The Moto Z Play on Verizon ($408) is the latest phone to join Motorola's revamped Droid line. Like the pricier Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid, the Moto Z Play Droid supports Moto Mods, seamless add-on accessories that attach directly to the back of the phone. It also holds its own in the hardware department, boasting solid overall performance, a long-lasting battery, and a sharp camera capable of recording 4K video. That said, the unlocked ZTE Axon 7 also works on Verizon, and gets you a sharper display and a more powerful processor, retaining our Editors' Choice award for midrange smartphones. But if you want to give Moto Mods a try without breaking the bank, the Z Play Droid is the most affordable way to do it.
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Design and Display
The Moto Z Play Droid is almost indistinguishable from the Z Force Droid both in terms of size and design. The Play measures 6.2 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.8 ounces, nearly identical to the Force (6.1 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches, 5.7 ounces). It's lighter than the ZTE Axon 7 (6.0 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches, 6.17 ounces), but without the Axon's smooth curved sides and rounded back, it's just a tad too large to use with one hand.
When the phone is powered off, the only surefire way to tell it apart from the Force is by checking the bottom—the Play has a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the Force (and the Z Droid) does not. The other main difference is that if you peel off the removable back cover, you'll see that the back of the Play is clad in glass, rather than metal like the Force.
Otherwise, the two phones also share a similar layout of buttons along their metal sides. You'll find a clicky volume and power button on the right, a USB-C charging port and the aforementioned audio jack on the bottom, and a combined SIM/microSD card slot (that worked fine with a 256GB Samsung Evo+ card) on the top. Below the display is a square-shaped fingerprint sensor. It doesn't double as a home button, which takes some getting used to if you're coming from an Apple or Samsung phone.
The front of the Play is a 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display. At 401 pixels per inch (ppi), its sharpness is equal to the Motorola Moto G4 and the Apple iPhone 6s Plus. It's not as crisp as the Quad HD display on the ZTE Axon 7, but it has good color reproduction, great viewing angles, and gets bright enough to see outdoors under direct sunlight.
But unlike the Force, the Play's display is only covered by Gorilla Glass, not ShatterShield, a multilayer plastic-and-glass coating that's virtually shatterproof. And you don't get the Force's four-year warranty against cracks and breaks. The Play does have a water-repellant coating for protection from splashes or rain, but it won't hold up against complete submersion.
The back of the Play features a removable panel with magnetic attachments. It's compatible with all the current Moto Mods, including the JBL SoundBoost speaker ($79.99), the Moto Insta-Share projector ($299.99), and various battery packs from brands like Kate Spade and Tumi ($59.99 to $89.99). The Play also launches alongside the Hassleblad True Zoom Camera ($249.99), a Moto Mod that essentially turns the phone into a point-and-shoot camera with a 10x zoom lens.
All of the attachments snap on easily and are automatically recognized by the Play. Only time will tell if they truly catch on, but it's the best instance of modular phone design we've seen, and helps differentiate the Play from countless other midrange phones on the market.
Network Performance and Connectivity
The Play is a Verizon-exclusive that supports CDMA (850/1900MHz), GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz), UMTS (850/900/1900/2100MHz), and LTE (2/3/4/5/7/13) bands. That's everything you need for strong network performance, which my testing in midtown Manhattan confirmed: Data transfers peaked at 36Mbps down outdoors and 10Mbps down inside.
Unfortunately, results weren't as strong when I tested the Play's dual-band Wi-Fi with our 5GHz FiOS router. I experienced three separate instances where the phone lost connection. The phone also regularly recorded weaker download speeds than other dual-band capable phones like the iPhone 6s Plus. We've notified Motorola of these issues and plan to test a second unit to see if the issue remains; we'll update this review as soon as we get a chance to test the new model.
The phone also supports NFC, so you can use Android Pay.
Voice calls are mediocre. Transmissions have a habit of fading in and out, sometimes to the point of being inaudible. Fortunately, noise cancellation is strong, blotting out almost all background sound, but you may still need to speak up to be heard.
Processor, Battery, and Camera
The Play is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor clocked at 2GHz. It scores 62,568 in the AnTuTu benchmark, which tests overall system performance. That's a major performance notch below the Snapdragon 820 processor that powers the Droid (150,559), Force (151,604), and Axon 7 (141,989), but more powerful than the Snapdragon 617-powered Moto G4 (46,260).
That said, I used the Play and Force side by side and couldn't detect any major difference in real-world usage, even though the Play also has less RAM (3GB). The Play was fast and smooth in testing, handled all the multitasking I could throw at it, and experienced no instances of slowdown. I was able to play heavy-duty games like Asphalt 8 and GTA: San Andreas without any difficulty.
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Battery life is great. The Play clocked 7 hours and 48 minutes in our rundown test, in which we set screen brightness to maximum and stream full-screen video over LTE. That's nearly two hours longer than its siblings, which each clocked around 6 hours, likely due to the less power-hungry 1080p panel. With the included TurboPower adapter, I was able to charge the phone to around 30 percent in fifteen minutes. A built-in Battery Saver mode is another option for eking out more screen time, but it comes at the cost of reduced performance.
The Play has a 16-megapixel rear camera sensor on the back. It protrudes a bit when the back cover is off, but sits flush when it's on. It's a solid, fast-focusing sensor that captures crisp shots under most circumstances. There were a few test photos that suffered from overexposure, but most images had minimal noise and grain. Color reproduction is accurate, and fine details are captured with an impressive degree of clarity; in some shots I was able to make out the veins of individual tree leaves.
Low-light performance isn't as good. Pictures often come out muddy or out of focus, despite the assistance of laser autofocus. The other shortfall is the absence of optical image stabilization (OIS), which I noticed mainly in recorded video. The Play is capable of recording 4K and 1080p footage at 30fps, and while video quality is sharp, it suffers from more jittering than what I shot with the Force.
There's also a 5-megapixel wide-angle lens on the front that takes clear shots, even in lower-light settings. The camera app comes with standard options like HDR, as well as manual controls that let you change white balance, shutter speed, exposure, focus, and other settings.
The Play ships with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with minimal changes to the Google launcher. You'll still find the standard set of Motorola features, though. There's Moto Display, which keeps your screen on to show time and notifications; Moto Actions, which are gesture controls like a twist to launch the camera; and Moto Voice, which gives you a range of voice commands.
There's a fair amount of bloatware, which leaves you with 23.85GB of available storage out of the 32GB total. You'll find eight Verizon apps, two Amazon apps, IMDB, and four games preloaded; only the games can be uninstalled. On the plus side, Android's Adoptable Storage features gives you the option of setting up a microSD card to act like part of the phone's internal storage.
The Moto Z Play Droid is a relatively affordable Android phone that balances price and performance, gives you access to the Verizon cellular network, and can be enhanced using Motorola's modular Moto Mods. At $408, it's more than $200 less than the Z Droid and $300 less than the Z Force Droid. If you're looking for an even more affordable option, the unlocked Moto G4 gets you a similar experience but with slightly less performance and without the Moto Mods. If you're willing to spend $400 and can live without the Moto Mods, the ZTE Axon 7 is our Editors' Choice. It has a higher-resolution display than the Play, along with a faster processor and excellent audio quality.