Lenovo's modular Moto Z phones reviewed

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Lenovo's modular Moto Z phones reviewed
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Lenovo Moto Z Play review

If the Lenovo Moto Z wins our most interesting phone award of 2016, the Moto Z Play gets the runner-up award, for carrying off the same party tricks in a slightly less appealing way – but for $300 less than its premium sibling.

So what exactly what are the differences the two phones? Let’s look at the Play’s design first.

Design

The Moto Z would have looked like a perfectly generic phone, if it weren’t for how ridiculously thin it is: 5.2mm, to be exact. The Moto Z Play gains an additional 1.8mm, making it a little plain to behold. It still has the camera hump – although it's much less pronounced here – and still attracts fingerprints like there's no tomorrow.

It has the 16 metal contacts at the bottom of the rear panel, which attach mods to give the handset extra functionality. These attach magnetically, just as they do on the Moto Z. Crucially, the same mods work on both phones and, just as with the Moto Z, you get a backplate in the box that smoothes out the camera hump and gives you a more fingerprint-friendly back. Of course, plate does add a little more thickness to the mix.

There are differences, aside from negative ones. You know how the Moto Z followed Apple’s lead and disposed of the 3.5mm headphone jack on the Moto Z? Well, it’s back for the Moto Z Play, meaning no messy adapter to listen to your music, and you’ll be able to listen at the same time as you charge. The Moto Z Play still charges via USB Type-C, though, so it’s time to invest in spare cables, if you haven’t already done so.

Screen

While the screen size between the Moto Z and the Moto Z Play is identical, the specifications of the panel aren't. Both have 5.5in AMOLED displays, but while the Moto Z outputs a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels, the Play's display is “only” 1,080 x 1,920 pixels. That's a pixel-per-inch difference of 32 535 versus 403), so not exactly huge, and a 1080p display is sharp enough, especially when it’s as good a panel as this one.

And it is a good panel, as revealed in its specifications and results on the previous page.

Performance

If you’re still wondering where Lenovo have made the $300 saving, stop looking. While the Moto Z was powered by the quad-core 2.15GHz Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM, the Moto Z Play has the markedly less powerful 2GHz Snapdragon 625 running the show. There’s also 3GB of RAM and 32GB storage, with a microSD slot allowing you to add an extra 256GB should you wish.

As you’d expect, the Moto Z Play was significantly slower than the Moto Z in our more demanding benchmarks – for example, it was 35% down in our Geekbench multi-core processing test (see previous page for full results). However, in everyday use, the Moto Z Play is no slouch – we found it to be fairly zippy and smooth, with no problems multitasking.

At this price, you get half the Moto Z's storage, but you can add to that using the microSD slot. 

Battery life

Battery life was something else again. In fact, the Moto Z Play’s results were so good that it left us wondering whether we’d made a mistake testing.

To give you some background, this is how our battery test works. We play a looped 20-hour 720p video, set the phone's brightness to 170cd/m2, enable flight mode, set the volume to medium and connect a pair of in-ear headphones. Then we let the video run the battery all the way down, reboot the phone and see where the video stopped. It’s not the perfect way to gauge battery life, but it allows us to compare handsets like-for-like, and 20 hours is so long that most phones don't see anywhere near the end of the video.

The Moto Z Play did, however. Not only did it see to the end of the video, it managed to keep going for another 3 hours 45 minutes on top of that.

To put that into context, the only phone that has come close was the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (and there are reasons we don't celebrate the battery life on that handset so much nowadays), which lasted 21 hours 57 minutes. With that out of the equation, the next nearest contender is the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with 18 hours 42 minutes. That means the Moto Z Play's battery lasts 27% longer than the next best.

We don't quite understand the secret sauce Lenovo has mixed into their battery here, especially when the Moto Z’s battery life was so underwhelming. And while the battery capacity of the Moto Z Play is bigger, 3,510mAh doesn't suggest a performance this huge. However, other publications are getting similar times with the Moto Z Play, so we're inclined to trust our results.

Camera

Things come back down a notch with the camera. If you just pay attention to megapixels, you might be impressed: it has a 16-megapixel camera, which looks better on paper than Moto Z’s 13-megapixel effort, and the pixels are bigger, at 1.3um in size compared with the Moto Z’s 1.12um.

That should ensure better performance and cleaner low-light imagery. In other areas, however, the Moto Z Play's camera takes a step backwards. For starters, it has a slightly dimmer, f/2.0 aperture, negating the advantage of the larger pixels somewhat. There’s also no optical image stabilisation here, which further reduces the effectiveness in less than optimal conditions.

From the specifications, we'd expect similar results to the Moto Z – and in some respects, it’s better. The photographs it captures are noticeably brighter than the Moto Z’s and more detailed. In darker environments, things become considerably more grainy, but most casual snappers will be happy with the results.

Again, they’re not too far removed from the output of the Moto Z, and we thought that was among the better smartphone cameras we'd used recently, although it's not in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel XL.

The front-facing camera is identical to that found on the Moto Z: a 5-megapixel, f/2.2, 1.4um Pixel camera with LED flash. It's fine for selfies, although with many rivals plumping for 8-megapixel units recently, it feels a little old hat.

Conclusion

Like any mid-range phone, the Moto Z Play has some compromises: it’s considerably slower and chunkier than the Moto Z, making it inherently less appealing.

However, on the other hand, it has great battery life and a 3.5mm headphone jack – both of which the Moto Z lacks – and it offers the same innovative, modular design and range of Moto Mods for $300 less than the premium model.

It’s hard to ignore what the Moto Z Play does well. The battery life is the best we’ve encountered yet in a smartphone, and not by a small amount – it's a country mile in front of its nearest competitor. And, along with its more expensive sibling, the Play is comfortably the most innovative, interesting phone of 2016.

Unfortunately, like the Moto Z, it doesn’t appear to be available from an Australian carrier on a monthly plan – it’s only available from the official online store and retailers like Harvey Norman. Still, at $699, the Moto Z Play is more feasible to purchase outright – and great value. 

Lenovo Moto Z and Moto Z Play
5 6
Verdict
At last, modular phones that actually work. The $999 Moto Z is beautifully thin and a good performer for the price, albeit with average battery life. The $699 Moto Z Play is a little chunkier and slower, but offers incredible battery life and better value.
Moto Z Play score
Moto Z score
Overall
Specs
$699 AUD for Moto Z Play ($999 for Moto Z)
Moto Z Play: 5.5in Super AMOLED screen (1080 x 1920 pixels); Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor; 3GB RAM; 32GB storage; microSD slot; 165g weight; 16MP ƒ/2.0 rear camera. Moto Z: 5.5in Super AMOLED (2560 x 1440 pixels); Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor; 4GB RAM; 64GB storage; microSD slot; 136g weight; 13MP ƒ/1.8 rear camera. Both phones: Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow).
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