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Honor Play Review – A Budget Approach Towards Gaming Smartphone

Honor Play Review>

A Budget Approach Towards Gaming Smartphone

There’s a new trend that’s rising in the smartphone market recently – the introduction of “gaming phones”. The formula is simple – have a fancy name, fancy outlook, made up of flagship and powerful parts and a high price tag. That’s pretty much the same case as Xiaomi’s Blackshark, Asus’s ROG phone and the Razer Phone. Not long after those devices are out, Honor, the more lifestyle oriented sub-brand of Huawei, decides to take on the gaming smartphone market as well, but with a different style. The Honor Play is priced at RM1249, which is significantly less than the other purpose-designed gaming smartphones out there. So, what did you get for the price, and what do you lose out on? Check them out in this review!

Specifications:
Hisilicon Kirin 970 Octa-core Processor, 4 X 2.4GHz + 4 X 1.8GHz
4GB RAM, 64GB Internal Storage, microSD support up to 256GB
6.3-inch IPS display with notch, 19.5:9 display ratio
1080 X 2340 pixels, 409 pixels-per-inch
16MP + 2MP rear camera, f/2.2 aperture, LED flash, video recording up to 4K
16MP front-facing camera, f/2.0 aperture
3750mAh battery

Unboxing

Like all other Honor devices, the Honor Play comes in a white, simple packaging. You’re immediately presented with the device once you lift the top cover off, sitting on a tray which contains the documentations, a soft case and the SIM tray removal tool. The rest of the box contains the USB wall adapter with SuperCharge and the USB-C cable.

Design

Looks a little too budget-y.

Unlike other flashy gaming smartphones out there, Honor’s usual design language applies on the Honor Play – a simple, no-nonsense look. The looks on the Honor Play is so conservative that it doesn’t suggest that it’s a powerful phone at all, and it looks like any other regular smartphones in that price range. The aurora back design on the Honor 10 doesn’t even saw its way to the Honor Play. While the Honor Play does have some wow factor, the design certainly isn’t the one the does the job.

At this price point, we’re happy to see that the Honor Play is treated well, and we’re definitely a fan of its build quality. There’s a glass up front that not only gives it a premium look and feel, but also protect the display. We’re kind of happy to see the metal unibody make a comeback on the Honor Play, even though it does make it look rather plain without the aurora effect on the rear panel. Nonetheless, it feels solid, and well-weighted too with a weight of around 170-grams.

The front is mostly occupied by the 6.3-inch display, and like pretty much all devices from 2018, there’s a notch on top which houses the 16-megapixel front-facing camera, earpiece, a LED notification light in the earpiece and some sensors. It’s not the smallest notch out there, but not too intrusive either. Thankfully, the bezels around the display are minimal, and the lip below is pretty minimal too, which only has the Honor branding. Using the on-screen Android navigation controls are a breeze, which allows Honor to create the 19.5:9 display ratio.

The removable SIM tray is located on the left, and like always, it takes a primary nanoSIM card, and as for the hybrid secondary slot, it takes either a second nanoSIM or a microSD card for storage expansion. The volume and power buttons are conveniently located to the right. There’s nothing on the top as well.

As for the bottom, it houses the usual ports. We’re happy to see that the 3.5mm headphone jack isn’t gone, and at this price point, Honor also gives you a USB-C port for charging and data transfer. The bottom finishes off with a bottom-firing mono speaker.

The rear panel of the Honor Play is simple and looks a little boring as well. The vertical camera housing is located to the top left and usual, where both the 16-megapixel and 2-megapixel sensors are located, along with a LED flash right at the bottom. The fingerprint reader with metal finish is located in the middle, and it’s easily reachable. The rest of the rear contains the Honor and AI Camera branding.

The Honor Play is only available in 2 colours for our market – Navy Blue and Violet – which is what our tester is finished in. There’s also a Player edition that you can get for an additional RM50 – which is finished in black with red details, along with some custom engraving on the rear metal panel.

Specs and Performance

Allow the Honor Play to shine.

Being a “gaming smartphone”, the Honor Play’s top priority is the performance. The Honor Play can easily be named as the cheapest smartphone shipped with a flagship processor, even though it’s an older processor. We first saw the Kirin 970 is in the flagship Mate 10 Pro about a year ago, and now it’s here on a device that costs almost a-third of the price of the Mate 10 Pro. The quad-core setup remains – with its main cores clocked at 2.4GHz, while the rest clocked at 1.8GHz. The unit for our market is only paired with 4GB of RAM.

