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Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Playtime is over

4.5

The Good

  • Slim, sturdy, premium design
  • Smart Android modifications
  • Excellent battery life
  • Moto Mods support

The Bad

  • No EIS when recording 4K video
  • Viewing angle issues
  • Camera bump

Our in-depth Moto Z2 Play review uncovers whether or not Motorola's first 'Z' phone of the year makes a worthwhile successor to the Z Play that launched only a few months ago.

The Moto Z Play is still on offer directly from Motorola for £369.98 with the Z2 Play already available for pre-order ahead of its mid-August release at £379 on the dot. For that, you get a tweaked, arguably hardier design and a fancier front-facing camera flash but a smaller battery and a lower resolution primary camera as well. As is so often the case in the smartphone world, however, less does not automatically mean worse and the Z2 Play looks like it’s bringing the heat in the mid-range space.

That said, it’s got some fierce competition from within its price range including the £379 Honor 9, which considers itself a flagship and packs a punch to match, alongside the older, but still robust, Sony Xperia X Compact and the stunning Samsung Galaxy A5 (2017).

So can the Moto Z2 Play win us over with its masterful mid-range wiles or does it fall short of the mark despite a modular design and some solid performance?

Read next: Moto Z2 Force vs Moto Z2 Play: What's the difference?

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Design

Being a member of the Moto Z family means one very important thing: all Z devices support Motorola’s Moto Mods ecosystem - a range of modular accessories and add-ons that augment each phone’s underlying hardware to enhance the user experience or throw on some extra functionality.

It’s a pretty smart and slick system and one of the only viable modular platforms that’s actually lasted in the smartphone space, with the LG G5’s ‘Friends’ range dying out before it really got off the ground and the same fate befalling Google’s modular smartphone concept, Project Ara.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Front Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Back

As such, the Z2 Play is the first of the company’s 2017 smartphones to support Moto Mods and a few new offerings are launching alongside it as well. If any one aspect of your phone doesn’t make the grade then this is one of the few devices where that’s repairable to some extent. Don’t like the sound quality? The new JBL SoundBoost 2 mod will sort you out. Want wireless charging or need longer battery life? Motorola just released two new own-brand mods to meet those needs. There’s a forthcoming gamepad mod that’s compatible with hundreds of games from the Play Store as well.

Read next: What are Moto Mods?

As for the phone itself, it looks and feels as well developed and premium as any flagship. It’s incredibly strong and sturdy thanks to an all-metal body with rounded edges for comfort and a flat metal back with a dock at the bottom in order to interface with the various Moto Mods.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Moto Mods dock

Aside from its clean appearance, the device also boasts a narrow 6mm profile, provided you excuse the 2mm deep camera bump up top.

Despite slimming down versus its predecessor, the Z2 Play also retains a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a reversible USB-C port along the bottom edge, whilst the small hardware controls are textured and deliberate for better ergonomics, whilst a more comfortable pill-shaped fingerprint sensor nestles in under the display amidst the cover glass.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Style Cover

One constraint of the Z family is that they all sport 5.5-inch displays and as such have bodies to match, so they Z2 Play is a pretty sizeable phone in-hand, even if the software alleviates any issues to do with size and operation thanks to a native one-handed mode.

Unlike true flagship phones the Z2 Play doesn’t offer any formal level of certified water resistance, which is to say it has no IP (ingress protection) rating tied to it, as you’d find on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 or S8, however, Motorola does coat the phone and its internal components in hydrophobic protective coatings so chances are the Z2 Play will still be fine should you decide to use it in the rain.

What works?

Moto Mods add a wealth of interesting and powerful functionality to this premium mid-ranger and the phone looks and feels like a flagship.

What doesn’t?

It’s a big device for one-handed use and that flat back means the phone will never look quite as slick as some rival smartphone designs.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Screen and media

Samsung typically leads the way when it comes to Super AMOLED panels but the Z2 Play’s 5.5-inch display is unquestionably easy on the eye, if a little imperfect.

