At IFA 2018, Honor has launched the Honor Play, a gaming-oriented Android phone, created to address “young gamers’ demands for “lightning fast” graphics processing capability and extended battery life”. This might be marketing speak for an affordable gaming, phone, but it is a pretty good idea. The question is: how does it perform? The answers lie below.
The Honor Play (official page) was released on 2018-08-31 and was originally built for the High Mid-Range market ($350-$450). At publishing time, the Honor Play was priced at ~$380 USD.
With popular demand, but also price as selectors, we have lined-up a selection of cellphones which may be alternatives to assess how the Honor Honor Play fits in its immediate smartphone landscape. Honor 10 (~$453), Honor View 10 (~$429), Huawei nova 3i (~$360), Huawei P20 Lite (~$295), Razer Phone (~$600), Asus ROG Phone (~$1200).
Key technical specifications
- 6.3” IPS LCD Display (2340×1080), 470 NITs
- 16 MP Rear camera, f/2.2 aperture + 2 Megapixel (bokeh sensor)
- HiSilicon Huawei HiSilicon Kirin 970 platform 4, 6 RAM, 64 GB of Storage + MicroSDXC
- 3750 mAh battery capacity
- Android 8.1
The Honor Play resembles the Huawei P20 Lite from the front, with a similar, but not identical, display and overall front facade. Honor Play has a slightly better display-to-body ratio (+3%) than the P20 Lite, and a 6.3” display (vs. 5.84”).
Despite the significant difference in display size between the Honor View 10 (5.99”) and the Honor Play (6.3”), the Honor Play has the same general form-factor and is 6% smaller in volume. Compared to the Honor Play, the Asus ROG phone is 19% bigger, and the Razer Phone is 12.3% larger.
Honor Play has an aluminum unibody construction that makes it very rigid and sturdy. It has discrete antenna slits at the top and bottom where the antennas are located since metal would block radio-waves."A BEAUTIFUL DESIGN THAT BLENDS ELEGANCE AND AGGRESSIVENESS. GAMERS LOVE THAT"
The unit we have has a metallic red color, with small and subtle markings in the back. It is a beautiful design that blends elegance and aggressiveness thanks to the laser-carved lines. Gamers love that, just look at the number of “Stealth Fighter” designs that are best-sellers. These days, many people tend to like having a glass back, but those phones tend to be more expensive and fragile.
This smartphone feels comfortable in hand because it has a width of 74.3mm, for a thickness of about (7.48mm / 0.29 inches). For reference, this is based on a medium size hand (US M gloves). You can try extrapolating from here. The weight of 176 grams (6.21 oz) makes it slightly more substantial than the average smartphone, but it’s reasonable for a 6.3” handset.
This handset design features outstanding performance in relation to its size. From another standpoint, how much battery capacity the customer has available is very impressive for a phone of this size. The screen display-to-body ratio of 83.1% is also excellent overall.
Since the back cover is made of metal, the smartphone feels solid and should be less prone to breakage when dropped. It does not mean that internal components cannot break after a shock. But metal chassis simply do not break the same way glass might. Metal feels solid and substantial, but it is also heavier and can scratch more easily than special glass.
Analyzing how the smartphone was built, we estimate that the risk of breaking during a fall on a hard surface to be relatively low. You can refer to our general article about how phones could be designed to avoid breakage upon drops: How the LG V20 Was Designed To Survive Drops
The Honor Play has not received a U.S Military MIL-STD 810G rating, nor does it have an IP rating for water and dust protection. This is quite common in this price range, so we can’t hold this against its design.
Overall, the display has a very good image quality -at this price range- and share many similarities with the Honor View 10, including brightness, black levels, and overall color performance. In absolute terms, the black levels could be better – this is often the most noticeable difference when you go to/from a more expensive LCD display.
For example, the Sony Xperia XZ2 has noticeably better black levels than both Honor View 10 and Honor Play — but at $710, we would expect nothing less. Black levels are a metric for how truly “black,” pixels are on LCD screens. More below.
