Moto Z2 Play review: Midnight in the garden of good and sequel

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The Moto Z2 Play is a great phone, but it's not a great sequel.

The quick take

Motorola went iterative for its Moto Z Play sequel, announcing it just nine months after the original. It's not a complete overhaul, and in two major ways is a downgrade, but it's also one of the most well-rounded and enjoyable-to-use Android phones on the market.

The Good

  • Excellent performance
  • Beautifully made and well-designed
  • Good battery life
  • Commendable camera quality
  • Moto Mods support
The Bad

  • Higher price than its predecessor
  • Choice of aging processor isn't great
  • Worse battery life than previous generation

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. It fundamentally altered the way it approached building, marketing and selling phones, upending its traditional flagship X lineup for something more exciting and far less traditional: a series of ultra-thin phones with add-on capabilities.

Moto Z. Moto Mods. A distinct and predictable design and screen size for at least two years to ensure compatibility. We're now into the second year of the Moto Z line, beginning with the Moto Z2 Play, and despite a few deserving criticisms, I could not be happier with the device.

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About this review

I, Daniel Bader, am writing this review after using the Moto Z2 Play for one week on both the AT&T network in the U.S. and the Rogers network in Canada. It was running Android 7.1.1 build NPS26.74-34 with the May 1, 2017 security update. It was not updated during the review period.

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Thin, at the cost of battery

Moto Z2 Play Hardware

If you've used a Moto Z or Moto Z Play, you'll know what to expect here. In fact, the Moto Z2 Play is a hybrid of those devices, thinning out the girthy frame of the original while replacing its scratch-prone glass back with the same smooth aluminum of the higher-end flagships.

That alone can't justify the extra $50 base — the Moto Z2 Play will cost $499 when it debuts unlocked in the U.S. later this summer — but there are a few choice upgrades that do.

Still great, but more expensive.

For starters, the Snapdragon 626 that powers the phone is 10% faster than the 625 in the Z Play, and the phone now comes standard with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. Its 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display is not changed from the original, which is fine: the 626 can't support higher-resolution displays, and doesn't need to, since I've found this size and density to be a long-term sweet spot for battery life.

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Underneath the screen, you'll find the only major aesthetic difference between the Z2 Play and its predecessor: the front fingerprint sensor is now rounded, and much wider, making it easier to find and activate. There's also the optional One Button Nav feature, which I don't care for but understand many people,
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, have fallen in love with since it debuted on the Moto G5 series. To be honest, I'd update to the Moto Z2 Play for the improved fingerprint sensor alone, but there is more.

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The phone is a full millimeter thinner than the Moto Z Play, owing to a 17% smaller battery cell that the company hopes you'll augment with one of the company's
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. Yes, there's only a 3000mAh battery in here now, and while it doesn't completely decimate the superior uptime of the original, it definitely cuts into its legacy a little bit.

The phone is a millimeter thinner than the Moto Z Play, but that doesn't make up for the loss in battery life.

This is a vexing and, in my opinion, ill-conceived move by the company; the Moto Z Play built a legacy on incredible multi-day battery life, and now I'm lucky to finish the day with 15% remaining in the tank. There are other reasons to buy the Moto Z2 Play, for sure — the camera is a huge upgrade, for instance — but the $449 original grew into an low-key battery darling through word of mouth and effective advertising.

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Standard slick Moto

Moto Z2 Play Software

Though the older phones in the series may receive the same upgrade at some point this year, right now the Moto Z2 Play showcases the best of Motorola's understated software effectiveness. Nowhere is that better conveyed than the updates to Moto Display, which now support image thumbnails quick replies without having to unlock the phone.

Here's what I wrote about Moto Display last year, in the
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Moto Display. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you value notifications — and if you're using an Android phone, you likely do — Motorola's screen-off implementation is the best there is.

It's amazing how, despite improvements in always-on display technology from Samsung, LG, and even Google, nothing can touch what Motorola continues to do here.

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Another interesting, but far less useful, feature this year is something called "Show Me." Inserted as part of the Moto Voice suite, it allows you to launch a number of screen overlay widgets, or any app on the phone by saying "Show Me X" when the display is off. The whole thing is remarkably, annoyingly simple: it uses Google's Voice Search API to recognize that single phrase paired with a host of commands like "Show me the weather" and "Show me my schedule," or "Show me Twitter." Of the commands that are pre-programmed, a fullscreen widget sits on top of the screen until you dismiss it; when asked to open an app, a small graphic shows up near the top beckoning you to pull it down.

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I don't anticipate anyone will really find much use from this extremely limited and poorly-implemented feature, and it's worrisome that something so ham-fisted and half-baked was included on a Moto device, but I hope that Motorola takes it back to the engineering team with plans to either drastically improve it, or eliminate it altogether, especially since the Moto Z2 Play also supports screen-off "OK Google" prompting.

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That brings me to the launcher, which is adapted from the one found on the Moto G5 Plus and is about as close as you'll find to the Pixel Launcher without Google's name on it. Google's Feed (formerly Google Now) is a swipe to the right, while the app drawer is a swipe up from the translucent icon dock. Thanks to
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improved screen scaling options, you can now fit more icons on the screen at a time, and the entire thing just flies. I love this launcher, and hope that older Moto devices inherit it in a future update.

