Moto Z2 Play on INDYCAR trackside book
The Moto Z2 Play earned Executive Editor Ben Hinc's second-highest smartphone rating. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

It’s easy to root for the underdog. It happens all the time in sports and racing in particular. The guy who’s struggled for 100 or more races visiting victory lane is a bigger story than a frequent winner taking yet another checkered flag.

The same can be said for Motorola, the Lenovo-owned brand which has, at best, a tenuous grip on the bottom of the smartphone market share rankings in the United States.

According to comScore’s most recent data from the quarter ending June 30, 2017, Motorola ranks fourth out of the top five vendors ahead of HTC but trailing LG, Samsung and Apple.

What’s more telling than Motorola’s 4.2 percent share — less than one-tenth of Apple’s 44.5 percent — is that it’s lost ground to the top three over the previous quarter. While the three leaders have gained a cumulative 1.4 percent, Motorola lost 0.2 percent to its competitors.

It’s hard to pinpoint where Motorola is lacking compared to the rest of the industry. Momentum and marketing dollars likely grant Apple and Samsung an advantage over their smaller rivals. With less than half of LG’s share, fourth-placed Motorola has a massive hill to climb.

The subject of this review, the Moto Z2 Play, is the fourth Motorola device I’ve had the privilege to test thanks to The Apex’s relationship with Verizon. It’s a continuation of the company’s line of Z-branded smartphones that began with last year’s Moto Z, a variant of which became the highest-rated phone I’ve ever reviewed.

The Z2 Play isn’t a direct successor — that honor goes to this year’s Moto Z2. Rather, it’s an entry-level phone that seeks to bring some of the wonder of the Z line to more people thanks to a lower price point. While it lacks some of the more advanced features of other phones released this year, the Z2 Play does a credible job of building on Motorola’s strategy with its innovative Moto Mods, solid build and long-lasting battery life.

Verizon’s Network is Key

One element of all of The Apex’s device testing that remains consistent regardless of brand is Verizon’s superior backbone. The network is consistently reliable and rarely unavailable.

Through random speed tests conducted around the country using the Speedtest.net app, I recorded the fastest mobile download speed I’ve ever seen using the Z2 Play and Verizon’s impeccable network.

LocationDownload (Mbps)Upload (Mbps)
Average84.013.6
Buffalo, N.Y.47.05.1
Chicago, Ill.63.34.3
Columbus, Ohio74.811.8
Elkridge, Md.80.214.4
Rochester, N.Y.105.819.4
San Francisco, Calif.180.019.5
Staunton, Ill.37.021.0

While in California for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the Z2 Play clocked a download speed of 180 megabits per second. Even though that exceptional speed wasn’t experienced from coast to coast, the device averaged 84 Mbps on Verizon’s network, a superb level of performance — especially when compared to the average speed of home broadband in the United States, which currently stands at 39 Mbps as of a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission.

The robustness of Verizon’s network means that tweeting while at the track is seamless and working on The Apex without a reliable track-issued connection using the mobile hotspot feature is a lifesaver.

Since the quality of its cellular connection is unquestionable, the Z2 Play is able to shine on its own merits.

Moto Z2 Play

Design

The Moto Z2 Play features a similar look when compared to its predecessor. On the front, a large 5.5-inch AMOLED display dominates but this isn’t an edge-to-edge design. Significant bezels at the top and bottom of the device hold key features that differentiate it from some of its competitors.

Front of Moto Z2 Play
The front of the Moto Z2 Play features a 5.5-inch screen, front-facing camera and fingerprint sensor. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

The top bezel is the more standard of the two, featuring a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with an f-2.2 aperture and dedicated flash.

At the bottom, the phone features what may prove to be a more controversial inclusion. What appears to be a physical home button centered in the bezel is, in fact, a fingerprint sensor. Like most Android phones, the system uses software-rendered home, back and menu buttons, leaving the dedicated sensor for authentication-related functions only.

