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Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Moto Mods madness

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
389
(based on US price of $499)

Motorola’s latest mid-range handset isn’t the most powerful, but with Moto Mods it could be an incredibly versatile device

Pros 
Fair price
Highly modifiable
Magnetic battery pack
Cons 
Camera bump is unsightly
Not major upgrade from Z2 Play
Headphone connector does not work
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The Motorola Moto Z2 Play was one of our favourite mid-range phones of 2017, as well as the best value for money in its price category. A year has passed since that review, and now there’s a new member of the ever-expanding Moto family: the Moto Z3 Play.

While the Moto Z3 Play doesn’t stand out among its rivals in performance terms, it offers unmatched versatility through the Moto Mods range – a set of modular additions to the phone have been created for the Motorola Z line. One of these; a magnetic power pack, extends battery life by an extra 50%. Another, due later this year, could make the Moto Z3 Play one of the first phones to support 5G connectivity.

READ NEXT: Motorola Moto G6 review

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: What you need to know

The Z2 Play and Z3 Play could almost be twins. Their external designs are near-identical, and the same goes for the internal specifications. There are differences, and not all are in the Moto Z3 Play’s favour. The newer device doesn’t have the base level battery stamina of the Z2 Play, for example, although this can be explained by the extension to the display. The Z3 Play’s 6in screen is 0.5in bigger than the older model. It may be a slight downgrade, but with the nifty snap-on battery pack the Z3 Play can go a whole lot further.

Like its predecessor, the Z3 Play also has a Full HD screen (2,160 x 1,280) and an octa-core Qualcomm processor, this time a Snapdragon 636 replacing last year’s Snapdragon 626.

It has three cameras, two on the rear – 12 megapixel and 5 megapixel – and an 8 megapixel selfie camera mounted on the front, although their performance is underwhelming. The Moto Z3 Play is definitely an improvement over the Z2 Play, but overall it’s a minor upgrade, as the Snapdragon 636 processor barely outperforms the Snapdragon 626. The Moto Z3 Play is a better phone, but it struggles to hold its own against similarly priced rivals.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Price and competition

At the time of writing the Motorola Moto Z3 is not available for purchase in the UK, nor does it have an official release date or launch price. My estimate of £389 is based on the $499 price tag in the USA and was calculated using the current conversion rate. This does sound about right, as the Z2 Play was £379 when released in June of 2017.

The Moto Z3 Play’s closest competitor is the Asus Zenfone 5. Launched at £350, this mid-range handset has exactly the same Snapdragon 636 chipset as the Moto Z3, with very similar performance capabilities. It boasts a gorgeous design, too, if you don’t mind the display notch. While the Zenfone 5 doesn’t have any serious shortcomings, it’s ultimately outmatched by a pair of fantastic budget and mid-range handsets – the Motorola Moto G6 and the OnePlus 6.

The Motorola Moto G6 is the best budget phone we’ve ever seen. At its original price of £220, it was a bargain, and it can now be had for under £200. It’s not quite as powerful as the Moto Z3 Play but is over £150 cheaper, with a nippy performance and a superb camera for the price.

The other big hitter in this category is the OnePlus 6, which we rank as the best phone of the year in terms of value for money. At £469, it has the specifications, performance, and beauty of flagship phones that cost hundreds more. If you’re going to buy a mid-range phone like the Moto Z3 Play, but can afford to stretch that extra £80, then you really ought to.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Design

As mentioned previously, the Moto Z3 Play has a 0.5in larger display than the Z2 Play, so its dimensions are a touch bigger than its predecessor at 156.5 x 76.5 x 6.8 mm.

It weighs 156g compared to the previous model’s 145g, but that’s not taking into account the chunky magnetic power pack. Despite it being an optional accessory, the phone looks incomplete without the power pack attached. The camera sits flush against the case when it’s on, but when it’s off it juts out, which looks ugly and feels worse. Then there’s the 16-pin power pack connector at the back, which is a real eyesore.

