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Moto Z2 Play review: Modular phones are alive and well

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Remember when modular phones were supposed to be the future? Google and LG may have lost faith in that vision, but Motorola’s parent company Lenovo is still plugging away with the Moto Z2 Play.

Which is great news. Not only is this the most convincing integration of custom modules I’ve seen, it’s backwards compatible with last year’s add-ons. Not that you’re likely to want to upgrade from last year’s handset, given the modesty of the improvements, but it’s a positive sign of Lenovo’s commitment to the format. It’s already done twice as well as LG, whose enthusiasm lasted just one lousy generation.

The Moto Z2 Play is a great phone in its own right. I do hope it sells as well as it deserves to, to convince Lenovo to keep the experiment going into 2018 and beyond.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Design

At a glance, there’s not too much different from the Moto Z2 Play and last year’s model – but given it was already the the most innovative phone design of last year, it’s hard to be too grumpy about that. Besides, if the design had changed, then last year’s mods wouldn’t fit: and that would be something to get far more upset about than a lack of variety.

And, actually, there are a couple of changes. Firstly, the phone has gone on a diet. At 6mm thin, it’s roughly 15% skinnier than last year’s version. On top of this, the back has gone from a glossy fingerprint magnet of a design to a stylish matte metal grey finish.

Not that you’ll spend a lot of time looking at that if you use the phone in the way Lenovo intends. After all, the back is where the modules that make the phone unique are attached. Like last year’s version, each mod takes the form of a back plate that attaches magnetically. And, as with last year’s model, I’m amazed at how well the system works. Modules stay securely in place but can be easily removed with even close cut nails. It’s an absolute triumph in design terms.

Whether or not you actually want the modules on offer is another matter, of course. Lenovo has promised a steady stream of mods both from third party and built in-house. Last year’s Mods included a battery pack, a Hasselblad camera, a projector and a JBL speaker. You can also sub in a textured plasticky back plate (included in the box) to reduce the protrusion of the camera lens.

This time around, we’ve got an official Lenovo battery pack (last year’s was a third party model), a wireless charging backplate and a gamepad grip. While the latter is undoubtedly handy if it works with enough Android games, the wireless charging plate is a bit baffling: you either have to attach it every time you charge – which is significantly more hassle than plugging in a cable – or keep it on all the time, in which case why not just buy a phone with built-in wireless charging and skip the modules?

Still, I love the concept of modular phones and there’s no debate that this is the best integration we’ve ever seen. That’s not to say that the alternatives have been too great (LG’s required you to turn off the phone to swap or add modules), but Lenovo should be celebrated for the simplicity and elegance of its solution. And applauded for sticking it out for at least two generations.

Other than that, it’s business as usual: a USB Type-C connection is present for charging, and unlike the crazily thin Moto Z from last year, the company has found room for a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Screen

The Moto Z2 Play is a big fella, boasting a 5.5in display. It has a 1080p resolution, which should be ample even on a larger display, but it’s not the star performer than it should be.

It’s an AMOLED screen, so contrast is perfect and at a max brightness of 420cd/m2, it’s perfectly good for outside use, but colour accuracy is pretty poor.

Even turning off the oversaturated “vibrant” screen mode the phone has trouble producing accurate colours, with our measurement tool showing an average Delta E of 4.04. To be clear, 0 is perfect, so this is a long way off.

Moto Z2 Play: Performance

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the start. Last year’s Moto Z Play was something of a marvel thanks to its unprecedented battery life. In our tests it lasted a whopping 23hrs 45mins before dying. That 15% reduction in size is a hit taken by the battery, which drops from 3,510mAh to 3,000mAh and that’s reflected in our tests, which had it managing “only” 19hrs 33mins. That’s still a very good score, it’s just no longer incredible.

As a performer, the Moto Z2 Play is – just like its predecessor – strictly a mid-ranger. The handset has had a small but significant performance bump from last year’s model, going from a Snapdragon 625 to a Snapdragon 626. You’ll also get 4GB of RAM if you buy the version with 64GB storage; the 32GB version sticks with 3GB like last year.

What this means is you get a modest performance boost in day to day tasks, but no improvement in 3D graphics, as the charts below neatly summarise:

In fact, you’re looking at a 12% boost for single core processes and an 18% jump for multi-core activities. Not bad returns, except that the OnePlus 5 and Xiaomi Mi6 smash the Z2 Play on every metric.

Moto Z2 Play: Camera

Fortunately, the Moto Z2 Play has one more trick up its sleeve: it has a very good camera. On paper, it doesn’t look like a winner: it’s down four megapixels from last year’s version, and still has no optical image stabilisation, but dig into the details and things get a lot better. Crucially, the 12-megapixel camera features both laser and phase detection autofocus, and the aperture has jumped from a middling f/2.0 to a bright f/1.7.

That means the photos it takes are far better than last year’s – especially in tricky low light conditions. As the image below shows, the camera is capable of producing plenty of detail without much noise to spoil things. It can get a little overexposed for our tastes, but overall this is pretty good.

Outdoor shots were even better, with rich colour and crisp details in good conditions – even in difficult to capture areas like foliage.

Moto Z2 Play: Verdict

So there we have it: the Moto Z2 is a great mid-ranger, with super stamina and a clever party trick, just like its predecessor. And Lenovo has been extremely generous in ensuring it’s backwards compatible with last year’s Moto Mods. That alone should be applauded.

The trouble is that, given very few people update their phone every year, the real proof will be if Lenovo repeats the trick for a third year when contracts are being renewed. The other problem could be that at £375 it still feels a touch expensive for the specifications. The Samsung Galaxy A5 is now cheaper and only slightly weaker, while the Xiaomi Mi6 and OnePlus 5 leave it in the dust.

The Moto Z2 Play is a great handset, though, and it gives me high hopes that the rumoured Moto Z2 will be the premium handset that keeps the modular dream alive.

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