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Moto Z3 Play Review: Priced into a Predicament

by Justin Herrick | September 1, 2018September 1, 2018 11:30 am PDT

With $500 to spend, should you choose the Moto Z3 Play? Unless you absolutely demand a Motorola-made phone, continue your search elsewhere.

Motorola’s going about 2018 in quiet fashion. The Moto Z3 Play is another attempt to cut into the budget-friendly segment. It’s where we saw the company introduce true innovation with the Moto G and Moto E series over the years. So right there you should realize the Moto Z3 Play isn’t well-positioned. Motorola makes too many models that overlap.

The Moto Z3 Play doesn’t step forward from its mid-range and entry-level siblings. Against outside competition, it just seems overpriced. The hardware and software are fine, but Motorola’s Moto Z3 Play needs much more. As we’ve seen, the unlocked-and-affordable space is more crowded than ever.

The design language from 2017 makes a return, albeit with some tweaks. Finally, Motorola is embracing the 18:9 aspect ratio; the 6-inch display approaches the top and bottom edges. But otherwise, you know this is a Moto device.

Thanks to Moto Mods, Motorola cannot change the dimensions of its high-end series’ phones. No doubt this has caused the market to yawn at the Moto Z series year after year. Fingers crossed that’ll be different in 2019 because Motorola desperately needs a hit.

Around the back, you’ll see the entire rear panel is glass-based. Is that concerning for durability? You bet, but it gives the Moto Z3 Play a more premium glamour.

The flat nature of the Moto Z3 Play’s backside also causes it to sit awkwardly in your hands. When Google ran Motorola, the company utilized curved backs so the phones sat cozily. Now we’re forced to use angular shapes and smudge-loving materials. Your hands will not appreciate the Moto Z3 Play unless you have a case.

Surprise! You won’t find a headphone jack on this phone. You get a side-mounted fingerprint scanner, if that’s any consolation. It’s always been puzzling that companies haven’t often put their fingerprint scanners along an edge. Whether you’re lefty or righty, you have a digit that rests there naturally. On the Moto Z3 Play, it makes unlocking your phone fast and effortless.

By the way, you can only purchase the Moto Z3 Play in Deep Indigo. The color jumps between dark blue and blue depending on how light hits its glass. It would’ve been nice if the Moto Z3 Play was offered in a brighter shade as well, but Deep Indigo stands out and pleases the eye.

Beyond filling up the whole front, the Moto Z3 Force’s display comes across as dazzling because of its vibrancy and colorfulness. Why is this the case? Motorola used a Super AMOLED panel, not an LCD panel. It allows everything on the display to pop. Maybe you’re into duller shades, but I think it makes the Full HD+ (2160×1080) resolution better than it actually is.

The sharpness isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but stretching 6 inches will inevitably knock that. It’s also valid to demand Quad HD+ (2880×1440) resolution at this price. Motorola, however, isn’t too interested in racing the competition on specifications alone.

The showrunner is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 636, and it operates exactly how I assumed it would. In the Snapdragon 600 series, you get middle-of-the-road performance. Though not as lightning-quick as a Snapdragon 800 series chip, the Snapdragon 636 on the Moto Z3 Play moves at an average pace with rare hiccups.

Motorola’s always done a fabulous job keeping its non-flagships smooth and snappy under normal use. The Moto Z3 Play didn’t get hot on me, and really I saw nothing that indicated its 4GB of RAM was ever stressed out.

If you typically push your phone to the limit, I can’t imagine the Moto Z3 Play will stumble along. Motorola and Qualcomm succeeded in optimizing the hardware-software combination.

Back in 2016, Motorola made quite the buzz after releasing the Moto Z Play. The mid-range device wasn’t blazing fast, but it did ship with unrivaled battery life. People were getting multiple days of use from the 3510mAh unit. Because of its watered-down specifications, that battery meant the Moto Z Play could keep going the extra mile on a single charge.

Motorola ditched that last year, though. Inside the Moto Z2 Play, there was a 3000mAh unit. And that same battery has returned in 2018. The result is battery life that doesn’t impress nor disappoint. Yet you can find that on a variety of phones.

