Most mid-range phones are pretty interchangeable, when you think about it.
Anyone can cram some top-spec hardware behind a spangy screen and slap a logo on it. If you're after something properly exciting and unique, though? Look no further than the Moto Z2 Play.
Motorola's modular mobiles made us sit up and take notice when they first showed up last year, even if they were beaten on outright value by the phenomenal OnePlus 3. This year, the price is right - and the hardware looks even better.
The outgoing Moto Z Play was 2016's undisputed king of smartphone battery life, though, so the sequel needs to have stamina as well as smarts.
DESIGN & BUILD
On the face of it, the Z2 Play doesn’t look all that different from last year’s Moto Z Play - but that’s kind of the idea. If Motorola had tweaked the design too much, it wouldn’t play nicely with the existing range of Moto Mods.
The basic shape stays the same, then, but overall build quality has been given a welcome boost. The Moto Z Play’s glass back was a real fingerprint magnet, so it’s great to see it ditched here for an all-metal design. Your inner OCD can rest easy with one of these in your pocket.
Moto has at least managed to slim it down by a millimeter, so it sits more naturally in your hand once you’ve got a Moto Mod bolted on the back. It still looks a little naked without one, because of that bulging camera module at the top and the bare contact points near the bottom. Slap some clothes on it, like the wooden cover plate bundled in the box, and things look a lot slicker.
OK, so the bezels around that 5.5in screen are a little on the chunky side, especially on the Fine Gold version I tested, but otherwise it feels every bit the high-end phone.
That’s partly down to the redesigned fingerprint sensor, which doesn’t look like a bargain basement afterthought any more. The ugly square sensor of old is dead, replaced with a much slicker rounded one. It’s super-quick to unlock the phone, if not quite as fast as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Huawei P10, and lets you ditch the onscreen navigation keys for clever one-button taps and holds to free up some extra screen space.
Motorola’s take on modular phones has outlasted both Google’s ambitious Project Ara and the LG G5’s flawed Friends upgrades, and it’s great to see it returning here.
The 16 pins on the back let you pop different Moto Mods on and off at any time, without having to shut the phone down first. Which is sensible, don’t you think, LG? Tough magnets (and that sticky outy camera lens) hold each Mod in place, so you won’t accidentally send it flying every time you reach for the phone.
The bundled backplate doesn’t do anything fancy, but there’s a growing list of kit you can pick up to upgrade your phone with. The offGrid power pack, JBL speaker, pico projector and Hasselblad 10x optical zoom camera add-ons from last year all still work, and pretty soon there’ll be a faster charging Turbo power pack, a wireless charging cover, upgraded JBL speaker Mod, and even a gamepad with physical controls. That sure beats tapping a screen when you’re playing games.
Sure, you’ll be tied in to Motorola’s ecosystem, and all those extras can add up quickly if you’re looking to complete the set, but it’s still great to see some genuine innovation in the lower half of the price spectrum.
SCREEN & SOUND
When you’re balancing the scales of performance and battery life, there’s no room for fancy schmancy 2K screens - they sap too much power, and force the graphics chip to work overtime just pushing all those pixels.
That’s why the Moto Z2 Play sticks to a Full HD resolution, stretched over 5.5in. It’s sharp enough to make your photos and videos look great, and is easily on par with the similarly-priced competition.
Motorola has still found room in the budget for an AMOLED panel, which means impeccable contrast and inky blacks, as well as superb viewing angles. It gets plenty bright, too, so you won’t struggle to see what’s on screen when you’re outdoors.
The only real weak point is colour balance. Dig into the Settings and you’ll spot that it defaults to a Vibrant colour mode, which errs towards oversaturation. It’s not terrible, but just a little too vibrant and unrealistic.
Flip over to the Standard mode, though, and things go too far the other way, stripping out too much colour and leaving things looking washed out. Stick with Vibrant - most phones tend to boost colours slightly beyond natural anyway, and the Z2 Play is no more guilty of this than its rivals.
The phone receiver stealthily doubles as a sound speaker, and does a reasonable job with podcasts and YouTube clips. Vocals are clear enough, with a real emphasis on crisp treble, but you won’t be holding any impromptu dance parties with the Z2 Play - unless you pick up the JBL speaker mod. It’s just too quiet on its own to make itself heard from anything more than a foot or two away.