The most affordable Moto X yet aims to dominate the competitive new mid-range market — but falls short in an important area ...
The quick take
Launching around the £270 mark, the Moto X Play delivers a great deal for the money — a great screen, a decent camera and solid battery life, not to mention Moto's excellent software experience. But nagging performance and multitasking issues hamper what might otherwise have been the perfect Android mid-ranger.
- Fantastic display and impressive speaker
- Solid construction and ergonomic design
- Pure Android UI with Moto software goodness
- Capable camera — at least in most conditions
- Low-light camera performance is patchy
- Stuttery animations and frequent performance hiccups
- 16GB base storage doesn't leave much breathing room
- 5.5-inch Full HD
- LCD Display
- 1920x1080 resolution (400ppi)
- 21MP, ƒ/2.0 lens
- 5MP front-facing camera
- 3630mAh capacity
- Quick Charge 2.0
- Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor
- 4x1.6GHz A53 cores + 4x1.1GHz A53 cores
- 2GB RAM
- 16GB internal storage
- microSD slot
Moto X Play Full Review
The second half of 2015 is a great time to be buying a smartphone. You've never been able to get so much phone for your money, especially in the new mid-range space, which has brought forth really capable devices like the Zenfone 2 and Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3. Motorola has a strong history of targeting key price points with laser accuracy through its Moto G series, so it was no surprise to see a mid-range Moto X — the Moto X Play — emerging alongside the higher-end Style-slash-Pure-Edition.
On paper the Moto X Play is a tantalizing proposition — for £270 SIM-free, you get a handset with a great display, an enormous battery and the prospect of the first really good Moto camera. In reality, the Play delivers on a many of those promises, but falls short in other areas. And in the past week of using the phone as a daily driver, we've been more surprised by what it's bad at than what it's good at.
Read on to find out all one of 2015's most intriguing mid-range phones.
About this review
We're publishing this review after five days of using a European Moto X Play (XT1562) as our daily driver on the EE network in the UK. We used the Play in central London and Manchester, in areas with both good and bad 4G LTE coverage. Our review unit, a 16GB black model, was running software version 23.21.10. Throughout our testing, the Moto X Play was paired with a Moto 360 smartwatch.
Moto X Play Video Walkthrough
Plastic doesn't have to feel cheap
Moto X Play Hardware
Let's get this out of the way to begin with: The Moto X Play is a plastic smartphone. As the high end of the spectrum has becomes dominated by ever more exotic materials, we increasingly expect to see phones adorned with metal and glass at other price points as well. That's not the case with the Moto X Play, which sticks with a traditional polycarbonate body and a removable soft-touch rear.
When it comes to raw hardware, the Moto X Play does very well for its price point.
The Moto X Play's sides have a reflective, metallic look to them, and extend some way around the back of the device. That means most of the contact points are somewhere on this faux chrome trim, as opposed to the largely decorative soft-touch back panel. And this, combined with their squared-off sides, makes the phone easy to grip with one hand. That removable panel is purely decorative, by the way — there's nothing functional back there, as the SIM and SD trays are combined into one slot, which lives along the top edge.
So this is a plastic phone, but it feels solid and sturdy — arguably more so than the plastic-backed LG G4, a much more expensive handset. And while the back of the thing is somewhat visually busy, that's not what you're going to be looking at most of the time.
When you're paying under £300 for a new handset, you don't necessarily expect an aluminum frame or glass back, though. (Though some can definitely give you that.) In any case, it's clear that the bulk of the Moto X Play's bill of materials has gone elsewhere, such as the fantastic 5.5-inch 1080p display.
Motorola's moved away from AMOLED panels this year in favor of traditional LCDs, and we're pleased with the results, especially given the Moto X Play's competitive price point. The screen isn't stupidly dense like the Moto X Style or any other traditional high-enders you could mention. But it's bright, easy to see even in bright sunlight, and delivers punchy colors in the default "vibrant" screen mode. If you prefer more natural-looking colors, you can change this under the display settings, but really, the default setting isn't excessively saturated at all.
The only other protrusions you'll notice around the front are the earpiece and loudspeaker, located bottom and top. This isn't a dual stereo setup like the Nexus 6 — instead, media is played through the bottom speaker only, like the new Moto G. We're not losing too much sleep over the presence of only a single speaker, however — we'd rather have one good speaker than two mediocre ones.
Being a Moto X, you're free to customize the look if your Play through the Moto Maker site, which lets you choose front, back and accent colors, as well as under-the-hood tweaks like storage capacity — 16GB base or a roomier 32GB — and custom wallpapers and greetings. We've been getting along just fine with the standard black 16GB model. It's true that 16GB is getting a big claustrphobic, but the Play does support offloading some apps to the SD card to free up space. And of course there's also the option to just buy the 32GB model instead.
In a surprising turnaround for Motorola, performance is perhaps the Moto X Play's biggest compromise.
