Honor Play Review

Despite being a bit of a smartphone nerd and regularly researching the latest releases, the last time I changed my phone was 2-and-a-half years ago when I purchased the OnePlus 3. I’ve always preferred stock (or at least near stock) Android, so I’ve stepped a little outside my comfort zone here by buying the latest release from Huawei’s sub-brand Honor: the Honor Play.

With the exception of the camera, the Honor Play has an extremely similar specification to Huawei’s recent flagship release, the P20 Pro, as well as the Honor 10, with one other major difference: the price. At around £270 (mine was £272 on Amazon), the Honor Play is exceptionally good value; roughly £500 cheaper than the P20 Pro, and over £100 cheaper than the Honor 10.

Design and Display

The trend for glass-backed phones has returned (anyone else remember the Nexus 4 from 2012?), which makes me especially grateful that the Play has a full-metal unibody instead! No matter how much you toughen glass, it still scratches just as easily, and makes the back of a phone extremely slippery. The Honor Play looks very much like the Honor 10, with the exception of the glass back. It feels very well made, sturdy, and comfortable to hold. That being said, full-metal unibody phones are fairly slippery as well, so you may want to keep this one in the included case, or purchase a skin for it. There are some fairly minimal antenna bands on the back of the phone as well, so a skin may be a good option if you’re not a fan of those.

The 6.3 inch, thin bezel, 19.5:9 aspect ratio, full HD+, 409 pixels per inch, IPS LCD screen (that’s a lot of buzz words!) is pretty great to be honest. To put it in simpler terms, this screen isn’t going to compete with the pixel density of the latest phones from Samsung, LG, etc., but it’s still a lovely screen, with a good maximum brightness, and decent viewing angles. The colours are slightly oversaturated, but that can be tweaked in the display settings. Sadly there is a notch, but it can at least be blacked out via the display settings as well.

In terms of ports, the phone uses a USB-C port (with fast charging), and has a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom as well (thank you!) - I’m finding it more and more ridiculous that phones keep removing the headphone jack! There’s only one speaker unfortunately (also on the bottom), so although the sound from the phone is fairly good, it’s very easy to cover it with your hand depending on how you’re holding the phone. There’s also a (very fast) fingerprint scanner on the back, in a very natural position for your hand.

Performance and Software

The Honor Play is powered by Huawei’s Kirin 970 CPU, with 4GB of RAM (there is also a 6GB variant available in some places), and 64GB of storage. Compared to the more well known Snapdragon CPUs, the Kirin 970 compares very well with the Snapdragon 835, usually just beating it in synthetic tests, but losing out against Snapdragon’s latest 845. That makes the Honor Play almost certainly the most powerful phone you’ll find at this price at the moment.

In day to day usage, the phone doesn’t break a sweat, always remaining extremely smooth. In games, it heats up slightly due to the extra power demand, as is the case with all phones, but the temperature difference is still comfortable, and every game I’ve tried on it is also very smooth. Though, as I’ve already alluded to, it is very easy to accidentally cover the only speaker when playing games or watching videos.

I was a little concerned about the software, as the Honor Play comes with Huawei’s EMUI (Emotion UI). I have awful memories of Samsung’s early phones and its TouchWiz UI, among many other manufacturer UIs. I switched from that horrible experience to the blissful-by-comparison experience of Google’s Nexus phones (I had the Nexus 4 and 5), and then to the extremely near stock UI used by OnePlus (I had the OnePlus 2, X, and 3). EMUI is definitely not stock. By default, it’s a fairly blantant rip-off of of the iPhone User Interface, with no application drawer, quite square icons and a lot of Huawei specific applications that can’t be removed, and that you have to put up with an a homescreen somewhere.

Thankfully Android is Android, and there are always lots of options open to you, such as custom launchers, or completely custom ROMs to override the whole system software if you feel the need. I have to commend Honor / Huawei though, because even though I didn’t much like the initial look of the software, they provide a lot of useful options here. As well as the ability to enable an application drawer and hide the display notch, you can also control a lot of specifics. For example, you can set the colour temperature of the screen and enable an “Eye Comfort” mode at specific times of day, or enable assistive options such as voice controls, or motion controls to turn the screen on when raised from a service, or auto-answer calls when the phone is raised to your ear, among other options. There are also theming options to change the icon and lockscreen style. So even as someone who very much prefers stock Android, I didn’t actually feel the need to install anything beyond what was already available to me.

Battery Life and Camera

The 3,750mAh battery in the Honor Play is pretty exceptional to be honest. On a 3 hour drive shortly after getting the phone, using it for navigation and forgetting to plug it in, with data on and the GPS at high accuracy of course, and the screen on constantly, along with all the usual push notifications, it still had half of the battery left at the end. That was impressive. With heavy usage it lasts a whole day. With my more typical, moderate usage: all the usual push notifications, moderate instagram checking, a decent amount of web browsing, messaging, and other app use, and a typical screen-on time of over 5 hours throughout the day, I’m still reaching the end of the day with 40% of the battery left. With lighter usage the battery lasted me 3 days and 3 hours, and that was still with a screen-on time of over 7 hours.

Those battery examples are all without using the Android battery saver feature. If you really need to, Honor also provides an ultra power saving feature, which disables your wallpapers and only allows messaging, calls, and access to contacts by default. You can add other apps into those mode as well of course, if you just can’t do without Google Maps or Snapchat or something.

I’m not the best judge of smartphone camera’s to be honest, as I usually carry a small mirrorless camera as well. In my use of the Honor Play so far though, the camera has certainly met my expectations for this price point. The dual-camera on the back creates a slight (but not significant) bump. Unlike Honor’s usual approach of having one monochrome sensor, the Play has one 16MP sensor, and a 2MP sensor for depth information to enable bokeh shots and a few other “smart” features. There’s also a 16MP selfie camera. Like most phones though, it definitely struggles in low-light, with pictures having noticeable amount of grain.

The camera here is packed with settings and features of course, with options to change the lighting post-capture, and AI processing to adjust the picture automatically. Although the AI behaviour is good in some cases, it tends to over-saturate pictures, and excessively smooth over faces. The phone lacks Optical Image Stabilisation, so the AI is used here for this purpose as well. Thankfully, if you don’t like the results of the AI features, you can just switch them off, including after the picture has been taken. All in all, I’d describe the camera performance as “average”, which is exactly what I’d expect at this price. In the end, if you want a really good camera, buy a camera.

The Negatives

I’ve praised quite a few things here, but there are some other negatives that need mentioning. To get a phone with this hardware down to this price, obviously corners had to be cut. Any software grievances boil down to preference of course, but there are some hardware points to be considered. For example, a lot of top-tier phones these days have a decent water resistance rating; this one doesn’t. The Play also sacrifices wireless charging, and uses the slightly older Bluetooth 4.2 instead of Bluetooth 5. And of course, as already mentioned, the single speaker can be a bit of an issue depending on how you hold the phone for games and content consumption, and the camera performance is only passable.

Verdict

Put simply, the Honor Play is an extremely good phone. Honor have marketed the Play as a phone for gamers, and while it’s certainly good for that purpose, in reality this is a phone for everyone. It has a solid build, a large screen with a great screen-to-body ratio, top-tier processing hardware, and a mid-range price. Yes, a few corners were cut, which are coincidentally the same corners cut by other phones in this price range. Ultimately, the Honor Play is absolutely the best performer at this price, and goes on to compete extremely well with far more expensive phones too.

(banner image borrowed from Android Authority)


Posted: October 7th, 2018
Categories: mobile, reviews, tech, life