Motorola have traveled a bit of a roller coaster in the last few years with some serious peaks and troughs in their hardware, performance and sales. The Motorola Z3 Play represents a big effort on the part of Motorola with a lot riding on it – have they delivered?
What’s it good at?
There’s some really strong starting points for the phone and one that will resonate strongly with many, the Android OS is pretty much stock Oreo 8.1 and as soon as I turned it on I got the September security update.
In terms of the hardware, let’s start with Moto Mods – They’re cool, really cool. I’ve played with the Moto Gamepad in the past and with the reveiw device a 360 degree camera was included. There’s also oversized battery pack mods, printers, speakers, wireless charging addons and camera add ons (including 10x optical zoom) as a starting point.
The fingerprint reader seems to be quite polarising because of the placement on the side of the phone. Looking at the device it’s about half way down the right side, which is fine if you’re right handed but it’s going to be next to useless for a left handed user. Personally, I like it and the reason for that is that I’m right handed and the sensor is where my thumb naturally falls when I pick up the phone.
The more manufacturers that include fast charging in mid-range devices the better and this is quick, really quick and that’s a really good thing because for a heavy user, the battery is going to leave you a little bit flat (see what I did there?) in its daily capabilities – more on this later.
What’s it not so good at?
It’s a fingerprint magnet, one of the worst phones I’ve used in that respect. The reason for that is really simple, Gorilla Glass 3 front and back (fantastic for the durability of the device) which does make it a bit slick to handle as well – I had several oh sh*t moments during my time with the device.
Two of the specs are under-done here. The first is that there’s not a mass of RAM (there’s 4GB for the AU model) it’s handled reasonably well by the OS making it a generally nice user experience in terms of performance however there were a number of noticeable lag issues when scrolling long documents or dynamic feeds like Twitter or Feedly.
The second is the battery is too small, it’s a 3000mAh for a modern phone that we’re asking more and more of every day. Surely there could have been some internal space found to accommodate and extra 350 – 500mAh of battery.
The other issue that needs to be put out there is the price. I can’t help but feel that Moto have landed the Z3 Play in a bit of a no-mans land, too expensive to be considered mid-range but not committed enough (not quite at least) in spec and price to be called a high end phone. At $799 it’s either an overpriced mid-range phone (at the REALLY pointy end of pricing for mid-range devices or an under-powered high end device. Either way you look at it, despite it’s good points – it’s pricey for what it offers users.
I really like the look of the Z3 Play, it’s a really slim device that looks super slick. The corners are lovely and rounded, with the transition from edge to front of the device having the slightest of corners to it which alleviates much of the concern around dropping the phone given how slick the gorilla glass feels at times.
The designers have done a couple of really smart things, the first being the location of the power and volume switches. They’re high enough on the device that you’re not going to accidentally trigger them while on a call – an issue I have regularly if the volume is where my thumb sits. They’ve also centred the USB C for charging on the base of the phone which I really like because asymmetry annoys me.
Now I mentioned earlier that the Moto Mods are cool and they are, but the problem with them is that they add heft to the phone. Depending on which mod you’re talking about, serious heft. While it’s a bit of an inconvenience in some respects, it’s ok in my book because of the functionality that it adds to the device.
On looking at the Z3 play I find the design really easy on the eyes and you can see when you look at the hardware components, in particular the battery that there is a game of trade offs being played by the engineers to get the sexiest device possible without compromising capabilities too deeply. They’ve walked a fine line and they’re clearly happy with their decision, were I a part of the design team – I’d be happy with it too.
The hardware specs there’s a few really prominent points that wedge the Z3 play firmly in the mid-range of devices out there. While its acceptable in terms of the performance it offers, the Snapdragon 636 isn’t a slouch, but it’s not the pointy end of CPU that would be expected in a high end device (SD710, SD835 or SD845)
I’d consider myself a heavy, but not huge user of my phone. I listen to a few hours of music or podcasts daily, I have multiple email accounts and several social media accounts running all day. Multiple messaging platforms and a handful of calls daily are also normal use for me, collectively this accounts for the vast majority of my daily battery use. I found the battery is a little lacking, offering a 3000mAh battery in a current spec device is probably a touch short of what I’d expect from a top flight phone.
I love the fact that USB C has been added to the Z3 play, but sadly: With that went the headphone jack. I’m not completely against the move to USB-C audio, in fact it forms part of my buying decision these days, I have wireless headphones but I also travel a bit so it presents a hurdle in air travel so I find myself hesitant to move away from the headphone jack.
It’s got a very capable 12MP Camera on board. The photo quality is more than acceptable and I’ve not found any deal breakers in the camera operation – but more on that later.
Finally the item that can make a great phone better than average, or an average phone great – the screen. The 6.01” FHD display is really solid, not just physically, but in terms of image reproduction as well.
Storage could be a potential deal breaker for some users. In Australia you’ll find the 32GB and 64GB models with 4GB RAM each. For me personally, I don’t mind having less storage (32 is a push, but 64 is adequate) because I’m attached to WiFi for the vast majority of my day and live from the cloud. But for users who are either data limited or prefer to have their files on their device, the MicroSD (capable of 512GB storage) slot will certainly be very useful and frankly if that’s not enough – this isn’t the phone for you!
