Moto Z2 Play review: All the mod cons

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Modular phones are in a rather interesting spot. At the end of 2016 Google canned Project Ara, its open-source modular mobile project. In 2017, the latest LG G-series unceremoniously ditched the company’s lacklustre “Friends” modules. Motorola, on the other hand, is forging onward with Moto Mods – magnetic clip-on back panel accessories with differing functions that connect with its Z-series smartphones.

The latest device to support Mods is the Moto Z2 Play: a 5.5-inch phone with mid-power specification and oodles of battery life wrapped into a slender metal frame, which updates last year’s original battery-heavy Z Play.

As the apparent last bastion of the modular mobile movement, the Z2 Play is not only the flag-bearer for Moto Mods, but for modular phones as a whole in 2017 and beyond. And with a US price of $499 (we anticipate a similar UK price, around £449/$561.25 when the device launches in Blighty this July), it’s on the right side of affordable to make it an attractive idea.

That said, the Z2 Play is invariably pitched against the imminent (and likely more powerful) OnePlus 5. So, is Moto’s modular quirk a useful enough feature to warrant its purchase? We’ve been using the Z2 Play day in, day out for a full week to find out.

  • Moto Mods compatible
  • 156.2 x 76.2 x 5.99mm (without Mod)
  • Metal design with water-resistance
  • 64GB storage; microSD card slot
  • 3.5mm headphones jack
  • Lunar Grey or Fine Gold finishes

If you’ve ever seen the original Moto Z Play then, well, the Z2 Play looks like business as usual at first glance. It’s taken the 5.5-inch footprint of the original – an unavoidable and non-negotiable size, given the Mods need to match the rear panel exactly to fit – and trimmed a full millimetre of thickness from it, making for a lighter, more pocket-friendly device at sub-6mm. Why slimmer? There will be no “standard” Moto Z2, so the Play is left to rule the roost for now.

Look closer, however, and there are notable differences between first- and second-gen models. The Z2 Play has an all-metal frame, including the exposed rear plate (when no Mod is attached), rather than the etched glass rear of the original device. That makes it less slippery to handle, which is an obvious benefit when switching between Mods and not lobbing the phone on the floor. At least, we’ve managed to not let slip just yet.

The other obvious point – which we’ll come to in more detail later – is the new fingerprint scanner to the front. It’s out with the old square format and in with the new elongated form, just as you’ll find on Moto G5 Plus and Moto G5 models (plus, presumably, all future Moto handsets). It looks, feels and functions far better.

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When we saw the original Moto Z, we found its appearance more pock-marked than a hormonal teenager. The Z2 Play keeps things neater: there aren’t excessive openings for microphones to the front, instead a simple aperture for the speaker sits top and centre, between the discreet front-facing camera and flash. It’s not a design that’ll stop people in their tracks, like the Samsung Galaxy S8, but it’s a tidy looking phone nonetheless.

  • New: JBL SoundBoost 2 speaker with kickstand, $80, available at launch
  • New: Style Shells with wireless charging (finishes: wood, fabric, flower digital print), $40, available at launch
  • New: TurboPower Pack (3490mAh, with TurboPower charging speeds), $80, available summer 2017
  • New: Moto Power Pack (2200mAh), $50, available at launch
  • More Mods coming in the near future, including GamePad

For this review we received three Mods: a wooden Moto Style Shell with wireless charge (note, no wireless charging panel is included with either phone or Mod, it’s a separate purchase); the JBL SoundBoost 2, which is the second-gen fabric-covered version of the attachable speaker with kickstand; and the Moto TurboPower Pack, an additional 3490mAh capacity for the battery.

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Whichever way we look at it, we think Mods are divisive. If you’re on board with the idea then we suspect these accessories will be the in-point and very reason to purchase a Z-series. If you’re non-plussed about them then, well, there are plenty of other handsets on the market from which to take your pick – and it’s easy to buy a separate universal battery pack or speaker at similar prices for any given device.

On the upside, however, Moto Mods are the best implementation of modular accessories for any device that we’ve seen. Pull a Mod from the rear of the Z2 Play, sling a new one into place and – boom – that’s it. No buttons, release switches or complicated fitting at all – the phone knows what’s connected right off the bat. There’s even a dedicated Mods section within the software, available via a swipe down in the notifications shade, to keep a closer eye on things.

The future potential of Mods makes for interesting reading, too. We’ve seen the GamePad, a control-laden cradle for the Z-series, perfect for gaming fans – which will join the existing 10x zoom Hasselblad True Zoom camera and Moto Insta-Share Projector. There’s scope for plenty of interesting additions beyond just yet another battery pack – although, right now, various battery forms seem to be Moto’s bread and butter releases.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that you’ll pretty much have to buy a Mod when purchasing a Z2, as there isn’t one included. Fail to connect one to the rear and, while the phone will function as normal, it looks downright bizarre. With the rear connection pins exposed, the Z2 Play looks like a prototype; an unfinished device crying out for its back panel.

