EMUI 9 Review [Part 2]: Huawei/Honor’s Android Pie Software Packs a Ton of Useful Features Mistaken for Gimmicks
Among the various Android forks, Huawei’s EMUI is second only to Samsung’s One UI in terms of customization. There’s a staggering amount of features and pre-installed apps to meet your needs. In part 2 of my EMUI 9 review, I’ll go over all the features and apps that Huawei and Honor offer on their latest smartphones. If you haven’t already checked out part 1 of the review which covers EMUI 9’s Design and Behavioral changes over stock Android 9 Pie, then I recommend you click the link below to read that part.
Table of Contents
There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate when it comes to the stock navigation gestures in Huawei’s EMUI/Honor’s Magic UI. First, here’s a summary of how their gestures work:
- Swipe up from the center: Go home
- Swipe up from the bottom and hold: Open recent apps overview
- Swipe up from the bottom left or bottom right: Go home or launch Google Assistant if the option is enabled
- Swipe right from the left side: Go back
- Swipe left from the right side: Go back
- Swipe diagonally from the bottom left or bottom right corner: Launch mini screen view (one-handed mode)
Let me start off by saying what I love about these gestures. First, I love how they thought of incorporating the mini screen view, Google Assistant shortcut, and screen pinning. Both Xiaomi and OnePlus make you hold the power button to launch the Google Assistant when you enable their gesture controls. Xiaomi disables the ability to trigger one-handed mode when you enable their full-screen gestures. OnePlus simply turns off screen pinning when you enable their gestures. In contrast, all of these features are usable with Huawei and Honor’s navigation gestures. Gestures feel better integrated with the rest of the system rather than a feature tacked on to compete with the iPhone. Sadly, the actual gestures are inferior to OnePlus’ implementation.
My first major gripe with the EMUI 9 gestures is the fluidity. The OnePlus 6T added a new quick switch gesture that lets you return to your last app by flicking up and then right. There’s no comparable gesture in EMUI 9. The best you can do is swipe up and hold, let go, and then tap on the recent app card. Although EMUI automatically brings the last app in your recent apps stack to the center, you can’t swipe down on the card to bring it to the foreground. That swipe down action is reserved for locking an app in memory. Thus, while navigating back or returning to the launcher are quick, switching between tasks can be pretty slow. Even Google is experimenting with better recent apps navigation in Android Q, so hopefully, the next EMUI version brings more fluid gestures.
Next, I’ve had many issues with the swipe to go back gesture. I don’t think adding a swipe from the sides gesture was a very good idea. The back gesture interferes with quite a few apps that have sidebars on the left-hand side, which are fairly common because of the Navigation Drawer specification in Material Design. Because the trigger area for the back gesture starts at the very edge and only extends a few pixels outward, it’s possible to still open an app’s sidebar by precisely aiming your finger a few pixels away from the edge. You can also long-press near the edge to trigger the app’s sidebar, although performing this successfully has been inconsistent for me. Thus, I find myself constantly performing a back gesture when I meant to open the sidebar in apps like Gmail or Reddit is Fun. Even the stock launcher can pose problems when you enable the app drawer since the existence of the fast scrollbar on the right forces Huawei to disable the back gesture. After training yourself to swipe from the sides to go back, you have to remember that you can’t swipe to go back when you’re in the app drawer. I guarantee you’ll forget it, and you’ll find yourself fighting with the scrollbar pretty often. I would prefer to have a swipe up from the bottom left or bottom right go back, which is how OnePlus does it.
Lastly, there’s no way to activate picture-in-picture mode with a gesture. Picture-in-picture mode, though only recently introduced in Android 8.0 Oreo, is a very popular feature. With the three-button navigation keys, you can trigger picture-in-picture mode by tapping on the home button. You would think that swiping up from the bottom, which performs the home action, would enable picture-in-picture mode. Sadly, that’s not the case, so the only way to enter picture-in-picture mode while gestures are enabled is to pull down the status bar and launch either the alarm, calendar, or settings app by tapping on the time, date, or settings button respectively. Huawei got it right by incorporating screen pinning and one-handed mode into their gestures, but they failed to account for picture-in-picture mode.
