The idea of a modular smartphone was, some trendy concepts made headlines but quickly fell apart (Phonebloks/Google Project Ara), and lukewarm semblances of swappable handsets (LG G5). It’s probably fair to say that Motorola is weathering the storm better thank to their prior Moto Z flagship—and now with the Moto z² Play.
A big reason the concept of interchangeability became a passing fad is commitment. By contrast, the implementation of Moto Mods is a lot more reasonable, as it trickles down into the affordable mid-tier. The Z2 Play moves forward with agreeable performance while carrying over the innovative method of swapping out new accessories as molded backings. What more could ask for in this price range?
There isn’t much to clue you in on the changes as this design debuted last year. In order to make all of its Moto Mods compatible across the board the shape is nearly indistinguishable from current Moto Z models. A textured power button, fingerprint sensor on the bottom lip, and a protruding camera lens on the rear is both sleek and functional.
Expect this conservative look to be the norm for a while without drastic changes, fortunately they did manage to make the Z2 Play a little thinner at 5.99mm, weighs 145g, and utilizes a darkened gunmetal body. On the flipside, you get no protection against the elements or IP certification, although most Motorola phone can take a few splashes thanks to Nanocoating water repellent.
AMOLED and Brightness
A 5.5-inch 1920 x 1080 AMOLED display with 401ppi density come standard with the Moto Z2 Play. If you viewed an AMOLED type before you’ll be happy knowing that rich color hues and semi-accurate contrasts in black come together nicely, at least for indoor environments. We also appreciate the optional night display that apply warmer tone to prepare you for sleep, and reduce eyestrain for night owls.
Unfortunately, direct sunlight can sometimes make the AMOLED screen its bitch even with adaptive controls turned on. The only fix is turning the brightness up to maximum but not much else.
The Z2 Play comes in two flavors but doesn’t step out of line with the overall specs, being equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 and the Adreno 506 GPU, which has served many other sub-$500 phones admirably. Things only differ depending on if you go with Verizon (which is our test unit) or paid in full for an unlocked model—stick with the default carrier and memory is limited to 32GB and 3GB of LPDDR3, or have the freedom and a generous bump of 64GB/4GB RAM. Either way you can add your own microSD card for extra space, up to 2TB to be exact (if such a card exists).
So how does it operate for a midrange phone? We did not have complaints when sticking to everyday activities. Boot time is brisk in a neighborhood of 28-32 seconds and handles emails, YouTube breaks, and social media updates without a hiccup. Jumping between apps or opting to use the fingerprint sensor happens quickly and an additional kudos for Motorola in making the sensor recognize gestures to navigate the UI in a practical manner.
We also appreciate that there is somehow enough real estate to give us a headphone jack, and purists will also be delighted that Motorola keeps Android 7.1.1 Nougat close to stock unless you opt for the Verizon model. Granted, I do like the other Moto-oriented touches like chopping your wrist twice to switch on the flashlight and noticing my usage habits and offering some friendly notifications.
Battery and Call Quality
However, returning Moto Z owners will a little disappointed by the battery capacity reduced to a 3000mAh pack thanks to the Z2 Play’s thinner frame. It might not be a huge loss but you can expect charging your phone more often with battery life lasting about 17 hours from a full bar, only power hogs will notice the decrease as we easily managed getting more than a entire day’s worth of use before slapping on the Moto Mod turbopower pack for an another 20 hours.
Call quality is average and has to make do with a pinhole-sized microphone that gets the message across for the typical five-minute conversations. The audio from the speaker is less adequate as the Z2 Play gets a single front speaker, amounting to a muddled listening experience at times or putting your ear real close to whatever music or video is on. Many will tolerate this or contemplate getting the JBL SoundBoost Moto Mod.
A Passable Camera
The camera on the Moto Z2 Play has less megapixels (12MP) but sports larger pixels and captures more with an f/1.7 aperture. A similar tactic applied to Xperia XZs we reviewed earlier.
Like that smartphone, I also came away initially impressed as the camera tries to do more with less. Good lighting is needed before anything else and certainly won’t make photographers jealous, but it takes a clean shot with acceptable color reproduction. But expectations were gradually tempered as we noticed many images lack sharpness and highlights fall prey to minute changes in bright/dark areas, even the inclusion of HDR bring separate problems with leisurely shutter speeds, stability, and unwanted noise. We learned to cope with inadequacies by dabbling the options and your results may vary.
The front-facing 5MP shooter is equally adequate as the LED flash illuminates your selfies without excessive harshness, at the sacrifice of detail in outdoor settings. In essence: it gets the job done when Friday night selfies gradually turn into a drunken bar crawl or Intsagram timeline.
Verdict: Playing with Moto Mods
Truth be told, I am smitten with the Motorola Moto z² Play but there is an level of commitment involved to get the most this phone has to offer—of course I’m talking about the Moto Mods which are a separate investment.
You really have to be loyal to the brand if you are willing to go all in, because it is the accessory swapping that gives the entire Moto Z lineup character. Despite the Mods making up half of the experience this is a solid phone with a feasible gimmick, we (largely) dig it.