The Honor Play beats both the Honor View 10 and the Xperia XZ2 when it comes to display size. Within a comparable chassis form-factor as the Honor View 10, it delivers 5% more diagonal size and screen surface. The screen-to-body ratio of the Honor Play is 7% higher than the Sony Xperia XZ2 and is it obvious at first sight.
Display technical analysis
The display reaches 470 NITs is great for a ~$350 phone and offers much better image brightness than the Razer Phone which maxes out around 300 NITs, which is weak for such an expensive handset.
In general, a brighter display is great to read the screen content on a sunny day (or bright environment). Higher brightness is responsible for better image quality in widespread situations.
The resolution of 2340×1080 would be considered to be relatively high in absolute terms, and excellent in its class. The 409 PPI sharpness is nice but doesn’t compare with the 500-550 PPI that much more expensive phones have. To learn more, read High PPI displays: do you really need them?"MUCH HIGHER DISPLAY BRIGHTNESS THAN THE RAZER PHONE"
The Honor Play is built with an IPS LCD display. IPS/PLS LCD technology made LCD displays reach the next level, first on mobile, then everywhere else. IPS/PLS can render more colors than standard LCD, with better color saturation and broader view angles.
Within the swath of IPS LCD displays there are still some differences, but in general IPS/PLS are beyond basic LCD displays. However, LCD an IPS/PLS LCD displays as a group are not as technologically advanced as OLED panels which have even better contrast ratio and color saturation.
While it is feasible to build excellent LCD displays that perform at a similar level to some OLED, these LCD displays should be seen as the exceptions, and they may not have any of the usual benefits associated with LCD (vs. OLED). You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article to learn more.
Most people want to compare the Honor Play with other Huawei/Honor handsets, and Honor 10 came up often. It has a very similar rear camera system to the Honor View 10, except that Honor 10 has a more advanced AI. We will go in depth with the AI element in a separate article because it’s a complex topic. To understand how we look at mobile camera, read What’s a Great Mobile Camera Experience?
Main camera photo quality
The camera of the Honor Play is very good for this segment of the market. We took shots without using AI to make things more predictable and remove some of the software processing uncertainties from the test. AI introduces a lot of parameters that are based on personal preferences. Although we recommend that users try it, we want to look at the camera performance without too much interference for now.
Bright light Photography: very good
When comparing Honor Play vs. Honor 10, our conclusion is that the hardware difference don’t show in a significant way because good lighting conditions don’t stress the camera enough. Although there are small color-balance differences in favor of Honor 10, most people won’t be able to tell, without looking at a side by side comparison.
Low light photography: weaker than Honor 10
In dim lighting conditions, the difference between Honor 10 and Honor Play become more obvious. The Honor Play images will tend to be noisier and less sharp. It’s completely explained by our hardware analysis below. The Honor 10 simply has more light coming into the camera, so the noise-to-signal ratio is simply better. Both cameras have sensors of roughly equal size (perhaps identical sensors), so the difference lies in the optics.
It seems like a sensible trade-off to move some resources away from the camera and trying to preserve as much quality as possible, to increase the gaming appeal of this phone, within the allotted bill of material (cost of components). In short, some of the camera budget was redirected towards gaming features."SOME OF THE CAMERA BUDGET WAS REDIRECTED TOWARDS GAMING FEATURES"
Bokeh / Portrait photography (Aperture Mode as Honor says)
Bokeh, or the out-of-focus blur which is a well-liked effect in object and portrait photography is very decent in the Honor Play. The in-focus aspect will be as good as the camera can do it in bright-light which we described earlier. The Bokeh part has two components: edge artifacts and blur quality.
The edge artifacts is very much in line with what Premium and High-End phones experience. We found the blur quality to also be quite decent, but not as good as some of the high-end phones like iPhone X.
Main camera technical analysis
In the Honor Play, the camera aperture of f/2.2 is not great but the sensor size of ~20.3 mm2 would be considered relatively large (for a smartphone). Despite having 16 Megapixel, the Honor Play has a different camera configuration as the Honor 10.