But it's performance, not storage or design that's the Moto X Play's biggest compromise. It's running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor — an octa-core, 64-bit chip that we've been seeing in phones for about a year now — paired with 2GB of RAM. And in a curious twist for a Motorola phone, it seems like the processor is more or less maxed out just doing basic things like web browsing and streaming music. We've also noticed intermittent animation slowdown and lag, as well as a tendency to aggressively bump apps out of memory. On more than one occasion the Play seemed to kill off processes for music streaming apps, leading to playback coming to an abrupt halt. This isn't something that should be happening on any smartphone released in 2015.
Given the decidedly wonky performance we've seen from the Play, it's interesting to go back to Motorola's budget champion, the Moto G. Sure, the G is pushing far fewer pixels, but it's also packing a much less powerful CPU and the same amount of RAM, and yet every time the G feels like the faster phone. That's a shame, because in most other areas the Play is a joy to use. When you consider all the engineering effort made by Google in recent years to eliminate lag in Android, it's slightly surreal to be going back to 2012-13 levels of stutteriness in a current handset.
This isn't a horribly slow phone by any means. The Moto X Play is perfectly usable in its current form, and after a while you'll probably get used to its performance quirks. Nevertheless, the step from Moto G up to Moto X Play shouldn't result in a tangible performance drop, as is the case right now.
So that's the biggest negative out of the way; what else does the Moto X Play have going for it? Well, there's an enormous 3,630mAh battery, making the Play a spiritual successor of sorts to Moto's "MAXX" devices.The big, fixed battery is a big part of why this phone's so hefty, and as we'll discuss later in this review, it mostly delivers on the promise of delivering more than a day of use per charge. There's also Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 support — re-branded as "Turbo Power" now by Motorola — for faster charging of that humongous cell. The phone isn't boxed with Moto's Turbo Charger though, unfortunately.
Motorola's also talking up the Moto X's camera this year, and like the Moto X Style, the Play sports a new 21-megapixel Sony sensor behind an f/2.0 lens, though without any optical stabilization. Similarly, the front camera gets bumped up to a 5-megapixel unit. We'll get to the specifics later in this review, but the short version is this — Moto's new camera is excellent when there's a reasonable amount of light, but is held back by mediocre low-light performance.
As for connectivity, the Moto X Play we're using — the European XT1562 model — supports Bluetooth 4.0, Wifi a/b/g/n and 11 bands of 4G LTE that covers much of Europe and Asia, but none of the major U.S. carriers. For compatibility with AT&T and T-Mobile's LTE networks, you'll need to look at importing the Canadian XT1563 model.
Moto X Play Software
When it comes to software, Motorola likes to keep things simple. For the past several years, the highlight of the company's smartphones has been the "pure Android" experience — i.e. Android with the Google look and feel, augmented with Moto's useful software additions.
For that reason there's not a whole lot to say about software on the Moto X Play. If you've used a Motorola phone in the past year you'll know what to expect. The Play runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with the Google Now Launcher is front and center, just like on a Nexus phone, and the main "Moto" features — Moto Display, Moto Voice, Moto Assist and Moto Actions are handled by the app of the same name.
Stock Android, plus a lightweight sprinkling of Moto features.
For the uninitiated, Moto Display gives you a preview of new notifications when they arrive, and you can then swipe up on the screen to view more details, and release to jump straight into that app. Even with lock screen notifications now coming as standard on Android, it's still a really useful feature. The same goes for Moto Voice, which lets you control your phone with spoken commands even when the screen is off. Using "OK Moto X" — or a phrase of your own choosing — you can set reminders, make calls, send messages and send queries to Google to find out other stuff. Moto Assist helps you shut off distractions when you're sleeping, in a meeting or driving. And Moto Actions lets you launch the camera with a flick of your wrist. (Curiously, the karate-chop motion to activate the flashlight is missing on the Moto X Play.)
All of the Moto app features add value on top of Android without being overbearing or interfering with Google's vision of its mobile OS. All can be turned off if they're not your cup of tea, but we'd recommend at least giving them a try.
The only thing you're missing out on compared to the Style (or indeed the 2014 Moto X) is the ability to wave your hand over the phone to activate Moto Display. There are no IR sensors on the front of the Play, so like a caveman you'll need to resort to picking up the phone to see your notifications.
And that's basically it. Everything else is basically stock Android, save for a handful of Material-themed Motorola applications like Messaging (Google's own SMS app is of course available from the Play Store), Gallery and Camera.
Some additional software bits to note:
- Moto's FM Radio app is preloaded, as is the on-device Help app and Moto Migrate (for importing content from your old phone)
- Moto's Phone app is very close to what's offered on Nexus devices, but doesn't come with the Caller ID by Google feature that helps you track down unknown incoming callers.
- There's little functional difference between Moto's Messaging app and Google's Messenger (found on the Play Store.) Both work perfectly well; Google's arguably looks a bit more Materialy.
- Whatever it is that's making this phone perform slightly slower than we'd expect, it's certainly not bloatware. There are no superfluous apps to be found on our European Moto X Play.