While the location of the fingerprint sensor is welcome — especially since other manufacturers, including Android market share leaders Samsung and LG, have moved the sensor to the rear of the phone — its appearance can cause an initial period of confusion. For a longtime Apple iPhone user who has become accustomed to Touch ID in which the home button and authentication features are merged, adjusting to their separation on the Z2 Play took some time.

While the fingerprint sensor is in what I judge to be the optimal position on the Z2 Play, its location in the bottom bezel restricts how large the screen can be. The restriction introduced by the sensor, however, pales in comparison to the limitations brought on by Motorola’s Moto Mods.

The interchangeable Moto Mod system adds a level of versatility to the Moto Z line of phones that is unparalleled. The design, however, is based on magnetic accessories that attach to the rear of the phone, limiting the overall size and shape of the Z2 Play to the original device.

For Moto Mods to fit properly, the back of each device in the line must be identical, including a noticeable round camera bump at the top and a row of pins at the bottom that allow the devices to communicate with assorted accessories.

Moto Z2 Play rear showing camera, Moto Mod connector
The rear of the Moto Z2 Play has a noticeable round camera bump and connector pins for Moto Mods. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

It makes sense for Motorola to continue expanding the mod ecosystem since it provides a key differentiator between its phones and the rest of the industry. With that said, the pace of development in the mobile market may leave the brand behind if it’s forced to cling to the original Moto Z’s footprint for years to come.

With gratitude to Verizon, I was able to test three mods with the Z2 Play: the Hasselblad True Zoom camera, JBL SoundBoost speaker and Moto Insta-Share projector.

Each mod adds a feature to the phone that is easily achieved by other devices but typically without the level of integration possible with the Moto Mod system.

With the Hasselblad and Insta-Share mods respectively fitting better in the forthcoming camera and display sections of this review, I’ll cover the JBL speaker mod as part of my overall take on the design of the Z2 Play.

Moto Z2 Play JBL SoundBoost speaker
The JBL SoundBoost mod adds more volume and stereo sound to the Moto Z2 Play. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

Without the JBL mod attached, the device features a front-ported loudspeaker that offers mono sound at a decent volume. Adding the mod brings stereo sound, increased volume and a kickstand. The speaker mod also houses a dedicated battery.

Motorola’s documentation states that the SoundBoost has a 10-hour battery life when fully charged. The Moto Mods can charge while attached to the phone, though I found it preferable to use the mod’s own USB-C port for quicker charging. While I didn’t have the opportunity to verify the claimed battery life, it was comforting to know that having better sound wasn’t at the expense of all-day usage.

No matter which mod was in use, I consistently found them to be a wow-inducing feature when demonstrating them to people unfamiliar with the Z line of devices. With a front design somewhat reminiscent of a modern iPhone, that was the easiest conclusion for bystanders to come to. Most were shocked when I explained the device was made by Motorola and there were countless mods that extend the phone’s functionality.

Although the mods proved to be a crowd pleaser, rarely did price come up in the conversation. This is where the concept of a modular smartphone loses some of its luster. While both the camera and projector mods are extremely impressive, both retail for $299.99. The prospect of adding nearly $600 of accessories to a phone when a decent point-and-shoot camera and pico projector can be had for a similar price makes the mods a harder sell once the initial novelty has worn off.

Though the mods aren’t cheap and external options are available that are objectively better, the magic of mods lies in the integration between the accessory and the phone itself. Instantly sharing a photo from the camera mod on Twitter is a workflow that has added steps with an external point-and-shoot camera. Similarly, connecting an external projector or Bluetooth speaker is more complex than simply attaching the appropriate mod.

The Z2 Play, with its unique Moto Mod system and a solid yet dated design, earns a score of 8.5 in the design category.

Display

Motorola graced the Z2 Play with a crisp, vivid and bright display. The screen features 1080p resolution with 401 pixels per inch, down from the original Moto Z’s “Quad HD” 2560 x 1140 resolution and 535 pixels per inch.

Even though the screen is technically inferior to last year’s flagship, it compares favorably to the iPhone 7 Plus I carry every day which has the same 1080p resolution and 401 pixels per inch density. The main difference between the two is the iPhone’s continued use of an LED-backlit IPS LCD as opposed to Motorola’s AMOLED panel.