Which Mod or Mods you choose needs careful consideration too: the TurboPower Pack is huge, for example, and thus transforms the Z2 Play into a brickphone. Sure, it’ll last seemingly forever, which might be the most important thing for your use, but it makes the phone abnormally massive and heavy to be considered as a current flagship contender.

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Or all the Mods we settled on the most simple one for the most part: the Moto Style Shell. Finished in wood – different colours and materials, including fabric, will also be available – it makes the phone look, well, kind of normal. The only glitch here is that wood can bend due to heat and moisture, so our pre-release sample doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the phone, which is less than ideal.

  • 5.5in 1920 x 1080 pixel Super AMOLED panel

On the display front, the Z2 Play hasn’t made any advances over the original Z Play model, opting for a 5.5-inch Full HD AMOLED panel as before.

Not only is that perfectly good in resolution terms in this mid-area market, it’s a degree better than what you’ll find in many $499 phones thanks to its use of an AMOLED panel. Unlike LCD this technology illuminates per pixel, rather than using a backlight, which is better for power consumption, ensures richer blacks and an even brighter colour palette.

Not that the Z2 Play’s colour saturation is as audacious as you’ll find in, say, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium. Its colours are bright without being overworked, while brightness is ample, although the auto-brightness does seem to prefer a middling position (it avoids going unfathomably dark like some competitor handsets, however, such as Huawei).

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There’s no ultra-HD resolution to be found here, nor does this screen tick the boxes to cater for mobile HDR content delivery like the flagship LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8 models do. Not that we expected that; we think the Z2 Play sits perfectly well in its position as a sub-flagship.

  • Front-positioned fingerprint scanner (plus NFC)
  • One-button Nav for gesture-based controls
  • Android 7.1, Google Assistant included
  • Moto Actions/Display/Voice software additions

We’ve already mentioned the presence of the front-positioned fingerprint scanner, but it warrants further exploration given its capabilities.

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The scanner sits in a slight indentation to the bottom of the Z2 Play’s front, which is subtle enough to make it look barely noticeable while being easy to locate. It isn’t a depressible button, but it does provide haptic (vibrational) feedback that makes it feel like something approaching a real clicky button (much like in Apple’s latest iPhones).

One of the best things about the scanner is that it offers Moto’s One-button Nav control. This mode removes the usual trio of Android soft keys – home, back and recent apps – from the screen, instead offering them as finger-input gestures on the scanner itself. Swipe left to go back; swipe right to open current apps; press to return home (or the lock screen); or press-and-hold to activate Google Assistant.

Activating One-button Nav doesn’t necessarily make navigating the Z2 Play quicker than using the soft keys, but it does open up more on-screen real estate for content and, given the size of this particular phone, we think makes it easier to use one-handed without needing to reach over the screen. Having used the Moto G5 and G5 Plus in this format for a number of weeks, we’ve settled into it comfortably.

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In addition to One-touch Nav as part of Moto Actions within the pre-installed Moto app – which includes physical movements to produce actions; things like “karate chop to activate torch” – there’s also Moto Display and Moto Voice found here. The last of these three is essentially Moto’s modded route into Google Assistant. So, for example, say “show me the weather” and the Z2 Play will pop-up a window to do just that. There’s no need to press anything or say “OK, Google” like you would with Google Assistant.

Moto Voice works quite differently to Assistant, however, typically prompting you to open apps via a swipe down rather than automatically opening them (sensible, given the carnage that could otherwise ensue in public). It uses the same format as Moto Display, showing alerts for five seconds full-screen before fading them out, which means there’s no visible dialogue window like with Google Assistant. That can be handy if the phone is on the table across the room and you want to make simple requests. But having both Assistant and Voice seems kind of unnecessary.

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As those three major pillars – Actions, Display and Voice – are contained within the Moto app, which sits front and centre, there’s little else that gets in the way of the Z2 Play’s Android 7.1 operating system. There is the addition of Mods, of course, but that’s the lot. That means everything looks clean and tidy, works 99 per cent like stock Google Android, and will be easy to pick up for newbies and familiar for established Android users.

  • Snapdragon 626 octa-core processor (2.2Ghz); 4GB RAM
  • 3,000mAh battery, TurboPower charging (via USB-C)

Having used the Z2 Play for a week, we thought that Moto had made a mistake informing us it houses a Snapdragon 626 processor – because the phone runs like one that’s a flagship, not a mid-ranger by any means.

Flicking around the interface has presented no issues, while games have performed without stutters and pauses – which isn’t even something we can say of some current flagship models, such as the Huawei P10 Plus. Load times don’t feel long, either, aided by the 4GB RAM on offer.

What’s perhaps even more impressive is just how long the Z2 Play lasts. Having shaved a full millimetre from its thickness compared to the original device, the second-gen model has, of course, downscaled its battery capacity too. The 3,000mAh cell still sounds reasonable (despite dropping 510mAh compared to the original Z Play), but it still performs much like a 4,000mAh cell from our use.