The Honor Play’s aperture is much smaller than the Honor 10’s (f/1.8) and because of this, we estimate that there could be as much as 60% less incoming light into the camera. Surely, this has an impact on the outcome, even though the rest of the software photo pipeline is probably identical. This is a great case study.
The 16 Megapixel could be a good proxy for photographic detail and sharpness if comparing with a vastly lower Megapixel phone. For example, on a sunny day, a “nature scene” photo with a higher megapixel count could show finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.
In dim lighting situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not matter as much. With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller to fit on the sensor’s surface. Each obtains less light information, and in dark situations, it is better for the overall photo quality to sense more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels.
It is a balance that needs to be struck. Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor compromise between sharpness, low-light and autofocus performance. Alternatively, it is possible to use extreme Megapixel counts and use Pixel Binning in low light. This technique increase sensitivity, but typically cuts the resolution by 4X.
The Honor Play’s camera does not have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) on the primary camera module. The lack of OIS support will reduce the chances to capture great photos, especially in dim situation. EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization) is not available on this handset either. Because of this, the video recordings may be shakier than competitors that have this feature, if they support EIS. The maximum video resolution is 4K/30FPS.
The autofocus of the Honor Play camera is based on Phase Detection technology. Phase-detection AF that started in discrete AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera primary sensor. It works by adding specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus.
This method is very fast and the AF capabilities work well in most cases. AF performance is somewhat proportional to the number of hardware AF sensels. Typically this number can go from dozens to hundreds of Phase-Detection AF points. Phase detection AF is an excellent system, which is only inferior to Dual-Pixel AF.
Selfie camera photo quality
The difference in the selfie camera is much more radical when I compare Honor Play and Honor 10. The Honor 10 produces a much more agreeable image with natural colors, while the Honor Play’s photo has slightly colder colors, and more abrupt contrasts, possibility due to over-processing.
A closer inspection of the Honor Play photo shows that it heavily uses processing and gain (amplification) to make up for a less performing camera hardware. Our technical front camera analysis shows that the Honor Play selfie camera is a bit of a downgrade from the Honor 10: it has a 16 Megapixel sensor (vs. 24 MP) and a smaller image sensor, since the Honor 10’s sensor is ~46% larger, and it shows.
In any case, I think that Honor 10 easily wins this round, but as you can see on the photos, the Honor Play still outputs very decent selfies, unless you’re an Instagram influencer. Keep in mind that I disabled the beauty mode, as it interferes too much with our tests.
The battery capacity of Honor Play is 3750 mAh, which is excellent in general, and dominating in its own price category.
Battery life is one of the most critical features of a smartphone. A key indicator is obviously the battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). Battery life can be affected by a great many factors, but the main ones are the main processor aka SoC, display and wireless radios (LTE broadband, WiFi, the cell towers location and more).
It is impossible to precisely estimate through synthetic tests how much energy drain YOUR unique lifestyle will create. However, two things are surly always good:
- A greater battery capacity
- Faster charging
The charging speed of 46 mAh/mn using the charger in the box is quite good, but the Honor 10 can charge much faster at 66 mAh/mn (+43% faster). Yet, 46% is not a terrible speed, and many high-end phones such as the Galaxy S9 series does charge at a comparable speed.
It is generally not possible to realistically predict battery life by running synthetic tests. Factors such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will vary too much. Also, how many apps on-board and their usage cannot be estimated. Battery capacity is the most important battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.
This product does NOT have a detachable battery, which is common for handsets nowadays. Fixed batteries can’t be swapped or easily exchanged, but they do permit for smaller designs and slightly larger battery capacity within the same product design.
Since this phone has a very large screen, keep in mind that larger screens tend to utilize more power to accommodate the bigger surface area to illuminate. It depends on the brightness levels displays are being viewed at, but the potential for higher energy is there, so a larger battery capacity is better.
This handset has a relatively mild screen resolution. Although this may be less competitive from an image quality point of view, having fewer pixels to compute is a bit better for battery life. Finally, there’s no integrated wireless charging but in this price range, it’s relatively normal.
