Moto Z Play Droid Review: Innovative and Everlasting

by Reads (864)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Service, Warranty & Support
      • 5
      • Ease of Use
      • 8
      • Design
      • 8
      • Performance
      • 8
      • Value
      • 8
      • Total Score:
      • 7.40
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Innovative design with Moto Mods
    • The best battery we’ve ever tested
    • Decent performance and camera output
    • Near stock Android
  • Cons

    • Too much carrier bloatware
    • Fingerprint sensor easily confused for home button

Quick Take

Moto Mods and a world-class battery make the Moto Z Play Droid a compelling smartphone. There’s plenty of competition in the $400 range, with the Moto Z Play Droid occupying a special niche with its innovative design. It’s definitely not “another boring smartphone.”

The modular smartphone is a great idea. It just makes sense, considering the smartphone is such a diverse and ubiquitous gadget. Smartphones already double as PDAs, GPS units, cameras, and even wallets; so why not a stereo, TV/projector, and more?

Moto Z Play Droid

Moto Z Play Droid

Early attempts at modular smartphones have fallen flat. The semi-modular LG G5 proved a poor implementation with limited expansion accessories, while Google’s Project Ara, with its aim at reducing e-waste, was scrapped before launch.

The new Motorola Moto Z line of modular phones, including the mid-range Moto Z Play Droid, offer something similar to the LG G5, just with a better execution. The Moto Z smartphones expand through Moto Mods that attach magnetically to the back panel. The process of swapping Mods is literally a snap, and unlike the G5, doesn’t require the Android handset power down.

It’s unique and it’s different. But the market doesn’t reward innovation for innovation’s sake. Is it any good? That’s all that matters. Read on to find out.

Build & Design

The Motorola Moto Z Play Droid is one of four Moto Z smartphones, including the unlocked (GSM) Moto Z, and the Verizon exclusives, Moto Z Force Droid and Moto Z Droid. The Moto Z Play Droid is also Verizon exclusive (the Droid branding gives it away), and it has the most modest specs and lowest price of the bunch.

Moto Z Play Droid Silver Oak Style Shell

Moto Z Play Droid Silver Oak Style Shell

The Moto Z Play Droid looks like your average mid-range smartphone, measuring 6.2 x 3 x 0.3 inches, and weighing 5.6 ounces, sans a Style Shell back panel.

And that’s where the Moto Z line distinguishes itself. The attached back panels serve as a base plate for modular expansion. Exposed, it features a round camera bulge, Motorola branding, and a dedicated accessory port/connector. It’s magnetic, enabling Moto Mods to adhere securely and stick.

The Moto Z Play Droid ships with a removable Style Shell, giving the smartphone a more traditional back panel. Our review unit came with the silver oak wooden shell, and the lineup includes nylon and leather options. Other Moto Mods include a JBL SoundBoost Speaker, Moto Insta-Share Projector, Incipio offGRID Power Pack, and Hasselblad True Zoom camera.

Together with a Style Shell, the Moto Z Play Droid measures .37 inches thick, and weighs 6.8 ounces. That’s larger than most other 2016 smartphones in any price class, but not bulky by any reasonable standard. The Moto Z Play Droid is no less pocketable than a slick iPhone 7 Plus or Galaxy Note 7.

Moto Z Play Droid camera bump

Moto Z Play Droid camera bump

The Style Shell and other Moto Mods come off and on easily, and again, stay on securely. Our Style Shell never slipped or accidentally came off during testing. The wood backing also felt very pleasant to the touch, and we’re confident the leather and nylon alternatives would as well, given Motorola’s design history.

We worry that the contacts on the back panel could suffer corrosion over time, especially moisture or grit gets stuck under the case. They showed no signs of that during our brief time with it, however.

Otherwise, the Moto Z Play Droid looks like a standard smartphone, with a flat display panel and rounded corners. There’s a large display bezel on the top and bottom, housing the earpiece, speaker, flash, 5-megapixel front camera, and sensors (top), as well as a pinhole mic and square fingerprint sensor (bottom).

Moto Z Play Droid fingerprint sensor

Moto Z Play Droid fingerprint sensor

Moto Z Play Droid contacts

Moto Z Play Droid contacts

The fingerprint sensor presents an annoying issue.  By default, it unlocks the phone, and also puts it to sleep. Because it resembles a home button, sits right below the on-screen nav icons, and is very sensitive, accidental presses are way too common.

An aluminum alloy bumper wraps the edges, holding the textured power button and two-button volume control on the right side, which are easy to distinguish via touch. The SIM/microSD tray sits on the top half, next to another mic, while the bottom houses the headphone jack and USB Type-C input.

Moto Z Play Droid SIM tray

Moto Z Play Droid SIM tray

Moto Z Play Droid USB Type-C and headphone jack

Moto Z Play Droid USB Type-C and headphone jack

While much was made of Apple ditching the headphone jack for the iPhone 7, Moto was the first, with the Moto Z, Moto Z Droid, and Moto Z Force Droid shipping without it. That resulted in some slick handsets, but we’ll take a slightly bulkier smartphone with a full complement of ports any day.

