Moto Z2 Play Review: A Refined Battery Life Champion Returns

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Moto Z2 Play: Significant Upgrades In Camera Quality

Midrange and budget smartphones tend to cut a few corners to bring prices down, but usually the largest toll is taken on camera quality. We found last year’s Moto Z Play to have a surprisingly capable camera, though it was hamstrung by a lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) which contributed to less than stellar low-light performance.

The Moto Z2 Play still lacks OIS, but has made other trade-offs to improve low-light performance. The megapixel count has been reduced from 16MP in the Z Play to 12MP in the Z2 Play. Sure, there may be a detail hit for pixel peepers on ideally-lit camera samples, but the lower megapixel count brings other advantages. Having fewer pixels spread over the same sensor area means they can be larger which improves the ability to accurately detect light levels and improves noise levels.

The Z2 Play also has a much larger aperture at f/1.7 to the Z Play’s f/2.0. Camera geeks will recognize that as about a half-stop improvement, and for the rest of us it means more light can pass through the lens and onto the sensor. This allows the Z2 Play to shoot with a faster shutter speed to reduce blur from shaky hands and/or with lower sensitivity (ISO) on the sensor to reduce graininess.

The Z2 Play isn’t just about low-light improvements, it also brings a better auto-focus system with a bump to three million on-sensor autofocus pixels (aka phase detection auto focus or PDAF) and extended laser-assisted autofocus range to 5 meters, up from 3 meters. Autofocus performance on the Moto Z2 Play is incredibly responsive and snaps into action with minimal focus hunting.

Let’s step through a few camera samples to highlight the differences between the Z and Z2 Play. You can click each sample for a larger view, except for the 100% crops.

moto z2 play camera comparison 1
Left - Moto Z Play; Right - Moto Z2 Play

In this first sample, we shot with HDR disabled. The original Z Play metered for a slightly brighter exposure, however, its autofocus was not nearly as responsive as the Z2 Play's, which results in overall image softness and loss of detail.

moto z2 play camera comparison 2
Top - Moto Z Play; Bottom - Moto Z2 Play

For our second sample, we enabled HDR. Apart from color reproduction, the two phones performed almost identically. The higher resolution Z Play preserves just ever so slightly more detail, best shown in the cornice at the top of the building here - but that is just being picky.

moto z2 play camera comparison 3
Top - Moto Z Play; Bottom - Moto Z2 Play

We've kept HDR enabled for all the remaining pictures. The new Moto Z2 Play does a much better job of acquiring focus and maintains a truer white-balance. Let's take a look at a 100% center crop to see how the two cameras stack up.

moto z2 play camera comparison 3 crop
100% Crop: Top - Moto Z Play; Bottom - Moto Z2 Play

There's no question here, the Moto Z2 Play's superior autofocus solution vastly improves detail in run-and-gun images, which will result in far more "keepers." Better detail also means images can be cropped in if needed for more distant subjects.

moto z2 play camera comparison 4
Top - Moto Z Play; Bottom - Moto Z2 Play

In our final sample, we shot with both phones placed on a table to eliminate any hand shake. At first glance, the Moto Z's photo has better white-balance, though the Moto Z2 Play's white balance is closer to reality (slightly warm). In this ideal shake-free scenario, the Moto Z Play should offer better detail, let's see if that holds true in a 100% crop of the lower right corner.

moto z2 play camera comparison 4 crop
100% Crop: Top - Moto Z Play; Bottom - Moto Z2 Play

Despite its 4MP advantage over the Moto Z2 Play, the Z Play's camera shows far less detail across the frame. This may be due in part to the half-stop better ISO performance the Moto Z2 Play is able to use so less detail-destroying noise reduction is needed to be performed in processing. The Moto Z Play shot at an aperture of f/2, a shutter speed of 1/120, and ISO 125 while the Moto Z2 Play shot at an aperture of f/1.7, a shutter speed of 1/126 and ISO 64.

There's one more advantage the Z2 Play holds over the Z Play - smaller picture file sizes. A lot of this is due to the lower megapixel counts, but in each of our samples the Moto Z2 Play's picture is half to a quarter the size of the Z Play's picture file size. This lets users take more pictures before needing to clear space, which is always appreciated.

The Moto Z2 Play's rear camera is clearly a huge improvement over the Moto Z Play's, so let's see if the same is true of the front-facing "selfie" camera. The front facing camera is virtually unchanged, with both models using a 5MP sensor and dual-tone flash for better color reproduction.

moto z2 play camera comparison front
Left - Moto Z Play; Right - Moto Z2 Play

These two sensors are essentially on equal footing with not-insignificant barrel distortion to give a wide field of view. The Moto Z Play does a better job with white balance again while the Z2 Play's is more accurate to the setting. It comes down to preference, though many will find skin-tones in the latter to be just a touch sickly. Thankfully, white-balance is easily corrected. All of the above samples have been uncorrected, though I usually run my phone camera shots through Google Photo's auto adjustment filter before sharing which does the white-balance correction and other minor fixes for me.

Finally, we wanted to add a word on the Hasselblad Zoom Camera mod. We already reviewed it with last year’s Z Play, so you can check out more camera samples and the merits of optical zoom here as the image quality is, of course, identical on both the Moto Z and Z2 Play. Beyond optical zoom and image stabilization, it also offers better (non-HDR) dynamic range and flash performance.

moto z2 play camera hasselblad
Top - Moto Z2 Play; Bottom - Hasselblad True Zoom Mod

The Hasselblad True Zoom mod blows away the performance of the Moto Z2 Play's onboard camera in challenging lighting conditions. While the Z2 Play loses details on the armor and blows out the background entirely, the Hasselblad's image remains well exposed with excellent detail. Despite similar sensor sizes at 1/2.4" for the Z2 Play and 1/2.3" for the Hasselblad, the Hasselblad's more powerful flash gives it a strong low-light advantage. Moto Z2 Play exposed at an aperture of f/1.7, a shutter speed of 1/120, and ISO 80 while the Hasselblad exposed at f/3.5, a shutter speed of 1/320 and ISO 100. This faster shutter should also enable lower-light action photos without motion blur.

Moto and Hasselblad have also worked hard on the software side to virtually eliminate shutter lag when shooting JPEGs (RAW shooting still carries a slight delay) and improved image stabilization responsiveness, both of which were issues at launch. We still feel the Hasselblad Zoom is a good option for those who need to shoot from a distance on a regular basis or while working under challenging lighting scenarios.
Tags:  Lenovo, Android, mod, moto

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