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What we like
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HUAWEI recently became the second largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. On top of that, it just made it into the top five smartphone manufacturers in India, carried by the success of its phones and that of its sub-brand, Honor.
Honor’s new phone, the HONOR Play, is aimed at power users and gamers on a mid-range budget, packing in top-of-the-line specifications. It doesn’t have the high-refresh rate display or fancy liquid cooling system of other gaming phones, but it’s got the company’s new GPU Turbo technology, which promises an enhanced visual experience while gaming.
I’ve played (sorry, not sorry) with the HONOR Play for a couple of weeks. For the specs it packs, its crazy this phone comes for less than $350. But is it really any good?
This is our full HONOR Play review.
HONOR Play is a gift for anyone still against manufacturers’ obsession with glass-backed phones. Personally, I think devices like the HONOR 9 Lite and HONOR 10 look very attractive, even if they attract a lot of fingerprints and smudges. I also like the HONOR Play, even though the company played it safe here.
The unibody aluminum construction with a matte finish, makes for a premium looking smartphone. The antenna lines are etched right on the curves, giving the back a clean and seamless look. The vertical HONOR branding we’ve seen on recent HUAWEI phones looks chic as well.
The HONOR Play sports a large 6.3-inch display, but the 19.5:9 aspect ratio, curved edges, and rounded corners make for a very ergonomic phone. There’s a considerable chin at the bottom and it’s not completely without bezels though.
With its large battery, HONOR did well keeping the thickness of the phone (7.5mm) in check. Of course, the vertically aligned dual camera at the back adds a slight bump.
Overall, the HONOR Play has a very smooth and minimalist look. The build quality is solid and quite reassuring, though there’s nothing in the design to suggest it is a gaming phone.
The HONOR Play manages to cram in a large 6.3-inch Full HD+ IPS LCD display with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio and an 83 percent screen-to-body ratio. Yes, there’s a notch, but you can turn it off in display settings if you’ve still not warmed up to the increasingly ubiquitous trend.
The display is quite vibrant, though a tad oversaturated, and the colors look rich. If you’re not a fan of the vivid colors, you can dial them down to more natural tones in the display settings. You can also pull down the resolution to HD+ to conserve battery.
The viewing angles are decent enough, but a slight tint creeps in at wider tangents. Also, while the brightness is appropriate, the display is quite reflective and it’s hard to use in direct sunlight.
The phone’s performance is top notch. Even with several apps running in the background, including Asphalt 9 Legends and several open tabs in Chrome, it holds up quite well. The company did well optimizing the hardware for EMUI — a benefit of owning all pieces of the puzzle. The overall smoothness and reliability in everyday usage is quite apparent. Throw anything at the HONOR Play, and it won’t break a sweat. There’s also a 4GB variant (with the same internal storage) of the device, which should also be good enough for most people.
The HONOR Play is the company’s first smartphone to run GPU Turbo. It’s an integrated hardware-software graphics processing acceleration technology that reconstructs the traditional graphics processing framework at the lower layer system, greatly improving the efficiency of GPU graphics processing and user gaming experience.
According to HONOR, the feature improves graphics processing efficiency by 60 percent and reduces energy consumption by 30 percent on the Play. It’s hard to test the company’s claims since I don’t have an HONOR Play “without” GPU Turbo. However, without qualitative numbers to report, playing PUBG Mobile with the highest graphics settings was a breeze.
Right now, GPU Turbo only supports PUBG Mobile and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. HONOR will announce more titles in the future, but until then it’s a pretty limited feature. HONOR is also apparently working on integrating this technology with EMUI, which could be very interesting.
The HONOR Play packs in 3,750mAh battery, and even after heavy usage through the day, I ended up with 10-15 percent battery left at the end of the day. Most moderate users will likely be able to squeeze more than a day and a half out of the battery, which is pretty good. The phone also supports fast charging, with a bundled 18W charger. Considering all the HONOR Play’s horsepower, battery life like this is pretty great.
The HONOR Play sports a mono speaker. It’s pretty loud and the audio performance is actually quite good, but the lack of stereo speakers is surprising, considering the gaming focus. Then again, you don’t reach this price by throwing in everything you can.
It packs in a hybrid tray, for either two nano-SIMs or a nano-SIM and a microSD card. Both the phone’s 4GB and 6GB RAM variants only come with 64GB of storage, so you might want to gauge your requirement if you plan to use two SIMs.
