Every budget phone has its own mix of features and compromises, and this difference in the cocktail from model to model and brand to brand makes them unique. Some combinations are better than others, though, and the Moto G Play comes very near striking an ideal blend. It has good performance (for the price), pleasant software, fantastic battery life, and a big screen, all for just $170. But there is one big drawback: Motorola can't even keep up with Google's minimum requirements for updates a mere two months after the phone's release.

Specs

Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon 460
RAM 3GB
Storage 32GB (microSD expandable)
Display 6.5" notched IPS TFT (1600x720)
Battery 5,000mAh (10W USB Type-C charging)
Rear camera 13MP primary (f/2), 2MP depth/portrait
Front camera 5MP (f/2.2)
Connectivity LTE (no 5G), Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0
NFC No
Headphone jack Yes
Biometrics Rear capacitive fingerprint sensor
Software Android 10
Misc. "Water repellent design," nano SIM
Colors Misty Blue, Flash Gray
Dimensions 166.59 x 75.99 x 9.36mm, 204g
Price $170

The Good

Battery life The three-day rating is no joke, it can do it.
Performance This isn't a flagship, and there is lag and jank, but it's better than I expected for $170.
Build quality It's plastic, but it feels good and solid.
Software Moto's flavor of Android is super vanilla, but it's still tasty.
Screen Big and bright.
Price Not very expensive at just $170.

The Not So Good

No NFC A bummer if you use contactless payments very much.
Updates I don't think it's really an issue at the price, but only one update is promised, and you only get two years of updates. More importantly, though, Motorola's already behind on its update requirement, which is concerning and a security problem.
Huge Maybe too big for some people.
Storage 32GB is a bit tight, I'm at 73% already, but it is microSD expandable.
Camera Super potato.
Screen again It's not very sharp at just 720p and 6.5".

Design, hardware, what's in the box

The 2021 Moto G Play is a big phone — not just for a budget phone, but objectively large in general. It's actually even bigger than the flagship-grade OnePlus 8 Pro. I think that's a good thing, as it gives space for things like the big 5,000mAh battery and a larger screen, but there are some drawbacks. For one, it's a little on the thicker side, and it weighs almost as much as a Note20 Ultra, so that does add up to a brick-like feeling in your pocket. It also makes a dent in display quality. This is a 720p screen, and at 6.5" diagonally, that works out to 220 PPI, which isn't especially sharp.

Since the Moto G Play is just $170, a 720p screen isn’t the end of the world, but not everyone will agree. Outside that drawback, it's a pretty decent display. I found it got bright enough outside and dim enough inside and at night, though there were some faint lines visible with certain colors or while in motion, as you sometimes see on cheaper LCD displays. It even offers some color level settings, which you don't always see on budget phones. Though I suspect none are actually calibrated to a specific reference, you can at least choose between saturation levels.

Though I neither babied it nor whaled on it, the screen's glass top survived my review without getting scratched, and seems durable enough. It's also notched for the front-facing camera and sports a big chin, two features which some folks are sure to despise, but I don't think either is a deal-breaker.

The phone's body is beefy plastic in a semi-gloss finish, but it doesn't feel cheap. Like the screen, it escaped any signs of wear or damage during our review, which is encouraging. There's a square camera plateau at top center, with the fingerprint sensor embedded just beneath it and offset by a metallic ring. It's in just the right spot and proved to be both reliable and quick.

On the bottom of the phone, you've got a USB Type-C port — no derpy Micro USB as you get with the slightly cheaper Moto E. That charges at up to a 10W speed, and I've confirmed that at 5V 2A with basic USB power, and there's no USB Power Delivery or advanced charging tech at work here. Next to that is the lone speaker, which delivers hollow and tinny mono sound, without the help of the earpiece. At the top is a much-appreciated headphone jack, a great feature now relegated to mere budget phones like this. Integrated into the nano SIM tray is a microSD card holder, which lets you easily expand beyond the base 32GB of storage, if you need it.

The box comes with the normal smartphone paraphernalia: a SIM ejector tool, a charger, a cable, and a handful of cards, manuals, and guides.

Software, performance, and battery

The Moto G Play 2021 delivers a pretty bare Android experience, but that's a good thing, especially on a lower-end phone like this. There aren't any pointless, inconsistent, or performance-draining changes here, just a mostly stock look with a handful of tasteful (and optional) tweaks, like Moto's gestures for things like the flashlight or screenshot, and Peek Display for more minimal notifications. Other than that, it's the sort of Android software anyone can enjoy.

 

The only real drawback is the update situation. The G Play 2021 ships with Android 10, which puts it one major version behind the current release. It's also only guaranteed one system update to Android 11 and two years of security patches. If this phone cost more, I'd be complaining, but that's acceptable for $170.

I did also notice a few annoying bugs, like the ongoing call notification continuing for a bit after you've hung up, the screen not always waking during a call when you take it from your ear intending to tap the screen to end it, and some issues with automatic brightness. When you wake the screen at night, it's guaranteed to blind you, ramping slowly down from what looks like maximum brightness to a more comfortable setting.

Performance for the Moto G Play 2021 was kind of surprising. On paper, you might look at the Snapdragon 460 and assume it's a downgrade from the Snapdragon 632 in the Moto G7 Play. After all, it's in a lower chip series and numerically like 172 less, right? Well, it's not so clear cut. Qualcomm's 460 is a much newer chip, and it was notable for inheriting some relatively "premium" features from the 600 series, like Kryo-based CPU cores. On top of that, the 460 has the same GPU as the Snapdragon 665 (the Adreno 610), and it's built at a smaller node, which brings various thermal, efficiency, and performance gains as well. In short, there's more to speed than just model numbers, and this is a pretty decent chip.

