Motorola/Lenovo has just launched a new Moto Z phone called Moto Z Play. At the moment, we unit we have is a Verizon “Moto Z Play Droid”– but expect to find a GSM unlocked (and unsubsidized) version. The Moto Z Play has been designed to provide a premium experience and a very long-lasting battery life, for an affordable price. That is its “raison d’etre”, where the Moto Z is very thin, and the Moto Z Force is super-durable.
This review was last updated on 2017/09/14. We have selected the following phones as competitors in the $400 price range: LG V20, ZTE Axon Elite, iPhone 6 Plus, Sony XPERIA XZ, Samsung Galaxy S7. There are potentially more competitors based on price alone, but we consider these to be the most interesting ones.
- 5.5” Super-AMOLED display, 1080p (1920×1080), 401 PPI
- 16 Megapixel f2.0 aperture, 1.3 µm sensor pixel size. No Optical Stabilization
- Snapdragon 625 main processor
- 3510 mAh battery
- Android 6.0 at launch (2016). Android 6.0.1 in September 2017
The Moto Z Play is not a small phone and could easily be compared to a Galaxy Note 7 when it comes to size. It has a 5.5” Display which is hidden behind an edge to edge tempered (flat) glass. The design is neat, and the materials look good. The Moto Z Play definitely feels like a premium phone rather than a mid-range handset.
The back of the phone is also covered with glass with a nice textured pattern surface behind it. The Motorola Logo is just above the middle of the back side, and the enormous camera module is right above it. The design of the camera is probably meant to “project power.”
Also, since the camera was going to budge anyway, Motorola decided to make a statement with it. It’s quite difficult (and probably expensive) to make the camera completely flush with the backside, and the Huawei P9 is one of the rare phones with a flush quality camera.
Build quality: good
Both glass and ceramic are more smooth and shiny materials that give out a premium aura, both visually and upon contact. Money aside, the price to pay for such luxury is the risk of breakage that can occur if the device lands on a hard surface. Regardless, people still prefer these materials because they are so nice.
The Moto Z Play has the particularity of having a snap-on module capability that also lets you snap custom back covers that will protect the back glass in case of a shock. More on that shortly…
Looking at how the smartphone was built, we estimate that the risk of cracking during a fall on a hard surface to be relatively high. With the protective back cover, the risk could be reduced by about 12%. You can refer to our general article about how phones could be designed to avoid cracks upon drops.
With a width of 76mm (2.99 inches) and a thickness of 6mm (0.24 inches), the smartphone feels OK in width but is a bit chubby in thickness by today’s standards. We use U.S M-size gloves for male hand-size reference, so this will vary from person to person. The device weighs 165 grams (5.82 oz.), and we would consider that weight to be good for its size since it is lighter than the two 5.5” competing devices (LG V20 and iPhone 6 Plus).
At the bottom, you can spot the MotoMods connector for the various modules the Moto Z Play can use. So far, there’s a Camera, a Speaker, a video Projector and a battery module. The neat thing with those modules is that they don’t require you to open the back cover or the bottom (like the LG G5). They just snap onto the Moto Z Play’s back.The most peculiar thing I found on this phone is the fingerprint reader, which is located where the Home button usually is, but yet can’t be used as a Home button. Also, there was ample room to add Home/Menu and Back physical buttons to free up some space in the user interface.
Learn more: How do Fingerprint Scanners Work?
Durability: nothing special
Without an IP-rating or a MilSpecs certification, it is impossible to tell how much this smartphone design can endure. Out of caution, you should assume that the Moto Z Play cannot sustain the same level of water/dust exposure and shocks/vibrations than competitors that are certified. Without an official rating, some device may resist water and dust to a degree, but you should consider that to be luck. Do not count on it.
3 out of 5 competitors have some form of durability certification: LG V20 (Mil-810G), XPERIA XZ (IP68), Galaxy S7 (IP68).
Ingenuity: quite good
This industrial design features decent performance in relation to its size. From another standpoint, how much battery capacity the customer gets is great for a device of this size (second only to the Galaxy S7). The screen display-to-body ratio of 70.3% is also average in this price range.
Display: Super AMOLED
With a 5.5” Super-AMOLED screen, the Moto Z Play offers an adequate image quality and sharpness. However, it has an FHD (1920×1080) resolution, probably to optimize its price positioning. Of course, it always nicer to have a QHD display, but in this price range, we find the decision to be completely reasonable.
