Moto Z Play review: does it need to play in traffic?

The Moto Z managed to succeed where Google’s Project Ara and LG’s G5 failed, by delivering a phone with easy to use Moto Mod add-ons. Sure, it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as replacing processors and RAM like Project Ara, but it was certainly a more elegant solution than LG’s 2016 device.

Lenovo also revealed the Moto Z Play at the tail-end of last year, featuring a not-quite-affordable-but-still-cheaper-than-the-flagship R9000 price tag. But is Moto Z Play worth a buy, then?

Hardware design

Moto Z Play

If there’s one thing to say about the Moto Z Play, it’s that it’s a peculiar handset in the design department. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Take the phone out of the box and you’ll find the metal back, magnetic strip at the bottom and a protruding camera housing. Fortunately, the Kevlar-like plastic cover is in the box too, and it makes the phone feel very grippy, while sitting flush with the camera housing.

In other words, it’s similar to the Moto Z, but with one important difference. Yes, there’s actually an earphone jack, situated at the bottom (next to the USB Type C port). What a strange world where the more expensive handset lacks a 3.5mm jack…

In any event, we’ve also got a SIM/microSD slot at the top and power/volume keys on the right hand side. My only complaint here is that the volume and power keys are a bit too close together. But otherwise, it’s a very pleasant design in general.

Moto Mods are dead simple

Moto Z Play

Of course, the main reason why you’d want to get the Moto Z Play is for the Moto Mods, being magnetic add-ons that snap onto the back of the device.

It’s super easy to use as well, as you take off the back cover and slap the Mod onto the phone. The Mod is magnetically attached to the phone and you don’t have to worry about misalignment or anything like that — it just seamlessly slides into place.

Available Mods include a Hasselblad camera mod, a power bank, a projector and a JBL speaker. We made extensive use of the speaker, making for a massively thick device in the process.

We snapped the mod on the back of the phone (with a finger recess at the bottom to remove it) and the phone automatically detected the mod and switched to the speaker. And, while the speaker isn’t super loud, it’s certainly louder and sounds better than many (if not all) smartphone speakers. And the sound wasn’t bad either, with tinny audio being a hallmark of smartphone output.

A frugal, yet capable chip

The lower price was achieved thanks to a 1080p AMOLED screen rather than a 1440p display, as well as a Snapdragon 625 chip rather than the benchmark-busting Snapdragon 820.

The former isn’t a bad compromise at all, as the Moto Z Play’s display is still vibrant and sharp. But the Snapdragon 625 isn’t the most powerful silicon around though, and you’ll occasionally feel this.

I found that the camera would stutter or take a few seconds to process HDR photos about half the time, and it’s those precious few seconds that can mean the difference between capturing the moment or, well… not. Otherwise, the phone’s processor and 3GB of RAM meant that general performance was rather smooth. Gaming is handled rather well too, so expect the latest titles to run at a solid pace for at least the next year or so. Just don’t expect things like PSP emulators and other technically advanced fare to be super smooth.

The Moto Z Play isn’t powerful, but the Moto Mods and battery life make up for it

Sure, it’s not the most powerful chip at all by any measure then, but you’ll love the endurance as a result of the processor’s power-sipping nature. The phone was able to last on standby for several days, with the battery indicator not dropping much at all. Meanwhile, moderate usage (Facebook, Gmail, Messenger, music via Google Play Music) saw the phone last for two days with no conservation needed at all.

We didn’t have time to do the usual looping video playback test, but those on the hunt for a long-lasting smartphone will certainly need to put the Moto Z Play on their list. That combination of Snapdragon 625 and 3510mAh battery makes for a winning team in the battery department.

It doesn’t hurt that Lenovo’s take on Android is very true to stock. Android Nougat on the device is very lightweight, with few extra apps to be had and a very Spartan homescreen/launcher. There have been a few additions, such as the Moto Actions suite of gestures. So that means chopping twice for a flashlight, twisting your wrist to activate the camera and so forth. It’s been available since the Moto X days and once you get used to these gestures, you’ll find yourself actually using them (well, at least the flashlight chop).

The camera department

Moto Z Play samples
left right

Moto Z Play

Moto Z Play

Moto Z Play

Moto Z Play

Moto Z Play Sample

Low light is usually where a phone's budget trappings are known. The Moto Z is no different, owing to a ton of noise and dark images.

Moto Z Play Sample

The Moto Z Play occasionally surprises in mixed lighting, such as this solid snap.

Moto Z Play Sample

The phone goes for very saturated colours in HDR mode. But the slow processing results in ghosting too - check the bird.

Moto Z Play Sample

The HDR mode takes a turn for the overly saturated here. You couldn't really see the haze above the mountains with the naked eye.

Moto Z Play Sample

There's a lot of glare in this HDR shot, but I was happy with this shot nonetheless. It had an egg too.

The Moto Z camera wasn’t an amazing camera to begin with and, truth be told, the Moto Z Play isn’t flagship-level at all.

Daytime snaps are sharp and feature punchy colours, much like most phones above R4000 these days. But the real test is in low light, and the 16MP camera isn’t anywhere near the high end, featuring a ton of noise and dark images in general. The cheaper Xiaomi Mi 5 (review) has less noise in low-light situations, for one.

Then there’s the HDR processing, which varies between quick and several seconds. But the bigger issue is that ghosting also happens in these situations. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Meizu phones, but birds and other fast-moving things will definitely see noticeable blur.

The lack of optical image stabilisation is a disappointment too, as it would’ve gone a long way to improving low-light performance. As for video recording, we’re glad to see 4K quality in here, as well as 120fps slow-mo at 720p. Don’t expect the video clips to be amazing, with noticeable artifacts in the blue sky and some jitter (owing to the lack of OIS) in our 4K sample, for one. You can definitely get away with the quality for Facebook and Instagram videos though, but it doesn’t approach the standard set by Samsung and Apple’s flagships.

Additionally, the camera app, while full-featured (hello, professional controls), still pales in comparison to rival apps from Samsung, Sony and the like.

Worth a buy?

Moto Z Play

At a prepaid price of R9000, the Moto Z Play might be cheaper than the Moto Z, but you’re still getting those slick Moto Mod add-ons and a great battery life. However, it’s still far more expensive than the likes of the Huawei Nova and Xiaomi Mi 5. The Nova features the same chipset and a better camera, while the Mi 5 features a better camera and more powerful chipset.

In other words, you’re paying for long battery life and Moto Mods, rather than a great camera and powerful internals.

Verdict: Want a phone with Moto Mods, above all else? Then the long-lasting Moto Z Play is for you, even if the processor is ho-hum. Otherwise, the Huawei Nova and Mi 5 are definitely better buys.

Score: 7.5 out of 10



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.