The Full HD screen is expansive and sharp with great contrast, only marginally oversaturated colours (which is fine if you like a little punch) and strong overall brightness, meaning use in bright environments is seldom problematic.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Screen

There is a ‘but’, however, with colour distortion rearing its unwelcome head if you twist the phone away from face-on. It’s not too extreme but unquestionably visible, and a trait that, if memory serves, wasn’t present on the similarly specced panel employed by its predecessor.

Whilst it hasn’t echoed Samsung’s always-on screen tech, Motorola has given the Z2 Play a version of its familiar Moto Display feature, which we first encountered on the original Moto X. In this iteration just touching the phone or waving your hand near the display will cause it illuminate briefly, presenting you with a clock, battery readout and any pending notifications in a clear glanceable format. It’s a handy feature that works perfectly 99 percent of the time.

If you’re a movie lover it’s also worth mentioning the Insta-Share Projector mod (£249.98), which as the name implies, snaps onto the back of a compatible handset like the Z2 Play and lets you enjoy media at up to 70-inches on any flat surface in an instant.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Moto Z Play with Insta-Share projector mod
The Insta-Share projector being demoed attached to 2016's Moto Z Play

As for the audio experience, instead of a single downward-facing speaker like most mobiles, the Z2 Play’s main output comes straight from the earpiece. It’s nice to have a forward-firing speaker that’s less likely to be obscured when holding the phone in landscape and if the respectable audio it pushes out isn’t enough, that SoundBoost 2 Moto Mod is on-hand to add more volume, better bass, stereo separation and longer play time into the mix.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: JBL SoundBoost 2 Moto Mod

If you’re the sort who likes to carry their media around with them then the Z2 Play is also well-stocked on that front too. It comes with 32GB, or in the case of the UK model at least, 64GB of internal space and microSD expandability up to a whopping 2TB. Chances are you’ll never have to worry about filling this phone up completely.

What works?

The Z2 Play gives you a bright, punchy screen and decent audio but Moto Mods are again on-hand if you want to take things to the next level on both fronts. It also packs plenty of storage space and room to add more.

What doesn’t?

The display suffers from mild colour distortion at more extreme angles. It’s by no means a deal-breaker but a trait of the Z2 Play’s display to be aware of if you’re a media-lover who likes their visuals as true-to-source as possible.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: OS and features

Moto Display and one-handed use are actually part of a larger feature set unique to Motorola’s handsets dubbed Moto Actions. In the Z2 Play you can pull off a number of other feats including quick-launching the camera with a double twist of the wrist or access a wealth of voice actions activated by the words “show me” that operate independently of the “OK, Google” skill set.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: OS screenshots series 1

For the most part, Motorola doesn’t warp the stock Android software setup all that much and the 7.1.1 Nougat experience on the Z2 Play feels clean and current as a result. The launcher is reminiscent of the one employed by Google’s own Pixel and Pixel XL, with a swipe up to reveal the apps drawer and a swipe right to get at Google Now. Nougat also means native split-screen multitasking, which is an enjoyable enough experience on the Z2 Play’s large display.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: OS screenshots series 2

Aside from Moto Actions, Motorola also includes a Moto Mods app to support the growing number of compatible accessories, whilst some benefit from additional third-party apps, which could get messy depending on how many mods you plan on picking up.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: OS screenshots series 3

What works?

We’re fans of the Z2 Play’s thoughtfully modified yet clean take on Android Nougat and the wealth of extra functionality made possible via the Moto Actions feature set.

What doesn’t?

Some of the Moto Actions are notably more useful than others but there’s very little to take issue with when it comes to software and user experience.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Performance and battery life

With such a short break between the Z Play and its successor, the internal hardware doesn’t appear to have changed all that much between the generations. That said, Motorola has updated the spec sheet enough to ensure that this new Moto feels suitably speedy alongside the competition.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: USB-C port

The Snapdragon 626 and 4GB of RAM (3GB in some markets) puts plenty of pep in the Z2 Play’s step when handling everyday tasks like web browsing, photo editing and multitasking, with a beefy enough GPU to keep more demanding 3D games running at an enjoyable clip for the most part.

