Moto Z2 Play Review: 2 Steps Forward, 1 Big Step Back

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LG may have abandoned its family of mods for the G6, and Google's Project Ara got shut down before even even reaching the public. But Motorola remains committed to modular phones, which let you swap in add-ons that deliver new features to a handset. The Z2 Play is Motorola’s latest modular entry, offering a slightly more refined take on the company's midrange handset while also bringing a handful of new mods in tow.

Priced at $408 on Verizon (or $499 unlocked when it goes on sale directly from Motorola later this summer), the Moro Z2 Play packs an even thinner body and a big, 5.5-inch AMOLED display while borrowing the nifty home button/fingerprint sensor with gesture controls from its budget sibling, the $229 Moto G5 Plus. However, the Z2 Play has lost the most important thing that set its predecessor apart from the pack: epic battery life.

Updated September 14:

  • Motorola announced that it will bring the Android Oreo update to a slew of its phones this fall, including the Moto Z2 Play. (Its predecessor, the Moto Z Play will get the update, too.)

Design: Impressively thin

Measuring just 0.23-inches thick, the Z2 Play is one of the thinnest phones we've ever reviewed. In fact, it's almost 20 percent thinner than last year's 6.08 x 3 x 0.28-inch Z Play, which definitely isn't what you'd call a big-boned device. When checking out the Z2 Play's perfectly flat aluminum back and its giant rear camera module that juts out from the rest of the device, you get a design that seems to defy our current levels of tech.

Below the screen there's a clever fingerprint sensor/home button combo that Moto borrowed from the G5 Plus. Unlike last year’s Moto Z and Moto Z Force flagships, the Z2 Play features both USB-C and dedicated headphone ports.

Display: AMOLED is a nice touch

One of the biggest improvements the Z2 Play offers over the G5 Plus is its super-AMOLED display. At 5.5-inch inches, not only is the Z2’s display significantly larger than the 5.2-inch screen on the G5 Plus, it's also way more colorful. When I made the mistake of watching the trailer for the Jumanji reboot, the way the Z2 Play recreated the lush greens of the jungle and the orange gouts of flame kept me watching longer than I otherwise would have.

Our benchmark numbers back up my impressions, as the Moto Z2 Play’s panel produced 208 percent of the color gamut, which is higher than the smartphone average but behind the OnePlus 5’s 220 percent. The colors are accurate, too; the Z2 Play’s screen scored 0.91 on the Delta-E test (0 is perfect). The average phone scores 4.1, and the OnePlus 5 scored 1.65.

With a peak brightness of 400 nits, the Z2 Play is just shy of the 439-nit smartphone average, but still brighter than the slightly more expensive OnePlus 5 (384 nits). However, with a panel that offers a luminous 591 nits, the Moto G5 Plus is almost 50 percent brighter than the Z2 Play.

Performance: Closer to budget than midrange

Featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and a microSD expandability, the Z2 Play can easily handle all your typical smartphone needs. However, overall performance isn't much better than what you get on the budget Moto G5 Plus, which features a Snapdragon 625 CPU.

On the Jetstream 1.1 JavaScript test, the Z2 Play scored 33.74 versus 30.5 for the G5 Plus. To better put that in perspective, the Snapdragon 835-powered OnePlus 5, which costs $70 more than the Z2 Play, was more than twice as fast with a score of 70.19.

The Z2 Play's graphics performance isn't anything to write home about, either. On 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test, the Z2 Play scored 13,977, barely higher than the G5 Plus' 13,862 and a good deal lower than the smartphone average of 19,302. The OnePlus 5 performed almost three times better on that test, at 39,576.

Cameras: Could be better

With a 5-megapixel camera in front and a 16-MP shooter in back, the Z2 Play has the same specs on paper as the G5 Plus. The pictures you get from either phone look pretty similar, too.

In a shot of some freshly baked bread, a picture from the Z2 Play looks almost exactly the same as one from the G5 Plus. There's a tiny difference in white balance, which gives the Z2 Play's photo a more neutral, less yellow hue, but it's extremely close.

Results were similar in low light when I tried to take a shot of the new Moto mods with both phones. In fact, you might argue that the G5 Plus' picture is slightly better, because even though the G5 Plus shot looks a bit yellow again, it's slightly sharper and a tiny bit less grainy.

I decided to make things a little more difficult for the Z2 Play by comparing its pictures to ones shot by the OnePlus 5 and that phone’s dual-rear cameras.

At a bar, the Z2 Play's pic failed to match up against the OnePlus 5's shot, as it produced a less detailed image with weaker dynamic range from light to dark and softer focus on the brightly lit bottles.