Resolution aside, the display image quality is excellent. Out of the box, it’s not completely obvious because the preloaded images were a bit gloomy, but once I loaded our usual set of pictures used for phone reviews, I could immediately get a sense for it.
The main difference between OLED and LCD displays is how light is emitted. With LCD, there is a small number of white light emitters (1-2 for handsets, 2-100 for TVs) and black pixels are created by “blocking” the white light with a filter. Unfortunately, using a filter leads to “light bleeding” and “black color” that is dark-gray.
With OLED, every pixel emits its own light. This also means that creating a black pixel just means leaving it OFF. As a result, black color is actually black, and other colors are more straightforward to control without using complex filters and color control technologies such as Quantum Dots and Nano Dots. You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article which goes deeper into the details.
Learn more: LCD vs. OLED. Which is Best And Why?
We find the Moto Z Play display to show vibrant colors and excellent contrast. The 1080p (1920×1080) resolution is standard in this price range, but the LG V20 and the Galaxy S7 have a superior 2560×1440 resolution.
The display brightness of is 361 NITs. In general, more intense light is preferred to read the screen content on a sunny day (or bright environment). Higher brightness is responsible for better image quality in widespread situations.
The Moto Z Play’s brightness is quite decent, but all other competitors are found to have higher maximum brightness with the XPERIA XZ peaking at 630 NITs and the Galaxy S7 closer at 480 NITs. If you often use your phone outdoor, this might be something to consider. If not, then it’s probably OK.
The Moto Z Play has a 16 Megapixel main camera with an aperture of f2.0 and laser-based autofocus (AF). This means that it can quickly figure out of the subject is close or far to switch to macro and infinite AF modes very quickly. In between, it will use the distance estimator to adapt to the current situation. It’s a pretty good way of doing it.
Mobile cameras have become extremely good over the years. But, it is true that there is an enormous difference between them based on cost, but also depending on technology and expertise of the handset maker.
It is important to realize that mobile photography has two foundations of great importance: Software and Hardware. The software is usually very secretive, and it is extremely difficult to gain reliable information to gage its quality through an unbiased process. Also, photography is not just science, it is also art.
In general, the Moto Z Play outputs good photos in most conditions. In broad daylight, it even has a slight tendency to make things a little brighter than its competitors, which can be good in some situations when the display isn’t set to a high brightness.
We noticed a tendency of the image processing to blur out fine details, even in bright scene photos, and that probably has to do with an aggressive approach to noise reduction, which is based on blurring parts of the image. Most people wouldn’t look that closely, but in a competitive environment, small things do matter.
Low-light: pretty good
In low-light scenes, the Moto Z Play will tend to crank up the ISO higher, which leads to more noise and use more image processing which tends to blur out fine details a little.
This is quite common, and in fairness, the Moto Z Play does quite well against a phone like the Sony XPERIA XZ, which may look better on paper. However, it may be outmatched by cameras such like the LG V20 or the Galaxy S7 which will preserve fine details better at low light.
Also, image quality isn’t the only thing to take into account. Overall camera speed is also very important in the camera experience, and the Moto Z Play could use some improvements as well when facing The S7 or V20 in a low-light contest.
The Moto Z Play’s camera does NOT have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) on the primary camera module. The lack of OIS support will lower the chances to snap great photos, especially in dark lighting situations. Unfortunately, the Moto Z Play is the only phone in the group to have skipped optical image stabilization.
Learn more: What is Image Stabilization?
OIS would have helped to achieve better image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting tiny hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it possible to leave the shutter open longer to capture more light (longer exposure). Optical and digital stabilization are completely different, with digital stabilization suitable to help video
In the Moto Z Play, the camera aperture of f/2.0 is decent, and the sensor size of ~15 mm2 would be considered average when compared to alternatives. The XPERIA XZ has a larger camera sensor, and the Galaxy S7 was last year’s top camera phone, so it naturally leads the pack in this review’s selection.
The Moto Z Play 16 Megapixel camera resolution should never be used as a general metric of photo quality. In low-light situations, high Megapixel count (>12) does not matter much. Also, the physical size of each sensor pixel is important.
With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller. Each obtains less light information, and in dark conditions, it is better for the overall image quality to sense more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite. It is a balance that needs to be struck. Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor compromise between sharpness, low-light and autofocus performance.
