Honor Play review: The affordable gaming smartphone for everyone

We hadn’t seen much in the way of gaming smartphones since Sony’s innovative Xperia Play all those years ago, but last year saw the release of the Razer Phone which seemed to capture the attention of other smartphone brands with ASUS following suit with the ROG gaming phone earlier this year. Even Samsung tried to get in on the act with its Galaxy Note 9 and its exclusivity deal with Fortnite. Part of the reason that gaming phones are on trend is the recent availability of PUBG and Fortnite on the Android OS. Huawei, and by association, Honor, jumped onboard the gaming bandwagon with the announcement of the GPU Turbo technology that first rolled out to the Honor 10 a few weeks ago, boosting graphics performance by 60% and optimizing power efficiency by 30%.

Besides rolling out to a slew of Honor and Huawei handsets in the coming months, the first smartphone to launch with GPU Turbo built-in is the Honor Play that also boasts the powerful Kirin 970 processor, a 6.3-inch FHD+ display, dual rear cameras, and a big 3,750mAh battery. We’ve been lucky enough to get our hands on one so join us after the break for our review of the Honor Play.

Design

Unlike the Honor 10, OnePlus 6, and Huawei P20 Pro, the Honor Play doesn’t sport a trendy all-glass design. Instead, it possesses a unibody metal design that unsurprisingly offers increased levels of grip, which comes in handy when playing games or even just holding the phone in your hand.

There are signal cutouts that run along the top and bottom edges, and there is 2.5D glass covering the display. Overall, it’s a no-nonsense, tried-and-tested design whose matte metal finish offers decent levels of grip that just isn’t possible with all-glass designs. As a result, the rear panel doesn’t pick every fingerprint smudge possible and it isn’t essential to use a case, although one is provided in the box. Unlike more expensive phones, the Honor Play doesn’t have ingress protection against dust or water so its imperative that you don’t let the phone slip in the water.

The Honor Play’s dual rear cameras are located in a vertical strip on the top left of the back panel with the fingerprint reader easily accessible in the center. The Honor logo is vertically aligned on the lower left, while there is indeed an audio jack present on the lower edge next to the USB Type-C charging port and the speaker chamber.

Hardware

AnnouncedAugust 2018
SoftwareEMUI 8.2, Android Oreo 8.1
Display6.3-Inch LCD display, 2340 x 1080 resolution (FHD+), 19:5:9 aspect ratio,
ProcessorHiSilicon Kirin 970 Octa-core (4 x Cortex A73 @2.73GHz + 4 x Cortex A53 @1.8GHz)
Memory4/6GB (depending on region)
Gaming FeaturesGPU Turbo, 4D gaming experience with Smart Shock, 3D surround sound
Storage64GB, MicroSD card support
Primary rear camera16MP sensor, AI, F/2.2 aperture, 3D Portrait lighting, Scene recognition, Night Mode,
Secondary rear camera2MP, Depth of Field, F/2.4 aprture
Front Camera16MP, F/2.0, AI Portrait Mode, 3D Portrait Lighting, 3D Facial Recognition
ConnectivityBluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz), 802.11 a/n/ac (5GHz), USB 2.0, GPS/AGPS/Glonass
Audio JackYes
Network Bands4G LTE TDD: B38/B40/B41
4G LTE FDD: B1/B3/B5/B7/B8/B20
3G WCDMA: B1/B2/B5/B8
2G GSM: B2/B3/B5/B8
SensorsFingerprint (rear), Digital Compass, Ambient light sensor, Gyroscope, Gravity sensor
Battery3,750mAh (non-removable), USB Type-C, Fast Charging
Dimensions157.9 x 74.3 x 7.5mm
Weight176g
ColorsUltra Violet, Navy Blue, Midnight Black, Player Edition Red/Black

Performance

The 6.3-inch LCD presents somewhat over-saturated colors in its default state although users can change the color mode from Vivid to Normal in the Display Settings, as well as changing the temperature of the panel from Default to Warm to Cold or a custom level, depending on preference. The display may only have an FHD+ resolution, but it is high-quality; viewing angles are excellent, and the colors are vibrant with good levels of contrast, although I would have liked higher brightness levels when outside.

Sporting 4GB of RAM and the same Kirin 970 octa-core processor that first appeared in the ever-impressive Mate 10 Pro, as well as the P20 Pro and the Honor 10, the Honor Play offers a smooth performance for the most part. The Honor Play runs version 8.2 of Huawei’s EMUI customer interface that has the graphics boosting GPU Turbo technology built-in which in basic terms improves the frame rate to 59.6 and 39.5 from 53.6 and 36.4 when playing MOBA Games and PUBG Mobile. You can expect an extended, more consistent gaming experience on the Honor Play thanks to GPU Turbo. Games such as PUBG and Asphalt 9 loaded up on the Honor Play nice and quick with no discernible lag or jitter while playing. After 30 minutes of gaming on some phones, the rear panel can get uncomfortably hot to hold; the Honor Play, on the other hand, remains a very comfortable temperature.

Being a phone that is aimed at the mobile gamer, there are a couple of gimmicky features such as the 4D Smart Shock that uses the phone’s AI to generate vibrations to alert you to approaching enemies or gunfire when playing PUBG. 3D Surround Sound is said to provide an ‘ultra-wide 3D sound field for gamers’ that is supported by wired earphones and headphones. In my experience, the 4D Smart Shock didn’t make too much difference; I still died far too quickly when playing PUBG although that is probably more indicative of my skill than anything else.

