Last year’s reinvention of Motorola centered around the short-lived buzz over modular smartphones. Its Moto Z and Moto Mods platform were the most practical take on the modular phone concept, but they didn’t exactly ignite the smartphone world.
Hidden among this modular hype was one of the best smartphones made last year: the midrange Moto Z Play. It wasn’t the flashiest phone, didn’t have the fastest processor or best camera, and didn’t have the highest-resolution display. It did have the best battery life you could get in any smartphone, and the rest of its components were good enough that the overall package was greater than the sum of its parts. The Z Play was easily the sleeper hit of 2016 (and one of my favorite phones of all time), even if you didn’t care one bit about its modular capabilities.
Blending high-end build with midrange price and features
This year’s version, the $499 Moto Z2 Play, available unlocked and through Verizon this summer, attempts to improve upon the first version’s weaknesses without losing the charm that made the original so appealing. It’s much thinner, much lighter, has a better camera, and comes with a refined design and a handful of new software features. It also works with all of the Mods Motorola has released — battery packs, projectors, cameras, speakers, and so on — and will release this year. The new phone basically a blend of the 2016 Z Play and the higher end Moto Z, with a price that sits between them.
The Z2 Play is better than the original in almost every respect, except for perhaps the most important area: battery life. But as I’ve found after using it as my primary phone for the past week, that doesn’t ruin the experience.
As a regular user of last year’s phone, the first thing that I noticed with the Z2 Play is how thin and light it is. This is not a small phone — it has a traditional 5.5-inch, 16:9 display, which definitely puts it on the larger side of the scale — but it measures a scant 5.99mm thick and only weighs 145g. That’s almost as thin as the higher-end Moto Z, but the extra 0.7mm in the Z2 Play affords room for a headphone jack that the Z lacked last year. More importantly, it’s a lot thinner-feeling than last year’s brick-like Z Play, and it’s much nicer to hold for long periods.
Of course, the reason the Z2 Play is so thin and light is because its battery is almost 15 percent smaller than the cell in last year’s model. There’s reasonable cause for concern here; after all, the best feature in the Z Play was its battery life. And my experience with the Z2 is not as good as the prior model: it’s not the zero-worry, multi-day monster its predecessor was.
Thin and light design comes at cost of battery capacity
That said, the Z2’s battery life is still excellent. I’m able to use it for a full day of heavy use — up to five or six hours of screen on time — without having to plug in for a charge in the middle of the day. Most phones typically kick the bucket after just three or four hours of screen time, so the Z2 Play is notably above average here. When I’m not constantly using my phone, such as over a quiet weekend, I can stretch the battery across two days pretty easily.
I’m okay with the trade-off Motorola made reducing the thickness and weight of the phone by using a smaller battery. The battery life is still very good — I’m not constantly thinking about it or monitoring it — and the phone is much slimmer and more comfortable to use as a result. And since the Z2 Play is compatible with the Moto Mod platform, if I do need to extend its range away from the outlet, it’s very easy to slap on a battery mod, such as the new TurboPower Pack, and keep going.
I also appreciate the other hardware improvements Motorola made here. The phone’s appearance is not much different than last year — the Moto Mods system has essentially locked Motorola into a specific design for a couple of generations — but it’s a little more polished and refined. The glass back, which was prone to scratching and damage, has been swapped for a more durable and more attractive metal finish, and the front fingerprint scanner is larger and recessed, making it easier to use.
Motorola has also upgraded the camera hardware with a faster lens and much faster focusing systems. It is a better camera than last year’s version, but even though the spec sheet is very good, the image processing doesn’t keep pace with the Pixel, iPhone, or Galaxy S8 cameras. The Z2 Play can struggle with high-contrast scenes, and its lack of optical stabilization really hurts it in low light. It’s not a bad camera at all, but it’s merely passable instead of great.
Performance, camera, and display all fall into the “this is fine” camp
The performance from the Snapdragon 626 processor and 4GB of RAM is also fine: this isn’t blisteringly fast like high-end phones with Qualcomm’s best chips, but it doesn’t have any stutters or performance issues either. The same goes for the 1080p AMOLED display: it’s not the brightest or most pixel-dense screen available and doesn’t have curved sides or an elongated aspect ratio to display more content, but it’s sharp enough for anything short of VR and works well outdoors. The best thing about the processor and screen is that you just don’t think about them — they do the jobs they are supposed to do without any glaring faults or flaws.
Motorola’s approach to software has long been to take Google’s Android and leave it mostly untouched, save for sprinkling a few enhancements here and there. The Z2 Play has a number of useful gestures, such as a double karate chop to turn on the flashlight or a double twist action to launch the camera, both of which I use a lot. The Moto Display feature, which shows the time and notifications whenever you pick up the phone or just wave your hand over it, has been improved with a battery meter and the ability to take actions on notifications without unlocking the phone. I can even reply to a message with text or my voice right from the Moto Display, which is very convenient.
Lots of phones have the ability to work hands-free with just voice commands, and Motorola has been using this feature in its phones since 2013. The Z2 Play takes voice commands a step further: not only can you wake up the phone and use the Google Assistant with an “OK Google” command, you can also directly tell the Z2 Play to do things with a “show me” command. This can be used to check the weather (“show me the weather”), see upcoming appointments (“show me my calendar”), or launch an app (“show me Chrome”) without unlocking or even touching the phone. It only works with my voice for security, the screen lights up for just five seconds, and its uses are fairly basic, but it’s still convenient. It’s a small change, but one that makes using voice commands slightly more natural than the “say wake up word and wait” cadence we’re used to.
New voice controls are great, new fingerprint gestures less so
I’m less enthused by the new swiping gestures for the fingerprint scanner that are designed to replace the on-screen home, back, and recent apps buttons. Tapping the scanner acts as the home button, while swiping to the left goes back and swiping to the right launches the recent apps tray. It makes sense, especially the tap to go home gesture, but it’s difficult to reliably execute the swipe gestures; all too often it would take me to the home screen when I meant to go back in my app or launch the recent apps tray. Fortunately, these gestures are not enabled by default and you can use the traditional on-screen buttons without ever bothering with them. I wish that Motorola would use the areas next to the fingerprint scanner for back and recent buttons like other phone makers do, as it feels like wasted space right now.
The reason last year’s Moto Z Play was so compelling to me was that it blended stellar battery life with solid performance, good software, and a usable camera. The mix has changed a little with the Z2 Play — the battery life is not quite as stellar, while the camera is better — but the essential package is the same. It’s a very well-executed device that gets all of the basics you need in a phone correct without spoiling the recipe with gimmicks or an unreasonable price.
All killer, no filler
At $500, however, it’s not an instant purchase. It’s a lot more expensive than true budget phones and not that far off from the actual flagships that offer better displays, better cameras, and more forward-looking designs. This is especially true if you purchase a phone on a monthly payment plan: the difference between a Moto Z2 Play and a Galaxy S8 might be only a few dollars per month.
Still, the Z2 Play provides a great mix of what matters without any unnecessary stuff piled on. And it does so with better battery life than even most flagships can provide. When you think about it, isn’t that all you really want from a phone?