Moto Z Play Droid buttons

Moto Z Play Droid buttons

Moto Z Play Droid side

Moto Z Play Droid side

Again, it’s a bit larger than most handset with similar screen sizes, though not overly cumbersome. In hand, the Moto Z Play feels great. It’s solid, and its weight lends itself to a quality build. Of course, we recommend a case, even it makes switching Moto Mods more difficult.

Motorola claims the Moto Z Play Droid has a “water repellent nano-coating,” which should protect the Android smartphone against spills, splashes, and light rain. Don’t submerge it though, because it’s not waterproof.

Display & Speaker

The Moto Z Play Droid has a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display with a 1920 x 1080 resolution. That results in a cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio and 403 pixels per inch. Android flagships, including the other Moto Zs, top out at 500+ PPI, which is borderline overkill. While you can spot a difference in sharpness in a side-by-side comparison, it’s a difference between “great” and “even better.”

That is to say the Moto Z Play Droid has a stunning display. The Super AMOLED technology gives it a deep contrast and vibrant colors, with a slight magenta tone. Set to max, it’s bright enough to cut through outdoor glare.

It lacks color calibration features beyond two settings, standard and vibrant. We wish Motorola packed in more, and maybe even some sort of comfort or night mode that filters out blue tones for yellow.

The Moto Z Play Droid outputs decent sound, for a smartphone. It’s loud enough and clear for personal use, and extremely clean compared against other smartphones with no distortion at either end. But as we always state in this section, smartphone speakers are the last thing you should consider before buying a device.

Moto Mods

Unquestionably, the Moto Mods have potential; and Motorola executed on a great idea with its first-generation semi-modular smartphone. Moto Z buyers will still need to place some faith in Motorola that it’s committed to producing and promoting the accessories.

Moto Z Play Droid with Style Shell

Moto Z Play Droid with Style Shell

For its part, Motorola offers a Moto Mods development kit, and promises “Moto Mods developed today are designed to work with future-generation Moto Z phones.” Does that also mean Moto Mods released in the future will be backward compatible with first-generation Moto Zs? Because that would be a great reason to buy a Moto Z Play.

Beyond the speaker, camera, projector, and battery, we hope to see future Moto Mods embrace more niche interests, including business (a portable point-of-sale terminal) and gaming (a cabinet with controller). We’d also love to see wacky cases with e-ink displays, thermal camera rigs, and home health monitors.

Performance

This is a midrange smartphone, with an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor (2 GHz) and 3GB RAM. Today’s flagships, including other Moto Zs, have Snapdragon 820 processors along with 4GB RAM. Expect 6GB RAM and the Snapdragon 821 to become the high-end norm with the next crop of smartphones (Xiaomi just announced the Mi 5s Plus with those internals).

Still, it’s enough to keep the Moto Z Play Droid humming along. It runs near stock Android very well. It’s stable and swift, and fine for day-to-day use. It even handles demanding 3D games, like Modern Combat 5, with ease.

Turning to the benchmarks, the Motorola Moto Z Play Droid scored 799 on the Geekbench 4 single-core test, 2599 on the multi-core test, and 2473 on the Compute (graphics) test.

For some perspective, the flagship-level Samsung Galaxy S7 edge (with a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB RAM) scored 1687, 3945, and 6185 on the same tests, respectively.

It’s also worth noting the Moto Z Play’s fingerprint sensor is very good. It’s quick and accurate, and did not require a second press once during testing.

Battery

Wow! We have a new battery champion! The Moto Z Play Droid has by far the best battery we’ve ever tested on a smartphone. It’s a 3510mAh whopper that lasted 22 hours and 52 minutes streaming video over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness set to max.

Anything over 8 hours is good. Twelve hours in the gold standard. The Moto Z Play Droid is otherworldly. Keep in mind, 22 hours and 52 minutes is about the minimum you can expect from this smartphone. With regular use, you could easily go three or four days between charges.

It also charges fast thanks to USB Type-C. It went from dead to 42% in just 30 minutes with the bundled charger.

Next to Moto Mods, the battery is the primary reason to buy the Moto Z Play Droid.

Software

The Moto Z Play Droid runs near stock Android

The Moto Z Play Droid runs near stock Android

The Moto Z Play Droid ships with Android 6.0.1, and is pretty much guaranteed to receive the Android Nougat update sometime in Q4, according to Motorola. After Nougat, it’s much less of a sure thing.

Lenovo, which now owns Motorola, has a poor initial record with updates. It abandoned the 2014 Moto X flagship by not supplying an Android Marshmallow update, and updates have been very slow coming to Verizon-exclusive Droids, like the Droid Turbo 2 and Droid MAXX 2.

