Motorola is not even close to becoming one of the leading brands in the Android ecosystem, but the company’s ambitions have certainly attracted attention to its latest devices, mostly because they relied on a partially new approach that others have so far avoided. 

Living proof is the modular Moto Z, which launched with a concept that helped Motorola gain the desired media attention, but which failed to eventually become a full-time alternative to more popular models like Samsung’s.

This year, however, Motorola gave another shot to the very same strategy with the Moto Z2, a device that’s based on the 2016 predecessor and which is built on the very same Moto Mods platform.

Basically, it’s a modern version of the Z, and this time Motorola believes it has what it takes to gain some ground in the super-crowded Android battle.

At first glance, the Moto Z2 Play is just as appealing as the previous generation. Instead of glass, which I personally like in terms of design but hate as far as usability goes, Motorola has picked metal, which for me is quite a welcome change. Plus, it feels super-light in the hand, and it’s because it really is. It tips the scales at only 145 grams, down from 165 grams on the Moto Z Play.

The 2017 model looks better, is thinner, and unsurprisingly, promises excellent battery life. The original Moto Z Play was highly praised for its battery life, so launching a new generation that’s thinner, but which is also said to offer excellent autonomy certainly raises some doubts over these claims.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play technical specifications

Display 5.5 inches / AMOLED / 401 ppi
Gorilla Glass 3
CPU Qualcomm MSM8953-Pro Snapdragon 626
Octa-core 2.2 GHz Cortex-A53
GPU Octa-core 2.2 GHz Cortex-A53
RAM 3GB/4GB
Storage 32GB (for 3GB RAM version)
64GB (for 4GB RAM version)
microSD card support
Battery 3.000 mAh
Camera 12 MP (f/1.7, 1.4 µm)
5 MP (f/2.2, 1.4 µm)
OS Android 7.1.1
Tested mods Insta-Share Projector,

Hasselblad 4116 True Zoom camera,

Moto 360 Camera

Moto

TurboPower Pack

Price $499

First and foremost, the Moto Z2 Play features a 5.5-inch display (401 ppi, 1080p, AMOLED) and a design that is more or less outdated. While the entire world is now migrating towards bezel-less phones and edge-to-edge screens, Motorola decided to stick with the traditional approach and launch a model that has the same gigantic bezels at the bottom where the home button also resides.

I’d say this is kind of a risky approach, mostly because Motorola doesn’t have the design legacy that other phones like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium have. Sony’s model has become a love-it-or-hate kind of phone, and the boxy design with huge bezels makes sense just because there are buyers who like it this way. Motorola, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same userbase to afford such experiments, so the company tried to impress in a different way.

While when viewed from the front the Z2 Play is more or less a dull phone, Motorola decided to spend more time on refining the experience with the home button. Because on this new generation, the home button serves many more purposes and for the first time supports gestures.

Home button / navigation controller.

In other words, the home button with the integrated fingerprint scanner can replace the typical Android navigation controls, so you can quickly swipe left to go back in an app or in the OS, swipe right to launch the recent apps menu and just tap it to go to the home screen.

These are all tricks that take a while to get used to and so far, opinions are mixed on whether it’s all a good implementation or not. While I do like gestures on my phone, replacing the navigation options that are placed to the left and right on the home button with quick swipes on the fingerprint sensors make the bottom bezel totally unnecessary, in the end becoming just a huge blank area that serves no purpose.

The back of the phone is where all the magic happens and features a connector for mods that reminds me of the Smart Connector on the iPad and which Apple was rumored at some point to bring to a so-called iPhone Pro as well. This connector makes it possible to quickly throw on a different module like a battery pack, a projector, a camera, or even speakers, and use it with little to no configuration.

Mods are great because they further expand the functionality of the phone, but in my couple of weeks with the handset, I found them pretty difficult to carry around, especially because some are fairly bulky. My review box included the following mods: Insta-Share Projector, Hasselblad 4116 True Zoom camera, Moto 360 Camera, and Moto TurboPower Pack.

Motorola Z2 Play Hasselblad camera mod

One of the best things about this new generation is that it works with all the mods released so far, and honestly, Motorola couldn’t afford not to make this possible. The company, however, hasn’t improved the way the mods attach to the phone, and just like I said when I tried the 2016 model, these are mostly flimsy covers that don’t stick well because they’re magnetic and which are way too easy to be removed. Accidentally, that is.

But judging straight from the usability perspective, they’re a nice touch that every geek would love.

The projector itself can be used to project pretty much anything from the phone screen to apps and YouTube videos. Image quality isn’t the best, but on the other hand, it’s good enough to be used during meetings, for instance. The audio of the phone is pretty loud for such a scenario too.