The power pack snaps on with ease, though, and if you remove it you can also check how much battery is left by pushing a button at the base to activate a strip of charge indicators. Beyond that, the battery accessory is as bland as they come, with a matte black finish and a subtle Motorola logo. The Moto Z3 Play is only sold in a generic shiny black colour.

At first glance, the Moto Z3 Play appears not to have a fingerprint reader, but it’s just in an unusual position. Instead of sitting at the back or bottom bezel of the phone, it resides on the right side of the phone beneath the volume button, a place usually reserved for the power button – which has been moved to the left-hand side. I hope to see more manufacturers adopt this placement because it’s the most natural feeling; that’s just where my thumb goes when I pick up the phone.

Left-handed individuals will use their left index instead of their right thumb, which is equally effective. As for navigation, there are no physical buttons (even though the bottom bezel has the room) so the on-screen nav bar is your only option.

The Z2 Play had a 3.5mm headphone jack on its bottom edge, which has been inexplicably culled for the Z3 Play. Instead, Motorola provides an unwieldy USB-C to 3.5mm jack converter. The USB-C port is at the bottom of the phone, and this is where I encountered a major problem. The provided in-ear headphones are 3.5mm, not USB-C, so you need to use the dongle converter, but when you connect them, audio continues to play from the phone.

I could not get the headphones to work, and this issue persisted when I tried other pairs of headphones. Essentially, you cannot use wired headphones with the Z3 Play, which is a deal-breaker for me.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Moto Mods

Motorola’s range of Moto Mods accessories for its Moto Z phones is ever expanding – there’s even a Moto Mods development project which invites consumers to invent new mods that could actually be made and sent to you. But there are already plenty of modifications to choose from on the Moto Mods store.

In addition to a bigger and longer-lasting battery power pack, you can purchase an insta-share projector that will blow up your phone’s display to 70in; a Polaroid-style printer that can produce real, physical photographs taken by your phone’s camera; a gaming pad accessory, and a variety of cases which double-up as JBL Bluetooth speakers.

If versatility is your thing then you’re covered with the Z3 Play. I have to commend Motorola for its creativity with Moto Mods – it really offers something different to any other phone manufacturer. Then again, you’ll have to spend over £1,000 if you want to try them all.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Display

Motorola claims the Z3 Play has a 6in edge-to-edge display, which isn’t strictly true; there are quite clearly defined bezels on all sides and, while they are slim, it is by no means an edgeless phone.

The display has an 18:9 ratio with a resolution of 2,160 x 1,080 on a high-quality Super AMOLED screen. To the naked eye, it looks as good as any flagship phone. There are also two display settings, Standard and Vibrant, both of which were tested for their colour production and accuracy.

The Moto Z3 Play’s display is able to produce 100% of the sRGB colour gamut, which means that, technically, colour reproduction should be perfect. This is not the case, however, as in both display modes, the colours were overly-saturated. The Vibrant setting might give images more pop, but it also misrepresents colours so that they are not accurate reflections of their real-life counterparts.

At least in Standard mode, the reds and blues are pretty on the mark, but in Vibrant every single colour is way off. You may not mind this, but you can’t rely on it when ordering something off the internet.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Performance and battery life

Given that the Moto Z3 Play didn’t make any major specification leaps from the Z2 Play, it’s no surprise that the benchmark results are so similar. Better, yes, but not by much.

In the Geekbench 4 single-core test the Z3 Play’s Snapdragon 636 achieved a speed of 1,330, and a multi-core of 4,929. As expected, the Asus Zenfone 5 was the closest match out of all the comparison phones, with a multi-core result of 4,837.

The Moto G6 lags behind considerably at 3,920, but it is older and also £150 less. The OnePlus 6 puts the Z3 Play and Zenfone 5 to shame, with a multi-core processor speed of 8,783.

