Review: Lenovo Moto G4 Play
Oct 7, 2016, 3:00 PM by Eric M. Zeman
The Moto G4 Play takes up residence at the bottom of Lenovo's U.S. lineup of Android handsets. It is an entry-level device in design, features, and performance. It is more compact than Lenovo's other offerings, and offers a stock version of Marshmallow. Those seeking simple over sensational may want to take a look. Here is Phonescoop's in-depth review.
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Is It Your Type?
The Moto G4 Play is one of the least expensive smartphones available from Motorola right now. If you're looking for a low-cost handset that provides a stock Android experience and not much else, the G4 Play covers the basics.
The G4 Play differs little from the G4 and G4 Plus, which were released by Motorola earlier this year. It looks almost identical to the G4, but steps down the specs a bit in order to drop the price point. It's a plain phone that doesn't have much in the way of personality
The biggest difference between the G4 Play and G4 is the size: the Play is about 10% smaller, which is more in keeping with the spirit of earlier G-branded phones from Motorola. The reduced size helps improve usability quite a bit compared to the bigger G4
I wish the G4 Play had more flair. It has a boring, conservative look that does nothing to get my blood flowing. The phone's front and rear surfaces are black. (A white version is available, too.) A gray frame separates the two. The shape is generic to a fault. The worst part? The G4 Play doesn't offer colorful, swappable rear shells like the G4 and G4 Plus. In fact, the G4 Play can't be customized via Moto Maker at all. That just stinks.
The front is glass, the frame is polycarbonate, and the rear shell is made of textured resin. It feels like the low-cost phone that it is, but it doesn't come across as cheap. The side edges are curved and give the phone a smooth feel. Some people will appreciate the size; I was able to use the phone one-handed quite easily. The G4 Play fit into my jeans without trouble, but I do wish it weren't quite so heavy.
Motorola selected fine materials for the device. Build quality is good enough for this class of handset. The phone is fitted together well and it feels strong. I don't think anyone will complain about the G4 Play's value.
The G4 Play's screen is smaller and of lower resolution than the other G4 phones. More bezel surrounds the display on the front face, too, which is something I don't particularly care for. The polycarbonate frame forms a very thin rim around the outer edge of the glass, helping protect it when placed face down. It's a bit sharp for my tastes, but I understand its purpose. The user-facing camera is plainly visible next to the earpiece above the screen. There are no buttons, capacitive or otherwise, adorning the front of the phone, as Motorola has long relied on software controls for its phones. The G4 Play does not have a fingerprint reader.
Motorola placed the volume toggle and screen lock button on the right edge of the phone. The buttons don't really make me happy. First, the volume toggle is located in the center of the right edge, with the screen lock button above it. The majority of phones I test position the lock button in the middle and the toggle above it — and that's how I prefer it. Neither control has a good profile. I often hit the top of the volume toggle when I really wanted to hit the screen lock button. Travel and feedback are acceptable, but I'd like more action from both. Worse, I often accidentally adjusted the volume when I was only trying to grip the phone. The headphone jack is on top, while the micro USB port is on the bottom.
The resin rear panel has a feel similar to that of soft-touch paint. It gives the G4 Play some much-needed grip, helping it stay stuck to your hand. The elongated, oval-shaped camera module sticks out from the rear surface quite a bit. A chrome-colored rim ensures that the module pops visually. The G4 Play has the standard indentation on the back with Motorola's stylized "M" logo painted in chrome.
Removing the rear plate requires some serious fingernail strength. The plastic clasps that hold the panel in place don't want to let go unless you're really serious about prying it off. Unlike the G4 and G4 Plus, the G4 Play features a removable battery, which some will surely appreciate. Motorola stacked the memory card and SIM card slots alongside the battery. It's worth noting that Play requires a micro (3FF) SIM and not the newer nano (4FF) card size. You can hot-swap the memory card, but not the SIM card.
Motorola did a decent job with the G4 Play body. It's a wee bit drab, but the hardware is put together and functions well enough for this price point.
The G4 Play has a 5-inch, 720p HD display. That's the same size/resolution as the G2 and G3, but is smaller than the 5.5-inch full HD screens on the G4 and G4 Plus. The Play's display is totally fine, just not particularly impressive. The resolution is just dense enough to hide most pixels, but you can spot them from time to time. Brightness is very good. I was able to use the G4 Play indoors and out under the sun without issue. Viewing angles are good enough; there's only a small amount of brightness loss, and there's no color shift at all when the phone is tilted. You can't ask for much more from a $150 phone.
