Moto Z3 Play review: Third time, but no more charm

The Moto Z family of phones is infamous for the original-but-contentious Moto Mods. At first we only had the flagship Moto Z and Moto Z Force devices, but Lenovo has been pushing the Moto Z Play as an affordable gateway into the ecosystem that still fully supports all of the currently available Moto Mods.

The original Moto Z Play was seriously one of my favorite phones that I’ve used in the past few years. Stellar battery life, tons of hardware customization options, and solid performance at a lower price point was an excellent combination. Unfortunately, Lenovo and Motorola decided to gimp the battery in the second edition in an effort to create a thinner phone and probably push more battery Moto Mods.

And now, we’re at the third iteration of the Moto Z family. The Moto Z3 Play, on paper, looks extremely similar to last year’s model. There are a few design differences, but the actual hardware hasn’t changed much. Are those small changes going to be enough to create a compelling option the third time around, or has the Moto Z Play become a boring lineup?

Design

Remember the Moto Z2 Play? Okay, cool, you’re familiar with the Moto Z3 Play. Just imagine that phone with a glass back.

Like everything in this line of phones, Lenovorola is hemmed into sticking with the same general design concept to maintain Moto Mods compatibility. I don’t hate that choice, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t particularly love the glossy, glass back that shows fingerprints all over the place.

On the face, though, you’ll notice a slightly larger screen and no more fingerprint scanner on the chin. There’s just enough bezel for the Motorola logo on the bottom and the speaker on the top, but the fingerprint scanner has moved onto the side of the device where your thumb would expect a power button. The power button is actually on the opposite side, while the volume buttons sit above that fingerprint scanner.

There’s still no headphone jack, so you’ll have to make do with a single USB C port on the bottom of the phone and the dongle adapter that’s included in the box. Big sigh.

The back of the phone is still pure Moto Z, with the connectivity pins at the bottom of the phone, the protruding circular camera module, and your SIM tray up top.

It’s all glass this time, too, and seriously, I couldn’t keep the phone clean. I don’t think I’d ever be able to use it without a Moto Mod to cover up the back of the phone.

Hardware

 Moto Z3 Play
AnnouncedJune 2018
ReleasedJune 2018
Display6.01-inch Super AMOLED with FHD+ resolution (2160 x 1080), 18:9 aspect ratio, 402ppi, Gorilla Glass 3, Moto Display
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 636 @ 1.8GHz, Adreno 509 GPU
RAM4GB
Storage64GB with MicroSD card slot up to 2TB
Rear Camera12MP + 5MP dual camera
Front Camera8 MP, f/2.0, 24mm, 1.12µm
Battery3,000mAh
ChargingUSB Type-C
Audio JackNo
Fingerprint SensorSide of phone
SoftwareAndroid 8.1 Oreo
ConnectivityNFC, Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz + 55GHz)
Water resistanceSplash-resistant
Measurements76.5 x 156.5 x 6.8mm
Weight156g

Performance

There’s a lot to love about the Moto Z3 Play in the performance category. The included Snapdragon 636 will handle all but the most demanding tasks you throw at it, and 4GB of RAM is plenty for multitasking purposes. But most importantly, it does all of this without chewing up a ton of battery.

The interface is buttery smooth, gaming works well, and software hitches are few and far between. You won’t hate doing everything on the crisp, colorful AMOLED screen, either. Motorola is sticking with a 1080p, tall screen that looks great, especially in this price range. Videos and movies are pleasant to see, and the single earpiece speaker does a respectable job of sounding good. You won’t be getting much in the way of stereo, but at least it doesn’t sound tinny and terrible like some other big name phone in this price category.

AnTuTu benchmark – 113100
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – 950
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme (Vulkan) – 762

For reference…

OnePlus 6 AnTuTu – 286200
OnePlus 6 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – 4645
OnePlus 6 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme (Vulkan) – 3660

Galaxy S9+ AnTuTu – 246181

Google Pixel 2 XL AnTuTu – 209738
Google Pixel 2 XL 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – 3427
Google Pixel 2 XL 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme (Vulkan) – 2447

Battery

Okay, so there are two ways to talk about the battery life on the Moto Z3 Play. Out of the box, you’re getting a Moto Mod battery back that includes a lot of extra juice, so Motorola claims that, technically, out of the box you’ll get 40 hours worth of battery life, and they’re not wrong. If you’re cool with always using this Mod, you’re never going to run the phone dead. I’m not kidding.

