The Honor Play has been launched in India by Huawei sub-brand Honor. It offers specifications such as a HiSilicon Kirin 970 SoC and a dual camera setup at a price of Rs. 19,999 for the 4GB RAM variant and Rs. 23,999 for the 6GB RAM configuration. The Honor Play is also the first smartphone in India to feature GPU Turbo, a technology that Huawei is touting to be the next big revolution in mobile gaming.
With a metal unibody, vertically aligned dual rear cameras, a 19.5:9 display, and Huawei's current flagship SoC, the Honor Play looks promising on paper. Sporting a competitive starting price tag, the smartphone has been positioned as a mid-range flagship that takes on the likes of the Nokia 7 Plus (Review), Vivo V9 (Review), Oppo F7 (Review), as well as the Xiaomi Mi A2 (Review). Is the Honor Play worth your money? Read on to find out.
Honor Play design
One of the biggest highlights of the Honor Play is its metal unibody, which is reminiscent of last year's Honor View 10 (Review). It is a departure from Huawei and Honor's recent fascination with glass backs, which we have seen a lot of with recent premium offerings including the Honor 10 (Review), Huawei P20 Lite (Review), and Huawei P20 Pro (Review). While offering a classy and elegant look, glass cannot compete with metal in terms of durability and sturdiness. The Honor Play feels significantly less slippery than, say, the Honor 10, but definitely doesn't look as premium. The tall display and thin body also make the phone feel a bit too large to hold comfortably in smaller hands.
The Honor Play borrows most of its design language from the Honor 10, with minimal borders to the sides of the screen. The notch on top is much bigger this time. The chin on the bottom is smaller, but still has an Honor logo. The Honor Play is not exactly comfortable to hold, although it is compact for a smartphone with a 6.3-inch display. In fact, this big screen fits into the form factor of a 5.5-inch phone such as the iPhone 7 Plus.
This smartphone is available in Navy Blue and Midnight Black in India. We reviewed the former, though we found both the colour options to be understated. They do not appear flashy, and some might consider them relatively dull. This is an attempt by the Huawei-owned brand to offer its customers a variety of design options to choose from.
Thanks to the minimal bezel and edge-to-edge design, the fingerprint sensor is on the back of the phone. The tall form factor, once again, makes the fingerprint sensor hard to reach. Users will have to hold the phone a certain way in order to naturally reach it.
The volume buttons and the power key are located on the right of the device; we would have appreciated a bit more travel or depth in the buttons. On the left is a hybrid dual-SIM tray that can accommodate two Nano-SIMs or one Nano-SIM and a microSD card to expand the phone's 64GB of inbuilt storage by up to 256GB.
There is a USB Type-C port on the bottom, alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack, the primary microphone, and a disappointing loudspeaker. We tested the speaker with audio files, YouTube videos and games, and found the sound to be shrill and distorted at maximum volume. The phone has a thickness of about 7.5mm and weighs 176g.
Build quality is average and the Honor Play picked up a couple of nicks when it was accidentally dropped during our testing period.
Honor Play specifications and display
The Honor Play is powered by the company's own flagship HiSilicon Kirin 970 processor, which has previously been used in several models including the Honor 10, Honor View 10, and Huawei P20 Pro. A refresh - called the Kirin 980 - is expected as soon as IFA 2018. As detailed previously, the Kirin 970 has a custom NPU (Neural Processing Unit) for AI processing, which is said to improve camera performance, battery life, and app optimisation. Huawei has claimed that AI computations happen locally on the device, without sending any data to the cloud.
An exciting new feature of this processor is GPU Turbo, a mobile gaming-focused optimisation that claims to offer 60 percent better performance and 30 percent better battery life during gaming sessions on the smartphone. More on this in the performance section of our review.
