Moto Z Play review

The modular phone market is a small one but Lenovo has a new and consumer friendly system with Moto Mods. These accessories work with the Moto Z phones in a plug'n'play manner we really like. Here's our Moto Z Play review for those wanting a modular phone on a budget. See also: 29 best new phones coming soon.

Also see: Best Black Friday Phone Deals

You might be searching for the Motorola Moto Z Play but now owned by Lenovo, the firm is just using the Moto name for the latest phones.

Moto Z Play review: Price

The Z Play is a mid-range phone which costs £369.99 and you will be able to buy it from Amazon and John Lewis. It comes in black or white.

It’s £160 cheaper than the flagship Moto Z and the same price as the recently launched Honor 8 and £40 more than the OnePlus 3.

Throughout this review we'll point out how the Moto Z Play differs from the regular model so you can decide whether to spend that extra £160. With its Moto Mods design, it's got the potential to be one of the best mid-range phones around.

Moto Z Play vs Moto Z

Moto Z Play review: Design and features

Unlike the Moto Z, which is a wafer thin 5.2mm and has to ditch the headphone jack like the iPhone 7, the Z Play is 7mm thick (7.2 by our calipers), allowing it to have a 3.5mm jack next to its USB-C connector. The phone still feels thin and well built, though, just as a premium phone should. It has a glass back, unlike the metal rear of the Moto Z so is quite slippery.

The thickness of the Moto Z Play not only means a headphone jack but a larger battery, too. All of this means it's heavier at 165g.

It shares some stylings with the cheaper Moto G4 phones but we're impressed with out luxurious the Moto Z Play looks and feels for the price. We took a look at the white option which has pale gold highlights.

One of the things taken from the G4 is the small square fingerprint scanner which sits belowe the screen with a small rim around it - we'll talk more about it later in the hardware section.

The circular camera and LED flash arrangement protrudes a significant 2mm from the rear, but it's flush once you pop on a Moto Style Shell. A black nylon one is included in the box no matter whether you choose a black or white phone. See more details in the Mods section below.

Moto Z Play connector

Shells also hide the rather ugly connector, which is used to communicate with other Moto Mods accessories. It looks better on the black model. These ‘Mods’ are a different approach to the modular smartphone – full details below. Also a bit ugly is the way the legal info is squeezed along the bottom edge, although the back isn't much better.

Whether a phone is waterproof is an increasingly sought after design feature and Lenovo lists the Moto Z Play as 'water resistant' thanks to a nano coating, provided by P2i, but it's not designed to be dunked in water.

Moto Z Play review: Moto Mods

The range of Moto Mods on offer is the biggest reason to buy the Moto Z Play (or Moto Z) compared to other Android phones. The modular nature means you can easily add different functionality depending on your needs.

Lenovo's modular system works very differently to the LG G5 and its removable chin. While that method has a certain wow factor, it's fiddly and a bit awkward. In stark contrast, the Moto Mods simply snap onto the back of the Moto Z Play with zero hassle using strong magnets to attach.

While we've seen a distinct lack of new accessories (or 'Friends') for the LG G5, Lenovo has said the Moto Mods system will be supported for at least three years. That should mean new accessories at least and any Mods you have will work with future phones if you upgrade.

Moto Mods

The connector has been opened up to third parties, and anyone can buy a Moto Mods developer kit and make their own accessories, so there should be plenty of options from well-known accessory brands soon.

As is stands there are four different Moto Mods to choose from consisting of the Incipio offGrid Power Pack (£59), JBL SoundBoost Speaker (£69), Hasselblad True Zoom camera (£199) and the Moto Insta-Share projector (£249).

With the Moto Z Play we've been given the JBL speaker which automatically diverts audio when in place. It adds on a fair bit of weight so it's not one you'll want to keep on all the time, but that's the beauty of the magnetic system and it's not more than carrying a separate Bluetooth speaker. There're no controls as you just use the phone's volume buttons but it does add a handy kickstand. All in all a good value for money Mod if you want louder speakers.

Moto Mod JBL speaker

The Style Shell is listed as a Moto Mod and is worth mentioning here. Like previous Motorola phones it adds an element of customisation with the snap on covers coming in fabric, leather or wood. You could get a few if you like as they're so easy to change and they handily get rid of the camera bump and provide extra grip. The fabric option is £16 (although you get a black one in the box) while the more premium materials come in at £20.

The Insta-Share projector mod is one of the most interesting on show here - and in a nutshell it's amazing but too expensive. It's the only mod made by Moto itself, and the most impressive. We were sceptical that it would project the promised 70in screen onto a wall, but we simply clipped it on, connected to a Bluetooth speaker and fired up Planet Earth on Netflix. The first time you use it, it is really amazing.

Just remember that for full effect you'll have to use a separate speaker, though you could plug in some headphones. If you want to beam the football or a film onto a wall, it is perfect. The downside, of course, is that it's £249. 

Moto Z Play review: Specs, hardware and performance

Screen

In many respects it is hard to tell apart from the Moto Z at a glance. It has the same 5.5in AMOLED screen, albeit with a Full HD resolution rather than Quad HD, and the same design on the rear to ensure Moto Mods fit.

While the difference in resolution is understandable and the screen will be perfectly adequate for the vast majority of users. It's bright and colourful but those with a keener eye will notice the difference with those pixels spread across a larger space than most Full HD handsets. For example, take a close look and the edge of icons appears a bit fuzzy. You do need to look closely though so it's not a big issue and we wouldn't expect anything higher than Full HD at this price.

A benefit of the tech is that it can light up certain pixels to show information without impacting on battery life. The firm has offered this for a while, and although the Z Play doesn’t have infrared sensors next to the screen like the Z, it uses ultrasonics to detect your hand over the phone and will then show the time, date and notifications in monochrome. There’s no option to have the screen always on as with Samsung’s flagship phones.