Unlike previous experiences with phone-sized OLED screens, I didn’t observe performance in bright light that was any better or worse than the iPhone’s.

For everyday tasks, the 1080p display was perfectly adequate and the color variation offered by the AMOLED technology was welcome. In opposition to past complaints of oversaturated colors, I had no such issue with the Z2 Play.

Separate from its built-in display, the Moto Insta-Share projector adds another element to the overall Z2 Play experience. While not cheap and with specifications that pale in comparison to dedicated external pico projectors, the portability of this mod and its tight integration with the phone deliver an experience that’s hard to beat.

IndyCar logo projected by Insta-Share mod
The Insta-Share mod easily projects an image onto any surface but a dark room works best. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

The mod offers a projected image size of up to 70 inches with 480p resolution. With only 50 lumens of brightness and a 400:1 contrast ratio, a dark room is a requirement in order to achieve a decent projection. In comparison, the AAXA Technologies P300, a highly recommended pico projector that typically sells for $60 more than the list price of the Insta-Share unit, supports a 120-inch projected image at a higher resolution backed by 400 lumens of brightness.

Despite its weak image quality, size is where the Moto Mod really shines. Compared to the nearly 1-pound weight of the P300, the mod weighs in at just over a quarter of a pound. The footprint is identical to the Z2 Play and at less than one-half of an inch thick, it is one-third the thickness of the P300.

The compactness of the projector and its ability to blend seamlessly with the phone combine to deliver the “wow” experience that Motorola is looking for. In all my demonstrations of the Z2 Play to friends and family, the projector mod elicited the most positive reactions. No one complained about the quality of the projection. Rather, the simple fact that a 70-inch image was being projected from a phone became the topic of each conversation.

Putting aside the projector mod due to its additional cost and in recognition of a built-in screen that combines adequate resolution and pixel density with good performance in sunlight and accurate color reproduction, the Z2 Play earns a score of 8 for its display.

Speed

The Z2 Play is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 system on a chip with an eight-core ARM processor clocked at 2.2 gigahertz coupled with Adreno 506 graphics.

The package offers more than enough speed with no hesitation in launching apps. Having not engaged in any processor-intensive tasks like video encoding, the raw speed of the device was not adequately tested.

However, since the Z2 Play occupies the entry-level space, its role is more of an everyday device and when routine tasks are considered, the phone excels.

My test unit occasionally experienced crashes when using the Snapchat app and the camera mod. While the Snapchat issue was resolved by terminating and restarting the app, the mod-related crash necessitated a full reboot of the device.

While I can attribute the Snapchat instability to having unwisely installed the beta of the app before switching to the standard release, the camera mod’s instability proved more of a mystery and elicited much consternation. Several updates to the mod’s firmware during my time with the phone did not alleviate the crashing.

In light of the sporadic crashes that spoiled some of the day-to-day usefulness of the Z2 Play, it earns a score of 7 in the speed category.

Battery

Sporting a 3,000 mAh lithium-ion battery, Motorola advertises the Z2 Play as having all-day battery life.

The battery compares favorably to the standard Moto Z which featured a 2,600 mAh unit but is smaller than the Z Force Droid which had 3,500 mAh, prompting a 40-hour rating from Motorola.

In real-world usage, I found that the Z2 Play did last all day in every circumstance, even when using a notoriously battery-intensive feature like the mobile hotspot.

With its USB-C port and an appropriate power adapter, the device supports Motorola’s TurboPower fast charging scheme that allows for eight hours of usage on a 15-minute charge.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the benefit of an external battery pack that uses the device’s Moto Mod connector as an interface, both the speaker and projector mods had their own batteries allowing for their usage without draining the phone’s battery.

For living up to its claim of all-day usage and the thoughtful addition of separate batteries in power-heavy mods, the Z2 Play receives a score of 8 for its battery.

Camera

It’s hard to separate the Z2 Play’s camera from the Hasselblad True Zoom. The mod offers so much over the stock lens, there’s virtually no reason beyond added bulk not to use the add-on.