Now, I say "decent," but this isn't competing with flagships, and you aren't going to be beating your friend's new Galaxy S21 in any benchmarks. You will notice stutters, dropped frames, and some general jank. But that jank is consistent to the point you can anticipate it, expect it, and eventually barely notice it. It's not always a smooth experience, and more demanding apps make it chug a little. But in normal use, it's entirely fine, and honestly far better than I expected for the price.

The only real issue you might run into ais a lack of storage. I'm at 73% full with just my normal apps and a few photos, and 32GB will not be enough long-term. It is microSD expandable, but that's not the same.

Battery life was stunning. I was usually on the cusp of breaking ten hours of screen-on time over three days before it died. That's certainly due to the power-sipping nature of the Snapdragon 460, the 720p screen, and the big 5,000mAh battery powering the phone — and it's fantastic. This will last more than long enough for anyone.

Cameras

I don't have much praise for the G Play 2021's camera. It's bad, with results that seem about equal to the 2020 Moto E to my eye. Admittedly, it's harder to get out and take photos during the pandemic winter season, but what I've seen so far leaves me very unimpressed. This is good for receipts and not much else.

Dynamic range is bad, everything is muddy (even in ideal light), low-light performance is abysmal, and only one of the two cameras actually does anything. Out of all the features, this is the one that's sure to remind you that you're using a $170 phone. If there is a single takeaway you get from this review it should be: Don't buy this for the camera.

Should you buy it?

Moto G Play
8/10

Yes. There's not a whole lot to say about the 2021 Moto G Play, and that's a really really good thing. Coming from some of last year's best phones, I expected to have more complaints, but I was quite pleased outside the expected issues like a bad camera and merely acceptable performance. I didn't have to put up with a Micro USB port, bad software, a terrible screen, bad battery life, or any real issues. If I was in a tight spot and needed something cheap and decent to tide me over for a while, this would be right up at the top of the list. Although I liked the $150 2020 Moto E quite a bit, this phone is just $20 more and even easier to recommend.

It's true, Motorola's software update policy isn't great, there's no NFC for contactless payments, and the company only promises one update to Android 11 and security updates for two years in total. The camera is also legitimately potato, with middling results even in daylight and down-right bad performance compared to contemporary flagships or mid-range phones. There's no NFC for contactless payments. The lack of storage will mean some micromanaging, a microSD card, or tough decisions. And yes, the screen is just 720p. But at $170, these limitations hardly matter.

Battery life here is stellar; the screen is big, bright enough, and sharp enough; and Moto's light-touch software is easy to like. It even comes with Googly features like call screening built right in — that's a huge time and attention saver with spam calls as bad as they are these days.

Modern Motorola does a lot of weird and confusing things, and not all of its phones are objectively "good," but this one absolutely is, especially at just $170.

Two months later

Coming back to the 2021 Moto G Play from "better" phones like the Galaxy S21, I'm still surprised at how good the experience here is. While this phone is far from a flagship, it's stunningly usable, and I'm consistently impressed at how far the budget smartphone experience has come.

But, familiarity also breeds contempt, and I do have a few irritations. For one, while performance is still far better than I expect for the price, there are a few particular instances where it hasn't had quite enough oomph. Scroll too fast on certain sites in Chrome, Blasting past the lazy-loading limit more quickly than the phone can keep up with, and you're stuck waiting for a moment or two while the rest of the page loads. Faster phones can keep up with that finger flick a little better.

Phone calls — as in, with your voice, person-to-person, in the anachronistic way — are also increasingly a point of frustration. As the new owner of an old house, managing contractors is now my regular side gig, and the simple act of hanging up on the 2020 G Play can be complicated. As I pointed out in our original review, the screen often won't wake when you take the phone from your ear at the end of a call. If the person at the other end is too polite to hang up, it will take you a good five or ten seconds to get to the point you can hang up on your end, which is incredibly awkward. Please fix this with an update, Motorola.

And that, sadly, brings me to my last complaint. Here almost two months later, the phone is still running November 2020 patches, placing it four months behind the curve — and, technically, Motorola is violating Google's policies. As an Enterprise Recommended phone, Motorola is required to issue timely security patches within 90 days of release from Google. The phone is now 128 days behind, placing it in violation of Google's licensing requirements, and I don't have much hope for timely updates going forward, either.

128 days behind does not look good, Moto. 

Others may take a different attitude, but updates aren't a matter of new features or fun. A phone isn't safe to use without them, period. With things like sending money online, mobile banking, and our lives tied deeply into the accounts signed into the devices in our pockets, regular security updates aren't some perk, they are a basic, essential, and outright fundamental requirement. Motorola is failing in what is already a low-effort commitment. Even for a $170 phone, you should be able to use it without worrying about your security, and yet the company can't hit this already low 90-day bar. We've reached out to Motorola for more information, and we'll let you know what we hear.

I still like the G Play quite a lot, but until Motorola can keep up with its Google-imposed update requirements for quarterly updates and the minimum viable commitment to customer security, I wouldn't buy one, myself.

Buy it if:

  • You're on a strict budget.
  • Battery life is a priority.
  • You want a big phone.

Don't buy it if:

  • You need a good camera. This really, really, really isn't one.
  • You'll miss NFC for contactless payments.
  • Security is a concern — updates will probably be a problem.

Where to buy: