Motorola is going all-in on modular accessories this year, and Verizon is right there with it. The Moto Z Play was announced recently, and it's a Verizon exclusive for a few weeks before it ships unlocked in October. This device works with all the same Moto Mods as the other Moto Z variants, but it's much less spendy at around $400 on Verizon. That's a big advantage when you're pushing Mods that cost as much as $300. Are the trade-offs worth it? Is this finally the phone that makes modular smartphones viable? Let's find out.
|Display||5.5-inch AMOLED at 1920 x 1080|
|Storage||32GB plus microSD card|
|Cameras||16MP rear camera with an f/2.0 aperture, 5MP with front flash|
|Connectors||USB Type-C, headphone jack, Moto Mod contacts|
|Measurements||156.4 x 76.4 x 7mm, 165g|
|Battery life||Two days per charge shouldn't be a problem with this phone. It's one of the most efficient devices I've used.|
|Camera||It's a very solid performer for the price. Struggles a bit in low-light, though.|
|Design||Doesn't feel like a cheap phone. Oh, and there's a headphone jack.|
|Price||It's a good deal for $400 on Verizon. This is the cheapest way to get into Motorola's Mod ecosystem if you want that.|
|Design again||I'm still not feeling the flat back with the huge camera hump. It's an unnecessary design concession for modular accessories that aren't very useful yet.|
|Moto Mods||Adding to the above, the Moto Mods aren't compelling add-ons yet. They're too expensive and are mostly impractical.|
|Price again||If you aren't into the Moto Mods, there are better ways to spend $400 on a phone, unless battery life is your top priority. It also launches as a Verizon-exclusive and the unlocked version will be $50 more expensive.|
|Display||A minor con, but the 1080p AMOLED isn't the crispest or brightest out there.|
Design and Display
The Moto Z Play is a less expensive version of the existing Moto Z devices, but the difference in fit and finish isn't as dramatic as I would have expected. The edge of the phone is aluminum like the more expensive Moto Z phones. However, the back is glass instead of metal. It gets even more covered in fingerprints than the already weirdly fingeprint-y metal Z phones. It has the exact same flat back design for accommodating the Moto Mods too. The connector for the Mods sticks out a bit; it's a plastic island toward the bottom of the back.
This phone has more in common with the Moto Z Force than the Moto Z in terms of design. It's 7mm thick, just like the Moto Z Force. Meanwhile, the Moto Z is just 5.2mm thick. The Play feels like a "normal" phone, whereas the Moto Z is wafer-thin. You can almost forgive the completely flat back on the thinner phone because it's so light, but I find myself a bit annoyed with the Moto Z Play. The flat design that allows for Moto Mods just isn't very ergonomic. You can attach style covers, but the naked phone isn't the best.
On the right edge, Motorola has again done annoying things with the buttons. They're tactile and feel solid, but the volume up, volume down, and power button are all spaced equidistant and have the same shape and size. The texture of the power button is different, but that doesn't stop me from trying to press the volume down button on a fairly regular basis to wake the phone up.
On the bottom is a definite improvement over the other Moto Z phones; a headphone jack. Thank goodness, because it was profoundly annoying to not have one while using the Moto Z. I'm not sure why the Moto Z Force, which is the same thickness, didn't have a headphone jack. And in case you were wondering, you cannot use the Type-C adapter from that phone with the Moto Z Play to get two audio outputs.
I still don't particularly like the look of Motorola's square fingerprint sensor directly south of the screen, but I certainly do like the functionality. Just a tap on the sensor and it recognizes and unlocks the phone. It's substantially faster than Samsung's sensors, and even a little snappier than Nexus Imprint on the 6P. You can also put the phone to sleep with a long-press of the sensor. Unfortunately, you can't use the sensor as a home button. I kind of can't believe I'm saying that because I usually prefer on-screen buttons. Still, it makes sense when you use the sensor to wake up the phone that it could also be a home button.
The Moto Z Play has a 5.5-inch AMOLED display just like the other Moto Z devices, which is expected—it needs to have the same footprint for Mod compatibility. However, the screen itself is not the same. The resolution is only 1080p, and yes, you can tell. At this pixel density, there's slight pentile fringing around text and a few icons. It's not a bad display, though. The brightness seems good and colors are accurate in "standard' mode. If you're not picky, I think you'll like the display just fine.
With the inclusion of AMOLED display technology, this budget device has the "premium" version of Moto Display. The panel only uses power for the lit pixels, and it does have the motion sensors that allow you to wave over the phone to wake up Moto Display. This is absent from The Moto G series phones—Moto Display only activates on those phones when you get a notification or pick the phone up.
The main camera is another place where the Moto Z Play takes a step down from the other Z phones. It's a 16MP sensor with an f/2.0 aperture—the Moto Z and Z Force have f/1.8 apertures, and the Force's camera is 21MP. It also lacks optical image stabilization.
As you might expect, the Moto Z Play struggles a little more in low light than the other Z phones. Noise will show up in darker areas of photos, but low-light shots look cleaner overall than most budget phones. The Z Play switches into low-light mode in what I would consider fairly bright indoor light. When this happens, you are told to hold the phone steady while it does a longer exposure. That makes it hard to capture anything moving indoors. The lack of OIS is also an annoyance when shooting in low-light.
