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Moto X Play review

A big battery and a small price mark out the middle child of Motorola's 2015 lineup

Moto X 2013: great phone, bad camera. Moto X 2014: great phone, bad camera. What was it that George W. Bush said about not being fooled a third time? After two years of fatally flawed Moto X phones, Motorola has a new X series to sell us in 2015, but this time it’s paying due attention to the camera. The Moto X Play and its premium-tier sibling, the Moto X Style, both have a 21-megapixel camera that Motorola guarantees will make its phones “best in class.” If — and that’s a huge “if” — Motorola can rectify its biggest weakness while retaining the things that make its hardware attractive, it would indeed deserve to be part of that conversation.

The Moto X Play appears to have all the things that a modern smartphone requires and none of the superfluous extras. The Android software on board is barely distinguishable from Google’s stock version. Its processor, memory, and display specs are all a step down from the X Style, but the X Play actually has a larger battery and promises to last for two days on a single charge. And then there’s the price, which at £250 (roughly $385) in the UK is exactly half the cost of a new Galaxy S6. Even if you use the Moto Maker customization service and bump your expenditure up to £279, you’ll still be paying roughly half the price of an iPhone 6 or an HTC One M9.

One of my all-time favorite smartphones, Google’s 2013 Nexus 5, was priced at almost the same level as the Moto X Play. That was groundbreaking at the time, but it came with two major tradeoffs, as the Nexus 5 was hampered by a mediocre camera and underwhelming battery life. Motorola’s new smartphone has been designed to address exactly those concerns, and its best case scenario looks very much like a more perfect Nexus 5: ticking more of the truly desirable boxes, and at a lower price, than anyone else.

Take note: Motorola has opted not to sell the Moto X Play in the United States, but recent leaks indicate that the phone will make its way to the US under Verizon’s Droid Maxx branding, with an unsubsidized price of roughly $300.

The first thing I noticed upon extracting the Moto X Play from its box was its heft. This 5.5-inch handset isn’t any heavier than similarly sized competitors like the OnePlus 2 or iPhone 6 Plus, but it’s more compact than both and thus packs its weight more densely. The big 3,630 mAh battery has a lot to do with that. Encased in a chunky, metallic (but not metal) frame, this is an unmistakably masculine device, and even the wavy texture on the back panel is more evocative of a wire fence than anything warm and cozy.

There’s a roughness to the patterned back which I like, and it certainly enhances grip of the phone, though I’d have liked to see that treatment extended to the sides of the X Play as well. The smooth sides can be a little too slick to handle with assurance, making it easier to drop the handset (that will be a familiar issue to iPhone and HTC One owners). If you do drop the Moto X Play, though, there will be little reason to worry. Everything about this device seems to have been built to withstand a beating, and it feels incredibly rigid and tough. Its camera lens is also recessed slightly, rather than protruding as it is on many recent phones. The only real physical annoyance about the X Play is its loose volume rocker, which rattles when I move the phone around and feels nowhere near as nice and tactile as the ridged power button.

Think of this as a smartphone with the extra battery case built in

The best way to think of the Moto X Play is that it’s essentially a smartphone with the external case built in. It’s less refined than thinner and lighter devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S6, but it already has the extra battery capacity and durability that would compel S6 owners to put a case around their device.

I happily accept the size and weight tradeoff with the Moto X Play, because I can’t imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t want to have the benefit of its jumbo 3,630 mAh battery. In over a week with this phone, I’ve only had to recharge it five times. Unplugging it at midnight, I go through a full day and most of the next — the 15 percent battery warning would pop up around 6PM on day two — before I have to worry about power. Motorola’s claim of 48 hours of battery life from the Moto X Play is, in my experience, accurate. It should be noted that my daily routine is pretty forgiving on the battery, as I typically keep Bluetooth off and don’t do much 3D gaming, but I did use it extensively during my testing period, and it held up for an impressively long time. Most phones these days do a great job of consuming negligible power when their screen is off, but only one with an oversized battery like the Moto X Play's can assure you of more than a day’s endurance no matter the workload.

Motorola’s other big claim, besides the battery, is that the new camera in the Moto X Play would be class-leading. At its price point, that’s probably true — as the X Play does indeed have the best camera I’ve seen in any Motorola phone to date. But there are a couple of important caveats mixed in with all the good imaging news.

Let’s start with the happy side of the coin. One of the earliest photos I took with the Moto X Play was of the webcam on my MacBook Air. The detail and resolution of that shot were so good that I actually spotted the tiny laser perforations through which the webcam indicator light shines. That’s insanely impressive, revealing detail that’s barely perceptible to the naked eye. The Moto X Play also exhibits very good dynamic range, especially when shooting in brightly lit environments. Most phone cameras force you to choose between exposing your subjects correctly at the expense of a sunny day’s sky, or retaining the wispy cloud formations but making your foreground look dark. I left the X Play’s HDR mode on the automatic setting and just trusted the phone to expose images correctly. I was not let down.

