Moto Z Play review: Display
5.5-inch AMOLED panel
1080 x 1920 Full HD resolution
Corning Gorilla Glass 3 covering
As with almost every other important phone of the last two years, this Moto has a 5.5-inch AMOLED display. With it being a mid-market product, it’s Full HD rather than Quad HD resolution, but is plenty sharp, bright and colorful enough. Watching movies and gaming on the device shows no real flaws.
It’s a 1080p Full HD screen with 403 pixel per inch instead of a 2K resolution. It doesn’t look as stunning close up, but it’s still beautiful and bright enough that you won’t complain.
Advertisement. 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 a notification icon reveals more information, like the beginning of an email body. Flicking the icon up opens the message. Flicking it down dismisses it. Motorola scores major points with this minor touch.
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 on those phones, 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.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: The Moto Z Play looks almost identical to the Moto Z Force, the hardy modular flagship I tested earlier this year. That’s a good thing. From its dimensions to its fingerprint sensor to the signature camera hump around the back, the Moto Z Play looks and feels like a phone that costs almost $300 more.
The phone’s familiar design also means the return of certain annoying design quirks, like the fingerprint sensor that looks, but doesn’t act, like a home button. (I can’t complain about that too much, though, since the sensor actually works very well.) Even stranger, the so-called Moto Mods that magnetically connect to the Z Play’s back don’t feel quite as seamless as when they’re connected to other Moto Z’s. That said, most people probably won’t know the difference.
The Motorola that’s endured so much change these past few years still prefers stock Android (in this case, 6.0.1 Marshmallow), leaving us with a software stack that’s largely untouched. That shouldn’t really surprise anyone: Motorola wasn’t going to blaze new software trails on a mid-range version of its flagship device. The look, the app launcher, the underlying functionality it’s all just Marshmallow.
Motorola’s additions are as subtle as ever, and exist mostly in the form of smart gestures. Waving your hands over the Z Play’s face like a Jedi makes the screen light up, proffering the time and your notifications. Double-twisting your wrist launches the camera, and a relatively new double karate chop fires up the flashlight. (Pro tip: Don’t use your whole arm.)
Relatively new to the mix is a one-handed mode that’s invoked by swiping up from the bottom of the display. Motorola’s implementation isn’t perfect — you can’t resize or move the shrunken window — but it’s really useful if the 5.5-inch screen is a little too big to use with one hand. Perhaps the biggest issue with the feature is that it can be too easy to activate accidentally, which probably explains why it’s not on by default: You’ll have to dive into the included Moto app to enable it. Then there are Motorola’s voice commands, which have steadily gotten more precise since they debuted on the original Moto X three years ago. They’re nice enough to have and work as well as they always did — just don’t expect the same sort of conversational fluidity you’d get from something like the new Google Assistant.
And that’s really it. As a brief aside, this is the first time I’ve used an unlocked version of the Moto Z, and I can’t stress how much nicer it feels to use without all that carrier-mandated bloatware. Android device manufacturers now realize that cleanliness, while not that close to godliness, is a virtue worth exploring when it comes to interfaces. To date, few phone makers match Motorola in its devotion to pure Android, and I’ll keep doling out the kudos as long as the company keeps at it.
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. It’s still competent with a 2GHz octa-core CPU, 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 506 GPU, but it’s not as fast or as future-proofed as the Moto Z or Moto Z Force.
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.
The Moto Z Play’s main camera is a mixed bag, but not for the reasons you’d expect. In terms of pure resolution, the 16-megapixel sensor here sits somewhere between the Moto Z’s 13-megapixel camera and the Z Force’s much better 21-megapixel shooter. Not bad, right? Well, hold on: The Z Play camera works with an f/2.0 aperture, as compared with the f/1.8 apertures used by both of its predecessors. In other words, the Z Play is technically capable of capturing a little more photographic nuance than the bog-standard Moto Z, but lags behind it when it comes to low-light performance. The Z Play’s camera also lacks optical image stabilization, making it slightly more susceptible to blurry edges and obscured faces, especially when it’s dark.
So yes, your poorly lit bar photos won’t turn out great. Even so, the Z Play doesn’t completely drop the ball, and perhaps more important it’s capable of producing some really attractive shots when the lights come back up. Colors seem accurately represented (though you might sometimes see whites turn a little blue), and there was often plenty of detail to gawk at. The very act of snapping photos is quick too, with basically zero lag before taking a new shot.
Moto Z Play Camera
16MP rear camera
Laser autofocus and phase detection autofocus
No shutter lag
Up to 4K video resolution
The camera on the Moto Z Play is easily capable of taking good photos, but it likes to make you work for some of them. In automatic mode, the focus accuracy is hit and miss, especially with objects that are closer to the lens. When you hit the shutter button though, the photo is taken instantaneously – there’s zero lag.
Performance and battery life
When you put a 3,510mAh battery into an Android phone running Nougat with a Full HD screen and modern, efficient processor, good things happen in terms of battery life. We got from taking the phone off charge in the morning until 5pm on a relatively busy work day without using more than 35 per cent charge (that’s 65 per cent remaining after almost a whole work day). Most days, in fact, we got to bedtime with around 50 per cent left in the tank.
If you’re a light user (and we’re not), then the Moto Z Play could easily be a two-day phone, and that’s rare to find. Perhaps even more reassuring is that the TurboPower 15 charger that ships with it can refill it again within a couple of hours. In fact, it can give you enough juice in 15 minutes of charging to last you a full work day. Using the aforementioned Incipio Power Pack Mod we managed to get to the end of a third full day before getting to a concerningly low level of power. That’s unthinkable from most modern phones.