I’ve always had a soft spot for Motorola. Despite its problems, the first generation Moto G was the phone which convinced me to switch from iOS to Android. Before then I viewed Android as the personification of the devil, wrapped in a laggy and badly optimised body. The G changed that and the new Motorola seemed like a company which didn’t give two fucks about what should be considered a low end smartphone. Fast forward two years and the ‘reborn’ Moto (now a Lenovo company) has once again aimed to redefine the true cost of a high end smartphone with the launch of their new X line-up, the Style, the Play and the Force. For just over a week I used the Play, which occupies Motorola’s mid-range slot, walking the fine line between the elegance of the Style and the simplicity of the G.
Motorola has remained true to its now typical design language with the Play. The small bezels, curved back and subtle ‘M’ dimple all reek of ‘post-Google Moto’. The phone is large, but not unwieldy and I (someone with comparatively small hands) had little trouble navigating around the screen. For many Moto’s curved back is an instant turnoff and I have to say that on devices such as the Nexus 6, I subscribe to that view. However, the Play is no Nexus 6. It’s curves are understated by comparison and the phone is comfortable to hold without feeling bulbous. Unlike the Style, the Play is an ‘all plastic’ affair, with a swappable rubberised back made of a ‘faux grippy’ material. I’ve never had a problem with plastic phones so long as the build quality is high. Unfortunately I have to say that the X doesn’t quite meet my standard when compared to other similarly priced offerings (such as the OnePlus 2). Buttons wobble and the phone seems to creak at every opportunity. For the most part though it’s a solidly built device which is reminiscent of the Nexus 5. For one thing I wasn’t constantly worried that if I dropped it, I would be forced to have a very awkward conversation with the press team at Motorola. While admittedly the Play isn’t as rugged as the Force or even the new G, little things – like the use of an IP52 nanocoating mean that you can be a little more daring with your smartphone when it comes to adverse weather and I like that a lot.
For one thing I wasn’t constantly worried that if I dropped it, I would be forced to have a very awkward conversation with the press team at Motorola.
On the front of the device you’ll find the 5.5inch 1080p LCD panel, two (sorry, scratch that, one) front facing speakers and a 5 megapixel front facing camera. It’s a pretty standard offering these days and is for the most part unremarkable. The screen however has a silken quality to it and is coupled with subtle curves around the edge, replicating a feel similar to that of the iPhone 6s. Call quality was good, although often I would find myself forced to make do with HSDPA instead of LTE: despite the fact that the Play supposedly supports a whole host of bands across the spectrum. Going back to the speakers speaker I can say that I am now sold on the whole idea of them being front facing. Despite the fact that it was mono, it managed to be bloody loud in almost every instance – perfect for if you’re a really cool 16-year-old sat at the back of the bus who wants to listen to some ‘banging beats’ instead of passing your GCSEs.
Motorola has stuck to their moderately sized guns with the internals of the Play. With a Snapdragon 615, Adreno 405 and 2 GB of RAM, it is the definition of mid-range. In my mind, far too often an enormous amount of stock is put in the idea that ‘higher is better’, particularly when it come to mobile CPUs. Snapdragon had a terrible time this year with their 810 series CPU, leading many OEMs to ditch the processor altogether. The 615 in the Play gives you a hexacore chip which performed admirably in our tests, and manages not to create a furnace in your pocket even under heavy load. It was arguably comparable to the experience found on the OnePlus 2 (minus the horrendous overheating problems), with most of the stutters being the result of the OS rather than the hardware. I only had two minor problems during my week with the X, and as any Android user will tell you, that’s pretty good.
Other than that, the Play has all the standard stuff you’d expect to find on a smartphone, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and sweet, sweet NFC.
Interestingly Motorola decided to allow for expandable storage up to 128GB with a MicroSD card slot, something that a lot of OEMs have moved away from in recent years. It’s a nice feature to have, allowing you to dump all of your photos, videos and music onto the SD card and means that realistically you never have to worry about running out of storage. If you’re looking for things to complain about, the device lacks a fingerprint scanner, however given the unpleasant experiences I’ve had with other Android devices’ scanners, I wasn’t too bummed by its omission.
The 5.5inch 1080p screen is solid. It’s bright and has richer colour reproduction than the OnePlus 2 with pretty great viewing angles. In an odd departure for Motorola they opted this year to use LCD technology over AMOLED, something which pains me to no end. After using the Galaxy S6, it’s hard to go back to an inferior display type, not least because of the colour reproduction but because of the enormous benefits when it comes to battery life. To top that, certain features which the X line pioneered, such as Moto’s Active display are now rendered pointless by the fact that they have to power on the whole screen in order to show you ‘glances’.