The phone has very good support for the LTE networks of all major U.S. carriers with Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 25, 26, and 41 aboard. I tested the G4 Play on AT&T and T-Mobile in the metro NYC area and conclude that it performs on par with most other phones.
The G4 Play always remained connected and never dropped the network no matter how weak the coverage from AT&T or T-Mo. I was able to connect calls in known weak spots without issue. The G4 Play did not drop any calls, nor did it miss any while I tested it. It held onto a phone call across two dozen miles of highway driving with no problem.
Data performance was respectable but not the best I've seen. I did not see a major difference in the behavior of AT&T/T-Mobile speeds. The G4 Play was adept at streaming YouTube and Spotify as long as the quality settings were turned down a bit. HD content gave it some trouble. The phone never felt slow, though it never felt really quick either.
I'd rate the G4 Play's voice performance as average. Voices come through the earpiece in warm tones with infrequent distortion. You do need to set the volume close to the maximum to hear calls anywhere other than at home. Keeping the volume at 60% and taking calls in quiet spaces provides the best overall experience, but that's not very practical. Any time you're out in public expect to pump up the volume in order to hear. Those I spoke to said I my voice sounded "good."
The speakerphone produces loud calls that are easy to hear in most places. The G4 Play has no trouble filling a moderate room with sound. The speakerphone works well in the car, coffee shops, the mall, on city streets, and so on. The speakerphone is still prone to some distortion, but it's not too bad.
Notifications are very, very loud. The vibrate alert is adequate at best.
Along with its slightly smaller stature, the G4 Play has a smaller battery than the G4 and G4 Plus. The power cell rates 2,800 mAh, which is just fine for a device with a 720p screen and mid-range processor. I was able to coax a full day of life out of the G4 Play every day over a week of testing. Battery life was the same on AT&T and T-Mobile's networks. The phone did often dip below 30% by the end of the day, and on heavy usage days it was below 20%. Even then, it managed to push from breakfast to bedtime with at least some power to spare.
The G4 Play does not support rapid charging, nor does it support wireless charging. It offers only Google's standard Android battery saver tool. You can use this to dial back the phone's performance in order to extend battery life.
Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi
The G4 Play's other radios performed unevenly. Bluetooth could have been better. The G4 Play connected to PCs, headsets, speakers, and my car in a snap, though call quality through headsets and my car was mediocre. I tested stereo Bluetooth with several pairs of headphones and can say the G4 Play would not be my first choice of device for listening to music.
The G4 Play doesn't have NFC.
The G4 Play pinpointed me on Google Maps in about 10 seconds and was accurate to within 25 feet. That's about average. When used as a navigation device, the G4 Play doesn't quite measure up. Google Maps was sluggish and that didn't help when traveling between two points in real time in a car.
The WiFi radio worked very well.
The G4 Play carries over the useful Moto Display tool that's available on most Motorola phones. It's a great lock screen that Motorola's competitors copied in earnest just this year.
Notifications and other lock screen behaviors are managed from the Moto App. Moto Display can wake the screen regularly with a list of the current notifications, or show important notifications on the lock screen as they arrive, or leave the screen entirely dark. It's up to you. Double tap the screen any time to see the time and notifications in list form.
The G4 Play doesn't have some of the fancy screen-waking gesture features from Motorola's flagship phones (wave or speak to wake), but it doesn't need them. The tap-to-wake and on-again/off-again nature of notifications provide plenty of opportunity to see what's up. Sadly the G4 Play loses the twist-to-launch-camera gesture.
If you press the screen lock button, the display wakes fully to show the clock, wallpaper, and notifications listed below the clock. There are shortcuts to Google voice search and the camera available on this screen.
As far as security goes, the G4 Play supports the trusty PIN, pattern, and password options. (As noted earlier, there's no fingerprint reader.)
The G4 Play ships with Android 6 Marshmallow and that's pretty much it (no overbearing user interface skin). I appreciate that. G4 Play owners can customize the typical stuff, such as wallpapers, widgets, and so on.
The home screen behaves as expected for a Marshmallow phone. Similarly, the app drawer, notification shade, and settings screens are all stock, and work accordingly. The app drawer casually plops four "suggested apps" at the top. I find these to be helpful from time to time.
The G4 Play ships with the Google Now launcher, but it's not active by default. You have to agree to turn it on (via the Google Search app). The Google Now launcher creates a new home screen panel with alerts and notifications about stuff relevant to you. It's one of my favorite tools from Google.