We generally enjoyed reviewing the Honor Play, but we had some problems with notifications, which is a common complaint when using a phone with EMUI. The custom overlay’s aggressive power management system interferes with the delivery of notifications by sometimes killing the background processes that some apps are reliant upon. We also met a surprising issue with the handset in that it seemed to take some time to find a mobile signal, both on the UK’s EE and Three networks, although this is likely something that will be perfectly tuned in the final product.

While we don’t consider benchmark scores to be all that important, they can be indicative of a phone’s performance, so we’ve included a bunch of numbers below from tests run on the Honor Play, Honor 10, and Google’s Pixel 2 XL using popular benchmarking apps. As you can see, the Honor Play is no slouch.

Benchmarking AppsHonor PlayHonor 10Google Pixel 2 XL
AnTuTu204876201966209738
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme203629873427
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme (Vulkan)335632762447

Battery

Honor claims that the Honor Play’s big 3,750mAh battery can power gaming sessions of up to 4.6 hours. In my experience, playing Asphalt 9 for 30 minutes (purely for research purposes) reduced the battery by 10% with game graphics set to ‘Quality’ and the display on 50% brightness. In normal usage consisting of social media, YouTube, checking emails, web browsing, with the display left on 30% level most of the time, the Honor Play got me to 11 PM with around 25% left in the tank. That’s without making use of any battery-saving options such as the Power-Saving or Ultra Power-Saving modes. It takes around 90 minutes to recharge the 3,750mAh battery from empty using the included fast-charging adaptor.

Software

The Honor Play runs on version 8.2 of Huawei’s EMotion UI (EMUI) based on Android 8.1 Oreo, and for the most part is the same as what we’ve previously experienced with the P20 Pro earlier this year. Notable features include the option to enable the app drawer and to disable the notch, while old favorites such as knuckle gestures are present. Privacy-conscious users are catered for with ‘Private Space’ and ‘Keep Safe’ that guard apps and data from prying eyes with access only provided via use of a passcode or the fingerprint scanner. There are a few pre-loaded apps such as Phone Manager, Huawei AppGallery, Party Mode, and when you first set up the Honor Play, you’ll be asked if you want to install further interesting apps bloatware. When faced with this question, channel your inner Nancy Reagan and Just Say No.

Camera

The Honor Play comes with Huawei’s AIS (Artificial Intelligence Stabilization) technology built-in, which means that you can take a shot in Night Mode with a 5-6 second exposure without the need for a tripod; it will change the way you shoot photos at night. The 16MP main sensor combines with the 2MP depth-sensing camera to produce some stunning images that are easily good enough for social media. Just as with the Honor 10, the camera has built-in AI that gives it the ability to recognize up to 22 objects and more than 500 scenarios. For the most part it works fine, but if the results appear a little over-saturated to your eyes, you can quickly turn the AI functionality off in the camera app. The Honor Play’s camera doesn’t quite match up to a Galaxy S9+, Huawei P20 Pro, or Pixel 2, but those phones all cost double or even triple the price of the Honor Play. Video capture is surprisingly good, and the rear cameras can shoot up to UHD quality.

Unlike the clunky camera app that we experience with Sony’s Xperia XZ2, the camera app on the Honor Play is well thought out with options galore just where you would expect to find them. The array of camera modes include the previously mentioned Night Mode as well as HDR, Portrait Mode, Aperture mode that brings a Bokeh type effect, and the AR Lens that lets you add objects, special effects, and backgrounds to the image in real-time.

For a handset that is likely to launch in the UK for somewhere around the £300 mark, the camera is excellent. Just take a look at the sample gallery below.

Closing

The Honor Play is a gaming handset with an understated design that the average user will appreciate for its performance, battery life, and a quality display. And gamers? Well, its target audience will enjoy the battery life, the display’s vibrancy, and the gimmicky 4D Smart Shock, and 3D Surround Sound features will certainly add something to the gameplaying experience. If Huawei can get more game developers on board with its GPU Turbo technology, phones such as the Honor Play can only benefit.

While the European and UK pricing for the Honor Play will only be announced at the launch event during IFA 2018 in Berlin on August 30th, it is expected to come in with a price tag well below the £399/€449 that the Honor 10 currently sells for. For the price, and so long as Xiaomi’s Picophone F1 with its Snapdragon 845 processor and 4,000mAh battery remains unavailable in Europe, it’s a no-brainer because the Honor Play comes with much the same specifications as the Honor 10 and Huawei P20 at an affordable price.

In a time where $1000 smartphones are seemingly accepted as the new normal, the Honor Play is a welcome example of how a good phone with excellent battery life, built-in AI, quality cameras, and a vibrant display doesn’t have to result in mortgaging the house. Considering its likely price of around £300, and as a mid-range handset punching well above its weight, the Honor Play is the gamer’s smartphone for everyone.

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About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Pixel 2 XL, Huawei P20 Pro, and a Huawei MediaPad M5 (8.4) around in his pockets. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).


  • Draken Blackknight

    I wish people would stop using the term “new normal.” It’s called “abnormal”