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Easily the best phone you can buy for US$300: Honor Play review

(Source: www.scmp.com)

The mobile gaming industry is growing rapidly and phone brands are jumping at the chance to introduce new hardware that caters to hardcore mobile gamers.

Razer and Asus have already introduced gaming phones in the past 12 months, and now Honor, a sub-brand of Chinese phone maker Huawei, has launched its own budget model.

Design and hardware

The Honor Play shares many design similarities with the recently released Honor 10, which itself was modelled on Huawei’s current flagship smartphone, the P20 Pro. That means all three phones look and feel similar, from the notched display with rounded corners and left-aligned camera module to the logo placement.

They all run on the same processor too: the Kirin 970 developed in-house by Huawei. Considering that the Honor Play is priced at about US$300, roughly one-third of the P20 Pro’s launch price, this alone makes the Play a great value proposition.

Of course there are some differences to justify the varying price points. The Play has a metal back instead of glass; this is supposed to imply a less premium build, but personally I like the feel of metal better. The Play also “only” has two rear cameras instead of the P20 Pro’s three, and the notch is a tad wider on the Play to accommodate a larger speaker/earpiece.

Overall the Honor Play looks and feels very nice, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen a dozen times already this year.

Software and features

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This is where the Play shines. Although it runs on the same mobile processor as several other Huawei devices, the Play is the first to pair it with the company’s GPU Turbo software, which is essentially a graphics acceleration engine.

Designed to work hand in hand with the Kirin 970, it optimises the processor to prioritise handling frame rates at higher efficiency, meaning with lower power consumption.

Performance and battery life

Honor claimed during the Play’s launch event that the phone outperformed the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9+ in average frames per second in graphically intensive titles such as PUBG Mobile and Asphalt 9.

I’m not a sufficiently hardcore gamer, nor do I have the tools, to see if the Play really beats those two phones. What I can say after playing several titles (including PUBG Mobile) for a couple of days is that the Play is at least as good as those phones at processing polygons and animations, and runs laps around every phone in its US$300 price range. Benchmarking scores from 3DMark also back this up.

Another area in which the Play excels is sound. That larger earpiece/speaker pumps out fuller sound than even the Huawei P20 Pro. Games that have been optimised for GPU Turbo, such as PUBG Mobile, will even support more immersive sound: for example, gunfire coming from my avatar’s left or right side will come out of the Play’s speaker accordingly. Oh, and there’s a headphone jack too – a rare sight in 2018.

Using this phone outside gaming is fine. The 16-megapixel camera and 2-megapixel depth sensor set-up is a bit lacking compared to what I’ve got used to from other Huawei devices, but for its price the Play’s camera is solid.

It has even borrowed the scene/object recognition trick from Huawei’s flagship phones. I was particularly impressed when the Play recognised the sky was overcast one day and adjusted the exposure to account for the softer natural lighting.

The Play’s battery performed very well and can easily outlast phones from Samsung and Apple. What I’m not seeing, however, is the supposed improvement over other Huawei phones without GPU Turbo. This isn’t much of a knock, because Huawei phones have had best-in-class battery life for years.

The Play will last more than a day under normal phone usage, and about three to four hours when gaming continuously.

Conclusion

In its attempt to make a “gaming phone”, Huawei/Honor has crafted one of the better overall value phones on the market right now. The Kirin 970 chipset will be replaced by the 980 in a couple of months, but as of now it is still Huawei’s most powerful processor. Reserved for the company’s most premium phones just a few months ago, it is now on a device that is only around the US$300 mark.

Unless you take mobile photography seriously, the Play is a good purchase even if you never play games on it.

Specifications

Dimensions: 157.9 x 74.3 x 7.5mm

Weight: 176g

Display: 6.3-inch 1,080 x 2,340 IPS LCD panel

Battery: 3,750 mAh

OS version reviewed: EMUI 8.2 over Android 8.1

Processor: Kirin 970

Cameras: 16MP f/2.2 lens with a 2MP depth sensor; 16MP front-facing camera

Memory: 4GB RAM; 64GB ROM

Colours: Black, blue, pink

Price: Around US$300

More Info: www.scmp.com

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