the default storage location for app data. If you have a Huawei Mate 20 X, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, or Huawei P30 Pro with an NM card, try it out by going to Storage settings!
  • USB Debugging is disabled on every reboot and must be manually re-enabled by going to Developer Options. This is annoying to deal with, but it’s more secure because it makes sure that your data can only be accessed after your phone is unlocked. USB Debugging is also disabled when the phone isn’t in file transfer mode, though this behavior can be changed in Developer Options.

Conclusion

EMUI 9 may have its roots in Google’s Android 9 Pie, but it could pass as its own OS given how different it looks, feels, and behaves. Huawei made a lot of intelligent decisions when deciding EMUI 9’s feature set, but also some questionable choices when it comes to modifications of stock Android behavior. Regardless, Huawei has provided users the keys to take control of EMUI, and once you know how things work you’ll enjoy the software much more than before.

In part 1 of this review, I’ve highlighted the modifications that Huawei made to stock Android’s design and behavior. In part 2 of the review, I will go over basically every feature and pre-installed app you’ll find in EMUI 9. Lastly, part 3 will cover the minor changes coming with the EMUI 9.1 update. You can continue reading the review by accessing the following link:

EMUI 9 Review (Part 2): Features and Apps

Note: Huawei and Honor have stopped providing official bootloader unlock codes for their devices. Therefore, the bootloaders of their devices cannot be unlocked, which means that users cannot root or install custom ROMs.

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