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The alluring but always elusive gaming smartphone – many have tried to build it, even Razer, but no one did it perfectly. Now, Honor is also joining the gaming race but with a new concept. Instead of greatness, the new Honor Play is pursuing affordability. And that’s a very welcome turn of events.
The Honor Play looks like most of the smartphones today – a metal body, notched screen, and a dual-camera on the back. The Kirin 970 chip is what’s in charge of the gaming session and the Play has Huawei‘s GPU Turbo out of the box.
The Kirin 970 has been known as one of the most efficient pieces of hardware for mobile gaming – it doesn’t cost as much but offers stable and sustainable performance. And with GPU Turbo things can only get better.
The 6.3″ 1080p screen, notch or not, is enough for gaming purposes, there is a large battery, and you can have the Honor Play with either 4 or 6 gigs of RAM. And on that attractive price at launch – CNY 1,999, INR 19,999, £279, €329 – color us intrigued.
Honor Play specs:
- Body: Aluminum body, 157.9 x 74.3 x 7.5 mm, 176g
- Screen: 6.3″ 2,340×1,080px (19.5:9) IPS LCD, 409ppi, notched
- Chipset: HiSilicon Kirin 970, Octa-core (4×2.4 GHz Cortex-A73 & 4×1.8 GHz Cortex-A53), Mali-G72 MP12 GPU
- Memory: 4/6GB RAM, 64GB of storage, (hybrid) microSD slot
- Camera: Dual: 16MP RGB (f/2.2) + 2MP for depth sensing, phase detection autofocus; 2160p @ 30fps video
- Selfie cam: 16MP (f/2.0), 1080p video
- OS: Android 8.1 Oreo with Huawei EMUI 8.2 + AI features
- Battery: 3,750 mAh non-removable, 18W fast charging
- Connectivity: Dual Nano-SIM; USB-C (USB 2.0), NFC, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, GLONASS
- Misc: Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, single bottom-firing loudspeaker, 3.5mm audio port
Many omissions can be forgiven when a phone is as affordable as the Honor Play. Like the notch. And the hybrid SIM slot. And the missing FM radio.
Huawei will be launching the Kirin 980 chipset any moment now, which made possible to lower the Kirin 970 price even more and yet keep it valuable thanks to the recent GPU Turbo upgrades. Honor Play seems like a thoughtful addition to the otherwise crowded Honor series.
The phone is available in China and India already, while Europe is getting it just now. Will it game though? Let’s find out!
Unboxing the Honor Play
The white retail box of the Honor Play contains the phone itself, a white USB-C cable, and a white 18W charger. There are no headphones included, but an analogue audio port is available so feel free to plug your favorite pair.
There is a transparent soft case inside the paper compartment, which may not be as needed on a metal phone as it is on one with a glass back, but we still appreciate its presence.
We admit we were delighted to handle the Honor Play – its metal body was a breath of fresh air after a series of glass and glossy devices. Once the aluminum unibody was the popular choice, but now only a few phones get to offer it and the Honor Play is one of those rarities.
The aluminum unibody of the Honor Play is designed the right way – flat back, curved sides with rounded corners, and the good old antenna lines running fashionably around the top and bottom. For some reason, Honor decided to paint those in a darker violet hue than the rest of the body.
The fingerprint reader is on the back, always-on as usual, and blazing-fast and accurate. That’s the experience we usually get with Huawei-made devices and we are happy this hasn’t changed a bit.
The dual-camera setup is humping around, too. There is a 16MP primary cam here and a secondary 2MP sensor for depth sensing. A single LED flash sits outside the camera deck.
Huawei, and its Honor subsidiary, like to brag with the AI prowess of the camera. Just like with the Honor 10, the Play model also gets AI CAMERA inscription on the back. We’re glad they haven’t started putting texts with the phone’s other features around the body, too.
The Honor Play looks modern and trendier at the front. That’s because it packs a large 6.3″ display with tiny bezels and the mother of all trends – the cutout! The notch houses the earpiece, the sensors, and the 16MP selfie snapper, while a tiny LED notification blinker is hidden beneath the earpiece grille.