The process of taking photos with the Moto X Play is similarly satisfying. Motorola has refined its camera launch gesture to a double twist of the wrist, which works remarkably well. It’s reminiscent of the action of cocking a shotgun — a neat kinetic preamble to shooting things — and I actually prefer it over the standard camera shortcut on the lock screen. The camera app itself is similar to the stock Android one, and photos are taken exceedingly quickly. Trouble arises, though, when the X Play fails to focus properly, which I noticed happened quite often for me with closeup shots. The phone’s autofocus works before you’ve tapped the screen to capture an image, so Motorola is relying on it being accurate enough and simply captures what the camera sees at the moment of the tap. That can lead to frustration, but Moto has also added in the option to select your favored focus point, which comes with an exposure adjustment dial as well. It’s a simple but useful addition.

Moto X Play sample photos

My elation with the X Play’s camera was dimmed, appropriately enough, when I started using it in darker conditions. The extraordinary detail and speed that characterize this phone’s camera under bright lights are both lacking when it gets into a more challenging environment. Focus takes longer and image grain becomes apparent. The iPhone 6 focuses more reliably and exposes low-light scenes better than the X Play, which has a tendency to underexpose. This situation is not really improved by Motorola’s night mode, which appears to crank up the ISO in order to capture more light while reducing the resolution to a 3.7-megapixel image. It makes for slightly brighter photos, but that’s all. The X Play’s two-tone flash is more helpful (and it’s recreated on the front by Moto illuminating the display so that it lights up your selfies), though it too has a downside, which is the introduction of the dreaded red-eye effect.

For a phone that costs half as much as a flagship, this is an excellent camera

If I sound like I’m flip-flopping about this camera, that’s because I kind of am. Everything good about the X Play’s imaging depends on having the right circumstances to shoot — that’s where this camera can flat out outperform others — but the very definition of mobile photography is that you don’t have the best circumstances. Most people use their phones to capture group shots in smoky bars or their children dashing about in the playground. I wouldn’t recommend the X Play for either, as Motorola’s default shutter speed is a little too slow to capture fast-moving subjects reliably.

moto x play

This is where Motorola would step in and suggest the X Style’s camera for more demanding users. It comes with the same sensor, but also includes a better phase-detect autofocus system and a more powerful image signal processor that, among other things, allows for 4K video. I’m not dissatisfied with the X Play’s 1080p video; I think that’s perfectly adequate, and I like its overall camera performance, but those upgrades could tempt a few to step up into the higher price range. Ultimately, I think that’s the thing that must be kept in mind with the Moto X Play: sure, this phone’s camera has limitations, but it’s also extremely capable and close to unrivaled for its price.

The other important pillar of the Moto X Play’s appeal is the near-stock Android software on board. It’s virtually untarnished by Motorola (though there’s no guarantee that your local carrier will be as restrained), with only the company’s signature additions like active display notifications, voice control, and the aforementioned camera twist layered on top. I am, unsurprisingly, a fan. What did surprise me, however, was the lack of smoothness I encountered on the Moto X Play: animations and transitions are not particularly smooth, and browsing and zooming through my photos included pauses to process the images before presenting them in their full fidelity.

I know the X Play’s Snapdragon 615 processor is capable of doing better than this, as evidenced by smartphones like Sony’s M4 Aqua that have already used the chip successfully. As weird as it is to say, given Moto’s history of close collaboration with Google and Qualcomm, it seems like Motorola hasn’t yet fully optimized its software with the X Play. The phone also exhibited a weird bug where receiving a messaging notification prompted a paused YouTube video to resume playback (in the background! YouTube isn’t even supposed to be able to do that without a Music Key subscription). The positive way to look at this is that smoother and faster operation is well within Moto’s reach with this handset, provided the company keeps working on it and updates the software regularly.

I haven’t talked about the Moto X Play’s display so far because, honestly, it’s one of the most unremarkable screens I’ve come across. It’s got good viewing angles, it’s reasonably readable outdoors, and its 1080p resolution feels quite sufficient for its 5.5-inch size. But we’ve basically reached the point where every new smartphone has a good display, and so the Moto X Play’s strengths don’t stand out — they are to be expected. The screen does look a little washed out at times, and it lacks the perfect pitch blacks of previous X models with AMOLED technology (which complemented Moto’s ambient notifications nicely), but it still gets the job done. The same is true of the speakers, which are just okay.

So who, if anyone, should buy the Moto X Play? Battery life enthusiasts, first and foremost. Motorola has focused on marketing its new camera and the fun of customizing your own X Play via Moto Maker, but the thing that really makes this handset stand out is its big battery. Two days of real-world use on a single charge are valuable to anyone and everyone. Plus that massively upgraded camera helps to distinguish the X Play from Motorola’s own Moto G, which could otherwise tempt the more frugal buyer away.

As things stand today, Motorola is setting up to have a very good, clearly delineated 2015 lineup: all of its smartphones aim to be cheaper (and better) than their most direct competition, but each has something a little bit unique to justify its price tier and existence. That makes buying advice pretty easy: if you like Motorola’s approach of rugged design and pristine Android software, just grab the Moto model that best fits your budget. You’re unlikely to be disappointed.

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