Motorola has changed a lot since the days when it was a Google company. Ah, what a time that was! With the glory days of the Moto X long behind us, it's all about Moto Mods now. The company has just launched its first 2018 Z device—the Moto Z3 Play, and it's pushing the modular angle even harder. When you purchase the Z3 Play, you get a Motorola battery Mod in the box, plus support for all the Mods released thus far. Unfortunately, that's not as strong a selling point as Motorola would have you believe.

The Moto Z3 Play is a mid-range device with a Snapdragon 636 and a 1080p OLED. The shape is familiar due to the Mod support, but Moto has stepped into 2018 with a taller 18:9 display. This isn't a bad phone; in some ways, it's actually quite nice. However, the price is bordering on delusional. Motorola is asking $499.99 for the Moto Z3 Play, which is just $30 less than the vastly more powerful OnePlus 6.

Specs

SoC Snapdragon 636
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB, plus microSD card support
Display 6-inch 2160 x 1080 OLED
Battery 3,000mAh, plus 2,220mAh included Mod
Camera 12MP+5MP rear, 8MP front
Software Android 8.1
Measurements 76.5 x 156.5 x 6.75 mm, 156g
Price $499 from Motorola

The Good

Display The 6-inch OLED display is 18:9 with sufficient brightness for outdoor use.
Consistent Mod support If you have Moto Mods from 2016 or 2017, they will still work on the Moto Z3 Play.
Software Motorola's version of Android is clean and fast. Moto Display and Actions are still great.
Camera The main camera takes nicer photos than I expected with solid dynamic range and quick captures. Low-light performance is just okay, though.

The Not So Good

Price $500 for this phone is just bananas when the OnePlus 6 is $30 more.
Included Battery Mod The included battery Mod doesn't have its own port, so you can only charge it when the phone is fully charged. It also adds too much heft to be convenient to carry around.
Fingerprint sensor placement The fingerprint sensor on the right is easy to trigger accidentally, and moving the power button to the left is awkward.
Moto Mods again Motorola still hasn't made the case that Mods are a good idea. It's unlikely you want a $120 photo printer for your phone.
Update prospects Motorola is no longer leading the pack when it comes to Android updates. You'll probably get one major update on this phone, and it'll be late.

Design, hardware, what's in the box, and more

Look at the Moto Z3 Play even for a second, and you can tell it's a Motorola phone. It has the signature rounded square shape and flat back with a big, round camera module. The Moto Z3 Play bears a striking resemblance to the last two generations of Z phones for one fundamental reason: it supports all the same Moto Mods. The flat back is now mirror-finish glass as well.

That same shiny aesthetic is carried over to the edge of the device, which is polished aluminum. Yes, it's a somewhat slippery phone. There's a USB Type-C port on the bottom edge, and that's the only port. Motorola was among the first to kill the headphone jack, and it hasn't gone back on that decision.

The Moto Z3 Play makes several changes to the Z-series formula, starting with the 6-inch OLED display. This 1080p panel is 18:9, so it fills the front of the phone almost completely. There's no room on the front for the fingerprint sensor, which is where it lived on prior Z-series devices. The Mod system on the back means you can't have the fingerprint reader back there, either. Motorola decided to put the sensor on the right edge, but didn't also make it a power button. That's on the left side, opposite the fingerprint sensor.

The Moto Z3 Play is a step up from the new Moto G6 with a Snapdragon 636 SoC, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. The 3,000mAh battery will get you through a day, but not much more. That's when you either plug the phone in or snap on a battery Mod. The Z3 Play runs Android 8.1 instead of 8.0 like the G6. The software is what you'd expect from Motorola: almost stock with a suite of added features like Moto Display and Moto Actions.

Motorola seems more committed to Mods than ever. When you purchase the Moto Z3 Play, you get the basic Power Pack battery Mod in the box (A $30-50 value). This 2,220 mAh cell adds 72g of mass and 5mm of thickness. Motorola says it offers about 16 hours of life to your phone. The Moto Z3 Play also includes a standard 15W charger with a USB A-to-C cable, a 3.5mm adapter for the Type-C port, and the usual collection of manuals and warranty notices. It does not come with any Style Shell covers, and you're out of luck if you want to buy some. Moto currently only offers a single option: black nylon. A handful are listed on Amazon, but they're mostly poor quality and sold by third-parties.

The Moto Z3 Play is not being sold directly by any carriers, which is a bit of a surprise. Verizon was the premier partner for the Z-series in past years. This phone is only sold by Motorola for $499. It's unlocked and supports all major carriers, even CDMA networks like Verizon and Sprint.

