Introduction, design, MotoMods and display
Moto Z Play is the slightly thicker, long-lasting and more affordable smartphone with creative modular accessories, and proof that Motorola is committed to the idea of a customizable phone.
You can snap on a bunch of different mods – from stylish battery packs, to a mini boom box, to a head-turning pico projector – all with the help of magnets.
Timed with the Moto Z Play launch is a new mod: the Hasselblad True Zoom camera. It makes your Android phone look and feel like a real camera with 10x zoom and physical controls.
The Moto Z Play isn’t as flashy as the world’s-thinnest-title-holding Moto Z, and it doesn’t have the durable screen of the Verizon and US-exclusive Moto Z Force. It’s also less powerful.
What it does have is a bigger battery, cheaper price and a headphone jack. You can charge via USB-Type C and play music over the normal 3.5mm jack here, unlike on the Z and Z Force.
Moto Z Play therefore fixes some of the gripes with the Moto Z, and opens modular smartphone accessories to a whole new audience looking for a cheaper phone. Let’s see if it fits your needs.
Price and release date
- Launched on September 8 in the US
- Coming in September to the UK
- $408 or $17 a month over 24 from Verizon
- $449 or £369 unlocked without carrier restrictions
If you were interested in the Moto Z, but scoffed at its high price, then you’ll like the savings that the mid-range-friendly Moto Z Play brings at launch.
It costs $408 at full price when tied to Verizon, or at $17 a month over 24 months through the carrier’s device payment plan. Fully unlocked from Motorola, it costs $449 in the US or £369 in the UK.
That contrasts with the Moto Z, which currently costs $624 at full price from Verizon, and $699 or £499 unlocked. The Moto Z Force is even more at $720 without a binding contract, but it’s still only available through Verizon.
- Flat glass back with an aluminum frame at 7mm thick
- Fingerprint sensor smartly locks and unlocks the screen
- Includes a headphone jack absent from the Z and Z Force
The Moto Z Play takes several cues from the flat design of its Moto Z counterparts, only it’s noticeably thicker in the hand. It measures 156.4 x 76.4 x 6.99mm and is 165g.
Even with the same 5.5-inch screen size and non-curved back, it feels bigger in one hand. It’s still palmable on its own, until you magnetically attach accessories. Then it can become a real monster.
The good news is that its extra girth gives you the ability to listen to music and charge at the same time. It sounds crazy to list this as a pro, but missing headphone jacks are a common thing now.
The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus famously don’t include a 3.5mm headphone jack, and neither do the Z and Z Force. Motorola’s instead sending audio over their USB-C ports, which requires an (included, but easy to lose) 3.5mm jack adapter.
The other good news is that the Z Play has just about every other design feature we liked about the initial Moto Z line, including the small but incredibly convenient front fingerprint sensor.
The fingerprint sensor takes up a lot of room and extends the phone’s chin, but it works to our liking by both waking the phone and putting it to sleep with one touch.
Being able to both lock and unlock the phone without having to hunt for the side sleep/wake button on the frame is a tremendous advantage for Motorola’s new phone series.
It’s an especially big deal (for a bad reason) because the side power button is equidistant to the volume down and up buttons. It’s easy to get it mixed up with their non-rocker volume button design.
The Moto Z Play includes a water-repellent nano-coating, but it isn’t waterproof like the Galaxy S7. It’s just good enough to survive accidental spills, splashes or light rain, not full submersions.
It also lacks the Moto Z Force’s trademark feature: a shatterproof glass screen. Drop this one from the same five feet of height and you’ll regret it.
The Moto Z Play comes in a two of colors so far: black with a silver frame and fringe, and white with a gold frame and trim. The real variety comes with MotoMods.
- New Hasselblad True Zoom camera joins existing mods
- Existing mods add: battery, speakers or projector
- Easily clips on and off the back with magnets
The Moto Z Play takes advantage of all existing MotoMods and they seamlessly snap onto the back of the phone using magnets. The only thing that can be cumbersome is it’s suddenly thicker size.
With the Power Pack battery accessory, for example, the phone suddenly feels almost three times bigger than when you started out. You may not need the battery pack considering the Moto Z Play’s heftier battery size, thankfully.
You will (and should) enjoy the back covers (called Style Shells, according to Motorola) because the Z Play as a reflective glass back and exposed 16 modular pins that aren’t nearly as appealing.