However, in fairness to the device’s stock camera and in deference to the Hasselblad’s additional cost, the Z2 Play’s 12-megapixel unit is no slouch. Featuring an f-1.7 lens and laser autofocus in addition to the more common phase detection autofocus, the built-in camera rarely failed to take good photos.

As with the vast majority of cameras shrunk to fit inside a mobile device, low-light photographs suffered more than those taken in daylight or in a brightly lit room. The included LED flash made up for this shortcoming in most circumstances.

Unlike some smartphones on the market today including the latest model from Motorola, the Z2 Play does not have dual lenses. Without any way to approximate optical zoom like my iPhone 7 Plus, the phone gets by with its single lens and the image degradation that comes with digital zoom.

For snapshots that don’t require any kind of zoom adjustment, the Z2 Play, like every other Motorola phone I’ve tested, is a credible everyday shooter. The continued availability of the brand’s unique twist-to-activate feature meant the camera was always a wrist flick away, making it my go-to device for quick photos.

Attaching the Hasselblad True Zoom to the back of the Z2 Play turns what was once a phone into a point-and-shoot camera with a 10 times zoom lens. Going from the limitations of digital zooming to a crisp optical zoom on a smartphone is a revelation.

Hasselblad True Zoom Mod Moto Z2 Play
The Hasselblad True Zoom attaches to the back of the Moto Z2 Play like any other mod, instantly turning the phone into a point-and-shoot camera. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

Beyond zooming, the mod adds several key features to the phone that improve the overall experience including a xenon flash and optical image stabilization for photos. The body of the mod itself is attractive and functional with a large grip, a physical shutter button (which accommodates a half-press for focus lock) and a dedicated zoom lever. Like the rest of the mods, it doesn’t add a lot of bulk to the phone with its 0.35-inch thickness (without the lens extended) and 5-ounce weight.

Despite its enhancements, the mod falls short in delivering photographs that are of a higher quality than the Z2 Play’s stock camera. The 12-megapixel count is identical for both while the smaller aperture of the mod — from f-3.5 to f-6.5 depending on the level of zoom — means that less light is let into the lens making low-light photography more difficult without resorting to the powerful flash.

Video recording with the mod was also hit or miss. While the official documentation for the device from both Motorola and Hasselblad claims 1080p recording at 30 frames per second, I rarely had the opportunity to test this because the Hasselblad-branded camera app tended to crash immediately after switching to video mode and pressing record.

Given its lengthy list of pros and cons, the Hasselblad True Zoom isn’t going to replace a quality pocket camera if image quality is the only consideration. Adding a low-end or midrange mirrorless camera to the mix makes the mod woefully outgunned.

If pure image quality is put aside in favor of the convenience of having a zoom lens and a real flash attached to a phone, the mod is a winner. At the racetrack, having an optically zooming lens isn’t just a nice thing to have — it’s a necessity. Whether walking through the paddock, attending a press conference or roaming pit lane during practice, the advantage of a zoom lens is irrefutable. One that takes photos that can then be instantly shared via social media over Verizon’s network makes it a perfect combination for shooting at the track.

While the mod adds much to the photography experience of the Z2 Play and any other device in Motorola’s Z line, its status as a pricey add-on means that the phone must be graded on its built-in camera alone. For its quality snapshots and its unique ability to be invoked with a gesture, the camera receives a score of 8.5.

Software

As a 10-year veteran of what’s now called iOS, my time with Android devices requires a slight change in approach and different workflows than I’m accustomed to.

One of the first things I do with any new Android phone is set up Nova Launcher Prime, my favorite custom launcher. It’s not that I don’t like Motorola’s standard launcher; the ability to transfer settings from one device to another using Nova simply ensures a consistent experience.

Moto Z2 Play home screen Nova Launcher Prime
The home screen of the Moto Z2 Play with Nova Launcher Prime installed. | Photo: Ben Hinc / The Apex

Admittedly, I use some of the more advanced features of Nova to replicate the gestures I’m accustomed to on iOS, like swiping up from the bottom of the screen to quickly access settings toggles. For someone who is transitioning from iOS to Android or even for someone in my position who’s merely testing an Android device after living with an iPhone or iPad, I strongly recommend that Nova Launcher Prime be one of the first apps installed.

