Honor Play Hands-On: A Gaming Phone We Actually Like

BERLIN — If it seems like Huawei's millennial-focused smartphone brand, Honor, keeps rolling out phones that offer flagship features at affordable prices, well, that's because it is. This year alone, the brand has launched the Honor View 10 in the U.S. and the Honor 10 in other parts of the world. And now, those two devices will be joined by another phone that's targeting mobile gamers.

The Honor Play, which is already available in India for the U.S. equivalent of $286 and is rolling out in the United Kingdom and parts of Western Europe, is getting a coming-out party here at the IFA trade show in Berlin. The latest Honor phone takes a page (or several) from Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 playbook by emphasizing unusually powerful gaming performance and an artificially intelligent camera.

We put the Play to the test with both rigorous benchmarking and real-world use to see if its performance and camera are anything to write home about. Read on for our first impressions to see if this is a device U.S. gamers should demand.

Honor Play Specs

PriceTBA
OSAndroid 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.2
Screen Size (Resolution)6.3 inches (2340 x 1080) LCD
CPUHuawei Kirin 970
RAM4GB
Storage64GB
microSD Slot?Yes
Rear Camera16-MP (f/2.2) and 2-MP (f/2.4)
Front Camera16-MP (f/2.0)
Battery Size3,750 mAh
ColorsUltra Violet, Navy Blue, Midnight Black, Player Edition Red/Black
Size6.21 x 2.92 x 0.29 inches
Weight6.2 ounces

Performance: Some benefits for gamers

Glancing at the Honor Play's spec sheet, it's tough to believe that Honor's latest device is a performance powerhouse. It has 4GB of RAM, compared to the Honor View 10's 6GB and the 8GB packed into the OnePlus 6. But the Play has a unique feature called GPU Turbo, which optimizes the device's software. It also runs an upgraded version of Honor's EMUI layered on top of Android 8.1 Oreo, which enables the Huawei Kirin 970 processor to enhance graphics processing and extend the battery.

Honor says GPU Turbo, which supports PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends and Asphalt 9 at launch, enables the Play to hit a high average frame rate while maintaining stable graphics performance. We put that to the test using GameBench, a tool that measures CPU usage and frame rates while you're gaming, to compare the Play against the Honor View 10, which uses the same processor but has more RAM.

We played our favorite racing game, Asphalt 9, for 15 minutes each on the Honor Play and the View 10, and the Play notched a slightly higher average frame rate and slightly lower CPU usage than the View 10. The Play used 11.66 percent of the CPU while hitting an average of 30 fps at 96 percent stability. The View 10 used 12.69 percent of the CPU and hit 29 fps at 98 percent stability. Anecdotally, we noticed that the Play had less slowdown and fewer frame-rate dips when cars crashed into each other, while the View 10 chugged a bit.

GPU Turbo made a difference in our early testing, but it wasn't dramatic.

The Play didn't wow on 3DMark's Sling Shot Extreme OpenGL 3.1 ES test of graphics performance, earning a score of 2,771. That's in line with other Honor and Huawei devices that use the Kirin 970 chip, including the View 10, which notched 2,958. The OnePlus 6, which uses a Snapdragon 845 processor, handily bests both devices, with a score of 5,124.

MORE: The Best Phones for Gaming

On the Geekbench 4 test of overall system performance, the Play clocked in at 6,584, again in line with the View 10's score of 6,659. Let's just say the OnePlus 6 crushes both phones, with a score of 9,098 (but with 8GB of RAM, this is not exactly a fair fight).

Camera: Smart photos, dumb selfies

Honor is no stranger to advanced photography features — the View 10 sports a dual-camera setup with a black-and-white lens, and the Honor 10 packs in 24-megapixel lenses on the front and back of the device. With the Play, Honor hopped on the AI bandwagon already occupied by phones such as the Galaxy Note 9 and LG G7 ThinQ.

The Play recognizes 500 objects across 22 scenes, then optimizes the camera settings, including saturation, contrast and white balance, to create a better shot. Honor makes it extremely easy to turn AI on and off; just tap the AI icon in the camera preview to activate the feature.

AI does make a difference with the Honor Play's photos.


In a photo I took of some buildings in Brooklyn, AI brought out the contrast and color saturation of the terra-cotta brownstone against the bright blue sky.


Brightly colored flowers looked even more pink with AI, and their stems a more vivid green.

Honor added an iPhone-like Portrait Lighting feature, dubbed 3D Lighting, to the Play's 16-MP front-facing lens. These shots looked absolutely terrible. I took selfies in Studio Lighting, which darkens the background and shines light on your face, and Classic Lighting, which does the same but in black and white. Both effects badly missed the mark. The portrait effect randomly blurred parts of my face and hair, especially when I took selfies with glasses on, and black and white mode made my complexion look splotchy thanks to my freckles.

Design: iPhone-inspired looks

Honor may have taken a few cues from Samsung for the Play's marquee features, but its design is all iPhone X. Yes, including the notch.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The Play's display extends nearly to the edges of the frame, with a small Honor logo on the chin. The notch can be disguised with a software-based bezel, just like on LG's G7 ThinQ. This feels like a cop-out, but it's designed to appeal to people who don't want an Android phone that looks like an iPhone. The Play's dual lenses are stacked on top of each other, like those on the iPhone X.

The Play carries over the aluminum back and chamfered edges of the View 10, which harkens back to the iPhone 7's design and feels premium. The Play's aluminum is also a differentiator now that every new device has a glass back. The lack of glass means you don't get wireless charging, but you also don't have to worry about fingerprint smudges as much. The cobalt-blue version I tested was subtle but beautiful.

Honor moved the Play's fingerprint sensor to the back, far away from the camera. This is an improvement over the View 10 and even Samsung's flagships, which still put the sensor a little too close to the dual lenses for my tastes.

MORE: Honor View 10 - Full Review 

Overall, the Play is an upgrade over the View 10, combining the best of iPhone and Android flagship design sensibilities in a budget package.

Outlook

The Honor Play is a solid gaming phone, but serious gamers will likely want to spend their money on devices with fans (like Asus' upcoming ROG Phone) or liquid cooling (like Samsung's Galaxy Note 9) rather than a GPU Turbo feature that doesn't quite make up for an older processor and limited RAM.

At least the Honor Play can outshine those other phones on price. Honor hasn't set pricing for markets outside Asia as of this writing, but if the Play has a similar sub-$300 price when it goes on sale in Europe, we really hope to see this budget device reach the U.S. (which isn't a sure thing). Until then, if you're interested in powerful performance and an impressive camera in an affordable phone that you can buy in the States right now, we suggest looking at the $529 OnePlus 6 or the $499 Asus ZenFone 5Z, which looks identical to the Honor Play and has an AI camera, too.

Credit: Tom's Guide

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