Like with other HUAWEI and HONOR smartphones powered by the Kirin 970 processor, the camera on the HONOR Play has a bunch of AI features using the SoC’s dedicated NPU, like real-time scene detection.
In most cases, AI tends to oversaturate the photos, so if you prefer more natural looking colors, you may want to toggle off the AI. Turning it off is easy and better for most shots, which is a shame. I think HONOR missed a beat here with the execution of the Play’s AI capabilities.
The dual camera on the back is a mixed bag. It’s got a 16MP f/2.2 primary lens and a 2MP f/2.4 second sensor for capturing depth information. There’s also a single LED flash and phase-detection auto-focus.
In good lighting conditions, the photos are good enough. The camera captures a good amount of detail, the noise levels are low, and the color reproduction is pretty good. In less than ideal conditions it struggles because of the smaller aperture. Since there’s no optical image stabilization (OIS), you may need to use the AI mode, which enables artificial intelligence stabilization (AIS), HONOR’s implementation of electronic image stabilization (EIS).
Despite the average camera performance, the phone has a very capable Portrait mode. The separation and edge detection is pretty good, and you can control the bokeh, even after taking the picture.
The front camera comes with a 16-megapixel resolution and a f/2.0 aperture that offers well-balanced selfies in good light conditions with good contrast and colors.
HONOR Play doesn’t have an impressive camera but its results should work for social media. If the camera is your top priority, you should look elsewhere. That said, the camera app is quite snappy and it has a ton of features. If only the AI features worked well too.
The HONOR Play runs EMUI 8.2, the latest iteration of HUAWEI’s proprietary UI layer over Android 8.1 Oreo.
While custom skins are a matter of preference, EMUI is a feature-packed one offering nifty features like being able to toggle the app drawer and customize phone’s the home screen and animations. The universal search on swipe down is quite handy as well.
The only bad thing about the HONOR Play’s software is its bloatware. It comes with a bunch of random games we could frankly do without. PUBG Mobile isn’t even pre-installed, and it’s one of the few games showcasing the phone’s new technology.
The company did well tying its processor and software together, and EMUI runs very smoothly. It will be a delight for most users, except the vocal minority that prefers stock Android experience. In my experience with other HONOR phones in the past, the EMUI doesn’t slow down after a few months, which is pretty impressive, though less talked about.
6.3-inch Full HD+ IPS LCD
2340 x 1080 resolution
19.5:9 aspect ratio
2.5D curved glass display
HUAWEI HiSilicon Kirin 970 octa-core (4 x 2.4GHz A73 + 4 x 1.8GHz A53), 10nm
64GB (UFS 2.1)
Expandable up to 256GB with microSD
Primary: 16MP with LED flash, f/2.2 aperture, PDAF
Secondary: 2MP secondary camera with f/2.4 aperture
Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS)
Front camera: 16MP, f/2.0 aperture
3.5mm headphone jack
Single bottom-firing speaker
Ambient light sensor
4G 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
USB Type-C (USB 2.0)
Wi-Fi 2.4GHz: 802.11 b/g/n
Wi-Fi 5GHz: 802.11 a/n/ac
Android 8.1 Oreo
Dimensions and weight
157.91 × 74.27 × 7.84mm
ultra violet, navy blue, midnight black, player edition red/black
Pricing and final thoughts
At 23,999 rupees ($329) in India, HONOR has broken the lower threshold of packing in flagship-grade internals for less than $350. However, the 4GB variant at only 19,999 rupees ($286) is an even better deal. The HONOR Play’s price alone makes it one of the best mid-range options out there.
The pricing and the specifications sheet alone make HONOR Play a top option on the table.
Of course, there’s more to a smartphone than just its spec sheet. This phone performs as good as any flagship phone out there and looks quite brilliant as well. However, the camera could’ve definitely been better.
The HONOR Play is a solid phone for most users — not just gamers. If GPU Turbo catches game developers’ fancy and HUAWEI can manage to bring support for more titles, all the better.
HONOR is offering a formidable mid-range smartphone at a great value. It’s got a little something for everybody, except the shutterbugs.
So that’s it for our HONOR Play review. What do you think of HONOR’s latest? Let us know in the comments.