There are two variants of the phone, with 4GB and 6GB of LPDDR4X RAM, of which we tested the latter. It also has a non-removable 3,750mAh battery and 64GB of onboard UFS 2.1 storage. In terms of connectivity, the Honor Play features 4G VoLTE, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth v4.2 LE, GPS/ A-GPS, GLONASS, a USB Type-C port, and a 3.5mm audio jack. Sensors include an accelerometer, an ambient light sensor, an electronic compass, a gyroscope, and a proximity sensor. This phone supports dual SIMs (Nano) and both can latch onto 4G networks simultaneously.
The 6.3-inch full-HD+ IPS LCD panel has a resolution of 1080x2340 pixels and a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. To help conserve battery life, the Honor Play offers the ability to toggle the screen resolution between FHD+ and HD+. This is available under Screen Resolution in the Battery section of the Settings app.
The display on the Honor Play has great viewing angles and delivers good colour reproduction. We had no problems with the resolution set to full-HD+. Outdoor legibility was average, because the screen gets too reflective under direct sunlight.
Some third-party apps are not optimised for the display notch. This makes uniformity an issue across the UI. Also, in video apps such as YouTube, the display just zooms out to create a black bar incorporating the notch. There is a toggle to mask the notch, though notifications and status icons are still shown within this space.
Honor Play performance, software, and battery life
There's no doubt that the Kirin 970 works great in real-world performance. Whether it's heavy games such as PUBG and Asphalt 8, intensive work sessions using 4G connectivity, or social media multitasking, the Honor Play's 6GB RAM variant that we tested did not stutter at all. Honor boasts of a new antenna design that claims to improve call quality. Indeed, calls were superlative even in areas with poor connectivity. We had absolutely no issues with the earpiece, and it was fairly loud and crisp.
Benchmarks were one area in which the Honor Play completely destroyed the competition in its price range, in particular the Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo F7, and Vivo V9. It scored an impressive 206,126 in AnTuTu 7. In Geekbench 4, the smartphone got a single-core score of 1,898 and a multi-core score of 6,556. Some benchmarks such as the GFXBench T-Rex test maxed out at 60fps. The browser-based Octane and Basemark Web 3 tests gave us scores of 10,790 and 203.77 respectively.
Gaming is touted to be one of the highlights of the Honor Play. The smartphone is being marketed in its home country of China as a gaming phone, but that's not the case for India where it comes as a premium mid-range offering. That said, we put the phone's GPU Turbo technology to test with one of two games that have so far been optimised for it - PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds) and Mobile Legends.
After playing a few online PUBG matches, we observed that performance was smooth, and there was a slight hint of frame drops. GPU Turbo cannot be turned off, so it's hard to say what the experience would've been without it. However, we noted that the battery level dropped by a sizeable amount, which is not entirely a surprise given the demanding nature of the game. The phone also heated up slightly after about 25-30 minutes of continuous gaming.
We even tested out the latest Asphalt 9: Legends, which offered great results on the Honor Play. Do note that the this new mobile game is not yet on the list of GPU Turbo optimised games. Honor India informed Gadgets 360 that a force-feedback vibration feature called '4D Gaming' will be added to the Honor Play with a future OTA update.
The Honor Play runs Huawei's custom EMUI 8.2 skin on top of Android 8.1 Oreo. We believe that Emotion UI (EMUI) has matured a lot over the past couple of years and is nearly ready to compete with other custom skins such as Xiaomi's MIUI. There are a few useful features such as one-handed mode (handy with this form factor), navigation gestures, a Themes catalogue, and Wi-Fi+, which makes switching between Wi-Fi and mobile networks easier.
That said, bloatware still remains an issue with several preloaded games and apps. The phone has seven preloaded games, including Asphalt Nitro and Sonic Master. It also has certain productivity apps such as Mirror, Compass, Phone Clone, Translator, and Quik, some of which didn't seem particularly useful to us. The Settings app is cluttered and is in dire need of simplification.