This includes security updates. Lenovo and Motorola have never committed to monthly security updates, and Motorola claims it will “bundle security updates in a scheduled Maintenance Release (MR) or OS upgrade.” Our review unit shipped with the July security update, and updated to the September patch by September 28. Our Huawei Honor 8 received similarly-scheduled updates, while our Samsung Galaxy S7 edge received the July, August, and September updates, all early in each month.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Moto Z Play Droid has near stock Android, with Moto’s excellent voice and action commands, and it’s very clean. Verizon wisely ditched the harsh black-and-red Droid branding in favor of Android’s pleasing Material Design. We loved the fact that the homescreens respond to landscape orientation (Samsung TouchWiz phones do not), but wish it included a “restart” option instead just “power off.”

The Moto Z Play Droid is only available with 32GB capacity (microSD expandable). Of that, about 24GB is available out of the box, with Android taking up 8.15GB, and apps taking up about 4GB.

Verizon bloatware

Verizon bloatware

Being a Verizon smartphone, there’s plenty of bloatware. Some games, like Cake Jam, Farm Heroes, and Panda Pop can be deleted, while other Verizon mainstays like NFL Mobile, IMDB, and Slacker Radio cannot.

The stock internet browser and gallery apps have been replaced by Chrome and Google Photos, respectively, still redundant apps remain an issue, with Verizon causing the most problems. So the Moto Z Play Droid has both Verizon Cloud and Google Drive, as well Hangouts, Google Messenger, and the useless Verizon Message + app, in addition to Google Maps and Verizon Navigator.

Camera

The Moto Z Play Droid has a 16-megapixel rear camera with an f/2 aperture and 1.3um pixel size, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with an f/2.2 aperture and wide-angle lens (85 degrees).

Flagships smartphones have wider apertures and larger pixels, mostly for better low-light results, but the Play Droid’s specs are in line with other mid-range smartphones.

Thanks to quick launch actions, you can start snapping pictures from a sleeping Moto Z Play Droid within seconds, and its laser and phase detection focus is reasonably fast (though we ran into problems touch focusing in some macro shooting situations).

The default app is clean and intuitive, with a swipe based navigation, and a pro mode for tweaking the ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and more. Other features are typical for smartphone cameras, including touch focus, panorama, and a best shot mode. The front-facing selfie camera has a dedicated flash and beauty mode, which results scary selfies when manually set to max.

Video is limited to 1080p at 30fps, with a slow motion option. There’s no 4K, which isn’t so bad. 4K smartphone video is way overkill.

Sample Photos

Everything looks pleasant, especially the colors, which pop with appropriate saturation. Details are crisp, with proper exposure levels, as evident by the visible details in the Riverside sign’s black and white paint areas. The white balance also does it job, adjusting appropriately in tough lighting, as seen in the stairwell pic.

Moto Z Play Droid sample photo

Moto Z Play Droid sample photo

Moto Z Play Droid sample photo

Moto Z Play Droid sample photo

The Moto Z Play Droid struggles in low light, however. This is true of all mid-range smartphones, and even some flagships. Look at the Moto Z Play Droid’s sleeping dog picture against the same photo taken by the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. The current-generation Samsung smartphones are the absolute best at low-light photo output, and no smartphone outside of the iPhone 7 even comes close.

Moto Z Play Droid low-light photo

Moto Z Play Droid low-light photo

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Value

The Moto Z Play Droid costs $408, which is the current sweet spot for price to performance. The excellent Honor 8, OnePlus 3, and ZTE Axon cost about the same. The Moto Z Play is less powerful than those three devices, but its battery is far superior. And it has Moto Mods.

The Moto Z costs $700, while the Z Droid costs $624 and the Moto Z Force Droid costs $720. A GSM unlocked Moto Z Play is launching soon for $450.

All Moto Zs have a 5.5-inch display. The upmarket devices have more pixels, with a 535 PPI. They also have a Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB RAM, with a 64GB capacity option. The Moto Z and Z Droid are thinner and lighter, and have a smaller battery, 13-megapixel camera, and no headphone jack. The Moto Z Force Droid is only slightly lighter, with no headphone jack, a similarly-sized battery, 21-megapixel camera, and an amazing ShatterShield display.

Of the three, we gravitate toward the Moto Z Force Droid. It’s powerful and Moto ShatterShield is one of our favorite smartphone features. It has a killer battery, too.

Conclusion

Moto Z Play DroidMotorola gives us hope the modular smartphone can work. It smartly implemented the feature with the Moto Z lineup, and then combined it with a world-class battery to make the Moto Z Play Droid a compelling smartphone. There’s plenty of competition in the $400 range, with the Moto Z Play Droid occupying a special niche with its innovative design. It’s definitely not “another boring smartphone.”

It’s not a perfect smartphone either. Motorola’s software update issues, particularly with the Droid lineup worries us, and we’re a bit concerned about those Moto Mod contacts. How well will they hold up over time? Also, Motorola needs to move the fingerprint sensor where it’s impossible to confuse for a home button.

But none of these issues disqualify the Moto Z Play Droid from consideration. This is a good device with an exciting design, decent camera, and the best battery we’ve ever tested. Give it a close look if you’re in the market.

Pros

  • Innovative design with Moto Mods
  • The best battery we’ve ever tested
  • Decent performance and camera output
  • Near stock Android

Cons

  • Too much carrier bloatware
  • Fingerprint sensor easily confused for home button


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