We’ve came across so many devices with this processor, and our experience with them are pretty consistent. The Honor Play, as a normal smartphone, is a pretty good device. For the price point, there’s really nothing much to complain. The Honor Play takes pretty much anything that you throw at it with ease, and holds its drink rather well when it comes to power-intensive apps. However, for some reason, we feel that it’s a little more laggy with third-party apps, and as usual, the random lags still exists in the Honor Play, although thankfully it doesn’t happen all the time. We’re also having issues with heat. As the Honor Play is designed for intense mobile gaming sessions, the device, for some reason, heats up pretty quickly, and even though performance is not too compromised, the heat can be a little annoying especially with the metal chassis.

Like other Kirin 970s, the NPU that’s built-in to the processor are also present on the Honor Play. This means that the Honor Play also gets hardware-accelerated machine-learning tasks, such as voice and image recognition.

The 4GB of RAM is also adequate for most users, and the RAM management in EMUI software is pretty good. It’s quick to kill unnecessary apps, and warns you on apps that are draining battery and using up a lot of RAM.

Debut with the Honor Play is also what Huawei/Honor calls “GPU Turbo”. It’s a system that allows better graphics performance during gaming, but at the same time consumes less power and generate less heat. It’s a software setup, which allows it to be enabled by other devices other than the Honor Play over updates. There’s no specific toggles or settings for GPU Turbo – it’s on all the time and will only work with games. While some of our games do see some improvements in framerates, Honor said that they’re constantly working with game developers to allow them to take full advantage of GPU Turbo. We do still have issues with heat, even though it doesn’t really ruin the experience much.

We’ve included 3 benchmarks, comparing the Honor Play with ASUS’s Zenfone 5z and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 in Geekbench 4, Androbench, 3D Mark Sling Shot Benchmark and Antutu Benchmark.


Honor Play benchmarks – Kirin 970, 4GB RAM, GPU Turbo.


ASUS Zenfone 5z benchmarks – Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 6GB RAM.


Samsung Galaxy Note 9 benchmarks – Exynos 9810, 6GB RAM, water carbon cooling system.

The Honor 10 is also quite packed with the latest connectivity options. Usually Honor left out 5GHz WiFi for devices that are this cheap, but this time round, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac dual-band WiFi is standard, along with WiFi hotspot and direct functionality. It still has to make do with Bluetooth 4.2 though, but NFC is thrown in as well. The USB-C connector at the bottom of the device is only of a 2.0 standard, but there’s still OTG functionality.

The fingerprint reader on the back is pretty good too. It’s fast and responsive for most of the time, and pretty accurate too with its matte metal finish.

The face unlock is pretty fast too. For starters, setting it up is quick and simple, and most of the time, it’s quick to identify your face and unlock the device too. You can set it to start scanning your face once you pick up the device. For us, we’d prefer unlocking the device using fingerprint as it’s just a little faster than face unlock. You’ll also need good lighting for face unlock to work.

Display

A gaming phone with a notch, how annoying can it be?

The Honor Play is packed with a 6.3-inch display, and like their recent devices, there’s a notch cutout on top. But, with its 19.5:9 display ratio, it’s one of the tallest displays out there. It has a resolution of 1080 X 2340 pixels, which equates to around 403 pixels-per-inch. The sharpness is nothing to shout about – it will be sharp enough for most people.

As always, the IPS panel on the Honor Play is lifted straight from previous Honor devices. It has good and pretty accurate colours thanks to its deep black nature. We’ve definitely seen better IPS panels out there, but the display on the Honor Play gets the job done. It could use a little more brightness, as using the device under bright sunlight can be a little difficult.

Honor Play also retains the software enhancements to allow you to adjust the display to your liking. For starters, there’s two display mode to choose from – normal and vivid. Ours came right of out the box in vivid mode, and we left it the way it is. You can also adjust the colour temperature to your liking. The notch on the top can also be “hidden”.

Speaker

Okay for the price, not so okay for the purpose.

With Huawei/Honor reserving their stereo speakers for their higher-end smartphones, the Honor Play has to make do with a bottom-firing mono speaker. It’s quite a good mono speaker to start with, with rather rich tone and nice clarity. But, a “gaming phone” could really use a pair of good stereo speakers. For the price, we can’t complain.

Camera Performance

All about A.I. assistance.

The Honor Play is equipped with a 16-megapixel main sensor, sitting behind a f/2.2 aperture lens, paired to a 2-megapixel sensor. The main sensor does all the job most of the time, while the 2-megapixel sensor is mainly for depth information. While the Honor Play isn’t well known for its photography capability, it does have the same Master AI assistance found on the Honor 10, where it will recognize up to 22 different scene categories, thus adjusting the colours to make it look better.


Difference between Master A.I. turned OFF and ON.

Stills from the Honor Play are pretty decent. With the Master AI assistance turned off, images are sharp, and details are well rendered. The colours are alright, even though they are a little towards the dull side. We are surprised by its dynamic range – it’s pretty impressive too! It also has a very good HDR system, even though it’s only a manual-toggled system.

