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Moto Z Play and Hassleblad True Zoom Moto Mod Review

Like last year with the Moto X, Lenovo has pushed out a midrange Play version of their new flagship smartphone. The Moto Z Play has the same design as the great Moto Z and Moto Z Force — including compatibility with the new Moto Mods — but is cheaper due to midrange specs. That includes the camera, which takes a small step back from what the Moto Z and particularly the Moto Z Force were capable of. Fortunately, Lenovo used the Moto Z Play launch to also debut their latest Moto Mod accessory. The Hassleblad True Zoom Moto Mod is a whole point-and-shoot camera that can be added to the back of the device, and while the results aren’t what you would usually associate with the high-end Hassleblad name, in the right situations you can get shots no other smartphone camera can manage.

Build

Like the other Moto Z phones, the Moto Z Play has a 5.5″ display with rounded corners, antenna lines that go over the top and bottom of the phone, a single forward-firing speaker, a water-repellent coating, and a fingerprint sensor on the bottom that still looks like a home button, but isn’t. Of course, the outer frame couldn’t change — it’s been designed to be flush with the Moto Mods accessories when attached. The back of the phone is flat, with the same camera bump and gold connectors for the Moto Mods as the other devices. The Play is the same thickness as the Moto Z Force at 7 mm, mostly because it has a larger battery (3,510 mAh, just slightly bigger than the 3,500 mAh battery on the Force). There is one big change, though — unlike the other two Moto Z phones, the Play has a 3.5 mm headphone port at the bottom. We like this change. A lot. There’s still a USB Type-C port for charging, but it can’t be used with headphones like the one on the other phones.

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Like with the Force, the extra thickness is very noticeable, and it’s not the most comfortable phone to carry in your pocket as a result. But, I think the extra weight is worth it for longer battery life, and as we’ll see below, the Moto Z Play delivers on that.

Performance

The Moto Z Play is a midrange phone running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC, 3 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage with a microSD slot good for up to 256 GB more. The Play holds up very well to other midrange phones running on 600 series SoCs or their equivalents. Looking at the benchmark scores below, the Moto Z Play compares favorably to another midrange phone, the Huawei Honor 8, in raw processing power, but actually falls behind in graphics processing, which is usually Huawei’s weakness. In everyday use, the Play was very fast, albeit with some hanging or unresponsiveness when several apps were running at once. It was a little better than we’d expect for the specs, and that probably has a lot to do with the Moto series not making many tweaks to stock Android. The step down in graphics processing was only noticeable when playing graphics-intensive 3D games, where we would occasionally see frame rate drops.

Benchmark Test Score
PC Mark for Android Work 6183
AnTuTu 62640
GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen 385.4 frames
3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1 460
PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life 10 hours, 9 minutes

The Moto Z Play has a 1920 x 1080 AMOLED display, down from the 2560 x 1440 displays on the Moto Z and Moto Z Force. Still, at this size, it’s hard to tell the difference, and the Moto Z Play still gets bright enough to be good for use in direct sunlight. Generally, we think saving money by getting a 1080p display is a pretty good move, and that holds true with the Moto Z Play. It’s also more clear than the display on the Moto Z Force, although that’s because the Moto Z Force has extra reinforcement on the screen that keeps it from shattering.

The battery is a big selling point for the Moto Z Play, and for good reason. The 10 hours, 9 minutes scored on PC Mark’s benchmark test is near the top of the class. While the battery is nearly the same size as the one on the Moto Z Force, the fact that it’s powering less intense hardware makes it last much longer. The Moto Z Play will last a whole day no problem, and for the everyday user, can sometimes stretch out to two full days. We still tend to charge our phones every night, regardless, but it’s pretty nice to have a phone that can last two days just in case you forget to plug it in at night.

While the Moto Z Play will eventually be available unlocked, it’s getting its start as a Verizon exclusive. We tested it on their 4G LTE network, and found that calls came through clear, with no apparent signal loss due to the phone’s antennas. Wi-Fi connectivity was never a problem, and the GPS worked well — it was able to successfully track running trails without anything going haywire.