In brighter conditions, the difference between the Moto Z Play and flagship phones is not as clear. There's very little shutter lag, and the Moto Actions gesture ensures you'll be ready to snap a photo quickly. Focusing is fast and accurate thanks to the inclusion of both laser and phase detect autofocus—not Samsung-fast, but pretty good. In general, I think the Moto Z Play's camera performs better than other phones in this price range. You can get some great photos with the right lighting.
If you're concerned about your selfie game, the Moto Z Play has a little bonus. The front-facing camera is only 5MP, but there's a flash on the front of the phone like we saw on the Moto X Pure. It does a good job of brightening up your face, but the lighting looks harsh. It's best used in borderline dim situations where the added light can remove shadows rather than being used as the only light source.
Performance and Battery
The Moto Z Play takes the battery capacity of the Moto Z Force and uses it to power less demanding hardware. The result, as you can probably guess, is really, really fantastic battery life. If having a phone that lasts a long time off the charger is your top priority, this is one of the best phones you can get.
Here's the standard battery life disclaimer: my usage pattern may not be like yours, so your battery life may be markedly different. I used the Moto Z Play for messaging, some music streaming, lots of browsing, email, and a little gaming. It had no problem getting through a day, even with a lot of screen-on time. If you use the phone heavily, you're looking at a solid ten hours of activity over a full day. In the screens below, I spent a lot of time poking around on the internet with the phone, which really pushed the screen-on time into crazy territory. This is the best battery life on a phone I've seen in recent memory. Two (or maybe three) days per charge with moderate or light usage is entirely feasible in my experience.
The Moto Z Play steps down to a Snapdragon 625 and 3GB of RAM. The other Z phones have a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM. Those are two of the fastest phones I've ever used, and the Moto Z Play is not that. It holds its own, though. Actions like opening apps and going back to the home screen don't have the immediacy of the standard Moto Z, but I would not call this phone slow. The UI is fluid, there's no lag to speak of, and apps remain open in the background as expected. It maintains a completely acceptable performance baseline. Here are a few benchmarks, if you are curious.
My only concern here is gaming performance, which is just okay. Some 3D games seem to get a bit bogged down at times, but they're still playable—I'm talking about a few dropped frames, not the end of the world.
The software situation here is identical to what we saw on the other Moto Z devices. If you want a bit more detail, you can check that review. Let's go over the basics, though.
The Moto Z Play runs Android 6.0.1. Nougat is a thing now, but it'll be at least a few months before Verizon certifies Motorola's Android 7.0 build. The Moto Z and Moto Z Force will probably be the top priority, but the Z Play will get there.
In the meantime, Motorola still has one of the better versions of Android you can get outside of the Nexus line. The UI is mostly unaltered from stock Android, although the device I have for review is the Droid variant. That means a very plain version of the AOSP launcher is installed instead of the Google Now Launcher, which you get pre-installed on Moto's unlocked devices.
The Moto Z Play (as I mentioned above) has the full suite of Moto software features including Moto Display, Moto Actions, and Moto Voice. Even after a few years, Moto Display continues to be one of the most useful features any OEM has added to Android. This phone has motion sensors on the face, so waving your hand over it wakes up Moto Display. It shows the time, date, and active notifications. You can press on the notification icons to see the text and launch them.
All the Actions are supported too—chop for flashlight and twist for camera are the most useful for me. The swipe up gesture for one-handed mode that debuted on the Moto Z and Z Force is still here, but the shrunken screen is still centered, not in the corner as it should be. Moto Voice is here as well. Moto Voice lets you create a custom launch phrase that works even when the phone is asleep. I'd prefer the standard OK Google screen-off functionality, but there aren't very many phones that have screen-off voice actions at all (especially in the budget category). So, I guess it's nice to have.
As I've pointed out in a few recent reviews, Motorola hasn't been innovating on software like it used to. The aforementioned features are great, but several distinct Moto features have been superseded by better versions in the core of Android. The version of Android on the Moto Z Play is still a selling point because it's very clean (aside from the Verizon bloat). Moto needs to step it up to stay ahead of the curve.
The Moto Z Play is by far the cheapest way to get into Motorola's modular ecosystem. Right now, I don't feel the need to do that. The Mods we've seen so far are varying degrees of impractical, and they're hugely expensive. At least with the cheaper Moto Z Play, that second factor isn't as much of a deal breaker. Selling Mods for a $700 phone is just more ridiculous than selling them for a $400 one.
My favorite thing about this phone is the absolutely insane battery life. I can't recall the last time I've used a phone with such mammoth screen-on times. I've seen over 12 hours of active use a few times, though it's usually a little lower when things like gaming and navigation are mixed in there. If you paired this with the battery Mod, this thing would probably run for the better part of a week. Of course, it would also be gigantic.
For the most part, I think Motorola made the right tweaks to the Moto Z Play to get the price down. The screen isn't the best, and the SoC gets a little overwhelmed by gaming. On the other hand, the fingerprint sensor is as good as the more expensive Z phones, and there's a headphone jack. Seriously, Motorola. What were you thinking removing that on a $700 phone?
I wouldn't call this the best $400-ish dollar phone overall. You can get faster phones like the OnePlus 3 or the Axon 7, but the Moto Z Play should be your first stop if you need the best battery life. If modular add-ons appeal to you in the abstract, this is the best way to hop on that hype train. Motorola promises that future phones and Mods will be compatible, so it's your best bet.