Honor Play review

The Honor Play is a great phone for gamers, but will we see it in the U.S.?

The Honor Play is a terrific blend of gaming prowess, sweet visuals, and high power -- all at a sensible price.
The Honor Play is a terrific blend of gaming prowess, sweet visuals, and high power -- all at a sensible price.
The Honor Play is a terrific blend of gaming prowess, sweet visuals, and high power -- all at a sensible price.

Highs

  • GPU Turbo makes the right games even better
  • Great-looking screen
  • Solid battery life
  • Good camera and app
  • As powerful as more expensive phones

Lows

  • Derivative design
  • Some connection or software glitches
  • No water resistance or standard screen protector

Honor claims the Honor Play, its new gaming-centric phone is, “Crazy fast, crazy smart,” proving once again the company never undersells its hardware. The tagline implies the Honor Play is not just speedy, and not just clever — it’s crazy, OK? Bluster aside, all we really care about is if Honor’s claims are true. Just how fast and smart is the new phone? Can it elevate to crazy status? We’ve been using it for a week to find out.

It’s worth mentioning that Honor has not shared any plans for U.S. availability of this smartphone just yet — currently it’s available in China and India, and it has just been announced for the U.K. and parts of Europe.

Derivative design

Honor doesn’t say the Honor Play has a crazy design, and rightly so, because although smooth and minimalist, it’s not as heartbreakingly good-looking as the Honor 10. Its major design elements recall the Apple iPhone X. The screen has a notch at the top, and the dual-lens camera is vertically-stacked on the left-hand side of the back panel. This in turn makes it look like a host of other phones, which isn’t good.

It’s comfortable to hold, lightweight, and most who’ve seen it said it looks more expensive than its actual price tag. Mission accomplished there, we’d say. The 6.3-inch screen is expansive, yet still has noticeable bezels around the sides, a chin, and a further bezel above the notch. The 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution is the minimum we want to see on a decent phone today, and Honor has done a great job selecting its panel, because games and video look fantastic. The screen has beautifully-defined colors and decent contrast levels for a shiny, high-quality viewing experience. It’s essential on a phone aimed at gamers.

The Honor Play is the first Honor phone built with GPU Turbo enhancements, giving games a graphics and efficiency boost.

The back of the phone has a matte finish, which Honor says makes the device easier to hold when furiously gaming, but it still still feels slippery. The fingerprint sensor is housed inside a nicely chamfered cutout and it’s very fast, however it looks and feels a little high on the device. It’s also backed up by face unlock, which tends to work even faster than the fingerprint sensor, but it’s not a secure device unlocking feature. At the bottom of the phone is a headphone jack, and a small speaker grill.

If you’re buying the Honor Play in the U.K. you get the choice of blue or black colors. It’s a shame you’ll miss out on the cool ultra-violet, which has a pinkish-purple hue. Buy your Honor Play directly from Honor and you can choose the Player Edition, which has some flashy graphics and color schemes apparently influenced by Audi Sport. The Audi Sport partnership does not extend to actual co-branding, and there are no special wallpapers or anything installed on the phone.

honor play volume and power
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you liked the look of the Honor 7X and the Honor View 10, the Honor Play continues that relatively simple theme, avoiding the more upmarket look of the Honor 10. For a gaming phone, it’s perhaps a little too understated, and because it looks like so many other phones, derivative too.

Great performance for gaming

This is what matters. After all, if the Honor Play wheezes its way through the day, it’s not going to encourage anyone to play games on it. The Honor Play is the first Honor phone to be built with GPU Turbo enhancements from the factory, meaning when you play certain games, the graphics, efficiency, frame rate, and other aspects all get a boost. To give it a fair trial, we played Asphalt 9 Legends for a while, which is one of the games that takes advantage of GPU Turbo.

Asphalt 9 on the Honor Play borders on mobile gaming perfection. It’s incredibly fast, silky smooth, and really exciting. There is no lag, pauses, or visual glitches. If you haven’t played an Asphalt game in a while, the Honor Play makes this latest title look like gold. Even with the “performance” graphics setting on, there’s no change. It’s really superb.

Playing Reckless Racing 3, which isn’t on the list of games that are made to work with the GPU Turbo, the experience is the same as we’re used to on other Android phones. There are some instances of slowdown, but nothing serious, and the game is fun to play.

We also didn’t especially notice more grip from the Honor Play’s supposedly more grippy matte rear panel, and the phone gets warm but never hot.

Asphalt 9 on the Honor Play Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Honor Play has the Kirin 970 processor and 4GB RAM, which means it has the same processor as the Honor 10, the Huawei P20 Pro, and several others. None of the games played noticeably differently to other Android phones with similar amounts of power, but all will cost more than the Honor Play — a crucial difference.

This is almost identical to the Honor 10, which costs more than the Honor Play, and perhaps even more surprisingly, it’s close to the Huawei P20 Pro. The AnTuTu score outpaces the Honor View 10 too. It can’t match the Galaxy S9 or the OnePlus 6, which you’d expect. We think the benchmark results illustrate how capable the Honor Play is at playing games.

