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June 6, 2018

Moto Z3 Play hands-on review

by John_A


Research Center:

Moto Z3 Play

What do you want the most in a smartphone? Better battery life, according to a 2018 poll, but that’s hardly surprising. We spend quite a bit of time glued to our screens, and better battery life helps keep us online even longer. But smartphone manufacturers have been keen on slimming down our phones instead of slapping in bigger batteries to last more than a day (with a few exceptions). Well, Motorola has figured out how make a phone that’s slimmer than all the latest iPhones and still provides a full day or more of battery life.

The Moto Z3 Play is the latest entry in the Moto Z series, known for the snappable Moto Mods you can attach to the back of the phones. The higher-end Moto Z2 Force is the flagship, with top-notch specifications, but the Play series is the midtier range that sits in the $400 to $500 price category. We had a chance to spend some time with the Z3 Play, which is super-slim, offers capable performance, and should pack great battery life.

Slimming everything down

The Moto Z3 Play is just 6.75mm thin, or 0.26 inches. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone X is 0.30 inches thin. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but thinness is one of the first things you’ll notice about the Z3 Play when it’s in your hand. It makes the phone quite lightweight (156 grams), which definitely helps with ergonomics. That being said, it’s not as slim as its predecessor, which sits at 0.23 inches.

There’s a 6.01-inch screen on the front, but the phone doesn’t feel too large. Why? The Lenovo-owned company drastically slimmed down the bezels or edges surrounding the display. It makes the phone look a lot more sleek and contemporary. There’s still a bit of a chin and a top bezel, but we’re quite happy with the way the Z3 Play looks. You might be satisfied to see no notch here.

The power button sits on the left edge in a convenient position, and a volume rocker is just as accessible on the right. The phone’s thinness, lightweight nature, and the rounded corners on all four sides make it comfortable and ergonomic to hold in the palm. We still would have liked to see a curved back, though, like on the original Moto X.

Thinness is one of the first things you’ll notice about the Z3 Play when it’s in your hand.

Flip it over to the back, and you’ll see a glaring downside of such a thin phone: The camera bump. Motorola hasn’t been shy to include huge camera bumps in all its smartphones, and there’s no difference here. The camera bump on the back of the Z3 Play is big and annoying, because it means the phone doesn’t sit flat when you’re using it on a desk. The fix is to just use a Moto Mod case that makes the whole back uniform, but it’ll make the phone thicker. The benefit, though, is that with a slimmer base, adding mods won’t increase the thickness of the phone too much.

There’s also now Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and back of the phone, adding an extra degree of quality. Sadly, that doesn’t mean there’s wireless charging. It’s purely for aesthetic purposes, which means you’ll want to keep a mod on the back to protect the phone from shattering at the first drop. Conveniently, there’s a separate wireless charging mod you can slap to the back of the phone for $30, and it doesn’t add much heft.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The 6-inch Super AMOLED screen is bright enough to see outdoors. It’s sharp with a 2,160 x 1,080 pixel resolution, and the colors look a tad oversaturated. It does have an 18:9 aspect ratio, like most new smartphones. We’ll have to take a closer look at the screen to see how it stacks up to the competition, but we’re sure it will be more than satisfactory.

Interestingly enough, the fingerprint sensor is now on the right edge of the phone, rather than on the front. It’s easy to reach with the thumb or index finger, depending on how you hold the phone, but we’ll have to use the phone more and register our fingerprint to see how natural it feels. Alternatively, there’s a face unlock feature, in case you want to ignore the unusually-placed fingerprint sensor.

Interestingly enough, the fingerprint sensor is now on the right edge of the phone, rather than on the front.

A USB Type-C charging port is on the bottom edge of the phone, and disappointingly, the top earpiece is the only speaker. We haven’t had a chance to listen to music of videos through it, but we can’t imagine it will sound good. Motorola will be sure to tell you to just add a speaker mod to the back of the phone, and to give credit, the JBL SoundBoost 2 speaker mod we’ve tried does sound pretty great.

There is no headphone jack on the Moto Z3 Play, which now means all of the 2018 Moto Z phones will likely not have a headphone jack (unless Motorola oddly adds it back into the rumored Moto Z3 Force). There’s no reason why Motorola removed it — the Z2 Play, which was thinner, had a headphone jack. We’re disappointed to see it gone on this mid-range device.

Speaking of mods, the phone’s dimensions are almost exactly the same as the other Moto Z smartphones. That means all of Motorola’s 14 mods will still snap perfectly without fail — good news if you own an older Moto Z phone and have some mods lying around.

There’s no official IP-rated water resistance, but Motorola does say an advanced “nano-coating technology” protects the Z3 Play from splashes of water and spills. We get there may be some complications with the Moto Mod pogo pins, but if the company can bring water resistance to the cheaper Moto X4, it should be a feature in the Moto Z3 Play.

