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    Moto Z Play review: Buy it for the battery life

    The endurance here is more than enough to make up for middle-of-the-road performance.
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    You should've seen this one coming. Of course Motorola wasn't going to just release two versions of the Moto Z and call it a year. While the first two -- the Moto Z and Moto Z Force -- had to bear the weight of flagship expectations and justify the lack of a headphone jack, the Moto Z Play merely had to be inexpensive and not terrible. Well, mission accomplished ... mostly. At $449, the Z Play isn't the cheapest mid-range phone out there, but it clears the "not terrible" bar with more room than I imagined.

    All right, all right, there's no point in being coy. The Moto Z Play is actually pretty great.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $399.99
    85
    Pros
    • Fantastic battery life
    • Sturdy build quality
    • It has a headphone jack!
    • Big screen
    Cons
    • Not great for gaming
    • Rivals have better cameras
    • Pricier than competitors

    Summary

    The Moto Z Play isn’t exactly a steal at $449, but its combination of great build quality, decent performance and excellent battery life make it one of the most exciting mid-range smartphones of the year. It’s still a long way from perfection, though -- gamers will lament its lack of extra horsepower, and there are better cameras out there (for less money, even).

    Hardware

    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.

    Gallery: Moto Z Play review (unlocked) | 27 Photos

    These kinds of missteps are offset by a general feeling of sturdiness, thanks in large part to the phone's solid metal rim. My colleague Aaron rightfully gave last year's Moto X Play some grief because Motorola didn't pay close attention to the fine details. That's true here too, but the caliber of construction here still elevates this mid-range phone into more premium territory. While devices like the Moto G series always felt a little chintzy compared with the more premium Moto X line, that sort of quality gap doesn't really exist here. That doesn't mean you can treat the Z Play as harshly as you could a Z Force, though -- there's no ShatterShield display, and the Play's back is made not of metal, but of easily scratched glass.

    The differences don't end there. The Z Play packs a 16-megapixel camera and a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen running at 1080p; the regular Z and Z Force both feature Quad HD displays. That dip in screen resolution was inevitable given the Z Play's price, but who cares -- this thing has a headphone jack sitting next to its USB Type-C port. Motorola is still convinced that a single socket for power, audio and everything else is the way of the future, and its bet was vindicated when Apple did the same with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. So what gives? Motorola's rationale is simple: The design of the Z Play's logic board had room for the port. The mixed message is a little confusing, but hey: No dongles necessary this time.

    You wouldn't know just by looking at it, but the Moto Z Play sits lower on the performance totem pole than either of the Moto Z's that came before it. There's an octacore Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset inside, an Adreno 506 GPU and 3GB of RAM, all of which last for a very long time when paired with the Z Play's 3,510mAh battery.

    Remember: The Moto Z Play is modular (as evidenced by the multi-pin connector on its back), so you could strap on a magnetic battery mod for even more battery life. If only Motorola were as generous with the storage options: There's 32GB of room on board, and only 24GB is available to you from the get-go. At least the micro-SIM tray has a spot for a microSD card with support for up to 2TB of additional space.

    This isn't my first time taking the Moto Z Play for a spin, but this version is different. It's a fully unlocked GSM model, ready for action on AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States. If you're a Verizon customer and don't see yourself switching anytime soon, there's also a version of the phone just for you -- it's physically identical but packs all of Big Red's usual bloatware. (More on that later.)

    Display and sound

    It used to be that buying anything less than a flagship phone meant you got stuck with a lousy screen. Oh, how times have changed. Case in point: The Moto Z Play packs a 5.5-inch AMOLED panel offering respectable viewing angles and great clarity; I never missed the extra resolution on the Moto Z and Z Force. This screen does seem a little dim compared with the Z and Z Force displays, but you'd be hard-pressed to spot the difference when you're just sitting around inside. Taking the phones outside is a different story, though: The Z Play's screen is merely passable under bright sunlight, while the Z and Z Force can dial up the brightness quite a bit further. Guess Motorola had to cut corners somewhere.

    I'm also fond of how the Z Play renders colors right out of the box: Sunsets and close-ups of wood seem suitably deep, as do the blues and greens that always pop up in landscape photos. If slightly oversaturated colors aren't your thing, though, you can change things with a trip to the settings (the phone's display mode is set to "vivid" by default). Toggling the feature to standard mode results in visuals that, while probably a little more accurate, are a lot less fun.

    Speaking of things that aren't much fun, the sound setup here leaves a lot to be desired. Then again, who didn't see this coming? Motorola used the same lackluster system in the more premium Moto Z and Z Force, with an earpiece that doubles as the main speaker driver when you crank up the volume. Listening to music on a vanilla Z Play is passable at best -– vocals and mids can sound crisp -– and muddled at worst. I wish the Z Play's speaker was a little louder too, but considering the sort of quality we're working with, Motorola might have been doing us a kindness by capping the volume.

    Thankfully, we have options. First, you can plug in a pair of headphones –- once more, without a dongle! -– and bypass that speaker entirely. Motorola, meanwhile, would much prefer you use that sweet, sweet Moto Mod connector around the back to magnetically lash a completely new set of speakers onto the phone. JBL's $79 external speaker is the most useful of the multimedia mods available, and while it still focuses on mids and highs, there's enough heaviness and clarity to its sound that most people I've shown it to have enjoyed the experience. You certainly don't need Moto Mods to use the Z Play, but they are handy.

