Strong performance and excellent battery life at less than $200
For tight budgets, the Moto G Play is hard to beat, especially for performance and battery life.
Motorola has long been a solid bet for budget phones and the Moto G Play (2021) is no exception. For $169.99, you get decent performance, multi-day battery life, and excellent LTE connectivity. Although it ships with Android 10, Motorola promises at least one OS upgrade, which isn’t too common for phones in this price range. If you’re willing to shell out an extra $30, however, the Moto G Power (2021) bests the G Play in almost every way and is a better value overall.
Though the G Play doesn’t sport the sleek backs and hole-punch displays of its more expensive siblings, it still manages to look good. At 6.6 by 3.0 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 7.2 ounces, it’s a big phone, but its weight is well distributed and is easy to hold.
A 6.5-inch LCD with a teardrop notch for the camera dominates the front of the phone. Display resolution clocks in at 1,600 by 720 pixels, for a density of 269ppi. Both bright and vivid, the display is excellent for video streaming; however, upon close examination, images and text appear soft. For most people, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but if you like to read long articles or e-books on your phone, you may want to look for a sharper display.
Flip the phone over and you’ll find a slightly textured panel with what looks like a matte powder coat finish. It feels warm and pleasant, but it’s a fingerprint magnet. A square camera module sits top center, with the iconic Motorola fingerprint sensor just below it.
On the top of the phone, you’ll find a headphone jack, and on the bottom sit a USB-C charging port and a speaker. A SIM/microSD slot is on the left; a textured power button and volume rocker make their home on the right. The buttons are responsive, easy to identify by feel, and satisfyingly clicky when tapped. That said, they’re positioned toward the top of the phone and people with small hands may have a trouble reaching them.
The durability is what we’d expect for a phone at this price. The plastic back and frame are likely to withstand drops without much damage. Motorola doesn’t list what type of strengthened glass is used for the display, but it seems sturdy and managed to handle a few dings; after several days in backpack filled with all kinds of sharp edges and pointy objects, it was unscratched. Though the G Play lacks an IP rating, it’s water-resistant and should be able to withstand rain or sweat without issue.
Unlocked and AT&T versions of the G Play are available. The unlocked variant works on every US carrier but is missing AT&T bands 14, 29, and 30; however, those are supplemental capacity bands, not primary coverage bands. The AT&T version is locked to its network.
The phone’s X11 modem is limited to 2x carrier aggregation, but that doesn’t seem to reduce data speeds too much. We tested the G Play on T-Mobile’s network and recorded average speeds of 54.9Mbps down and 18.3Mbps up.
Earpiece volume peaks at 86dB, which is loud enough to hear in almost any atmosphere. Test calls are crisp and clear, and noise cancellation works well.
With a maximum volume of 92dB, the bottom-firing speaker is fine for video calls and social media scrolling, but it sounds tinny. You’ll want to invest in a good pair of headphones—or be thrilled that you can still use your old ones, as this is one of the few 2021 phones with a headphone jack—if you want to stream Spotify on your morning commute.
Multi-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 are supported. NFC and wireless charging are missing, but that’s not uncommon for phones in this price category.
The G Play has three cameras, none of which is worth writing home about. On the back there’s a 13MP sensor with an f/2.0 lens and 2MP depth sensor. On the front, you’ll find a 5MP shooter with an f/2.2 aperture.
Overall image quality is poor. In good light, our test photos had decent depth of field and color accuracy, but we noticed significant loss of clarity in the foreground and background. Low-light test photos were littered with light flares, random splotches, and noise.
The front-facing camera fares slightly better. Our test photos in good light lacked depth of field, but clarity was better throughout. Low-light photos, on the other hand, were a mess. Our test shots were muddy and filled with noise.
Portrait mode is available on the front and rear cameras. Surprisingly, even with the depth sensor on the rear camera, the selfie cam takes better portraits, at least when you’re well-lit.
