Honor Play Review: More Than Just A Gaming Smartphone

While the Honor Play is being marketed as a "gaming phone" it is much more than that. It is a phone that can do everything, and has a low price tag of under $350 USD. 

Honor has decided to jump on the “gaming phone” bandwagon that Razer actually started last year, with the Honor Play. This is a smartphone geared towards gaming, but that shouldn’t be the only reason why you pick up this smartphone. That is because this smartphone still has a great camera with plenty of AI features, as well as a large capacity battery that should last you all-day long, and a pretty low price tag - considering its' spec sheet. Making it a great option for those that want something that is powerful, but won't break the bank either.

Specs

The Honor Play spots a 6.3-inch, 19.5:9 aspect ratio display, along with a 2340x1080 resolution. That gives you a pixel density of around 409 pixels per inch, and that also puts the screen-to-body ratio at around 83-percent. Inside the Honor Play, you’ll find the Kirin 970 chipset, with either 4GB or 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. There is also a micro SD card slot available - it uses the second SIM card slot, so you can either use it as a dual-SIM phone or add some extra storage here. Honor has Android 8.1 Oreo on-board here, with EMUI 8.2, which is slightly newer than what was on earlier Honor smartphones like the Honor 10 and Honor View 10.

On the camera front, Honor has still kept the dual-camera setup here, which it has on virtually every phone it makes these days. There’s a 16-megapixel main camera with a f/2.2 aperture, and there is also phase-detection autofocus. The secondary sensor is a 2-megapixel camera that has a f/2.4 aperture and that will only be used for depth sensing. On the front, there is a 16-megapixel sensor that has a f/2.0 aperture and is capable of recording 1080p video at 30fps.

Honor has kept the headphone jack here, which is definitely a good thing, and somewhat of a surprising feature these days. Honor also has dual speakers here, using the earpiece as a secondary speaker. NFC is also included, but no FM radio. Additionally, there is support for WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, as well as Bluetooth 4.2, and there is A-GPS, GLONASS and BDS here for location tracking. Finally, the Honor Play sports a 3750mAh capacity battery.

In The Box

The model of the Honor Play that we were sent to review is actually the “Play Edition” so the unboxing experience is a bit different, as well as the design of the Honor Play. You open the box, and right on top is the Honor Play, as well as a replica of the Audi R8 LMS. Beneath the phone, you’ll find the USB-C cable, wall adapter and a pair of headphones - don't get too excited about the headphones as these are just your typical inexpensive headphones that very few manufacturers still include in the box. Since this is only available in Europe and Asia right now, there was an EU plug in the box, which doesn’t work here in the US. Surprisingly, there was no case included, which is something Honor includes with virtually every smartphone. But it is likely included in the regular edition of the Honor Play.

Hardware

The Honor Play uses the design language of most Honor phones these days. That is to say it has a metal unibody with the sides being curved a bit, which makes it feel really nice in the hand. The back and sides are red, which really looks good with the black front of the Honor Play. As mentioned already, this is the “Play Edition” of the Honor Play, which has a nice etched in design on the back, with the Honor logo in the middle, but that logo is really not all that visible, which is nice to see. There are antenna lines at the top and the bottom, but they are pushed as close to the top and bottom as possible, so it doesn’t mess with the design here that much. This red version of the Play Edition is really a sharp looking phone. There is also a black version with red accents, and the Honor Play comes in a few other colors: Midnight Black, Navy Blue, Violet.

The volume rocker is on the right-hand side, above the power button. These buttons are pretty clicky, and it’s easy to feel which is which, when you are trying to turn down the volume with the phone in your pocket or something. The bottom of the Honor Play is where you’ll find the USB-C port, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the main speaker. The fingerprint sensor is on the back, with the dual-camera setup in the upper left-hand corner. On the front, it is basically all screen. But that’s to be expected, with a 83-percent screen-to-body ratio.

Honor Play is definitely a looker, it’s one of the few devices that is still using a metal unibody, but it looks really good. While the screen is a large 6.3-inches, the phone itself is really not all that large, and that is due to the fact that the bezels are pretty small here. Though there is still a chin, and it’s still large enough for Honor to be able to put its logo on the front of the device. But there’s really nothing to complain about with the design of this phone. It’s definitely one that you’ll want to take out and show off when you are with your friends.

Display

There is a 6.3-inch display here, with a Full HD+ resolution, which might seem rather low-resolution in 2018, but it does look good. When using the Honor Play, you really can’t see any pixels, which is a good thing, and it also means that the chipset can use more resources towards gameplay, when you are playing games. Allowing it to provide some really great graphics here. It’s an LCD panel here, which you might mistake for an OLED panel, and this is because the blacks on this panel are really deep, and looks very similar to what you’d find on the Pixel 2 XL (which has an OLED panel). That means that Honor did a good job calibrating the display here. Additionally, the display does get plenty bright and it is more than usable when you are outside. That’s something that isn’t all that common with LCD displays, but definitely welcome.