When I stepped outside to take a picture of some flowers, the Z2 Play's lack of focus and less saturated colors put it at a disadvantage against the OnePlus 5's much more vibrant photo.

Even when I tried to take a selfie, the OnePlus 5 edged out the Z2 Play, thanks to better sharpness and white balance, and a more well-exposed shot.

Mods: Now there are even more to enjoy

Moto Mods couldn't be simpler to use. Just grab one, slap it on the back of the phone using the Z2’s magnets to hold the add-on in place, and you'll be good to go. The Z2 will automatically detect which mod you have attached; for certain special functions, you’ll be asked to download apps such as a dedicated app for the JBL Soundboost 2 speaker mod.

New mods arriving with the Z2 include the Turbopower battery ($79.99), which adds a 3,490 power pack to the Z2 Play; the Style Shell ($39.99), which spruces up the phone with a fashionable texture back and wireless-charging capabilities, and the aforementioned JBL Soundboost 2 speaker ($79.99).

Because the Z2 Play's mod system is unchanged from last year’s models, you can also use any previous Moto Mods, including Hasselblad's $299.99 camera mod and its 10x optical zoom (which we found disappointing).

Each new mod adds an exceptionally simple way to enhance your phone, and all work as advertised, though I still kind of have to question the value of a JBL speaker mod over a standard Bluetooth speaker. Even though it puts out pretty good sound, the Soundboost mod will  work with only a Moto Z phone; in contrast, a Bluetooth speaker is compatible with pretty much anything.

The only new mod I didn't get to try out is the new $79.99 Moto Gamepad, which won't be available until later in July. It's kind of a shame, because the Gamepad looks like one of the most promising new mods, as it enhances mobile gaming by adding multiple buttons, analog joy sticks and even a d-pad.

Motorola has also announced a new 360-camera Moto Mod, but the company has not revealed pricing or availability for the U.S.

Software: Stock Android with a bit of Moto magic

In keeping with other recent Moto phones, the Z2 Play features an almost unadulterated version of Android 7.1. That means you get important features such as the Google Assistant and a support for multiwindow mode. Because our review unit was a Verizon model, we still saw the usual assortment of Big Red bloatware.

Moto improves upon the stock Android experience with the Moto app, which lets you check notifications by waving your hand over the display. It also supports gesture controls, such as using a chopping motion with the phone in your hand to turn on the flashlight. You can enable gesture control on the home button itself, which lets you navigate back by swiping left, summon your recent apps by swiping right or lock the phone with a hard press.

For 2017, Moto has also included the ability to open certain apps just by saying, "Show me [X]app." The problem is that even when this feature works — which isn't all the time — the only thing that happens is an icon for the app you want to open appears at the top of the screen. You still have to touch the screen to actually launch the app.

There are a few commands like "Show me my calendar," which will take you straight into the app, but  there are not nearly enough of these commands to make this function very useful. And when you consider that the Google Assistant can complete complex tasks like opening Google Maps and looking up directions in a single command, the Moto Voice features seem pretty superfluous.

Later this fall, the Moto Z2 Play is in line to get an update to Android Oreo, the latest version of Google's operating system.

Battery Life: A big step back

The battery life on last year's Moto Z Play was a revelation, with that phone lasting an epic 13 hours and 46 minutes on the Tom's Guide Battery Test (continuous web surfing over an LTE network). Even now, the Z Play remains the second longest-lasting phone we've ever tested. The Z2 suffers from Motorola’s decision to go with a smaller battery for a thinner phone.

This sleeker sequel lasted 9:34 on Verizon’s network. That’s comparable to the smartphone average, but the G5 Plus lasted nearly 2 hours longer and the older Z Play more than 4 hours longer.

The decrease in battery life is assuredly due to the Z2 Play's smaller 3,000 mAh battery, which is down from the 3,510 power pack in the original Z Play. The move to a smaller battery to accommodate the Z2 Play's thinner body is a bad trade-off in my book, because the best thing about the old Z Play was its longevity.

Bottom Line

The Moto Z2 Play is a pretty good phone, and the new home button and Android 7 are nice additions to what was already a  slick design.  The extra $150 to $200 you’ll spend on the Z2 Play versus the Moto G5 Plus is going toward the phone's modular capabilities and its colorful, and bigger, AMOLED screen. And if those features are important to you, this handset is a sound option for Verizon customers looking for something around $400. Unfortunately, the Z2 Play loses the epic battery life that truly set it apart.

The $499 unlocked version is a less compelling buy, especially with the OnePlus 5 now available. OnePlus’ phone is better in pretty much every single way, aside from the modularity, and it costs $20 less

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).