    Software

    I'm pleased to report that there isn't a whole lot to say about the Moto Z Play's software. Yes, that's a good thing: It's fast, familiar and free of the bloatware that comes loaded on the Verizon-branded Z Play. If you've used a modern Motorola device, you could probably just leave it at that and move on. If not, well, here's a little more.

    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.

    Camera

    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.

    Gallery: Moto Z Play camera samples | 14 Photos

    I've tested plenty of faster, all-around better smartphone cameras this year, but the Moto Z Play's is nonetheless remarkable in two ways. First, it's a little more than half the price of those photographically superior phones. More important, the gap between the camera in this mid-range phone and the cameras in the flagship Moto Z's can be surprisingly small. The Moto Z Force's more advanced setup has the clear edge, but under the right conditions it's easy to get similar results out of all three Z phones.

    Meanwhile, the 5-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly adequate, packing a wide-angle lens for squeezing more friends into selfies, and video footage came out clean, if a little unremarkable. All told, Motorola has a potent little photographic package here, though sticklers for premium quality will want to look elsewhere. And hey, if the camera really doesn't do it for you, Motorola sure would love if you went out and bought one of those $250 Hasselblad camera mods -- it'll replace that default shooter with a 12-megapixel sensor developed in part by people known for their crazy-expensive cameras.

    Performance and battery life

    All right, quick recap: The Moto Z Play has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset, 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 506 GPU ticking away inside it. I can already tell some people's eyes are glazing over because that chipset's model number doesn't start with an "8," but I'm here to tell you the 625 is a capable little slab of silicon. When it comes to thumbing through open apps, swiping through menus and the rest of the day-to-day actions one doesn't pay that much attention to, the Z Play moves like a flagship phone: quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

    For people who ultimately don't ask much of their smartphones, the Moto Z Play has more than enough power to keep everything moving at a more than reasonable pace. Things can change pretty quickly when you fire up some graphically intensive games, though. That's when the occasional sluggishness can set in. Again, that's not a shocker or anything: Mid-range phones are getting better all the time, but most of the not-quite-high-end phones we've played with this year act the same way.

    Moto Z Play Moto Z (Droid Edition) OnePlus 3 Moto G4 Plus
    AndEBench Pro 8,347 16,678 13,841 16,159
    Vellamo 3.0 3,314 5,613 5,202 2,819
    3DMark IS Unlimited 13,514 29,117 30,058 9,851
    GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 9.8 49 48 6.6
    CF-Bench 54,061 45,803 41,653 60,998
    SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.

    There is, however, one big upside to this merely average performance: The Moto Z Play's battery life is absolutely killer. Motorola claims that the phone can run for up to 50 hours on a single charge, and I'll be damned if that wasn't my experience over two weeks of testing. Consider my usual workflow: There's a lot of Slack messages and emails flying around, not to mention a spot of gaming and some podcasts here and there. On typical days the Moto Z Play would stick around for about 45 full hours before needing a recharge.

    That's not two workdays, but nearly two full rotations of the earth. Hell, with Wi-Fi on and connected, I saw the Z Play creep just a little past the advertised 50 hours over a quiet weekend. Obviously, those figures would tank if I spent more than a little time playing Hearthstone or bingeing on YouTube videos, but there's a certain sort of liberation to be found when you don't have to constantly fret about your phone living or dying.

    The competition

    You probably don't need me to tell you this, but you can get a lot of phone for not much money. The Moto Z Play is a remarkably polished package for $449, but don't forget to check out these other options too.

    The upstarts behind the OnePlus 3 should be proud: They've built a flagship-level device that costs only $399. As such, it's perhaps the best alternate for a device like the Moto Z Play -- it packs an incredibly fast Snapdragon 820 chipset, a superior camera and a barely modified version of Android into a sleek metal body. And if you're on the hunt for even better value, you might want to consider Motorola's Moto G4 Plus. It's not as handsome or as long-lasting as the Z Play, but it costs a full $200 less and provides ample power for people who don't need a full-on flagship.

    Ah, but the Z Play has an edge ... or least, it'll appear that way to some people. The Moto Z Play works (and works well) with the full range of Motorola's Moto Mods, so the functionality you get out of the box is far from the functionality you'll have in six months, or a year. If this appeals to you, know that there's very little else out there that can satisfy this modular itch. LG's G5 was the first major flagship phone that leaned into the idea of a modular body, and it certainly deserves props for its chutzpah. While its ecosystem of "Friendly" accessories is broader than what the Moto Z's have access to, these add-ons are undeniably less elegant. The extra horsepower afforded by the Snapdragon 820 chipset is nice, but Motorola's approach to modular design is by far the best.

    Wrap-up

    It can be hard to get worked up about devices that don't aspire to be the greatest thing you'll ever slide into a pocket, but even so: The Moto Z Play won me over. Its occasional lack of horsepower can be frustrating (especially if you're into gaming), but Motorola deserves credit for building a phone that feels like so much more than the sum of its parts. It's not perfect, it's not waterproof and it's not flashy. What it is, however, is "there for you" because of its tremendous battery life. Between that and the flexibility afforded by a slew of Moto Mods, we have a smartphone that almost redefines what it means to be mid-range.

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