On a sunny day or in very bright light scenes, Megapixel could be a good proxy for photographic detail and sharpness. For example, on a sunny day, a cityscape photo with a higher megapixel count could show finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.
There are other phones that use a laser-based AF, like the LG G4/G5, but the Moto Z Play isn’t as fast as they are when it comes to AF. The camera hunts a little bit at the moment, but it’s OK overall – just not as good as they best out there. We’re far from a Galaxy S7 here – but at about half the price, it’s hard to complain.
The autofocus of the Moto Z Play camera is based on Laser technology.
Laser-based AF is based upon the simple idea that a lot of photos subjects are often either quite far (infinity) from the camera, or are very nearby (macro). By projecting an infrared pattern (structured light) and looking at how it bounces back to the camera, it is possible to very quickly determine if we need to zoom far or close. This is important because unneeded forward/backward focus-motor motion is avoided, thus making AF faster.
The system can also handle many in-between situations, but not all. It is possible to fall back to Contrast AF. Laser-AF is faster than contrast-AF but is inferior to Phase Detection AF (LG V20, iPhone 6) and Dual-Pixel Phase Detection AF (Galaxy S7).
Battery: 3510 mAh
The battery capacity of Moto Z Play is 3510 mAh, which is great in general, and excellent in its own category. The handset provides the highest capacity by far (3510 mAh vs. 3200 for the next competitor, the LG V20). Its design also features the highest battery density of this group, second only the Galaxy S7. Last but not least, the capacity can easily be extended with a motomods battery accessory, which is thinner than a case.
Battery life is one of the most sought-after features of a smartphone. A key indicator is, of course, its battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). Battery life can be affected by a bunch of factors, but the main ones are main processor, display and wireless radios (broadband, wifi, the location of the cell towers and much more).
It is not possible to accurately pinpoint through benchmarks how much energy drain YOUR unique usage pattern will induce. However, two things are without a doubt always good:
- A larger battery capacity
- Faster charging
Motorola claims that the phone is capable of going through “50 hours of mixed use” (with screen on). We have yet to put it to the test, but technically, what we see in the specs and software would lead us to be skeptical, at least with our own sense of what “mixed usage” is. Maybe Motorola needs to define a few things here.
Given that the Moto Z Play runs on a Snapdragon 625 chip (main processor), it’s reasonable to think that the energy budget is easily kept under control, so the battery life should be quite good. Given that high-end phones can last a day (or more) with a Snapdragon 820, we would predict that the Moto Z Play can breeze through the day without creating anxiety, again with a normal usage (vs. a power-user one).
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 is a very good SoC for phones in this price range. It has a two sets of four cores in a big.LITTLE style configuration in which the most appropriate cores do the job at any given time. They can all be enabled at once if needed, but that’s mainly useful for CPU benchmarks.
Learn more: what is a SoC or System On a Chip?
Launched in February 2016, the Snapdragon 615 is a mid-range processor which includes an Adreno 506 graphics processor (GPU). It’s not the most powerful in its class, since the Snapdragon 650 and 652 are faster, simply because they are optimized for QHD (2560×1600) displays. The 615 also doesn’t support broadcasting the phone’s screen over WiFi with Miracast.
There’s 2GB of RAM, so it’s best to keep multitasking under control. Concurrently running apps may result in having a more sluggish phone. This is one of main differences between mid-range and high-end handsets, when it comes to day to day computing.
Benchmarks alone should NOT drive a smartphone purchase decision. Gaming performance tests apply mainly to complex games using 3D graphics. Casual games such as puzzles and 2D games do not need this kind of speed and can run pretty much on any modern device.
The performance analysis with without appeal. Like most products originally designed to compete in the $400-$500 space, the Moto Z Play was equipped with a mid-range processor option with the Snapdragon 6xx series. Competitors in in this review are equipped with high-end processors of their era, and there is simple no way for this handset to win the benchmark battle.
Essentially, it was competitive when it came out, but as prices sled, it can no longer compete efficiently with performance.
The Moto Z Play is a well-designed phone with a unique motomods add-on capability, an excellent battery capacity, and a good camera. The battery and motomods should be the main differentiation when considering this phone.
If you want to opt for a nicer (but more fragile) design and less battery, the Galaxy S7 will win. The LG V20 has better durability, a removable battery, and a super-wide angle camera.
When making the final choice for these phones, you have to weigh your options carefully, because there is not “perfect phone” in general, just a great phone “for you.”