The Honor Play also brings excellent battery “capacity for the price”, just look at how high it ranks among our selected group and key reference phones:
System performance and wireless speed
This handset main processor is a HiSilicon KIRIN 970 (8 Cores, 2.36 GHz) which has access to 4 or 6 GB of memory (RAM). The amount of RAM is paramount for heavy usage, or for having many apps/services on the device. When the memory is tight, the handset may become sluggish if the OS has to read/write from the slower Flash storage instead.
This has been one of the differentiation between low and high tiers of phones, but this line is blurry now and this phone is a great example of it."THE PERFORMANCE OF THE HONOR PLAY IS VERY MUCH COMPARABLE TO THE RAZER PHONE"
Before you focus on the charts, it is important to understand that most tests are only loose indicators, usually for system or graphics performance. It is possible to perceive sharp performance deltas among different tiers of products (entry-level, mid-range vs. high-end), but it is much harder to do so within phones of the same class. Benchmarks alone should NOT drive a smartphone purchase decision. To learn more, read Are Benchmarks Important?.
In graphics benchmarks, the performance of the Honor Play is very much comparable to the Razer Phone (Snapdragon 835), which shows that it is completely suitable for a great gaming experience. Obviously, phones equipped with the more recent Snapdragon 845 will outperform both of these. Perhaps you should look at the $300 Xiaomi sub-branded Pocophone F1 which is a 6.18” phone with Snapdragon 845. We haven’t looked at it in details yet, but it sounds interesting.
A Note about Huawei/Honor’s GPU Turbo feature
The graphics performance of the Honor Play relies on Honor’s “GPU Turbo” works (official site). It is a software update that has greatly increased the rendering and power efficiency, according to Huawei, Honor’s parent company.
GPU Turbo lets developers communicate with the Huawei System to better manage resources. Independent tests show that GPU Turbo can lead to some FPS gains, and more stable FPS thus avoiding stuttering.
For this to work, developers must do some work, and this means that all games might not benefit equally from GPU Turbo. If you feel strongly about the performance of a specific game, I recommend that you do additional research to see if it supports GPU Turbo.
Wireless Broadband Performance
The Honor Play has a CAT 18 (1200 Mbps ⇣ / 150 Mbps ⇡ ) LTE modem. This level of performance is excellent in its category and nearly the best you can get today, regardless of price.
Wireless networks (3G/4G) performance is often thought as peak download/upload speeds, but it is the average speed that counts. These days 4G/LTE is the primary network of interest, but 5G is coming. The higher the theoretical LTE performance and the better the average true experience. Note that, wireless carriers have better and more efficient wireless networks to lower their own costs.
What is a great Gaming Phone? If we had to sum it up, we would say that it’s a handset that brings a great gaming experience. To do that, it needs a good/large screen, fast graphics performance and enough battery capacity to play for as long you want to.
Absolute performance such as touted by the ASUS RoG phone is always what people dream of. But folks also want the best value for their money, and that’s where the Honor Play shines."FOR A COMPARABLE GRAPHICS PERFORMANCE, THE HONOR PLAY TROUNCES THE RAZER PHONE IN VALUE"
The data shows that the Honor Play is the best value-oriented gaming handset among the frequent options that people search for. The phone’s design retains the most perceptible aspects of mobile gaming for an enjoyable experience. Would you pay 215% more for the RoG phone to gain ~35%-45% performance in FPS? That is the question.
On the other hand, data shows that for a comparable graphics performance, the Honor Play trounces the Razer Phone in value. It brings a very good mobile gaming experience at a much lower price ($380 vs. $600). For sure, the Razer Phone has a 120Hz screen refresh and a better camera. But we’re not sure that 120Hz is a priority for potential buyers. Asus’ ROG gaming phone’s display is 90Hz.
Whatever your preferences, the thing is: at below $400, the Honor Play has nearly no competition as a phone that can drive demanding games on a good 6.3” display. That is a great product positioning.