Motorola Moto X Play review: The perfect battery champion?

Motorola have a history in recent years of producing solid, dependable smartphones that don’t really push the boat out in any one direction. They’re usually robust, waterproof-ish, with bigg-ish batteries, decent-ish cameras, good-ish screens, and so on. From the smallest Moto E right up to the monster Nexus 6, the design language and pattern is much the same (and fine). But the Moto X Play is, in theory, launched to buck the specs/size/price curve, with a monster 3630mAh battery and a flagship 20MP f/2.0 camera. Best of all, the Play is still just about within traditional phone size limits, with small bezels, especially left and right, a 5.5” screen and a nicely grippable, rounded form factor which I can get my average sized hand around securely. What could go wrong?

In fairness, not much, the Play is a really attractive proposition, coming in at £270 including VAT in the UK and reasonably priced across the globe – you get quite a bit of Android 5.1.1 smartphone for your money. As usual with Motorola, it’s virtually stock Android, updated regularly and with just a few Moto tweaks over the top, of which more later.

The Motorola Moto X Play
The Motorola Moto X Play – outside and showing the superb screen contrast, albeit in spitting rain here – but fear not, for the device is ‘water-repellent’!

As usual with this familiar Motorola design, there’s a replaceable back cover, neatly rubberised here:

The rubberised back cover here....

This gives great grip but is eminently replaceable if you have something to jemmy up the corner, and under it is…. absolutely nothing of interest. No slots, and the battery’s sealed, of course. As usual, my rant to manufacturers, if you’re going to put on a back that comes off, at least give us some functional benefit underneath! On the ‘G’ range, that’s where you’d access the card slots, for example.

The cover comes off to reveal absolutely nothing of interest. It's just a chance to change the cover for one of different colour or finish!
The cover comes off to reveal absolutely nothing of interest. It’s just a chance to change the cover for one of different colour or finish!

You can even, in some markets, customise the Moto X you get with Moto Maker, though the replaceable backs should be widely and cheaply available anyway, a poor man’s Moto Maker facility, for those who like to change their phone to suit their mood. And no, of course, you don’t need a case on this thing, it’s rugged polycarbonate, Gorilla Glass, just about impossible to drop and water-repellent as well.

The microSIM and microSD both get inserted via a loading tray that you eject from the Moto X Play’s top. It’s a bizarre arrangement whereby each sits on the opposite side of the tray – and as you insert one, the other tends to fall out! Again one has to wonder why these weren’t put under the back cover…

microSIM and microSD cards in the dual adapter
microSIM and microSD cards in the dual adapter
Top view, showing the headphone jack and card tray
Top view, showing the headphone jack and card tray

However, what with this tray and the headphone socket, there’s simply no room for there to be a full speaker above the screen. A great shame, after the stereo speakers on the 2nd gen Moto G, at a budget price, and on the Nexus 6 of course, though, in fairness, the single mono speaker at the bottom does pump out a fair volume. It’s just not as ‘balanced’ as on the earlier devices!

The bottom half of the Moto X Play, showing virtual controls and speaker grille....
The bottom half of the Moto X Play, showing virtual controls and speaker grille….

Imaging

The camera’s supposed to be excellent and is, in fact, no more than ‘quite good’, again a shame, despite using a 2015 Sony sensor. In my tests it was a long way short of the eighteen month old Lumia 930 and even further behind the leading Android phone in this aspect, the LG G4. OK, so the phone only costs £270, i.e. it’s ‘mid range’ but this is the same camera as in the upcoming Style, so let’s hope that Motorola manages to fix things in software where possible.

Here are some camera samples, each followed by 1:1 crops and comments:

Suburban scene in perfect light, no HDR
Suburban scene in perfect light, no HDR
The 1:1 crop shows good detail, as you'd expect - this is a very easy photo to take!
The 1:1 crop shows good detail, as you’d expect – this is a very easy photo to take!
Turning on HDR (it defaults to 'Auto) seems to introduce issues....
Turning on HDR (it defaults to ‘Auto) seems to introduce issues….
... specifically blurriness and poorer dynamic range than expected...
… specifically blurriness and poorer dynamic range than expected…
A better example of why the HDR is broken here....
A better example of why the HDR is broken here….
Looking more closely shows how badly bright spots are blown out !
Looking more closely shows how badly bright spots are blown out !
Trying to shoot a 'night' scene shows how noisy the results can be, with no OIS to allow for longer exposures ...
Trying to shoot a ‘night’ scene shows how noisy the results can be, with no OIS to allow for longer exposures …
Disappointing compared to most other Android phones with imaging pretensions, each of which now has Optical Image Stabilisation....
Disappointing compared to most other Android phones with imaging pretensions, each of which now has Optical Image Stabilisation….
A typical 'party' mock-up from me, trying out shooting a moving subject in low light...
A typical ‘party’ mock-up from me, trying out shooting a moving subject in low light…
Although I've seen worse, the blurring from movement is very evident. When will manufacturers start considering 'proper' flashes again? (Bring back Xenon!)
Although I’ve seen worse, the blurring from movement is very evident. When will manufacturers start considering ‘proper’ flashes again? (Bring back Xenon!)

Due to the use of a Snapdragon 615 chipset only, video capture tops out at 1080p – it’ll be 4K on the same imaging hardware on the flagship Moto X Style, which has a beefier chipset. The lack of OIS also impacts video, of course, but then I suppose you have to look again at the price and make allowances?