Crazy smart camera

Anyone familiar with Honor phones will recognize the setup and the user interface, too. The dual-lens camera on the back has a single 16-megapixel, f/2.0 aperture lens with a secondary, f/2.4 aperture depth-sensing 2-megapixel sensor. This is the same megapixel count as the Honor 7X, with improved aperture for better low-light performance. The camera also gets Huawei’s AIS, which uses artificial intelligence to stabilize the image.

Sample shots from the Honor Play Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Artificial intelligence enhances the camera for scene and object recognition, just like we’ve seen on most Honor and Huawei phones over the past year. The AI is now clever enough to recognize up to 22 objects and 500 different scenarios. It adjusts the settings accordingly, but there is a button in plain view to turn off the AI if you prefer your photos untouched.

It’s also possible to switch between a standard photo and the A.I. image in the Gallery too, which makes comparing the differences easier. The Honor Play surprises with the quality of its photos, and the A.I. plays a big part in making them look good. Go on, Honor, we’ll give you “crazy smart” for the Play’s camera.

If you want a camera that produces pictures suited to sharing online, the Honor Play won’t disappoint.

We took it for a day out in London, on a generally sunny but also overcast day, and the photos we took were immediately shareable — which is exactly what they should be on a phone like the Honor Play. Look closely, and you’ll notice these aren’t perfect shots, but we’re not expecting it to rival the P20 Pro or the Galaxy S9 Plus. It often washed out the sky and had difficulty balancing light in challenging environments.

We did find the screen sometimes showed an image that wasn’t representative of the final photo, with the picture in the gallery surpassing expectations after seeing the preview. Video performance is solid too, and it can shoot up to UHD quality. Our video of the Honor Play was shot on an Honor Play, to give you an idea of how well it does.

To get Honor Play photos ready for sharing, we often edited them to bring out the colors and brighten up the image. We like the Gallery app and its editing suite overall. There are plenty of modes to play with, especially for photos shot with the Aperture mode to product a bokeh effect. There’s also a powerful suite of editing tools, so you don’t have to open a separate app to tune images. Once done, they looked great.

honor play fingerprint sensor
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you want a camera that produces pictures suited to sharing online, the phone won’t disappoint.

Software and battery

The Honor Play is instantly recognizable as an Honor phone, both in design and software, It uses Android 8.1 with Huawei’s EMUI version 8.2 installed over the top. The experience is identical to the Honor 10, and close to slightly older Honor phones using earlier versions of EMUI. High points? The camera app is great; it’s very simple to use. To further emphasize its gaming expertise, there’s Game Suite, which promises game acceleration and minimizing notifications while playing, provided you choose that option.

Other beneficial features include an eye comfort mode that reduces blue light from the screen, a way to hide the notch, an optional app drawer, and a quick way to record the screen. The only problems we encountered were those with notifications, which definitely cannot match Android 9.0 Pie’s new system, and connectivity. The Honor Play would often take a while to find signal, especially when using Google Maps, an app which also crashed during searches. This is not something we have encountered on any other phone.

The 3,750mAh battery on the Honor Play is quite strong, returning about two normal days of use, but only just, and that doesn’t include extensive use in the evening. Hardcore gamers, and anyone pushing the phone hard, will still get a full day.

Price, availability, and warranty.

The Honor Play is available in most of Europe, the Nordic countries, the Middle East, Russia, India and the Asia Pacific. No U.S. launch details have been shared. It costs 330 euros, and the Player Edition Red and Player Edition Black models are priced a little higher at 350 euros.

In the U.K., Honor provides a year’s warranty on the phone and six months on the battery and charger. If no U.S. release date comes and you decide to import the device, warranty duties will come down to the importer.

Our Take

The Honor Play is a terrific gaming phone made even better by a creatively enjoyable camera and a delightful screen.

What are the alternatives?

Until we know the exact price, we can’t nail down the Honor Play’s opposition completely, but we do know it’s going to challenge the Motorola G6 and G6 Plus, the Nokia 6.1, the HTC U11 Life, and the Sony Xperia XA2. Oddly, other competition comes from Honor and Huawei. Everything from the Honor 7X to the Honor 9 Lite are similarly priced, and often have the same software, processor, along with a similar camera.

Dedicated gaming phones such as the Razer Phone cost considerably more, as do high performance Android phones, with the OnePlus 6 the only one coming close in terms of price. The Pocophone F1, if you live when it can be purchased, is a strong challenger, as is Xiaomi’s Mi A2 with Android One installed. We’ll have a better idea of its competition when the price is finalized.

How long will it last?

If you treat it normally, then we’d expect the Honor Play to last for two to three years before you feel the need to upgrade, that is provided you aren’t buying it solely for gaming. Mobile games are getting ever-more complex and graphically-intensive, and if you’re really into this aspect, the phone may not be quite so willing to run the latest and greatest titles in a year’s time. If you don’t have to turn all the settings up to maximum, you should be fine.

It’s not water-resistant, and the body isn’t rugged, so drops (especially into water) are likely to do serious damage. There isn’t a screen protector fitted out of the box either, because Honor wants to sell you a special gaming protector, which supposedly uses a nano-coating to offer less resistance when sliding a finger across the screen.

Should you buy one?

Yes, you’d be crazy not to if you’re into mobile games, provided the price comes in on the right side of $250 or so.

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