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Motorola Moto Z2 Play review: Moto Z2 Play's battery will stay awake longer than you

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The Moto Z3 Play is an actual real thing we've had our hands on! It arrives this summer for $499 with an extra battery pack. 

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8.2

Motorola Moto Z2 Play

The Good

The Moto Z2 Play has a beautiful screen and all-day battery life. There’s expandable storage, lots of software tricks and even a headphone jack.

The Bad

Its best software feature doesn’t always work. The phone feels wide and uncomfortable without a magnetic back cover, and not much better with covers that don’t fit well. Last year’s Z Play had much longer battery life.

The Bottom Line

Strong battery life, clever software and magnetic Mod add-ons make the Motorola Z2 Play a compelling midrange choice.

The more time I spend with the Moto Z2 Play, the more I like this midrange phone.

It's certainly the most interesting handset in its price range. Those magnetic Moto Mods and a ton of software features and shortcuts take it way beyond what most $500 phones can do. The hardware gets the job done, and there are a lot of little touches I appreciate. 

Go ahead and laugh, but the timer is the best of the four phones I've currently been using, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11 and the iPhone. A timer may seem inconsequential, but since I've been using three times a day as part of an exercise routine, I really start to notice. (If you really want to know, the Moto interface lets you tap the time widget on the home screen to open the clock, plus you can save multiple timers, say for 1 minute and 2 minutes. The other phones have you open the clock app first and don't save timers, so I'm scrolling a lot to switch duration.)

Anyway, I like this phone, and I'm eager to see how it compares to the upcoming OnePlus 5, which will launch June 20. The 3T earned CNET's Editors' Choice award for its midrange prowess, so the OnePlus 5 should present some pretty stiff competition. 

(P.S. This review is based on near-final software. Motorola says a final version of the phone's software will be pushed out before the phone ships to consumers in July.)

In the US, eager buyers can get it from Verizon in early July, or buy it unlocked from Motorola.com.

Amazing battery life, promising voice trick

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the best thing about the Z2 Play is its battery life. In our looping video drain tests, the Z2 Play ran an average of 17 hours, which is pretty great for a phone that costs a fistful less cash than tier-toppers like the Galaxy S8 and LG G6. Those guys ran for 16 hours and almost 13.5 hours, respectively, in the exact same test.

In real life, you should be able to easily go a day and a half or even two days with some heavy use. I streamed 45 minutes of YouTube video without making much of a dent. (Motorola claims the battery will last up to 30 hours total.)

Are you ready for the bad news? It's that last year's Z Play ran for 23 hours in our video playback test, so this year's attempt isn't as much a marathoner. If you're looking for a new phone though, this is still very good.

Moto Z2 Play struts its Mod stuff

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So that was the Z2 Play's best feature. Its most clever feature -- and its most promising -- is actually a voice command that opens apps when you simply say "show me." That's right: no wake word like "Siri," "Alexa" or "OK, Google" to call out before telling the phone what you want it to do. Just "Show me YouTube," "Show me Maps" -- you get the idea.

You just slide the shade that pops up and you're in. Or, in the case of the calendar and weather, the information floats on screen before fading off. Best yet, you can configure "show me" to work from the lock screen when it recognizes your voice.

It's an elegant setup, and something that I'd love to see other ecosystems develop, although Google's Home speaker is working toward this with personalized recommendations. I'd even love to see Moto go a step further and open the app directly, rather than present another thing you have to tap and slide.

The bigger problem is that "show me" doesn't consistently work. Sometimes it leaped to action in a loud bar. Other times it ignored me, even in my quiet office. Maybe I spoke too fast, or held the phone too close? I haven't figured out what went wrong, but I hope Motorola is able to perfect it soon.

What else is good? Shortcuts and Mods

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Mods like JBL's new snap-on speaker fit onto the Z2 Play.

Josh Miller/CNET

Then you have Motorola's suite of gesture shortcuts, like twisting the phone twice to launch the camera, and chopping it in the air to turn on the flashlight. I've also really come to appreciate the immensely useful one-button navigation, which basically folds the Back and Recents buttons (and more) into the fingerprint reader, which is located on the bottom of the phone's front face.

The Z2 Play is compatible with Moto Mods, a growing ecosystem of add-ons you can snap onto the back of any Moto Z-family phone. I tried out the new TurboPower Pack charger ($80), Wireless Charging Style Shell ($40) and JBL SoundBoost 2 speaker ($80).

Motorola's TurboPower charger was convenient to snap on when I needed a power boost, although it made the phone back narrower than the front and uncomfortable to hold. The JBL speakers are great for home or at a get-together, especially if you don't have any other portable Bluetooth speaker. But you'll want to point the speaker toward you for the best sound, which makes it less good for watching music videos.

Camera and processor

The Z2 Play's 12-megapixel camera (with an f1.7 aperture and dual-autofocus pixels) took bright, colorful, detailed photos. Colors aren't as rich as on premium phones like the Galaxy S8, especially those taken indoors and in low-light situations, but they're good enough to share -- especially after a photo edit. Manual controls let you further fine-tune shots before you take them.

Photos from the 5-megapixel front-facing camera are totally decent, but not as crisp and detailed as they are on some other phones. This is the selfie conundrum: Do you want to see yourself that closely, and then maybe blur your blemishes with beauty mode, or have a softer look overall?

I will say, background color and detail also suffered compared to lenses that fit in more of the scene more crisply. The Z2 Play also has a powerful flash that'll make your eyes water if you forget to turn it off in a dark setting.

You can shoot 4K video on this phone, but clips default to 1080p resolution at 30fps (you can also shoot at 60fps).

Motorola gave the Z2 Play a good processor that, though not cutting-edge, kept everything from basic navigation to games like Riptide Renegade running smoothly. Though it scored on the lower end of our benchmark graphics test (3D Mark -- Ice Storm Unlimited), I didn't notice lag time while browsing, scrolling and generally getting things done.

Moto Z2 Play specs versus OnePlus 3T, iPhone SE


Motorola Moto Z2 PlayOnePlus 3TApple iPhone SE (2017 update)
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels4-inch; 1,136x640 pixels
Pixel density 401ppi401ppi326ppi
Dimensions (inches) 6.1x3x0.23 in6.01x2.94x0.29 in4.87x2.31x0.3 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 156x76x6 mm152.7x74.7x7.35 mm123x58x7.6 mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.1 oz.; 145 g5.57 oz.; 158 g3.99 oz.; 113 g
Mobile software Android 7.1.1 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatiOS 10
Camera 12-megapixel16-megapixel12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 5-megapixel16-megapixel1.2-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K
Processor 2.2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 6262.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821Apple A9 chip (64-bit) with M9 motion co-processor
Storage 32GB, 64GB64GB, 128GB32GB, 128GB
RAM 3GB or 4GB (varies by region)6GBN/A
Expandable storage Up to 2TBNoneNone
Battery 3,000mAh3,400mAh (nonremovable)Up to 13 hours of internet use on LTE
Fingerprint sensor Yes (at bottom of phone's front)Home buttonHome button
Connector USB-CUSB-CLightning
Special features Water-repellentNotifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingN/A
Price off-contract (USD) $499 (Motorola.com)$439 (64GB), $479 (128GB)$399 (32GB); $499 (128GB)
Price (GBP) Converts to £390£399 (64GB), £439 (128GB)£359 (32GB) £439 (128GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to $AU675Converts to AU$590 (64GB), AU$650 (128GB) AU$679 (32GB); AU$829 (128GB)
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8.2

Motorola Moto Z2 Play

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Camera 7Battery 10