A notched screen is one way to trim the bezels and while not a fan-favorite, we can’t be angry with makers opting to give us less bezels even if it’s at the expense of a notch.
Honor isn’t specifying the type of glass used to protect the screen, but the history has taught us that sooner or later it will turn out to be one of those tough to break Gorillas.
The Honor Play features all necessary ports – analogue audio and USB Type-C, while its SIM slot is of the hybrid kind – you can swap the second SIM for a microSD card.
The recent Honor Play global announcement introduced two special color options with some design elements imitating a PCB traces running along the back – Player Edition Red and Player Edition Black, the latter with red accents around the hardware keys, camera and fingerprint scanner. They round the tally up to five colors, including the standard Midnight Black, Navy Blue, and Ultra Violet (the one we are reviewing).
The Honor Play spreads at 157.9 x 74.3 x 7.5 mm and weighs 176 g – that’s just 2mm taller than the recently launched Pocophone with a smaller 6.18″ notched screen.
Finally, the Play’s metal unibody has a pleasant matte finish, which boosts the grip and balances the curvy frame which on the other hand is compromising it. The Honor feels secure enough in hand, though one-handed operations are rarely possible at this screen size.
The Honor Play packs a 6.3″ IPS LCD display with a cutout on top. It has a resolution of 1,080 x 2,340 pixels or 409ppi. This size and resolution make for one of the tallest screen aspect ratios on a smartphone – 19.5:9.
The Honor Play has three different color temperature presets for its display – Default, Warm, and Cold. Each of those has Normal for accurate and Vivid option for punchy colors. By default, the Honor Play is set at Default + Vivid. This is also where the screen achieves the maximum brightness of 470 nits. Elsewhere the Honor Play screen won’t light up north of 440 nits.
Unfortunately, the black levels are far from stellar no matter the color mode, and this explains the average contrast ratio of 1100:1.
|Display test||100% brightness|
|Black, cd/m2||White, cd/m2||Contrast ratio|
|Honor 10 (Normal)||0.32||449||1403|
|Huawei Honor 7X||0.236||458||1941|
|Xiaomi Pocophone F1||0.314||461||1468|
|Xiaomi Mi 8 SE||0||455||∞|
|Xiaomi Mi A2||0.277||420||1516|
|Xiaomi Mi A2 Lite||0.385||488||1268|
|Huawei P20 Lite||0.27||482||1785|
The Honor Play maximum brightness isn’t that impressive and there is no option to boost it outdoors. That’s why we got a good score for sunlight contrast, but nothing impressive. You would need the maximum brightness the screen can offer and then you’ll be able to use it hassle-free in those bright sunny days.
Now let’s talk about color accuracy. Having so many different screen modes is probably confusing, so we’d try to keep it short. We won’t comment on the Vivid options, as the colors are all over the board, as expected.
The Honor Play is set at Default + Normal out of the box. We measured an average deltaE of 4.5 for the DCI-P3 color space and maximum deviation of 7.2 at point white (leans toward violet). There is noticeable blue tint on the screen no matter what you are looking at.
But if you are all about color accuracy – then just pick Normal + Warm. With an average deltaE of 3.4 and a maximum deviation of 5 – the Honor Play will offer you reasonably accurate colors. The display may look a bit duller if you are coming from a punchy screen, but it’s better to have that option for a more accurate color rendition even if it’s not always on.
The Honor Play is powered by a large 3,750 mAh battery. It offers Huawei‘s custom solution called QuickCharge, which is not to be mistaken with SuperCharge. It still requires using the provided 18W charger and special cable combo, which can be limiting. Those two pieces come bundled with the Honor Play, so at least you don’t have to go shopping.
The 9V/2A QuickCharge adapter can bring the Honor Play from 0% to about 35% in around 30 minutes, which is not terribly fast either.
The Honor Play scored an excellent result in our battery test with a 94-hour Endurance rating. It did a great job in all tested scenarios – video playback, calls, web browsing and even stand-by performance.
