The Moto Z series is a phone like no other: its rear plate is magnetic and detaches so that Moto Mods can be added to give the phone different features and capabilities. From more battery capacity, to a zoom lens camera, pop-out keyboard, gaming controller, and more, there are a number of Mods to buy.
It's also a phone series that, despite its future-thinking Mods feature sell, has lagged behind the competition. Which is where the Moto Z3 Play comes in, with its new greater screen-to-body ratio, to try and align the series with the current 2018 crop, Mods still in tact.
But is the Z3 Play exciting enough to lure in the masses, or does the new Moto flagship - which doesn't feature flagship specs, all considered - a last hurrah for the series?
Design and screen
- 6-inch Super AMOLED display, 18:9 aspect ratio, Full HD+ resolution (1080 x 2160)
- Includes 2,000mAh Moto Mod battery pack in the box
- New glass back design, aluminium frame
- Slighly thicker than Z2 Play (at 6.7mm)
- Side-facing fingerprint scanner
It was mid-2017 when we reviewed the Z2 Play, a phone which, even then, was on the cusp of outdated. The Z3 Play - and note there's no standard Z3 or Z3 Force (probably for the best, as the Z2 Force wasn't great) - takes the footprint of that phone, but modernises it to current standards.
Predominantly this is achieved by the Z3 Play maximising the screen-to-body ratio, embodying an 18:9 aspect ratio screen, which is now a large-scale 6-inch OLED panel (up from the Z2 Play's 5.5-inch panel).
By changing the screen format, the bezel has shrunk considerably - but the Z3 Play still has a bigger 'chin and forehead' compared to plenty of other flagships out there. Think of the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, for example, which is approaching bezel-free; or the with-notch Huawei P20 Pro. But the Motorola does avoid the notch - the black-out dip to the top of the screen, as seen in the iPhone X - which is a good move.
The larger screen makes one other significant different for the series: there's no space for the fingerprint scanner to live at the bottom of the phone. As a Moto Mods phone there's no scope to use the rear either. So the Z3 Play has opted for a side-positioned scanner, which sits within natural reach when holding the device and makes a lot of sense. It can't be used for gesture controls, though, unlike some previous versions of Moto phones.
With any Mod removed, the Z3 Play is a slender thing, at 6.7mm. The back is now glass, not metal, which doesn't have any real implication as it'll always be covered by a Mod.
Overall, then, the new Z series phone is an improvement. Because of its Mod-related footprint restrictions, however, its design isn't as new and as titillating as what you'll get from the likes of Huawei, Samsung and the like. Sure, these makers don't offer Mods - but when LG did, back with the G5, it only lasted for one generation and then fell off the map.
Power, software and cameras
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 octa-core 1.8GHz processor, 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage, microSD card slot for expansion
- 3,000mAh battery (5,000mAh with included Mod)
- Dual rear cameras: 12MP & 5MP with f/1.7 aperture
- Dual autofocus pixels for faster focus
- 8MP front-facing camera
Included in the Z3 Play's box is a 2,000mAh battery Mod, which is why the European version will be called the 'Power Edition'. That fixes an issue with the Mod-less Z phones of before. And if you're upgrading then, well, you have a spare to keep remote top-ups available in your bag. Good stuff! Add this to the 3,000mAh battery within and the total 5,000mAh ought to ask for an age - which is one of Moto's Play series strong points.
However, as you may see from the headline bullet-point specifications above, the Z3 Play doesn't go all-in when it comes to processing power. The Snapdragon 636 platform at its heart puts it in the same ballpark as the Moto G6 Plus, which pitches the phone mid-level rather than flagship. Even the Nokia 7 Plus has a mite more power available than the Z3 Play.
Of course what really matters is how a phone operates in the real world. But as we've not lived with the Z3 Play just yet, we can't give any decisive comment. Contextually, however, with a lot of Chinese makers pushing hard on flagship specs in mid-price devices - there's the OnePlus 6 and the Honor 10, for example - the Moto doesn't tick that box of attraction for all customers.
In terms of cameras, the Z3 Play apes the G6 Plus once more, offering dual rear cameras. This 12- and 5-megapixel duo can be used for depth-effect portrait and other modes. The camera setup is fairly adept, and with camera Mods available that might be more your path of desire. Included in the software this time around are YouTube Live and Cinemagraph (GIF creation and editing), which are very timely, along with Google Lens integrated into the camera app (the auto-identifying software).
Beyond the camera software, Moto treads lightly on its base Google Android operating system, only adding the necessary animations when Mods are attached and removed, while a separate pre-installed Moto app handles its special additions: Voice, Actions and Display. These allow for a more conversationally aware Google Assistant, for phsycial actions to cause results, and for the always-on display to be tweaked as you please.
The Motorola Moto Z3 Play brings the series into the 2018 frame. Its new 18:9 aspect ratio screen was sorely needed and therefore most welcome.
However, in the face of so many high-performance devices that will cost much the same - pricing is unofficial at present, but we suspect it'll be in and arond the £400 ballpark - the Z3 Play largely depends on its Moto Mods feature to appeal. Which won't be a good enough lure for the masses.
The handsets large footprint and middling power make it seem more like a 'G6 Plus Plus' than the once top-of-the-tree Moto flagship. And with rumour that Motorola might only support the Z series for three generations - and noting the lack of any additional Mod launches with this phone - maybe the Z series days are on borrowed time...