Moto Z Play: More Mods, less money (early impressions)

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The Moto Z Play, with a couple of Moto Mods(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Lenovo is a company that throws plenty of things against the wall, but we think the Moto Z's simple and versatile approach to modularity has a chance of sticking. Starting next week you'll be able to buy a cheaper variant of the phone that still works with the same innovative Moto Mods system. We've been using the Moto Z Play for about a week and have some early thoughts.

A quick primer for those new to the Moto Z and Moto Mods: The phones look innocent enough on their own, but use magnets and smart connector coils on their backs to let you change the phone's look or features just by snapping on an accessory. One of our few complaints, though, was that its US$624 starting price made for a pretty expensive package, once you factor in one or more Mods.

The Moto Z Play takes steps down from the standard Moto Z (and Moto Z Force) in display resolution, raw processing power and build materials, but also shaves $216 off of the Z's starting price. The good news is that the all-around experience isn't noticeably diminished in the Z: Trained eyes will notice the downgrades, but the Z Play still makes for a very nice all-around experience for the smartphone owner who isn't a specs geek.

At $408 full retail, the Moto Z Play is a step down specs-wise from the similarly-priced OnePlus 3, so the Moto Mods platform is the main selling point here. While we find Lenovo's projector and speaker mods to be niche accessories, the battery pack mods nearly justify the form factor on their own – it's a subtler, more integrated replacement for those bulky battery cases you can buy for other phones. And the "style shells," which give your phone a new look and feel in materials like wood and leather, are also a nice option if you like your device to have different styles for different occasions.

We'll wait for our full review to run a battery benchmark, but so far our Z Play review unit has been great in that department (mid-ranged phones like this, with lower-res displays, often do well in this department).

It looks like the Moto Z Play has the same rear camera as the Moto G4 Plus, which is solid for a mid-ranged purchase. We'll also have full samples in our review.

We've been test-driving the newest Moto Mod, a snap-on camera from Hasselblad (above) with optical zoom. While the mod's bulk and price ($250 and up) make for an expensive, pocket-busting and slightly awkward smartphone, we have enjoyed being able to zoom in for close-up shots without losing quality (digital zoom is just a glorified crop). With Hasselblad mod in tow, the Moto Z Play becomes like an updated, Android-running version of the old Lumia 1020, a great smartphone camera, also with "real" zoom, that was brought down by the unpopular Windows Phone platform.

With the OnePlus 3 changing our smartphone price-to-quality expectations, it would have been nice to see the Moto Z Play come up in the $350 range. But if you like the idea of snapping an accessory onto your phone's backside to give it longer battery life, a better camera or just a new look, the Play gives you that option at a still-tame $408. Just remember that, after buying a battery pack and a couple of style shells, you'll already be running up on iPhone level pricing.

The Moto Z Play is available on Verizon starting September 8. It gets a little confusing here, because a GSM unlocked version will start shipping in October for $450, but the Verizon version, ringing up for $408 (or $17 per month) will also be unlocked. So if you're on another carrier and can get your hands on the VZW model without signing up for service (usually that means buying from Best Buy or Motorola), that's going to be your cheaper and sooner-available option.

We'll have more on the Moto Z Play in our full review, stay tuned.

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