There is one speaker on the Honor Play, and it’s at the bottom. It scored a Good mark in our loudness test. The sound quality is excellent though with very deep sound, rich, and with deep bass for a tiny loudspeaker.
|Speakerphone test||Voice, dB||Pink noise/ Music, dB||Ringing phone, dB||Overall score|
|Huawei Honor 7X||66.4||71.1||85.1||Very Good|
|Oppo Realme 1||64.8||70.5||89.9||Very Good|
|Huawei P20||66.6||69.8||90.0||Very Good|
|Oppo F7||68.0||73.8||84.8||Very Good|
|Xiaomi Mi 8 SE||70.5||74.1||85.2||Excellent|
|Huawei P20 Pro||71.8||69.2||91.0||Excellent|
|Xiaomi Pocophone F1||72.8||74.7||86.6||Excellent|
|Xiaomi Mi A2||89.5||72.2||89.8||Excellent|
The Honor Play delivered nicely accurate output with an external amplifier and its output was similarly excellent when headphones came into play. In fact the only reading to be affected was stereo crosstalk and that by a lower amount than usual.
Unfortunately, loudness wasn’t quite so impressive with the Honor Play being below average in both parts of the test. So those with a pair of high-impedance headphones might want to steer clear from that one. The rest should be perfectly happy with its performance.
|Test||Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||IMD + Noise||Stereo crosstalk|
|Honor Play||+0.01, -0.03||-93.0||93.1||0.0037||0.0093||-92.9|
|Honor Play (headphones)||+0.12, -0.06||-92.3||92.5||0.0027||0.088||-65.7|
|Pocophone F1||+0.01, -0.02||-93.6||93.6||0.0010||0.0069||-93.8|
|Pocophone F1 (headphones)||+0.65, -0.08||-91.2||92.5||0.0082||0.359||-50.3|
|Oppo Find X||+0.03, -0.07||-93.4||93.9||0.0012||0.0063||-89.3|
|Oppo Find X (headphones)||+0.01, -0.58||-92.2||93.5||0.0088||0.330||-55.7|
|HTC U12+||+0.02, -0.15||-94.3||94.3||0.0021||0.0069||-94.3|
|HTC U12+ (headphones)||+0.18, -0.13||-93.7||93.6||0.0024||0.104||-52.7|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+||+0.01, -0.03||-92.6||92.5||0.0012||0.0076||-93.4|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+ (headphones)||+0.03, -0.03||-92.2||92.2||0.0017||0.042||-76.3|
Android 8.1 with EMUI 8.2
Honor Play runs on Android 8.1 with EMUI 8.2 – a similar combination to what we saw on the Honor 10 a while ago. The EMUI is as custom as a launcher can get, so the Android purists may want to look elsewhere for a vanilla experience. The new v8.2 improves the Face Unlock and Gallery with machine learning, there are some new Gaming tricks, and a brand new Party Mode for music playback sync across different devices.
You can either embrace the notch, or you can opt to mask it with a black status bar that extends all the way down to the bottom edge of the notch. You should know, however, that hiding it doesn’t really work as well with an LCD panel as with it does with an AMOLED.
Out of the box, there is no app drawer on the EMUI 8 – it’s a single tier interface like on the iPhone. However, if you miss the Android’s usual layout, you can enable it back in the Display settings. There is also a handy search feature, which can be accessed by flicking down on any empty area of the home screen.
EMUI has Magazine lock screen, as usual, which rotates through a bunch of wallpapers, so you see a different one every time you fire up the display.
Huawei‘s EMUI offers plenty of customization and features like (not so secure) face unlock, smart rotation, and lift to wake. The face unlock has been enhanced with machine learning (or as Honor likes to call it – AI Power) and will learn to recognize your face even with changes such as facial hair or sunglasses.
The notification shade is pretty much a standard affair. There’s a brightness bar with an Auto toggle – pull down again for more toggles.
Multitasking is pretty standard as well. Tap-holding the Recents key will let you activate split screen.
From the Phone Manager app, you can access shortcuts to storage cleanup, battery settings, blocked numbers, Virus scan powered by Avast, and mobile data usage.
Huawei‘s own Music app is here and offers a way to listen to stored MP3s. Huawei‘s Health app is also pre-installed. It offers Google Fit syncing and step counting. There’s a file manager app and a note-taking app. There is an abundance of replacements for these in the Play Store, however.