Beyond changing the launcher, I also update my home screen widgets as these tend to change from phone to phone and require some attention. Additionally, the notion of having more than just icons on the home screen is a foreign concept to Apple users, making it one area that I enjoy exploring.

On prior Motorola devices, including the Moto Z, there was a control center-like widget that provided a wealth of information in a small package including the time, weather and battery status. While a similar widget still exists on the Z2 Play, it was pared down to the bare minimum and lacked the utility I’d come to expect.

After dealing with the basic interface, my next step is to ensure that I can easily get data on and off the device. While Apple’s ecosystem is noticeably absent from the Android experience, every other file sharing service I use, whether for documents or photos, has analogs on both systems.

Lately I’ve been focused on maintaining my own personal cloud using my Synology DS416j. Installing the apps that enable syncing between the Z2 Play and my home-based file server was a key next step. All of my files related to The Apex sync through Synology’s DS cloud app which ensures that they’re also always available on my iPhone, iPad, laptop and any Android device I’m testing.

Other ecosystems are just as at home on Android as iOS. Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Google’s own Drive are all platforms that I use in addition to my private cloud.

For photo syncing, I rely on Google Photos for quick sharing between Android, iOS and macOS. Since I don’t pay for additional storage, I allow the service to sync high-quality versions of my photos rather than originals to take advantage of Google’s free and unlimited storage option. I’ve found that for the purposes of sharing on social media, the resolution of these versions is acceptable.

For archival purposes, I subscribe to Adobe’s photography plan which offers the ability to sync full-resolution images from mobile to desktop using Lightroom. For photos taken with the Z2 Play and the Hasselblad True Zoom mod, syncing via Lightroom allowed me to easily move the photos to my MacBook Pro for triage.

Aside from files and photos, my primary interaction with any Android phone I’m testing is Twitter. While I prefer Fenix for consuming Twitter, I’ve found that the best app for posting text, photos and videos to the service remains the official Twitter app.

The majority of my social media activity while at the racetrack involves tweeting on behalf of The Apex. In order to ensure that my tweets are consistent and the correct hashtags are used every time, I make use of the Fleksy keyboard and its hotkeys extension. By setting up a hotkey for each set of hashtags, I can use a single tap to insert them as needed.

While some of my Android preferences are borne out of a desire to make it work more like iOS, others are focused on making the system do what I need it to do in the most efficient way possible.

Achieving all of this on a Motorola phone is easy because the company’s customizations of the system are minimal. There are indeed Moto-branded apps and services but ignoring them doesn’t lessen the functionality of the device. In short, the fact that I was using a Motorola device was not apparent in software, allowing the phone and its modular add-ons to be the focus.

For allowing Android’s flexibility to be at the forefront and staying out of the way, the Z2 Play’s software earns a score of 8.5.

Overall

The Moto Z2 Play falls short of my favorite Verizon device — but not by much. Its status as the lower-cost variant of the Moto Z line likely informs its shortcomings. Even so, its overall score of 8.1 bests both the Droid Turbo 2 and the original Droid Turbo — the two devices that initiated my fascination with Motorola.

The Z2 Play offers the compelling combination of a high-quality display, all-day battery life and a strong built-in camera that make its midrange price tag easy to justify. These elements coupled with the expandability offered by the Z line’s modular system — which now includes a 360-degree camera, a gamepad and an upgraded speaker mod — gives buyers the ability to extract even more value out of their purchase.

The brand’s implementation of Moto Mods and its dedication to doing something different in the smartphone industry have only strengthened my resolve that Motorola is an underdog I’m happy to root for.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Design
8.5
Display
8.0
Speed
7.0
Battery
8.0
Camera
8.5
Software
8.5
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Ben Hinc, managing The Apex as executive editor, has frequented media centers across North America since creating Next Gen Indy, one of The Apex’s predecessors, in 2014. Hinc’s multi-decade experience with technology’s latest offerings have granted him the skills to keep The Apex working superbly behind the scenes.

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