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Questionable decisions

Moto Z2 Play Performance and battery life

The Moto Z Play is well known to be one of the biggest battery surprises of 2016: it just keeps on going. It's easily a two-day phone and can be, with a Moto Mod battery attachment, a long weekend phone if you're careful with use.

The Moto Z2 Play shaves 17% from its predecessor's battery capacity while adding 10% of clock speed to a chip that has otherwise no additional energy efficiencies. So while I would not say that the Z2 Play disappoints when it comes to uptime, I would quickly follow up by saying that it no longer impresses, either. It's just good, and in 2017, that's not good enough.

Performance, on the other hand, is demonstrably improved over the Moto Z Play, particularly in app load speeds. Coupled with that additional performance from the Snapdragon 626 SoC, Motorola has upped the base RAM amount to 4GB (though a cheaper 3GB option will be available if you care to save $50 from the unlocked MSRP, though I wouldn't bother). I really tested this phone, and came away impressed each time: despite the lack of high-powered Cortex-A72 cores, the Snapdragon 626 is a fine chip, and one that managed to keep up with my demanding workload every time.

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Much better

Moto Z2 Play Camera

The front-facing camera on the Z2 Play is identical to its predecessor's, and it's good. Fine.

The rear camera, however, has been G5'd, dropping from 16MP to 12MP while expanding the aperture to f/1.7 and adding Dual Focus Pixels to make the laser-assisted and phase-detection autofocus options even more accurate.

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In daylight shots, I came away impressed with what this shooter was capable of. And despite it not coming close to the lifelike sharpness and accuracy of
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, it did a great job taking digital photos that, well, look digital.

In low light, the Moto Z2 Play really impressed me: it managed to find the right exposure and focus in even the most challenging of lighting situations. And unlike the Moto G5 Plus, which on paper has an identical camera setup, I came away from the Moto Z2 Play with a bunch of great low-light shots that I wanted to share.

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The problem with the Z2 Play's camera is its speed: its aging image signal processor just can't keep up with the latest-generation stuff from Qualcomm. That angst is exacerbated by the fact that the phone doesn't run Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 630 SoC, which features a much-improved image signal processor.

If you don't use a Style Shell back cover, the camera hump can get annoying to avoid, and distracting.

There were more than a few situations I found myself with a photo of action past, or action blurred. The camera just doesn't know when to ramp up light sensitivity (ISO) in order to preserve a higher shutter speed and avoid a blurry subject. Anyone with a dog or a kid knows how crucial that intelligence is, and newer phones, like the Galaxy S8, do a far better job in this respect.

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Chip questions

Moto Z2 Play Odds and ends

Like last year's model, the Z2 Play features maximum LTE download speeds of 300Mbps and 150Mbps, with 2x carrier aggregation. That's far behind the incumbents, and half the potential of the
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, the latter of which is coming to phones very shortly and will eat up a lot of space in this $500 price point.

It may have been a mistake not to wait for the Snapdragon 630, or opt for a slightly higher price with the Snapdragon 660.

While I had no connectivity problems at all, and managed to find LTE-Advanced in a number of areas around New York and Toronto, I can't help but feel that Motorola did itself a huge disservice not waiting for the Snapdraogn 660, even if it meant eating some of the profit from this new phone. The Snapdragon 626 is old news from a network standpoint.

But I did use the phone to make calls and listen to music over Bluetooth and connect to Wi-Fi and do a bunch of other things people do with their portable computers and loved how reliable everything was. Not a dropped call nor a stuttery connection. And the single front-facing speaker? Pretty darn good.

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The bottom line

Moto Z2 Play: You should probably buy it

I love this phone. I don't even want to go back to my Samsung Galaxy S8 right now because the Moto Z2 Play does everything I need it to, and has the deep (and growing deeper) Moto Mods ecosystem to help do what it can't out of the box. That's great.

But I am also partial to many things Motorola does, including (especially) Moto Display and a low-fat version of Android. I am also not overly concerned about the diminished battery, despite the fact that I no longer get the same astronomical uptime as I did on the Z Play. That's because I always have a portable charger with me, and the Z2 Play still — even without anything external — still manages to last the whole day with room to spare. That room is just a little more cramped this time around.

Finally, I love the little things, like the speed and placement of the fingerprint sensor, and the way the camera takes reliable photos in basically any lighting condition. I appreciate the aluminum back, which means I don't have to wear a Style Shell if I don't want to. I love the well-calibrated side buttons.

I am also aware that the phone is probably too expensive, at $499 unlocked, for most people, and that when it's available at a carrier (for an unknown price right now) it's once again going to be a Verizon exclusive for a while before an unlocked model comes available. I know that the chip inside the phone is already old, and will get older quickly. And I know that the 3000mAh battery is going to turn off the very people that made the Moto Z Play such a cult hit in the first place.

I know all these things and yet, after using the phone, I don't really care. After using the phone yourself, you probably won't care, either.

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