Graphics performance in the Moto Z3 Play was underwhelming – identical, in fact, to the results of the Asus Zenfone 5. In the GFXBench onscreen test it ran at 15fps, so it’s really not suitable for playing the most demanding Android games like PUBG Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends.

Battery life was actually somewhat worse in the Z3 Play than the Z2 Play. The latter lasted 1,173 mins in our video playback test, and the former went for only 970 mins. It’s still good though, and will see you through a full day of moderate to heavy use without needing to recharge.

We tested the Moto Z3 Play’s battery again with the fully charged power back, and it ran 24 hours of continuous video before running out of juice. That would probably see most people through two days of regular use, if not more. Once connected, you also have the option to keep the phone at 100% by continually draining the power pack, or using up 20% of the phone’s power and then keeping it there by siphoning off the pack, which will make the phone run that little bit longer.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Camera

The rear-facing camera on the Moto Z3 Play is comprised of two lenses, a 12-megapixel with f/1.7 aperture and an auxiliary 5-megapixel with a depth sensor. This setup can shoot video at an impressive 2160p at 30fps or 1080p at 60fps. The 8 megapixel f/2.0 aperture selfie camera is no throwaway effort either, also capturing 1080p footage at 30fps. However, the footage does not electronically stabilise, so the outcome tends to be on the shaky side.

There are a number of fun photo modes to play around with in the Moto Z3 Play’s camera software, but the best of these is the cutout filter. This excels at capturing photos of household pets which can then be quickly juxtaposed with either a stock background or any photo off your phone, to often hilarious effect. There are loads of face filters and video modes to choose from, and in general, the software is well labelled and simple to navigate.

I took side-by-side comparison shots with the OnePlus 6 to see how the Moto Z3 Play’s HDR mode stacked up to one of the best phone cameras of the year. At a glance, it’s clear to see that images on the OnePlus 6 are more vibrant and have a superior contrast to the Z3 – they just look better.

Zooming in on the details, there is no questioning which is the better camera. Where the surfaces on the OnePlus 6 are crisp and defined, the Moto Z3 Play’s are blurred and dull. The OnePlus 6 makes things look better than with the naked eye; if your eyesight is anything like the Moto Z3 Play’s images, it’s time to get some glasses.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Software

The Motorola Moto Z3 comes with the latest Android 8.1 out of the box. Android Pie is on the way this year but for now, you’ll be stuck with good old Oreo. There’s nothing unusual or inspired about Motorola’s particular Android OS overlay. It has all the usual pre-installed Google apps and wallpapers.

The Moto app reskins standard Android action shortcuts like twist for quick capture and – everyone’s favourite – the double karate chop for torch activation.

Motorola has also included a beta version of its voice command AI, which came with the phone instead of Moto Alexa – the Motorola-Amazon collaboration that provides exclusive access to Alexa. I had to download the Moto Alexa app because for some bizarre reason it wasn’t pre-installed on the phone, and it was much more functional than the default Moto AI.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: Verdict

If you’re committed to buying a smartphone in the £300-£400 price bracket, then the Asus Zenfone 5 or the Motorola Moto Z3 Play are definitely your best options in 2018.

Although the Zenfone 5 is a touch cheaper and certainly much prettier, it doesn’t compare to the Moto Z3 Play’s astonishing battery life and overall versatility. The performance of the Z3 Play leaves something to be desired, but it is at least a more powerful phone than the Z2 Play, and it’s set to be the first handset with 5G network connectivity.

Motorola’s Moto Mods have expanded the horizons of the smartphone far beyond anything else from other manufacturer’s, but if you want to kit out your Moto Z3 Play with the latest gadgets you’ll have to pay a premium.

Don’t forget about the malfunctioning headphone connector, though; you can only listen to music on the Moto Z3 Play with wireless headphones. For a phone that’s much better right out of the box for only £80 more, the OnePlus 6 looks awfully tempting.

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