What if you could build the perfect smartphone, picking individual parts, and assembling them together like Lego blocks?
Wide-angle camera, snap it on. Two-day battery, snap it on. More storage for your photos, snap some on too — that’s the vision behind the modular smartphone idea, and after years of top secret development, 2016 saw multiple tech companies chase after that dream with varying amounts of success, or complete lack thereof.
LG tried and failed, launching the G5 with a set of mods it called Friends, only to abandon the whole thing a year later. Google didn’t even get as close, aborting the launch of its experimental Project Ara following almost two years of tease.
Only Motorola under Lenovo is keeping the dream alive. The self-proclaimed “world’s number 1 challenger” is following up on last year’s Moto Z and Z Play models with a new 2017 model, the Moto Z2 Play, a mid-range phone with incredible battery life, and a host of new mods that signal the modular dream is still alive and well.
All about Mods
Because it’s modular, the Moto Z2 Play is a phone unlike any other.
Here are the basics: On its back there’s a camera hump and contact points — a cluster of golden dots that stand out like a sore thumb on the device’s back.
Together they allow for Moto Mods to magnetically latch on to your phone giving it new features.
At the very basic (and inexpensive) level there is a Style Shell mod, a textured back panel that lets you customize how your phone looks using a variety of materials: fabric, wood, or leather. Newer ones from the 2017 line come with funky art and can give your phone wireless charging functionality too.
Snap on the Incipio battery mod to get twice your battery life, the JBL SoundBoost for a built-in boom box, or others that turn your phone into a Hasselblad camera or projector.
Motorola has some new ones planned this year also, including one that turns your phone into an Android-based car system and better yet, a snap-on GamePad.
To mod or not to mod
Of course, each of these mods comes at a cost, anywhere between $20 to $300, which begs the question: Should you invest in mods, or are you better off buying a more expensive phone that can do it all?
Thing is, some mods provide functionality you won’t get from a top-of-the-line smartphone.
Take the Incipio Vehicle Dock, for example. It mounts to your dashboard via your AC grilles and gives you Android Auto on your phone even if your car system doesn’t support it. The Insta-Share projector too, while a big battery hog, comes in handy if you like to host movie nights.
Flagship phones like the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S8 don’t have any of these features built in, so if this mod-provided functionality sounds good to you, then this modular phone is worth considering.
Lenovo is also investing heavily in third-party developers that are keen on building their own mods. In the works are mods with a pull-out keyboard, an integrated e-ink reader, and a walkie-talkie. If this third-party mod ecosystem takes off similar to what Apple’s App Store did for the iPhone, then potentially, your phone will be able to do more than it has ever done before.
Even more crucial to the success of this ecosystem is Motorola’s commitment to keeping its modular phone system alive for at least three years. That means, if you bought last year’s mods, they’ll work on this year’s model and vice versa!
Others will argue that shareable standalone accessories are a smarter buy.
Yes and no. A standalone Bluetooth speaker may prove to be more value for money than the JBL SoundBoost mod that will only work with your Z2 Play.
But there are things like the Moto TurboPower pack that’s a solution to my power bank woes. Having one or two of these in your backpack ensures that you’ll never run out of battery juice even on the most demanding of weekends, all without having to lug around a power bank and a clumsy cable.
The phone sans the mods
Because mods are such a big part of the Moto Z2 Play’s story, it’s hard not to measure this phone’s worth without them. But how does the Moto Z2 Play fare based solely on its merits as a smartphone?
Apart from its huge camera bump and exposed contact points, the Z2 Play is a pretty good-looking phone, one that can hold its own when taken out at a business meeting or night out with friends.
A follow-up to the original Z Play, this year’s model is thinner and comes with a much tougher and more smudge-resistant metallic back.
Other refinements include a more aesthetically pleasing circular home pad, a hybrid SIM card tray with slots for two nano-SIM cards on one side and a microSD card on the other, front-facing speakers built into the ear piece, and a special nano coating that (sans any waterproofing) provides added protection against the rain and spills.
While only a mid-range model, the Moto Z2 Play comes with very decent specs headlined by an energy-efficient Snapdragon 626 processor. My review unit has 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage, but configuration may vary depending on your market.
By all accounts, the phone performed great doing real-world stuff, including making calls, browsing the internet, spending hours on social media. Games played fine even on high settings and battery life was impressive, giving us about one and a half days of heavy use without an additional battery pack. Add a battery mod and usage goes up to two full days and then some.
The phone charges fast too. Using the bundled charger, I was able to get a completely dead phone up to 50 percent in 30 minutes, which is perfect when you only have enough time for a quick top-up.
The software experience on the Z2 Play is top-notch with a near stock Android experience and a few worthy customizations thrown in for good measure. For example, One Button Nav replaces on-screen home, back, and multitasking buttons with gesture-based controls built into the home pad. Swipe right to go back; swipe left for multitasking; tap once for home; tap longer to turn the display off.
My only big complaint about the Z2 Play is its camera, which during my review, didn’t really blow me away. That’s not to say the photos were not good. With proper composition and a still hand, I was still able to manage some great shots in and around Bangkok both during the day and at night.
But for a phone in this price point, you can get better. Take a look at these comparison phones versus the similarly priced OnePlus 5.
Its selfie camera, on the other hand, is pretty good. In our ultimate smartphone showdown, last year’s Moto Z actually won the group selfie category, and the Z2 Play continues this tradition with natural-looking selfies. And as an added bonus, there’s a selfie flash.
Is the Moto Z2 Play your GadgetMatch?
In the US, the Moto Z2 Play is available exclusively from Verizon for just $408, and for a limited time, they’ve thrown in the $80 JBL SoundBoost. That’s a steal.
It also retails for PhP 24,999 in the Philippines, INR 27,590 in India, and IDR 6,499,000 in Indonesia.
That’s not a lot to pay for 2017’s only modular smartphone thus far. Motorola says mods are the future, and if you can see mods as a necessary extension to what already is the most important gadget you own, then take a look at this phone. Also consider how much each mod costs and how that figures into the total budget.
If amazing photos are important to you, look elsewhere.
But if battery life is critical, the Z2 Play plus a battery mod can last you the entire weekend on a single charge. That’s a pretty amazing feat for a smartphone of this caliber, and for this reason, even I consider using it as my daily driver.