The OnePlus 6 should be at the very top of your list if you’re on a budget of about $500-$600. However, there’s a deal deal-breaker: If you’re on Verizon or Sprint, the OnePlus 6 isn’t compatible with those networks.
If that’s you, the Moto Z3 Play is as good as it gets in this price range. The Moto Z3 Play isn’t quite the powerhouse that the OnePlus 6 is, but it’s got a high-quality premium design, a great display, and runs a near stock Android experience. Plus, it’s compatible with Motorola’s magnetic Moto Mods.
In the U.S., the Moto Z3 Play is bundled with a Motorola Power Pack mod (worth $50 separately) for $500. In other regions, Motorola includes a speaker mod.
At first glance, the Moto Z3 Play looks like another average midrange Android phone. But aside from the mediocre cameras, the phone performs quite decently, especially for the price.
High-quality premium design
You used to be able to tell a phone was midrange just by looking at it and holding it in your hand. Not so much anymore. Like more premium phones, the Moto Z3 Play is made of glass and metal. It’s your now standard “glass sandwich” and it feels really good for something that doesn’t cost a couple hundred bucks more.
The Z3 Play’s thin and light and has zero flex when you bend it. The only eyesores on the phone are the large camera hump (the dual cameras and LED flash arrangement still look like a creepy face) and a magnetic contact on the back. Both are necessary evils for easily attaching Moto Mods, so they’re forgivable.
That said, the glass design is only for show. The Moto Z3 Play doesn’t come with any wireless charging. Nor does it have an kind of Ingress water-resistance rating; it’s water-repellent, which is good for surviving the rain, but not any submersion.
Compared to the Z2 Play, Motorola has swapped the front-mounted fingerprint reader for one on the right side. It’s a fast sensor, but its position on the ride side means it’s not as easy to access if you pick it up with your left hand (lefties won’t be able to use their thumb to unlock).
The buttons are satisfyingly clicky, but I’m not a fan of their locations; the power button is on the left side and the volume buttons are on the right side just above the fingerprint reader.
The Moto Z3 Play has a USB-C port and supports Motorola’s own fast Turbo Charging. However, you won’t find a headphone jack. Wireless earbuds and headphones are cheap and plenty these days, but when so many pricier Android phones (OnePlus 6, Galaxy S9, LG G7 ThinQ, etc.) still have the jack, it’s disappointing to see a cheaper device get rid of it.
On the bright side, the phone does come with a microSD card for expansion beyond the phone’s 64GB of internal storage.
Bright, sharp Super AMOLED display
Keeping pace with Motorola’s other 2018 phones, the Moto Z3 has a taller 6.01-inch display with 18:9 aspect ratio. The display isn’t quite bezel-less and doesn’t stretch edge-to-edge like on other phones, but at least the top and bottom bezels have shrunken, and there’s no notch. However, cramming the Motorola logo onto the bottom bezel is questionable.
The Super AMOLED screen comes with a resolution of 2,180 x 1,080, which clocks in at 402 pixels per inch. Text, photos, and videos look crisp, and colors are rich. Since the screen is an AMOLED, blacks are pure black, as opposed to dark gray. Viewing angles are great as well and the screen’s still visible under direct sunlight.
To be honest, I’m astounded that it’s possible for phones at this price point to have screens that are this good. Though they both have the same pixel density, I’d give the OnePlus 6’s screen the edge over the Z3 Play’s just because it supports a wider range of colors and HDR.
Clean and snappy Android
Mostly great hardware aside, the Moto Z3 Play also comes with a clean, near stock version of Android 8.1.0 Oreo.
I say near stock Android because it comes with a bunch of Motorola-only features tossed in. This augmented Android experience is no different than OxygenOS on OnePlus phones, meaning it’s bloatware-free and doesn’t have any extra gloss slowing the system down.
Most of Motorola’s own software additions are opt-in, including classics like the “chop twice for flashlight” and “twist for quick capture.”
My new faves include the “one button nav,” which replaces the traditional Android navigation menu (back, home, and recent apps) with a gesture bar. It looks like the iPhone X’s gesture bar, but it works differently; tap it to return to the home screen, swipe left for back, swipe right to open recent apps, and press and hold to bring up the Google Assistant.