Performance and Battery
I was getting through a full day without need to top up, I only really had a couple of huge use days and was down in single digit percentage when I plugged in at just after 10 pm, so a big day – perhaps a day hop interstate or other factors meaning above average battery use and I’d be looking for power mid-to-late afternoon to ensure I made it home with charge still available.
That being said, you really don’t need much time near a wall plug to gain a lot of battery. In fact, in a highly scientific experiment – I measured for precisely 5 minutes and got a gain of 9% battery. So like others that have fast charge capability, 15 minutes plugged in will get you a whole bunch of hours out and about.
Honestly, I’d happily sacrifice a couple millimetres of size to add battery capacity to just about any phone I’ve had in the last 3 years. Battery is the new battleground – there’s a huge opportunity for all the manufacturers to make a name for themselves again, no one has taken this opportunity as yet but a few have gone close.
Despite the specs of the phone lacking a bit in terms of grunt, it didn’t lack for performance. Possibly because the phone is well optimised for the software, possibly because there’s not bloat chewing up valuable resources. Regardless of the reason for the consistent, predictable and impressive performance – it was there and only a couple of times scrolling long, dynamic feeds were there any minor lag spikes or issues with performance. This could have well been the wifi I was connected to at the time vs the phone performance.
Here’s the kicker…
Motorola have basically dropped the Z3 play with stock Android 8.1 with confirmed plans to upgrade the phone to 9.0 Pie “in the near future”. This is a great thing, there are so many mid-range devices that won’t give you security updates let alone give you a promise of an OS upgrade.
Given the Ausdroid team as a whole are generally quite critical of the OEMs take on Android, launchers and the behaviours (EMUI, ColorOS, Sense and whatever Samsung are calling their skin these days) manufacturers seem to this phones should have, stock Android in a phone of this range really did thrill me. There were no surprises, the menus were comfortable and familiar and the system restore process worked perfectly, first time which hasn’t been my experience with non-stock devices in the past and a driving reason for me preferring a stock Android device.
Like any camera, you can get some cracking shots on the Moto Z3 play. But what really impressed me is that I didn’t have to work for it like I have with some other cameras in the past. The specs of the camera itself aren’t anything to shout from the rooftop, but quite competitive compared to a number of recent flagship devices: It’s a 12 MP and an f/1.7 aperture which is identical to the Note 9 but where is does remarkably well is the dual pixel PDAF which offers remarkably quick focusing on your target even in low light conditions.
Specs aside – In varying light conditions you can get some really solid pictures without any of the excessive colour saturation that some camera’s give (software driven to make the photos come out better than they actually are) and it often seems to avoid the colour wash under fluoro lights or flash which is great.
What I really enjoyed was the ease with which you could get good photos and the consistency of the camera performance under varying light conditions. It’s not the best camera around, but it’s definitely a close runner at the tail of the leading pack.
The selfie camera is another beast altogether, I’ll freely admit that I’m not a big one for selfies and can only report my experience. For starters I was actually quite shocked to see that they have a snapchat style face filter included. The aperture isn’t quite as good as the rear facing camera, nor is the sensor as high a level – but that’s what we expect these days from the selfie camera. In decent lighting conditions, there wasn’t a gripe to be had. In mediocre to low light, the focus is a touch off and the colour is a little flat. Perhaps the problem was the subject?
The Moto Z3 play is a fascinating device, I honestly can’t decide if it’s a slightly underpowered and under-priced high end device or if it’s an over-priced mid range. Regardless of how you decide to classify it, there’s a lot to like about it.
A really strong drawcard for many users will be the unintrusive OS build, it’s stock Android and behaves exactly as you’d expect it to giving the Z3 play a huge leap up over many of the similarly prices competitors. I’m also quite enamoured of the screen, it’s got a lovely warmth about it that includes really consistent and beautiful colour reproduction, not oversaturated as some can tend to be.
For me out of the whole thing, the biggest downside was the somewhat undersized battery. Most days it was OK, perhaps a little boost late afternoon but would probably see you through to bed time without drama. But when I had a big day on the phone, it didn’t just fall short – it fell a long way short of meeting my needs for the day. Unfortunately like many of the Ausdroid team, I struggle to find a good phone that will consistently last all day – so this (while frustrating) is a forgivable fault in a mobile phone these days.
The camera is solid, reliable and consistent in its image reproduction. Much like the performance of the device: Solid, reliable and consistent. Without any effort I got some great happy snaps, some good (or as good as they get for me) selfies, a couple of outstanding landscape photos and to the untrained eye – it’s hard to pick the difference between what the Z3 Play can produce and the more recognised camera phones on the market.
When you look at the cost of it in the grand scheme of mobile devices in the current market, plus the really respectable specs on the device its actually a hard task to not recommend it as something to look really seriously at.
Despite a couple of failings, the Moto Z3 play represents not just great bang for buck for the vast majority of users – but an outright good phone.