The battery life does improve if you attach Motorola’s Power Pack. Paired with that Moto Mod, the Moto Z3 Play should run for up to 40 hours. Is that an accurate estimate? Seems like it, because I got 1.5 days before needing a wall outlet. Still, it’s so sad that you need a Moto Mod when the original Moto Z Play went ~2 days on its own.

Also, the Power Pack doesn’t have a dedicated charging port. You need to have it connected to the Moto Z3 Play and charge them together. That may be fine since it makes the Moto Z3 Play much more comfortable to hold.

The inclusion of a dual-camera setup isn’t going to shock anyone. Multiple lenses are common, especially among high-end and mid-range devices. The Moto Z3 Play puts together a 12MP low light sensor and a 5MP depth sensor. It’s not all that different than what the Moto G6 features.

Motorola lacks an algorithm on the software-side that elevates photos and videos, but the Moto Z3 Play pulls off okay shots. It only feels underwhelming because you want a lot more for $500. There’s no question that the OnePlus 6, which starts at $530, has much better skills here.

Regardless, Motorola’s phones have never been spectacular at photography. So this doesn’t deserve disappointment as it does an eye roll.

Motorola’s Camera app is easy to understand. For those who like some extra pizzazz, the company also threw in the ability to take portraits and cinemagraphs. The latter is like a photo and GIF blended into one where part of the scene expresses movement. Once you have a photo, you can go in and choose single colors while muting the rest or swapping entire backgrounds.

The Moto Z3 Play will give you access to deeper camera settings — ISO, shutter speed, focal length, white balance, and exposure. Even if you do use them, the lenses are the phone still net ho-home results. Motorola needs to resolve this out already.

As for the software, it’s a near-stock version of Android joined by Motorola’s collection of apps and services. But the whole thing is based on Android 8.1 Oreo. While the company did say Android Pie will arrive at a later date, we wouldn’t expect the Moto Z3 Play to receive its software update until well into 2019. Under Lenovo’s ownership, Motorola hasn’t acted in a timely manner.

The good news, though, is that you won’t have to deal with an in-your-face software overlay. Motorola believes that Android should be experienced the way its made. So there are Moto Actions, Moto Display, and Moto Voice to go a little further than a Pixel phone can.

None of the features are particularly impressive anymore, but they’re still as useful as when Motorola introduced them several years ago. Moto Actions offers gesture-based shortcuts like lifting to unlock or chopping for the flashlight. With Moto Display, you have a faux always-on display that launches when approached or a notification rolls in.

It’s worth noting that Moto Voice isn’t very useful anymore. Everything it does can be found on Google Assistant, which every Android device ships with now.

Beyond the pre-installed apps from Motorola and Google, you’re free from any clutter. Motorola didn’t load the Moto Z3 Play with apps and games you didn’t ask for. That’s a huge advantage because it leaves the 64GB of storage open to you.

The Moto Z3 Play might not have cutting-edge specifications or a beefy battery; however, its incredibly clean and simple user interface is refreshing. Other companies are still smothering Android, but Motorola lets it roam free. With this phone, you get close to a Pixel-like user interface.

In this segment, the Moto Z3 Play is battling the OnePlus 6. Motorola’s phone is $500 and the specs are a little weak, but OnePlus packs high-end components into a sexy design for $530. As you can tell, the Moto Z3 Play is priced into a predicament. When there aren’t any key selling points like multi-day battery life, this phone lacks an identity.

Motorola will look back in a few months and realize it had a lame-duck year. Since the start of 2018, the company’s done nothing to excite consumers despite having plenty of room for growth.

The Moto Z3 Play joins an overcrowded lineup, and its price is too high for consideration. That’s a shame because, competition aside, the Moto Z3 Play is a good phone. It’s just not the one you should buy. Go with the OnePlus 6, and enjoy a premium phone for less than $600.

Editor’s Note: The Moto Z3 Play was provided by Motorola, and TechnoBuffalo used it for approximately 3.5 weeks before returning the unit.


Justin Herrick

Justin is easily attracted to power buttons. His interest in technology started as a child in the 1990s with the original PlayStation, and two...

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