Moto Z Play review: Long-lasting, affordable, and modular too

It may not be as fast as the other Moto Z phones, but the return of the headphone jack and super battery life make up for it.

We like the Moto Z and it’s bigger, bulkier cousin the Moto Z Force. They’re speedy, elegant phones with a good approach to modular add-ons—as opposed to the LG G5, whose “take the whole phone apart” approach to modules doesn’t sit well with us.

Those other two Moto Z phones are expensive, high-end, premium devices. The Moto Z Play takes the same general concepts, and compatibility with the same Moto Mods, and brings it down to an affordable price point: about $450. And really, unless you simply need to have a phone with screaming-fast benchmark scores, this more affordable model is a better phone. Really!

Finding the sweet spot

The Moto Z aims to be so thin that you can slap a Moto Mod on the back and still have a “regular phone” thickness, and the Moto Z Force adds a shaterproof display and bigger battery. The Moto Z Play doesn't push the envelope. It is concerned with finding the sweet spot between price and performance.

Structurally, it’s nearly identical to the Moto Z Force. It’s almost exactly the same size and thickness, with a metal band around the rim where the Force has a heavily beveled edge. I’d prefer a little more separation between the power and volume buttons on the right side, and the plastic bit surrounding the USB-C port looks a little cheap, but for a phone in this price range it looks and feels good.

moto z play buttons Jason Cross

I could use a little more space between the power and volume buttons, but the overall design of the Moto Z Play belies its price.

Motorola gets the price down by downgrading the system-on-chip (SoC) from a top-end Snapdragon 820 to a mid-range Snapdragon 625, with 3 gigs of RAM and 32GB of storage. The 5.5-inch display resolution is reduced from quad HD (2560x1440) to full HD (1920x1080). Frankly, at this size, full HD is just fine and probably the smarter choice. Higher resolutions are primarily only useful for VR. The display is otherwise bright and colorful with good viewing angles and excellent visibility in bright sunlight. By default it’s a little oversaturated with slightly blue white balance, but choosing “standard” color mode in the settings helped alleviate both problems.

moto z play ports Jason Cross

USB-C and a headphone jack? The mid-range Moto Z one-ups its more expensive pals.

You’ll notice a headphone jack next to that USB-C port on the bottom. You know, that important core technology stupidly missing from the Moto Z and Z Force. The square fingerprint sensor beneath the display is quite fast and accurate, but is sadly not a home button. I would prefer that it was, with capacitive Recent and Back buttons to either side, instead of on-screen controls. Or at least give me the option to use physical buttons and reclaim that screen real estate.

A smooth experience

With a Snapdragon 625, the Moto Z Play isn’t going to win any benchmark charts. Even among other mid-priced phones; the OnePlus 3 manages to slap a Snapdragon 820 into a $400 phone. But Motorola’s version of Android is smooth and highly optimized. It looks nearly identical to stock Android 6.0.1, with a few extras added on. It’s the same stuff Motorola has added to its phones for the last year or so: Moto Voice (extensions to the usual suite of Google voice commands which work with the phone asleep), Moto Actions (gestures to launch specific functions, like a double-chop to turn on the flashlight), and Moto Display (time and notifications on the lock screen, that display when you wave your hand over it or when a new notification comes in).

moto z play benchmarks 3dmark

Particularly in 3D graphics, the Moto Z Play falls behind its competitors with top-end processors.

It’s a good software experience, and one I’d love to see more Android makers emulate. Rather than make Android look and feel entirely different (I'm looking at you, Samsung), Motorola stuck with the general design, layout, look, and feel of standard Android and simply extended it with smart, useful features. Perhaps more importantly, it’s all very fast and fluid. The mid-range Snapdragon 625 has no trouble keeping the interface quick and responsive. Unless you play a lot of high-end 3D games or do lots of photo or video editing on your phone, you’re unlikely to run into a scenario where the Moto Z Play feels slower than most phones with high-end processors.

Crazy good battery life

moto z play benchmarks battery

One chart says it all. If only all those $700 phones had battery life this good.

The Moto Z Play has a 3510 mAh battery—about the same as that in the Moto Z Force. That’s big by any measure. And with a less power-hungry SoC and a 1080p display, this phone places fewer demands on it than do those high-end phones.

moto z play battery

Nearly 3 days on standby and the battery has only dropped 20%.

The result is truly epic battery life. With the display calibrated to 200 cd/m², this phone lasted 15 hours 47 minutes in the PCMark battery test. That’s nearly twice as long as the OnePlus 3 or Galaxy S7 edge! It’s not just in benchmarks, either. I used the phone for two days, on and off, without charging it. I left it sitting idle for nearly 3 days and the battery only dropped from 100% to 80%. A big battery, efficient display and processor, and Motorola’s highly optimized software all combine to give you a phone with some of the best battery life I’ve ever seen.

A respectable camera

It's not very exciting to say it, but the Moto Z Play has a pretty good camera. That's it: pretty good. It doesn't hold a candle to Samsung's best or the newest iPhones, but it's not the slow, grainy disappointment Motorola buyers were stuck with in years past. You get a 16 megapixel sensor with fairly large 1.3 micron pixels, f/2.0 aperture lens, both phase detect and laser autofocus, and dual-tone LED flash. The front camera takes "good enough" selfies with its 5 megapixel sensor, wide-angle lens, and front-facing flash.

moto z play laundry cat Jason Cross

Low light shots can be a touch grainy, but you can get a great shot if your subject cooperates.

Low-light performance is above par for this price class, though there is some room for improvement. You get a decent pro mode that lets you adjust focus, white balance, shutter speed, and ISO, but you can't save RAW images. Serious video shooters may be disappointed to find that you're limited to 30 frames per second at all resolutions up to 4K, save for a single 720p/120fps slow motion mode.

Despite the occasional grainyness and limited dynamic range common to more affordable phones, you can get some really nice shots with the Moto Z Play, and it focuses very quickly with minimal shutter lag. The "pocket to photo" experience could be a touch faster, but doesn't disappoint.

moto z play pro photo

Pro photo mode gives you plenty of controls, but lacks the ability to save RAW image files.

It's a testament to how far smartphone cameras have come to think that this would be industry-leading camera performance as little as two years ago.

A great buy, but not from Verizon

At $450, the Moto Z Play is a great buy. Yes, you can get the OnePlus 3 with more storage and a bigger processor for the same price. But the Moto Z’s incredible battery life, excellent display, lean software with useful enhancements, and compatibility with Moto Mods make a great case for it. With a price more than $200 less than the Moto Z or Moto Z Force, not to mention vastly superior battery life and an actual headphone jack, this Mot Z Play is a better choice for most consumers.

But this phone will spend about a month or so as a Verizon exclusive, and you don’t want that version. Verizon adds a whole slew of obnoxious bloatware apps including its own messenger app, NFL Mobile, it’s own map app, and more. You can disable most of these, but can’t delete them. What's more, Verizon has a terrible record of updating Motorola phones with the latest version of Android.

I recommend you wait until the direct, carrier-unlocked version goes on sale in October and grab one of those, even if you're on Verizon's network. If you're on AT&T or T-Mobile, you might consider the international variant, which doesn't support CDMA (Sprint and Verizon) but does work with more GSM frequencies and LTE bands. You can avoid the carrier bloat and stand a better chance of getting more timely OS and security updates by buying the unlocked versions.

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Jason Cross

Jason Cross

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