There is an improved AI-powered gallery with EMUI 8.2. The app now supports automatic sorting with highlights. The machine learning decides the sorting criteria – location, date, event, etc.
The Party Mode is a new feature courtesy of EMUI 8.2. It’s available from app of the same name and allows the user to connect to multiple phones to play the same song simultaneously.
Honor Play will be getting an updated Game Center with a firmware update very soon. It will enable the so-called 4G Smart Shock – dynamic vibrations similar to the ones on the PlayStation’s DualShock controller in compatible games. The first game to support this new feature will be PUBG Mobile. But what’s already available for games is the 3D Game Sound – this works in various games when using wired headphones and should emulate 3D sound.
Performance and benchmarks
The Kirin 970 chipset is what makes the Honor Play tick and the hardware behind all that gaming PR talk. It’s a year-old SoC that will soon be replaced by the new Kirin 980 launching on the Huawei Mate 20, but still one very potent piece of technology.
The Kirin 970 has an octa-core processor with 4 Cortex-A73 cores clocked at up to 2.4GHz and another 4 Cortex-A53 cores capped at 1.8GHz. The GPU is a twelve-core Mali-G72 MP12. There’s either 4 or 6 GB of RAM depending on the model you get.
Quite expectedly, the Honor Play scores on par with other Kirin 970-powered devices such as the P20, Honor 10 and View 10. Single-core performance in Geekbench is excellent but the latest Qualcomm chip is superior (Pocophone). All of the above applies equally well to the Honor Play‘s multi-core CPU performance.
Huawei recently unveiled an interesting software project to the public. It is called “GPU Turbo” and should provide great graphics performance improvements to most recent Huawei smartphones. The Honor Play comes with the GPU Turbo update out of the box, but this maybe misleading to the users.
GPU Turbo accelerates performance by optimizing system utilization of software and hardware resources. With GPU Turbo, graphics processing efficiency can be improved by up to 60 percent while overall SoC power consumption is saved by 30 percent. This is beneficial since graphically demanding operations typically consume battery quickly.
So, GPU Turbo is essentially an extra software optimization layer, sitting between the OS or a particular application and the Android graphics APIs, like OpenGL and the actual GPU drivers.
Even though GPU turbo sounds like it’s promising almost magical improvements, it is up to developers to actually optimize their apps to support the new rendering instructions and APIs. Huawei has promised that it will gradually work towards optimizing the EMUI launcher rendering. But given the way the Android UI is rendered, that’s unlikely to lend itself to major optimization.
Turbo GPU is realistically aimed at gamers and more importantly, game developers, who have to implement the tech inside their titles. Hopefully, Huawei can get enough game studios on board to allow GPU Turbo to lift off. Otherwise, it will just remain unused, sitting in the background. At launch, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile PUBG and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang are the only two games that have support for Turbo GPU.
Huawei‘s GPU Turbo does not necessarily improve maximum frame rates. What it does, however, is significantly smooth out any major frame rate fluctuations and dips, and we were impressed by the perceptibly smoother gaming experience. As a bonus, the tech also provides battery life savings when gaming.
AnTuTu benchmark got us some pretty big and impressive numbers, bested only by the most current Snapdragon 845 chip in the Pocophone.
The Honor Play is not the most powerful smartphone today, but it sure is among the top 5. We are well familiar with the Kirin 970 capabilities and the chip is simply great for gaming. And with the GPU Turbo update it can only get better, live a second life if you will.
Performance-wise the Honor Play aces every task and its highly-praised chipset will live up to the expectations.
But since we know the Kirin 970, we are familiar with its heating and throttling specifics. The good news is that the Honor Play is all metal and its chassis helps dispersing heat much better than glass. Some throttling does occur in benchmarks after repeated runs, but only there – no throttling happens in games, even in long sessions.
The Honor Play does build some heat once we start running the benchmarks, but it takes a lot of time to get to the Play unpleasantly hot and, once again, it happens only in benchmarks.
So, before we call it a day here – the Honor Play and its Kirin 970 offers flagship punch no matter the task at hand, and the GPU will do for seamless gaming with sustainable top-notch performance.
A 16MP camera with depth sensor
The Honor Play has a dual-camera setup similar to what we saw on the Honor 7X. We’re looking at a 16MP sensor behind f/2.2 lens with phase-detection autofocus, accompanied by a 2MP cam for depth information, and a single LED flash.
There is no optical image stabilization for the Honor Play. But Honor promises to bring its proprietary AIS – Automatic Image Stabilization – via software update soon. It reduces blur and compensates for device shake while capturing photos and videos. It’s a software solution that works within 0.2 seconds to detect if the phone is handheld and automatically sets the exposure and framing using AI scene recognition. It’s supposed to be 98% accurate when it comes to figuring out whether you’re holding the handset in your hand.
The Honor Play, just like the Honor 10, stresses on its AI CAMERA. It recognizes in real time 22 different categories of subjects and shooting scenarios and adjusts shooting parameters accordingly.
The camera interface is as messy as before. First off, you have a mode selector on the bottom that you swipe left and right to change modes, but you can’t swipe on the viewfinder, just on the selector itself.
Swiping up and down doesn’t switch between front and rear camera either, you have a button for that (admittedly, on the bottom within easy reach). Basically, you’re wasting the viewfinder by not having gestures enabled on it, except for pinch to zoom.
It’s odd to have a manual HDR mode separately when the AI takes care of that – it’s like a dynamic range enhancement is On all the time.
You get manual (Pro) mode, too. There you can adjust parameters yourself – ISO (50 to 6400), shutter speed (1/4000s to 30s), exposure compensation (-4 to +4EV in 1/3 stop increments), and white balance (presets and light temperature). You can also choose the metering mode (matrix, center-weighted and spot), and the focus mode (single, continuous and manual). If the phone thinks you messed up the exposure, an icon will pop up to warn you.
Since artificially defocused backgrounds became all the rage, Huawei and Honor phones have had both a Portrait mode and an Aperture mode. In Aperture, you can choose the simulated aperture in the range from f/0.95 to f/16. Post shot, you can change the aperture and the focus point within the Gallery.
In Portrait mode you can enable and disable the background blur (why disable it, though), you can change the simulated lighting, and you can also add some beautification on a scale from 0 to 10.
Honor’s implementation of the so-called AI is enabled by default. The AI toggle is accessible from the viewfinder, while the P20 phones have it hidden in settings. The algorithms are not as aggressive as Huawei‘s were, even though the AI pretty much works the same way and operates under the same scene presumptions. The camera recognizes the scene properly and most of the time turns on the right mode accordingly, its defaults for each scene do saturate the colors more than usual and the high contrast lowers the dynamic range, but nothing is as excessive as it was on the P20 series.
So, the AI pictures have more than enough detail, obviously saturated, yet pleasant colors, low noise levels, and superb contrast. Multi-frame stacking is often used with the AI scenes, so if HDR was required, it’s applied in real time, and you will always get the most from both shadows and lights.
The normal samples without AI are quite good, too. They have plenty of detail, very accurate colors, high contrast and even lower noise levels. The dynamic range is quite impressive, and we suspect some frame-stacking might be applied here as well.
The AI works for some magic on the low-light shots to improve the contrast and colors, but that’s about it. It’s not as smart and as capable as on the P20 phones and there is no tripod-free Night Mode available for the Honor Play. The samples are very noisy, way noisier than the regular ones you’ll see in a bit, but with brighter exposure and warmer colors, which worked for improved contrast and overall better look.
The regular low-light images are nothing special, too, but they have far less noise. They are quite soft as well, but the colors are true to reality, though the contrast is rather low. But the occasional low-light snaps will do fine for the social networks. And frankly – we’ve seen a lot worse. So, the regular snaps are nothing special, as we said, just alright.
There is a Night mode on the Honor Play but this shot requires a tripod and up to 30s of waiting. At first, we thought it will take a couple of shots and combine them. But this mode is actually closer to what the Light Trails does – basically, it takes one very low exposure photo and then begins to add lights. The phone almost succeeds into cutting out the light trails themselves, and the result is a photo with excellent exposure and contrast, detailed at that. The picture lack sharpness, but that’s alright – at least it’s well exposed.