An interesting modification to the UI is that the Honor Play uses Android Messages as the default messaging app and Google Chrome as the default browser. This is a welcome departure from the past where Honor had used its own apps. Certain preloaded apps such as Facebook and Truecaller have been removed as well.
As mentioned earlier, the NPU under the hood is supposed to help EMUI make performance optimisations based on user preferences. While a couple of weeks with the smartphone did not seem like enough to notice these changes, the software was fluid and offered a stutter-free experience throughout our testing period.
The Honor Play features face recognition, supported through the phone's 16-megapixel selfie camera. We found face unlocking to be accurate and operable at a lot of different angles. However, with the lack of infrared, Face Unlock won't work low light conditions. Instead, the Honor Play turns up the display's brightness at night in order to successfully detect your face. Registering your face in the Settings app is a breeze. We also had no complaints when using the fingerprint sensor, which is snappy and accurate.
While it has an above-average sized 3,750mAh unit, our real-world experience painted a different picture and battery life on the Honor Play was just about acceptable. With about 30 minutes of gaming, about a dozen calls through the day, quick email checks, and casual social media browsing, we were just about able to last a day. In our HD video loop battery test, the Honor Play managed to last about 10 hours, 45 minutes.
The phone supports Huawei's own fast charging standard, but it is not on par with the likes of OnePlus' Dash Charge or Oppo's VOOC. The bundled charger took around 2 hours to charge the phone from zero to 100 percent.
Honor Play cameras
At the rear, the Honor Play sports a vertically stacked pair of cameras. There is a 16-megapixel primary sensor with an f/2.2 aperture, and a 2-megapixel depth sensor with an f/2.4 aperture, coupled with an LED flash. As has been our grievance with previously reviewed Honor smartphones, both cameras need serious work to be ranked at par with equivalently priced offerings from Asus and even Xiaomi.
Much like the Honor 10, the Honor Play has an AI capturing mode, and it is still hit-or-miss in most circumstances. While some of the low-light shots we took ended up with perfect colour balance, other shots taken in good lighting turned out overexposed. It's a good thing that Honor lets you undo the AI enhancements even after the shot has been taken, letting you choose between two versions of each shot. The Neural Processing Unit which is part of the phone's processor, smartly detects when the phone is pointed towards a person to automatically activate Portrait mode. Other than that, we didn't see any use of AI processing in the camera app.
The camera app does not have the most intuitive user interface but gets the work done. The app features modes such as Manual Aperture, Portrait, Photo, Video, and AR Lens. There's also slow-motion recording, a night mode, a time-lapse mode, 3D panoramas, and more.
Daylight shots came out looking average at best with poor dynamic range; we found that non-AI shots actually looked better in terms of colour reproduction. While both the front and rear camera sensors support real-time bokeh effects to an extent, the portrait mode on the front camera works erratically. In most indoor situations, the mode couldn't detect faces properly, and we had to move to where light was better to make it work. Selfie shots came out looking sharp in daylight, but were expectedly disappointing in low light. But, considering the price of this phone, we aren't complaining too much.
The rear dual camera setup is capable of 4K video recording, while the front camera's video recording capabilities max out at full-HD+ (2280x1080). Electronic image stabilisation is supported, but the results still look slightly shaky, and video quality overall isn't all that good either.
The Honor Play is the most affordable smartphone from Huawei to rock the Kirin 970 SoC, which makes for good overall value. It has a sleek and elegant design with a vibrant display. However, its physical size and average cameras might be dealbreakers for some.
GPU Turbo has been launched with the Honor Play but is expected to be made available on other Honor phones including the Honor 9 Lite (Review), Honor 7X (Review), Honor 10 (Review), and Honor View 10 (Review) via future OTA updates.
While this phone is positioned lower than the Honor 10 in terms of overall performance, the great pricing makes it a tempting buy in the relatively uncrowded Rs. 20,000-Rs. 25,000 price segment. It offers stellar value for money though doesn't quite seem to be following the open sale model that Honor had suggested at launch.