The Moto 360 Camera makes the phone look like a Google Street View car and although I found it particularly appealing at first, it was just the initial excitement.

Motorola Z2 Play 360 camera mod

First of all, it takes way too long to load the camera and sometimes, the camera app crashes and makes the phone unresponsive. To get the 360 camera mod to work, I had to restart the phone several times, but even then, taking photos wasn’t possible because the app stopped responding at random times. Disconnecting the mod and launching the Camera app with the built-in camera worked flawlessly every time.

The one that I particularly liked was the Moto TurboPower Pack. This rather bulky-but-I-don’t-mind mod adds another 3490 mAh to your phone and charges the device at fast speed rates reaching 15W. By default, the Moto Z2 Play comes with a 3,000 mAh battery, so you get more than an extra full charge thanks to this mod. It recharges the battery from 10% to 100% in a little over 90 minutes.

Despite Motorola’s claims, battery life isn’t as good as on the previous model, though I’d say there’s little chance not to be satisfied with it. The Z2 Play features 15 percent less battery capacity, but on average, you still get one full day easily. I’d estimate hardcore users would have to recharge it every 18 hours, and with the TurboPower Pack mod, battery becomes a thing that you no longer have to worry about.

Motorola Z2 Play Hasselblad camera mod sample

And last but not least, it’s the camera mod that promises to do magic for your photos. At least on paper, because in real life, not only that it makes the phone look like a hipster-ish Kodak photo camera, but it also brings only small improvements in terms of photo quality.

With a 12-megapixel 1/2.3″ sensor, this attachable camera’s main strong point is the 10x optical zoom, which indeed does impress, but which you’re rarely going to use. The mod comes with the typical classic camera controls, like a dedicated button to turn the camera on and off and a zoom switch, and it adds some 144 grams to the weight of the phone.

The camera app itself leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s also buggy, taking more than a blink of an eye to actually take a shot. Obviously, when shooting a photo with the maximum zoom level it’s nearly impossible to keep the camera steady, but with some training, you’ll get it right eventually.

Hipster-ish Kodak-like camera.

On the good side, it lets you shoot photos in JPEG and RAW formats, and the latter is particularly useful because it supports more advanced edits up to the point where you can save a totally ruined photo.

In terms of image quality, neither the standard camera or the mod impressed me. The Moto Z2 Play comes with a 12-megapixel f/1.7 and 1.4um sensor, and while the specs are OK, most of the shots lack the contrast and fine details of more expensive cameras. With some fine-tuning, you can improve the quality of the photo, but this obviously requires the skills and time to do it.

As compared to the previous model, the camera has been improved and it now features faster focus, though I can’t notice the poor software processing and emphasize that optical stabilization is still missing. On the other hand, 4K video is supported should you want it.

Motorola Z2 Play camera sample sample
Camera mod vs. built-in camera maximum zoom test

Camera mod vs. built-in camera maximum zoom test

The Moto Z2 Play gets its power from a Snapdragon 626 processor that’s paired with either 3GB or 4GB RAM depending on the storage version you choose (32GB and 64GB, respectively). MicroSD card support, however, is also offered.

The CPU and the amount of storage are both living proof that Motorola wasn’t shooting for the stars with this model and it’s clearly positioned as a mid-range device. The $499 price tag might leave many expecting more, but there are several areas where the device clearly shows that it’s not aiming for the premium, and the Gorilla Glass 3 and the chip choice are two of them.

While it loses points in the hardware section, Motorola tried to impress when it comes to software, so the Moto Z2 Play comes with nearly-stock Android 7 (soon upgradeable to 8) and a series of exclusive touches that you’re going to like. For example, the OS has been customized with gestures, and a double twist action launches the camera. These are nice tweaks that many people are going to love, but for those like me who like a simpler and faster approach, they barely have an impact.

Motorola Z2 Play

What I liked, on the other hand, was the voice command support because I found myself talking to the Moto Z2 Play more than I usually do with my everyday phone. 

You can tell the Moto to launch apps using simple commands like “show me app,” and for instance, you can simply say “show me the forecast” and the device automatically brings forward the weather conditions. Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t work exactly as expected every time, and it happened more than once to fail to recognize the voice command.

Another interesting software touch is the so-called Moto Display, which shows your notifications when the phone is raised, pretty much like an iPhone with Raise to Wake enabled.

The Moto also supports waving the hand over it, and on this new model, it also shows the battery and includes quick notifications options like a reply box for messages. Again, while this feature is a nice addition, it lacks consistency, as I spotted the Moto Display turning on all by itself when sitting on the desk every few minutes without even being touched.

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