Hands on: The Moto Z Play -- Moto Mods plus a headphone jack

While slightly less bleeding-edge than the Moto Z and Moto Z Force, this is a solid midrange phone that uses the same useful snap-on modules.

The recent introduction of the Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid smartphones, which replaced Motorola's previous line of Moto X smartphones, are perhaps the first real example of how the hardware will fare now that Motorola is working under the auspices of Lenovo. The new phones have many of the nicer aspects of the Moto line -- the higher level of voice responsiveness and the live display, for example -- while adding a radical new one: The ability to use snap-on modules (called "Moto Mods") to the back of the phone to add devices such as a projector, an extra battery, speaker or camera.

The $408 Moto Z Play has been introduced as a mid-level alternative to the $624 Moto Z and the $720 Moto Z Force. (All three are currently only available through Verizon Wireless.) It cuts a few corners compared to its siblings, but not many. It measures about the same -- 6.2 x 3.0 x 0.27 in. -- not surprising, since it takes the same add-on modules as the others. It weighs 5.8 oz., about the same as the higher-end Moto Z Force.

It is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor (the higher-end phones use the SnapDragon 820), 3GB of RAM (as opposed to 4MB) and 32GB of storage. It's got a 3,510mAh battery that Motorola claims can last up to 50 hours; certainly, I never came near to using it up by the end of the day. It ships with Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

The phone boasts a 5.5-in. Super AMOLED display with a maximum resolution of 1080 x 1920; as you might expect, the result is a bright, easy-to-read screen. Unlike some of today's flagship phones, there is a visible bezel on all sides. The top of the frame has, besides the speaker, the front-facing camera and an LED flash; the bottom has the mic and a button that acts as a home key and a fingerprint sensor.

The power button and the volume up/down buttons are on the right edge; like its more expensive Moto Z cousins, the power button is a bit rough to the feel to make it distinguishable from the others. The top edge of the phone has trays for a SIM card and SD card; a USB-C port and a headphone jack are on the bottom.

Interestingly enough, the headphone jack is one feature of the Moto Z Play that is missing from the more expensive Moto phones. A lot has been written about the missing jack, and there are rumors that the upcoming iPhone 7 will be minus the headphone jack as well. Whether most of those who will be using the higher-end phones are also using Bluetooth headsets (and so won't need the jack) is debatable, but certainly it's appropriate that the less-expensive Moto Z Play should still provide one.

The back of the phone has both a camera and the metal strip which acts as a connector for the various Moto Mods. You can carry the phone without anything attached to the back, but I wouldn't recommend it; the camera lens extends slightly, making the device awkward to put on a flat surface. In addition, there's a sharpness to the edges where the rim meets the back that I found awkward. However, the Moto Z Play does come with a snap-on back cover that both covers these defects and makes it comfortable to hold.

Picture this

One of the main features of the Moto Z Play that is being pushed is the quality of its cameras: a 16-megapixel rear camera with a 2.0 aperture and a dual LED flash; and a front camera with 5 megapixels and an 85-degree wide-angle lens.

The software is pretty impressive as well, and includes a variety of interesting tools, including a professional mode for those who want to tweak their own white balance or shutter speed; a Best Shot feature that automatically captures two photos and lets you pick the best one; and a selfie beautification mode, which smooths out those irritating facial blemishes.

If the existing camera isn't enough for you, you can buy the company's latest Moto Mod, the Hasselblad True Zoom camera. The True Zoom is a camera that snaps onto the Moto Z Play and transforms it into a device with a physical shutter and zoom.

phone with camera

The Hasselblad True Zoom attaches to the back of the Moto Z Play.

The 12-megapizel True Zoom adds considerably to the weight of the phone (it weighs 5.1 oz. by itself, which means the phone and camera together weigh about 11 oz.). It has a 10x optical and 4x digital zoom lens with an f3.5-6.5 aperture (you can set the camera to stop at 10x if you don't want to use the digital zoom). It will shoot 1080 Full HD video as well.

Moto Z Play test photo

Taken with the Hasselblad True Zoom on automatic Photo mode.

Moto Z Play test photo

Taken at the same fountain with the Hasselblad at full 10x optical / 4x digital zoom.

While I enjoy taking photos, I am nowhere near being a professional or even a knowledgeable amateur as far as photography is concerned. However, I have to say I liked trying out the True Zoom -- the manual zoom is easier to use and much more precise than adjusting a phone display with your fingers, and the photos that I produced, especially the close-ups, seemed vastly improved.

There was a bit of a lag between snapping the shutter and getting confirmation of the photo on the phone's screen -- and having the True Zoom attached to your phone makes using it as a phone just a bit awkward (although certainly not impossible). Still, for photo enthusiasts, it's a nice add-on.

The True Zoom will be available in the U.S. for pre-order starting September 8; it goes on sale beginning September 15 for $250 from Verizon and $299 direct from Motorola.com.

Bottom line

The Moto Z Play Droid (the "Droid" designation indicates that it's a Verizon phone) will be available in the U.S. beginning September 8th. It's a solid and worthy phone that might be worth checking out, especially if you want to take advantage of Motorola's interesting Moto Mods (which can be found on Motorola's site).

At $408 (or $17 per month on Verizon's payment plan), this is a reasonably priced device. If you're looking for a lightweight, sleek smartphone, there are probably others out there that will suit better. But the Moto Z Play has a fine display, a good camera (and camera software), a fingerprint sensor, great battery life, and other nifty features -- and let's face it, those snap-on modules can be both useful and fun.

(A note for those who prefer unlocked phones: The Moto Z and the Moto Z Play will be available in GSM versions in October; the former for $700 and the latter for $450.)

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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