Moto Z Play screen

Processor and storage

Obviously, as you expect, the Moto Z Play doesn’t get the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 820 processor. Instead, it has the Snapdragon 625, a 2GHz octa-core chip. Graphics power is also a step down, the Adreno 506 instead of the 530 in the Moto Z.

There’s also 3GB of RAM rather than 4GB, but you can add storage via Micro-SD up to 2TB (although you can't get a card that large yet).

Benchmark results for the Play are respectable and match up to other phones using the Snapdragon 625. During out time with it, it's been perfectly zippy and responsive.

Fingerprint scanner and other specs

Below the screen is a fingerprint reader. This can be used with Android Pay, as well as for unlocking the phone and signing into apps or websites that support it. It’s not a physical home button which is a shame as we constantly find ourselves trying to use it as one: the Z Play uses the standard on-screen Android buttons.

The fingerprint scanner is a little small and awkward at times but the rim around the edge helps your finger locate it and it generally works first time and quickly. You can also long press it to lock the screen instead of using the power button on the side.

In terms of other specs you get a distinctly mid-range set of 11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and NFC.

Moto Z Play fingerprint scanner

Battery

The Z Play’s other main claim to fame is its huge 3510mAh battery, which Lenovo says will truly last you two days so you won’t have to charge it every night. The Moto Z Play uses the now popular reversible USB Type-C port.

As with other Moto phones, the TurboPower charger can quickly fill your battery with juice – up to 9 hours in 15 minutes (although the battery must be 'substantially depleted'). We charged it for this length of time and the battery charged from 12- up to 25 percent.

Cameras

While the Moto Z has a 13Mp main camera with OIS, the Play gets a 16Mp snapper with –amazingly – slightly larger pixels (1.3um vs 1.12um). However, the aperture isn't as good at f/2.0 compared to f/1.8.

Moto Z Play camera

Another downside is that it has only electronic stabilisation, but this also works when shooting video, which can be shot at up to 4K at 30fps. 1080p records at 30fps too, but you can increase framerate to 120fps by lowering resolution to 720p.

By default the camera will shoot in 16:9 and 11.9Mp so you'll have to switch it to 4:3 to get the full 16Mp. We're generally impressed with the Moto Z Play camera which offers good quality images for the price point. Video is also nice and sharp but we found some odd errors where the roof of St.Pancras went glitchy which isn't good at all.

Moto Z Play test photo

Around the front is a 5Mp camera with a ‘wide-angle’ 85 degree lens that has an f/2.2 aperture. Selfie fans will also appreciate the Moto Z Play's front facing flash so you needn't stop shooting once it's dark.

With the Moto Mods system, photographers may be tempted by the Hasselblad True Zoom. This costs £199, but brings a 10x optical zoom to the party. The difference this makes is enormous: we’re all used to a phone’s fixed lens and the inherent limitations of digital zoom.

The True Zoom has a 12Mp sensor and optical stabilisation. We've tried it out and it appears to work seamlessly with the Moto Z Play's camera app. It has its own power button, which launches the app, and a dual-stage shutter button with a zoom lever in front. Just remember to switch it off before pulling it off the phone otherwise the lens remains sticking out.

Moto Mod camera True Zoom

You can shoot both photos (in RAW and JPEG) and video, and the zoom - plus stabilisation - works in both modes, although it's electronic rather than optical when shooting video. The main disappointment is that it only records video at 1080p at 30fps, not 4K or 60fps.

Moto Z Play review: Software

Moto is sticking to what it knows works. This means an almost-stock Android interface with little tweaks and additions here and there. The Moto Z Play comes pre-loaded with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow and the good news is that an update to 7.0 Nougat is due before the end of the year, according to Droid Life.

The Moto app is where you can enable the enhancements such as the ‘chop, chop’ motion to switch the LED flashlight on and off; the double-twist to launch the camera app and the aforementioned ‘approach’ gesture which shows the time etc when you wave your hand over the screen.

Moto Z Play Android software

Others include being able to place the phone face down to put it in silent mode, and to stop ringing when you pick it up (it switches to vibrate rather than declining or accepting a phonecall). There’s also a gesture to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to make the image smaller so it’s usable with one hand.

Check them all out in the Moto app where some need switching on including the shrink option. The app is also where you can switch features on such as voice commands and a hands-free mode which will read you things like text messages when you're driving.

It's also handy that when you connect a Moto Mod that has a battery in it (such as a PowerPack or the Insta-Share projector) a notification appears on screen with its battery level. The projector will continue running even when the battery is depleted as it will take power from the Moto Z Play.

Read next: Best new phones coming in 2017

Moto Z Play: Specs

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • 5.5in, 1920x1080 super AMOLED display, 403ppi
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • 802.11n dual band Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • A-GPS
  • NFC
  • USB-C
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 16Mp rear camera
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 3510mAh non-removable battery
  • 156.4 x 76.4 x 6.99mm
  • 165g
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • 5.5in, 1920x1080 super AMOLED display, 403ppi
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • 802.11n dual band Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • A-GPS
  • NFC
  • USB-C
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 16Mp rear camera
  • 5Mp front camera
  • 3510mAh non-removable battery
  • 156.4 x 76.4 x 6.99mm
  • 165g

OUR VERDICT

The Moto Mods accessories are the main reason to buy the Moto Z Play, but it's a decent mid-range phone regardless. For an affordable price Lenovo offers premium design, good specs and a well-rounded software experience. You only really need to splash out on the Moto Z for the Quad HD screen, Snapdragon 820 and OIS camera should you feel the need for those features (but also bear in mind the more expensive version has no headphone jack and a smaller battery).

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