The coolest mod is the Moto Z Insta-Share projector. It’s a mini projector that shines your phone’s screen anywhere you want at a size of 70 inches before distortion kicks in.
It’s easy to use, living up to the instant name, and is an easy way to shine YouTube videos anywhere in the world (except ironically in Lenovo’s own home country of China where Google services are blocked – but everywhere else). Video looks okay at 480p, and will save your back from lugging around a big, heavy projector
This projector fits in a pocket (though barely, at size close to 70mm) and has an embedded kickstand for tilting and automatic keytoning. Focus can be adjusted manually via a side dial.
The Insta-Share projector requires a dark or very dim room for its 50 lumens to be effective and, of course, it doesn’t come cheap: it costs $299.
Motorola and JBL turned the smartphone volume up to eleven with their SoundBoost creation. It turns the back of your phone into an even thicker frame, but one that becomes a powerful speaker.
It’s not as loud as a dedicated Bluetooth speaker, but it’s almost as good. You won’t feel the need to turn it up if it’s just you and a small party. Best of all, there’s a hand kickstand and it adds 10 hours of battery life.
Looking for a Mophie case? Don’t. MotoMod juice packs add 2,200mAh of battery life in exchange for a few millimeters to the thickness. Unlike the Z, the Moto Z Play can’t really afford this extra girth.
It comes in a variety of designs, including from designers like Kate Spade and luggage maker Tumi. It’s really trying to combine style and functionality, and it’s easier to clip on compared to a Mophie case.
You don’t have to buy a MotoMod right away to satisfyingly lock an accessory to the back of your new phone with magnetics. Moto Z comes with a Style Shield in the box.
Wood, leather and plastic options are going to be available in the future, giving you some degree of customization over your ever-important handset, just like the Moto X series.
Further out, there’s a lot of potential for MotoMods. Motorola is opening up its platform to one and all with a $125 developer kit.
- Moto Active display senses your presence
- 5.5-inch display at a lower 1080p resolution
- But this adds several hours to the battery life
Moto Z Play has a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display, the same size and technology as the Moto Z and Z Force, but it brings the resolution and pixel count down.
It’s a 1080p Full HD screen with 403 pixel per inch instead of a 2K resolution (also known as Quad HD). It doesn’t look as stunning close up, but it’s still beautiful and bright enough that you won’t complain.
Even with the resolution change, the Moto Z Play display keeps Motorola’s Active Display intact. Wave your hand over the phone and it senses your presence with limited information – the time, date and notification icons – all of which requires barely any power.
It’s like the always-on screen used in new Samsung and LG phones, but one thing that’s better is that the discrete notifications icons are interactive here.
Tapping on one reveals more information, like the beginning of an email body. Flicking the icon upward opens the message. Flicking it down dismisses it. Motorola scores major points with this minor touch.
What’s it like to use?
Specs and performance
- Snapdragon 625 processor and 3GB of RAM
- Slower than the popular 820 chip and 4GB of RAM
- 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot
The Moto Z Play also takes the specs down a notch with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor instead of the Snapdragon 820 chip almost every major Android uses in 2016.
Qualcomm keeps touting its Snapdragon 625 processor as incredibly fast, just shy of the 820 chip. It’s still adequate for most people, but doesn’t have the absolute best performance in our labs and real-life tests.
Running Geekbench 4.0 benchmarking software, we found that the Moto Z Play achieved a multi-score of 2,600. That’s rather low compared to Moto Z at 5,167 score. Of course, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge outperforms them all thanks to a 6,500 multi-score.
In real life testing, we experienced slowdown when doing several things at once: downloading apps, receiving a backlog of notifications and trying to navigate the menus. True multitaskers, watch out. Everyone else will be fine.
You’ll also be okay with the 32GB of internal storage, even if phones like the ZTE Axon 7 and Samsung Galaxy Note 7 have launched with 64GB inside. Moto Z Play includes a microSD card slot within its nano SIM tray for expandable storage, just in case.
Interface, reliability and compatibility
- Runs close-to-stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow
- No timetable for the Android 7.0 Nougat update
- Motorola’s apps are helpful, Verizon apps in the US are not
Moto Z Play runs one of the latest versions of Android and it functions like Google intended it, without the alterations that Samsung, LG, and other phone makers see fit.
Stock Android is a big deal for many purists, and for good reason. This Android 6.0.1 interface is very streamlined. Motorola, once a Google company, doesn’t deviate far from its former parent’s playbook.