The Camera UI is a love it or hate it affair – I couldn’t get used to taking photos by tapping anywhere on screen, since I often wanted the main focussed subject to be something specific rather than whatever the X Play decided was best. However, there’s is an advanced focussing/adjustment mode, where you swipe a reticule to fix a focus subject, then adjust exposure with a slightly fiddly rotating control and then finally tap again in the middle to capture. This works, but if this was my main phone then I suspect I might be playing with third party camera apps – there are so many good ones on Android, after all.

Performance, screen

The Snapdragon 615 generally performs well on the phone, mind you, and 2GB of RAM means that shouldn’t be any multitasking issues with this plain build of Android, plus there’s no silliness in terms of applications closing down all the time, as on the newer Samsung Galaxy devices, thank goodness. There’s 16GB internal storage here, in addition to the microSD capabilities, though some markets do apparently sell a version with 32GB internally, presumably in the East. 

Unlike the utterly broken microSD support on the ‘G’ range, the X Play recognised my standard 64Gb microSD card of media instantly, which was a great relief. Having said that, going higher still, with a full card of files, might start to impact performance, so consider 64GB a practical maximum.

The 5.5″, 1080p display’s interesting in that it’s LCD and not AMOLED this time round for the X. Contrast and outdoor visibility is excellent though, in the sun I found the X Play to be just as visible as my ClearBlack Display Nokia champion devices of the past – there can be no higher compliment. Despite the lack of AMOLED, you still get the Notifications at a Glance that debuted on the original X, wherein anything that comes in gets popped up in icon and form on the screen as you pick the phone up from (e.g.) a table. You can then opt to slide up on any icons to see more details and, ultimately, into the application that they came from (e.g. Gmail).

Software

There’s also the Moto application suite, introducing a gesture for starting the camera, which make you look a little odd but does work (the ‘torch’ gesture from the ‘G’ was missing on the review device, but I’ll bet this gets added back in, in an update), plus location and time specific profiles that you can set up to automate your life (‘Assistant’). All rather nice additions though, without spoiling anything in the OS.

Introducing the familiar Motorola 'Assistant' system plus Notifications at a Glance...

You also get the higher end voice stuff here too, on the X Play, thanks to the chipset used. You can say “OK Moto X” even when the phone screen is off and then you’re into Google Now territory, though with a Motorola wrapper around it (which can delay results, annoyingly). To be honest, I’ve had this facility on most of my flagship phones for two years now and I think I’ve used it about twice, other than when testing. But your mileage may vary, and it’s a neat tech trick if your hands are often busy (driving) or dirty (cleaning/working) etc.

"Hello Moto X" or "OK, Moto X" kick off the potentially useful voice feature....

Elsewhere, the Moto X Play, like all the other Motorola devices, is virtually ‘stock’ Android in terms of bundled applications (including the full Google suite, of course), notifications shade, settings, Google Now (off to the left of the default home screen), and so on. Making for a familiar experience and removing barriers from Motorola keeping the firmware as up to date as even Google’s Nexus phones (and sometimes even updated before, famously).

A very Nexus-like/stock set of applications on the Moto X Play

Battery, environment

Battery life is tough to gauge – because it’s so good. When you have to hammer a phone for the best part of two days just to drain the battery once, it almost speaks for itself. I only had to charge the X Play once in my three day test period, with usual email and social pushes happening and with modest use of media and the Chrome web browser.

With those 3600-odd mAh, with a restrained 615 processor and ‘only’ a 1080p screen it’s not surprising, of course. Given that the camera was ultimately disappointing, at least the battery’s holding its head high here and this is without doubt the X Play’s biggest selling point.

The X Play is compatible with high current ‘Quick’ chargers, but only a 1A one shipped in the review box, so do check in your own markets as to what comes with the phone where you are. Since there’s no wireless charging (Nexus 6 style), getting quick top-ups via the wired connection might well be important to some users, despite the excellent life generally. Worth noting/checking, at least.

Although not actually waterproof, Motorola calls the Moto X Play ‘water-repellent’, implying that it’ll survive an accidental dousing with beer or being caught in the rain, but you really shouldn’t dunk it in water except incredibly briefly and by accident. Will it survive a fall into the toilet bowl? Probably. But you’d better rescue it quickly and have some dry rice, towels and so on handy, just in case.

The Moto X Play is a very solid smartphone

Verdict

Calling the Moto X Play ‘disappointing’ does it a disservice – it’s patently an extremely capable Android smartphone in every department and the price is quite reasonable. It’s just that, having loved the Nexus 6 aside from the size, I keep hoping for more or less the same device but smaller, and somehow Motorola never quite delivers this, whatever the glossy photos might suggest. The single, mono speaker and the broken camera HDR being the main offenders.

Specs completists like me will therefore complain – while regular buyers will enjoy one of the best balanced smartphones overall.

Thanks to Clove.co.uk for the review unit!

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  • ovi

    Great, very useful review, thanks Steve.

  • Paul_Wb

    excellent Honest article Steve..ure review made contemplate on the idea of getting myself a Nexus 6 (the prices are too attractive to ignore) will not be my daily driver though due to the size but at least the camera is decent and i love having amoled screen on android devices – nokia days spoiled us 🙂 the Moto x play feels like a rushed device the Moto G is better value and for 100$ we can get the much better Moto X style or Nexus 6…so i cant justify a middle mediocre device despite the battery life…a 250$ oneplus one is even a better value than this in my opinion

    • robinottawa

      The Nexus 6P is actually selling for LESS than the Nexus 6 by Rogers in Canada today (mid-November). I really don’t get it but wish I was due for an upgrade. Why would they do that? Passing on the subsidized price from Google?

  • Mark Whitlock

    Just wondering if you had plans to review the Moto X Style (Pure)?