As for longevity, Motorola actually had to pack a smaller cell inside the slimmer-framed Z2 Play but despite the trade-off, you can still expect excellent battery life from this phone. It can take a day of heavy use in its stride or cover almost two days of lighter use. What’s more, the Moto Mods family is yet again able to augment the phone’s naturally aspirated battery with an additional power pack that shares in the phone’s native Turbo Power fast charge functionality or there’s a new wireless charging enabled Style Shell if you want to snip those wires altogether.

What works?

Outstanding battery life, even before turning to Moto Mods for a helping hand.

What doesn’t?

Dependable mid-range performance begins to crack under heavier loads like intensive gaming.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Cameras

Along with a smaller battery, Motorola has also cleaved a few megapixels from the Z2 Play’s main snapper (versus last year’s model) meaning it now sports a 12-megapixel sensor (instead of 16). That said, it benefits from dual autofocus pixels, a pleasingly-wide f/1.7 aperture and enlarged 1.4µm pixels, paired with a wealth of other helpful additions like phase detection autofocus (PDAF), a laser autofocus array and a dual-tone LED flash, as on previous Moto Z handsets.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Camera

On the front you’ll find a 5-megapixel wide-angle camera with a narrower f/2.2 aperture that also benefits from a dual-tone LED flash too.

As for picture quality, we were seriously impressed with the Z2 Play’s efforts in most situations. Across the board, it struggles with fine detail but overall image presentation is wholly respectable. You get pleasing colours, well-balanced contrast, fast automated adjustment of everything from focus to exposure and it shoots in HDR by default. Low light shots are slow to take and little noisy but still well-captured after a bit of post-processing magic, and it’s all wrapped up in a simple, easy-to-use interface.

Video quality isn’t too shabby either. Fine detail and fast motion are the biggest issues and although image fidelity (including colours and contrast) are more appealing when shooting in 4K, you lose out on the capable electronic image stabilisation (EIS) system present when shooting in Full HD.

Motorola’s camera interface offers all the fundamentals you’d expect like manual control, panorama capture and slow motion video recording but some of the more creative tools, like real-time filters are absent.

What works?

A clean, simple interface powers a competent all-round set of snappers with pleasing colour, contrast and low light performance. If you want to step things up, the Hasselblad True Zoom mod brings lossless optical zoom and RAW image capture to the table.

What doesn’t?

Fine detail across the board looks a little muddy, low light photos take a long time to capture and EIS is absent from otherwise pleasing looking 4K video footage.

Read next: Moto Z2 Play Camera Review

Motorola Moto Z2 Play Review: Verdict

Despite its name, the Motorola Moto Z2 Play is anything but fooling around, offering a flagship-like experience for almost half the price. It’s bigger and bulkier than similarly-priced mid-rangers and cracks under pressure when compared to the performance of a true flagship; but a premium design, great screen, excellent battery life and the unique benefits of the Moto Mods platform make this sub-£400 mid-ranger a seriously enticing smartphone.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Handheld

See how it stacks up against last year’s Samsung flagship, the Galaxy S7 Edge here or this year’s the Galaxy S8, here.

Key Specs

  • 5.5-inches
  • Full HD (1920x1080)
  • 145 grams
  • Android 7.1.1 Nougat
  • 12-megapixels
  • 5-megapixels
  • 2.2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 626
  • 3GB/4GB RAM (Tested with 4GB)
  • 32GB/64GB (tested with 64GB). Expandable via microSD up to 2TB
  • Yes
  • Moto Actions, Moto Display, Moto Mods support, fingerprint sensor, Turbo Power fast charging

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