As for performance, the G4 Play uses a 1.2 GHz Snapdragon 410 processor with 2 GB of RAM. This combination is barely adequate. As noted earlier, Google Maps struggles big time, as do the camera and Play Store apps. Apps take forever to download and install, even over WiFi. I saw some sluggish behavior on the home screens, too, such as transitions and app opening times. The G4 Play isn't awful, but it is noticeably slow.
The G4 Play relies on the same camera app found in the G4, G4 Plus, and even the pricier Moto Z handsets, but the experience isn't quite the same.
The phone does not have a dedicated physical camera button, and it loses the twist-to-open gesture. That's a bummer. Thank goodness you can open the camera with a double-press of the screen lock button. But unfortunately, this feature is off by default; you have to dive into the settings to turn it on.
The camera interface is spartan and keeps things simple. There are three controls on the left side of the screen (timer, flash, HDR) and three on the right (mode, shutter, front camera). I like that the flash and HDR toggles include an “auto” option.
As for shooting modes, the G4 Play offers photo, video, and, panorama. That's it. You can't have a smaller, less thrilling selection of camera features than this.
The default is always photo mode. Slide your finger up or down to zoom, tap to set focus and exposure. Press the shutter button to take standard pictures, or press-and-hold to capture a burst. Burst performance is pretty slow. Swipe from the left side of the screen to access the settings.
The settings tools are minimal. You can adjust shutter sound, GPS tagging, resolution, and storage location for photos.
The layout makes sense and it's a simple camera to use. My biggest complaint is speed. It simply takes too long to focus and capture pictures. Moreover, I miss features such as slow-motion and timelapse.
The G4 Play's camera captures 6-megapixel photos by default. You have to switch from 16:9 aspect ratio to 4:3 in order to get the full 8 megapixels it's capable of. The phone takes much better pictures than I was expecting.
Focus is generally sharp. I rarely saw a soft shot when shooting in bright light. Like most phones, you'll see less-sharp focus in low-light. Exposure was mostly good. The G4 Play managed to keep direct sunlight in control, even when shooting white surfaces (see the wall behind my green bush.) White balance is typically okay, though it sometimes skewed a little yellow. Basically, it does a good job for this class of phone.
The selfie camera snags 5-megapixel images and does a solid job. It delivers results equivalent to the main camera, which is to say focus is good, and exposure/white balance are mostly fine. You can use the beautification tool in selfie mode to remove or obscure skin blemishes, but your mileage will vary. You'll see a lot of grain when using the selfie cam at night, and there is no user-facing flash to help.
The phone shoots up to 1080p HD video and it does well. I was happy with the footage I captured with this phone. White balance is more consistently good when compared to still pictures, and focus/exposure are spot on.
The G4 Play is certainly good enough for everyday photography, but I wouldn't use it for important stuff.
Since the G4 Play is sold online directly to consumers, it is only preloaded with apps from Google and Motorola itself. There is no bloatware from carriers. The phone is limited to just 16 GB of internal storage, of which you have access to about 9 GB. That's not a whole lot, so I'd plan to supplement it with a memory card.
In the past, I've recommended Motorola's G series handsets above most phones others in their price range. They typically represented a strong value-for-the-dollar that was unmatched by competing phones. The G4 Play doesn't live up to previous G series' heritage.
In general, the G4 Play is a decent handset. It may be boring, but at least it's well-made. The screen is decent, call quality is fine, and battery life is where it needs to be. I wish data speeds were better, but I can't complain too much. Surely some people will like that the G4 Play supports memory cards and has a removable battery. Moreover, the G4 Play is smaller than other Motorola handsets and that makes it easier to use on a day-to-day basis.
I'm glad to see the stock Android experience on the G4 play, and always appreciate Motorola's Active Display feature. The Snapdragon 410 processor doesn't seem to be up to speed, however, rendering some apps too slow. The camera app has almost zero features, but at least it takes decent photos.
Pricing is the G4 Play's biggest problem. Motorola sells the phone for $150. If you look at the $150 phones available from Cricket Wireless and MetroPCS, you see some much better options, such as the Alcatel Idol 4 (with VR headset!) and LG Stylo 2.
With these considerations in mind, I'd recommend the G4 Play only to Motorola fans who prefer smaller handsets. I might also suggest the G4 Play as an entry point for novice users, such as young teens. The Moto G4 Play is a fine phone, but not the most fun or functional phone.
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