I also like the “three-finger screenshot” gesture, which takes a screenshot when you press and hold three fingers on the screen. It’s much more convenient than pressing the power + volume down button at the same time.
Not all of the gestures are worth enabling, though. The “swipe to shrink screen” gesture that shrinks the screen into the bottom left or right corner with a diagonal swipe from the center to the lower corners didn’t work most of the time.
The only criticism I have for these Motorola settings is that they’re within the Moto app and not the regular phone settings app.
Motorola’s augmented stock Android experience pairs very well with the Moto Z3 Play’s punier Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor and 4GB of RAM (Brazil version comes with 6GB of RAM).
I expected sluggish performance because of the slow chip, but didn’t experience any crippling slowdown or lag for everyday things like lots of web browsing, email, Instagram, messaging, YouTube, and streaming music. For basic phone things, the Z3 Play gets the job done.
Even 3D games like Asphalt 8 and Injustice 2 ran pretty well. Graphic-intensive games won’t run as smooth compared to phones with a speedier Snapdragon 845 chip like the OnePlus 6 and its bountiful 8GB of RAM, but they’re still very playable.
Though general performance is great, battery life on the Moto Z3 Play is pretty average. Motorola says the phone is engineered to get up to two days of battery life, but I couldn’t make it through a full work day of heavy usage. Taking it off the charger at 8 a.m., the battery would be at 20 percent or under by 1-2 p.m.
The 3,000 mAh battery frequently conked out early compared to the OnePlus 6 or Pixel 2 XL, both of which come with larger-capacity batteries.
The included 2,220 mAh Power Pack battery mod helps keep the Z3 Play charged up, but that comes at the expense of added bulk.
The Moto Z3 Play comes with dual cameras on the rear. The main camera’s a 12-megapixel sensor with a f/1.7 aperture and the second camera is a 5-megapixel shooter used only for depth-sensing when taking portrait photos.
Motorola says the cameras take noticeably better photos over the Z2 Play. I didn’t have one to compare photos with, but judging the Z3 Play’s shots on their own, I wasn’t blown away.
Auto-HDR is too aggressive and oversaturates the colors to the point where they look unnatural and almost cartoon-like. Take a look at the sky in the photos below. They’re too blue and the yellows are too warm.
No matter what shots I took — outdoors, indoors, low-light, close-ups — the photos left a lot to be desired. They’re not terrible, per se — I’ve definitely seen worse on midrange phones — but you won’t get the kind of sharp, color-accurate shots from a higher-end phone like the iPhone X, Galaxy S9, or Pixel 2 XL.
If the excessively saturated colors aren’t enough of a turnoff, then the soft image quality might. The Z3 Play’s camera is quick to launch, but the autofocus needs some work.
What about selfies? They’re equally as average-looking, too. The front-facing camera has an 8-megapixel sensor, but look how dull selfies look.
Motorola has loaded the cameras with a bunch of novel camera features like “cutout,” which lets you cut out your background and replace it with another; “spot color,” which turns the whole photo black and white and only shows one selected color; and “cinemagraph,” which captures a customizable animation.
These are fun at first, but end up being gimmicky features you’ll probably never touch. I certainly didn’t bother with them after the initial test.
Good alternative if the OnePlus 6 isn’t an option
Like many people, I miss the original Moto Z Play dearly. It made up for its midrange specs with a battery that lasted for days. It was a true stamina champ.
The Moto Z3 Play doesn’t live up to the original — not without the help of the included battery Moto Mod at least — but it still has plenty going for it.
It’s $500, which means you can buy two for the price of an iPhone X. The design is really great — almost too good for a non-flagship premium phone. The display’s fantastic as well.
The only only features that won’t impress are the cameras and battery life. They’re OK, but not best-in-class. I’d recommend paying more for a better phone if these features are top priorities.
As I said earlier, the OnePlus 6 is the best phone to buy if your budget is limited to $500-$600. Of course, if you can’t get it because of your carrier, then the Moto Z3 Play is a good runner-up.