It adds a few of its own apps to the phone, like Moto Actions and Moto Voice, but these are only a help, not a hinderance. All of the menus are just like a Nexus running stock Android.
In the US, you’ll have to deal with some pesky Verizon bloatware, and the fact that HD video calls only work with people on the same network, even if they have the same phone, is annoying.
Android Nougat has desirable features like splitscreen apps and better battery life-saving tweaks. The wait for the Android Nougat update is on, even before the Moto Z Play is in your hands.
Movies, music and gaming
- Super AMOLED display looks good for 1080p
- The headphone jack is a big deal for multimedia users
- Fingerprint sensor screen-off function can get in the way
The Moto Z Play takes its name seriously when it comes to watching movies, listening to music and playing games, even with a lower-resolution screen involved.
It looks nearly as good on the 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display, unless you’re trying to count pixels as a close distance. Our biggest issue is that it’s quite as bright as the Moto Z and Moto Z Force outdoors.
The advantage that it does have it the inclusion of that headphone jack. That’s a big deal when you’re stuck on an airplane and only have earbuds with a 3.5mm jack, with no USB-C adapter in sight.
We did run into one unique issue when holding the Moto Z Play: the fingerprint sensor’s ability – to not only wake the screen and unlock the phone, but also put it to sleep and lock it – got in the way at times. Dear ill-placed thumb, I was watching that movie.
Camera and battery life
- 16MP rear-facing camera with an f/2.0 aperture
- Laser auto-focus and phase detection autofocus (PDAF)
- 5MP front-facing camera, wide-angle 85 degree lens
- Twist twice gesture launches the app or switches cameras
The Moto Z Play camera is 16MP with an f/2.0 aperture, and it provides around the same picture quality as the Moto Z, with its 13MP sensor, but superior f/1.8 aperture. The Moto Z Force is better in all ways with a 21MP camera and a f/1.8 aperture to match the standard Moto Z.
Moto Z Play combines laser autofocus and phase detection autofocus that translates into zero shutter lag, but it doesn’t have the best low-light capabilities and lacks optical image stabilization. Noise and poor color tone becomes issues when you turn down the lights.
It performs just fine in ample daylight, of course, and at night, its bright color-balancing dual LED flash won’t go unnoticed. The circular camera and flash bump are huge, but that doesn’t mean the picture quality is the best. Just like the megapixel count, bigger isn’t always better.
The front-facing camera is 5MP, with what Motorola touts as a wide-angle 85 degree lens. It captures more of your selfie scene than an iPhone, which we have always found incredibly narrow and cropped. But you’re not going to get nearly as much in as the LG V20 with its 120 degree wide selfies.
Video capabilities here are surprisingly robust for the price, with the resolution climbing all the way up to 4K. It doesn’t go beyond 30fps at 4K or 1080p, but it can shoot okay slow-motion 720p video at 120fps.
Motorola has thankfully redesigned its default camera app to be a little more feature-filled and easier to use by moving away from the hidden settings wheel. It’s now a slide-from-the-left settings menu.
Cycling through your gallery of previously taken photos by dragging them from the right is a little annoying, especially when in landscape mode (which is how you should take most photos). Sliding from this orientation puts your swipe too close to the shutter. Now you have an out-of-focus-shot.
What makes up for the fumble-prone gallery mode is the ability to open the camera app with the the quick capture gesture. Just twist the phone twice and it’ll launch the app. If the app is already launched, it’ll toggle between the front and back cameras. That’s handy.
- Awesome two-day battery life with a 3510 mAh capacity
- Its 1080p resolution and softer specs increase longevity
- Fast charging, but USB-C cable and charger are one piece
Here’s what took us the most time to confirm in our full review: just how long does the Moto Z Play battery last? Motorola promises 50 hours of mixed use, and we generally agree with that number.
We found that the Moto Z Play lasted a full 44 to 48 hours – up to two days – based on our our heavier-than-average phone addiction. That’s a big deal among even the best smartphones in the world.
Generally, we’ve been impressed by day-and-a-half battery life, but this phone tops that by another half day. It’s about less time charging, and, just as the name suggests, more time playing.
Going to bed two nights into testing the Moto Z Play and having it cling to life at 2% in the morning (47 hours after originally taking it off the charger) gave us a new battery life benchmark.
That extra use time is thanks to the 3,510mAh battery capacity. It makes the phone thicker than the ultra-thin Moto Z (with a small 2,600mAh capacity), but The Play will get you through more just a day.