Speedier performance, lightweight software

As a midtier phone, the Moto Z3 Play runs a midrange processor — the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 with 4GB of RAM, which Motorola said should offer 30 percent more speed than the Moto Z2 Play. In our brief time with the phone, swiping throughout the Android operating system, we didn’t run into any problems with performance. You’ll find 32GB and 64GB storage variants, and there’s a MicroSD card slot in case you want to add more space.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The phone is not going to be as powerful as the similarly priced OnePlus 6, which is a good reason to just buy OnePlus’ phone, but the Snapdragon 636 should be more than sufficient for most people’s usage. We’ll test the Z3 Play with some graphically intensive games to see how it fares.

The Snapdragon 636 should be more than sufficient for most people’s usage.

The Moto Z3 Play runs Android 8.1 Oreo, and there aren’t many changes that Motorola added to stock Android. There are the usual Moto Actions, which include gestures to quickly access features such as the camera and flashlight, one-button navigation similar to Android P, Moto Voice to trigger actions faster, and more. We didn’t see much bloatware on the phone.

The new navigation system is even better than what’s available in Android P. The bar at the bottom acts as a home button, and you can slide it to the right to open Recents, and to the left to go back. Just swipe up from the dock to open the app drawer. It’s simple, and easy to use. The traditional navigation bar is also available if you prefer it.

Motorola said you can expect to see two Android version upgrades to the Moto Z3 Play.

Battery life

The Moto Z3 Play has the same battery as its predecessor, and Motorola claims the phone should last about the same amount of time. That means you should expect around two days of battery life with light usage, and with high use, expect a little under 50 percent to be left at the end of a work day. That’s far better than most flagship smartphones, and we’ll be testing it further to see if the battery still remains a key highlight of this phone.

Moto Z3 Play Compared To

Alcatel 3V

Moto E5 Plus

Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra

Nokia 7 Plus

Porsche Design Huawei Mate 10

Google Pixel 2 XL

Maze Alpha 4G

ZTE Blade Z Max

ZTE Max XL

Meizu M3 Max

ZTE ZMax Pro

Blu Pure XL

Huawei Mate 8

ZTE Grand X Max+

LG G Flex

One of the ways Motorola will be pushing the Moto Z3 Play is with a battery mod bundle that comes with the phone. We added the mod to the Z3, and the phone still manages to feel exceptionally thin. It’s a great way to boost battery life even further when you’re demanding a lot from the phone.

You’ll be able to charge the phone up quickly thanks to Motorola’s 15W TurboPower charging technology, which the company said should deliver “half a day’s power in half an hour.”

Capable cameras

Dual cameras on smartphones are all the rage, and Motorola’s jumping on the bandwagon. The rear camera bump houses a 12-megapixel f/1.7 lens and a 5-megapixel depth-sensing lens.

The camera produced solid photos of the New York skyline on an overcast day, retaining good color accuracy and detail. We weren’t able to test it in low light, but we’ll make sure to put it through its paces.

In terms of extra features, there’s Spot Color, which singles out one color in photos (as seen on other Motorola phones), as well as Cutout mode, face filters, and more.

Two of the most important camera features are Portrait Mode and Cinemagraphs. The former blurs out the background of a subject, producing photos with a cool blur effect. In our brief testing, it seemed to perform well enough, but we’ll need more time to make sure. Cinemagraphs lets you capture up to 10 seconds of a video, and then you can choose to keep one part of the video in motion, and freeze the rest. The result is a neat GIF that’s fun to share on social media, but it’s still a bit gimmicky.

Cinemagraph

Google Lens is now built right into the camera app, and it’ll let you use the power of Google Assistant to identify object and landmarks, grab text from real-world objects, and more.

The front camera has improved to 8-megapixels with an f/2.0 aperture, and it should be capable of producing decent selfies. You can also shoot portrait mode photos with the front camera.

In our experience, it’s the camera that often falls short on budget smartphones, and it’s likely what will lose some points for the Moto Z3 Play. So far, the features on board coupled with our brief time with the camera hasn’t inspired us to take a lot of photos with this phone. We’ll need more testing to see how it stacks up to others in this price range, such as the OnePlus 6.

Price and availability

The Moto Z3 Play will come bundled with a battery mod, and will cost $500. It’s available now in Brazil, but it will come to the U.S. this summer at Sprint and U.S. Cellular. An unlocked version will also be available at Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Fry’s, and B&H Photo, and it will also be an Amazon Prime Exclusive Phone. Details about the unlocked version’s availability haven’t been announced. We also don’t know how much the phone will cost without the mod, but we expect it will sit somewhere around the $450 range, if not a little less.

Considering the OnePlus 6 offers so much more phone at just $30 more (compared to the Z3 Play bundle), it’s going to be hard to recommend the Z3 Play over the OnePlus. The Moto Mods — some of which are certainly compelling — are one reason to go for the Z3 Play, but the thing we want to see most is if it delivers excellent battery life. We’ll have more details in our full review.

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