Motorola Moto Z3 Play review: A fun phone for modular fans

Alex Kidman 12 October 2018 NEWS

Motorola's latest modular phone, the Motorola Moto Z3 offers reasonable performance for its price, but unless you're already invested in moto mods, it can quickly become quite pricey.

Quick Verdict
The Motorola Moto Z3 Play is a fine phone in its own right, and one that's nicely extensible thanks to the moto mod concept. However, it's a harder proposition to put to new phone buyers, because the costs of all those mods quickly adds up.

The good

  • Moto mods can add lots of features.
  • Moto actions make sense.

The bad

  • Battery life isn't great without a mod.
  • Mod costs quickly become expensive.
  • Rear is ugly without a mod case cover at least.


It's been a while since we last saw a Motorola Z series phone down under, with Motorola opting to skip out on bringing the Motorola Moto Z2 Force to our shores. Motorola seemed more intent on selling its very good value Moto G phones here, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it bringing the Motorola Moto Z3 Play to Australia, and quite rapidly after its announcement too.

It's one of a pair of Z3 generation phones, but we won't see the Motorola Moto Z3 (sans Play suffix) locally, or indeed anywhere outside of the USA according to Motorola representatives. Like any other Motorola "Play" phone, the Motorola Moto Z3 Play is the slightly lower cost variant, although because it's still a moto mod capable device that lower cost can quickly ratchet upwards.


Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Design

  • Thin and light.
  • Moto mod compatibility limits Motorola's design options.
  • No headphone jack.

Motorola introduced its first moto mod compatible phone, the Motorola Moto Z at a time when modular phones were all the the rage. LG was pushing forward with the LG G5, Google had Project Ara waiting in the wings, and it appeared that we were headed for an all-modular phone universe.

Fast forward a few years, and Motorola's all alone in offering phones with modular accessories. If you're not familiar with the concept, Motorola's Z series phones all feature magnetic clasps at the back that allow you to attach a range of modular accessories to add to a given phone's features. Motorola originally said they'd hold the moto mod design for at least three generations of phones, which could well mean that the Motorola Moto Z3 Play is the last generation compatible with current moto mods. We've reviewed a number of Motorola's Moto Mods over time, and you can read our impressions here.

That does leave Motorola in something of a bind when it comes to how it designed the Motorola Moto Z3 Play, because it had to be compatible with all the existing Moto Mods. That means it needs the magnetic connection points, but also a notable camera bulge that means it can never sit flat on a desk. There's something immensely satisfying about "clunking" a moto mod into place, but at the same time it does mean than the "naked" Motorola Moto Z3 Play isn't a terribly pretty phone.


Add any mod – like the 360 camera mod – and it's a much better looking, but thicker handset.

The moto mod compatible design also means that Motorola has made some other curious design choices. You can't throw a fingerprint sensor around the back, but rather than place it on the front, the Motorola Moto Z3 Play instead places it on the side, in a style last seen in Sony's Xperia handsets. It works quite well, but it's weird because it's just a fingerprint sensor, rather than a combined power button. That sits on the other side of the phone, and you absolutely will get that confused from time to time. It's a minor design quirk, but an annoying one.

Physically, the Motorola Moto Z3 Play measures in at 156.5 x 76.5 x 6.8mm with a carrying weight of just 156 grams. That's extremely light for a phone with a 6.01 inch display, but then the absolute assumption is that you'll be putting a moto mod on it most of the time. There's really not much point in buying a Motorola Moto Z3 Play if you're not going to invest in moto mods.

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Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Camera

  • Dual lenses, but one is only a depth sensor.
  • Fair performance by itself, but again you can add a moto mod.

Motorola already puts dual sensors into its G-series phones, so it's no shock to see one on the back of the Motorola Moto Z3 Play. However, as is the style for most of its other phones, this isn't a pairing of a standard and telephoto lens, but instead a primary 12MP f/1.7 lens matched with a 5MP depth sensor. It's used for portrait style bokeh effects, but you can't actually access the secondary lens for other purposes at all.

Motorola does include a number of more "fun" effects that allow you to desaturate particular colours, or create motion GIFs with specific motion pulled out of the frame.

As a mid-range creative camera the Motorola Moto Z3 Play is entirely adequate, but we're seeing a lot of the dual-range features that used to be the exclusive features of premium phones come down into this price point, and again, the Motorola Moto Z3 Play just doesn't quite feel like it pushes beyond the expected.

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Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Performance

  • Mid-range processor delivers predictable results.
  • Motorola's light touch on Android is welcome.
  • A phone that needs moto mods for it to make sense.