Google introduced Digital Wellbeing in Android Pie for the Google Pixel to help users control their smartphone usage. Google has since expanded Digital Wellbeing for non-Pixel smartphones including all Android One devices on Android Pie, the Motorola Moto G7 family, and the Razer Phone 2. The Samsung Galaxy S10 on One UI 1.1 also has Digital Wellbeing, and even though the Galaxy S10’s version is technically made by Samsung and not Google, it’s pretty much identical to Google’s offering. Huawei and Honor’s take on Digital Wellbeing is the only unique iteration that I’ve seen.
EMUI/MagicUI’s version of Digital Wellbeing is called “Digital Balance,” and it’s actually better than the original. While Google’s app usage dashboard is presented as a circular chart, Huawei/Honor’s presents the same data as a horizontal bar chart. The bar chart makes a lot more sense than Google’s circular chart because you can more easily compare how long you’ve used a particular app in comparison to other apps. The chart even shows the screen usage of an app without making you tap on the app name to show more information.
The more detailed screen time page that appears when you tap on any of the app names or the “more” text also gives you more information than Google’s version. For example, Digital Balance tells you how long you’ve used an app as a percentage of the overall screen time. You can see how long you’ve used apps in the past 24 hours or past 7 days, although Google’s version does let you see the screen time on an hourly basis. Furthermore, Google’s version saves screen time for many days, so you can track how long you’ve used a particular app on a certain day. I think Google does a better job showing you historical screen usage data, while Huawei does a better job showing you the current screen usage data.
Google’s Digital Wellbeing does give you information other than the screen usage of apps, though. Digital Wellbeing also shows you how many notifications you’ve received from a particular app. Tapping on the manage notifications option then brings you to the notification management page for a particular app, so you can block recurrent notifications from specific notification channels. Google’s Digital Wellbeing also shows you how many times you opened a particular app, which can help you track which apps you’re addicted to checking even if you don’t actually spend much time in them. Huawei and Honor’s Digital Balance doesn’t show you any information about the frequency of notifications or app launches, sadly. Digital Balance, like Digital Wellbeing, does show you how many times you unlock your smartphone on a daily basis. It even gives you an estimate of the rate at which you unlock your smartphone, while Google’s Digital Wellbeing does not.
Digital Balance’s active time management features are better than Digital Wellbeing’s. When you first turn on “screen time management,” you get to choose whether the device you’re setting up Digital Balance on is your own device or your child’s device. If you’re setting it up on your child’s device, then Digital Balance asks you to set up a daily screen on time limit. This is the total amount of time your child can use their phone in a single day, though it can be extended with your approval. Important apps like the Dialer and default messenger (Google’s Messages) are automatically exempted from the time limit, though you can manually add apps to the “always allowed” list so they won’t count against the time limit. You can also set up “bedtime” actions such as graying the screen or blocking apps once your designated bedtime has been reached. Digital Balance lets you PIN protect changes to its settings with a 6 digit PIN that can be separate from your lock screen PIN, and it even lets you set up security questions to reset the settings in case you forget the PIN.
Setting up Digital Balance for yourself gives you a default daily screen time limit of 6 hours. You can customize how long you want to let yourself use your phone, of course. The feature even divides screen time management into “work days” and “rest days,” which by default are Monday through Friday and Saturday through Sunday. If your work week starts on a different day or isn’t the traditional 5 day work week, you can customize which days are your work days and which days you aren’t working on. Digital Balance’s actual app timer feature is identical to Digital Wellbeing in that you can select the total length of time you want to give yourself access to an app before it locks you out, although Huawei does automatically organize your installed app list into categories so you can easily find apps that may be a source of your phone addiction.
Digital Balance’s “Bedtime” mode is similar to Digital Wellbeing’s “Wind Down” since both features gray the screen, though Digital Wellbeing also integrates Night Light and Do Not Disturb while Digital Balance restricts access to apps. I think “Wind Down” is the better subfeature here.