At 1080p, the Play is not going to be blowing you out of the water with text clarity, at least not when compared to its bigger brother, the Style. If you’re new to this whole HD thing, then 402 pixels per inch is more than enough to ensure that content looks sharp in almost every instance and the savings when it comes to battery life more than make up for the inclusion of a lower resolution display.
Despite their claims to the contrary, the Play’s camera isn’t great. I say that in the nicest possible way, as if it wasn’t for other Android manufacturers massively upping their camera game this year then it would be among the best. In fairness the Play’s camera certainly has some good points. For one, it has the same 21 megapixel shooter found in the Style, which produces great pictures in normal lighting condition, despite the camera app’s best efforts (more on that later) however in low light it struggles to take images which don’t look as though they were taken by a drunkard. That’s not helped by the fact that the Play lacks optical image stabilisation – something which I think is essential on any smartphone these days, particularly in light of the thickness of the X when compared to other smartphones which include the feature.
In low light [the camera] struggles to take images which don’t look as though they were taken by a drunkard
Consistently phones like the 6P and the 6S Plus have proven that the ‘megapixel race’ is little more than a dick measuring contest. Motorola however seems to have missed this memo and is now proudly waving its penis around for all to see. You can’t even access the raw power of the camera unless you opt to take photos in 4:3 aspect ratio, with the software restricting you to 16 megapixels for 16:9 images. In terms of video quality, it’s so-so. The rear camera shoots in up to to 1080p at 30 fps and includes a slo-mo feature which shoots in 540p at 120 fps.
The camera’s real problem stems from the software. Almost universally, critics have panned Moto’s camera app and I am joining them. It is awful. Maybe I’ve just been indoctrinated into the ‘tap to focus’ cult but to me tapping on the screen should not result in me immediately taking a photo. I would be fine with it if autofocus managed to compensate, alas it doesn’t. Almost every attempt left me with a blurry mess that could have been an award winning shot. In all honesty after two days I switched back to Google’s stock app.
I don’t like to brag, but I’m a power user. Often smartphones just can’t do it for me. Take the Galaxy S6 for example; a phone which for all its beauty could barely get me through half a day. The 3630 mAh battery, coupled with a 1080p display and a low power chip means that the Play is an excellent choice for those modern people on the go. I wasn’t worried about running out of battery even after many hours of heavy use and could go around a day and a half without charging, and this should be further improved when Android 6.0’s ‘Doze’ feature hits the Play in the coming few weeks.
This staggering battery life means that you rarely have need of the Play’s other fantastic feature, Turbo Charge. It’s becoming a staple of flagship devices and is nice to see on a mid-range phone such as the Play even if you don’t really need it.
Thankfully Motorola opted to leave Google’s OS relatively bloat free – only including apps like Moto Assist and Moto Voice. Surprisingly for OEM bloatware I found them to be incredibly useful and more importantly entirely unobtrusive. You don’t need to use them if you don’t want to. Take Moto Voice as an example, an app which integrates and enhances Google Now. You can stick with the “Ok, Google” hotword or change it up to be whatever you want. That’s just the superficial stuff, Motorola have packed loads of features into Moto Voice, Actions and Display which are far superior to their Touchwiz counterparts.
One of the best things about Motorola’s version of Android is that it is basically stock, perfect for purists, and meaning that you can expect updates in a timely manner. Saying that, during my time with the Play I was forced to use Android 5.0, but Moto has promised an update to Marshmallow in the coming months and are supposedly conducting soak tests as I type. Indeed the Style already has Marshmallow.
The Play as a device is fairly unremarkable. A year and a half ago I would have said that you would have been crazy not to go for it. Motorola has been a pioneer when it comes to the enriching the low end of the smartphone market but in this time of OnePlus, Alcatel and Huawei they’re struggling to compete.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t consider the Play as your daily driver and for the price I can’t really argue that there are many more compelling offers. If you can stretch to £290 then you’re in OnePlus 2 territory and £50 above that you can pick up the Moto X Style on Amazon. While these phones are objectively more powerful, the One Plus 2 is an objectively less stable experience. What the Play gives you is a tried and tested platform from a manufacturer who have been dangerously underrated in recent years, all for £249.