Camera samples

Motorola equipped the Z3 Play with a dual-camera array similar to the one on the G6. It has a 12MP main sensor and a 5MP secondary depth-sensing camera. So, that secondary camera is only for portrait mode shots. The camera does perform better than the G6, but it's inferior to phones that cost just a little more. Here's a gallery of camera samples.

Our verdict: Should you buy it?

Probably not. Sometimes it can be a real slog to use a phone long enough to finish a review, but that wasn't the case here. I like plenty of things about the Z3 Play. The screen is excellent, the software optimization is impressive, and it comes in this snazzy "deep indigo" color. Okay, that's the only color, but it's still handsome. This is a competent phone, but that's not enough to justify the $500 price tag.

This is a competent phone, but that's not enough to justify the $500 price tag.

I do applaud Motorola for sizing up the display this year. The 18:9 screen ratio is a solid improvement, even if it means the fingerprint sensor has to move (although I disagree with how that was handled). The screen gets more than bright enough to use outdoors, and there are multiple color adjustments available in the settings. The low end of the brightness scale is still a bit too bright for my liking, though.

The build of Android 8.1 on the Moto Z3 Play is still one of its main selling points. It's well-optimized to run on the mid-range Snapdragon chip. The phone feels fast in daily usage, but opening heavier apps and games can take a beat longer than I'd like. Moto Display on the Z3 Play is the same, slightly improved version from the G6. You can view, open, dismiss, and expand notifications without waking up the phone. You can also wave a hand over the phone to awaken Moto Display. Moto Actions with the chop flashlight and twist camera gestures are fantastic, too. I use these all the time. The gesture nav system is passable as well.

The camera performs very well in outdoor situations, which I know is the case with most smartphone cameras. However, this is a definite improvement over phones like the Nokia 6.1 and Moto G6. The dynamic range with autoHDR enabled is impressive, and color reproduction is accurate. The shutter and ISO both remain nice and low as well. Image processing is a bit heavy-handed—busy areas tend to get muddled as detail is lost. In less than optimal light, the Moto Z3 Play suffers from noticeable shutter lag. That makes it tough to capture moving subjects, and there's no optical stabilization. The processing seems to control noise aggressively, which can make photos blotchy, but a lot of photos in low light end up too dark for that to matter. The OnePlus 6 has a better camera, but the Z3 Play isn't too far behind.

Moto made the perplexing decision to move the fingerprint sensor to the right side of the phone where almost every other device has a power button. The power button, meanwhile, is on the left. I strongly dislike this setup. The sensor is in a location where you're sure to accidentally trigger it constantly while just holding the phone. Getting used to a power button on the left is also very annoying. It would have made more sense to make the sensor and power button the same module and put it in the right place.

Motorola's first-gen Z Play earned some fans because of its monster battery. The second-gen didn't have that, and the third-gen phone continues that. The battery life is acceptable, but it's slightly weaker than I'd expect from a 3,000mAh cell. The phone lasts a day, but that's it. I think there might be some software irregularities draining power in the background, so this could change with updates.

Maybe Moto expects the battery life to be a non-issue thanks to the included Power Pack. Indeed, this battery does have enough juice to get you through the better part of a day without plugging in, but it's not a great experience. There's no port on the battery, so you can only charge it while it's connected to a fully charged phone. I've also had some issues getting the battery to recognize that and start charging. It juices up at 11W and charges the phone at a rate of 5W. It adds a lot of heft, though, and I don't like carrying the Z3 Play with the battery attached.

You do have to hand it to Motorola for keeping the Mod platform consistent for three generations now. The original round of Mods work with the Z3 Play just as well as they did with the original Z-series. That is to say, they "work," but who's going to buy them? The existing Mods are of limited utility and far too expensive. No one wants a $200 projector or a $115 Alexa speaker Mod. The Style Shells seem neat, but Moto only sells a single model currently, and the phone doesn't come with any. The promise of Moto Mods remains unfulfilled, and I don't know if Moto can change that.

Motorola thinks the Mod platform is worth something, which is why this phone costs $500. You probably don't care about Mods, though. None of them have been sufficiently compelling, so you might as well spend an extra $30 to get the OnePlus 6. If you shaved $100 off the price, the Moto Z3 Play would be a solid value.

Buy it:

You think Moto Mods are a pretty good idea despite two years of evidence to the contrary. Alternatively, you refuse to spend $600 or more on a phone, budget phones aren't good enough, and you're stuck on a CDMA carrier.

Don't buy it:

You're on a GSM carrier and can afford the extra $30 for the OnePlus 6.