Lastly, Digital Balance lets you set a screen time management PIN to prevent changes to its settings. This may be helpful if you struggle with your phone usage, even to the point of overriding these anti-addiction features. With the addition of a PIN, you’ll have to take one extra step before you can turn off time management features. That may deter you from turning off a feature that’s only supposed to help you.
Samsung DeX versus Easy Projection
Bridging the gap between the smartphone and the PC is a feat attempted by many, though few have succeeded thus far. In hindsight, the 2011 Motorola Atrix 4G and its Webtop desktop experience were ill-fated. The dock and laptop accessories were expensive, the software was old, and the phone lacked the serious power of the smartphones of today. Microsoft’s Continuum was doomed from the get-go because of the OS platform it ran on. Jide’s Remix Singularity required a custom Android OS on your phone, while Sentio, makers of the Superbook, use a lot of hidden APIs to deliver a “desktop-like” Android experience. The limitations behind each of these solutions, whether they be price or platform, resulted in none of them ever really taking off. Both Samsung and Huawei learned from the failures of each and have devised desktop modes that are accessible and, most importantly, useful.
Huawei and Samsung are in a head-to-head battle over who can develop the best desktop mode experience. Samsung came out of the gate with DeX on the Galaxy S8, which while its implementation was solid, was marred by the price tag of the DeX Station. Huawei responded with Easy Projection on the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro. Huawei collaborated with the developers of the startup behind Phoenix OS to deliver a DeX competitor that didn’t require an accessory—all you need is a USB Type-C (USB 3.1) to video output adapter and a device that supports USB 3.1. Samsung followed-up by introducing dockless DeX on the Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy S9, only to be outdone a few months later by Huawei introducing wireless Easy Projection on the Mate 20. Although Samsung DeX has yet to go wireless, Samsung has the upper hand in functionality thanks to its Linux on DeX feature, which lets you run a full-fledged GNU/Linux distribution compiled for ARM. Now that we know how far Easy Projection has come, let’s dive into what it offers right now.
Setting up Easy Projection
For starters, there are two ways to use Easy Projection: wired or wireless. Wired Easy Projection requires an EMUI 8.0+ Huawei or Honor device that supports USB 3.1 via USB Type-C. To start Easy Projection, simply plug a USB 3.1 Type-C to HDMI/VGA/DVI/DP/MiniDP cable into your smartphone and monitor/TV. Set the monitor/TV to the right input source, and your phone should automatically initiate Easy Projection mode. If you purchase a multi-input dock and use the right Type-C cable capable of Power Delivery, you may be able to start Easy Projection while simultaneously fast charging your phone. Sadly, getting the right accessories for this can be tricky—you’ll have to do some research on our forums to find accessories that are affordable, available, and actually work. The downsides of wired Easy Projection are that your phone needs to be close to the external display, you may not be able to charge your phone while projecting, and you lose access to the Type-C port that could otherwise be used for Type-C audio output, keyboard/mouse, or external storage accessories. Wired projection will work on more external displays than wireless projection, but if you are able to wirelessly project then I recommend going for that.
Wireless Easy Projection is available on Huawei or Honor smartphones running EMUI 9/Magic UI 2. If your phone supported wired projection, then it will support wireless projection with the Android Pie update. Thus, the Huawei Mate 10, Huawei P20, Huawei Mate 20, Huawei P30, Honor Magic 2, and Honor View20 all support wireless Easy Projection. To use the full desktop experience, your external display/dongle must support Miracast. DLNA-enabled displays can show photos, music, videos, or other multimedia files opened in Huawei’s stock Gallery, Music, or Video apps. All other wireless-enabled displays and devices like the Google Chromecast can only mirror the phone’s screen. Unlike wired Easy Projection, wireless mode must be initiated manually from either a Quick Setting tile or Settings > Device connectivity > Easy projection.