The fingerprint sensor is just as fast as the ones on the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force, and it’s reliable enough to not make you roll your eyes and go back to using a PIN or a pattern. The placement makes you want to use it as a home button, but it isn’t. That can be a little annoying at first, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it. It’s not an ideal design choice, but they couldn’t put it on the back because of the modular system, so we understand.

Camera and the Hassleblad True Zoom Moto Mod

The camera on the Moto Z Play is, ultimately, a step down from the cameras on the other two. That’s mostly because of the lens used — it’s f/2.0 instead of f/1.8, which means it can take in less light in low-light situations. Still, it’s not a huge step down — you still get phase detection autofocus, laser autofocus, auto HDR, dual-LED flash, and large pixels that are actually a bit larger than those on the other Moto Z phones to compensate for the smaller aperture lens. The one big loss is optical image stabilization, which hurts the quality of videos taken using the Play.

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But, we took our time with the Moto Z Play to test out the more exciting camera development coming out of Lenovo — the Hassleblad True Zoom Moto Mod. Like all Moto Mods, this add-on works with all Moto Z devices. Shaped like a point-and-shoot camera sliced in half, the Mod has its own camera grip, a Xenon flash, its own sensor, its own lens, a physical shutter, and a zoom trigger. It’s almost a complete standalone camera, except for the fact that it draws power from the phone and that the screen of the Moto Z is used as a viewfinder.

The main advantage to having this Moto Mod is improved optical zoom. The lens in use enables 10x optical zoom, which blows away anything any other smartphone can do. To put it in perspective, Apple had to do some dual-camera wizardry with the iPhone 7 Plus just to make 2x optical zoom happen. Being an add-on, the True Zoom isn’t on a level playing field, but the Mod is small enough to be more preferable than carrying around a separate DSLR or point-and-shoot, so the portability advantage is still there. The True Zoom’s camera has a 1/2.3-inch 12 MP sensor with 1.55-micron pixels, which is a larger pixel size than anything on the stock Moto Z cameras.

While there was a noticeable uptick in quality of low-light pictures using the True Zoom Moto Mod (especially when used with the Xenon flash, which doesn’t wash out subjects too badly), playing with the optical zoom was the most fun. It makes close-up shots of animals, flowers, tree stumps, and any small, eminently Instagram-worthy objects look terrific, in ways that aren’t possible with regular smartphone cameras. All that said, expectations should be tempered, especially because we’re talking about Hassleblad. The Mod doesn’t take professional-quality pictures, and the quality of photos taken without zoom isn’t much better than what very good cameras on Samsung and Apple phones are capable of. If you’re getting this Mod, you’re getting it for the 10x zoom.

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You really do have to be careful with what subjects you’re working with, though. There’s a lot of shutter lag, so the True Zoom doesn’t do well with active scenes. If you’re using it for taking pictures of people or relatively still subjects like landscapes, it’s awesome, but then again, for $300, we’d like to see something that doesn’t have so many limitations. Even when using the 10x zoom, things aren’t ideal. It’s not so much a problem with the device as it is with the concept — trying to keep a smartphone still enough to capture your subject at 10x zoom is really, really hard without a stabilizer.

One more thing worth pointing out is that while using the camera (which can shoot in RAW) was fine when used with the Moto Z Play because of the phone’s great battery life, battery drain might be significantly more noticeable using the Moto Z, which has a relatively small battery compared to most other 2016 smartphones. Also worth noting is that the phone automatically processes RAW files into DNG files.

Software

Not much to say here, as Lenovo has maintained their commitment to not adding an overlay to Android on the Moto line. It’s a great decision — overlays tend to slow down phone performance, and aside from very rare exceptions, never add anything useful. Because it’s a Verizon phone, there’s a lot of bloatware coming from that end, including some apps from Verizon themselves or from privileged partners like the NFL and Slacker that can’t be uninstalled. It’s not the end of the world, and there’s an app drawer where you can hide them away, but it’s not ideal.

The always-on display that shows time and notifications is handy, but there are some well-loved features left off. There’s no night reading mode that limits blue light levels, nor is there a battery-saving dark mode that turns normally white backgrounds black.

Read on for the verdict

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