The Motorola Moto Z3 Play runs off the Snapdragon 636 processor with 4GB of RAM. That's a solid recipe for a mid-range handset in 2018, although not one that really stretches the definition in any real way. Motorola does produce a Moto Z3 unit running on the Snapdragon 835, 2017's flagship processor of choice, but we won't see that unit in Australia.

As a standalone phone, the Motorola Moto Z3 delivers fair performance against its competitors in the same kind of price bracket, but it doesn't really stand out at all. Here's how it compares using Geekbench 4's CPU test:

And the story is much the same with 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:

Motorola typically doesn't do much in overlay terms with Android, and that's quite a welcome step. You do get access to Motorola's Moto actions, such as chopping to switch on the flashlight, which feels equal parts brilliant and stupid every time I do it.

Of course, the real story for the Motorola Moto Z3 Play remains what you can do with moto mods, because they add a lot of performance variety to its bag of tricks. You can turn it into a projector, add the Hasselblad camera mod or 360 degree camera mod, add wireless charging or a battery mod, or boost its audio output with a JBL speaker mod.

Motorola is deserving of praise in one sense for sticking to its modular strategy, because it gives long-term Motorola Z-series users certainty, although it does also mean that new buyers would have to budget for those mods.

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Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Battery life

  • Average battery life for its class.
  • Battery mods could make a big difference – at a cost.

For such a thin handset, not including mods, it's encouraging to note that Motorola packs a 3,000mAh battery into the Motorola Moto Z3 Play. While that's not as high as some flagships, it gives it moderate battery life performance, although again nothing that (as a standalone phone without any battery mod) make it really stand out.

Here's how the Motorola Moto Z3 Play compares against mid-range handsets running Geekbench 4's Battery test:

This is a terribly linear test that runs continuously, something you're not likely to do on a day to day basis. It's certainly feasible with those figures to run the Motorola Moto Z3 Play for a full day if you're a moderate user.

Again, there's a larger story to tell here, because you can modify the Motorola Moto Z3 Play with a variety of moto mods. There's a battery mod that can add 2220 mAh at the cost of a little bulk if you do run out of power. The Motorola Moto Z3 Play doesn't support wireless Qi charging natively, but you can add it with the moto style shell with wireless charging mod. The flexibility of the approach is beautiful, but it does come at additional cost.

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Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Should you buy it?

  • A phone for existing moto mod fans.
  • Not much point in buying if you're not going to buy mods.
  • But with mods added to the price, premium flagships might suit you better.

There's a very obvious market that the Motorola Moto Z3 Play suits nicely, and that's folks who have already invested in the moto mods concept. If you bought a Motorola Moto Z or Motorola Moto Z2 Play and want a somewhat snappier phone, the Motorola Z3 Play will deliver that experience to you while still making the most out of your investment in those mods.

There's really not much point in buying the Motorola Moto Z3 Play if you're not going to buy mods to improve it, but that creates a significant sticking point. At its $799 asking price, the Motorola Moto Z3 Play tilts perilously close to the true premium space. Add the price of a few mods into the equation, and you're right there, where features like wireless charging, superior cameras and more are natively with you all the time.

I love the concept behind moto mods, and it's a damned shame in a way that this kind of concept didn't become a standard in the way that, say, USB is. If you could buy phone mods that would work across a multitude of phones, we could all switch around between handsets and more easily invest in a variety of fun and practical mods. But the reality is that they exist only within a small Motorola ecosystem, and it's one with a pretty severe asking price.

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Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Pricing and availability

  • The Motorola Moto Z3 Play sells outright in Australia for $799.

Motorola Moto Z3 Play: Alternatives

There's nothing at all in the market that compares to the Motorola Moto Z3 Play in terms of adding modules for additional functions, although you could potentially save a few bucks and try to track down the older Motorola Moto Z2 Play if moto mods are what you're after.

In the mid-range space, consider phones such as the Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo R15 Pro or Huawei Nova 3i. For not much more than the Motorola Moto Z3 Play, you could also score the more powerful OnePlus 6.

Specifications

OS Android 8
Display size (inches) 6
Display resolution (pixels) 2160 x 1080
Pixels per inch (PPI) 402
Processor Snapdragon 636
Height (mm) 156.5
Width (mm) 76.5
Depth (mm) 6.75
Weight (g) 156
Battery size (mAh) 3,000
Wireless charging No
Internal storage 64GB
MicroSD expansion 2TB
Fingerprint scanner Yes
RAM 4GB
Water resistance N/A
Rear camera (1) resolution 12
Rear camera (1) aperture f/1.7
Rear camera (2) resolution 5
Rear camera (2) aperture
Rear camera (3) resolution
Rear camera (3) aperture
Front camera (1) resolution 8
Front camera (1) aperture f/2.0
Front camera (2) resolution
Front camera (2) aperture
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Network category speed Category 11
NFC support Yes
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