Performance

Honor is using the Kirin 970 chipset here in the Honor Play, and it is definitely a powerful chipset. Of course, we’re not stranger to the Kirin 970, since it has also been used in other devices like the Huawei Mate 10, P20/P20 Pro, and the Honor 10. It will sound like it’s a bit outdated, with the Kirin 980 coming out next month in the Mate 20 series, but it is still very powerful. And since this chip is made in-house, Honor is able to optimize its software a bit more for this chipset, so everything runs very smooth on the Honor Play. Even with 4GB of RAM, the Honor Play never slowed down at all, and stayed nice and speedy.

When it comes to gameplay, the Honor Play definitely delivers. We played Asphalt 9: Legends on the Honor Play, and it performed really well with this title. Which has a ton of graphics included, and really takes a toll on most smartphones. But it was as smooth as butter on the Honor Play, which was definitely nice to see here. Honor also has “Game Acceleration” here which is a feature that will optimize the settings of the phone for playing games. We did not even enable that for a good portion of our testing, as it wasn’t really needed. But it does make a big difference if you are gaming for quite some time. It also keeps notifications from coming in and disturbing you, which is also nice. If you were looking to pick up this phone for gaming, it’s definitely a good choice. The only downside here is that there is only 64GB of internal storage. It would have been nice to see 128GB or more storage included, since most games can’t be stored on the micro SD card, and these games do get pretty large.

The Honor Play does also support the company’s GPU Turbo feature, which essentially overclocks the GPU a bit, so you can get even better performance when playing certain games. However, it only works with two games right now: PUBG Mobile and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. Hopefully it’ll make its way to more games in the near future. As it does work really well, providing better performance, and it doesn’t really heat up the Honor Play much at all.

Security

In addition to the fingerprint sensor found on the back of the Honor Play, you can also use your face to secure this smartphone. That is the typical set of security features found on smartphones these days - fingerprint sensors and facial recognition. The facial recognition actually works really well and it’s super fast. Since it bypasses the lock screen, you will pick up your phone and it’ll immediately open to the home screen. Which is really nice, and it sometimes is faster than a fingerprint. But you will still want to use the fingerprint sensor, since many apps and services do not support facial recognition yet. So to authenticate yourself, you’ll still want to use your fingerprint. Both options work well and are accurate, which is important. And it makes it easier than ever to make sure your phone is secured,

Phone Calls & Network

The model of the Honor Play that we have here is the European version, which means it does not support US networks. That’s unfortunate, but not surprising. So we were unable to test this out on making phone calls or on cellular networks. But it should work just as well as any other smartphone. It did get the same speeds on WiFi as other devices connected to the same WiFi, so that’s a good thing.

Sound Quality

There are two speakers here on the Honor Play. There’s the down-firing speaker next to the USB-C port, and then the earpiece doubles as the second speaker. But it’s not a proper speaker. This speaker is mostly used for the mids and highs, while all the bass comes from the bottom-firing speaker. So if you cover up that speaker, you won’t hear much. And that does actually happen from time to time when you are playing games on the Honor Play. So keep that in mind. But the actual sound quality here is pretty good. The Honor Play does not sound tinny at all, and provides a fair amount of bass without overpowering the mids and highs here.

Honor did also keep the headphone jack here, which might be a bit surprising to many, but it is definitely nice to see here. So you can use headphones while you are playing games on the Honor Play. The sound quality from the headphone jack, as usual, depends on what headphones you have plugged in. But it sounded really good with a pair of JBL earbuds plugged in.

Benchmarks

The Honor Play did perform quite well in the benchmarks that we threw at it - that includes AnTuTu, 3D Mark and GeekBench 4. Now it's important to remember that Huawei and Honor both "cheat" on these benchmarks, by ramping up the processor and GPU to get a better score on these benchmarks. Huawei and Honor are not the only manufacturers to do this, but it does go to show that benchmarks aren't the end all when it comes to seeing how well a device performs. Having said that, the Honor Play scored a 204,863. Over in 3D Mark, it picked up a score of 2,875 in the Sling Shot Extreme - OpenGL ES 3.1. With a 3,092 in the Sling Shot Extreme - Vulkan test. On Geekbench, it got a single-core score of 1875 and a multi-core score of 6,281. You can see the full results in the gallery below.

Battery

Honor Play is packing a pretty modest 3750mAh capacity battery. With this being a phone aimed at “gamers”, you might expect Honor to pack a higher capacity battery into this smartphone. Especially since it (and Huawei) routinely uses 4000mAh capacity batteries in other smartphones. But having said that, the 3750mAh capacity battery here does work pretty well. It is able to last us all-day long and then some, even with some gameplay mixed in. We were able to get around three and a half hours of screen-on time in a single day, with there being more than 50-percent battery left. So a six hour screen-on time is definitely within reach. It is important to note here that there was no SIM card inside this phone, since it doesn’t work on US networks, which means that the battery life might be skewed a bit. But it should definitely get you through a full day and then some.