Without the Moto Mod, the Z3 Play houses a respectable-but-not-fantastic 3000mAh battery. It’s still going to last all day thanks to the power-sipping Snapdragon 636 CPU and generous size, but it’s hard not to fantasize about how it would be with the original Moto Z Play battery.

Throw that battery pack Moto Mod on, though, and you’re off to the races. Charging the phone will also charge the Moto Mod so you don’t need to deal with any extra cables or setups, and that’s easily going to double your battery life. With the efficiency mode enabled I was consistently pulling two days off with the Moto Z3 Play, even if I cut it close a couple times.

Software

We always end up repeating a lot of the same information when it comes to software from the same manufacturer, even across multiple product families. Lenovo and Motorola don’t tend to put too much clutter on their devices, so you’re getting a mostly stock version of Android with just a few exclusive features. And remember this device is totally unlocked, so there’s no carrier bloatware, either.

Some key Motorola features include things like the ambient display for instant access to your notifications at a glance, some gestures to control the device, and alerts if an app is draining your battery. The Moto application also gives you a shortcut to clean up storage on your phone and perform some basic device maintenance, which is also pretty nifty. It’s not like you can’t get it other places, but having it built-in is nice.

What’s likely the biggest difference with the Moto Z3 Play is the software side of the Moto Mods. On the battery pack mod, for example, you can control how it charges the device from your notifications. There’s a healthy battery mode that will keep your device charged to 80% at all times, and a full charge mode that will juice it up to 100% and try and keep it there. The 80% mode is better for the health of your battery, while the full power mode might be better if you know you’re just going to need the extra charge for the day.

One thing I will mention, though, is Motorola’s attempt at emulating the single button navigation system. When turned on, you’ll get a small pill indicator at the bottom of the screen, and that’s going to be all of your navigation. Tap for home, swipe left to go back, and swipe right for multitasking. A long press calls up Google Assistant. I don’t love it, but if you’re on board with the gestures of the future, Moto has you covered.

Lenovo has also committed to bringing both Android 9.0 Pie and Android Q to the phone, whenever that may be.

Camera

The Moto Z3 Play is packing a pretty hit-or-miss camera. I’ve snagged some really good shots with it, and it managed to deal with some difficult lighting situations without totally blowing out or ruining the shot. I’ve also seen it do a poor job in low light, so your mileage may vary.

It’s still well above average, so as long you know how to handle smartphone cameras and are careful about your lighting environments, you’ll get consistently get good shots. Just don’t compare it to a Google Pixel or flagship Galaxy S phone.

I lit a candle for one shot and tried to snap an image with soft candlelight, and that really showed the weaknesses of the camera without adequate lighting. The shot isn’t bad, honestly, but you can really see the details get soft. That carries over to dim rooms and sunsets, too.

But the price, you’re really getting something you can be happy with. And if you absolutely need a better camera but you’re still tempted by the Z3 Play, you can always grab the camera Moto Mod and get the best of both worlds.

Closing

Meh. Seriously, just meh. 

I still really like the Moto Z3 Play, don’t get me wrong; performance is good, I still love Moto Mods, and the phone is cheap enough to consider as a flagship alternative. But the third time around, this device has hit a wall. The slightly bigger screen and moved fingerprint scanner just aren’t exciting, and the phone still feels a little too thin without any kind of Mod on the back.

A slightly thicker device with a headphone jack and bigger battery (like the 4000mAh battery in the Moto G6 Play) would be a killer device right now, and Lenovo knows that because they put the extended battery Moto Mod in the damn box. Just make the phone a little bit thicker!

As it stands, the Moto Z3 Play is a flagship wannabe that struggles to stand on its own against the bigger Moto Z phones and competitors like the OnePlus 6. If you’re really into the Moto Mods there’s no alternative, but for anyone else, it’s tough to truly recommend it over devices on the market. There’s just no killer Moto Mod after all these years that can pull people in, and $499 is still too high for an impulse purchase for most people.

Buy it now: Amazon
Motorola


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.