Even the Moto Z Force, touting its big battery life in marking materials, doesn’t last quite this long. It’s rated at 40 hours thanks to its nearly-as-large 3,500mAh.
In our standardized battery lab test, a 100% charged Moto Z Play made it through a 90-minute looped HD video and only dropped 7% to 93%. By comparison Moto Z dropped 27%. Ouch.
Here’s how the Moto Z Play does it. Not only does it have a big battery size, its 1080p screen resolution and lighter specs easily make it go 12 hours longer than the Z Force. It’s all about saved resources here.
This longer-lasting version of the Moto Z does take more time to fully charge, but it features the same fast-charging TurboPower charger in the box. It took a depleted battery to 24% in just 15 minutes.
We liked the TurboPower charger’s reversible USB-C connection, and only had an issue with the fact that Motorola permanently ties the big charger block and USB cable.
You can’t separate the two and plug it into a computer, for example. We had the same issue with the Moto Z and Moto Z Force. You can, thankfully, use almost any QuickCharge charger from a different phone.
Bright, sunny days make the Moto Z Play appear sharp and full of bright colors. You’re not going to get as much detail as a flagship phone, including the Moto Z (better) and Moto Z Force (best), but in these conditions, the differences are minimal to the untrained eye.
Digital zoom doesn’t provides the best photo of the castle (seen in the distance in the very first photo above). That’s where the Hasselblad MotoMod comes in handy.
The 10x zoom on the Hasselblad TrueZoom attachment takes a much clearer photo from a long distance. It’s still a little washed out, but the right amount of detail is here.
However, turn down the lights and you’ll notice a bunch of noise. There are cameras that handle common taken restaurant much better than this, you’ll have to spend more money than you would on the Moto Z Play.
Obligatory food photo. It gets the colors right, but the detail leaves a lot to be desired in this shot. Even with close up subjects, photos can look really good, but not great.
Outdoors at night and in awkward light, the camera doesn’t keep up with the right color toning. It’s a tough shot, to be sure. But the Moto Z and Moto Z Force, not to mention the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge handled this one better.
Details here appear to be on point, but the colors come out a little duller than that do on other phones.
Again, it bright conditions, the Moto Z Play camera works just fine. It’s more than acceptable in sunlight, good enough in artificial light and grainy in low-light conditions.
Moto Z Play is all about playing longer and doing it all with ease. Its extended battery life and embedded headphone jack give us what we want (and expect) from a smartphone.
Yes, it’s thicker than the incredibly slim Moto Z and the 1080p display isn’t going to wow your friends. But it still has inventive MotoMod add-ons, Moto Active Display proximity sensing capabilities and a fingerprint sensor that pulls double-duty by turning the screen on and off.
Its battery life clocks in at a record-setting 48 hours, meeting even our unwavering smartphone addiction. That’s enough to set aside softer specs and camera quality for most people who appreciate range vs depth in a smartphone.
Best of all, the Moto Z Play opens up Motorola’s MotoMods concept to a much bigger audience with its reasonable price. You’ll have money leftover to buy into that snazzy pico projector after all.
Who’s this for?
Moto Z Play is going to appeal to mid-range phone buyers who want a long-lasting, versatile Android phone at a reason price. That’s a potentially big audience.
Its MotoMod accessories add to the cost, but that’s all the more reason to go with Moto Z Play over the more expensive Moto Z or Moto Z Force. You can by an extra mod or two that way.
Just don’t expect it to push the limits of gaming now or sail as smoothly through menus two years from today. Its specs aren’t nearly as future-proofed as a high-end phone, even if it comes off as a premium handset otherwise.
Should you buy it
Yes, if you want to dabble in MotoMods, or get a powerful-enough Android phone with two-day battery life. This is a cheap way of achieving both of those goals without sacrificing or spending too much money.
The LG G5 is the other modular smartphone of 2016 you need to know about. Its add-ons don’t clip on with fancy magnets, but it does feature expandable battery life and killer speaker accessories. Motorola has already demonstrated that its MotoMods have legs beyond the initial LG. LG has not. But the G5 has better specs for its just-above-mid-range price.
It’s faster than the Moto Z Play, in line with the performance of the higher-end Moto Z and Moto Z Force, and it features a removable battery. We also like its 5.3-inch Quad HD screen and always-on display. Basically, it’s the middle-of-the-road alternative between the Moto Z Play and Moto Z in terms of price, design and features.