Using Easy Projection
However you start Easy Projection, the available features will be the same. The bottom of the desktop interface consists of a start button on the left, a taskbar where you can place your favorite apps to the right of the start button, quick setting buttons to the right of the taskbar, and 3 button back/home/recent app navigation keys on the very right. In order from left to right, the quick setting buttons do the following:
- Select audio output (phone or external display)
- Change input method (what keyboard app you want to use if a physical keyboard isn’t connected)
- Open the notification center where you can view and interact with notifications, toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Mobile data, volume, or brightness level, or take a screenshot
- Open the calendar app in a floating window
The start button opens up a list of your pre-installed apps. By default, the start menu pops up from the bottom left corner and takes up about half the screen, but you can maximize the menu by tapping on the top right expand icon. Also at the top are a screen lock button and search bar to find an app. You can launch any app on your phone from the start menu, though apps that aren’t optimized will be hidden in a separate folder called “third-party apps.” By optimized, I’m referring to apps that have been built with Android’s split-screen multi-window mode in mind. Optimized apps like Google Photos, Gmail, Chrome, YouTube, Google Maps, and all stock Huawei apps will be opened in freeform multi-windows, app windows that can layer on top of one another, be resized, or be dragged around the screen. In contrast, unoptimized apps will only be shown in fullscreen mode.
While you’re in the start menu, you can right-click on any app icon to either add a shortcut to the desktop or the taskbar. Right-clicking on an icon in the taskbar will let you unpin the app, while right-clicking on an icon on the desktop lets you open, delete, rename, copy, cut, or uninstall the app. The open action launches the app while uninstall completely removes the app from your device. Meanwhile, delete, rename, copy, and cut are unique features to Easy Projection. Just think of it as your standard desktop OS: deletes remove the shortcut from the desktop, rename lets you change the name of the shortcut, and copy/cut lets you clone or move the shortcut to another location. Lastly, right-clicking on an empty spot on the desktop lets you create a new (text) file, new folder, paste anything you’ve copy/cut, refresh the desktop, change the wallpaper, or change the screen size between small, medium, or large so you can adjust the desktop UI until it fits the entire viewable area of the external display.
The best part of all the above? You aren’t denied access to your phone while using any of the above features. You can continue to project your screen with Easy Projection but still use your phone as usual. While Easy Projection is running, a persistent notification will be shown which lets you switch between desktop mode and phone mode (screen mirroring) or open the touchpad. The touchpad is what lets you move the pointer in Easy Projection if you don’t have a mouse; it takes up nearly the whole screen and you can perform a left-click with a single tap, right-click with a two-finger tap, select text with a double tap and drag, or scroll by sliding up or down with two fingers. The touchpad also provides shortcuts to the screenshot action and a drawing tool which lets you draw lines in red, yellow, or blue on your phone to show on the external display—useful for notes or presentations. Lastly, if you don’t have a keyboard plugged in, your phone’s software keyboard app will show up on top of the touchpad whenever keyboard input is required. I don’t recommend using Easy Projection without an actual keyboard and mouse as it’s a miserable experience, but if you’re truly desperate you could make it work.
Easy Projection could definitely do more, but I have to give credit to Huawei for making the feature live up to its name. You don’t need a proprietary, expensive dock or anything like that; I bought a simple $17 USB Type-C to HDMI adapter from Amazon (in case you’re wondering, it’s the AmazonBasics one) and it works just fine on my Honor Magic 2, Honor View20, and Huawei Mate 20 X. None of my displays support Miracast, but TK Bay from our YouTube channel showed off how easy it is to use wireless Easy Projection. The fact that Easy Projection lets you use your phone while projecting and also works with existing apps because it relies on standard Android multi-window APIs is a big win in my view. The biggest disadvantage, naturally, is the fact that many Android apps haven’t been optimized for multi-window, even though the APIs have existed since Android 7.0 Nougat. Perhaps the introduction of desktop mode in Android Q will push developers to support it better, but we’re a long way away from Android Q adoption on most Huawei or Honor devices. Before that happens, we hope to see Huawei follow Samsung’s lead and bring a full Linux distribution to Easy Projection. Hell, Huawei may even one-up Samsung and bring Windows 10 on ARM to the Huawei Mate 30. That’s certainly wishful thinking on my part, but we’ve seen developers port Windows on ARM to existing devices and we know that Huawei and Microsoft have active mobile partnerships, so maybe they’ll surprise us in October.
