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Motorola Moto X Play review: A brilliant, customisable phone at a low price

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The Good The Motorola Moto X Play packs a great screen and camera. You can customise the look to suit your tastes and it won't conk out the first time you spill your beer on it.

The Bad It lacks the luxurious wood and leather back cover options of the pricier Moto X Style.

The Bottom Line The Moto X Play's blend of everything you'd expect from a higher-end smartphone with a customisable waterproof design and a great price makes it a superb midrange phone.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 9

Motorola has defined itself in recent years by sticking to cheap-but-awesome phones that focus on customisable designs and dependable performance rather than envelope-pushing features. The Moto X Play is no exception.

This 5.5-inch phone handset rocks a full HD display, a great 21-megapixel camera, a meaty processor and a version of the Android Lollipop operating system that's free of the painful bloatware most companies insist on installing. Add a splash-proof body that protects the internals from all kinds of spilled drinks, and the option to wildly customise the colours of the phone to suit your exacting tastes and you've got yourself one hell of a smartphone.

The cherry on the top of this already delicious dessert is the affordable price. In the UK, you can pick up the Moto X Play directly from Motorola (building it yourself using the Moto Maker tool) for £280, with 16GB of storage. The Play launched in August in 55 countries, although the US was not one of them just yet -- there, Motorola is instead pushing the larger Moto X Pure Edition (called the Moto X Style outside of the US). For reference, its £280 price converts to about $435.

In Australia, the X Play is a Vodafone exclusive, but is only available in black. You'll pay AU$5 per month on the AU$40 plan over two years (minimum cost is AU$1,080). Motorola has mooted the idea of a version coming direct to retail at a later stage, possibly for AU$569, but says this is "to be confirmed."

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Moto X Play sits in the middle of Moto's new lineup of handsets, which includes the cheap and cheerful Moto G at the bottom, and the more premium Moto X Pure/Style at the top. The latter is slightly bigger at 5.7 inches, but packs a higher-resolution display and a more powerful processor, and you can have it wrapped in luxurious leather or various types of wood.

Design

  • 148 by 75 by 10mm (5.8 by 2.9 by 0.4 inches)
  • 169 grams (6 ounces)
  • Customisable colours
  • Water-resistant

The name Play suits this Moto X model as it looks like the more rough-and-ready sibling of its higher-end X Style. Instead of that phone's leather and wood panelling, the Play's back skin is made from rubberised plastic, with a tyre-tread style pattern. Together with the waterproofing, which I'll come to in a moment, it feels like a phone that's built for a tougher life than simply sitting inside a jacket pocket.

Not that it doesn't look good. My review model of the Play came in the most plain colours available: black and grey, which looks arguably more professional than fun. Using Motorola's Moto Maker online tool, however, it's hugely customisable. There are 14 different colours available for the back panel, with seven colours to choose from for the metal accents. Mix in the choice of a black or white front and the option to add laser engraving to the back for free, and it's possible to tweak your own phone very much to your own tastes.

The resistance to water is a welcome new feature for the Moto X series. The Play isn't designed to be fully submersible, so it's not the phone to take with you on a scuba diving trip -- for that, check out the new Sony Xperia Z5 . What the Play's waterproofing is for is to protect it from spilled drinks in the pub, rain showers or an accidental fall in the toilet. I knocked several cups of water over the phone and it's still working perfectly. It certainly adds a little peace of mind to know that your phone can shake off spills.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's not the most compact of phones around, measuring 148mm long and 75mm wide, but it's not so chunky as to be cumbersome to use. It slides neatly into your pocket and its 169 gram weight shouldn't drag your jeans down. You'll find the power and volume buttons, the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Micro-USB port around the edges of the phone, with the SIM card and microSD card slots underneath the back cover. You won't find features like a fingerprint scanner or heart rate monitor, so if that's a deal-breaker for you, you'll need to expand your budget and look toward the Galaxy S6.

The phone is available with either 16 or 32GB of storage space. It's worth opting for the higher-capacity model if you download a lot of big apps -- particularly as it's not a huge amount of extra storage. You can fill up 16GB pretty quickly, and will soon have to rely on popping in external storage cards to store your files.

Display

  • 5.5 inches
  • 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution

The 5.5-inch display has a full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 400 pixels per inch. Sure, that's fewer pixels than you'll find on phones like the Galaxy S6 or the LG G4, but it's more than sufficient to make icons and text look crisp and high-resolution photos look good too. It's not a quad-HD display, but for this price, you can't really expect anything more. If you want extra pixels, the 5.7-inch Moto X Style is the phone for you.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's a bright display, making it easy to read under the cloudy skies of an average London summer. I wish I could report on how easy it is to use in bright Tuscan sunshine, but all I can say is that it's off to a good start. Colours are vibrant as well, without being too overpowering, making it a great screen for basically anything you'll want to put on it.

Android software and processor performance

  • Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
  • Near-stock Android with minimal Motorola additions
  • 1.7GHz octa-core processor
  • 2GB RAM

The Moto X Play runs on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and Motorola is one of the few companies that doesn't apply its own skin over the top. What you're left with then is pure vanilla Android that's free of all the manufacturer-made nonsense that plagues Sony and Samsung's phones.

Benchmark test comparison

Motorola Moto X Play
8,070
2,143
Motorola Moto G (Late 2015)
4,473
1,609
Motorola Moto X Style (Pure)
19,725
3,528
Huawei Honor 6 Plus
14,270
2,866

Legend:

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)
Geekbench 3 (Multi-core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Vanilla Android is simple to use and swift to navigate around. What helps is the 1.7GHz octa-core processor stuffed inside the Play's rubbery shell, which is more than capable of handling all your everyday essentials. Apps load quickly, as does the camera, and gaming works well. Angry Birds 2 plays perfectly smoothly, and more demanding titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas play without any issue as well.

In performance the phone is certainly no slouch. It achieved a multi-score score of 2,143 on the Geekbench 3 test, putting it above the new Moto G (1,600), although predictably falls short of top-end phones like the Galaxy S6 (4,608). It scored 8,070 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test, again putting it above the Moto G (4,473) and below the Moto X Style (19,725).

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