As for low-light, there’s nothing to shout about as well. Images look decent, has less noise and still preserve most of its details. Some of them can be a little on the darker side, and the colours can wander off a little. Also, there’s isn’t any form of image stabilization on the Honor Play, so you’ll need really steady hands for long shutters.

Turning on the Master AI assistance and you’ll start to really see some difference. The system cranks up colour to eleven and makes the image looks a lot better. It’ll also play around with brightness and contrast to balance out the image, and makes it look like it’s been taken with professional camera gear. It works wonders in both daylight and dark shots, but can go a little haywire for interior shots. You can still restore the original photo in the gallery app. Turning on or off Master AI does not affect the dynamic range or details.

The secondary 2MP camera is there purely for depth information for the portrait mode. It identifies the distance and shape of an object, which is later sent to software to apply simulated bokeh effect to the background. Like always, the effect can look a little artificial, and it doesn’t like complicated shapes or different objects in different distances. Toning down the blur effect does help make it look better, but still not convincing enough.

Surprise, surprise – the Honor Play does offer to record videos up to 4K resolution. In any resolution, it offers to record in either H.264 codec or H.265 codec, with the latter able to generate in smaller file size, but still relatively new for players and streaming sites to support it. The 4K recording is not bad, as it has good details, nice colours and great dynamic range. While it has Electronic Image Stabilization, it’ll only work in 1080p 30fps mode, so footage can be quite shaky. In 1080p mode you’re given the option to record it in 30 frames-per-second or 60 frames-per-second.

Switching over to the front is another 16-megapixel shooter. It’s a decent camera for casual selfies – images turned out to have lots of details, plus colours are accurate too. Too bad it’s only got a fixed-focus lens, but it’s not hard to get your face in focus. It does have a wide range of software beautification effects as well as bokeh effects, but as usual, you’ll need to tone them down to look more realistic.

via GIPHY

The Honor Play’s camera interface is the same as other Honor devices. To start off, the shortcut toggles are to the left of the viewfinder, which includes toggle for the Master AI functionality. The mode selector is to the right, and you can swipe up and down to switch between photo, video, portrait and AR lens, amongst other toggles. It even includes an AR Lens feature, where it detects faces and applying effects to the face or background. As for the pro mode, it allows full range of adjustments.

Software

Same old EMUI.

The Honor Play is shipped with Android 8.1, and on top of it lays Huawei’s EMUI 8.2 customization. It’s pretty much identical to other recent Honor/Huawei devices in terms of its look and feel, and pretty similar to older EMUI firmware too. As usual, the Honor Play is loaded with lots of bloatware and unnecessary apps, and since this is a gaming phone, it does come pre-installed with some games. The overall interface is fast and looks good, even though it can be complicated for some people with the huge amount of settings.

Battery Life

A large 3750mAh battery is built-in to the Honor Play, catering especially for those gaming sessions. For normal use, the Honor Play holds up pretty well. 12 hours away from the charger usually lands us at around 40%, with enough juice for some gaming sessions in between. The GPU Turbo seems to work rather well for our battery life, as it only introduces an average of 18% drop an hour. A full day of use is possible, as long as you keep your gaming session to a minimum.

The charging solution of the Honor Play can be a little confusing. The Honor Play only supports Huawei’s Quick Charge adapter, and that’s not to be confused with Huawei’s proprietary SuperCharge system. The charger that the Honor Play is supplied with can output 5V 2A or 9V 2A, and you’ll need the included USB-C cable for the best experience. As expected, the Quick Charge is not as quick as Supercharge or any other quick charging solutions out there. It will take the Honor Play from a flat battery to 35% in 30 minutes, so it’s better to expect quite a long break between gaming sessions while your device is charging. A full charge takes a little over two hours.

Our Verdict

While the Honor Play might sound like as if it takes value for money to another level, there are still some sacrifices along the way. As a daily device, the Honor Play performs very well for the price, and it’s hard to find another device at this price point that offers the same experience. For a gaming device though, there’s a reason why those are priced on the other end of the price point. We can’t say that the Honor Play is a full-fledged gaming smartphone, it’s just a well-priced smartphone with good specification that has slightly better gaming capability than its rivals.

The Honor Play is pretty much in a class of its own until Xiaomi brought out their Pocophone F1 – in similar specifications too with Snapdragon 845 flagship processor, 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, all with a starting price of RM1299. If you’re looking for an Android One device, the Xiaomi Mi A2 tops at RM1199, and offers slightly less powerful processor but with more storage. OPPO’s latest F9 can also be considered at a price of RM1235, and Vivo is dropping a new range of V11 devices at this price range.

Things we like:
Solid battery life
Solid performance
A.I. does help a lot in camera quality
Overall pleasing build quality
Value for money

Things we’re not sure of:
Average camera performance without assistance
Speaker not fit for the job
Display could be better calibrated
Software full of bloatware
Does not come with earphones

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