If you have multiple social media and messaging accounts—perhaps one personal account and one work account—then you may find it annoying how many services don’t let you sign in to multiple accounts. WhatsApp, for instance, only lets you sign in to a single account even if your phone has dual SIM support. That’s where Huawei and Honor’s App Twin feature come in. It lets you clone Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, QQ, or Wechat so you can log in to two accounts in each service.
App twin lets you clone a limited number of messaging/social media apps.
Cloned apps are denoted with a “2” overlaying the icon.
App Twin launched with EMUI 5.0 on the Huawei Mate 9, though not every smartphone that updated to EMUI 5 got the feature. Since the feature was introduced, it hasn’t changed despite multiple EMUI upgrades. App cloning in EMUI isn’t a unique feature since there are many third-party cloning apps like Shelter and Island which take advantage of Android’s enterprise work profile.
While it’s nice to see the feature built-in to EMUI and retained through multiple software version upgrades, I’m disappointed that App Twin’s arbitrary restrictions are still there. App Twin says that the feature doesn’t work with third-party launchers, which wasn’t true on earlier EMUI releases. There’s also no reason for App Twin to be limited to only 5 apps since it was able to clone any installed app, though that trick no longer works in EMUI 9. I’m not sure why EMUI limits App Twin’s functionality so much, but the reason why certainly isn’t technical.
If you’re looking to game on a Huawei or Honor smartphone with the HiSilicon Kirin 980, then you won’t be disappointed. Although the Kirin 980’s raw GPU performance falls short of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, we found that Kirin 980 devices like the Honor View20 can easily handle the top Android games on Google Play. Kirin 980 devices can even play many retro games from the GameCube, Dreamcast, and Wii eras. To improve your gaming experience, EMUI 9/MagicUI 2 offers a dedicated gaming mode feature.
The feature, called “AppAssistant” for some reason, can be found under Settings > Apps. Here’s what it can do:
- Add games to a list to quickly launch them.
- Enable “game acceleration” to turn on performance mode when gaming.
- Enable “uninterrupted gaming” to block heads up notifications (except for incoming calls, alarms, and low battery warnings).
- Manage Bluetooth gaming peripherals and their key mappings, if applicable.
- Automatically disable knuckle gestures when gaming to prevent accidental inputs.
- Automatically launch AppAssistant when a registered Bluetooth peripheral is connected.
AppAssistant is useful to prevent your gaming experience from being ruined by a notification, accidental gesture input, or preventable slowdown because you forgot to turn on performance mode, but it lacks many of the bells and whistles found in gaming modes from other smartphone makers. Razer Game Booster on the Razer Phone 2, for example, lets you set a per-game frame rate limit (with an optional FPS counter), per-game CPU clock speed limit, per-game display resolution, per-game performance mode (5 modes separate from the clock speed), and per-game anti-aliasing. You might say it’s unfair to compare AppAssistant to a gaming mode from a more traditional gaming phone, but Samsung’s Game Tuner has more features than AppAssistant. Given that Huawei and Honor both heavily market GPU Turbo, I had hoped that AppAssistant would be more robust.
GPU Turbo 2.0
The addition of GPU Turbo is one way in which Huawei makes up for the difference in GPU performance between the ARM Mali GPUs in their Kirin SoCs and the Adreno GPUs in Qualcomm’s SoCs. The first iteration of GPU Turbo promised a “60% boost in gaming performance” and “30% less battery power when gaming.” EMUI 9.0 brought GPU Turbo 2.0, which Huawei says provides a 36% reduction of in average touch input latency. If you’re playing one of the games that support GPU Turbo, which includes PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Vainglory, Arena of Valor, Rules of Survival, and NBA 2K18, then you’ll have a great experience.
