Motorola’s mod-friendly smartphone, the Moto Z, is back. It’s back in Z2 Play form, refining the original idea a little and bringing one of 2016’s most interesting — if not exactly compelling — phones into late 2017. The base hardware is better, and Motorola is to be applauded for that, but the Moto Mods themselves have changed little.
What Is It?
The $699 Motorola Moto Z2 Play is the second moddable Motorola smartphone to be launched in Australia, joining the original super-slim Moto Z from late last year. The Moto Z2 Play continues the Moto Z’s trend of form following function, with a super-thin body designed to offload the majority of the phone’s media features to external devices. When you’re not using a Moto Mod, which attaches magnetically and transfers power and data through pogo pins on the rear of the phone, the Z2 Play is barely 6mm thick. That’s crazy skinny, despite its 3000mAh battery and the 5.5-inch 1080p display the phone is packing.
Sure, the Z2 Play has an internal speaker and an internal camera, and they’re both not bad — but what really sets this phone apart is its ability to clip on an external JBL speaker or an external Hasselblad camera or any of a few other Moto Mods, giving a far superior sound or picture to any other smartphone you can buy today. Other mods, including more easy-to-justify ones like a semi-external battery-boosting case, are also available. It’s roughly the same idea that LG tried and abandoned with its G5 a couple of years ago.
The 6mm thick Moto Z2 Play is otherwise 156x76mm and weighs 145g, putting it squarely in the ball-park of pretty much all other 5.5-inch smartphones. The Z2 Play isn’t necessarily a top-of-the-line phone, though, running a octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 processor and using a 1080p AMOLED panel rather than a higher resolution 2560x1440pixel one — although you do get high-end phone features like a microSD card slot, a lower front fingerprint reader, and water-resistant coating. The Z2 Play’s integrated rear camera is a bright 12-megapixel f/1.7 one, the front is a 5-megapixel f/2.2 one. Motorola’s simple approach means that the Z2 Play has an essentially stock version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat out of the box.
Motorola’s optional/additional Moto Mods for the Moto Z family range from the understandable car docks to expandable battery packs to more… novel… purchases. You’d be well forgiven for adding Incipio’s wireless-charging OffGrid battery pack for $119 ($139 with Qi wireless) or the $129 charging car dock, or you could lash out for a $399 Hasselblad 10x zoom camera module or a $429 Insta-Share projector.
What’s It Good At?
The Motorola Moto Z2 Play is very well built. That’s despite shaving a full millimetre of chassis thickness from the already svelte Moto Z, but part of that is achieved by the fact Motorola’s moved to an all-metal back panel; it’s a satin finish that looks a lot nicer than the original glossy Z. That does mean the 12mp f/1.7 camera bump is larger than ever, and you can’t put the Moto Z2 Play on its back on a desktop without it rocking perilously from site to side, but that camera bump is ringed in shiny lovely chrome and the whole phone just looks nice.
Battery life is actually pretty good despite the Z2 Play’s reasonably small 3000mAh cell. That’s a function of its efficient octa-core processor, the not-too-bright screen, and the lack of software bloat that Motorola’s skin on Android has. I easily cracked a full day of moderate to heavy use from the Moto Z2 Play, charging once overnight and returning the phone to said charger late at night; that’s not something I can say of most of the phones that I try out. The phone also charges quickly, so you can give it a boost easily if and when you need.
The Moto Z2 Play’s camera is a vast improvement from the original Moto Z’s, with fewer pixels and a larger aperture. In good lighting it takes excellent photos, and in less than ideal settings it does a decent job; not up to the level of the Galaxy S8 or Google Pixel though. I should also make special note of the Moto Z2 Play’s front fingerprint reader. You might not love the position that it’s in on the phone’s body, but you can’t escape the fact that it’s both extremely fast and extremely accurate, usually only requiring a single tap to unlock the phone and get onto the Android home screen. A lot of fingerprint readers are trash, but this one is a keeper.
What’s It Not Good At?
Having those Moto Mods is core to the concept of the Moto Z2 Play, and it’s to Motorola’s credit that the company committed to them so fully in creating not one but two phones that use them. But the core idea of offloading those high-quality components into proprietary modules that still need the phone just rankles me a bit; why not have an actual standalone camera? Or a standalone Bluetooth speaker, which will pump more power than the JBL Moto Mod? You really have to buy into Motorola’s raison d’etre for the Moto Z2 Play — and actually actively use those Mods — to justify this purchase.
Similarly, the number and range of Moto Mods hasn’t increased significantly since I took a look at the original Moto Z. With that in mind, you shouldn’t really be buying into the Moto Z ecosystem with any idea of additional Moto Mods coming to market — if you’re not content with the ones that are already available, with the speaker and camera and the external battery pack being the three most rational ones, then you shouldn’t necessarily pull the trigger on a Z2 Play.
And there’s definitely a sense that having those add-on mods, which has driven Motorola to slim down the Z2 Play’s body as much as possible, has led to some mediocre performance without the mods attached. The screen isn’t especially bright — it’s fine in anything but . The internal speaker is neither especially loud nor of especially high quality. The camera is fine, but it doesn’t stand up to top competition from Apple or Samsung or Google, expecially when shooting in low light or high contrast.
It’s also a relatively expensive smartphone to start with, but once you start adding one or more of Motorola’s proprietary Moto Mods to the system, the price of the Z2 Play starts to shoot up. You can buy some fantastic smartphones for the price of a Z2 Play and a couple of accessories — and if you’re not buying those accessories, why are you buying a Moto Z2 Play? They’re not mandatory, I get that, but you have to at least consider the price of these highly specialised and bespoke components when you’re making your buying decision.
Should You Buy It?
The $699 Moto Z2 Play is a niche smartphone in a mainstream smartphone’s clothing. It’s a wolf with removable speakers and projectors and cameras in a herd of sheep that are just, well, normal phones. But despite that, the Moto Z2 Play isn’t necessarily better than any of the other all-in-one, more contained, smartphones at its price point, purely because these phones are more refined — in their built-in cameras, in their built-in speakers, in their overall industrial design.
There are definitely points in the Moto Z2 Play’s favour: its straightforward stock-ish Android, its But it’s the slow pace of Moto Mod innovation that kills the Z2 Play for me: why buy a new phone based on its extras, when those extras themselves aren’t new? You may well like the idea of the Moto Z2 Play, but my advice to you is to include the cost of a couple of Moto Mods in your purchase price, and think about actually using the phone with a chunky JBL speaker or a chunky Hasselblad camera attached. If you don’t love the idea, you might find another phone a more appropriate purchase.