Better than ever — but there's a catch
Moto X Play Cameras
Each year Motorola has talked up the Moto X's camera capabilities, and each year we've been faced with disappointment when we got the devices in our hands. So with the promise of a new 21-megapixel sensor and improved image processing tech, how does the Moto X Play stand up? Well, the short version is that it's much improved from last year, but still something of a mixed bag.
Motorola's new camera is much improved, but still a mixed bag.
That new Sony sensor (IMX230, for those keeping track) is backed up by an f/2.0 lens and new image processing tricks from Motorola. You'll continue to take pictures through the familiar Motorola camera interface — arguably the simplest of all Android camera apps, with photos captured by tapping the screen, and menu items held in a control wheel off on the left. It's pretty easy to get the hang of, and the wheel contains options like HDR (set to auto by default), crop, and night mode.
As for overall image quality, the Moto X Play shoots clear, good-looking photos with vibrant colors and plenty of detail — assuming you're shooting with a reasonable amount of ambient light. But with no OIS (optical image stabilization) present, image quality suffers when it starts to get really dark, and that's where you'll see a huge gulf appear between photos captured on the Moto X and those from a Galaxy S6 or LG G4. There's a certain point at which things become either horribly underexposed or horribly grainy, and that generally comes when you're shooting outdoors by streetlights, or in a dark bar or restaurant. The built-in night mode helps a little, but the trade-off here is clearer images at the cost of fine detail.
The same goes for the new 5-megapixel front-facing camera. Don't expect brilliant low-light selfies like you'd get from the HTC One M9. It is perfectly serviceable in daylight, however, and does a good job bringing out realistic skin tones.
"Serviceable" is how we'd describe the Moto X Play's video camera capabilities too. In terms of resolution, you'll max out at 1080p — no 4K here, but that's no surprise — or 540p if you choose slow-mo mode. Following on from the still camera's performance, the Play in video mode copes well in moderate-to-well-lit scenes, but becomes increasingly grainy and noisy as the light goes down.
Potato-cam no more.
Overall, though, it's a competent showing for this kind of phone. When you're buying a handset for less than £300, you don't necessarily expect a world-beating camera. But equally this isn't another potato-cam from Motorola. The company has clearly learned some important photographic lessons over the past year.
Moto X Play Battery Life
One of the Moto X Play's biggest selling points is its enormous 3,630mAh fixed battery. That's enough to put it in "MAXX" territory, by the levels of Moto's alternative branding, and it comes with a boast of up to 48 hours of mixed usage, which sounds entirely reasonable given the components and the capacity on offer.
And for the most part, we've struggled to kill off the Play in under a day — most days, with moderate use on Wifi and LTE, have left us with at least 40 or 50 percent remaining by the day's end. Were we to run down the battery all the way over multiple days, we'd be reaching late afternoon on day two before reaching for the charger, with between four and six hours of screen-on time.
An enormous battery plus 'Turbo Power' results in some impressive longevity.
Speaking of charging, the Play supports Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0, which Moto has branded as "Turbo Power" on its latest handsets. It's the same standard you'll use on other Moto phones like the Nexus 6 and Droid Turbo, though, and a Moto Turbo Charger will dutifully top up the Play much faster than the bundled double-slot plug. (That's right, there's no quick charger included in the box.)
As much as a Turbo Charger is basically a necessity with a battery of this size, it also helps opportunistic charging result in a more meaningful boost in power levels, so we'd definitely recommend picking one up if you buy the Moto X Play.
So in a year when Android flagships have largely disappointed on battery life, it's a solid performance from this mid-ranger. That said, a word of warning — there are fringe cases where it's possible to make the battery nosedive into the ground doing relatively innocuous things like extended web browsing on LTE, heavy multitasking or taking photos. And in those situations it is absolutely possible to kill off the battery in 12 or 13 hours. That's the exception, not the rule, though.
Almost the perfect mid-ranger
Moto X Play: The Bottom Line
The Moto X Play is a curiosity in more than a few ways. It's surprised us with what it's good at — the generally decent camera experience, long battery life and impressive display. What's arguably more surprising, though, is what it's bad at — mainly the intermittent performance lag that's so unlike our experiences of previous Moto phones.
It's possible this will be fixed through future firmware updates, and if that happens the Moto X Play could become a force to be reckoned with in the new mid-range space. Until then it's a strong contender, but not an no-brainer. By all means check out the Moto X Play. If you like the pure Android UI and can live with (or maybe not even notice) the performance stutters, you'll get a highly enjoyable phone for about half the price of a current Android flagship.
But it's a competitive time for mid-rangers, and the Moto X Play will face fierce competition from many other phone makers before the year's out.
Should you buy the Moto X Play? Not yet
The Moto X Play is not a bad phone. But we'd recommend waiting for a software update or two to hit before picking it up. By then we'll be able to tell whether the intermittent performance issues we (and other Play owners on the forums) are seeing is fixable in software. Even in its current state, the Play is really good value for money. With a bit more tweaking and tuning under the hood, perhaps it'll turn into one of the great Android phones of 2015.