Gaming performance with GPU Turbo 2.0. Source: Huawei. Via: ITHome.
We can’t tell you how well GPU Turbo 2.0 works because it’s impossible for us to turn it off to do a comparison. We can, however, tell you how it works. Although Huawei never went into great detail about how they made GPU Turbo, the team over at Anandtech uncovered a lot of information about it. To summarize, GPU Turbo is almost entirely software based, though the presence of an NPU does help. Huawei creates TensorFlow neural network models for every game that GPU Turbo supports. These models are trained over thousands of hours to analyze the game’s power and performance requirements, and the SoC’s Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling (DVFS) parameters are adjusted to maximize performance and minimize power consumption. During actual gameplay, the model outputs the most optimal DVFS settings. That’s the gist of how it works, though for more detail I recommend you read the Anandtech article in full.
Like the Google Pixel, the fingerprint scanner (if the device you’re using has a physical scanner) can be used for gestures. The gesture you’ll probably use the most is the swipe down to show the notification panel. In stock Android, you can swipe down on the fingerprint scanner once to show notifications and once more to show the Quick Settings panel. In EMUI, however, you can only swipe down once to either show notifications or the Quick Settings panel when there’s no notifications. While Huawei sadly blocks the API introduced in Android Oreo that lets you remap the fingerprint scanner, they do offer a few additional built-in fingerprint scanner gestures:
- Take photo/video: In the EMUI camera app, touch and hold the fingerprint scanner to simulate the shutter button.
- Answer call: During an incoming call, touch and hold the fingerprint scanner to answer.
- Stop alarm: When an alarm is ringing, touch and hold the fingerprint scanner to stop the alarm.
- Browse photos: When viewing images in full screen, swipe left or right on the fingerprint scanner to switch between images.
Sadly, all of these gestures only work with their respective default EMUI app. That means you can’t use the browse photos fingerprint gesture in Google Photos, for instance.
If your Huawei or Honor smartphone has a front-facing camera, then it supports facial recognition. Apart from the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, every Huawei or Honor device’s facial recognition feature is purely software-based. That means it’s insecure and can be tricked by showing a photo of you or someone who looks like you. It’s also useless in low light conditions. If you can look past those flaws, then you’ll find face recognition to be a convenient way to unlock your device. EMUI/MagicUI lets you decide if you want to automatically unlock your phone after your face is recognized. It also lets you pick whether to show or hide your notifications on the lock screen until your face is recognized. Lastly, you can also integrate face recognition into the App Lock feature so you can unlock access to your apps using your face.
If you care about security, then I recommend you turn off face recognition. That is, unless, you own the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s face recognition feature is excellent. The Mate 20 Pro is unique among Huawei and Honor devices because it has 3D depth-sensing hardware, which lets the Mate 20 Pro’s face recognition feature unlock your phone securely and quickly even in poor lighting conditions.
I’m not a fan of gimmicky gesture controls, but fortunately, Huawei puts them all in one place so you can easily turn the useless ones off. Under Settings > Smart Assistance > Motion Control, you’ll find 6 gestures. Here’s a list of the Motion Control gestures and a brief description of what they do:
- Flip to mute incoming calls, timers, and alarms
- Pick up your phone to reduce the ringtone volume for calls, reduce the volume of timers and alarms, or to wake it up
- Raise your phone to your ear to answer an incoming phone call, start a phone call, or switch to the earpiece if the in-call audio is currently routed through the speaker or Bluetooth headset
- Take a full-screen screenshot by knocking on the screen twice with one of your knuckles, take a partial screenshot by drawing a circle with your knuckle, take a screen recording by knocking on the screen with two knuckles, or take a scrolling screenshot by drawing an S with a knuckle
- Launch an app of your choice by drawing the letters C, E, M, or W with your knuckle while the screen is on.
- Enable split-screen multi-window mode by drawing a line across the screen with a knuckle.