A typical day with the Z2 Play has seen us achieve 15 to 16 hours of use with around 30 to 40 per cent battery remaining when going to bed. And seeing as we’ve been intermittently playing Candy Crush and Magikarp in among our usual work-related tasks each day, we think that’s very good innings indeed. When failing to charge overnight once, we still had 15 per cent battery remaining by lunchtime the next day.

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Those quotes are when just using the built-in battery. If you’re a battery fiend then the addition of Mods can be hugely useful. The TurboPower Pack makes the Z2 Play almost unstoppable, for example. With that attached our device lasted a full working day, before we boarded a trans-Atlantic flight, saw us through the remainder of the second day and then off to bed at 10pm with 47 per cent still in the tank. All-in, that was a 33 hour stint – and we suspect the remainder would have seen us through another eight hours or more before calling it a day.

So if battery is your thing then, well, few phones can compete with the longevity of the Z2 Play. That’s down to a savvy ensemble of specs – AMOLED, Full HD only, mid-power processor – that work in logical harmony. It doesn’t disappoint.

  • 12MP Dual Autofocus Pixel Camera
  • Sensor-based autofocus pixels (more than 3 million)
  • Enhanced laser autofocus (works to 5 metres)
  • 5MP front camera, includes Moto’s first Dual CCT flash

A new generation means a new camera. The Z2 Play hasn’t gone overboard, opting for a single optic with a 12-megapixel sensor at its heart.

However, that sensor has seen a serious upgrade. It includes more than three million autofocus pixels on its surface meaning that, in Professional mode within the camera app, a super-fast autofocus mode will be available. Watch the in-focus points highlight in real-time as green squares on screen, which is nifty, just like a real camera.

Problem is, just as we said of the Moto G5 Plus, those more advanced focusing options aren’t put to best use. In the standard mode the camera requires the usual tap-the-screen approach, with speed that isn’t class leading. It has the same glitch which sees the focus point reset to the centre when adjusting it too.

Best advice, therefore, is stick with the Professional mode, as it’s just speedier. It also features manual focus, white balance, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity and exposure compensation dials to take full control as you please – or leave them blank to get an automated shooting experience.

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With an f/1.7 aperture lens plenty of light can reach the sensor too, putting the Z2 Play up there among the flagships. There’s no optical stabilisation, however, which can be felt when shooting in low-light scenarios – we needed an extra steady hand when shooting sunset shots to ensure sharp results.

As seems typical of Moto, images look great on screen but appear a little over-sharpened when viewing them at full scale on a larger computer monitor. Not terribly so, but a subtler processing would be better.

What the Z2 Play does show off is how good this sensor can be. We shot condiment bottles in a dim-lit burger joint and even with ISO 1250 selected (about as high as the camera wants to auto-select) the detail in the walls is commendable, with image noise to a minimum. Sure, there’s the typical mottling seen in single colour areas that you’ll find in any mobile phone image, but it’s still a good result.

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Give the Z2 Play’s camera even better light and you’ll see even better results. The kind of results that see Moto climbing up a peg or two in the camera world. It’s not best-in-class still, but it’s a solid setup at this level.

Verdict

If you find Moto Mods enticing then the Z2 Play is a super phone with plenty to offer beyond its quirky unique selling point. If Mods leave you cold given their cost and size implication then, well, we think Moto will be in a great place to deliver an excellent Moto X (rumoured to be in the third quarter of 2017), which might well be the perfect fit. Between now and then, however, we suspect the imminent OnePlus 5 will ask some tough questions.

Ignoring Mods for a moment, however, and it’s hard to ignore how well the Z2 Play runs. The subtle design tweaks compared to the previous-gen Play makes for a more slender and tidier appearance, the all-metal material choice makes far more sense than glass, the processor selection sees the software work effortlessly, the One-button Nav gesture control is easy to use, and battery life is hugely impressive.

In that regard the Moto Z2 Play really does have all the mod cons, then, eh? There are little to no slip-ups in use, which secure this phone a commendable position in the mid-range market. And if battery life is your all then it ought to be the perfect companion.

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  • £399/$598.5

Ok, so it’s due to be discontinued around the time the Moto is announced, but OnePlus is the name to watch in the mid-level market. There are no modular features to worry about in this phone, of course, instead it’s all about high power for a lower-than-flagship price. And its imminent follow-up, the OnePlus 5, is likely to be the mid-level phone of 2017.

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  • £199/$298.5

If you’re looking to go lower budget but want a phone with strong battery performance then the Lenovo P2 – which is similar to the Moto G5 Plus – crams a 5,100mAh battery into its rear for seemingly never-ending battery life. It’s not as powerful or smooth to operate as the Moto Z2 Play, but for under £200/$300 it’s a steal.

(pocket-lint.com, https://goo.gl/nMxajw)

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