Since this is running on a Kirin chipset, it does not support Quick Charge (as that is Qualcomm’s standard) but it does support fast charging. We were able to charge this with a Quick Charge 2.0-compatible wall charger, and fully charge the Honor Play in a little under two hours. That is comparable to other phones with similar battery capacities. So you can quickly top off this smartphone pretty easily. Additionally, there is no wireless charging here. That is partly because of the metal build, but also because Honor would rather give users more battery capacity, than have to include the coils for wireless charging - which do take up a fair bit of space. You can see some of our battery cycles in the gallery below.

Software

Honor is shipping the Honor Play with Android 8.1 Oreo and EMUI 8.2 on-board. It will be getting an update to Android 9 Pie in the future, though Honor has not said exactly when that will happen. That is quite common, as there often times are bugs that creep up and delay when updates are sent out. During the review process, we did receive a couple of updates for the Honor Play, both of which were bug fixing updates. But it does look like Honor is going to do a good job at updating the Honor Play.

As mentioned, this is running on EMUI 8.2, which is actually a slightly newer version of EMUI compared to what was on Huawei and Honor phones released earlier this year. After having used the Honor Play for a few weeks, there doesn’t seem to be many changes here. The biggest one is changing the quick settings toggles from a black background to a white background. Otherwise, you are going to find all of the same EMUI features in the Honor Play here.

Honor is using gesture navigation on the Honor Play. This seems to be a feature that every smartphone has adopted this year, along with the notch. And each smartphone does it a bit different, but Honor’s is closer to what you’d see in Android Pie. There is a bar at the bottom of the screen, which you can tap to go back, touch and hold to go home or slide back and forth to jump between apps. Honor also has the navigation dock which is essentially a dot that can be moved anywhere on your screen, and be dragged around to go back, home and to recents. So if you really want more screen real estate on the Honor Play, that is definitely the route to go.

The software on the Honor Play is about what you’d expect from Honor. It still has the common theme that you’ve seen on other Huawei and Honor smartphones, so no huge surprise there. But it is definitely getting optimized more and more. That is a good thing, but Huawei also has the advantage here of creating its own chipsets, so it can really optimize its processors for its smartphones and its software. The Honor Play was nice and speedy on the Kirin 970 with 4GB of RAM. And once more, notifications appear to have been fixed, or at least they weren’t as bad as on older smartphones. Typically, Huawei and Honor phones have had trouble with getting notifications from Google apps, but that is no longer an issue on the Honor Play.

Camera

Another one of the big trends in 2018, is adding artificial intelligence into smartphone cameras. Now Honor isn’t new to using AI in its cameras, it has actually been doing it for a few years now. And each iteration gets better and better. On the camera on the Honor Play, you’re going to be able to use it to recognize objects and the camera will adjust the camera settings to get the best possible picture based on what you are taking pictures of. It can recognize things like food, architecture, flowers and much more. It actually does a pretty good job, but sometimes, you will see that AI actually made the picture worse. For example, there was a picture that I took inside a mall that added some blue colors to the picture. It did look cooler, but it didn’t look as “natural” as with AI turned off. The good thing with the Honor Play, is that you do have the ability to toggle the AI on and off after you’ve taken the photo, and you can save whichever version looks better to you. Which might not always be the AI version of the photo, as we've found several times while taking photos with the Honor Play. This is similar to the Aperture mode that Honor has, where you can adjust the aperture after you’ve taken the picture.

Speaking of Aperture mode, that is the other pretty popular feature on smartphones these days, as people want that Bokeh effect on their pictures, and Honor does a good job with this. Now this is because it has that 2-megapixel sensor for depth information. But you can bring the aperture all the way up to f/0.95. Now where the camera hardware only goes to f/2.0, that means there is some software bringing it to the levels of f/0.95. Which typically means that the pictures won’t come out as nice, but that’s not true with the Honor Play. We took quite a few images with the aperture set to f/0.95 and they look absolutely stunning.

For those that don’t want to mess around with the settings on the Honor Play’s camera, you don’t need too. The auto mode is still really good, and takes a really good shot, even in low-light. Which is particularly important with smartphones these days, seeing as this is the camera that we always have with us. We took loads of images with the Honor Play, and all of them came out pretty well. There were some that weren’t as great (we didn’t delete them!), but still look good compared to other cameras out there. Huawei and Honor have both really excelled in the smartphone camera game in the past few years, most likely due to the partnership that Huawei has with Leica.

The Good

Camera

Display size and resolution

Battery Life

Headphone jack

Plenty of colors to choose from

Fingerprint sensor and Facial recognition

The Bad

Low storage options for a “gaming phone”

Not yet available in the US (and no word on whether it is actually coming to the US)

Wrap Up

The Honor Play is a really good phone to pick up, especially for those that want something that is powerful and looks good, but won’t break the bank. Now it is a bit of a stretch to call this a “gaming phone” when the only real difference between this and say the Honor 10, is the metal build, a slightly higher capacity battery, and a lower price tag. But it does play games rather well, and it does everything else pretty well too.

Should I Buy the Honor Play?

If you live in a region where the Honor Play is being sold, most definitely. This is a fantastic phone to pick up, and it’s definitely a stunner with the many different color options available. But if you are looking to buy this because it is a “gaming phone”, you may want to wait and see what Razer has coming next month with the Razer Phone 2.

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