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Gamers rejoice! Huawei’s Honor sub-brand has just released the midrange Play, Honor’s own take on the gaming smartphone – and we’ve got it in for testing today!

Come along for the ride? The Honor Play sure looks promising – we’ll find out whether or not this is true in our review!

Subtle styling, super specs

First off, with the Honor Play, Honor seems to want to hide its own light under a bushel, so to speak. The Play doesn’t look like a gaming phone, at least not one in the vein of other gaming phones like the Razer Phone, Xiaomi Black Shark, and Acer ROG Phone. For the most part, those look the part thanks to their styling, and even non-hardcore techies would be apt to recognize them for what they are at a glance.

Honor is taking a different approach with the Play. In general, if you’ve seen many of Honor’s latest phones, then you know pretty much what to expect with this one – including the clean and simple styling, the notch atop the display, the almost edge-to-edge screen save for the modest “chin” and “forehead” bezels, and so on. Even the color choices are somewhat similar; the Play can be had in a basic shade of black and in blue as well.

Pick the Play up, though, and you might notice one crucial difference almost immediately. Unlike many other recent Huawei and Honor phones, the back of the Play is made of aluminum instead of glass. We daresay this makes the phone that much sturdier – a necessity for a gaming phone which will most probably be picked up and used somewhat more heavily (and maybe somewhat less carefully) than “regular” phones in the course of gaming.

The Play’s spec sheet further distinguishes it from run of the mill smartphones. First off is its GPU Turbo feature, a Huawei innovation that’s supposedly been painstakingly developed over several years in response to how processor-intensive activities like gaming can deplete a phone’s battery in next to no time. GPU Turbo kicks in when a graphically intense game is being played and automatically shifts resources around to improve efficiency. By doing so, it boosts the Play’s graphic processing efficiency by a whopping 60% while still managing to reduce battery consumption, or so Huawei claims.

Secondly, the Play also boasts a special 4D haptic engine that’s capable of generating more powerful vibrations than a regular smartphone can manage – this feature is of course intended to augment and improve gaming feedback vis-a-vis what the usual smartphone can manage. Honor says that the Play supports no less than 30 different scenarios that involve phone vibration during gameplay.

And third, the Play also comes with a surround sound system that Honor says is up to scratch gaming-wise. It comes with Histen 3D audio, “ultra-wide 3D sound field technology”, which among other things is capable of generating directional audio to make the gaming experience that much more interesting and fun.

The Play’s other specs also support its gaming chops. Its screen is large enough to offer a decent gaming experience while not making the phone too massive; it’s a 19.5:9, 6.3-inch full HD+ and 409 ppi affair with 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution. At the Play’s heart is Huawei’s top of the line 2.4GHz HiSilicon Kirin 970 octa-core processor – an eye-widening addition to this midrange smartphone and, we suppose, a good indication of how seriously Huawei and Honor are taking this phone and mobile gaming as a whole. 4GB RAM and 64GB ROM round out the Play’s processor set.

Other specs? The Play runs Huawei’s EMUI 8.2 operating system, which is based on Android 8.1. The battery is all of 3,750mAh – this might seem deficient to some, but Honor stresses that the Play’s GPU Turbo feature can help push the battery life to as long as a day and a half.

And if you’re wondering about the Play’s imaging capabilities, it’s got a 16MP dual AI rear camera that can identify “22 different categories and 500 more scenarios in real-time.” Huawei says that it can even recognize and retouch different parts of what a user might be shooting at the same time. As for the front snapper, it’s a 16MP AI camera that can offer “excellent beautification and accurate bokeh effects,” and its lighting effect uses its AI to offer five different kinds of studio-level portraits.

Lastly, the Play comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack, in case that’s important to you, and a USB Type-C port as well.

Smooth operator

OK, so the Honor Play isn’t chopped liver specs-wise. But does it walk the talk?

We put our test unit for a couple of days the usual way, but we took care to play more games than we normally would to really see whether this phone cut the mustard game-wise. We’re pleased to announce that although the Play isn’t a perfect phone, most mobile gamers won’t be disappointed by it.

First off, we tried to see whether the GPU Turbo function really delivered. While we aren’t able to say whether it really is able to boost performance by 60% as promised by Huawei and Honor, we did seem to enjoy a smoother gaming experience, even with the most demanding games we tested – one that, importantly, didn’t drain the battery after just a couple of hours. (This, by the way, isn’t something that really can be said of midrange – and not even many top of the line phones might be able to offer such an experience.) On average, while we weren’t really able to replicate Huawei’s claim of day-and-a-half battery life, our test unit did last about a day if we played a couple of games on and off on it. Most other phones, even gaming phones, can’t hope to say the same. But it must be said that game makers will need to optimize their offerings for GPU Turbo in order for gamers to fully enjoy this feature – perhaps we’ll only see the benefits some time in the future.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Play’s enhanced vibration and sound capabilities. Although they can’t really substitute for a desktop gaming experience, they’re far better than what most other mobile smartphones can offer, maybe even other gaming smartphones. Even without headphones on, gamers can be treated to a more immersive experience than when playing games on other phones.

And if you’re wondering how the Play does as a smartphone, we’re happy to tell you that in nearly every respect it gets our nod. The LCD is sharp and clear enough to be legible even in outdoor scenarios (even if it doesn’t quite match the performance of industry leaders like the Razer Phone’s 120Hz screen), and the EMUI 8.2 OS skin is unobtrusive and functional.

The one area we felt could use a little work was the camera performance. Sure, both front and rear cameras are quick on the take and snap relatively decent shots, but their output can’t hold a candle to the smartphone world’s imaging leaders. They’re OK, but a far cry from the pictures that the top of the line units take.

But those wanting more capable snappers might be looking at the wrong unit – they might be convinced to cough up a little (okay, a lot) more money for a phone like Huawei’s own P20 Pro, which has won praise left and right for its awesome camera.

The verdict

We quite liked the Honor Play. It’s a capable, powerful smartphone that can take on even the most challenging mobile games without giving up too much to pricier competitors. Its camera might not be as competent as those of many competitors, but its bigger brother/cousin the P20 is THE smartphone of choice when it comes to imaging, and it’s not really a surprise that Huawei won’t want to undercut its own flagship.



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