When using the manual mode, you can select a shutter speed up to 32s with ISO up to 6400. The viewfinder image will change as the exposure develops, so if you figure you’ve gathered enough light you can stop at any time.
And with this freedom, you just need a small tripod to get wonderful images. If you lock the ISO to 50 and use the longer shutter speeds, you can get some stunning long exposure shots come night-time.
Then there’s the Light painting mode, which includes four sub-modes: Car light trails, Light graffiti, Silky Water and Star track. You’d need to have the phone perched on stable support for shooting in these modes (a tripod or a beanbag) as these extremely long exposures can’t be done handheld without camera shake. These modes are nothing new so that we won’t go into too much detail here.
The Honor Play offers 4K and 1080p video recording – the latter available in both 30 and 60 fps options. You can also choose between the h.264 and h.265 codecs. EIS is available only for the 1080p at 30fps videos and it does an excellent job at stabilizing the picture.
The 4K footage at 30fps is nice and detailed, with pleasing colors, plenty of contrast, and steady framerate. The foliage could have been better, but that’s not a flagship phone, so let’s not be picky. The dynamic range is great, as are the colors. Notable is also the high-quality stereo sound captured with 192 kbps bitrate.
The 1080p clips shot at 30fps are also detailed, and impress with the same nice colors and contrast, and high dynamic range. But there is noticeable over-sharpening.
Finally, the 1080p samples shot at 60fps are always blurry and look out of focus. We tried quite a few different takes – each of those resulted in a blurry video. So, until that is fixed with an update (they weren’t so bad on the Honor 10), the 60fps footage is simply a no-go.
Finally, you can use our Video Compare Tool to see how the Honor Play stacks against the Honor 10 and Pocophone F1 when it comes to video capture.
Honor Play aims at gamers, obviously, but instead of making it the best gaming phone on the planet, Honor chose to make it powerful and affordable with some extra gaming chops.
And it succeeded – the Honor Play is indeed impressively powerful and offers a seamless gaming experience. The trendy notched screen is large enough for games, while the camera department offers some nice tricks. Finally, the battery life is simply great for all purposes.
Xiaomi Pocophone F1 • Oppo F9 Pro • Xiaomi Mi 8 SE • LG G7 One
Xiaomi did the same thing with the Pocophone experiment and, well, it did it better. The Pocophone, where available, is cheaper, yet more powerful, has better all-around camera experience, and more features such as stereo speakers and FM radio.
The Oppo F9 has a new take on the notch, its design is cooler, but the GPU is far inferior to the Honor’s. The F9 has better looks and selfie camera, but for everything else – the Honor Play is the better device.
Xiaomi‘s Mi 8 SE is yet another notched device, but with an AMOLED panel. It’s among the first phones to pack the new Snapdragon 710 chip, which has an equally powerful processor to the Kirin 970 but lesser graphics punch. The Mi 8 SE does better when it comes to camera quality, but it sure isn’t on par with the Honor Play as far as gaming is concerned.
Finally, the LG G7 One was unveiled just recently and it looks quite intriguing. It’s able to match the Honor Play price, has a higher-res 1440p HDR screen, a powerful Snapdragon 835 chipset even if it won’t impress with any special camera skills. Still, with that screen and Android One software, the G7 One should be interesting enough to deserve a recommendation.
The Honor Play has one of the best bang-for-the-buck ratios, probably bested only by the Pocophone F1 by Xiaomi. The Play has quite an impressive hardware package and is wrapped in metal, which is a build we rarely see these days.
The Play delivers on its promise – it provides an excellent gaming performance with a twist on the cheap. And if those two factors are leading for you, the Honor Play should be on your shortlist of devices you must check before getting your next phone.
- Metal unibody
- Large screen with thin bezels and a notch
- Top-notch performance
- Great battery life
- Good all-round camera experience with some creative options
- The phone can heat up under pressure
- Mediocre photos in low light
- No EIS for 4K, 1080p@60fps videos are terrible