The rear camera struggles with object mapping. When photographing a single subject, we noticed ears and shoulder blades blurring into the background. In photos with multiple subjects, subjects would blur together around the edges, suggesting the G Play’s AI features struggled with semantic segmentation.
In short, about the best you’ll manage with the G Play’s cameras are quick selfies of your cute outfits to post on social media.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 460 chipset, with 3GB of RAM, powers the G Play. There’s 32GB of storage on board with only 14.5GB available out of the box on the unlocked model. If you buy the AT&T model, expect to find significantly less, since it adds more than two dozen preloaded apps to the equation. Luckily, a microSD slot lets you add storage if you want.
Obviously, this budget phone doesn’t had the same lightning-fast performance of more expensive models, but the Snapdragon 460 SoC is surprisingly snappy. It’s an eight-core CPU, with four Cortex A-73 performance cores and four Cortex A-53 efficiency cores, and it has the same Adreno 610 GPU used on the more upscale Snapdragon 665 processor.
If you mostly use your phone to scroll through social media, check emails, and stream content, you’ll likely be happy with the way the G Play performs. There’s a slight lag when opening apps or swiping between screens, but it’s not bothersome.
Gaming performance, on the other hand, is hit or miss. We tested the phone with a few hours of gameplay on Alto’s Odyssey and PUBG Mobile. Load times were slow for both games, but there weren’t any unexpected shutdowns. While playing Alto’s Odyssey, we only noticed a few skipped frames over the course of an hour. On PUBG Mobile, however, we were met with significant lag. Serious smartphone gamers will want to invest in higher-end hardware.
See How We Test Phones
On Geekbench, a benchmark that quantifies raw computing power, the Moto G Play scored 255 single-core and 1,269 multi-core. For comparison’s sake, the slightly less expensive Moto e earned 228 single-core and 791 multi-core scores.
Motorola claims its 5,000mAh battery offers up to three days of power between charges and we’re inclined to believe them. With moderate daily use, we managed to go for exactly three days before putting the G Play on the charger. In our battery rundown test, which streams HD video over Wi-Fi, the phone held out for 18 hours and 42 minutes before powering down; that’s a big improvement over the Moto e, which eked out just over 10 hours on the same test.
The G Play ships with Android 10 and the My UX interface. It’s disappointing that Motorola chose to ship its latest phones with Android 10 when it typically ships its G-series with the latest version, but at least it committed to an Android 11 upgrade.
Motorola’s phones feature near stock versions of Android. The My UX skin is minimal and simply offers additional customization options, Moto Gametime, and Moto Actions.
Moto Gametime is a simple interface that lets you tweak performance and notification settings while gaming. It’s easy to access from the Motorola icon on the home screen. If you’re in the middle of a game, just swipe in from the left side of the screen.
Moto Actions is one of the most intuitive and useful ways to access commonly used apps with simple gestures. If you want to turn the flashlight on, simply make two chopping motions with your wrist. Forgot to turn on Do Not Disturb before a meeting? Just flip the phone face-down and you’re set.
It’s hard to criticize Motorola for a skimpy OS upgrade policy on a phone at this price. That said, we wish Motorola had waited to release the G Play until it could ship with Android 11, or that it would commit to two upgrade cycles.
At $169.99, the Moto G Play is a solid choice for budget shoppers who are willing to make a few compromises. It offers admirable performance, a bright display, and incredible battery life. In return for the savings, however, you’ll have to live with disappointing cameras, and a dated version of Android for the time being. If you’re willing to spend a little more, we think the OnePlus Nord N10 5G is a much better value.
For tight budgets, the Moto G Play is hard to beat, especially for performance and battery life.
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It would be an understatement to say Steven Winkelman is obsessed with smartphones and tablets. Before joining PCMag as a mobile analyst, he covered mobile and wearable tech at Digital Trends. When he’s not poring over the latest mobile hardware, you’ll find him voraciously reading or exploring Brooklyn’s amazing independent bookstores.
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