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Hands on: Lenovo Moto Z2 Play sticks with a modular design to stand out

July 5th, 2017 | by Wilson Wong
Hands on: Lenovo Moto Z2 Play sticks with a modular design to stand out
Cellphones
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PHOTO: Handout

The concept of the modular smartphone was hit by the demise of Google’s Project Ara last year and LG dropping its modular G5 in favour of a simpler flagship this year.

At a time when smartphone designs seem to be getting stagnant, Lenovo is sticking to its guns with a modular design in its new Moto Z2 Play. It certainly stands out from the crowd.

I had a chance to try out the Moto Z2 just before it is being shown off today in Bangkok in a regional media event, and I’ve been impressed so far.

Like the Moto Z and Z Play last year, the new phone doesn’t have to be switched off for you to snap on an add-on module, such as a more powerful camera unit. And when I say snap on, it’s basically as simple as that, thanks to the use of strong magnets holding the units together.

With this update, Lenovo has made it more affordable as well, with a price tag of US$408 (S$563). Last year, the price for the mid-range Moto Z Play was S$699.

I really like the feel of the phone while holding it. It is smooth at the side and yet it is grippy. The size is comfortable too. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

The new Z2 Play now comes with the Snapdragon 626 processor, an update over last year’s Snapdragon 625. It has retained the Adreno 506 graphics chip.

The screen is a 5.5-inch AMOLED Full HD display, though it is still sufficiently sharp for reading and watching video on screen.

Good news is, the memory has been bumped up to 4GB (from 3GB) and storage is now at 64GB instead of 32GB. You get the latest Android 7.1.1 version as well.

A two-USIM card tray but is different from most competitors. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

Flip the tray over and you have the MicroSD card slot. A welcome addition for frequent travellers who want to remain contactable on two lines and yet need to access contents in the MicroSD card. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

One of the best features for me has to be the well designed USIM and MicroSD card trays. For too long, flagship smartphones have sacrificed the second SIM card slot for a MicroSD card.

What that means is that whenever I travel and I want to remain contactable and yet use the local SIM card for data, I can’t save files onto a MicroSD card. The Moto Z2 lets you place all three cards into one single tray and everyone plays nicely.

The new gamepad controller for the Moto Z2 Play. PHOTO: Handout.

I definitely welcome phones that have a modular system for different situations – it quickly expands the usefulness of our mobile devices without fuss.

A modular system, however, comes with its own problems too. The phone is only as good as the modules it uses.

With the Z2 Play, Lenovo has introduced more of its Moto Mods modules. A controller pad now helps transform the phone into a mobile gaming machine.

The speaker module from last year gets an update with partnership with JBL called Soundboost 2. Also interesting are a new wireless charging back cover and a 3,490mAh battery pack to extend battery life of the phone for an additional day.

These are added to the current Moto Mods such as the camera module by Hasselblad, a projector and vanity shells that add a bit of style to the Moto Z2 Play.

The other thing about having a modular system is that the general look of the phone can’t be changed much because of the connectors at the back of the phone. You won’t find many fancy third-party covers, if that’s your thing.

The camera bump is quite obvious so expect wear and tear on the circular device. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

Still, the Moto Z2 Play is a handsome, all-metal unibody phone albeit with a large camera bump at the back that houses a 12-megapixel camera with a f1.7-aperture lens.

The front camera has a 5-megapixel sensor with a wide-angle f2.2 lens. Both cameras come with their own dual LED flash and can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second.

Sunlit dining table and the colours of the cheese pork rib make it very delicious. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

The High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode has retained details in high contrast scenes. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

The interior shots in a shopping mall here are well lit and the Z2 Play shines here. Love the crispiness and the colour rendition. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

I have pretty good first impressions of the camera but the performance also depends on the amount of light in the scene. The camera does struggle a bit with image quality for night shots, from my early tests.

Even when I wanted to use a low ISO value to get more light into a shot, I got hampered by the shutter speed limit at ⅓ seconds. I often had no choice but to increase the ISO to compensate. This resulted in shots with murky details when looking up close, evidence of a strong ISO noise reduction processing on the image.

Using the Hasselblad camera module will arguably improve things and that’s what the modular system is for. I’d be trying that out soon as well with the Z2 Play.

Picture of controls with slowest shutter speed at ⅓ seconds. SCREENSHOT: Wilson Wong

Normally I would use at least 1 second of exposure to pull a longer light streak but having only 1/3 second exposure restricts creative options with the phone. PHOTO: Wilson Wong

One downside to these add-ons is that they may not be cheap. The price of the Hasselblad camera module was S$459 last year, which is the cost of a cheap compact camera. If you are not a fan of the famed Swedish camera maker, you might not buy in.

The Moto Z2 Play with its modular add-ons. PHOTO: Lenovo website.

Unlike most upgrades to a model, the Moto Z2 is now cheaper than before, which is good news. It is well-designed and feels right in the hand, as an alternative to brands such as Samsung.

The Moto Mods do expand the practical functionality of the phone. Price will be a factor for folks who buy into the Moto ecosystem though I am glad that these Mods do put more smarts into the smartphone.

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